The Environment as a Character


by Diana Black

Disney animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Bambi were among the breakthroughs in early animation – using a multi-plane camera that required several individual layers of hand-inked/painted backdrops to be moved past the camera at varying depths and speed to produce a three-dimensional effect. Thousands of hours requiring painstaking attention to detail went into producing the beautiful imagery that would later surround and interact with the characters. Maurice Day – one of Disney’s most celebrated animation artists, would spend weeks in the forest just to get the right ‘feel’ for the ‘on-screen’ environment he wanted to create. As children we recoiled in fear of the twisted, nightmarish trees tearing at Snow White or the fire consuming Bambi’s forest home. The notion of ‘environment as character’ will be revisited in another Disney film, Into the Woods but malevolent forests are not the only environments capable of threatening the protagonist. The vacuum called ‘space’, a mere 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth’s surface is terrifyingly lethal, as seen in awesome films like Gravity and Interstellar.

Are the environments created for TV land perceived just as viscerally? As emerging television writers creating the ‘Bible’ for our episodic masterpiece, it’s a given that our heroes and villains be immersed in a high-stakes situation but thinking back to that latest project, did the environment actively support or hinder the characters in their momentous struggle? Was [it] simply ‘there’ with the decision left up to the Director as to how much it informed the narrative and the impact it would have (or not) on the characters?

Perhaps clarification of what is meant by the term ‘environment’ is needed here. In addition to the aforementioned physical variety, there’s the gritty, urban jungles prominent within crime dramas – Sons of Anarchy and True Detective; the squalor of a post-apocalyptic world – The Walking Dead and then there’s the ‘environment of the mind’ – the psychological state of being; for example, when our protagonist ‘goes over to the dark side’ – Breaking Bad. What about a suppressive environment such as portrayed within Orange is the New Black? Here a further distinction is possible – the claustrophobic, brick-n-mortar jail cell working in collaboration with the penal system to grind the psyche of the inmates to pulp.

A character is perhaps best defined when they’re involuntarily thrust into a hostile, unforgiving environment to which they are seriously ill-suited. The characters are on a one-way journey into the ‘dark woods’ and to get to temporary safety on the other side they’re going to have to fight every step of the way; gaining friends, making enemies, finding and losing love, themselves and significant others. We as writer’s equip them with only a small ‘kit-bag’ – humanity, courage, a desire to win and their unique gifts or ‘issues’ and then we set them on their way. As the creator of their world, we cut them no slack and put them through hell; the viewer demands it. Regardless of whether it is television or cinema; we humans love to watch the character suffer while overcoming the odds.

Observing high drama and experiencing it by proxy is a primeval survival lesson; we learn from the character’s choices at no personal cost to ourselves. Upping the stakes by having the environment interact with the character favorably (or not), allows us to explore those ‘choices’ under extreme environmental conditions, whatever form that environment happens to take. It will deliciously bring to the fore the very best or worst in them; again at no personal cost to ourselves.

In Arrow, Oliver Queen (Stephen Arnell) is abandoned and left to die on a malevolent island, the memory of which haunts him long after being rescued. However, the experience serves to mold him into a formidable killing machine; now capable of eliminating the bad guys and avenging the death of his father. While he has become virtually ‘superhuman’ and able to bring justice to his beloved Starling City, it’s when he reveals his humanity that he is most compelling to watch; the anguish and longing for a love he can never fully embrace – Felicity. Should he take his eyes off the mission – avenging his father and ridding the city of crime, the bad guys will win. Oliver is thus condemned to remain alone and haunted in his dreams by the malevolent environment he left behind.

Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) abandonment of his orderly, law-abiding world to enter into a self-imposed, living nightmare of drug dealing, murder and guilt makes him equally compelling to watch. We see him making one poor choice after another, at least highly unethical ones, then having to dig his way out the conundrums he’s created for himself – totally human.

Pitting characters against each other in a hostile environment that’s further dramatized through high stakes situations just about guarantees the environment has the potential to get even nastier and the characters more desperate.

Would the survivors in Lost be so inclined to reveal their personal secrets if ensconced in a neighborhood akin to that of Modern Family? Would Oliver (Arrow) take up a clandestine vigilante lifestyle if all was ‘hunky dory’ in Starling City? The prison inmates (Orange is the New Black) trapped within their stark, concrete prison compound might catch a rare glimpse of the lush, green foliage beyond the razor wire – symbolizing the unattainable world beyond their collective hell, which only serves to fuel their mutual angst.

There’s a choice to be made as to whether the environment we subject our characters to is benign, downright malevolent, or ambivalent towards them but if we perceive the environment as simply ‘background’ [it] is robbed of the ability to enrich the mise-en-scene, the narrative and character/s arc.

For characters in an environment that is simply adjunct to them rather than an integral component – capable of at least contributing to their success or failure, we run the risk they’ll be perceived with little depth above that of a poorly- drawn animation. If we further exacerbate the situation by not layering those characters with nuance and complexity, they’ll definitely have the potential to become ‘talking heads and leave a frustrated viewer flipping channels.

Wikipedia. The Multiplane Camera . Last Modified November 26 2014

Arrow (Berlanti, Guggenheim and Kreisenberg, 2012 )
Bambi (David Hand, 1942)
Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008- 13)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)
Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)
Lost (J.J. Abrams, 2004 – 10)
Modern Family (Jason Winer, 2004 – 12)
Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan, 2013)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (David Hand, 1937)
Sons of Anarchy (Kurt Sutter, 2008 –)
The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont, 2010 –)
True Detective (Cary Fukunaga, 2014 –)