A Fitting Climatic Ending – Princess Cut Review

If you’ve followed the last few posts, you know I’m determining which director is better: Paul and Sheilah Munger. The husband and wife team launched the Princess Cut franchise. They’ve kept it going without superheroes involved.

Last week I reviewed their film’s openings. I shared how giving the audience an immediate pay-off makes them feel good about their ticket buy. This week I’ll talk about the key elements that make for a great climax—and the answer isn’t explosions and bullets.

Several vital things must happen for a movie climax to be worth the ticket price. To pull it off, directors must focus on the below items.

Define the Climax

A movie is an argument, and the director must define his position in the argument. The director’s position defines the parameters of the climax. The more personal and riskier the argument, the more is at stake and the larger the climax’s pay-off.

In Back to the Future, Marty’s life gets jeopardized when he goes back in time. He inadvertently stops his parents from connecting. Marty overcomes many obstacles to get his parents to connect, so he’s not erased from time. He must then return to the future to live his life.

To get back in time, Marty has to overcome major obstacles and perfect timing to succeed. The climax hits as he transports back to the future.

Transform the Protagonist

A great climax shows the protagonist using their weakness to overcome obstacles and win their internal battle. This journey and character arch are about transforming the protagonist’s flaw into a strength. Once the protagonist has changed, he can execute the necessary steps in the pivotal moment to succeed.

The transformation of the character is critical to the success of the climax. This is possible when the director introduces the protagonist’s goal at the film’s beginning. The director follows with a demonstration of the protagonist’s flaw or weakness.

At the beginning of Act II, the director highlights the new skills, information, and allies the protagonist needs later in the journey. These elements make it clear that the protagonist cannot take on the antagonist. The antagonist’s strengths reveal the protagonist’s weaknesses.

This forces the protagonist into a corner with a lack of ability to battle the antagonist. Most films have the character lose a battle against a proxy antagonist to raise the risk leading to the climax. At this point, the protagonist faces a dark night of the soul with the realization that he isn’t enough.

But as we all do in a time of crisis, the protagonist considers his goal in light of his new skills, information, and allies. He regroups and heads into battle, knowing he will give his all.

In most romantic dramas, the protagonist has to overcome their misbelief before the climax. The simpler the lessons of the journey, the more likely audiences will try the protagonist’s final choices in their life. The protagonist must change to fulfill the character arch and produce the moment that allows them to win the climax.

Support the Climax

If the protagonist’s goal is unclear to the audience at the film’s beginning, the climax will be a dud. If the character doesn’t face the antagonist with their exposed weakness, the climax won’t work. The character arch must be clear and culminate in a changed person to take the win during the climax.

All the 32 story beats a director crafts into their film must lead to a single pivotal moment. The climax weakens with every missing or misdirected beat. A director with 7 or 16 beats has a more challenging time creating a memorable climactic ending.

The director’s job is all about supporting the story and its big finish. If at any time he directs a scene without understanding how it adds to the story, he weakens the ending. When a director ensures most story elements lead to the climax, audiences will watch the story many times.

Paul vs. Sheilah’s Princess Cut Endings

Paul in PC1 establishes that the protagonist wants to get married. Her dad wants her to learn about real love, not infatuation. As the story progresses, the protagonist sees both types of love in action.

The protagonist had to sort through the actions of others, her thoughts, and her feelings. By the climax, she chooses to trust the man she loved despite the circumstances. He, after taking care of the things that could hinder their relationship, shows up with her father’s blessing and proposes.

The climax works because we understand her goal to get married, starting with her first scene. While some scenes didn’t feed this trajectory, many scenes empowered the climax of the film. Overall, Paul had a winning climax.

Paul’s Princess Cut 2

Due to the length of this post, I won’t mention the PC2 climax except for one thing. Paul’s ensemble choice distracted the audience from the throughline, weakening the climax. Paul can learn about focusing on an ensemble by watching how the Avengers films tie to a single character’s throughline.

When a director loses track of balancing the story and keeping the focus headed to the climax, the editor usually brings him back to reality. Unfortunately, Paul’s editor was biased and fully supported his first cut. Why? Well, Paul was the editor. It’s too bad independent budgets make this the rule more times than not.

Sheilah’s Princess Cut 3

Sheilah stirs the audience by having the protagonist toss her boyfriend out after an issue that puts her child at risk. This leads to her facing a dark night of her soul, forcing the audience to wonder if they’ll ever overcome their circumstances. It was perfectly set up to watch the protagonist fight for her love through to the climax, but it didn’t play out that way.

Instead of fighting for her love, the protagonist had to overcome more obstacles put in front of her. This continued until her boyfriend attempted to intervene and ended up in the hospital. The climax soon follows with less emotional enthusiasm than expected.

This weaker climax was due to two things. First, the protagonist wasn’t driving the plot in a proactive battle for love leading up to the climax—a common mistake for first-time directors. Second, too many subplots were intercut at a time when a story should focus solely on the primary characters—I’ll blame the editor for that one.

The good news is that the audience did see the protagonist transform. They watched her shift from distrusting all to trusting the good in life. This opened her to a new world of love she had thought was beyond her grasp—a very satisfying ending for a romance film.

The Winner Is…

Sheilah did an excellent job with her first feature film. She opened with a strong focus on the protagonist. Unfortunately, she didn’t use that strength to drive the plot to the climax. But she did show the character’s transformation, which most first-time filmmakers miss.

This film launched her as a serious director with room to grow and master the craft.

Paul’s first film established the protagonist’s goal of getting married. He took the audience on the character’s journey to learn what true love looks like for a solid marriage. While he allowed too many story elements to happen to her, he did have the protagonist drive several scenes by her choices. This led to a good climax that satisfied the audience.

When comparing Paul and Sheilah’s features, I found that they have different strengths. They can learn from each other’s strengths. Sheilah has an innate sense of character focus, while Paul focuses on the goal of the thesis. Great films need both.

The best director between them will be the one who chooses to learn from the other. It’s too soon to make that call, so I’ll remind everyone that the protagonist must go through a transformation. And, they must also make choices that drive the story forward toward the climax.

Anything less will make the film unbearable for viewers.

Directors must find a balance between the action plotline and the B-plotline. The action plotline drives the story toward the climax. Th B-plotline transforms the protagonist’s character.

Congratulations to Paul and Sheilah for creating features that built a franchise. Also, thanks for sharing your love for each other through your true-love stories. Couples today need that role model in their entertainment.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers

Princess Cut – Husband vs. Wife Directors

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

The Princess Cut franchise has birthed two directors:  Paul Munger and Sheilah Munger. My curiosity got the best of me. I needed to learn which one of them was the top director in the family.

To make that determination, I decided to review a few critical actions a director must take to make their film successful at the box office.

This is the second of several blog entries exploring which Munger makes the best director. If you want to follow along, you can find the films at Watchman Pictures and Amazon Prime. And for those who have VUDU, at the time of this writing, the first film in the series is free with ads.

For today’s entry, let’s start in the beginning. To craft a successful cinematic story, the director must accomplish certain tasks, or they won’t build and keep their audience. The first task is creating an attention-getting opener.

Capture the Audience

The audience has spent good money to show up for the film. They expect the director to give them confidence in their buying decision within the first few minutes of the movie. Hollywood directors often give an immediate pay-off to the audience.

Some reveal the uber-bad guy and the threat he brings, while others create a bond between the main character and the audience. This is often done with a touching or cool moment, shared crisis, or funny experience.

When the unique connection is made, the audience wants to see the story through to the end. They want to know what happens and how the main character experiences it. They’ll even consider how the main character’s choices might fit their personal life.

Presenting the Film’s Genre

In the opening, directors must demonstrate the story’s genre, tone, and pace. Genres all have certain tropes that signal what you’re watching. To prove this true, all I have to do is suggest a western, and you instantly have a sense of what you’re about to see—which includes horses.

For instance, sci-fi might include lasers, aliens, space ships, or time travel. A romantic comedy might include some form of hilarity, awkward circumstance, or hopeful adoration. A horror film might open with a startling moment, blood-slashing action, or creepy circumstances in an eerie setting.

Creating the Film’s Tone

The mood or the tone of the film must be in keeping with the genre. A piece of sweet, bubbly music won’t work in the opening of a horror film. Nor would an intense score with low rumbling bass satisfy the audience watching a child’s film.

The tone and the mood of the film are often set by music and visuals. There must be harmony or stark contrast to establish an emotional tonal quality at the story’s onset. This can be happy or sad or land anywhere in between. The key is ensuring it fits so naturally together that the audience feels it but doesn’t acknowledge it.

Setting the Film’s Pace

The pacing of the show is critical to its success. You don’t want a fast-action pace for a romantic drama—it won’t make sense to the audience. Nor do you want a long, thought-provoking pace for a cutting-edge adventure film. You must find the proper balance based on the genre your story fits.

Pace can also shift speed at specific times within the story to demonstrate relevance or alternating life patterns. A roller-coaster ride of a film becomes boring if things don’t slow down enough to reset the audience before the next thrill ride of the story.

Princess Cut 1 Opening

In Princess Cut 1, Paul opens with an intensely dramatic night scene of a man burying a wedding ring. This tells the audience that the film is a drama. But he then contrasts with a dreamy-eyed upbeat girl staring at wedding rings in a jewelry store. This suggests the story fits a romantic genre.

The audience wonders if this man and girl will get married or might collide in an emotional scene that dramatically alters their lives. The bottom line, Paul withholds the overt expression of the genre.

Princess Cut 2 Opening

Paul opens Princess Cut 2 with a harmonious mix of setting, music, and movement. The audience immediately knows who the main character is, and her life seems to be ideal. But to better grab the audience’s attention, Paul has the main character react to pain in a way that drives concern.

The main character seems to overcome it in time to move into a romantic moment. At this point, the audience thinks the film’s genre is romance, but that’s when the story shifts. Paul raises the drama levels with an emergency at the free clinic.

The audience starts to wonder what ties the emergency and the main character together. Again, Paul holds back from making a clear genre statement.

Princess Cut 3 Opening

Sheilah opens her story with the pace, tone, and setting that speaks to a romantic comedy, but she counters it with dramatic content—setting up a romantic drama. After a quick splash of title cards, she moves back to the drama, void of any possibility of romance.

At this point, the audience knows the story is a drama and who the main character is. The audience shares a concern for the main character’s circumstances, but we haven’t yet bonded with her enough to cheer her on to a better future.

Who Wins for Best Opening?

This is a tough call. Paul purposely withheld the establishment of the genre on purpose. This means he knows how to do it but chooses to keep the audience guessing. Maybe his flair for surprise overrides the audience’s need to confirm the genre they are watching.

What Paul may not know is how his choice makes the audience feel about how open they will be to his story’s message. Audience members who are unsure of what they’re watching tend to close their minds to new ideas. This kills the director’s cinematic argument.

If I were directing the film, I’d start with the jewelry store and not introduce the man until the second half of act 1. This would solidify the genre and help open the minds of the audience to the message I’d want to share. The man’s introduction would then become a tool for me to recapture the audience’s attention later in act 1.

Sheilah stays consistent with her leading character. The audience knows who she is and hopefully bonds with her through the opening crisis. Sheilah chose a crisis to start the film to symbolize the ashes of her life reflected in the PC3 title: Beauty from Ashes.

If I were directing the film, I’d take less risk than Sheilah. I’d have the opening of the film reflect a positive kindness shown by the lead to endear her to the audience. Then I’d follow it up with a series of crisis moments that place her life in a proverbial pile of ashes.

As for the winner, I’ve got to say they both win for taking chances as a director. In the long run, they will be better directors, having taken the chance on their openings. And, if their core audience loved the choices made, they’ve positioned the audience for their next film.

But do their choices lead to a stronger or weaker film? Read the next follow-up blog to find out.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers

Understanding the Language of Film (Part 2)

All directors can improve their storytelling by practicing three areas of film language. (See Understanding the Language of Film (Part 1) to learn about How Films are Built with Shot Sentences.)

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Pexels.com

This second part covers how Films Use the Rules of Visual Grammar, and how Films are Visually Read by Directors.

Films Use the Rules of Visual Grammar

When I was working on my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, I had to review many rules of grammar. It was painful to remember all the rules while trying to tell a story. It made me realize that my first draft needs to be brain dump without rules so I can get the basic story down.

The good news is that there are only four rules of grammar in film (that I know of). They include the 180° Rule, 30° Rule, Screen Direction, and Time Compression/Elaboration. A director that understands visual grammar can tell their story in a way the audience can follow.

180° Rule

This rule is in place to keep the audience in the story. Whenever the director breaks the rule, the audience gets pulled out of the story.

Outside of the story, the audience becomes very conscious about watching a show.

The audience is no longer entrenched in the development of characters and plot.

I’ve never understood why some directors yank their audience away from the story. It causes the engrossed audience to snap back to reality. They realize that their emotional experience is fake.

They have to decide if they’ll allow themselves the opportunity to slip back into the story or not. For those who hesitate, they watch the rest of the movie from an outside perspective. They miss the entire emotional throughline of the story.

The 180° Rule is about audience orientation. In other words, it’s about camera placement to keep the viewer in the story.

If a director starts with a two-shot the audience understands who is in the image and their location. In the two-shot, Character A and Character B are looking at each other.

Character A is screen left looking to screen right. And, Character B is screen right looking to screen left. The audience understands when Character A turns his head to the right, he looks away from Character B.

This spatial understanding frees the director to use other shots. He can focus on entertainment factors of nuances, points of interest, and storytelling.

To keep this perception intact, the director must draw an imaginary action line. He then places all the cameras he’ll use on one side of the line. This gives him 180° of camera angles that he can use.

If he crosses that action line with a camera, the audience loses their orientation. They get yanked from the story and have to make a conscious decision to get back into it.

You can learn more about this rule from an earlier post by clicking here.

30° Rule

The 30° rule is about the physical placement of the cameras. Each camera angle must be between 30° and 180° from the previous camera shot. This rule shows up in the editing room when the picture cuts together.

The name of these cuts is Axial Cuts or Jump Cuts. The axial cut is between a camera that is closer and another that is farther away from the subject.

The jump cut is between cameras on the same focal plane. The jump happens when the second camera is further to the right or left side of the other camera.

Jump cuts can be disorienting when the camera is less than 30° from the previous shot. And as you may have guessed, being over 180° breaks the 180° Rule, which is also disorienting.

The French director Jean Luc Godard popularized the jump cut in his film Breathless (1959). His goal was to use gratuitous jump cuts to create a rhythm and mood during a bank robbery. You can often see this same heightened emotional rhythm in fight scenes.

Screen Direction

When a character moves, it creates a screen direction in the audience’s mind. Most people can extrapolate that direction within their minds.

For instance, let’s say Character A moves from the left side of the screen to the right side and beyond. The audience understands the character is somewhere to the right of what they can see.

If the next shot shows Character A walking into the scene from the left, there is a sense of disorientation. The audience wonders how Character A, who was screen right, got to the left side of the screen.

When Character A moves from offscreen right to screen left, we know they returned. This is true even though we never saw them turn around.

These spatial understandings come from the grammar of screen direction. The director teaches viewers the placement of everything through a series of shots. The director created rules for the environment that he can’t break during that scene.

A good example is Character A playing catch with a ball. If Character A tosses the ball offscreen right and it soon comes back from screen right to left, it makes sense. We know there is someone offscreen that is playing catch.

But a ball thrown offscreen right and reentering from screen left doesn’t make sense. This action pulls the audience out of the story.

Time Compression/Elaboration

Time compression is a tool a director uses to cut out unnecessary action. Time elaboration is a tool that allows us to expand the information over a longer piece of time.

For instance, let’s say a film opened with Character A going through his wake-up rituals. Most could take 10-20-minutes in real-time. The director might want to compress the time so boredom doesn’t set in.

He might show highlights or hints of the steps in a minute-long montage. The series of shots might look like this:

A hand hits the alarm clock.
Toothpaste squeezes onto an old toothbrush.
The closet door flies open revealing shirts and slacks.
Toast pops out of the toaster and gets grabbed in mid-air.
A computer bag strap flops onto a shoulder.
A car backs out of the driveway.

Time elaboration is the exact opposite. Let’s say a bomb blows up in a scene and destroys lots of stuff within 5-seconds. The director might explore that explosion from many camera angles.

The director might also capture the explosion in slow motion. When cutting everything together, the explosion turns into a minute of screen time.

Here is a simple example. The first paragraph represents real-time and the second represents time compression.

A car stops alongside a curb in a residential area. The key turns off and gets removed from the steering column. The car door opens and a reporter steps out. He reaches back into the car for a pen and notebook. The reporter closes the door and locks it. Walking around the car, he moves up the sidewalk toward a house. His winged tip shoes shuffle up the staircase. He pushes the doorbell. The reporter readies his notebook and pen. The door creaks open revealing a nervous woman who doesn’t want her story published.

A car stops alongside a curb in a residential area. The ringing doorbell echoes within the house. A nervous woman opens the door to find a reporter standing with pen and paper in hand.

For an example of time elaboration, read the short paragraph above followed by the longer one.

The director always has a decision to make. Should a ticking time bomb blow up in the two minutes set on the clock, or should he milk it for ten minutes?

Films are Visually Read by Directors

The screenwriter creates the initial story. He knows that the director and editor will put their spin on it. Adding to these creative roles are actors and artists that also bring nuances to bear.

The director orchestrates the full collaboration. This melding of great minds and actions generates the final look and feel of the story.

The director is like an orchestra conductor. He has full control of the volume, pace, and other artistic embellishments. His job is to create the emotional baseline of the story.

Yet, some choose to approach directing more from a technical aspect. They know how to make a visual impact, but not an emotional one. While there are some stories well served by this choice, they are rare.

Directors that take their eyes off of the emotional thread of the story lose sight of the language of film. Directors must read the nuances of a scene and determine how to show it visually. When missed, the impact of the story weakens.

To understand the emotional elements, the director must learn how to read film. Developing this skill will empower the director. He’ll be able to translate the written page to the visual screen with the story’s emotional spin intact.

Since this article is already long, I won’t go in-depth about how to read a film. But I will share that learning how to “show and not tell” elements of a story is the primary level of reading a film. Add to it the understanding of symbols, props, and nuances and you’ll begin to learn the language of film.

Directors Must Be Visually Literate

To be an effective director, you must learn how to understand the language of film. This starts with being able to build shot sequences within a scene like sentences. Mastering visual grammar helps audiences understand the time and space where the action unfolds.

A director with knowledge of these elements can couple them with the emotional throughline of a story. The end result is a visual language that transcends global literary boundaries.

Copyright © 2022 by CJ Powers