Screen Play talk

The area for animated discussion

Screen Play talk

Postby Barry » Sun Jul 12, 2009 1:19 pm

Here is a transcript from a paper that Dennis Yeo gave recently, about my film Screen Play. Please do read, it's most interesting and astute.


Studying Barry Purves’ Screen Play

and other Short Films

in the Literature Classroom

Dennis Yeo

National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University



The dialectic between image and word generates reluctance on the part of educators to use film in the Literature classroom. The power of film as a narrative medium, however, cannot be ignored. This paper argues for the use of short films as a means to challenge students’ perceptions of literary analysis, interpretation and representation. The short film, the cinematic equivalent of the short story, is brief, accessible and daring. The independent nature of its production, distribution and exhibition lends itself to a bolder, more experimental form that confronts riskier and more controversial topics and themes, which more expensive commercial studio-controlled movies cannot afford to address. The postmodern blend of film, theatre and animation in Barry Purves’ Screen Play (1992) offers opportunities for the Literature teacher to discuss devices ranging from the manipulation of dramatic props to the more complicated suggestion of narrative mise-en-abyme. The aesthetics of Japanese dramatic styles and music, like Bunraku puppetry and Noh masks, further compounds the film’s multi-layered representations of identity, culture and reality.


The first film was a short film. In 1894, Edison’s Kinetoscope was an experiment in the moving picture that allowed a single person to look into a peephole viewfinder to watch a 30-second film for the cost of a coin. By the 1910s, technological advancement had so lengthened the duration of feature films that the term “short subject” had to be coined. Although educational research has explored the pedagogical applications of feature films and literary adaptations in the classroom, there has been relatively little done on how short films can be used, particularly in the Literature classroom. While entire books are dedicated to screenplay writing and the production of short films, there is hardly any analysing short film and the influence it has on its audience despite its brevity. This paper aims to outline reasons why the short film should be recommended as a viable teaching resource and will demonstrate this with Screen Play, an animated short film by Barry Purves.


The short film is defined by its running time. As “short” is a relative term, the short film could be between 20 and 40 minutes in North America but in countries like Europe, Latin America and Australasia, refer to shorter films which are as long as one minute or as short as 15 minutes. The earliest films were, of course, short films. Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Edwin Potter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) were 14 and 10 minutes long respectively but by 1906, the first narrative feature film, Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released in Australia. It ran past an hour and had a reel length which was over 1 km long. Although the technology was available, the advent of feature films was delayed in the United States as film producers were uncertain whether the American public could last a film that was an hour long. By the 1910s, the short film had been relegated to being an opening act that preceded the screening of the longer feature film. These short subjects, whether live action or animated, were, however instrumental in launching the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Bing Crosby. As feature films gained popularity, fewer short films were produced and these were sold packaged together or block-booked with the feature film. The short film, however, continued to thrive in animated productions from Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and the Fleischer Studios who produced cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye. In 1948, block booking was made illegal and by 1955, with television, the commercial live-action short film was no longer economically viable and was no longer exhibited theatrically. Although short films in the form of newsreels, documentaries, advertisements, sitcoms and MTV continued to flourish, the narrative short film became the playground of aspiring and independent filmmakers.

The revival of short films as a cinematic genre can be attributed to recent developments in technology. The almost simultaneous invention of Windows, new media like Quick Time software and CD-ROMs and the increasing usage of the Internet in the early 1990s paved the way for today’s web cinema. Coupled with the growing affordability and accessibility of recording media and digital equipment, this emergent new media resulted in a proliferation of short films, both amateur and professional, on websites dedicated to internet cinema. Commonplace terms, like ‘streaming’, ‘upload’, ‘webcasts’ and ‘live feeds’, which we now use today did not exist more than a decade ago and ‘youtube’ was only created four years ago in 2005. The popularity of ‘viral video’ contributed significantly to the exponential production of short films that used phonecams for production, the active media sharing on the web for distribution and the multitude of cyber-platforms for exhibition. Short films also made a comeback through art house film festivals and as time fillers on television between pre-scheduled programmes. With A Bug’s Life (1998), animation studio Pixar reverted to the original practice of showing a Pixar-created short along with its theatrically-released feature. Their film shorts also became a popular bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, often featuring characters from the feature film itself. Most of the time, short films were made to test new cinematic technologies and animation techniques and were used as ‘résumé shorts’ that showcased the talents of cinematographers, animators and screenwriters. This combination of scientific experimentation and personal expression has an irresistible appeal to governments who are keen to nurture creative talent and to encourage national and cultural identity. i

This attention to the short film as an autonomous art form bodes well for its future. Unlike theatrical and television cinema, Internet cinema has a vast potential market as free broadband access becomes more extensive, mobile devices progress in quality, capability and interactivity and end users get used to watching film on increasingly smaller screens. For the consumer, the nature of the short film clip allows it to be quickly downloaded, displayed and deleted which suits the transitory, immediate demands of the modern lifestyle. For the producer, the ease of digital recording and editing and the shift to digital projection in cinema multiplexes suggest that the short film may be more widely available.


In an article entitled “Short Films Revisited” in 1984, David Burmester while recommending a list of over 150 short films for use in the classroom, states that “a very short film may be used as stimulus for a ten-minute writing at the beginning of the period or as punctuation at the end of a literature lesson”(67). Film was typically a visual aid that was employed to convey content, reward the student or relief the teacher and was “still largely used to illustrate rather than instruct” (Schulte 176). At about the same time, Robert Scholes, in his book Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (1985), had proposed that “we must stop ‘teaching literature’ and start ‘studying texts’. All kinds of texts visual as well as verbal, polemical as well as seductive, must be taken as the occasions for further textuality. And textual studies must be pushed beyond the discrete boundaries of the page and the book into the institutional practices and social structures that can themselves be usefully studied as codes and texts” (16-17). Two decades later, in the light of contemporary 21st skills and literacies, this call has not lost its relevance. Glynda A Hull, for instance, has questioned what it means to be fully literate when we are confronted by multiple non-linguistic forms of representation in a multi-media multi-modal world in which life is increasingly mediated by popular visual culture.

What are the implications of this shift in the Literature classroom?

By using popular culture as the basis of school knowledge, students enjoy connecting and transferring relevant media literacy skills of engagement, analysis and discussion to the rigour of reading literature. Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade believes that students “want a classroom culture that reflects an expanded definition of literacy” that is transferable to their daily lives and that their reluctance to learn signals “not that they want less time in classrooms, rather they want classrooms that are more worth spending time in”. Schools need to develop a more “culturally relevant curriculum” and use youth popular culture as a bridge to traditional literacy skills. Recent research has shown that “by understanding what influences students, teachers could make use of popular culture to facilitate teaching” (Cheung 59) and “films were seen as more accessible than literary texts and could be used as an attractive ‘way into’ a theme, and as a stimulus for discussion” (Freedman 195). Besides taking students on an excursion into other worlds, film transports them emotionally and involves them vicariously. “This engagement is consistently more intense, more complete with film that with other art” (Grant 1995: 114). As early as 1918, the Chicago Motion Picture Commission had recognized that film was “the most powerful force in education, and in swaying the mind of the public, greater in the minds of many than the home, the school or the church” (Haberski 39). Today, “film is our most popular ‘popular’ culture ... but the wise educator does not ignore the popularity of film and instead learns how to use it” (Vetrie 40). Walter Benjamin saw film as having an “epistemological impact” that would enrich the field of human perception and deepen critical consciousness of reality (Stam 65). Film has irreversibly transformed the nature of narrative, realism, representation and, consequently, our appreciation of literature, personally and collectively. Michael Vetrie insists that the “purpose in bringing film into the classroom is to utilise it as literature” (44). By teaching film as literature and using visual texts as supplementary texts that run parallel with the literature syllabus, the teacher can quickly expose students to various expressions of the genre that can provide scaffolding for students to acquaint themselves with literary concepts and conceptualise their own meaning. Film as an educational tool also levels the educational playing field in terms of linguistic proficiency, intellectual agility and textual interpretation. Students already unconsciously possess a knowledge of film that will assist them in their reading. The inherent interest and appeal of film also ensures their engagement. Incorporating film into the literature curriculum taps into the rich existing filmic schema of thousands of hours of experience that students possess watching television, videos and film. Although much is made of the dialectic between the language of the image and the word, the conflict applies largely to literary adaptations rather than visual texts that do not attempt to replicate the word. An uneasy marriage between literature and film needs to be forged to recognize the inter-textual potential, interdisciplinary cross-influence and aesthetic vivacity of these complementary artistic mediums and cultures. In this way, “film can help the teacher achieve a balance between learning and entertainment, between passive enjoyment and active intellectual involvement” (Nadar 155).

The short film is to the feature film what the short story is to the novel. In this context, the short film refers to a narrative short film, rather than one that is aesthetically experimental or abstract. It is also distinguishable from other genres like sponsored commercials, amateur home videos or documentary clips. The narrative short film may be a live action film or animated, but like the short story, it must possess the elements of setting, plot, character, conflict, theme and imagery. The foremost reason for using short films is precisely because they are short. Given the constraints of class time, “seeing a complete narrative and having adequate time to fully review, ‘break it down’, and discuss it during one or two class meetings has obvious advantages” (Mascuch 118). The short film allows students to watch the entire work, rather than fragments or excerpts from a full-length feature film and still have sufficient time for analysis and discussion. It may not be educationally economical or justifiable to commit two hours of curriculum time to a movie, leaving little time, if any, for in-depth examination which will be restricted to a few scenes or partial overviews. In contrast, the focus of the short film results in a predominant theme explored with a less convoluted more linear narrative with a limited range of characters. Besides doing justice to the work of its creators, watching the short film in its entirety provides a more holistic view of the work and often bears repeated viewing, an activity only afforded by the short film. Moreover, the controlled length of a short film ensures the director’s careful selection and pacing of material resulting in high interest and attention levels in the classroom. Like the short story, the short film often progresses quickly and attracts the viewer within the short window of attention that our students may give to find out if an activity is worth their interest and consideration.

A more compelling reason why short films make excellent educational material is because of their innovative plotlines, complex themes and diverse styles. Although there is a reasonable investment of money, energy and time, producers of short films do not run the financial risk of a poor box office response. Short films are usually cheaper, easier to make and do not take long to produce allowing these independent film-makers to express their personal, and often novel, perspectives, which longer, more commercial films may not be the platform for. As they are not bound by the contracts and constraints of the system, the short film veers away from the stereotypes and clichés of genre and audience expectations and can do away with the typical happy ending of Classical Hollywood Cinema. By concluding with a more open and ambiguous ending, short films generate more conversation and dialogue, especially when they are more idiosyncratic and daring in their exploration and confrontation of difficult, controversial and taboo issues. In contrast, Hollywood’s “mania for movie stars and big profits has resulted in the market being choked with identikit films that leave the viewer seriously undernourished” (Hardwick ??). As it plays to a select audience, creativity and experimentation are key features of the short film. Another reason for this plethora of styles is that short films originate from different countries, nationalities and cultures, demonstrating what Matthew Jones has terms the ‘democratisation of filmmaking’. “Educators must expand multicultural education to include a broader definition of culture” (Duncan-Andrade 331). This multiculturalism provides a more global perspective as it exposes students to different contexts, languages and voices and ensures that their diet of film goes beyond the latest blockbuster.ii Moreover, as the cast members for foreign live action short films are probably unknown to the students, the acting comes across as more realistic and spontaneous.

Because of the never-ending supply of short films that is available, however, it can be difficult to identify films that are suitable for the classroom. Unlike feature films that are usually accompanied with a synopsis, censorship rating and movie reviews, the short film is usually described with one-liner notes on the DVD sleeve. Nonetheless, it could take just a few minutes for a teacher to decide if a short film is appropriate for her classroom. Firstly, most short films are made for an adult audience and may contain sexual scenes, acts of violence or coarse language. The myriad of animation visual styles will appeal aesthetically to different student age groups. Often, short films rely on images, action and music to convey feelings and there is less reliance on diegetic sound. Younger students may find a single narrative voiceover monotonous while other students may feel that the emphasis on the script rather than on special effects trite. When there is dialogue, it tends to be natural, colloquial and authentic and so the lingo and accents of the country of origin may be too thick for viewers from other nationalities to comprehend. Suffice to say, students have been conditioned to expect certain qualities in film which the short film may not deliver. To assure some standard and quality, it may be best to start off with short films that have been nominated for an award or featured at notable film festivals. Most short films, however, are just done for fun or for entertainment and may not fulfil any educational objective besides providing some distraction or occupation.

Most importantly, the short film selected for the Literature classroom should, as far as possible, feature how narrative codes work in the interface between text and image.iii Gallagher notes a growing reciprocity between film and modern literature. He observes that “film devices like jump cuts, lap dissolves, fades and track-ins are part of contemporary ‘signifying practices’ and are regularly approximated in much contemporary literature, particularly fiction … in a sense, it is not possible to know and teach a sizeable portion of contemporary literature without appreciating some basic things about film”(Gallagher 59). Just as cinema has influenced prose fiction to convey images by means of words, readers use cinematic vocabulary to visualise what they read. The selected short film should thus ideally be a narrative construct that is relevant, intricate, multi-layered yet accessible. It should correct the perception that watching movies is passive and requires less effort than reading. Besides engaging students by tapping into their schema, it should bear repeated viewing and entice students to work hard at unpacking and uncovering new meanings. “The ‘movie’ experience itself, like Louie Rosenblatt’s ‘poem’ (1978), might then be described as the result of a viewer’s active construction of a film text” (Fehlman 39). In so doing, the teacher can exploit the transference potential of the short film fully to enhance the teaching of Literature.


Barry Purves’s career began in stage management, directing and designing productions around the United Kingdom. Since 1986, he has directed and animated over 70 commercials, title sequences and animation inserts for films like Mars Attacks, King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. His six short films have won him over 60 major international awards and he has held animation workshops across Europe and North America including presentations at Dreamworks and Pixar. Screen Play (1992) has won accolades from film festivals in San Francisco, Ottawa, Shanghai, Ankara, Brussels, Cleveland, Krakow, Chicago and Hiroshima. It was also nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 65th Academy Award in 1993. It is a stop motion animated short film that uses puppets to tell the story of Takako and Naoki. Forced to marry a samurai, Takako leaves her father Eishiro and elopes with Naoki the gardener to tragic consequences. The first nine minutes of the eleven-minute film is a long take with the camera remaining stationary in order to give the viewer the impression that he is watching a play. This first section ends with the union of the lovers but as the narrator ends his story, the film takes a turn as the samurai appears, slays the narrator and kills Naoki. Takako commits suicide and the film ends with the camera drawing back and self-reflexively flaunting the craft of the film. Calling Screen Play his “most complicated film” (Purves 311), Purves combines Japanese theatre, sign language, mime and film into a hybrid bricolage that interrogates our concepts of representation and narrative.

Screen Play begins with the drawing of curtains to reveal a theatre stage. The short film is intend on “making the whole thing look as if it could happen on a stage, but then pushing it considerably further” (Purves 113). As the story is set in Japan, Purves appropriates elements of Japanese theatre to give the story a sense of authenticity. As Purves is himself using puppets, he borrows heavily from Bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet theatre in which puppets, which are as tall as four feet, are manipulated by as many as three puppeteers. Unlike other forms of puppetry where the puppeteers remain hidden, Kurago puppeteers appear on stage in full view of the audience, clad completely in black, sometimes with hoods over their heads. They are supposedly “invisible to the audience, whose eyes only watch the puppets” (Purves 251). When Takako and Naoki are first introduced in the film, two black figures appear to operate them with rods as they would puppets. Besides acting as prop masters and backstage (or frontstage) crew, the Kurago in Screen Play also play roles in the story as Eishiro’s bodyguards and the narrator’s assistants. The story is narrated by a Tayu, or Recitor. Also known as a Chanter, the Recitor is akin to the Katsudo-Benshi who provided live narration for both Japanese and Western silent films during the period of early cinema. Because we assume that this is a play, we are hardly cognisant that the Recitor is breaking the film’s fourth wall by addressing the audience directly. In Screen Play, the Recitor employs masks to switch roles to transform into Eishiro or Takako’s maid. The use of masks is traditionally associated with Japanese Noh theatre but the speed at which the Recitor changes masks, often with just a flick of his fan, is similar to the bian lian of Sichuan opera. This ‘face-changing’ tradition dates back 300 years to the reign of Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) and it is a secret art that is passed down from one generation to the next. In general, the Recitor narrates the story from the side of the screen just as he would in a Japanese Bunraku play, but as he takes on the characters within the play, he steps onto a revolving stage demarcating that space as where the action of the play takes place. This revolving stage, or Mawari-butai, is, however, not from the Bunraku tradition but is from Kabuki theatre. The invention of the revolving stage is attributed to a Kyogen-sakusha, a Kabuki playwright, named Namiki Shoza in 1758 over 300 years ago, who cut a circular platform into the stage floor and put it on wheels. Together with the seri trapdoor of the Kabuki stage, the Mawari-butai was designed for quick scene changes in full view of the audience yet without causing any distraction to the audience. At times, these transitions are performed simultaneously for dramatic effect. The set changes and the exits and entrances of characters in Screen Play are enhanced by the creative use of Japanese Shoji screens which glide across the stage to reveal characters or rotate to reveal new stage spaces. These transformations of masks, sets and characters take on a magical quality as they appear and disappear on stage while all this is happening before the audience. This elaborately staged performance would be impossible to replicate in real-life and is only made possible by the absolute control that animation allows.

Screen Play is not as concerned with the story as it is with how the story is being told. The opening line of the narration draws attention to the act of story-telling: “This story is important; pay attention whilst I show you young hearts in love, young heart in pain”. By beginning at the end, the Recitor appears to reveal the happy ending we are to expect. The pleasure of Screen Play thus comes not from its narrative but from its narration. Purves explains that the film is “using many means to tell a story” (Purves 113) and that it “was developed wanting to include all manner of different visual languages” (Purves 112). As there is no dialogue, the puppets use kinetics like gestures and body language to mime what is being said by the Recitor. As a film, this is reminiscent of silent cinema and its reliance on physical acting and visual choreography. As he speaks, the Recitor also gesticulates with his hands in British Sign Language almost as if the audience is deaf. Purves’ preoccupation with using different forms of visual communication to convey narrative extends the stagecraft of drama and the discourse of Japanese theatre. The complete direction he possesses over his mise en scène allows him to manipulate his props and devices to this end. For example, his imagery of the birds goes beyond the cliché of flight and freedom. Besides featuring in the Willow Pattern story from which Screen Play is adapted, “the two birds are forever commenting on and paralleling the central relationship, hinting at the transformation to come” (Purves 47). In her dream sequence, Takako and Naoki mimic the birds in flight in a comforting blue palette before it suddenly turns into a red nightmare of blood and violence. Noting that the artificiality of stop motion animation allows the exploitation of colour, Purves deliberately plots “the colours to say something about the characters, the narrative, the emotions, the mood and the geography” (Purves 180).iv For instance, the simple opening and closing of an umbrella reveals different shades of the moon signalling the passing of time. Likewise, Purves uses the pathetic fallacy to mirror the seasons of the lovers’ relationships. Their love blossoms in the summer, the falling leaves of autumn signal their separation, their elopement occurs in winter and they rediscover their love in spring. The bright colours of the rainbow fans signify the culmination of hope and love as the story end. The fusion of aesthetics and semiotics thus combine n the construction of meaning.

As the mimesis of theatre imitates life, the play itself is a representation of life. This notion is compounded with Screen Play as the highly stylised universe of animation is literally a construct of reality where the players are puppets who simulate live action when they are animated. Verisimilitude is further tested when characters are merely represented by iconic pictures on screens. The first screen that slides by has an image of a Japanese scholar holding a scroll of text. Prior to the performance of Bunraku, the Recitor has to hold up the text and bow before it as a vow to the audience to follow it faithfully. The puppet of the Recitor enters the stage from behind the screen of his image donning the same dark blue costume. “As a painted screen slides by, the same character is revealed, as if stepping off a screen, a story coming to life, being animated”(Purves 113). This happens when Takako and Naoki are first introduced as well. The screens with their images part to reveal the lovers as puppets being manipulated by the Kurago. In a reversal of this, the three-dimensional boat which Takako and Naoki are sailing away on becomes an image that sails to the distant island. The puppets also interact with these two-dimensional pictures. Takako, for instance, gazes at an image of Naoki as he tends the garden and Eishiro bows down before the imposing samurai on the screen. Besides representing setting, the screens not only demarcate stage space but also create the illusion of space that can be penetrated. When Takako first visits Naoki, three screens are used in quick succession to depict the distance she walks. The first is furthest from the audience and shows a path while the next two shows Naoki’s hut coming closer before the screen rotates to show that we have moved from the external perspective to the interior of the house. This is repeated when Takako’s maid discovers her missing. From Takako’s room, she points to Naoki’s house in the distance before she reaches it and discovers the couple’s secret. A rotating screen with different scenery is also later used to depict Eishiro and his guards chasing the couple through the snow and woods. Although the idea of changing props and scenes is a theatrical conventional, watching a 3-dimensional play on a two-dimensional film requires Purves to ensure that a longer depth of field will create an element of perspective for the flat screen.

This simulation of reality is radically altered when Screen Play shifts from the language of theatre to the medium of film. The samurai symbolically tears the Shoji image of himself and the camera leaves its previously fixed position for a close-up of the samurai’s mask and a perspective shot as we see the Recitor look over his shoulder. The impression is that this sequence is more real than the play. The decapitation of the Recitor suggests that this part of the plot lies outside the narration and begs the question who is telling the story. Without the Recitor, there is no voiceover and the rest of the film deludes the audience that it continues without any narrative volition. The order and structure provided by the Recitor has turned into chaos represented by the canted frame of the camera. Takako and Naoki are destroyed by the fires of their passion but are immortalised as birds, as related in the Willow Pattern story.v The final shot links the world of animation and live action and suggests a mise-en-abyme that includes the audience. The camera pulls away from the circle of the Willow Pattern, which is itself a representation of the entire story, to reveal the puppets and props at the wings of the stage and then the camera that was supposedly used to shoot the film. This image then becomes part of a storyboard which self-reflexively has “Bare Board”, the production company, written on it and beside the book a newspaper clipping with a picture representation of Barry Purves himself. As a hand shuts the book, the film ends with the image of the film itself running through the gate. In this one move, the camera transverses a heterotopia of realities, revealing films to be “opaque constructions of various realities, complex systems of codes and conventions, signifiers and signified, formulae and genres” (Fehlman 39).


The postmodern blend of film, theatre and animation in Screen Play offers opportunities for the Literature teacher to discuss devices ranging from the manipulation of dramatic props to the more complicated use of narrative mise-en-abyme. The aesthetics of Japanese dramatic styles, like Bunraku puppetry and Noh masks, further compounds the film’s multi-layered representations of identity, culture and reality. “That Screen Play is seen as successful still surprises me ... that people are moved by it and watch it frequently, and that it is studied in colleges, is a constant source of unexpected pleasure” (Purves 271). Personally, I am surprised it is not used more

Pre-viewing activity

The class was divided into six groups and each group was given a different task due to the constraints of time. The groups were asked not to divulge their instructions to the other groups. Five of the groups were given the transcribed script of Screen Play (see Appendix A). The rationale for providing the script was to emphasise narrative techniques rather than the narrative itself. The aim of the pre-viewing activity was to explore the various ways in which the script could be presented. The five tasks are as follows: (a) Individually modernise and modify to present-day setting (b) transpose the script into pictorial form as it would be in a comic or graphic novel (c) Select a scene, create some dialogue between the characters and dramatise it (d) Mime the story as it is being read by the narrator (e) create a storyboard to film a particular scene. For the last activity, examples of storyboards need to be provided. No dialogue needs to be written as the focus is on camera movement and style, for instance, in the scene when Takako steals out of her room to meet Naoki. The last group is only provided with the first part of the script and is asked to continue the story. In this way, they are asked to make predictions and meaning by deciding how the story is going to end. Before viewing the short film, the groups make their presentations and emphasis is placed on the methods and their effects. By the time they watch the short, the class is familiar with the narrative and alert to the various ways the narrative can be conveyed.

First Viewing

The class watches Screen Play but the film is halted at the point where the script ends, that is, when the narrator removes his mask and before the samurai appears. The class discussion begins by drawing attention to the ambiguity of the title Screen Play as it is a play depicted onscreen based on a screenplay that relies on the play of screens in its performance. In particular, three aspects of Screen Play need to be clarified: who the narrator is, the role of the black figures and the dream sequences. Attention is also paid to the visual imagery of colour, the metaphor of the birds and the impact of stage positions particularly in the scenes when Takako and Naoki are separated by a barrier. Depending on their cultural schema, students may be able to detect the dramatic styles of Japanese theatre. If not, background information may need to be provided. It is also worthwhile discussing the emotional response of the audience towards the sex and violence in the film. Invariably, there is an audible gasp when Naoki is speared in the dream sequence and an equally strong expression of surprise when Takako and Naoki disrobe. Some students feel discomfort and embarrassment at the nudity in the sex scenes. This is a testimony to the ability of theatre to create an illusion of realism as the students point out that they are empathising for characters who are being played by puppets. Purves notes that when “these lifeless bits of wood, brass and silicone suddenly connect with each other, not only have we appeared to give them life, but they are responding to each other” (Purves 226). Students who express that the sex scenes run contrary to their perception of the conservatism of Asian culture are unwittingly revealing their own situatedness within a particular culture and its values and beliefs and their understanding that this too is merely a representation of Japanese culture.

Second Viewing

Although the viewer is “being told where to look by lighting, staging, design and the movement of the revolving stage” (Purves 271), students often find too many things happening onscreen to focus on. Still, students are quite content not to watch the short film again as it is not common practice to re-watch film or to stop to think about how the media conveys the message. It is explained that just as we need to re-read texts in order to make a closer analysis of them, a single viewing is not exhaustive. This time, the six groups are instructed to focus only on specific aspects of the film (a) the narrator and his masks (b) the role of the Kurago (c) what pictures are on the screens and how the screens are used (d) the functions of the umbrellas and fans (e) how the revolving stage adjusts our perspective and lastly(f) the stagecraft of the play, in terms of mise en scène. The film is played again from start to finish for the second viewing. Invariably, the final sequence elicits a visceral response from the students. The love story turns into a horror movie as the samurai decapitates the Recitor, kills Naoki and threatens to sexually assault Takako. Students express genuine concern for her safety as the camera tracks to reveal the samurai behind her and experience a sense of loss at her suicide. More importantly, the epilogue evokes a lively discussion. If the narrator dies, who is telling the story? Why did we feel that this segment was more ‘real’ than the first nine minutes? What does the final disclosure of artifice and authorship imply? Students are quick to notice the mobility of the camera and the use of cinematic grammar like close-ups and camera angles. The different representations of blood, the red ribbons in the dream scene compared to the splattering and flowing in the conclusion, are often mentioned. The tearing of the screen by the samurai and the breaking of the screen when Naoki dies is also perceived to be symbolic of this revelation of reality. Since the Recitor has been killed, the students notice the reliance on music and silence in the absence of the voiceover. Likewise, they realise why the transcribed script ends where it does and that the narrator’s mistaken view that the lovers’ story ends in happiness is because he is killed immediately after he finishes the story. The complaint that the final sequence spoils the ending is countered by the question of audience expectations and how there is perhaps a happy ending after all in the immortalisation of the lovers.

Post-Viewing Activity

Screen Play unsurprisingly warrants numerous re-watching. With digital technology, film has become so user-friendly that freeze frames, slow motion and quick searches for particular scenes can be easily controlled. “Film can provide the scaffolding upon which students can begin to form an understanding of the writing process” (Sargent 68). Writing the story in first-person through the eyes of one of the characters will help students see the same event from varying perspectives and understand individual motivations. Alternatively, they could invent scenes or characters that are not in the film. The inter-textual and intercultural nature of the story invites a comparison between Screen Play and the original Willow Pattern story or a transposition of a text they are studying into a different cultural setting. The film could ignite interest in researching Japanese drama and watching theatrical performances from different cultures on the Internet. The teacher could go as far as screening Kurosawa’s The Throne of Blood to illustrate how Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been adapted and represented in a different culture. Lastly, writing an email to the director to share how your class has appreciated his work will bring the lesson full circle and surely make his day. Hopefully, studying Screen Play will encourage teachers to introduce the next short film in the Literature classroom. vii


The medium of film is only a century old. Bringing film into the Literature class develops skills in students as readers who learn to analyse the ideas, point-of-view, realities and levels of meaning within a text. “Rather than threatening the demise of the literature class, (film) invites language and literature teachers to rethink the role of print within a visual culture, as well as to reconsider their own role as the developers of critical approaches to technological literacy” (Moi ??). It is certain that film, whether factual or fictional, on DVD or downloaded on a computer, whether long or short, is now an intrinsic pedagogical feature of the modern classroom. Dan Sargent submits that “if we simply dismiss film as an enemy of learning, we lose one of our most intimate and effective tools for learning. Besides, it’s deliciously satisfying to turn ‘the tools of the enemy’ to our service ... what’s more important is that [students] already like film, and without the resistance mechanisms in place” (Sargent 68). Furthermore it makes them more aware of the insidious influence of media in their lives. The 1991 Report on Trend and Issue states that “inclusion of the study of media certainly should no longer be optional in our schools. We must send the students the message that critical thinking extends beyond print” (qtd. In Vetrie 42). Screening a short film in your literature classroom is the necessary first step.

i The Animated Short Film Initiative in Singapore is providing a grant of $40 000 for 2D, 3D, Flash or Claymation animated short films. The Singapore Film Commission also offers a Short Film Grant of up to $10 000 “to help develop budding local filmmaking talents by facilitating them to work on a short film project, so that they may experiment with the film genre”.

ii Outside of the Foreign Language Film Award at the Academy Awards, the Animated Short Film and Live Action Short Film are two of the few categories where foreign films are invited.

iii Stempleski and Tomalin list six factors to be considered in the selection of video material: interest, length, language level, flexibility, language items to be taught and lexis.

iv The costume of the Recitor was designed to be dark blue so that his white hands could be seen.

v Bunraku is particularly noted for lovers' suicide plays. Although her death resembles seppuku or harakiri as a sword is used, this form of suicide is reserved for samurais. Takako’s method of suicide more closely resembles Shinjū which means "double suicide" in Japanese and featured in the puppet theatre repertory of Bunraku.

vi The lesson plan is prepared for high school students.

It is outside the purview of this article to discuss the production of short films within the Literature classroom. Please refer to Gregory Shafer and Rebecca Bell-Metereau.


Beliver, Catherine G. “Literature and Visual Aids: Textual, Contextual and Intertextual Applications”. Hispania 72:4 (Dec 1989) 1078-1082.

Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. “How to use Video in Large Film Classes (Read No Further if Your Students are all Future Godards or Professors of Film)”. Cinema Journal 38:4 (Summer 1999), 102- 108.

Bickley, Pamela. “Teaching Gothic Literature”. The Use of English 49:2 (1998), 119- 126.

Burmester, David. “Short Films Revisited”. The English Journal. 73:1(Jan 1984), 66-72.

Cheung, Chi-Kim. “The Use of Popular Culture as a Stimulus to Motivate Secondary Students’ English Learning in Hong Kong”.ELT Journal 55:1 (January 2001), 55-61.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey M. R. “Your Best Friend of Your Worst Enemy: Youth Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Curriculum in Urban Classrooms”. The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies. 26: 313-337 (2004).

Fehlman, Richard H. “Teaching Film in the 1990s”. The English Journal 83:1 (Jan 1994), 39-46,

Freedman, Andy. “Teaching the Text: English and Media Studies” in Budangham, David (ed). Watching Media Learning: Making Sure of Media Education. Falmer Press. 1990

Gainer, Glenn. “Silent Movies: A New Approach to using Video at Low Levels”. MET 14:1 (Jan 2005).

Gallagher, Brian. “Film Study and the Teaching of English: Technology and the Future of Pedagogy” The English Journal 77:7 (Nov 1988), 58=61.

Hardwick, John. “How is a Short Film like a Poem?” Literature Matters (2002?)

Hull, Glynda A. “Youth Culture and Digital Media: New Literacies for New Times”. Research in the Teaching of English 38:2 (Nov 2003)

Livingstone, Sonia. “The Changing nature and Uses of Media Literacy”.

Lowe, Mark. “Films in English Language Teaching.” MET 17:1 (Jan 2008)

Mascuch, Peter. “Cinema in the English Department Introductory Course, or, How to Make Film as ‘Element of Literature’. Cinema Journal 41:1 (Fall 2001) 117- 121.

Mol, Claudia Ferradas. “Reading Screens in the Classroom”. Literature Matters 32? Winter 2002? 2002

Nadar, Thomas A. “Teaching Literature, Cultural History and Language with Film: Some Reflections and Suggestions”. Teaching German 22:2 (Autumn 1989), 153-157.

Ruppert, Peter. “Applying Reader-Response Analysis in Literature and Film Classes”. Teaching German 14:1 (Spring 1981), 20-26.

Sargent, Dan. “Not how you are used to thinking: Reaching for Poetry through Film” . Interdisciplinary Humanities.

Scholes, Robert.

Schulte, Gerhard. “Murder in the Classroom: An Audiovisual Alternative for Intermediate Level Language Instruction”. Teaching German 24:2 (Autumn 1991), 176-182.

Shafer, Gregory. “Prime Time Literature in the High School” The English Journal 90:2 (Nov 2000), 93-96.

Vetrie, Michael. “Using Film to Increase Literacy Skills”. The English Journal 93:3 (Jan 2004), 39-45.

Wicks, Ulrich. “Studying Film as Integrated Text”. Rhetoric Review 2:1 (Sep 1983) 51-62.



Brit Films.

Movieola – The Short Film Channel.

Short Film Central – The International Short Film Database.

Future Shorts – Adventures in Short Film.

Journal of Short Film.

The Smalls.

Short Films –

TEFL Clips.

Welcome to 4mations.



Bara Prata Lite (Talk/Parlez-Moi). Lukas Moodysson.Film i Vast. Sweden. 14 min. 1997. A lonely man needs a conversation. (Live Action)

Birthday Boy. Sejong Park & Andrew Gregory. Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Australia. 10 min. 2004. A boy’s game becomes a subtle comment on war.(Animation)

Black Button. Lucas Crandles. Dark Heart Productions. Australia. 7 min. 2007.A debate between death and death. (Live Action)

Dans La Tete (In the head). Gregory Damour, Maxime Entringer, Anthony Gilles & Alan Sellier, ESMA, 2008. A newly-enlisted soldier die in battle but has to ensure that he does not lost his head in order to get to heaven.(Animation)

Der Peruckenmacher (The Periwig-Maker). Steffen Schäffler & Annette Schäffler. Ideal Standard Film. Germany. 15 min. 1999. Finding empathy for the dead during the Plague Years. (Animation)

Fait d'Hiver (Gridlock). Dirk Belien. Another Dimension of an Idea. Belgium. 7 min. 2001. Calling home when you are in a traffic jam may not be such a good idea. (Live Action – contains nudity)

Fifty Percent Grey. Ruairi Robinson and Seamus Byrne. Zanita Films. Ireland. 3 min. 2001. A choice between Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. (Animation)

J’attendrai le suivant (I’ll Wait for the Next One). Philippe Orreindy. La Boite. France. 4 min. 2002. A man looks for love on a Subway Train. (Live Action)

La Place Du Mort. Yann Aldabe et al. Sup’Infograph, 2008. A newly-married couple are involved in an accident turning love into revenge with dire consequences. (Animation)

L’Autoroute. Ramos Maxime, Sigu Cyrielle & Vitrolly Camille, Ecole Superieure Des Metiers Artistique (ESMA), 2006. A tired driver makes a stop at a petrol station to find himself in a dreamscape. (Animation)

Strangers. Erez Tadmor & Guy Nativ. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Israel. 7 min. 2003. A study in racism on a subway ride home. (Live Action)

The End. Maxime Leduc, Michel Samreth & Martin Ruyant, Supinfocom CCI Valenciennes , 2005. A scarecrow has to pay for his crime of befriending a crow. (Animation)

The Secret Heaven. Sun Koh. Singapore. 16 min. 2002. A girl who hates piano lessons might find a way to escape them. (Live Action)

The Village. Mark Baker. Pizazz Pictures. United Kingdom. 14 min. 1993.
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