Friday, February 18, 2011

Character vs. Content


I've been looking at movies, TV shows, and cable series lately.  I've been watching them and have found out that a lot of what I like in these shows are the characters in them.    Of course series shows on TV have a distinct advantage over movies and that is we follow a character or characters through the course of a season.  Movies can only get it right in about two hours and it's all on the director and actor to make sure that the audience follows our protagonist throughout the film.  I'm not going to say one is easier then the other.  There are some series that do it right, and there are some series that fail to illicit our attention.  In movies I've always gone by the rule that if I am not convinced in the first ten minutes of the film that I'm interested in the character or characters I lose my attention to the story.  If I don't believe in a character in a series I change the station, so some series on TV have to meld content and character together by drawing in the audience slowly, but having a hook in the first ten minutes.  Movies also do this but not as quick as TV or cable does.

In a series the producer may have a story arc he or she follows that was created by the series creator.  Most successful TV shows have these.  The more the creator knows where he or she wants to take the story the better the character arc is.  Movies on the other hand are story centric.  It's usually up to the actor to get the performance the director wants of the character he or she is playing.  Usually this is done before the cameras even start rolling.  In rehearsal and readings the actor and director talk about the character and what that character is feeling and his or her motivation.  Through these readings and rehearsals the actor comes up with a sort of profile of the character they are playing.

In a series this happens in readings, and rehearsals too, but in TV time is short because your producing several episodes of a story or stories.  Maybe the episodes are connected, but usually the story is new.  It is in episodic TV where the actor can slowly work in his or her performance.  An example of this would be NCSI.  The actors on that series have been with us for a awhile, and there have even been actors who have left the series, yet what NCSI does is that we as an audience "like" the characters they play.  The banter between the characters in the series provides us with some personnel information of the characters, which we like. 

The writers use this to create engaging stories, yet it's interesting to see what the actor comes up with as his or her performances evolve in the series.

In movies it's a bit quicker.  An actor needs to know what the character does, what his or her back story is.  Usually this helps their performances and helps propel the story forward.  I remember talking to actors on my feature and the one thing I regret is that I didn't have more rehearsal time.  What saved me was that I had some great actors who took the time to talk amongst themselves about their characters.  They would run it past me, and I would usually help fill in the blanks of what I thought.  This helped since I was the writer, but I do believe that if I had rehearsed a bit longer I would have gotten a stronger story out of it.  Nuances in characters is the key sometimes.  The way an actor walks, and the way their character re-acts to situations can tell volumes about their character, which enrich the story. 

Series have a distinct advantage there, but the one thing they do have to do is tell "good" stories" that rivet the audience to the couch.  It's really hard to do this in 45 minutes, yet some successful series like "Blue Bloods, "NCSI", and "CSI: Las Vegas" do so perfectly.  This is even harder in half hour shows known as sit-coms.  Some sit-coms that have really done this are "MASH", 'All in the Family", "Alice", "Family Ties", and "Maude" just to name a few.  In all of these sit-coms the actors themselves had to bring out the characters in the story.  Of course this was done with some talented writers, producers and directors.  Chemistry between actors and other talent is important, and using professional actors makes ones life easier.  Actors who know their craft and who continue to study their art can make a semi-interesting story something that resonates with its audience. 

So what am I trying to say here?  Is story important?  Is character important?  I think it's a bit of both.  If the audience doesn't identify with a protagonist how can they elicit sympathy for that character.  Eventually they loose interest in the story, and that is something you don't want as a producer or director.  As a writer always re-write, and as a director always be open to ideas that actors bring to a character.  It can make a so-so story into a strong story, and a good story into a better story.

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