Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some Talk on 263 Directing

Time that Studio 263 Episode Directors Have to Jump out of their Comfort Zone.
Sunday Mirror Review 12, 20 February 2005.

Samuel Ravengai

In my series of articles in the Sunday Mirror Review, my main target has been the script writing department at Studio 263. Many changes have happened in that department ranging from inter-cutting scenes, focusing on at least three subplots per episode, subtextual dialogue, creation of suspense among other things. The young writers, fresh from the bench, have not yet reached a point of perfection. That is why we live to learn and improve ourselves. I promised I was going to look at the level of directing at Studio 263 and this article is a fulfilment of that promise.

I appreciate the enormous work that the episode directors are doing especially having to deal with mostly untrained performers. I accept the fact that some of the performers have tremendously improved, but they still need prodding from episode directors Joe Pike and Ben Mahaka in order to realize their full potential. We have seen everything that episode directors and performers can do and they now need to jump out of their comfort zone and take Studio 263 to greater heights. In order to achieve that, they need to explore territory which they have never ventured into. In talking about this new territory, three very important directorial concepts immediately come into my mind. I have not seen these directorial concepts implemented in the making of Studio 263.Because of the brevity of my article I am prepared to discuss three concepts- composition/picturisation, movement and tempo-rhythm.

Let me first look at the problem. When a wide shot of any Studio 263 scene is taken it reveals at least two performers who are either sitting or standing and facing each other. There is no variation of body positions to give a sense of how their characters are feeling about each other. This is usually maintained until the end of the scene. Compositionally and picturisationally, the scenes are very dull. The episode directors need to take these concepts on board in order to present more interesting scenarios. Picturisation and composition are among the great pleasures in directing. They are the ‘art part’ of directing and with their absence in Studio 263 I doubt if artistically each episode is taken to another level of strength. Creativity should not end the level of writing. It should be taken at directorial level as well as postproduction. Some movies are known for having been shot with only scenario descriptions and without any written script. At Studio 263 scenarios are written and translated into dialogue by scriptwriters, but episode directors do not seem to take the work any further than what is suggested by the script. One of the best ways of adding value to a script is through composition/picturisation.

How should the directors achieve this? They should rationally arrange performers on the set to suggest their mental and emotional attitudes towards each other so that the dramatic nature of the situation is conveyed to the viewers. This is done in order to convey the emotional texture of the moment and to reveal the relationships between characters. The way performers stand in the frame will express exactly where a relationship is at any given moment. As the situation changes, the relationship between characters often changes. As one director Alexander Dean has put it:
In life the relationship of one person to another and the body expression of the person himself have a definite story telling value. Instinct keeps us away from those whom we dislike, suspect, oppose; near to those whom we trust, endorse, agree with, love.
This in essence should tell the director where to place each character in the scene in relation to others and this is normally derived from the text. If a character is unhappy with another, he may choose to give him his back. If the ignored character seeks attention by moving close to the acting partner, that may motivate a movement further away until the issue at stake is solved. When performers begin to act like that, then they are operating in the realm of picturisation. I have read over fifty Studio 263 scripts and opportunities for composing and picturising are vast, except that they are not taken advantage of by the episode directors. The picture in the frame should be able to tell a story without the aid of the word. When composing the director should ask himself how many people in the scene like or dislike each other? What tension exists between them? Can the picture he is arranging in the frame reveal individual agendas? Etc.

Let me come to the second concept of movement, which again is not highly profiled in Studio 263. I concede the fact that of all television genres, soap operas are the most static. There is more of sitting and standing up than can be found in any other dramatic genres. However, Studio 263 directors overdo this stasis. The only recorded movement in Studio 263 is when a character enters or exists the set or when it is suggested by the scriptwriter. Regrettably, a completely static screen picture becomes boring and the director is encouraged to seek logical motivations for moving performers on set. There are three types of movements – movement from place to place, gesture and business (buz). Some of these are suggested by the scriptwriter in stage directions and the majority of them are invented by the director and performers. A point to take note of is that, regardless of the reason behind any movement, the director should seek to make it appear motivated rather than aimless. In the Jari lounge for instance, what factors can motivate movement? It could be picking up a water glass, opening the fridge to take out a favourite drink and moving to the coffee table to serve it while saying the lines. The motivations are limitless. At JH office, what are the most likely motivations for movement? Collecting bond paper from the table and putting it on the tray of the printer, moving to the shelf to pick up a file, moving towards somebody to score a point etc. I have not seen all these ranges of motivations taken care of. One of the best ways of provoking emotions is to be involved in a piece of action which is normally done through movement. It is no surprise that performers more often than not fail to play emotions convincingly in Studio 263. Movement should be used among other things to influence emotions, to direct attention to the performer who is moving, to indicate the basic situation – highly emotional scenes demand more movement. Performers should also be encouraged to use their faces, heads, hands, and torso as gesture is important as a subtle means of gaining emphasis. Business should also be encouraged by episode directors – eating, drinking, drying hair, brushing teeth, washing etc. This gives life to the pictures we see on the screen. I concur with one screen acting scholar Tucker, P (1994) who argues that “actors often use business to let the audience understand another aspect of their characters, or to mark where a thought is changing … Business is useful for pointing up a performance as long as it does not junk it up …” (pp.60-1). This has to be taken up if directing is to take the creative process to another level. I don’t believe that the only job of a director is taking performers through the lines. Beyond the lines, the hand of a director must be seen.

The last but not least directorial concept which worries me at Studio 263 is tempo-rhythm. I begin first by diagnosing the problem. We have established that performers at Studio 263 rarely move on the set and are even mean with gestures. Except for Tom, Vimbayi and Joyce everybody else talks slowly. They speak, take a beat, and then talk slowly until they come to the end of their lines. There is usually a very small gap before the other performer picks up the cue. The result is a style of dialogue that takes a ping pong fashion. The cumulative effect of all this is the creation of a redundantly boring rhythm. I use rhythm here to mean the measurable changes of elements of art which progressively stimulate the attention of the spectator. Rhythm is a powerful tool that a director can use as it has vitality and power of attraction that is irresistible. When we see a carefully directed rhythmic performance on the screen we grow to associate these rhythms outside us with definite inner emotions and we are able to adapt our emotional responses to the rhythm witnessed. This is the basis of an important control for the director. Why is the rhythm of Studio 263 not as powerful as that of Kabanana or some of the poorly scripted West African movies? Joe Pike and Ben Mahaka need to identify points in the soap opera where they can control tempo-rhythm. As tempo deals with the speed at which a rhythmic pattern is executed, they can decide which characters need to be faster than others depending on the situation? Which characters need to be slower or moderate depending on the situation? The starting point is script analysis to find out the beginning and ending of each cycle of action. This will lead to the identification of points where the rises and the falls of the scene will be located. A scene that begins and ends on the same key is boring and from the scripts that I have read, the writers are beginning to deal with that problem conclusively. To add on to that, every performer must have a characteristic rhythm in movement and speech which can only be varied depending on his state of mind and situation. The directors should encourage performers to telescope – picking up cues in dialogue or movement before the other has finished speaking or moving. This should be led into gradually and continued to a climax. In this way unwanted pauses will be eliminated. Writers are now using ellipsis (…) to indicate interjections. The work should be taken further by the directors.

It is my hope that when these issues are addressed at directorial level, Studio 263 will become a force to reckon with. I am afraid some of these techniques are already being applied by Cont Mhlanga, the director of Amakorokoza. It would be sad to see a latecomer taking the limelight from Studio 263.

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