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Storytelling – The First Definition

February 20, 2015 3 comments

casablanca-sceneFinally have a bit of time to dig into that last post about storytelling. If you haven’t seen it, I posted a handout from a storytelling workshop that I did for theatre students last weekend, with four different definitions of what a story is. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

The first definition is a basic version of a story, described as having three acts: the beginning, middle and end. Aristotle defined this idea back in Poetics (c335BCE), after analyzing successful stories and seeing that they all had a basic structure.

The simplest way to looking at a story is that it’s about a character who wants something, meets obstacles and conflict while going after what they want, and finally overcomes all the obstacles and gets what they want (in some way).

Most often, friction from people who aren’t believers in stories being structured (who is this Aristotle guy, anyway?) is centered on that last part – where the character achieves their goal. Doesn’t that just lead to stories that end simply/unoriginally? Can’t my story be different?

Sure… but there’s a reason stories are told this way. Not to dig too deeply into it (he said, as he digs deeply into it), stories are how we pass down traditions, beliefs, and pretty much how to perceive the world. I don’t like to admit it, but the Disney corporation probably has as much to do with what my daughter thinks about herself and the world around her as I do.

And part of that is the form of the story. Life can be a confusing and difficult series of events that can often seem random, cruel, or just pointless. Stories tell us that it is not that way – that our struggles, our disappointments, our conflicts all can lead us to something. Not necessarily exactly what we wanted (though that’s nice, too), but our difficulties can lead us to our goal in some form. When stories don’t conclude in some way that feels satisfying, it’s a letdown. It doesn’t feel complete. Because the purpose of story is to reassure us in that way. That’s what a story does.

bibleThere’s a reason the Bible isn’t a series of lists and commandments – it’s a lot of stories.

The genius of a good story (one of the infinite number of genius methods of storytelling) is that it doesn’t have to end the way you necessarily expect, but still fulfills the characters goal(s) in some form.

My go-to example of this is Casablanca. You’ve had the entire Internet to see Casablanca before now so I’m going to spoil the ending. Stop now if you still want to see it…

Rick doesn’t get Ilsa in the end. What does he get? He gets to be the guy he was when he was with her. He’s a freedom fighter again—someone who believes in something more important than himself. And that’s what he really wanted all along – not necessarily Ilsa, but to be that guy again, to feel like that again. That’s why that story works so well – it’s not the ending we expect, but it’s a true ending where Rick achieves his goal.

Romeo and Juliet is another. Every time the two lovers (who don’t really get to be together in the end… not really) get together, they talk about how they want their families to stop fighting. When you ask anyone what the ending of R&J is, they’ll tell you they die. But that’s not the ending. The ending is their families rushing in and deciding to put their differences aside. They got their goal, in the worst possible way, but they got their goal. That Shakespeare might be an up-and-comer. Look out for him.

I’ll dig into the next version of story definitions in the next post.

Editing for Continuity – Who Cares (part 2)

December 5, 2011 2 comments

Less of Joe rambling, more CLIPS about what Joe’s rambling about! Here are some examples from my other night’s blog – film continuity and why it doesn’t matter.

This first one is from Indian Jones and the Last Crusade . Take a look at Sean Connery’s beard in the beginning of the clip and then again at the end.

Connery with BeardConnery with Less Beard

 

 

(youtube blocked the video for copyright issues, so here are the key frames from the sequence – they cut from the first shot, to a shot of Indiana Jones, back to the second one…)

 

Look at the difference in the length of his beard – that’s pretty dramatic. Gotta be a re-shoot. I wonder if they added the long “I never told him” speech after they started editing and realized what a great moment they could have?

 

 

 

Here’s the greatest romance of all time – Casablanca. Watch the epaulets show up and disappear from shot to shot on the General’s coat.

There’s another great one in Casablanca where Rick lights and smokes two cigarettes in about eight seconds.

The greatest film of all time: Citizen Kane. Certainly there are no continuity errors in the masterpiece, right? Watch the hats from the front shots and the back shots.

Finally, here’s a great moment from Airplane – look in the lower left corner as Ted runs towards Elaine. Not continuity, but in the same vein…

These are just four examples of many, many, many, many continuity/production problems in these and other films. 

Once you see those things, they’re pretty huge. But again, that’s the point. The audience shouldn’t see them. If you think continuity is the problem with your film, then continuity is not the problem with your film. The problem is that no one is actually caught up in the story of your film, so their eyes are wandering around the screen, and land on these errors. Tighten the pace, cut some lines or even scenes. Do anything to make people more interested in your film so they’re not watching who’s wearing a hat or the length of anyone’s beard, but instead are caught up in the reality and drama of your story.

Show your films to other people, but not to filmmakers, especially film students (as a film professor, I know this better than anyone). See if they see any of the problems – almost always, they won’t. But get it in front of real people, who don’t care how you made the film, they just want to be entertained by it. They’ll tell you if there’s a problem or not. They may not be able to tell you what the problem is, but if you dig for an honest reaction, you can find out where your film is and isn’t working. Of course, don’t show it to people who have a vested interest in keeping you happy – like friends and family who love you and are proud that you made a real movie, show it to people who don’t want to watch it and try to win them over.

On Table at Luigi’s, we did three preview screenings of early cuts of the film. The first was for the cast and crew. The reason for that screening was to make sure none of the people involved in the film were in the audience for our other screenings, because I didn’t want their “insider” opinions to pollute the clean waters of the other audiences who were there to see a story, not an exercise. So we gave them their own screening.

On our comment sheets from cast and crew, we got lots of comments that resembled these: “the extras names should go before the crew in the credits,” “I can’t believe you used that shot with the extension cord in it,” and “could you fix the color correction in the restaurant scene?” And yes, we even got comments about the continuity. More than a few, as I recall. Most of the comments were related to whatever the commenter did on the film  (not universally, of course, but there was a lot of that – there were many actually helpful comments, too, of course).

But from real audiences, we got things like “I don’t understand the relationship between Stephen and Melanie” – things related to the actual story, that helped us to shape the edit to tell the story more effectively. Shockingly, no one mentioned any of the technical stuff that the cast and crew did.

Repetition is important: if you think continuity is the problem with your film, continuity is not the problem with your film. Fix the story and the continuity problems will disappear. You’ll still see them, but the audience won’t. They’ll just enjoy the film.

I’ll put up a part three in a couple of days to address where I think a filmmaker’s attachment to continuity comes from.

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