Should Writers Take Influence From Films?

When I was reading the 1980s horror thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, one of the things that surprised me was how cinematic it was at times. How I could very easily imagine various scenes from the novel being part of a low-budget “Video Nasty“, an enjoyably cheesy old TV show or something from one of George Romero’s classic zombie movies. So, naturally, this made me think about whether writers should take influence from films.

The short answer to this question is that it depends on your story. It works for some stories and doesn’t for others. A lot of this has to do with pacing, atmosphere and what you are trying to do with your story.

In short, if you want to write a fast-paced story that has a slightly stylised atmosphere and is written to entertain the reader, then taking inspiration from films is a good idea. After all, by virtue of the medium, the majority of films are relatively fast-paced. After all, they have between 90-180 minutes to tell a full, self-contained story. So, things like well-planned pacing and efficient visual storytelling (eg: the whole “show, don’t tell” thing) are at a premium. And, when used in novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday” or Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “Zero Hour“, this can result in a truly gripping novel.

Likewise, if your story contains spectacular set-pieces or other such things, then taking inspiration from films can also be a good idea – especially since novels have a massive advantage in this area. In short, novels don’t have to worry about a special effects budget or the technology needed to create special effects. One person with a word processor (or even just a pen and paper) can create better “special effects” than a giant film studio with millions of pounds or dollars at their disposal. So, if your novel is going to contain a lot of spectacular moments, then it might be worth taking inspiration from films.

Plus, if you’re writing in the thriller genre, then film and television can offer all sorts of lessons about how to make your story more gripping and dramatic. Whether it is the clever use of mini-cliffhangers and/or multiple plot threads, how to create a gripping premise, how to use suspense, how to write snappy dialogue etc…. Or whether it is more cautionary lessons, like how making the main character too powerful/invulnerable can ruin suspense and lower the reader’s investment in the story (compare the first and fifth “Die Hard” films for an example of this), films can teach us a lot about the thriller genre.

In addition to all of this, because your reader will probably be imagining the events of your novel visually, taking inspiration from film can also help you to refine and think about the overall “look” of your novel too. When done well, this can result in a very atmospheric and memorable story.

On the other hand, there are good reasons not to take inspiration from film when writing a novel. First of all, there are things that novels can do that films can’t really do, and you can use these to give your reader a much deeper and richer experience than they will find in a film.

For example, novels can directly show a character’s thoughts, novels can easily use non-visual storytelling (and, yes, sometimes it is better to tell than show the reader something), novels can use a distinctive narrative voice, novels can use detailed descriptions and an author also has much more control over the flow of time (eg: the events of a minute can take either a single sentence or several pages) than film-makers do.

All of these things give novels a level of vividness, immersion and depth that films can only dream of. At the same time, doing all of this stuff will probably slow down the pace of your novel a bit. But, for stories where the emphasis is on the characters, atmosphere, fictional world, the writing itself etc… then it can really work wonders. So, if you are telling one of these stories, then taking inspiration from films probably isn’t a good idea – because films can’t do this stuff as well as books can.

Plus, thanks to things like the economics of film (a film costs a lot to make, so it has to appeal to a mass audience), film censorship (eg: the current trend for “PG-13″/”12A” rated films) and the dominance of Hollywood, there are either formal or informal limits on the types of stories that films can tell. On the other hand, writers have far fewer of these restrictions and can tell the kind of imaginative, quirky, subversive, unusual, complex, transgressive and/or personality-filled stories that would never make it to the screen.

What this also means is that, if you primarily take inspiration from films, you are limiting the kinds of stories you can tell. This will affect the characters of your story, the atmosphere of your story, the scale of your story’s drama (since large-scale stories tend to be more common in “blockbuster” films), the themes of your story (and the level of nuance they are presented with), the settings of your story (eg: the limited repertoire of cities that films usually take place in), the events of your story and even the emotional tone of your story.

In short, there isn’t really a clear answer to whether writers should be influenced by films or not. It depends on the type of story you are trying to tell, not to mention that it also isn’t a binary yes/no thing either. In other words, it’s possible (in fact, it’s normal) to be partially inspired by films whilst also being inspired by other stuff too. After all, pretty much everyone has watched at least a few films and has seen at least a couple that they liked enough for them to be an influence. So, it is more of a matter of degree and extent than a “yes or no” thing.

Still, depending on the type of story you are telling and what you want your story to do, you should think carefully about the extent you want it to be inspired by films.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Advantages That Horror Film/Game Novelisations Have Over The Source Material

Well, I thought that I’d talk about a somewhat overlooked segment of horror literature today. I am, of course, talking about novelisations of horror films and games. This is mostly because I recently re-read S.D.Perry’s novelisation of “Resident Evil 2” and because I’m currently re-reading George A. Romero & Susanna Sparrow’s novelisation of “Dawn Of The Dead”.

But, I should probably talk briefly about the history of novelisations before I talk about some of the advantages that they have over the source material. Even though I’ve only done some brief reading about the history, novelisations seem to have emerged as a literary genre thanks to the lack of home video in the past. In short, once a film ended it’s run in the cinema, the only way to re-experience it at home in the past was to read a novel based on it.

In addition to this, although novelisations are less common today, one reason why they are still written is because they are apparently relatively cheap to commission (and therefore can be profitable even if they sell a relatively small number of copies). But, although they are apparently written more quickly than original novels, they still have a number of interesting advantages over the source material that they are adapting, especially in the horror genre:

1) Depth: Because even the shortest novels can cover more ground than a 1-2 hour horror movie and can do things that videogames can’t, novelisations will provide a much richer and deeper experience than the source material. They can get inside of the heads of the characters, they can use language to set the scene/mood in interesting ways, they don’t have to worry about a “special effects” budget, they instantly have ultra-realistic “graphics” etc….

So, you’ll usually get an experience that is more atmospheric, peopled with better characters and more spectacular than the source material. This is useful in the horror genre for the simple reason that these things also improve the horror elements too.

For example, in the original 1998 “Resident Evil 2” videogame, the horrifying zombies and monsters were blocky, pixellated 3D models. In S.D.Perry’s 1999 novelisation, they are the kind of gruesome, realistic walking corpses and inhuman beasts that you might expect to see in a trailer for the 2019 remake of the videogame. Yes, the novel was 20 years ahead of the games in this regard!

Likewise, the characters in the original 1998 videogame had a few cheesy lines of dialogue and a few short CGI movies to tell you who they are. On the other hand, the novelisation gives even some of the background characters (who only appear a couple of times in the game) a lot more personality and backstory. This means that the reader cares more about the characters, which means that the scenes of horror have more of an impact than they did in the source material.

So, horror movie/game novelisations will often tell a deeper and more dramatic version of the source material’s storyline.

2) Alterations: This one can be a bit hit-and-miss but, when it works, it works! In short, in order to adapt a film or game into a book, the author usually has to make some alterations. These can result in all sorts of really creative changes which can really add a lot to the source material.

Going back to S.D.Perry’s novelisation of “Resident Evil 2”, one of the major changes from the game is to the pacing. The original 1998 videogame is a surprisingly slow-paced thing that involves lots of exploration and puzzle-solving. On the other hand, Perry’s novelisation is much more of a streamlined, fast-paced thriller. This turns the game’s story into something much more intense, gripping, suspenseful and dramatic than you might expect.

Yes, sometimes, alterations don’t always work perfectly (compare Keith R. A. DeCandido’s novelisation to the first “Resident Evil” movie for an example), but they’re also really fascinating because they provide something new for people who have already read/played the source material.

A good example of this is David Bischoff’s novelisation of the early 1990s comedy horror movie “Gremlins 2“. In the film, there is a fourth-wall breaking scene where the gremlins insert themselves into various other films playing in a cinema. The novelisation adapts in this in a really clever way by replacing it with a scene where the gremlins break into the author’s study and try to write part of the book.

So, yes, novelisations can be really interesting “alternate versions” of the source material. So, if you’ve seen a horror movie or played a horror game, you can’t be entirely certain of what to expect when you read a novelisation. Which adds to the horror 🙂

3) No censorship: This was much more of an issue in the past than it is today, but one advantage that horror novelisations traditionally had was the fact that that they didn’t have to get the approval of a censorship board before they were released. Anyone who has read anything about the history of British film censorship will know that it is only relatively recently that the censors have stopped routinely hacking horror movies to shreds.

A good example of this is Romero & Sparrow’s 1978 novelisation of “Dawn Of The Dead”. Although it has been about a decade and a half since I saw the film (so I can’t make much of a comparison), one of the cool things about the novel is that it is even more gruesome than you might expect.

Yes, it’s slightly less gory than the splatterpunk fiction of the 1980s, but it still has a level of intense grisly horror that would have probably been heavily trimmed by the film censors of the day. So, novelisations were historically a way to bypass censorship.

4) No barriers to entry: One of the really cool things about novelisations is that they are a more open format than films or games can be.

For example, unlike their source material, videogame novelisations don’t have system requirements. This is why, although I didn’t have any technology modern enough to play the game on, I was still able to enjoy Rick Burroughs’ novelisation of “Alan Wake”. It didn’t bar my entry to the story with a list of expensive tech I had to buy beforehand, it just welcomed me with open arms.

Likewise, going back to film censorship, I both read and watched “Dawn Of The Dead” for the first time during my mid-teens. With the book, it was just a simple matter of spotting it in a charity shop/second-hand bookshop and then buying it (for just 40p, according to the price written in the inside cover. I miss early-mid 2000s book pricing). I really enjoyed the novel back then and, along with numerous other vintage horror novels, it was something that fostered a long-lasting interest in both reading and writing.

On the other hand, when I saw the film back then, I had to wait for it to appear on TV and then set up my VCR. After all, thanks to over-zealous film censors (who were obviously never teenagers), I couldn’t exactly walk into a shop and buy a VHS or DVD copy of it because I didn’t look close enough to eighteen. The film didn’t deprave or corrupt me (it didn’t even frighten me, if I remember rightly) but, thanks to some people in an office in London, I had a much more difficult time finding and enjoying this cool movie than I probably should have.

So, one awesome thing about horror novelisations is the fact that they don’t have a load of deliberate barriers (like system requirements, film certificates etc..) that get between the audience and the story 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How To Take Artistic Inspiration From A Film (In Four Easy Steps)

Although I’ve talked more generally about how to take inspiration (and the difference between inspiration and plagiarism), I thought that I’d focus specifically on films in this article. Naturally, all of the stuff here can also be applied to TV shows too.

But, I thought that I’d talk about it after making a digitally-edited gothic sci-fi painting (which will be posted here in August) that was initially inspired by the bar scene from “Blade Runner“, but quickly turned into it’s own thing (as any inspired painting should). Here’s a reduced-size preview:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 3rd August.

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 3rd August.

So, how do you take inspiration from a film?

1) Watch it: This step almost goes without saying, but get a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the film and watch it.

Chances are, if it’s a film that you want to take inspiration from, then it’s one that you’ve already seen at least once. But, if you’ve only seen clips or trailers from it, then try to actually watch the whole film. If you’ve already seen it, try to rewatch as much of it as you can – paying close attention to how everything looks.

This will give you a sense of the atmosphere of the film and it will also help you to get into the mood for making original art inspired by it.

2) Freeze frames, screenshots and/or image searches: Once you’ve watched the film, then look at some still images from the film. This will allow you to study some of the general techniques and generic features of the film in greater detail.

The “generic elements” part is important! Although I’m not a copyright lawyer, it is a well-known principle that you cannot copyright an idea ( only highly specific expressions of an idea can be copyrighted). In other words, whilst the precise visual details of a single frame from a film can be copyrighted, the general idea behind that frame cannot.

For example, anyone can make a painting of “a rainy futuristic city, with tall angular buildings, neon lighting and flying cars“. This is an idea. Anyone can use it. However, if you then painted an exact copy of a frame from “Blade Runner” (or directly copied highly-distinctive details from the frame), then you would be breaking copyright rules. Why? Because that frame from “Blade Runner” is a highly-specific interpretation of the general idea of “a rainy futuristic city, with tall angular buildings, neon lighting and flying cars“.

So, take a close look at these pictures and see which colour combinations tend to be used often. Look at how the scenes are laid out (eg: camera angles etc..). Look at the general types of clothing (eg: formal, informal, old, new etc..) the characters are wearing. Look at the types of lighting that are used. I’m sure you get the idea….

Once you’ve studied at least several different images from the film in question, make a list of the generic elements that really appeal to you. Then move on to the next step.

3) Look for other inspirations: If you don’t have any other inspirations, then this is the time to find them. Look online for stills from other films in the same genre as the one that inspired you, read some comics, play some computer games, look online for types of art that interest you, or just watch another one of your favourite films.

The thing to remember about inspiration and originality is that the more different inspirations you have, the more original your artwork will look. If you just have one inspiration, then it is probably going to show. This isn’t a bad thing (provided you haven’t crossed the line into actual plagiarism), but it isn’t ideal either.

For example, in the preview I showed you earlier – although the initial inspiration was the bar scene from “Blade Runner”, I also took some inspiration from gothic fashion/traditional formal fashion (as opposed to the futuristic “film noir” fashion used in ‘Blade Runner’) for the clothing designs.

Likewise, although the idea of breaking up a scene into several parts by using pillars was inspired by the compositions used in parts of “Blade Runner”, the wall textures were probably at least partially inspired by the futuristic locations in the “Ghost In The Shell” anime franchise. Likewise, the picture is split up into two coffin-shaped areas – which, again, is more of a gothic horror kind of thing.

My approach to the lighting in this painting was mostly inspired by the orange lighting in the bar scene from “Blade Runner”, but my colour scheme (eg: orange/blue/green/purple) was probably more inspired by the one used in a set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens“.

4) Use your imagination!: Once you’ve done all of your preliminary research and are starting to feel inspired, eject the DVD (or watch another one), close your internet browser and let your imagination take over. After all, whilst you now have a few general elements you can use, you are going to have to work out how to interpret them in your own unique way.

Although you will probably have at least one list of general elements, you now have to find a way to use those general elements to create something different from the film you took inspiration from. So, don’t look at anything from the film in question whilst drawing or painting. Don’t use any characters from it. Don’t copy any highly-specific details. Use your imagination!

Remember, inspiration taken from other things should only be used as a guide to help support your own imagination. It’ll give you a list of general things to use in your art, but you still have to find an interesting new (in the sense of not exactly identical to anything else) way of using them. It’ll allow you to produce art that is vaguely reminiscent of the thing that inspired you, but is also it’s own thing too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Experiencing 1990s Animation Nostalgia (As An Artist) – A Ramble

2016 Artwork 1990s Animation nostalgia article sketch

Although this is an article about how becoming an artist can change how you see familiar things, I’m going to have to spend the whole article talking about a recent experience when this happened to me.

This is mainly because I think that this example is quite illustrative but, if you’re not interested in hearing me ramble about myself, the 1990s and old animated films, then it might be worth skipping this article.

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’m a fan of the 1990s. Although I only really realised how cool this decade was in recent years, it happened to be the decade I grew up in. So, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I started to become nostalgic about it.

In a few years, I’ll probably get nostalgic about the ’00s too. This will be incredibly freaky when it happens because I remember that decade a lot more than I remember the 1990s. This, I think, is part of the charm of the 1990s – it’s a decade I have memories of, but was too young to fully appreciate at the time. So, it’s both familiar and fascinatingly unfamiliar at the same time.

Anyway, nothing seemed to epitomise this more than when I happened to see a couple of Youtube clips of animated movies that I’d seen at the cinema when I was a kid in the 1990s. Namely Disney’s “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” and DreamWorks’ “The Prince Of Egypt“.

Now that I’m well into my twenties (and I make art regularly), I was absolutely bowled over by both clips. Both of the scenes I saw seemed to fit into my aesthetic sensibilities a lot more than I expected – whether it was the ominous evening skies and gloomily ornate Egyptian temples in “The Prince Of Egypt” or the gothic buildings and fiery musical scenes in “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”, I was astonished at just how… well… cool these films looked.

In fact, they actually inspired me to make a series of gothic horror paintings, based around the theme of “creepy buildings”. Here’s one painting from the series:

"Grim's Gallery" By C. A. Brown

“Grim’s Gallery” By C. A. Brown

The clips of these two films that I saw seemed like genuine works of Art. They seemed like epic, detailed visual masterpieces that really showed off the power of animation.

They made me think of how old Japanese art is described as “pictures of the floating world”. Of how a fictional world made from nothing but traditional drawings can somehow seem both excitingly different from reality, but also hyper-real at the same time.

At first, they seemed like the kinds of movies that were wasted on a younger audience. They seemed like the kinds of movies which, with a few slight changes, could have been released as mainstream Hollywood movies rather than kids’ movies. They also made me understand why some people obsess about Disney movies even when they’re adults…

Of course, these days, animation (mostly thanks to Anime and animated TV shows like The Simpsons etc..) is seen as a genre for all audiences in the west. But, back in the 1990s, mega-budget Western animated films were only really for kids. And, well, I have to wonder how many cinematic masterpieces the world missed out on as a result of this.

Naturally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to any of this when I was a kid. They were just fun animated movies (with too many songs). But, thinking about it, it wouldn’t surprise me if these films were another one of the many “hidden” influences on my own art style.

I mean, I was stunned by how visually similar the clips from these films were to my current art style. How they had a strong focus on detailed line art, contrasting colour schemes, gloomy locations and other things like that. No doubt that the “cool” parts of these films had lodged somewhere in my subconscious and, when I later became an artist, influenced what I considered “cool” art to look like.

But, well, I’ve rambled on for long enough. Still, it’s astonishing how becoming an artist can change my opinions about something as random as the movies I watched when I was a kid. Still, if the art in these films can inspire people without them even knowing, then maybe these films weren’t wasted on a younger audience.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Things Are Too Long – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Things are too long article sketch

Although I’ve written about this subject before, I thought that I’d take another look at how most forms of entertainment these days are, well, longer than they used to be. This was mainly prompted by the film that I reviewed yesterday which, for a modern film, was refreshingly short at just 95 minutes in length.

The thing is, this used to be normal for films. In the 1980s and 1990s, a film was typically between an hour and a half and two hours long. These days, of course, films often clock in at a more corpulent two to three hours in length.

They tell similar types of stories to the ones films used to a couple of decades ago, but they’ve somehow almost doubled in length. It isn’t like modern blockbuster films are telling the kinds of complex stories that would be better suited to a TV series, they just somehow spend longer telling the same stories. In other words, they are wasting our time.

From some quick internet research, there seem to be lots of possible reasons for this – studios think that longer films are more prestigious, it’s easier to shoot longer films with digital cameras, films are just returning to the lengths that they were in the pre-video era, film directors have more influence than they used to etc… But the fact remains that films can often grab up to an hour and a half more of our time than they used to.

But, well, it’s not just films. After all, this isn’t a blog about films. Books are also a lot larger than they used to be. I remember buying old second-hand novels from the 1960s-90s from charity shops when I was a teenager and most of them were usually only 200-300 pages long. You could read them in a couple of days and they looked like, well, paperback books. These days, virtually every bestseller is a gigantic (and occasionally intimidatingly large) 400-600 page tome of some kind.

Don’t get me wrong, some stories are well-suited to this length – particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres. If Frank Herbert had to cut 100 pages from “Dune” in the 60s, it would be a much poorer novel as a result. To use a more modern example, if G.R.R. Martin had to cut 100-200 pages from each of his “Song Of Ice And Fire” books, then they’d be a lot less atmospheric as a result.

I’m probably exaggerating here but, it seems like virtually every story in every genre now has to be almost saga-like in length. Don’t get me wrong, throughout history, every genre has had a mixture of longer and shorter stories in it – but longer stories seemed to be more of the exception than the rule in the 20th century.

Of course, if you go back far enough, you’ll find that the Victorians loved their gigantic novels. But, unlike us, they had the excuse that the television and the personal computer hadn’t been invented yet.

I have to wonder what the reasons for all of these longer novels are. On a practical level, it’s probably because of improved printing and bookbinding technology. Likewise, the prominence of e-books means that book length matters a lot less than it used to (which also helps out shorter works of fiction too – since print novellas are even more rare than tome-size books used to be). Maybe it’s because some publishers think that most readers feel that they get “more for their money” if the books are longer? Who knows?

But, well, some of it might just be down to the fact that authors who like to write longer stories, directors who like to make longer films etc… are getting more creative freedom than they used to.

The fact is that many creative people have a preferred length that they like to work at. Personally, mine is fairly short. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that I’m best at making narrative comics if they’re only 8-10 pages long at the most. Generally speaking, when I wrote a lot of fiction, my idea of a “long” story clocked in at about 20,000-30,000 words (that’s about 80-120 paperback pages).

However, the opposite seems to be true with these blog articles – I usually consider anything under 500 words to be unacceptably short and even my short reviews can be close to 1000 words long.

So, in a way, it’s great that people now have the freedom to make things as long as they want them to be. I just wish that both the film and the publishing industries would also give people the freedom to make things as short as they want them to be too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂