Jul 30, 2010

Article: The Vicarious Sequence

Jul 30, 2010
Movies are opportunities to experience the impossible.

If I write a script where characters can control the elements (ahem), then I need to empower the viewer to feel what that would be like. I owe it to each and every one of them to have a sequence that is purely about the wonder and magnitude of it, to suspend the impossibility of it and make it utterly real.

Often it's these sequences that become the most treasured, especially in the hearts of younger viewers. Why? Because we want to be them. We want to feel the fantastical as tangible, and if you believe that then giving the viewer something to experience has the potential to be everything.

The Vicarious Sequence
Or "Why Can't I Ride A Dragon?"

Vicarious Sequences are sequences deliberately designed to be these pure experiences of an emotion, exploring a key element of your universe that exists outside of the boundaries of the normal world. It could generate excitement, wonder, joy, sadness, horror, just about anything. Here are a couple of great examples of more obvious Vicarious Sequences.

The "Test Drive" Sequence (How To Train Your Dragon)

I freaking love this scene. It, better than anything I've ever seen, captures that feeling of blissful flight we've all dreamed about more than a few times. In this sequence we are Hiccup, and Toothless is our dragon, and it's awesome. It also taps into that primal longing, that at least us guys have, to tame and share a special, near-psychic connection with wild beast. That's two seriously powerful things it has going for it.

But it's more than that. If that's all it took to create such a sequence we'd have a million of them by now. So what is it? Well, here's my guess; It's also a 'HOW TO' sequence.

If dragons did exist and they could be flown... how would you do it? This sequence is full of fleeting details that ground the whole thing in a reality that makes that feeling of joy all the more potent. He had to design the saddle, he had to work out he needed the tether... he had to learn it's fatal flaw.

It was these details that took the sequences from us watching some kid flying around on a dragon to being that kid. It was real to the viewer.

The Dojo Fight (The Matrix)

The above shot, an improvised moment on set, sums up this sequence flawlessly. He was an ordinary nerd trapped in an ordinary life with nothing going for him. Now he knows kung fu... instantly. Awesome.

This is how the viewer feels as Neo; Smug, sure and on top of the world. He just got what every little boy would kill for and he's ready to kick some ass. But even better than that is, believe it or not, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar.

Not only did Neo just get mad kung fu skills, but he's got an audience primed to see if he's The One. This taps into the viewer's desire for fame and recognition, and very powerful desire to draw from. That, and the fight scene was really well choreographed. Without that, none of it would have worked. But because of that, it worked so much better as a Vicarious Sequence.


I chose these sequences because they embody the most commonly used emotions; excitement and joy. If you wish to see an example of how to utterly fail at this sort of Vicarious Sequence, give Astroboy a rent (actually, that film is worth seeing for finding a way to fail at just about everything).

Inception is another really good example of giving the viewer a unique experience. When Ariadne (Ellen Page's character) first enters a dream consciously (paradox?) she immediately starts flexing her metaphysical muscles and changing the world. Come on, wouldn't you?

Yes, you would. Don't lie.

These sequences have the potential to be the most impactful, the most powerful, the ones that can stay with a younger viewer the rest of his or her days. When you get so caught up in the rules and the structure of storytelling... it's the Vicarious Sequences that can be the most easily forgotten.

What are your most loved Vicarious Sequences?


  1. Racked my brain trying to think of something, there must be about a billion of them, but the only one that comes to mind at the moment: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The scene where he outruns the dragon and then flies back to the stadium on his smoking, flailing broom to thunderous applause created a great sense of shared achievement and reward for me.

    Possibly not the best example, but it does stand out in my mind as something that struck a particular chord.

  2. That was a good one. One of the best examples I can think of is in Spiderman, when he's first trying out his powers, and working out how to shoot web and climb walls.

    If a movie about someone gaining web shooting and wall climbing abilities doesn't have a scene like that in it, then it's running the risk of seriously missing the mark.

  3. ive thrying to think of something for three days. maybe i just dont get it

  4. Best example I can think of is the movie Kick-ass, almost every thought that Dave has in that movie I could relate to.

  5. Buckbeak's Flight from some Harry Potter movie I forget the name of , but John Williams wrote the theme.


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