Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Break it down: Dragonslayer

I wanted to start a new feature where I break down what I consider to be a well written piece of entertainment. Thanks to a 30 free trial of Amazon Prime I watched Dragonslayer, a movie that never made my embarrassingly large DVD collection, and was awestruck on how solid the story was. Even though at the time it was mostly passed off as a Special Effect movie. Oh how wrong the critics were.

So where to begin...

Lets start with the characters. It's my firm belief that a story is only as good as the characters that are charged with playing it out. We got Galen the apprentice as our protagonist. He starts off as a naive apprentice, but when his master dies he shows a lot of Extraversion characteristics. He wants to be around people, he likes being the center of attention, he wants to please others. These characteristics are what get him into trouble in the story ( more on that later )

Then there's Tryian. When he's introduced at the start of the film he gives off an antagonist vibe. He kills the Wizard, and later his servant, and shows no compassion for Galen throughout the movie. However he's not an antagonist. This is revealed later when the Princess is selected by lottery to be the sacrifice for the Dragon. The King asks Tryian to do something about it, but Tryian protests that his first duty is for the Kingdom. Tryian is Conscientiousness. His duty comes first, that duty to protect the Kingdom. The sacrifices have done that for decades.

Tryian isn't so much an antagonist, but a person who's trying to do good from his point of view which justifies all his actions, even fighting Galen at the mouth of the Dragon's Lair. The same could be said for the King. He was held by his duty, until it became personal.

Finally there's Valerian. She posses a lot of Neurotic characteristics, which could have been the result her father hid her as a boy her entire life. She doesn't trust others and looks down on herself. Even when reveals to everyone she's a woman, she still holds back socially. Unaware that Galen has feelings for her. Besides that she is also tormented. Tormented by the fact she hid her gender to keep herself out of the lottery. This inner torment lead her to find a solution to kill the Dragon. It was Valerian who convinced others to seek out a Wizard. She wanted redemption for what she had done while others went to slaughter.

There are other characters that drive the story, but with these 3 main ones the authors had enough at hand to create ups and downs that would be the driving force of the story.

The Story...

At the start we're given the premise. The King selects by lottery a virgin girl to be sacrificed to the dragon. In return the dragon doesn't burn their crops. It's a deal that satisfies both parties. The people are left in peace, and the Dragon gets treat. Especially since the dragon is of a dying race. It has no benefit to gather attention to itself and the control over that Kingdom with fear is all it needs to live out it's life. In the years though that fear turns into something the people want to do away with.

So we have Valerian and some citizens go on a journey to find a wizard to defeat the dragon. Ulrich is that wizard, but he'd probably die on the journey alone. Especially since he's already seen his death in a vision. Now we're given two Chekov's Gun, the amulet Ulrich always has and seems to be the source of his power and his vision. However their true nature as Chekov's Gun isn't reveal until the end of the story.

Tryian is introduced and asks for a test. A test that kills Ulrich. Shocked by his death, Galen later finds the amulet is speaking to him somehow. He also learns that it has given him great power. With Ulrich dead, he decides that this is a sign to finish the quest and kill the dragon himself.

On their journey Hodge, Ulrichs servant, is also killed by Tryian. He was carrying a pouch of Ulrichs ashes and tells Galen " burning water..." before he dies. This is another Chekov's Gun. It also shows that Hodge went along with Galen because he knew of Ulrich's plan, but Galen is oblivious to this. Now by himself, Galen tries to kill dragon with his new found powers.

This is where the protagonist Galen finds his first challenge. When arriving at the Kingdom the party stops at the dragons lair. Galen proceeds to create a landslide to trap the beast. He seems to have succeeded. When they get to the Kingdom the peasents have a party for Galen, he is at his highest point of popularity. Then Tryian arrives to invite Galen to see the King.

It is there the King discovers Galen is just a boy and probably a fraud. He steals the amulet and tells Galen he put the Kingdom in more danger then before. While Galen is locked up, the King was right. The dragon attacks the Kingdom thus forcing another lottery. Galen escapes, but instead of running away, he decides to right his wrongs and face the dragon. He isn't doing this for the Princess who was chosen, but because it's the right thing to do. He was inadvertently responsible for the deaths the dragon caused due to the landslide, and he is seeking redemption.

However his plan is interupted by Tryian, who again is charged with stopping Galen for the good of the Kingdom. Even the Princess knows this by voluntarily sacrificing herself to the dragon even after Galen releases her. In all, Galen is the only one who seeks hope in a hopeless situation. He kills Tryian and tries to kill the dragon, but fails again.

Now at his lowest he finally gives in and decides to leave with Valerian. He is now an outlaw for trying to save the Kingdom and no one else will stand by his side. However before they take off he has a vision. Much like the one Ulrich had in the beginning of the story. He then learns that Ulrich had a plan to kill the dragon all this time and he was too stupid to see it.

Galen and Valerian go to the burning lake in the dragons lair and spread Ulrich's ashes over it. He is now reborn. Ulrich then tell Galen to destroy the amulet, along with himself when the time is right. This is the true Climax of the story and Galen does as he's told when the dragon grabs Ulrich. The amulet is destroyed, Ulrich is destroyed, and the dragon is destroyed.

As a reward for his arrogance, Galen isn't given the credit for destroying the dragon. The Kingdom declares the King as the Dragonslayer. But that doesn't matter. Galen knows he did the right thing, and now he has Valerian with him. Knowing the Kingdom is safe is good enough for him, but at the end both characters have their mistakes corrected. Galen being cocky and Valerian hiding from the lottery all her life.


Is Dragonslayer the best story ever? Far from it, but it's a great example of how different personalities play off each other. High points and low points the protagonist goes through. Mixed into a totally made up world that is not normally seen or visualize in most medias.

It's a simple story that is surrounded by all those elements that make it a unique experience. So unique that in fact Dragonslayer was a box-office bomb. It was one of those movies that became a cult classics by being aired on cable for the years to follow that also sparked the imagination of a generation. A generation that saw a revolution in movie making only to see it be destroyed years later.

To be honest, I'm one of those who think movies have been on the decline since the 90s. And most of that decline has been from the storytelling point of view. Today it seems the movie industry thinks special-effects and actors come first while screenplays are crapped out as fast as they possibly can to start production.

It's more like they've become a victim of productivity. The process for filming a movie and added special effects has been streamlined compared to 30 years ago. If a studio has a 4 month opening for a film, they'll take advantage of that and the story is what suffers.

On the flip-slide there have been quite a few gems out there that went through the same process. Scripts that were rushed that ended up being good because they stuck to the fundamental elements of what makes a story work. Dragonslayer could be an example of that, although I have no idea how long it took them to write it, but what it doesn't have is a story full of questions that has the audience wondering about things.

It has realistic characters that perform with in their abilities. It has a cascade of events that are sparked by not only the overall plot, but the characters themselves. Plus it properly displays their motives for their actions. In the end everything is wrapped up in a tight package with no loose ends.

Although even that is becoming a lost art. Today movies are made with the intention of a sequel and audiences are given tripe in the form of The Golden Compass and The Green Lateran where they were made with sequels in mind. Something I believe the Star Wars prequels suffered from since they were billed as a trilogy before they were even written, where as A New Hope wasn't given that kind of guarantee. It was implied, but if it had bombed it would've been one of those mysterious things as to what would the other chapters have been like.

Overall I feel Dragonslayer is a good measuring stick for the amateurs out there who want to tell their own stories. You can have a large world full of magic and mystery, but in the end the story has to be character driven. The events have to make sense for that story alone, with nothing added for future stories. The ending has to be a full resolution with no loose ends or what ifs.

Otherwise you'll end up biting more than you can chew. It's hard enough to tell a good story, but to plan ahead and plan out more stories in advance, that just more work and wasted energy. It's good practice to focus on the now and make sure that's good enough. Let the sales or fan base make that decision for you.  Concentrate on making the project you're currently making the best one you've ever made.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Writing Structures and Blue Prints

I can't believe it's been 5 months since I started getting overly obsessed with writing, and I still haven't written anything, but it was something that had to be done. I cringe at my old comics ( even the most recent ones ) and other peoples work when I know it could have been better.

To be honest I'm not a guy who just likes great stories, I like stories that at the very least make sense. Something I find " professional " writers, producers, and directors mess up just as much as amateurs. It doesn't have to be that way. The steps to insure that are as simple as taking ones time, having a plan, and sticking to it.

Personally I love reading bad comics, watching bad shows, and bad movies. I learn what not to do. The good part about that is the more I know what not to do, almost everything left over is what to do. And it doesn't require a critique from a " professional " to realize this. Every person, no matter what their knowledge is on art and writing, is an honest critique. The trick as a creator is to make sure the limit of what not to do's is at a minimum.

Future posts of this will include character creation and art in general, but since I consider writing the most important part of any sequential art I'll be concentrating on that in this post. So let's begin...

Story Structure and Page Planning

I had the fortunate event of my cable being out for 8 hours the other day so I decided to read some more how to books. One thing I've known about is page planning. It is crucial that any comicker out there has their pages planned out ahead. I'm not talking about thumbnails, that comes later. I'm talking about what scene goes to which pages and so forth.

I touched on it here http://one-shotstructure.blogspot.com/2012/02/24-page-plot-first-story-structure.html but even when I made that one, I knew it wasn't going to be final. Just as I discovered when I was trying a new art style, my writing style will take time, experimentation, and refinement to suit my needs. While that story structure will work, it didn't seem to work for me. So I made another one...

This one was geared for Action-Packed stories. Each Act has it's own little problem, solution, and climax with the final act being nothing but climax to finish it off. I got this Story Structure from my old GI Joe comics written by a real American hero Larry Hama. Most of those comics follow this type of structure where events escalate to their boiling point in Act 3 and works great for a comic where two sides are always in conflict. I thought this would be for me, but it didn't feel right. So I made another...

This Story Structure was ripped from Kolchak: The Nightstalker ( which not coincidentally is the same structure for the X-Files ). I thought a mystery structure would fit me more, and while I was piecing it together it did feel that way. However just like the Action-Packed one, it still didn't feel right. While this is more character driven than the previous one, it still didn't fit the characters and settings I'm currently working on. I needed something less mysterious, and more humorous to fit the idea I have. So I made another one...

The Two Story Structure was based off of tv shows. Basically American Dad, South Park, and How I Met Your Mother or any show where two stories intertwine and may or may not meet up in the Climax. At this point this one feels like it fits my characters and settings ( for now, lol ). I won't rule out I'll go back to the drawing board and make another. Unlike the previous two, this one is way more character driven, where the characters personalities, habits, and desires push the story. That's what I'm going for, so I'll see how it works.

Now all of these structures took a lot of time for me to make. It wasn't an excuse, it was a necessity. I've learned my own past mistakes that I need a plan in place before I even have an idea. I need to know where everything has to go and how it all works together before I thumbnail the first page. This information is usually buried in How To Books. In How To Draw Manga Vol 1 it's buried early on in the book. In Will Eisners Sequential Art it's in the back and written with a bunch of large words ( I always have to have my Websters Dictionary handy to figure out what he was talking about ).

However my experience as a CNC machinist has taught me I relate better when visuals are added rather than numbers and words alone. Which coincidentally is what a comic book is. Visuals, words, and numbers. The visuals are the images in the panel, the words are the dialogue and captions, and the numbers are the pages. That's why I drew out these structures after piecing them together in a notebook.

Why this is important

In the past I always did things off impulse with no plan in place. I may or may not finish a comic, and when I did it was rushed the closer I got to the end. I wanted that to stop and these structures prevent that from happening. They are the blue print for making a 24 page comic that makes sense. It doesn't matter what the content or plot is, it's about the math. It's about having every page reserved for a specific scene and having them all add up in a perfect package.

I've been around the block, I know when people rush their stories/comics and phone in the last few pages. They had no plan in place, and it shows. I'm more susceptible to this because I've been there. I've seen first hand what a lack of planning looks and reads like because I've done it myself. And this type of planning isn't restricted to comics. Animators have a plan in place called the X-Sheet, where every animation is planned out ahead of time.

A proper plan insures proper execution and every artist/writer needs to have this in place. Take my machining background for instance. If I was told to make a part with just handwritten instructions and spec numbers, I'd fail at making that part a good number of times before I get it right. With an image of what it is suppose to look like I have a better idea of what I'm working with. The instructions make more sense, the numbers add up.

The same goes for comics. As a writer/artist one has to know how much room they have to work with. Scenes have to be limited so they don't run out of control. And pagination is important if that person wants to print their book ( notice how the Two Story ends up being 32 pages total )


I'll probably never stop making these structures. They give me insight on the entertain I like, the stuff I want to emulate into comic book form. However when I made the Two Story Structure it felt like I was really making a comic book. That was the 2nd draft of it, I added the inserts in between the Acts to act as buffers ( i.e. commercial breaks ) where a scene is interrupted by a Cliffhanger only to be continued a couple pages later. Like the comic books I grew up with and still read.

When I was drawing it up I imagined my characters playing out certain scenes. Their discoveries and interactions while the structure was progressing. That was something that wasn't present in the other structures I made.

In the future I plan to dwell further into other things I've learned this past year. And what a year it's been. I went from making comics that took the Protagonist from point A to point B that barely made up 16 pages to constructively planning out 24 pages with twists, turns, and cliffhangers. In return my artwork has improved from being " I dunno if I can do that " to " no problem, we'll bang okay ".

A famous beta-artist once said you can't force improvement for improvement sake, improvement has to be natural. That's bullshit. Last fall when I was at my lowest I wanted to improve. I knew it wouldn't take overnight, it would take time. And I can say with confidence that it was all worth it.

The breaking down of story structures, proper character creation, working in a style that works for me, the 6+ hour sketchbooks sessions, the constant practicing of compositions, and format experiments have paid off. Sure it's not a monetary payoff, but some things in life don't need money to justify their existence.

I may never make a dollar off my stuff, it's a reality I've already accepted because after nearly 20 years I have yet to make a dime off anything I made. But that's not why I do this, that isn't why I push myself. It's because I love comics. I'm obsessed with them. And I want to make them the best way possible to at least satisfy me.

Money is one thing, but that feeling I get when I look at my past work and I'm surprised I actually made that. There's no price for that feeling, it's addictive, and I want more of it.