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What excactly is an act?

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Jon Fidler
What excactly is an act?
on Mar 6, 2012 at 7:38:05 pm

Hey

I have never really gone into this question properly and it still confuses me to this day. Ive been working for a while as an editor on a number of unpaid projects and want to go into producing and am learning more and more about the art of storytelling but this is something which just confuses me even though it seems so stupidly basic.

While I obviously know and can indentify what a scene and a sequence is and how it contributes to the story, what excactly is an act and how can I identify one it to me it seems almost abstract. I read in Robert Mckees book that Raider of the lost arc has seven acts! while a lot of films have the basic three (intro/development/resoultion). I can barely identify this in films let alone documentary! Im sorry if this is very basic, ive just about got my head around symbolism and now im stuck on something even simpler! Im almost embaressed to ask this one but there doesnt seem to be a straightforward answer anywhere and thought id throw this one out here.


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Renato Sanjuán
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 6, 2012 at 10:54:13 pm

FWIW, I wouldn't really worry about it unless you're planning to major in narrative theory.

The basic three acts are enough for any mainstream film/show. It's been ages since I saw Raiders of the Lost Arc but I'm pretty sure the usual 3 acts are there. The other 4 would come from splitting the classic 3 in an arbitrary (and I might add unnecesary) fashion.

When I edit fiction I'm aware of the acts upon reading the script, but I don't really worry about them once I'm doing the actual editing. If I were to tell the writer were I think one act ends and another begins, he or she would probably not agree. People argue about that all the time. And scripts get changed during the editorial process.

Documentary is different. A documentary (or a non conventional narrative) might be divided into three acts or not. I've done plenty of unscripted docs and my approach is more in the line of "finding" the story as work progresses, ie first getting rid of the "bad" parts, then start refining. Of course you need some basics: you'll usually have some kind of first act or introduction and some kind of conflict or goal to be resolved in the end. Sometimes the conflict is not resolved and it's not a problem because that's what you want to say.

Think of the ending of the Sopranos. Where's the resolution in that? The lack of resolution IS the resolution.
Once you abandon the basic narrative model, pretty much anything goes. It's just a matter of taste and talent. Plenty of great films don't fit the three act structure. Godard, Tarkovsky and Buñuel come to mind.

To end this rather long rambling, I'll tell you that I enjoy film theory and have studied it at school and at university, but I try to "forget" it when I'm editing. I think films are basically about emotion and being overly analytical kills that for me.


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Jon Fidler
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 6, 2012 at 11:10:46 pm

Thanks I totally agree. I did some of this at uni, but the thing is when editing this sort of stuff never enters my head and I put a lot of it together on intuition and have never had any complaints whatsoever.


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Renato Sanjuán
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 6, 2012 at 11:20:36 pm

Yeah, it doesn't hurt to have a basic understanding of these things so you can hold your ground when you're around a certain kind of crowd, but that's about it. Fortunately editing (and storytelling) don't fit in a formula.


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Anthony Atkielski
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 7, 2012 at 8:07:13 am

Reading this reminds me of Quinn Martin Productions, which always seemed to have titles saying "Act II," "Act III," and so on after each commercial break in a series episode. I always wondered if that was just a stylistic touch meaning "we're back from the commercials," or if the episode truly was divided into acts in some formal way.


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Bill Davis
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 7, 2012 at 7:51:38 pm

It can also be argued that in the telling of any story - you MUST begin somewhere - and conclude somewhere else. Those are your beginning and end.

An arbitrary amount of the words you use to bridge between those points that get you from the first to the last is... the middle.

Ergo the 3-act form.

Clearly, nothing is that simple, and it's quite possible to futz with the form to slice and dice and rearrange anything to your creative ends. But I think that's as good an explanation of why we tend to talk in "3-act" form as any.

In fact, way back in High School, I was very fond of a Richard Brautigan "story" that consisted in a total of two sentences.

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin. That's what she said as she handed the police the empty revolver."

Beginning. End. And a middle that lives purely in the imagination of the reader.

That's the magic of thoughtful, clever writing.

"Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."-Justice O'Connor


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Scott Sheriff
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 7, 2012 at 11:12:31 pm

[Anthony Atkielski] "Reading this reminds me of Quinn Martin Productions, which always seemed to have titles saying "Act II," "Act III," and so on after each commercial break in a series episode. I always wondered if that was just a stylistic touch meaning "we're back from the commercials," or if the episode truly was divided into acts in some formal way."

IMO, Quinn Marin shows like The Fugitive, The FBI, and The Invaders are just using the 4 act plus epilog thing as a style element.
Seems like Quinn Martin was fond of the word "the" also.

Scott Sheriff
Director
http://www.sstdigitalmedia.com


"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur." ---Red Adair

Where were you on 6/21?


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Renato Sanjuán
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 8, 2012 at 1:02:11 am

The most famous short story ever written in Spanish, by master storyteller Augusto Monterroso, translates roughly as this:

"When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there."


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Scott Sheriff
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 8, 2012 at 4:39:45 am

[Scott Sheriff] "Quinn Marin shows"

Quinn Martin...argh
They either need to make the keys bigger, or I need to make my fingers smaller!

Scott Sheriff
Director
http://www.sstdigitalmedia.com


"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur." ---Red Adair

Where were you on 6/21?


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Richard Herd
Re: What excactly is an act?
on Mar 8, 2012 at 4:29:37 pm

That's a good question. For me, it means the moment when the main character cannot return to "how it was."

There's a bunch of good books on the topic. Here's three:

Screenwriting by Syd Field
Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
An Anatomy of Drama by Martin Esslin


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