Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Writing for the Camera

July 1st, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today we look at “Writing for the Camera” [P. 54-55]:

No scenarist is a genius to his cameraman. Laboratory superintendents and cameramen have a common bond in the conviction that 90 per cent of the scenario writers have nothing above their ears except excellent material for piano keys. These experts liken themselves to veteran soldiers who must take orders from inexperienced officers. The correspondence school general who orders his men through their own barrage is not as egregious as the amateur scenarist who writes the following as “Scene No I”:


“Hearing her husband’s step upon the front porch,
Myrtle darts from the parlor, and,
leaving the house by the rear door,
joins her lover. They jump in an automobile and start
away; but before they have gone far, Myrtle
repents and insists upon returning to make
her confession.” And Scene No 2 Continues
with the confession.

It is obviously impossible to fake the above action without Changing the set several times — from parlor to porch, from porch to rear door, from rear door to automobile, and so forth. Each one of these sets should be numbered as a separate scene.

Amateur continuity writers will find lighting a great stumbling block. It is possible now to take exterior night scenes with the aid of sunlight arcs mercury lights and spotlights and other paraphernalia. As these arcs cost $2,500 each and are about as easy to transport as the Lick telescope, it is well to keep your characters indoors by night. Thunder storms, underwater scenes taken from a diving bell, and other novelties can be produced, but should be avoided since no director yearns to put on an expensive and difficult scene of this kind when they have already been exploited by the other fellow. If your story depends in any way upon such a scene, put it in by all means, but always remember that it makes production more difficult.

The first part is notable: Whatever we write in a screenplay must be at least in part cognizant of production requirements, how at some point, someone on the production will break down your script scene by scene, shot by shot to become a blueprint to make a movie.

But the second part is perhaps even more important. A writer is well advised to have at least some awareness of production considerations. Here Loos and Emerson talk about lighting, thunder storm, underwater scenes as being problematic. In fact, here is a short list of script elements that create headaches for a production crew: snow, water, children, animals. Of course, I wrote a script Alaska which had all four and got produced. Still if you include those elements in a spec script, you must know that a professional reader will note them in coverage as contributing to the difficulty in making that movie.

Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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