Weekly Journal

Meet Shina Ahmad: Teacher and award-winning screenwriter

18th May 2017

From June 7th to June 30th, The Content Castle will welcome Shina Ahmad, an experienced creative producer and screenwriter. With over a decade of experience in the film and television industry, Shina’s talents have led to an impressive portfolio of content that includes a live-action documentary series as well as a four-part dramatic mini-series, both developed for television. A philanthropist at heart, she also developed five short inter-connected films as part of her humanitarian campaign and has exciting future projects in the pipeline. Her knowledge will provide workshop participants with plenty of hints, tips, and skills to improve on while discovering the depth of their own imaginative capabilities.

We are privileged that a lecturer from SAE Institute in Dubai who taught Screenwriting and Adaptation, and ran screenwriting masterclasses at the Cartoon Network Animation Academy in Abu Dhabi, is staying with us to work on her next screenplay. We are eager to learn what Shina, the screenwriting expert has to say! Her classes will run at The Castle from June 7th to June 30th every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 am – 2 pm.

During her workshop, attendees will uncover the structure that goes into developing a professional, sleek screenplay. All writers will learn how to compose an intriguing logline and draft an outline for their story — a process that includes detailed discussions on irony, characters, primal instincts, setting, and the law of creative returns. From there, attendees will venture into the mechanics that go into formulating a well-written screenplay, such as understanding acts, sequences, and beats and how to compose fascinating dialogue. Next, Shina will reveal tactics on how to analyse a script. During her informative sessions, attendees will engage in interactive activities, which include various creative discussions and simple assignments that will help to advance any skill the writer is hoping to gain.

Her list of accomplishments is quite impressive, so naturally, we were eager to learn more about our upcoming workshop facilitator. Let’s take a look at our interview with Shina!

We are so excited for Shina’s arrival! 

 

You’ve been writing feature film and television content for over a decade. What is the story behind your passion for scriptwriting? Did you always want to become a writer when you were growing up?

I am deeply passionate about story and storytelling, and always have been. But writing, as a talent or a passion, was not evident to me when I was younger. I started acting in drama classes and theater groups when I was 13. This was in Oshawa, Ontario in Canada. On weekends there was a small group of us friends who would get together and write comedy sketches, which we eventually shot and aired on our small-town television station in our last year of high school. By the time I got to university, my dream was to be a film director. Over the years, however, I have come to realise that I am better suited to working with story and script development. In fact, I have spent more years developing content as a Creative Producer, than I have as a writer myself. It was through years of studying the craft of screenwriting and the process of working with other writers that I discovered my own ability to write. This came very late in my life — I was 35 when I discovered I can write, and it took another year for me to truly believe it!

You won an award for your short script “The Yellow Suitcase” and have since been working on turning it into a movie. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience? Where did you get the idea? Are you finding it difficult to create a movie-length version of the short script?

The Yellow Suitcase is a dark comedy about an independent, high-functioning blind woman (Salma) whose sister comes to stay with her while she’s in town for a job interview. The sister is not blind but manages to unwittingly turn Salma’s ordered world upside down in the course of a single day—all the while professing that Salma should let the family take care of her.

The theme is that nobody knows what’s best for you, better than yourself — even if you can’t see it right now! This idea grew out of personal experience and what I was struggling with at the time. As artists, it takes years for us to find our feet in this world, and during this process we appear to be quite lost to our non-artist family members. With good intentions, they try to help us find our way, but it only causes more chaos and delay along our path.

We actually shot the film in 2012, but it got “stuck in post” as they say, due to a lack of funds to complete the film. It was incredibly frustrating at the time, and eventually heartbreaking to see it come so close to fruition and then be shut down due to financial reasons. But it was a great lesson for all of us. The reality of filmmaking is that money, whether we like it or not as artists, plays such a significant role not only in the filmmaking process, but in the distribution and marketing of film — even short films. It is imperative for us as screenwriters and filmmakers to know the end game, to really think through the entire process of what it will take to get our film in front of our audience. And then to tailor our writing to that! Luckily, as writers, we are not responsible for the entire process, as others will join when necessary to bring it to life. But as screenwriters we must not lose sight of the fact that we are writing for our audience, not for ourselves. At the end of the day, this is an industry, like any other, that produces products for consumption — entertainment products. As screenwriters, we are supplying the commodity of most value within this industry — the story. The script is the blueprint — the architect’s design — from which everything is built; and dozens, if not hundreds, of people are employed. We have a critical role in this industry, and that is to serve our audiences — not our egos.

“What we write as screenwriters is not meant to be read by our audience, but seen and heard and thus experienced by the senses.”

We are curious — what has been the greatest moment of your career?

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint a single moment, but for about one year, from mid-2012 to mid-2013, I was on top of the world! During this time, my short film (The Yellow Suitcase) was produced; my first short play (Appeals Court) was produced and performed at Short + Sweet Dubai; I had an animated television series in development with Filmworks Dubai (the leading production company in Dubai responsible for producing the Burj Khalifa/Dubai sequences in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol); and it was the year I began teaching screenwriting at SAE Institute. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and I loved every minute of it! However, this was also the setup for one of my greatest challenges…

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

Oh boy, there have been so many… where do I start?!

Everything from environmental challenges — i.e. living in a corporate city like Dubai which is not set up to nurture and foster the growth of artists; to relational challenges — i.e. my family telling me to let this go and get a “real job”; to personal challenges — i.e. having to overcome rejection and the realisation that my projects were not good enough in the beginning to warrant production. There was a lot of trial and error. But eventually, through persistence and focussing on learning from my mistakes, my projects became better over the years. By the time I began writing myself, I experienced a perfect production ratio of 1:1 (meaning everything I had written was being produced)… And this gave rise to a new challenge — my own ego! The greatest challenge of my career came as a result of my wildly inflamed ego, and untouchable sense of pride, when it all came crashing down in late 2013. Indeed, “Pride cometh before the fall” is a very true axiom. This, by far, is the greatest lesson I have learned to date.

You recently shifted your focus to animation. Why did you decide to make this switch?

My shift to animation happened as a result of an idea that came to me for an animated TV series for adults. I hadn’t thought of working in animation before, but this project opened up a whole new world for me, and I fell in love with it instantly! Animation is very different from live-action; it requires a unique temperament and another level of patience altogether. It also attracts a distinctive type of person, one who is extremely collaborative by nature. Once I was exposed to this, I realised immediately that I am much better suited to working in animation, as I love working in collaborative environments, not to mention, I have a mind-numbing patience for the story development process that often drives others a little stir-crazy!

Unsure of what story you want to tell? Consider stopping by The Castle for advice from Shina! 

Currently, you are writing a feature-length animated screenplay — can you give us any insight into this process?

Well, I can start by saying that it takes a great deal of patience! Writing for animation is a lot like writing a fantasy novel in that it takes a lot of time to build the world, or the setting, of the story. The possibilities are endless when you’re creating this world, so it can often be difficult to know when to draw the line, when you have enough depth to begin writing. Also, more work is done on character development for animation, than you would typically do for a live-action film, in order to provide fertile ground for the art director and other illustrators who are creating the visual design. The artwork is equally important to the script in animation, so the writer’s job is to inspire the artists with rich details from which they can create the designs for the characters and the environments. Apart from this, the story development and scriptwriting process is the same as live-action.

What can our residents expect to learn from your workshop?

What I hope the residents will take away from this course is a clear understanding of the principles and structure of story; in particular, story as written for a mass audience, since I primarily teach the Classical Design — or Arch-plot Structure — of story. In addition to this, it is imperative for screenwriters to know that a screenplay is not the final product, that other artists have a great impact on the finished work which the audience will experience. Similar to playwriting, the director and actors and countless other artists will contribute to the shaping and molding of the final product. What we write as screenwriters is not meant to be read by our audience, but seen and heard and thus experienced by the senses. The only two vehicles we have to propel our story are action and dialogue, which is why understanding structure is critical to the success of screenwriting. The plus side is that this knowledge of structure translates extremely well into all other forms of storytelling.

***

Are you interested in crafting your storytelling capabilities through the creative process of learning the different aspects of screenwriting? This workshop will not only inform attendees on how to improve their screenwriting skills, but it will also help advance other forms of story writing, such as novels, short stories, etc.

All interested attendees can find Shina’s workshop schedule here: https://www.contentcastle.asia/writing-workshops/

If you’d like to attend please contact us via this form: https://www.contentcastle.asia/contact/

We look forward to meeting all attendees who are eager to learn about the art of screenwriting from Shina, a passionate and gifted professional!

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