Example: Engaging Stories in Intros
I'm gonna show you another introduction from a short piece, another, short film made for the organization Every Mother Counts, which looks at, maternal health, in the United States and globally, and in this piece, it was gonna be a short, there were gonna be a few in the series, so there needed to be a sense of uniformity not within the one piece, but from like, one to another, that we're kind of using a similar model, without it just feeling like it came right out of a kit. You wanna kind of set-up what the issue is going to be, for this woman in the story, and also again do it in a way that's kind of engaging, and, you know, will keep people involved. So. Yeah. So in this one, I'm gonna, like, set-up a little bit of what we were trying to get across, and then you can see if you, can, can kind of spot it. In this specific story, for Every Mother Counts, it was about maternal health, and we were looking at a woman in Montana. And one of the issues that this organization wanted to get a...
cross was that access to maternal healthcare is incredibly important for a woman and her child. And then if you're cut off from that, then that can create a whole set of problems, and that can happen very, very quickly. So that, you know, women that don't have regular access, through, either, you know, not everyone lives within quick driving distance to a hospital. Some people live only a close distance to a clinic. If those clinics don't have the type of set-ups so that they can deal with maternal health issues, then that can create a very big problem very quickly, that can escalate out of control. So in this situation, we were looking at a woman in Montana, who lives about an hour and a half away from, from the closest hospital that could deal with anything, like a C-section, you have to have, you know, someone there for anesthesia, you've gotta have, you know, an operating room set up and ready to go, you know, a couple of other requirements. And her local clinic didn't have that, and so, what we wanted to get off right off the bat, we wanted to establish the character, we also, in this situation, like the stakes for her, the kind of issue that we're gonna be looking at, is her distance, it's her, you know, the proximity between her and the services that she needs, so we need to kind of, get at that, kind of right off the bat, so we can kind of see the world that we're dealing with, and also, we want to establish, since in this, I mean, in all cases, a sense of place is very important, in this story, geography is super important, so we like, really wanna, kinda hit home where she lives. So, this is kinda how we set it up. (car engine running) (snow crunching under footsteps)
This was, this was, has been a, um, a different winter, up until--
Yeah. Well, we put your chickens in, (somber music) what month, when was that, November? (somber music) (winds whipping)
What does that say?
That's uh, Afghanistan.
What does that say?
Russia. Because it's getting close to Wolfie's, the time of Wolfie's birthday, and I always just kind of go back, and, it was, it was nerve-wracking. (somber music) We live way out in the middle of nowhere. Road was closed like the week before he was born. There was a, an accident, a car accident, someone had broken a light or something, and as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, my heart rate, I just felt it increase. Like just fear and anxiety.
Some similar techniques, even though this is for a much shorter thing. We see where she is, and we establish that a couple times. We take this kind of long road up, and we're gonna talk about transitions, and how to shoot some of this stuff, but we start off, we're like, in the car, we take this road up, and then, you know, we wanna, like, keep reiterating this idea. So we watch these, we watched a kid, kind of running through the snow, you hear the sound of the wind, you then watch that these kids, you know, we're trying to like, reinforce this, it's not just cut off from the road, but like, it's a little bit of a cut-off existence. So it's helpful, it's not exactly the story, I mean, we don't need the goat milk, necessarily, for any part of the story, but it helps us, like, understand, the type of life that this woman is living. She's there with like, with her own goats, and milk, and her kids are helping out in the farm, she's, if you know that detail about her, she's probably not like, super tapped into, like, immediate technology, that can get, you know, her somewhere immediately. She's just like living a much more, removed, kind of remote life. And so these details that we're incorporating, helps set that feeling up. It's not just about information, it's about kind of conveying the sense of what her world is, and what the place is like. Then we go inside, then we meet a couple of her kids, we've got these, just kind of straight to camera portraits of a couple of them, it helps us establish, so much of this early stuff, it's like establishing characters. You know, like, this person, you know, in like those old, um, like very stylized, almost like Quentin Tarantino, but like, also when he gets the style from these, like, old, stylized, kind of like mobster films, where it's like, this guy and this guy, and like everyone's got the, you know, the nickname underneath. A lot of that is like, kind of what you're doing here. You're not doing it in such a stylized manner, but you're like quickly learning, okay these are the characters, these are the persons, the people that kind of live in this world. Then you hear, the first stuff she says is not even directly about her pregnancy. She's just talking a little bit, so that we like, enter into the world that she lives in, of like, oh yeah, this winter is a little bit more mild than the last winter, last winter we weren't even getting the chick, I don't know what she says, but like, something that just brings us into an environment rather than, like slam down with information. I am, I live X amount of miles from a hospital. Could've been something that she starts with, but we wanna, like, feel close to her, and feel a little bit more connected. And then we kinda get into it. Where she starts talking about the pregnancy. The interesting thing is that, like, in the actual telling of the story, in the actual shooting of it, and this is where it kind of the, story structure, and the, the mapping it out, and developing it as you do it, all of that winter stuff was actually shot way later. We watched her give birth, in this, in this project, we watched her give birth in summer, and we came back for a trip in the winter to kind of, do a follow-up, and see how they, they were going, how things were going. And we realized that like, by visiting her in the winter, that was a perfect opportunity, she was still telling the story of giving birth in the summertime, but by visiting her in the winter, as the follow-up, we could also use that opportunity to really demonstrate the isolation, because that sense of that, like, winter, and the wood piled up, and how self-sufficient, how cut off from everything else, would really kind of be conveyed, also, we might've like, I don't remember in this exact situation, we might not have gotten it, well, you know, that well the first time, if this often, you're doing things like pick-ups, and you're kind of filling in gaps that you need, but we realized at that point, it was gonna be very important to establish her in some kind of faraway, more remote location, and this was, like, winter was a great chance to do it. The point is, is that the chronology of the shooting doesn't necessarily dictate the chronology of the story, and in this case, there's nothing wrong with that, because we're kind of meeting her at this place, it doesn't matter, that the roads that we're seeing, are from a different season.
A question going back to, The Pearl, and setting that up, when you said that you had to create the stories of the history of these three characters, the backstory, how do you do that? Do you make them do things, like packing, while you wouldn't do it in photography necessarily, would there be a scenario in filming, where you would ever direct your documentary characters?
So that's a great question. In a documentary setting, I'm gonna kind of separate how I do things, and then what I think is fair game. In a documentary, it is, the rules are kind of much looser, and it is, it's a less strict environment for the storytelling, in part because, film requires so much story, and so many, like, connective story beats that if you only left it up to strictly verite, it would be hard to kind of, put together a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. And because of that, the rules about, like, what it's kind of allowed, and what you can ask people to do and all that stuff, are much looser than they would be in photography, and when I first started doing some video, I was like, you mean to tell me what? Or like, you're gonna ask them to wait, like, I found that very difficult. I personally, and it's not because I've got some huge moral issue with it, it's more about the type of shooter I am, I'm really gonna observe her. I really, I don't feel comfortable asking people to do things, I don't feel comfortable directing people into doing things, and so, even though I feel like I can ask people to do things, I won't. So in this situation, I didn't ask people to pack, for a trip, so that I could kind of demonstrate that, what I did was I had interviews, that are about their, kind of backstories, that we did way later on, and this event, that they all are going to, happens to happen annually. So I met them, the first year that I was shooting there, but I shot it for three years. So when the second year came around, I was like, oh, maybe I shoot, Jodie and Krystal, getting ready, to go to this event, well that's one character, but it happens every year, and I shot it for basically four. Or at least, three. So it's like, the first year, you know, I just bumped into them. The second year, I knew, oh they're gonna return to this thing, maybe I wanna watch them go to it. I didn't know that it would necessarily go at the beginning of the film, but I knew that them on the way to the thing that I was gonna be there with them at, was important. I just, you just, kind of know, especially as you start to do more video, like, oh these, these kind of getting to places, transitions, motivation to get from like one part of their life to another, what motivates them, what moves them forward, these are really important things to have. So, like, every year that I went to this event, because they went, I either went with someone at the beginning, to show them going there, or I followed someone home, afterwards, or, often I did both. So I kind of book ended the event by the coming and going to it. Which, you know, is very valuable material. We used all of that stuff.
It's kind of a, a similar question, from, from Aaron Philips, who said, how much time, on average, is it hours, is it days, do you spend with a character or family, before you get a real sense of their lifestyle to be able to accurately portray that in a film?
So, I mean, for me, I am very much a long, I love long form, and long, you know, long term storytelling. So, my kind of sweet spot, it, I think, is in the three year mark. I did a long term photo project, that ended up becoming a book, and that was the three year shooting process, this film, The Pearl, that was a three year shooting process, there's something about that. A, because I think it takes a long time to kind of get close to people, but also, and this is really important, for like thinking about what your narrative arc is gonna be, is that, something needs to happen. It's not just about pretty video, although I want you to take very pretty video, but it's not like, something needs to happen, and in order for this to be a film, a short film, or a longer film, it needs to be a story, and for it to be a story, something's gotta, like, change. Sometimes in a short film, you know that something's gonna change and therefore, that's like kinda what makes it a short. Sometimes, whether it's short or long, things change just because some time has passed. It's not necessarily that I shoot everyday for three years, but that, like, from A to B to C, might have to be a span of a year, or a couple of years, because people do change. They don't often change in a week. Sometimes they change in a week, but sometimes it takes a long time. But if you shoot, and step away, and then reinsert yourself and shoot some more, and then step away, and reinsert yourself and shoot some more, when you look at this, you know, these three piles of footage that you then have, then you can start to see change. And so, when I think about narrative arc, I often think about, like, you know, where would this person be a year from now? Again, it doesn't mean, just because you're doing a short film, doesn't mean that you have to shoot it in a short amount of time, and you might be able to like, shoot, come back, shoot, come back, or you might be able to find something that does change more quickly. A game, a competition, a contest, you know, a cycle of something, a season of something, I mean, there are reasons that you see these things kind of over and over again. And, especially in documentary. Spellbound, you know, these things that are like, competition-heavy, you watch someone prepare, train, you know, compete, and come out on the other side. Whether or not that's a win or a loss, there are lots of things about, kind of, competitions, and contests, and, you know, beauty pageants, spelling bees, elections, all of these things kind of make for great shooting material because you like, there is a story there, no matter what. If they lose, you watch them lose. If they win, you watch them win. That's great. Okay.
So Jessica, just again, to clarify, how important is it to get that backstory of your subjects?
You know it's, it's important, because you, it's important to get the backstory of subjects, though I always often, so, it's very important, there is this hard thing, where like, sometimes something is a great story, and it's not necessarily a great video. Someone could've had something really insane happen in their life. Like, the most insane story you've ever heard. If there's nothing to watch, and if that's all in backstory, that's wonderful, and like, should probably be an article, or should probably be a memoir, or should probably be a book. But like, we as an audience need to see something happen. There are exceptions, of course, and there is, you know, ways of crafting things around, just interviews, or maybe interviews in really stylistic reenactments, or, you know, there are ways that you can break this, but overall, like, in order to, see something as a video, we want to like, be able to see an action. So sometimes, if I'm working for an editorial client, and they want to, like a magazine, and they want to make a video out of an article, sometimes the real question is, like, what will we be seeing? Because someone could have this amazing backstory, but if it's not impacting them on their, in their day to day life and in a way that's, just as interesting, if not more so, than what they've just come from, I don't know that it's a video. I don't know that we can make a story out of it. If the backstory is the context, for which we can enter this thing, and then we can really watch something unfold, that's great. If it's like about where they came from, what motivates them, what has made them be the person they are up until now, what has kind of created the drive that is gonna, you know, drive forward this thing that we're gonna see, that's all great.