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Storytelling – The Third Definition

February 26, 2015 1 comment

This is the 3rd part of a series of posts about different versions of storytelling structure. For the earlier posts – here’s the first introductory post, here’s where I dig into the first version, and here’s the second.

academicThis version is a more academic version of the definition, and it’s intentionally buried third. I’m often not a fan of “academic-speak” (which is funny given my day job),  but I like this version for a couple of reasons. First, the definition again:

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character. Now add:

  • It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.
  • Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.
  • Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.
  • Every element of the film–action, dialogue, camera work, lighting, production design, costuming, editing, sound design, music–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

A “structured narrative” of course refers to the structure discussed in the first two versions. I’d revise this to say that the narrative is designed to achieve an emotion effect –period-. And it can also demonstrate a proposition (make a point or moral, which stories inherently do) or reveal character. But not to quibble – let’s get to the good stuff.

  • It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.

Just as we were saying in the earlier versions – the story needs conflict and stakes. Nothing new here.

  • Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.

But here’s something. Action should rise. As the film goes along, things should get more interesting. The simple way to look at this is that in an action film, things should get more exciting. The big explosions should wait until the end, and each sequence throughout the film should be in some way more exciting than the last. In a drama, things should get more and more dramatic, building to the most dramatic. In a comedy… you get the idea, yes?

Fortunately, stories often do this naturally. As we watch a film, assuming that it’s working, we get more emotionally involved with the characters as the story goes on. So as we’re more engaged with them, we care about them more and more, and the events they’re involved in often are more interesting/exciting/dramatic/funny as a result.

But the Avengers should still end with the Alien invasion. Put the big stuff at the end and build to it.

james-bondJames Bond films turn this on their ear a bit – they usually start with some big exciting piece, then slow down and build a story. And by the end, even though the final action sequence may not be as much of a thrill-ride as the opening, it has more meaning because we’re involved with the characters and the story. There’s context and emotion with the events that the opening sequence doesn’t have. So it does build to that most powerful moment, even though, out of context, the opening may be stronger.

  • Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.

Table at Luigi's Logo - 6x8A story about Table at Luigi’s, here. As my first feature film, I wanted to add a small mystery to the story. Two of the characters had a rough backstory that I wanted to keep mysterious. We saw the results of their backstory on their relationship, with little clues and suggestions thrown in, but  without their history ever being explicitly revealed. As a writer, I loved this little mystery. As a director, I loved this little mystery.

As an editor, who showed my work to test audiences, I hated the mystery. As we screened the film, many things just weren’t working for viewers. And we finally traced the key problem back to this little mystery. Audiences didn’t like those characters because they were frustrated trying to sort out what was going on with them, and that started creating confusion in the main story.

We used some ADR, and a few simple pickups to clarify those character’s backstories, clearing up the mystery, which helped keep new test audiences involved and engaged. But we did encounter a new problem – audiences now liked those characters and were frustrated that their problems weren’t resolved. Another pickup later and we had that problem solved.

Everything should be presented with the maximum clarity. Give the audience what they need to follow your story.

  • Every element of the film–action, dialogue, camera work, lighting, production design, costuming, editing, sound design, music–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

This is a big one in film school. So much of the work we have students do in classes is about the camera and the lights and the microphones and all the technical elements that students often think that the mechanics of filmmaking are the whole process. I’ve sat through many terrible films where students sit around praising each other for the wonderful angles and color correction.

Because here’s the problem – good luck getting an audience to sit down to look at your wonderful angles, if they’re not revealing something about a character that I care about. I’ve seen lots of films with great sound design that I’d never want to see again because there was no story.

Not that the technical elements don’t matter – they absolutely do! But they matter in how they serve the story and engage the audience more directly with the material. Nothing is more important than that.

Next post, we’ll look at Denny O’Neil’s comic book structure – I like it a lot for films, too.

“If Your Mom Says She Loves You…”

June 12, 2014 Comments off

reporter-notebook-journalist-690x389

Thought I’d do a quick post about what I’ve been doing the last week or so.

The next feature script is about a reporter, and I was a journalism major for about a semester, so naturally I know everything that I need to know about the subject… I’m doing research! I’ve been shadowing a few reporters around town, and talking with others, and watching documentaries, and reading books and… basically anything I can to learn what I can about the daily life of a reporter.

You have to do your research, even just so you know when you’re changing things or making things up. You want to know why things are the way they are so they feel authentic to the audience.

My research for Table at Luigi’s was a 16 week (once a week) professional cooking class that actually ran a restaurant. Along with reading and documentaries (this was back before every other show on TV was about running a restaurant), we also brought in Chef Robert Hall, who had run restaurants and catering large and small. Not only was he a great technical resource, he also had a garage full of plates, silverware, salt shakers… everything from his old restaurant that we needed to for our set design!

Sympathy Pains’ research was into the world of comedy. Though I decided in the writing that we weren’t going to dig too far into the intricacies of that world, I needed to know, so the characters could act and talk intelligently in that world. While I didn’t go so far as getting on stage, I went to a dozen open-mic nights and regular comedy nights, and again read, watched and absorbed as much as I could.

Some of my research: the picture above is a reporter’s notebook – it’s long and skinny so it fits a lot of info on the page, but can fit in your pocket or purse when you need it to. It also allows you to write quickly without having to waste time running your hand all the way back to the left side of the page to start a new line. Though most of their notebooks aren’t that nice – they have the cheap metal spiral loops because the paper buys them in bulk.

No reporter’s desk is ever that clean.

And the quote on the title is part of a well-know journalism quote that I’ve always loved – “If your mom says she loves you – check it out!” Always look for a second source to make sure your information is accurate. Research is how you do that in your scripts!

Locations, Locations, Locations (part 4)

September 4, 2012 Comments off

Sorry for the lack of posts over the weekend. We went up to Petit Jean Mountain for a very nice stay, and I’m just getting back in the swing of things.

Finishing up a series of posts about finding film locations. Here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3.

For those of you who haven’t seen “Table at Luigi’s,” here’s the trailer.

Table at Luigi’s Official Trailer from daringly Dull productions on Vimeo.

We left off still needed tables and chairs for the dining room scene in “Table at Luigi’s.” As it turns out, that was a big problem. The tables weren’t a huge deal – we talked Aramark on campus into letting us borrow some from the main dining room. It helped that our consulting chef was also the UCA executive chef, so we had some pull.

We bought a ton of red and white checked fabric and cut and hemmed tablecloths, and scoured Walmart and Hobby Lobby for stuff on sale to put on the tables. Napkins were a problem – we found ones we liked at Walmart, bought them, and went to the Walmart on the other side of town to get more. They’d had them in stock that morning when we were still deciding on the ones to get, but had sold out during the day! We put our crew (and cast…) on the hunt. FE Mosby was driving up from Louisiana to play the role of Melanie, and we had her stop at Walmarts on the way to complete our set.

Our plates and cutlery came from Chef Hall (the UCA Exec chef), who helped us out so much. Eventually we had everything the tables needed, except chairs.

We could have used chairs from the UCA dining hall, but they just looked cheap. They didn’t feel like the style of restaurant we wanted. The tables we could cover, but the chairs needed to be right.  The church we were filming at had chairs, but they were plastic and folding and also didn’t feel right.

It was two weeks until we had to film in the studio dining room, and we still didn’t have them. We got a lead on chairs that the UCA president uses for press conferences, and even found where they kept them, but we were told we couldn’t use them.

I was settling into our last-ditch idea, which was to beg and borrow a few chairs from a number of sources, and make it an eclectic group of chairs in the restaurant. I hated the idea, but I hated it less than no chairs or a complete set of bad ones.

Then, about a week before filming, finally, Kat asked “What does the Conway Symphony sit on?” As it turns out, they sit on chairs. Pretty good looking black metal ones, too. After a quick look and some polite begging, we had a restaurant, ready to eat in.

To go back to the first part of this, which was never meant to be spread across four parts, by the way, is (cut-and-paste begin) There are a number of ways to secure locations for your films, but the best tool you can use is time. What locations are you going to need? The sooner you identify them, the sooner you can start figuring it out.  I’m a big believer that there’s always a way to get what you need, you just have to figure out how (end cut-and-paste).

Someone out there has what you need to make your film, and is willing to help you. You just have to find them and help them want to help you. I’m constantly amazed how easy it is, when you approach someone and let them know how much  you appreciate them even speaking with you about helping out. We’ve had so many people help us in amazing ways.

But if we hadn’t started in February, we never would have ended up with the great location we had.

Locations, Locations, Locations (part 3)

August 28, 2012 1 comment

This is a part three in a discussion about finding locations and making them work. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.

“Table at Luigi’s” was a pretty big challenge, location-wise. We didn’t have a lot of locations, but we had a big one – a full restaurant, including a dining room and professional kitchen. Plus the front exterior and back alleyway.

Our goal was to find a restaurant that was closed and someone would let us film in. The problem was finding a restaurant that was closed and someone would let us film in. Two problems, really – first, Conway has been on an upswing economically since I moved here, and closed-down restaurants were hard to find. Second, no property owner thinks that their property won’t be snatched up next week. We spoke with a number of people around January for our July shoot, but no one (understandably) would talk seriously with us about letting us move in for three weeks in the summer.

As we got closer and closer to July, nothing changed. We looked at a location in Hot Springs that might have let us film, but it’d been closed for years, needed huge amounts of work to be filmable, may or may not have had electricity, and was a 90-minutes drive each way. We also looked at a local church. They weren’t as available as we’d like, but they might be do-able. They had a decent (though a little small) kitchen, and a dining hall that was too big and looked a little too much like a church. Still not a great option.

It was getting to be May, and we still didn’t have the main location for the film.  I’d talked with Scott Meador (him again) about the renovations we’d have needed to do to any of the locations to make them work, and I asked him to talk me out of building the location in our TV studio. We measured it out and looked at it, and put together a rough budget. The cost of building the walls of the restaurant were about the same as the insurance it would take to get us into a restaurant. So we built a dining room. And we had a bunch of flats that our students could use when we were done.

That still didn’t solve the problem of the dining room needing a kitchen. So we went back to the church, looked at its kitchen, and decided that we could use the two separate locations and edit them together to make them seem like they were a single space.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that we could digitally insert the kitchen into shots from the dining room, and vice versa, and we even made a quick behind-the-scenes video about how we did that.

Luigis VFX demo from daringly Dull productions on Vimeo.

So we had the dining room and kitchen, then had to find the front of the restaurant and the back alley. We found spaces around town that were close enough to work, but really, if you pay too much attention to where things are, there’s a bit of a Dr. Who “pocket universe” happening. The kitchen can’t really be contained in the small space that is the restaurant from outside. Oh, well.

The job of creating the restaurant wasn’t finished when we had the dining room. Beyond the transformation of the kitchen (anywhere you see shelving is actually a window with a custom sized insert, and we just put a large wire shelving unit in front of an exterior door. It’s amazing that people don’t notice – it’s in the background of their first kiss), we still needed to make the dining room into a dining room. Scott built us a beautiful bar, and put some great stuff up on the walls. But we needed tables and chairs and tablecloths and… all the stuff that makes it a restaurant.

All right – that’ll be one final post.

Movement on All Fronts

April 21, 2012 Comments off

It’s been a good couple of days for daringly Dull productions!

First off, Table at Luigi’s is screening tonight and the next few Saturdays with a very small distributor in South Carolina. I’m really looking forward to hearing how it does! Every time I think that film has run its course, someone wants to do something more with it!

We also just heard from the Laugh or Die Comedy Festival in Chicago – The Midterm, Incident will be screening there in May, and of course it’s screening today in Oklahoma at the Bare Bones Film Festival. That’s 7 for 10 festival we’ve entered – pretty awesome for a film made to generate footage for my editing class!

And Sympathy Pains is really starting to roll. We’re making some final casting decisions this weekend, and everyone should be hearing from us shortly. We should be ready to publicly announce our cast in a few days. We’ve also had some great fundraising progress, and are about ready to announce our crowd sourcing fundraising opportunities – that’ll get plastered all across this page, I’m sure.

It’s kinda fun to come home from a big reunion last weekend have have good things waiting. :)

Sympathy Pains– 144 days till production

February 7, 2012 Comments off

I’m gonna start posting at least weekly about Sympathy Pains, and how things are coming, which at the moment is pretty great!

We locked down the final audition location for Fayetteville, yesterday (thank you, hospitality room at the Ozark Electric Co!). So starting at the end of February and into March, we’ll be in Conway, Little Rock, Memphis, Fayetteville, and Hot Springs. All our audition details (including times, locations, and short character descriptions) are up here.

We also just got the menu from Chef Hall, who’s doing the food for our “Party Like a Hollywood Star” fundraiser (there’s a link there, if you want more info).We’ll be at the Ford Theatre, walking the red carpet, with great people, eating AWESOME food, and occasionally checking out the big screen to see who won an Oscar. I’ll be hanging out at the bar (and probably bussing tables…). :)  You can jump straight to buying tickets here.

Chef Hall, by the way, was the UCA executive chef before moving up to Petit Jean and becoming the main guy in charge of all things food and events at WinRock. More than that, he was the guy responsible for all the food in Table at Luigi’s. I’m so looking forward to actually getting to eat his food instead of having to save it for on set.

We also have a “Pick the Winners” contest – pick all the movie winners in all 24 categories, and win $25,000! Here’s info, and here’s where to enter – you pay for the “ticket” and then enter all your choices. Did I mention that it’s $25,000 if you get them all right?!

So things are moving along swimmingly at the moment. Kat and I are busy doing all the promotions for the raffle and the party – turns out there are 1,640 employees at UCA and every one of them is getting an individual invite – that’s a lot of folding and little silver sealing buttons…

 

 

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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