Good question. It’s a hard term to define, but once you understand what a sequence is, you can start creating some really strong content.
When you’re putting together a documentary, or any film for that matter, you usually come at it with a certain number of acts in mind. The number of acts can vary–I’ve used three act structures and even five act structures in my work. Acts are used to divide your film in a way that helps your audience navigate through your story.
The ACTS are the main divisions of your story…perhaps the best known is the Three Act Structure. I’ll use the well known “cat gets stuck in a tree scenario” to illustrate. (In fact, there is a great book on screenwriting called “Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.)
So here’s how I would break the cat scenario in a three act structure: Act I–Cat gets stuck in tree. Act II–Someone attempts to rescue cat. Act III–Cat is either rescued, or not. (Let’s imagine this is an animation. Easier to film, for sure.)
Next you break your Act into SCENES. A scene usually takes place in one location, and covers a certain unit of action. There are exceptions to the rule, however. Let’s say the scene is a telephone conversation between two people in different locations. What’s important here is that the scene is taking place in one particular unit of action and time.
An Act can have a varying number of scenes, but usually there can be anywhere from 5 (for a documentary) to maybe 15 or more (for a narrative film) scenes per act.
Let’s just work with Act I, Scene I of our cat-up-the-tree scenario. Here goes: Cat gets out of house, sees a dog across the street, scampers up tree, and gets stuck. Its owner comes outside looking for the cat, sees the cat in the tree, and runs to call the fire department.
All right. We’ve got our scene. Now we divide that scene into a series of SEQUENCES. Sequences are the segments you put together to make the scene. Here is one way to breakdown the sequences for Act I, Scene I of our scenario:
Sequence #1: We see the door ajar; two eyes peek out from the darkness. The door slowly opens and a cat scurries out onto the front porch.
Sequence #2: The cat looks around; we see the street from the cat’s POV, with kids playing in the yard next door, and a poodle barking across the street.
Sequence #3: We return to the POV of the cat as it freaks out, looks across the yard at a tree and runs helter-skelter for it.
Sequence #4: The barking poodle crosses the street and the cat, so terrified at first that it has a hard time getting up the tree, finally dashes up the trunk just as the poodle arrives at the tree’s base. We see the cat clinging to the highest branch, panting and terrified.
Sequence #5: The cat’s owner steps out onto the porch and looks around. We see the street from the owner’s POV. The owner sees the poodle at the bottom of the tree barking. He watches as a woman runs out of the house and attempts to pull the poodle away from the tree. The owner’s eyes travel up the tree until he sees his cat shivering on the highest branch. Alarmed, the cat’s owner re-enters the house, runs to the phone, and calls the fire department.
As you can see, the process of creating sequences really adds detail and richness to your story. Once you have your sequences decided and arranged, you can pick the clips you want to string together to make your sequences.
In whatever way you decide to break it down, a sequence is a way to organize an act. What I love about the creative process is this: You can give five people the same story line and the same clips, and not one of them will make the exact same film. They might all have the same act structure, but the sequences will determine the story line. One person may turn the film into a romance–cat and dog owners meet and fall in love. Another may turn it into a story about bravery, when the fire department guys show up and rescue the cat. Someone else may create a comedy about two bumbling firefighters and a very annoyed cat. And another person may see it as a story about how the cat and the poodle end up not friends, exactly, but amicable enemies.
One interesting characteristic of a sequence is that you can take something you introduced in an earlier sequence and highlight it in a later sequence. For example, let’s take the sequence in Act I, Scene I where the cat dashes up the tree. Maybe the poodle is wearing some kind of bow on its head and when it goes to attack the cat, the bow falls out. In Act III, in the final scene, after the cat has been rescued, you might have the poodle on a leash, being held back by its owner. The cat, also being held by its owner, might see the bow, leap out of its owner’s arms, prance over to it, pick it up and in a flurry rip it into shreds, then prance back to its owner. (See why I suggested imagining this as an animation!) We took an object from the first sequence and used it again later in a parallel way. Of course, this is a rather simplistic example, but we did plant the image of the bow in an opening sequence, and brought it back at the end. By doing this you give an object thematic significance.
I hope this cat-up-the-tree example has been helpful in understanding sequences. You might want to start identifying acts, scenes and sequences as you watch documentaries and narrative films. The more you understand how to use structure to your advantage, the richer in detail and content your stories will be.
In the meantime, happy filmmaking!
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