Interactive Storytelling: Cinematic Technique in The Last of Us

TLOU 5In January, TheFilmSchool will host John Williamson at our First Tuesday Event, where he will discuss storytelling in video games, and the unique challenges and opportunities present in the medium. If you’re interested in video games, or curious about the narrative challenges it provides, learn more on our event page!

Truly remarkable narratives can come in many forms, from oral traditions told around a campfire to worn and beloved paperbacks to summer blockbuster films, and video games are no exception. Looking forward to January’s First Tuesday, I decided to take a closer TLOU 7look at one of my favorite video games, The Last of Us, and examine some of the narrative techniques present in the game.

Released last June by game developer Naughty Dog, The Last of Us has garnered near-universal praise for the quality and depth of its narrative. The storytelling accomplished in The Last of Us has undeniable cinematic qualities to it, yet distinctly remains a game. Revisiting the narrative, I found several notable aspects worthy of mention. 

Narrative Arc

While film and games are separate mediums, the two also share a great many strengths, and storytelling in both often rely on the same techniques. Video games, including The Last of Us, quite often utilize the three-act story structure that is prevalent throughout cinema.

TLOU 6The major components of a three-act structure are present in the story of The Last of Us. The call to action, midpoint turn, cave scene, and climax are all easily identifiable. However, certain challenges of the video game medium present themselves in crafting the structure of the overall narrative.

With an overall run time much longer than a feature film, completing The Last of Us can take 16 hours or more, sustaining the rising and falling action of the story requires a fragmentation in the pacing of the narrative arc.

TLOU 9Often realized in less sophisticated games as ‘levels’, the story of The Last of Us is broken up into sequences, each with their own rising and falling action. Each sequence has its own clear narrative arc, and the higher-level pacing between them clearly emerges only near the end of the game.

Video games are certainly not alone in doing this. Most films do this on a scene-by-scene basis. However the distinct breakup of sequences in The Last of Us, is more episodic in its approach, and because of the length of the sequences requires a high degree of coordination to utilize without detracting from the coherency of the master narrative.

Audience Agency

Perhaps the single most significant difference between storytelling in video games and doing so in any other medium is the role that the audience has in the creation of the story. A person playing a video game, unlike someone watching a movie or reading a book, has a degree of control over the course of events in the diegetic world.

This creates unique opportunities, as well as challenges, for a video game’s creator.

TLOU 8Allowing the audience any amount of agency over the story necessarily results in a corresponding loss of agency on the part of the creator. When writing the plot of a video game, the storyteller must allow for the fact that the player has a choice, and even when acting out a prescribed course of events the participation of the audience is necessary to complete the narrative.

However, allowing the audience agency can also increase investment in the story. The involvement of the audience can heighten emotional stakes as players take on the role of the characters in the game and close the emotional distance between themselves and the diegetic events of the narrative. This increased emotional investment, in turn, can assist in the conveyance of meaning to the audience through the story.

TLOU 3In the opening moments of The Last of Us, the protagonist’s daughter dies in a tragic accident. The player is given control of the character as he struggles to save her and almost succeed, only to have her life snatched away.

This already powerful scene is made more impactful by the direct participation of the player who, because of their involvement, feels that they themselves have failed.


Like movies, video games are a visual medium, differentiating them from novels or spoken word. The direct representation of the diegetic world creates opportunities for storytellers to bring their vision of the world directly to the audience. Sight and sound not only convey information, but set the tone of a piece and create a complete world.

When coupled with player agency, these sensory cues can minimize the player’s awareness of the physical self, creating a sense of immersion in the events of the narrative.

TLOU 5Immersion is a helpful tool for storytellers. Like player agency, immersion helps to increase the investment of the audience, heightening the emotional impact of the narrative. Increased awareness of the diegetic world also allows for mood and tone to be conveyed with great efficiency.

However, the presence of these possibilities creates additional potential for a story to fall short, as well. If the visual aesthetic of a game feels incomplete or incongruous with the story, it has the opposite effect, drawing the player out of the game and calling attention to its textuality.

The Last of Us skillfully uses aesthetic in a number of ways. The narrative relies heavily on multiple instances of carrying on after devastating loss. The game supports this motif by immersing you in a world in which life has continued after death, mirroring it in the ruined buildings of abandoned cities juxtaposed with the thriving new plant life which has overgrown them.

TLOU 2The game also utilizes seasonal changes within the diegetic world to signal shifts in the narrative arc. The story’s initial call to action occurs during the spring, the mid-act turn in the second act occurs at the shift from summer to fall, and the cave scene occurs during the winter. The climax of the game then takes place during the spring again, creating a complete cycle as the narrative comes to a close.

If you’re interested in learning more about video game storytelling, come out to Roy St. Coffee for our First Tuesday event January 7th at 6:30 pm. RSVP here!

Making a Film in 48 Hours

by Heather Pilder Olson
TheFilmSchool Alumni

How long does it take to make a short film? That depends. If you’re in the 48 Hour Film Contest, you have just two days to write, shoot, edit, and submit your movie.

Our team, Speetzfire, was convened by executive producer Kevin Owyang, whom I met at a recent Crash Cinema event at SIFF. Kevin got the ball rolling and had worked previously with our director, Andy Tribolini, also an actor, writer, and TheFilmSchool alum, and our DP, Matthew Bane, on other projects. Andy recruited the awesome actors Danita Bayer, Scott C. Brown, Janeanne Wilder, and Henry Mark, and the stellar ADs Amy Sedgwick, also an alum of TheFilmSchool, and Becki Chandler, who worked with Janet Berkow to scout out our excellent locations ahead of time. 

Here’s how the contest works: two of the team members attend a meeting Friday evening and draw a genre. Every team has to work within their genre using an assigned prop, line of dialogue, and character name. Our genre was thriller/suspense, the prop was cheese, the line was, “There must be something in your ear,” and the character was Gina or Gino Asplund, a barista. So we were off and running with a group meeting Friday night where all cast and crew were invited to brainstorm ideas. Andy was the primary writer, and he, Kevin and I started working that night to come up with a script. I was running on too little sleep already, so I faded out around midnight. Kevin stayed another couple of hours, and Andy wrote into the wee hours of the morning and sent out the script to all of us.

I woke up at 6a.m. Saturday and read the script, which was then called HELL IS EMPTY. I liked it, I was excited, and I had to pull together breakfast to take to the set to feed the cast and crew. I showed up right on time at the location that we had been sent, only to discover we were sent the wrong address! Fortunately the real location was just a few blocks away, so we packed up all the food and took it to a park on the shores of Lake Union. My husband Clint helped me set up, and saved the day by getting coffee for everyone. He also helped load and unload the camera gear and lights. Our first shots went well, and we moved on to our next location at Serafina, a lovely Italian restaurant nearby. We had permission to shoot there from 10a.m. to 3p.m. and we were able to (just barely) get all of our shots in. Andy was setting up shots near the bar while Amy was working with actors for the next shot in another part of the restaurant, and two other DPs shot different scenes simultaneously. Another crew member Damian Stonebreaker was busy making fake blood, while Janet and Becki prepared a pig’s heart for a scene. One of our actors, Scott, took bites of the raw heart. This is dedication to the craft. Do not try this at home. I took script notes, did the slate, held lights, moved gear, took pictures, and ordered lunch. Brian Nunes, our editor, was working the entire time to start to cut the film together. 

We then moved to an apartment nearby for the last part of the shoot. A friend of Becki’s graciously loaned us the use of her place from 4p.m. to 11p.m. We broke out the wine around 9p.m. and that helped things go smoothly. Kevin brought in more snacks and we refueled with carrots, celery, chips, and beef jerky. Brian kept editing as soon as he got new footage, and he, Andy, Kevin and Matt agreed to meet the next morning to finish the edit. Amy Enser was incredibly helpful with the final edit on Sunday, we got to use the great music of Catherine Grealish, and the film was turned in 15 minutes before the deadline on Sunday evening.

Our film was retitled CONVICTED, and we got to see it on the big screen at the Uptown Theater on July 16. It was a ton of fun to see the other films that had been made, and it’s always quite a thrill to see your name in the credits. While we didn’t win any awards, we have received a lot of positive feedback on our film, and we all learned a lot in the process. We’re ready to do it again next year!

The entire process was well organized, fun, intense, and we made a great short film. Watch CONVICTED, enjoy, and make your own 48 hour film. If you dare. 

Write On: Top Screenplay Editing Software

godfather screenplayYou are probably already aware that studio script readers won’t so much as skim your screenplay if it is improperly formatted. For those just beginning to test the waters of screen writing, making sure your screenplay follows the right conventions can be a chore. Here then, is a short list of programs that can help you get around this road block.

Final Draft

While Final Draft isn’t exactly cheap, some users would claim it’s still a bargain. The upshot of paying top dollar for a professional program like this is that the guarantee that it works and works well.

Final Draft offers a host of mobile apps that compliment their software, and is widely regarded as the industry standard for screenwriting tools.

The amount of features packed into this program might even be a little daunting at first, so Final Draft gets the recommend for intermediate to professional level writers.

Adobe Story

Adobe’s cloud based screenwriting program uses the freemium model of subscription. You can use it for free, but if you want the extra features you must pay. This makes it an good option for some, and at the very least an affordable option for others.

Because Adobe Story is cloud based, writing your screenplay on multiple platforms is easy. It’s all there, whether you’re working on your PC, tablet, or laptop. Like other programs, it includes tools for managing multiple collaborators.


While Celtx might not be the sleekest software out there, it might be the best open-source (read: free) option out there. Designed to compete with Final Draft and Adobe Story, it offers many similar features and automated formatting. Additional features such as storyboarding make this an good tool for anyone involved with pre-production, not just writers.

Don’t let all the bells and whistles distract you though. You can put together a perfectly formatted screenplay using only one: the editor.


Fountain isn’t software, but I’m putting it on the list because there’s a large population of folks out there who use it. In essence, Fountain is pure text. A few new syntax rules to learn, and you can start typing without having to fret over the formatting. Documents written in Fountain must be converted into a screenplay format, which can be done by importing the doc into one of the aforementioned softwares.

Seems like a little extra work, rather than less. Perhaps it is. Fountain users appreciate the ability to keep their fingers on the keys though, rather than take a break to fiddle with some peripheral tool. The ability to use any text editor, from Notepad to Google Docs, allows for a greater degree of compatibility and portability across platforms.


Did we skip your favorite screenwriting tool? Let us know in the comments, and join us for First Tuesday to learn more about what studio script readers looks for, and how to get that coveted “Recommend”

Highlight Reel: 7 July, 2013

Movie Reel and FilmAnother week has passed, and with it, another news cycle. We’ve got the rundown on the latest in film news from the past week so you can spend as much time as possible out in the sun… or at the movies! Without further ado, here’s a quick rundown of what’s new this week in the film industry…

That’s all we have for you this week. Did we miss any news stories of note? Have anything you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!

Sean Bean’s Most Delightful Deaths

220px-SeanBeanMar09Sean Bean always dies.

It’s a statement supported by 25 films, from the 1991 television series Clarissa to the 2007 thriller The Hitcher. Filmgoers have taken note, and the phenomenon has even inspired a Facebook page, “Let Sean Bean live thru an entire movie,” which has about 200 likes. The handful of comments includes such intellectual musings as, “LET THE MAN LIIIIIIVE!!!!” and ”He lives through Bravo 2 Zero.” Sadly, all activity on the page seems to have come to a halt about six months ago.

Anyway, back to the man himself. Granted, he does survive in some of his movies. But how – and why – has he amassed such a collection of dying roles? Chalk it up to fate, his knack for playing villains, or some other mystery variable like earlobe width. Whatever it is, Sean Bean always dies.

Do you have a wealth of ideas for creative death scenes? How would Sean Bean’s life end in your film? Enroll in TheFilmSchool’s Summer Session of the 3-Week Intensive and figure it out!

1. The Field (1990)

Adapted from the 1965 play of the same name, The Field starts with a dead donkey and ends with a dead Bean. Tadgh McCabe (Bean) and his father, Bull, have had a complicated relationship ever since Tadgh’s brother committed suicide. In the end, Bull goes crazy and herds his cattle toward a cliff. Tadgh tries to stop him, but ends up getting pushed off the cliff by the stampeding animals. 

Death by cow – it’s a novel idea. 

2. Black Death (2010)

For some reason, I was eating when I first watched this YouTube video of Bean’s deaths. I was doing just fine until I got to the scene from Black Death. Here’s what happened: each of Bean’s arms got tied to a horse, and the horses started running in opposite directions. Bean was ripped apart, and I almost lost my lunch.

In an interview with Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, Bean explained that the scene was especially difficult to film because he would only allow one of his arms to be tied to a horse at a time. You know…just in case.

3. GoldenEye (1995)

GoldenEye features one of Bean’s most elaborate deaths. As a viewer, you think he’s going to die when he falls off of a satellite tower onto the dish far below – but he miraculously survives…until about two seconds later, when the dish blows up and falls on top of him. The fake-out factor, combined with the fact that this is a James Bond movie, puts this death near the top of the list.

4. Don’t Say a Word (2001) 

Bean plays Patrick Koster, the leader of a New York gang. Koster’s search for a $10 million gem eventually leads him to a graveyard, where he locates the treasure. Unfortunately for him, he also gets buried alive. 

5. Equilibrium (2002)

In Bean’s filmography, gun deaths are a dime a dozen. So, you might guess that Bean’s death scene in Equilibrium is nothing special. You’d be wrong. This time around, Bean holds a book of poetry in front of his face, and his enemy shoots him through that. Yowza. 

2596949_1334179176111.54res_386_3006. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

As the noble Boromir, Bean was impaled by arrows from Orc archers. Boromir believed that dying was his rightful punishment for having previously tried to take the Ring from Frodo. His body was sent down the river in an Elven boat.

While not overly creative or surprising – arrows are a traditional weapon, after all – this death makes the list because Orcs were involved. How many frequently-dying actors can say they’ve been killed by Orcs? I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to hypothesize that it’s a pretty small number.

7. Scarlett (1994)

In this TV miniseries based on Alexandra Ripley’s novel by the same name, Bean was stabbed to death while sleeping. Talk about not even having a chance. 

8. Caravaggio (1986)

Bean plays Ranuccio in this story of the tumultuous life of Caravaggio, the Baroque painter. Caravaggio seduces both Ranuccio and his girlfriend, and Ranuccio ends up killing his girlfriend so that he can be with Caravaggio. Unfortunately, the artist then slits Ranuccio’s throat. The killing is so up-close and personal that it makes you imagine how that would feel. Ew.

Poor Ranuccio. Nobody goes into a love triangle expecting it to have a 66.67% death rate. 

9. Lorna Doone (1990)

Bean’s villain, Carver Doone, drowned in a swamp after a fight with the film’s protagonist. He should have seen that one coming – he had just shot the title character at her own wedding. It was bound to come back to bite him.

It’s interesting to note that one of Bean’s daughters is named Lorna. Granted, she was born before Lorna Doone was made, but it still seems odd that he opted to die in a movie with that name.

10. Henry VIII (2003)

If you know you’re going to be killed, you probably hope for at least a somewhat epic death. Something dramatic. Something a little showy. At the very least, you hope it’ll be relatively quick.

You don’t hope to be tied on a gate and left there to die. But that’s exactly what happens to Bean’s character in Henry VIII. He goes out slowly, in an anticlimactic way, and with no audience. As if dying wasn’t disappointing enough.

Check out even more Sean Bean death scenes in The Island (2005), Game of Thrones (2011), Outlaw (2007), Airborne (1998), Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (2009), Essex Boys (2000), Ca$h (2010), Patriot Games (1992), Clarissa (1991), War Requiem (1989), and The Hitcher (2007).

Think you could top the creativity of death by cow? Prove it! Enroll in TheFilmSchool’s 3-Week Intensive today. We’re only accepting applications for a few more days, so don’t wait!


Highlight Reel: June 30, 2013

Movie Reel and FilmHappy Sunday, film folks. I  hope everyone’s been getting out and enjoying the sun this weekend. This week marks the end of an era (of sorts) as Google Reader shuts down. Reader has been a staple of the highlight reel process, and will be sorely missed as we migrate to Feedly for our RSS needs. All that’s boring and technical, though, so let’s get on with the news. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new this week in the film industry…

That’s all we’ve got for you this week. Do you have anything to add, or think we missed any news worth mentioning? Let us know in the comments below!

Highlight Reel: June 23, 2013

Movie Reel and FilmHello again, film fans. Hope you’re all doing well as summer progresses along. We’ve got a fresh batch of news for all of you this week, so give it a look through. If you haven’t already, also consider checking out the summer session of our Three Week Intensive, our flagship course. Without further ado, here’s a quick sampling of what’s new this week in the film industry…

Don’t forget, the application deadline for the summer session of our Three Week Intensive is fast approaching, and you can Sign Up Here!

That’s all we’ve got for you this week. Did we miss anything, or do you have something you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!

Seven Root Stories

cir001Try as we might to generate completely new ideas, the truth is that almost every plot line boils down to one of several root stories. The “original” root stories, or at least the oldest recognized forms of them, come from ancient mythology or classic fairytales. They operate as basic frameworks of storytelling, but they can be easily disguised by unusual settings, secondary plots, and extra or altered characters. The following seven root stories can serve as great building blocks as you create your own story. They could also help you characterize a story you’ve already written.

After you thoroughly read each line of this post, make sure to apply for Summer Session of the 3-Week Intensive! Time is ticking – class starts on July 13. Don’t miss your chance to learn about screenwriting from our amazing faculty members. 

1. Achilles

Achilles is one of the most talked-about narrative archetypes, thanks to everyday use of the term “Achilles heel.” Each Achilles story features a character with a tragic flaw that causes him or her to meet a tragic end. The Great Gatsby, MacBeth, and Hamlet are a few examples. 

2. Cinderella

Stories based on this root don’t necessarily involve a Prince Charming-type rescue figure, or even a rags-to-riches theme. The Cinderella archetype is a character whose virtues are overlooked or outright denied until the end of the story. Films that immediately came to my mind were James and the Giant Peach, A Little Princess, Matilda, and Pretty Woman. But after getting in touch with my inner paleontologist and scraping off some narrative dust with a proverbial toothbrush, I realized that The Tortoise and the Hare also falls into this category. 

3. Circe

This root, named after the minor Greek goddess, is the story of the seducer or the temptress. In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe invited Odysseus’ men to her home and served them poisoned food that turned them into pigs. Apparently she had also been known to cut off certain body parts belonging to her lovers. So, you can see how she got a bad reputation. 

Mary Howitt’s poem “The Spider and the Fly” is a perfect example of Circe’s root story. Some films that follow the Circe template include Cruel Intentions, Basic Instinct, Poison Ivy, and To Die For. 

4. Faust

Faust stories are about debts that must be paid. The semi-historical figure Johann Faust was said to have sold his soul to the devil. Phantom of the Opera, GhostThe Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Ghost Rider exemplify this root story. 

5. Orpheus

The Orpheus root story concerns a valuable gift that is somehow lost. The story might end with the loss, or it might begin with the loss and follow the characters on their quest to find the gift. Virgil’s Aeneid, The Wizard of Oz, and Jason and the Golden Fleece are notable examples

6. Romeo & Juliet

This archetype barely needs explaining. Two lovers meet; at some point, they become separated. In the end, they either happily reunite or lose each other forever, depending in the tone of the story. West Side Story, Titanic, Friends With Benefits, and many movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels fall into this category. 

6a00d8341c301153ef0111685865a1970c-450wi7. Tristan

Films like The GraduateVicky Cristina Barcelona, and Closer follow the Tristan root story, which is about the classic love triangle. Tristan was sent to bring the beautiful Isolde (or Iseult, or Essylt, depending on who you talk to) back for King Mark to marry. Unfortunately for the king, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drank a powerful love potion during the journey, and they fell madly in love with each other. 

And now a little public service announcement about making marriages last: Watch out for those love potions, people. 

If you read this post, you’re probably a writer. Which means…you should probably – no, make that DEFINITELY – apply for Summer Session of our 3-Week Intensive. The session will run from July 13 to August 3. We’re only accepting applications until July 6, so act fast!

Did we miss a classic example of a root story in modern film? Let us know in the comments!

Take Two: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

TGDT 1Take Two blog posts offer a critical look at some contemporary and classic Hollywood remakes, and breaks down the differences between the original film and its successor. If you think you’ve got what it takes to write the next big remake, or if you’re tired of remakes and want to see something new, check out our Three-Week Intensive Screenwriting Courseaccepting applications now for Summer 2013!

This installment of our Take Two series of blog posts looks at another Swedish film with an American remake. This time, we’ll be focusing on the 2009 adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, and the 2011 American remake of the same name.

The Original

TGDT 2Stieg Larsson’s posthumous bestselling millenium trilogy was originally adapted by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev.

The 2009 film was a box office success worldwide, though it performed relatively poorly in American cinemas. It was also followed by two sequels based on the remainder of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, which released in the same year.

The Remake

TGDT 3Two years later, a Hollywood remake starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara and directed by David Fincher was released. Like the original, the movie closely followed the plot of the novel it was based upon, albeit with a significant increase in star power.


Major Differences

The two movies are very similar overall, even more so than the previously discussed Let the Right One In and Let Me In. Still, there are some differences to be found.

  • The framing plot featuring Mikael Blomkvist’s conflict with Wennerstrom is handled differently in the two versions. In the 2009 Swedish version, Blomkvist actually serves jail time after the conclusion of the trial, and in the American version, the promise of additional evidence to convict Wennerstrom has a more prominent role in motivating Blomkvist to help Henrik Vagner.
  • Harriet, though alive in both versions, is relocated to London in the 2011 remake, and Blomkvist’s visit with her, while thinking she is Anita, is added earlier in the movie.
  • Played by different actors, the feel of the protagonists varies considerably in the two films.
  • The total budget of the 2009 version was $13 million, while the 2011 remake had a budget around $100 million.

Same Characters, Different Actors

It goes without saying that when the same character is played by different performers, the character is going to feel different in certain ways. This is true in any remake, but I am mentioning it here because, in a movie so superficially similar, the differences stand out more than they otherwise would.

In the character of Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace delivers what is, in my opinion the superior performance. Although a protagonist and, ultimately, a likable character, Lisbeth is also socially maladjusted and has genuine issues which make it difficult for her to fit into society. Although Rooney Mara does an excellent job of conveying Salander’s brash, standoffish charm, Rapace ultimately better presents the deep internal conflict of Lisbeth Salander’s character.

TGDT 4Daniel Craig, on the other hand, offers up a superior interpretation of Mikael Blomkvist. While he arguably does not function as well as Nyqvist did in presenting a foil for Lisbeth’s character, I think Craig presented a more relatable and engaging version of the character. Given the amount of time the audience spends seeing the story through Blomkvist’s eyes, that’s an important distinction between the two.

Cost Effective

TGDT 5Though the cost of the Hollywood remake was around eight times that of the original, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the two. The movies were visually very similar, and achieve comparable results in terms of lok and feel. Why then, the large budget gap between the two? 

Here’s one perspective. Obviously, larger salaries went to Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara for the star power draw. However, there’s also an explosion inserted in for little reason and then there’s the title scene. The title scene, while visually stunning (and I also loved the cover of Immigrant Song), added nothing to the feel or message of the film. It was so jarring when viewed in contrast with the scenes it bookended that it ultimately took me out of the movie and was not, in my opinion, a worthy addition.


If I had to summarize my opinion of the 2011 remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it would be ‘unnecessary’.

I should clarify, for the record, that I ultimately have a high opinion of both films, and I think they were each successful at capturing and delivering the message of the novels. However, in my mind the remake had nothing in it to justify its existence, other than a repackaging to make additional revenue in American theaters. 

TGDT 6No artistic risk is taken, the message remains the same, and the feeling one gets upon finishing the film is largely the same in both versions. I’m not condemning either movie, but I do think, if you’ve seen one, you don’t need to watch the other. That’s about all I have to say.

If you’re into this kind of thing, consider sighing up for our Three Week Screenwriting BootcampIf you have questions comments, or feedback on the format of the post, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below!