order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish


How To Make A 90-Second Newbery, Step 2: Read The Book And Start Planning

September 20, 2017

This is Step Two in the “How To Make A 90-Second Newbery” series. Click here to read “Step One: Watch Great Previous 90-Second Newberys.”

So you want to make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. You’ve watched previous 90-Second Newbery movies as I recommended in Step 1 and gleaned lessons from them. You’re fizzing with ideas! You’re ready to rock! So what now?

Choose the book that you’ll adapt into a movie. Any Newbery Medal Winner or Newbery Honor Book will do, from 1922 to today. I made a list of all the Newbery Medal Winners and Honor Books where you can click on a book title to see all of its 90-Second Newbery movies. Is a certain book title not clickable? That means no movie has been made of it yet! (You should consider filming one of those books, by the way. It’ll make your movie stand out. Every year we receive way too many versions of The Giver. There are other books, people!)

Read the book and decide how you feel about it. Only make a movie of a book that interests you. You might love the book and want to honor it with your movie. Or maybe you only kinda-sorta like the book, and there are certain things you’d like to change about it in your movie. Heck, maybe you hate the book, and you’re burning to make a movie that’s a biting satire of it! That’s fine! Adapt a book that you have a definite point of view about, either for good or for ill.

Think about what kind of “twist” your movie will put on the story. A straightforward adaptation of the story is okay (like this movie of A Wrinkle in Time), but trust me, your movie will be better if you make it with a weird twist.

What do I mean by a “weird twist”? Here are some examples.

Telling the book’s story in a different genre. By “genre” here I mean a specific style of movie, like “horror” or “Western” or “musical.” By retelling the story of the book using the tropes and conventions of a certain genre, you can make your movie much more interesting. Remember those movies I reviewed in Step 1? Many of them worked because they transformed the story into a different genre, such as . . .

A musical. This song-and-dance version of The Twenty-One Balloons (watch) features a big cast singing original songs, with fun costumes and great acting. Bonus: an erupting volcano!

A silent movie. This black-and-white silent movie of Crispin: The Cross of Lead (watch) tells the story visually through eye-catching action and brisk intertitles.

A horror movie. This scary version of Charlotte’s Web (watch) reveals the hidden dark underbelly to this beloved, seemingly innocent animal tale. Grotesque and disturbing!

A James Bond movie. This spy version of Ramona and Her Father (watch) shakes and stirs the mild domestic comedy of Beverly Cleary with the glamorous, violent 007 franchise, to absurd comic effect.

A zombie apocalypse. The gentle animal capers of Mr. Popper’s Penguins (watch) take a deadly turn when the penguins start acting like bloodthirsty zombies.

A Star Wars movie. Lightsabers! Space battles! John Williams music! This version of The Whipping Boy (watch) set in a galaxy far, far away has it all.

A Japanese samurai movie. These kids wear kimono and speak in subtitled Japanese in an Akira Kurosawa-style retelling of Heart of a Samurai (watch).

There are so many other styles you can do, too! For instance, you can do your movie in the style of a badly produced 1990s sitcom with a canned laugh track and corny jokes. Or as a weepy telenovela. Or as a Godfather-like gangster movie. Or as a cowboy western. Or in the style of lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling). Or as a Ken-Burns-like documentary. Or in the style of a Marvel superhero movie. Or in the style of a “gritty reboot.” Or in the style of a director who has immediately recognizable tics, like Wes Anderson or Alfred Hitchcock or Zack Snyder.

Hint: The more unlike your genre choice is to the original book, the more interesting your movie will probably be. Charlotte’s Web is a very sweet story, which is why the bonkers horror-movie version of Charlotte’s Web works so well.

But your movie’s twist doesn’t have to be a different genre. You have other options, such as . . .

Telling the book’s story in an unusual medium. There are so many ways to make a movie other than straight-up live-action. You can also make your movie using:

Claymation. The characters in this masterful stop-motion clay version of The Apple and the Arrow (watch) are better actors than a lot of living, breathing people!

Puppets. You can get a lot of goofy, endearing physical comedy out of puppets, as this version of Frog and Toad Together (watch) shows.

Animation. Good at drawing? Consider doing an animated version of your story, like this impresssive version of Holes (watch).

Minecraft. Take advantage of your Minecraft skills to pull off some jaw-dropping world-building and moviemaking, like this Minecraft version of Millions of Cats (watch).

Lego Stop Motion. Stop motion work takes diligence and time, but the effects can be astonishing, like this lego version of The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane (watch).

All Robots! Why not make an all-robot version of the book, like this funny version of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (watch) (my favorite part is how the robot “vomits”).

There are various other unusual ways you could use to tell your story. You could make an all-emoji version (here’s a video for “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” done entirely in emojis); or in the style of side-scrolling video game like Super Mario Bros. (oh, you don’t think you can tell a good story that way? Check out this side-scrolling story); or tell your story through the chain-reaction machinations of a ridiculously elaborate Rube Goldberg machine (you can get your Rube Goldberg inspiration here)

There are other ways to give your movie a compelling twist! The more creative your “twist” is, the better! Try switching out an element of the movie: for instance, Julie of the Wolves can become Julie of the Cows. Or have the camera stay strictly in the point of view of just one character, like Because of Winn-Dixie told only from the POV of the dog. Or do something like this movie of The Sign of the Beaver, in which a boy tries to tell his father the story of the book, while the father keeps trying to change the story as the boy is telling it.

What I’m trying to say with all of this is: have fun with your movie adaptation of the book! Do something weird, original, and memorable! It will almost always be a stronger choice than a straightforward adaptation.

Figure out your resources. At the same time that you’re choosing a book to make a movie of, and figuring out the “twist” that will make your movie original, you should keep in mind the resources that you already have. What do you already have access to in terms of costumes, props, talent, and locations that you can use in your movie?

For instance, you may have some toy lightsabers and a Darth Vader costume sitting around. If so, maybe consider making your movie in the style of a Star Wars movie! Or maybe you and your friends have beautiful singing voices. In that case, consider making your movie in the style of a musical! Maybe there’s a creepy graveyard near your house. In that case, you could use it as a location for an adaptation of The Graveyard Book. Maybe your friend’s uncle’s friend has a horse farm. Then how about adapting Misty of Chincoteague with real horses?

As you’re choosing a book and a twist, keep your resources in mind. You might end up deciding to adapt a certain book in a certain style because you already have the specific resources to do it well.

So: raid your parents’ closets! Rummage through the storage areas in your home! What do you already own that you can use? Go to Goodwill or Salvation Army and see what fun costumes and props you can get for cheap! Visit your school’s drama department to see what costumes and props they have in storage that maybe you can borrow! Ask around with your friends about what resources they have! Look around your neighborhood to find locations that would look great in a movie!

Put a team together. Who among your friends would be perfect for certain roles? Who might be able to write a good script? Who are the good actors? Who has experience behind the camera? Who has the patient temperament to do editing after the shooting is done? Who is interested in post-production and maybe even doing special effects?

To sum up this post’s advice: before you start making your movie, choose a book you’re interested in, read it attentively, give it a twist that you’re enthusiastic about, and finally bring together a team and resources to make a great movie that’s within the reach of your skills, time, budget, and supplies.

That wraps it up for Step 2 of “How To Make A 90-Second Newbery.” In the next post, we’ll talk about analyzing the story of the book so you can write a great script!

How To Make A 90-Second Newbery, Step 1: Watch Great Previous 90-Second Newberys

September 6, 2017

So you want to make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! But maybe you’ve never made a movie before. Where to start?

The first step is easy: watch lots of 90-Second Newbery movies! By examining good submissions from previous years, you can get a better idea what is possible and what works best . . . and you’ll get ideas for your own work.

I’ve chosen eighteen 90-Second Newbery movies for you to watch. I’ll point out how each one illustrates certain filmmaking tricks and techniques. There are hundreds of little things to know when making a movie. The best way to learn them is just to wade right in. Don’t worry, I’ll guide you through it and make it easy and fun. (And it’s not like you have to watch all of them, just choose the ones that look interesting to you.)

Here’s an idea: for each movie, try writing down something that made you laugh, or impressed you, or gave you an idea of what you could do in your own movie. Or even something you think you could do better! What was the “Holy Cow!” moment in each movie—the thing in the movie that you will remember and talk about after you see it?

Most importantly: what will be the “Holy Cow!” moment be in your movie?

Okay, let’s start:

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Take advantage of the cut. In film, a “cut” is a transition from one shot to another. This movie is only 90 seconds long, but there are 25 cuts! So don’t just turn on the camera and do the whole movie in one long continuous take (unless you’re doing that for a specific artistic reason). Every time the camera cuts between one shot and the next, it gives the viewer a jolt of energy. Take advantage of that! (Plus, if you’re cutting back and forth between two characters talking to each other, you can use those cuts to make the conversation snappier, eliminating silence between spoken lines and selecting the best version of each spoken line.)
  • Use a variety of shots. There are so many different kinds of shots in this movie: close-up, medium shot, long shot, over-the-shoulder, handheld, etc. By mixing up the types of shots, you can grab and sustain viewer interest. Here is a useful primer on different kinds of shots.
  • Move the camera around! The camera is often on the move here: following Meg and Charles as they run outside, panning to reveal Meg’s father, “pushing in” from Meg and Calvin in the foreground to the witches in the background, etc. Don’t be afraid to move the camera, it can bring a lot of energy to a shot!
  • Compose your shots. In this movie, it’s clear they didn’t just turn on the camera and point it any which way. The shots are carefully thought out and composed. In a future post, I’ll do a more detailed breakdown of the cinematography of this adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, including explanations of the Rule of Thirds, camera placement, movement within the frame, and more.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Give your movie a strong twist that will transform the story. You can make your movie much more interesting by retelling the story in the style of a different genre—like a musical, or a silent movie, or a horror movie, or even another movie or musical (like Star Wars or Hamilton). Here, Charlotte’s Web is done in the style of the opening credits of a 1970s superhero TV show, with the “Spider-Man” theme song rewritten such that the lyrics tell the story of Wilbur, Charlotte, and all their friends.
  • Keep your actors on the move. There is a lot of action in this movie: jumping, fighting, and running around. That’s much more fun to watch than people standing around talking.
  • Speed it up! Slow it down! Go backwards! This movie uses fun tricks to make the movement even more compelling. For instance, trampolines were used to get “super jumps.” In other places, the footage was reversed, sped up, and slowed down to make feats look superhuman. Such editing trickery is easy to do in standard editing software like iMovie.
  • Make cool costumes. If you’re just wearing your everyday clothes, or worse yet, if everyone in the cast is just wearing identical school uniforms, it doesn’t feel like a movie anymore, but just a boring school assignment. Wear something flashy and eye-catching that people will like to look at.
  • Find a good location. Charlotte’s Web takes place on a farm, so this group shot their movie at a barnyard. You might not have access to a barnyard, but you probably can go outside, right? It sure beats shooting in the corner of the library, or in a classroom. (In general, outdoors locations are often more compelling than indoors locations.)
  • Start with a bang! This movie began with a door getting kicked open, and two masked faces popping out of a treehouse! A kinetic, active beginning like that really draws in the audience. Give your movie a “wow!” beginning—a compelling image or extreme action in the first few seconds to grab the viewers’ attention.

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Consider doing an offbeat book. The Story of Mankind is the very first Newbery Medal winner, and few people read it anymore. That makes it a unique choice for a movie! I encourage you to adapt an older or lesser-known book. You’ll stand out from the crowd, and anyway it’s interesting to read weird older books.
  • Consider using a different medium. You don’t have to do your movies live-action. This group used stop-motion Claymation for their movie! It’s time-consuming to create, yes, but very satisfying to watch. Think about what unique medium you can use for your movie: a puppet show, an animated short, a Minecraft movie, a one-person show, a movie in the style of a side-scrolling video game…
  • Make use of rhythm. This movie sets up a consistent rhythm, with the same musical riff punctuating comical bits that each last only a few seconds. With this rhythm, the audience is “trained” to expect a new historical period, a new visual, and a new “joke” every 4-5 seconds. The sequences of “Crusades” jokes works precisely because of the established rhythm (notice how the rhythm speeds up as the “Crusades” joke nears its conclusion). Great use of pacing!
  • Sound is important. Don’t neglect sound. In particular, a well-placed sound effect can really make a scene work. For instance, the Super Mario Brothers sound effect during the “evolution” bit makes the joke.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

What Can We Learn From This?

  • With a silent movie, sound becomes easier. Sound is one of the most difficult things to get right. What if there’s bad sound on the set? What if you’re shooting outside and wind muffles all the lines? What if everyone’s speech turns out to be inaudible? This group gets around such problems by telling the story in the style of a silent movie. With a silent movie, you don’t have to worry about flubbed lines, or bad sound on the set, or fussing with sound in post-production.
  • You can use the conventions of silent movies to tell the story. If you’re making an old-fashioned black-and-white movie, you can speed up the footage to achieve that “olde-tymey” effect, which of course makes the movie shorter. And silent movies also often have title cards that break up the action and can explain the plot in an efficient way.
  • Tell your story in images more than words. This point goes for normal movies and silent movies both. Make sure you tell your story visually, with striking images and action. People standing around and talking does not make for a good movie! Think about Star Wars—even with the sound off, you can understand what’s happening in the story. Make sure you feature in your movie big physical actions (fights! chases! arguments!), with interesting costumes, lots of props, outsized emotions, and fun-to-look-at locations (outdoors is usually better than indoors). Movies are different than books—they’re not about the words, they’re about images moving on the screen. Making your 90-Second Newbery in the style of a silent movie can help you develop your visual storytelling skills.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Use green screen. Outdoor locations are preferable to indoor locations. But what if you’re stuck indoors, and you still want your movie to look great? No problem: do your scenes in front of a green screen! Green screens are pretty cheap to buy online—just some green fabric in the background—and in a pinch, you can even use green butcher paper. Then use Apple’s iMovie, Microsoft’s Moviemaker, or almost every other movie editing program to substitute an image or a video in for the background of your scene.
  • Supplement your green screen. Notice how the filmmakers added props on the set to supplement the green screen’s background image: for instance, in the graveyard scene, there is the green screen background of a graveyard, but there are also gravestone props in front of the green screen. That helps the scene feel three-dimensional, and less obviously a green screen.
  • Don’t forget to vary those shots! When you use green screen, there’s a temptation to make every shot more or less the same: a full-body shot of two or three characters standing and talking in front of the green screen backdrop. Make sure you still vary the shots, putting in closeups, over-the-shoulder shots, etc. In this movie, check out the very effective “insert” shots: of a hand on a doorknob, feet walking up stairs, a knife raised in the air, etc. You can very build a evocative scene through a lot of little details like that!
  • Pay special attention to sound. Note the creepy music throughout (taken from the soundtrack to the horror movie Under the Skin), the sound effects, and slowed-down voices (for the ghouls) and the sped-up voice (for the Sleer). All of this was done in iMovie using the built-in audio tools, nothing fancy or expensive! But even more important, notice how all the dialogue is super clear. We can understand every word that is being said. If you need to dub in dialogue later to make muffled dialogue clearer, do it!
  • Don’t be afraid of voiceover. This movie uses a voiceover that explains the plot and moves it forward quickly. This can be a very effective device! Just don’t overdo it. Remember, the story needs to be primarily shown by the movie, not told by a voice. This voiceover does a good job of setting up each scene, and then getting out of the way so we can watch the scene unfold.
  • Special effects don’t have to be expensive to be effective. This movie was very resourceful in its special effects. All they needed was an off-the-shelf vampire costume, some scary masks, and some face makeup to get a great result. The tentacles of the stuffed animal “Sleer” were operated by strings pulled by kids just off-camera. And the lights flashing on and off were pretty scary . . . but the effect was accomplished by just flipping an everyday light switch on and off rapidly!

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Consider doing a musical. Musicals are always popular, if they’re done well! But a bad musical is painful to watch. A good musical is going to mean a lot of hard work. Make sure your lyrics are super tight: every line should either push the story forward, express an emotion, or be funny (ideally, all three at once!). You can write your own music, but it’s also OK to just change the words to existing songs, like this Ramona and Her Father (find a “karaoke” version of the song online and record the performer singing along with that). Extra points if your rewritten song ironically undermines the spirit of the original song: in this movie, Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” is rewritten such that every character sings about what’s making them miserable!
  • If you’re doing a musical, pre-record your songs. Don’t try to actually sing the song for real on set. Record your song beforehand and get it perfect. Then, play that recording while you’re shooting the video part, and have the actors lip-synch along with it. Then, in post-production, just lay that audio track you’d recorded earlier over the video you shot. The audio quality will be much better, and you won’t have to do as many takes.
  • If you’re doing a musical, add subtitles for the lyrics. It can be a little tedious to do, but it’s worth it, because sometimes it’s hard to understand sung lyrics. Any standard movie-editing software has the capability.

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary (James Bond Style!)

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Consider doing your movie in the style of another movie. Here’s another version of Ramona and Her Father, but presented as a James Bond movie. If you’re going to do a genre twist like this, it’s the most fun when the genre you choose is as far as possible from the original story. The gentle, suburban, low-stakes family comedy of Ramona and Her Father is completely opposite from the violent, international, high-stakes spy thrillers of James Bond. Watching these two different sensibilities chafe against each other is what makes this movie entertaining.
  • Commit to the premise. If you’re going to do a genre twist like this, make sure the genre is present in every scene, not just one or two. You have to fulfill the “promise of the premise.” For instance, in this case, it’s essential to include all the James Bond tropes: the James Bond theme music runs throughout the movie, James Bond wears a suit and speaks with an English accent, there is gunplay and fistfights. The scenes that occur in every James Bond movie are included: a debriefing scene with the boss “M,” a gadget scene with the gadget guy “Q,” etc. We have an iconic Bondian villain (here, a riff on Blofeld), James Bond drinks a martini “shaken, not stirred,” and he makes a bunch of ridiculous double-entendre jokes like Roger Moore. Using these genre trappings, every scene becomes an easy-to-identify joke or “bit” in which the basic story of Ramona and Her Father is retold through a James Bond twist. The joke wouldn’t work if you only did one or two of these things. You have to do a Bond-specific thing in every scene to make the joke work.
  • Shoot a lot of footage and take advantage of it in the editing room. When you’re on set, shoot a lot of reaction shots and multiple takes from different angles. It will come in handy in the editing room! For instance, while editing this movie, the filmmakers realized they needed shots of Beezus’s and Mrs. Quimby’s exasperated reactions to James Bond’s “It seems I’ve carved out a place for myself in this family” pun, but nothing was shot! So they used footage that was randomly caught on camera in another scene, and spliced that in for the reaction shots. Same when “Blofeld” is laughing in reaction to James Bond’s despair—that was actually just the actor cracking up when he thought the camera wasn’t rolling.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Make your genre twist share something in common with the story. Here’s another example of a great genre twist on the original material. What could be more opposite to the mild domestic animal caper of Mr. Popper’s Penguins than a brutal zombie apocalypse? And yet the two stories share something in common: whether the story is about penguins or zombies, either way it’s about a faceless, all-consuming horde. Sometimes the choice of genre can bring out aspects of the original story you never noticed before!
  • Explore aspects of the story the original book leaves unexplored. The original book doesn’t have much to say about the Poppers’ marriage. But surely Mrs. Popper would be exasperated by Mr. Popper’s unrepentant penguin-mongering. This movie gets some good comedy out of that tension by showing Mrs. Popper’s increasing impatience and disgust with Mr. Popper. Find the unsaid or unexplored thing from the original book and say it, explore it!
  • Sometimes it’s okay for your movie to go completely crazy, if it’s still in the spirit of the book. Obviously, in the original book the penguins never rampage through New York, blow up the Statue of Liberty, or feast on human flesh. That said, the penguins do get in enough trouble to land in jail, just as they do here. Find a way to tell your story that honors what’s in the book, while still fulfilling your genre twist and making the story your own.
  • Make each scene have a cause-and-effect relationship with the next scene. The movie has some very effective transitions that keep the story moving. Mr. Popper says “The way we can feed them is by putting on a penguin show”—and then we cut straight to the penguin show! Try to sequence your scenes like this as much as you can: each scene logically leading to the next scene by easy-to-understand cause and effect.
  • You don’t have to spend a lot of money on costumes, just be clever! The penguin costumes in this movie were created with nothing more than white and orange paper, black shirts, and some white T-shirts that were cut out into a bib. Simple, and yet they look great (and kind of creepy)!

The Giver by Lois Lowry

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Um, think twice before making a movie of The Giver? This video happens to be a brilliant adaptation of The Giver. But let me be frank. If you’re thinking of making a 90-Second Newbery of The Giver, please reconsider. Every year the 90-Second Newbery receives dozens of adaptations of The Giver, more than any other book by far. After a while, they all run together in my mind. And it’s not fun if an entire 90-Second Newbery screening is just different movies of the same book! You’re more likely to be featured in a live screening if you don’t do The Giver. (That said, this particular movie is amazing.)
  • A fun genre twist: a one-man show! Okay, let’s say you’re dead-set on adapting The Giver. Then make sure you have a fantastic genre twist to set yourself apart from the pack . . . like this one! A one-person show like this can be really hilarious, but only if the actor commits to portraying many extremely different characters, with a lot of absurd costume changes, different voices, and rapid cuts. The quick cuts, mix of voiceover and spoken dialogue, and inventive visuals make this fun to watch. (What I’m trying to say is, if you do do a one-person show, don’t just make it you mumbling into your laptop camera for 90 seconds!)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

What Can We Learn From This?

  • A clever enough idea can carry a whole movie. Although eye-catching costumes, skillful sound design, and even green screen visuals are all great, there’s no substitute for a truly clever idea. For this movie, the clever idea is that almost every line of Bridge to Terabithia functions as a melodramatic “ominous foreshadowing” of the death of its beloved manic pixie dream girl character Leslie at the end. Notice this idea only really works because of the horror-movie musical riff than keeps getting played every time ominous foreshadowing happens, which clues the audience in on the nature of the joke. This is another one of those jokes that gets funnier the more frequently and quickly it happens.
  • When it comes to acting, go big! You only have 90 seconds, so there’s not much time for subtlety. Go big for your acting choices! Notice that in this movie everyone really commits to their acting. Nobody is doing it halfway. Nobody is mumbling or acting embarrassed of their movie. They’re all committing to it 100% and that’s why it works.
  • Use rhythms in your scenes! I referred to the rhythm of scenes in the Story of Mankind notes above. Same thing here: the “ominous foreshadowing” musical riff that keeps getting played sets up a joke that gets funnier the more you repeat it.

Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel (Puppet Show)

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Try making your movie with puppets. Making the movie with puppets means everything is shot on a smaller scale, which gives you an excellent opportunity to totally control what you’re shooting. Sets are easier to make and puppet movement is easier to control.
  • Film the puppets first, dub in the dialog later. When you’re working with puppets, you don’t have to worry about sound on set because you can always dub in all the dialog later. That makes it much easier, since it’s hard to get sound right on set.
  • Take advantage of the physical comedy and crazy movements puppets can do. This movie makes the puppets do all kinds of ridiculous things: climbing a mountain, running top speed through a forest, squeezing through a door, and more. It’s fascinating to watch! So if you’re making a movie with puppets, then for the love of Pete, don’t just have the puppets stand there and talk. Take the opportunity to make the puppets leap, run, dance, and do all kinds of exaggerated movements.

Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel (French Music Video)

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Don’t be afraid to switch the genders, or even the species, of characters! The original Frog and Toad are two male amphibian bachelors. But this adaptation makes them into young human lovers, one male, one female. And the movie is much more interesting for it.
  • Tell your story with actions and images. Not a single word is spoken in this movie, and the song is all in French, and yet we know exactly what is going on. Learn how to tell your story visually, and your movie will be much more watchable than if it were just a bunch of people standing around talking about the plot.
  • Be bold and make extreme aesthetic choices. This movie reimagines a cozy tale of two amphibian bachelors into a frisky French music video about young lovers. That’s creative, and it totally transforms the story! Stretch yourself to find unique angles on the material like this one, even if (or especially when) it strongly contrasts with the book you are adapting.

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischmann

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Take advantage of cheap and easy special effects. There are a lot of special effects in this movie—lasers, explosions, even swinging light sabers! Seems hard to do, right? Must’ve cost some serious money? Absolutely not! It was all accomplished with a piece of software called SaberFX that’s only $24.99!! You can do special effects, too!
  • If you’re going to do something in the style of another movie or franchise, make sure you fulfill the “promise of the premise.” Just as with the Ramona and Her Father done in the style of James Bond movie above, if you’re going to do it in Star Wars style, you must fulfill the “promise of the premise” and include as many Star Wars tropes as possible: the opening crawl, the John Williams music, a lightsaber battle, aliens, spaceships, and Star Wars quotes and references. The more you tell the story in terms of the genre choice, the more satisfying it will be.
  • Make bold acting choices. You only have a few minutes to make an impression. Go broad with your acting. Notice how excitable and frantic the prince character is, and how monotone and phlegmatic the droid is. Use vivid contrasts to make different characters distinguishable!
  • Your movie’s too long? It better be good. Yes, this movie is a little too long for a 90-Second Newbery, but the judges will cut slack for longer pieces if they’re truly ambitious and inventive.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Get artistic. This movie is done entirely in elaborate shadow puppets. Shadow puppets are hard to make and manipulate, but they are quite beautiful, and you can get lots of cool effects!
  • Take advantage of what puppets can do. If you’re using puppets, you have freedoms that you don’t have with live-action. You can totally control the image we see, since you’re making all the characters and sets yourself. So make sure your puppets are always doing something interesting. Again, a puppet show doesn’t mean you can just have long shots of pieces of paper twitch around while you mumble off-camera. Make it visually interesting!
  • Cut, cut, cut the story. Lots of the original story got thrown out the window in order to keep this movie down to just 90 seconds. That’s OK! This movie still tells the main story very well! You have to be merciless in editing down the material.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Consider adapting a book of poetry. Some Newbery-winning books aren’t stories, but rather books of poetry like this one. Poetry makes for good 90-Second Newberys because they’re short and open to interpretation.
  • You can do a lot with puppets! Again, these kids took advantage of the fact that, with puppets, you have total control over your set. They built a “forest” and created all the animals themselves, and moved the camera around that set. Notice also how the camera and “animals” are always MOVING. Nobody wants to watch some motionless paper, no matter how beautifully drawn and crafted.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Try writing your own songs! In the musical of Ramona and Her Father above, all of the songs were takeoffs of existing songs. With this musical, however, all the songs are original! This might be your chance to try your hand at your own songwriting.
  • Costumes matter. The more extreme and eye-catching the costumes, the better! It proves that you spent time on the movie, and reassures the viewer that this movie will be worth watching.

Heart of the Samurai by Margi Preus

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Consider doing your movie in another language! This movie is mostly in subtitled Japanese. If you have skills in a language other than English, or if you’re learning a different language at school, try making your 90-Second Newbery in that language! In this case, it makes a lot of sense to do it in Japanese, because the main character is Japanese. But your language choice doesn’t necessarily need to be reflected in the book. How about doing Johnny Tremain entirely in Spanish? Or Charlotte’s Web in Mandarin?
  • Don’t forget to add in music. The right music can really put your movie over the top. Appropriately enough, this movie of Heart of a Samurai used music from the soundtrack of an old Akira Kurosawa samurai movie, Yojimbo.
  • You can switch your medium in the middle of the movie. In this movie, some scenes are done live-action with green screen, and some scenes are done with handmade model boats, oceans, whales and horses. But it all works together. Don’t be afraid to switch from one medium to another in the middle of the movie.
  • Fight! Fight! Fight! If there’s a physical fight in the book, definitely feature it in the movie! People love to watch fights!

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

What Can We Learn From This?

  • Make your movie in Minecraft! Making your movie in Minecraft allows so many great possibilities. For zero budget, you can make amazing things in Minecraft that it would be almost impossibly expensive and time-consuming to construct in real life. So if you’re going to use Minecraft, the judges will expect you to take full advantage of the freedom it gives you. Exploit the vast scale of the world, and make use of the various interesting objects you can craft, and the creatures you can generate. Your movie should never be just a bunch of characters standing around talking! In Minecraft, you can make anything, and you can put the camera anywhere you want, and you can control that world utterly . . . so take advantage of that, and wow the audience!

That’s all for Step 1 of “How To Make A 90-Second Newbery.” In the next post, we’ll talk about choosing a Newbery-winning book, reading it, figuring out your own unique twist on the material, and marshaling the resources you need to make a great movie.

Episode 4 of the Secrets of Story Podcast: Contentious Dialogue!

August 8, 2017

My friend Matt Bird and host a podcast called The Secrets of Story. Matt’s the author of the highly recommended and helpful fiction writing advice book The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers. The book, and our podcast, are based on his storytelling advice blog, of which I’m a longtime fan and contributor.

I usually announce each episode of the podcast on this blog around the time that it drops, but the last few episodes were released when I was in the middle of the frenzy of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, so they fell through the cracks. Better late than never, though, so let’s check out Episode 4 of “Secrets of Story” today! You can listen to it on SoundCloud above, or here on iTunes.

It’s actually my favorite episode so far. I think Matt and I hit our stride here!

This episode is mostly about dialogue. Matt and I clash about how contentious dialogue should be. Should characters always be motivated to “get something” out of the other character in the scene, and use tricks and traps to get it, as Matt advises? Is there room for scenes in which characters are honestly trying to understand each other and care for each other, as I argue, or are such scenes by their nature dramatically inert? Are most scenes—is life itself—really about a scramble for dominance? If so, how depressing is that? Are there other models for behavior and storytelling that we can also add into the mix?

To explore Matt’s point, in this episode we reference similar scenes from two different Star Trek movies. In both Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek: Beyond (2016), there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie in which Bones and Kirk share some alien drink on Kirk’s birthday, and Bones probes Kirk’s discomfort with growing old. (As it happens, Matt and I happened to have recorded this episode on the eve of my own birthday, March 9, which was rather serendipitous.)

Matt and I agree that the Wrath of Khan scene holds up even thirty years later, while last year’s Beyond scene is “truly terrible filmmaking, truly terrible writing, a truly terrible scene,” in Matt’s words (he lays out his objections more fully here). That said, the scenes are so superficially similar—why does the 1982 version work, but the 2016 version doesn’t?

In any case, if you want to see the scenes themselves, here’s the still-effective Wrath of Khan scene:

And the limp, ineffective version of the same scene in Star Trek Beyond:

Perhaps ironically, even though I’m the one advocating for exploring the possibilities of a less contentious model of scenebuilding and dialogue, midway through the episode it gets heated, and I call Matt “an insect” and bark “Have you ever had a friend in your life?” so that’s pretty charming. But it’s fun to listen to, so I guess it proves Matt’s point!

At the end of every episode, either Matt or I “give away” a free story idea. Listen all the way to the end of this episode to hear us discuss my idea of Down and Out in Heaven and Hell, a fantastical comedy that is set in the afterlife about the not-dead not-alive “undocumented workers” who do all the blue-collar labor of keeping the afterlife working.

I hope you enjoy this episode! More episodes to come!

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