Story Structure Exercise
So when I think about story, and this is something that our editor for our film, Fiona Otway, who's the most incredible editor in the whole wide world, bar none. She taught us, and this was taught to her by a friend of hers, named Brian McDonald. But this is a story structure exercise that I have found incredibly useful. We used this all the time in the making of our film. In the shooting of it and also as we were editing. And even when we were very far along in the edit, we would sometimes, when we were kind of lost, and like, where is this thing going? We would stop and do this. It goes like this. Once upon a time, there was something. There was some world, there was some character, there was some place. There was some person that you are going to meet. That's you're given, that's where you start off. "And every day", they did something. In our case... In a situation like the Nina character that I showed you, from the introduction of the film. She's delivering pizza, she's a trans wo...
man, and she's closeted. So, once upon a time, there was a trans woman named Nina. And every day, she was hidden from her family, wasn't out to the people that were close to her, and was working as a pizza delivery person. Then you have to get to this point, once you've established this introduction, then there's got to be a kind of conflict, a thing... Something that, very much in the way that fairy tales and classic stories work, something that your character comes up against, And it's like, "Oh, here's the crux of it." Now they've been presented with this obstacle, what happens? That's the "until one day". And usually, whatever that obstacle is sets off a chain reaction. They're presented with an obstacle, and because of this, they do something. Even if it's a non-action... Because of this, they get totally paralyzed, and stuck, and can't leave the house. That's still something that happens. And normally, that goes on for like, two beats. So let's say, once up on time there was a girl that worked at a beauty salon, and every day she had this nice, quaint, cute life, and things were going along, until one day, her dog gets run over by a car. And because of this, she is, again, it doesn't have to create action. Because of this, she is completely depressed and paralyzed, and basically stays at home. That, chances are, will have another consequence. Because of this, she loses her job at the beauty salon, and there's another thing that happens in her life. "Until finally..." That's normally when there's a shift again. There's some kind of, now you're going towards... There's been a conflict. Now you're going toward some type of resolution. Until finally, she realizes she's gotta get up off the couch, get herself a new puppy, and move on with her life. And ever since then, is how you're getting out of this thing. Does that make sense? This can be used in short form. This can be used in long form. We can use this across all three characters. Once upon a time, there was this group of people And every day, they were struggling with their identity and whether or not to come out to the people in their lives, and what that would mean. Until one day, when they all finally decided to take the steps out. We would use that for broad strokes, and we would use it for individual characters as well. And obviously, it doesn't always all fit. Sometimes there's a little bit more backstory. What you want to make sure is that most of this lives in the world that you can see. It's not okay if all of these steps happen in backstory, and we only see this. Like, once upon a time, before we meet this character, there was a woman who was very depressed, she was working at a beauty salon, her dog got hit by a car, she was very depressed and she lost her job. If all of this is backstory and we can't see this, and all we see is this woman going out and buying a new puppy, and getting on with her life, and we only hear about this in the backstory, it's maybe not as compelling. We need to be in the mix, and watch this stuff unfold. That's why, the question about how long do you spend with your subjects, how much time do you spend shooting, I shoot a lot. The ratios of shooting are really high. We shot 800 hours of footage for a 97-minute long film. (laughs) That's a little insane, we are little bit crazy, I wouldn't recommend 800 hours, but it takes a lot. It's a lot of collecting things in people's lives, because you don't necessarily know what that story is going to be. As you move on, in some ways, you should be shooting less and less. First, the net is very, very wide. Casting a wide net. You're out there to see what's happening. As things come up, you realize, that's not relevant. This doesn't help my story. That's going to be tangential. This is a new character that we can't deal with. Then you start honing in on what you really want to see. Of course, it's not always perfect, but this is a very useful, helpful exercise to get you through "Where is the story...? "Where am I going?" All of that. Yeah?
Okay, if this is a question for later, just tell me and we can come back to it. How do you sustain momentum for that length of time?
That's a great question for right now, especially as we talk about story because it's important to see these things as marathons, not sprints, and you have to have the stamina to really see something through. You have to give yourself breaks. You have to give the people you work with breaks. It's important to be really relentless, really push on people's comfort levels, including your own, about how long you want to be around, and really push against those walls. And it's also important to back off and go away. There's this amazing thing that happens, even with people who don't want to be filmed, even people who are like, "Get that camera out of my face." First of all, you should work with people that are willing participants and subjects. I'm doing a bit about people that are saying, "Get cameras out of my face". But you should try to work with people who want to do what you want to do, and at least understand the process. But even with people that are a bit resistant, or get a little sick of it, you shoot with them, you go away, you come back, and it's like you're old pals. They're like, "Oh, I'm so happy to see you," and "Where have you been?" There's something about being there, removing yourself, then being back in there, that helps create bonds. You just have to give people a little breathing room. Realize that what you're doing is asking a lot of people. Sticking a camera in someone's face, being around for all their intimate moments, all the stuff that they go through... It's a tremendous act of trust on their part. A tremendous amount of trust they're handing over to you. You have to be able to use it wisely, and in a way that will honor this amazing, not to sound cheesy, but this amazing gift that people give you. And also, give them a little space to kind of fill up their own reserves. We all know what it's like to be at a dinner party for too long, Where you're like, "Oh, I like these people, "But I just need a breather." "I just need to be in my own room and be alone." As much as you're gonna feel that, the people that you shoot with, they're under the microscope, almost literally. It's important to give them a little bit of space. Yeah?
Just to take it back to the story structure exercise, and the story arc exercise... How often, and this could be a lengthy process, are you going back and redoing this exercise and tweaking it? And is that something you're constantly doing?
Not constantly, but I'd say, because you don't want to get too.. There's something about learning some of these rules and then breaking them, learning them, and breaking them. You want this to be a tool, you don't want this to be a crutch. You certainly don't want to be handcuffed by this. You want to be able to tell stories in ways that are weird, and edgy, and out there, breaking boundaries, and all that stuff, but you don't want to be totally lost in your story, like, "I don't know where the hell this thing is going. "What am I even doing?" This is really about refocusing yourself, often taking stuff that you know in story. When you do this story exercise, by the time you're here, you probably should be able to answer these questions. You should be able to go through your story and say, "Yeah, I know what the answer to that is," and, "Oh, did we see this in the footage?" Because I know this about the character. I know that she's been so depressed that she can't even get off the couch. But, wait, does my audience know that? Or is that just something I know? Is that actually in the footage that I have? That's when you're like, "Oh, right." In order for this to work, I need to make sure that beat is in there. So you're using it to help you, when you feel lost, realize what you know, realize you do know where it's going, think about where it should land, and then, throw it away and get weird. Experiment, try things, and make things out of order. All of this stuff is so moved ahead, and the boundaries get pushed, because people try things, and experiment instead of just staying... If all stories followed this exact structure we'd all get really bored. We'd be like, "I know where this is going." But this will help you stay focused, especially in the beginning, where the switch from photography, where you don't need this at all, to video, where you really need this. It's helpful to ask, "Is this a story that I "could literally tell a kindergartner?" That's the type of story structure. Could even a kindergartner get this? If I'm not even using those basics, I've gotta rethink. Yes?
Another quick question about this, with regard to working with a client with an editor, how often do you need to communicate if the story is changing right in front of your eyes? So that they know that expectations should change about the final outcome.
I think it's a good idea to touch base. One, I do a fair amount of touching base with an editor, especially when I was in the slightly earlier stages of this, because it is a collaborative process. If I was out there directing something totally on my own, not co-directing the way I was with the film, I might talk to an editor before I leave, talk about the story, make sure they're on board, make sure I've got someone to deliver this stuff to when I get home, and if something changed, I would call them. There's an editor I work with, Josh Banville, who's wonderful, and I called him from India, on a 12-hour different time zone, because I was like, "So, this thing just took this real left turn. "These are the new beats, do you think that will work?" Not because I need him to give me the yes or no, or permission, but because it's really good to bounce ideas off of people. In some ways, with the assigning editor, the person that commissioned the project, rather than the actual, physical editor of the material, in some ways I would check in with them about that less, because left turns, before they see how it can actually work... As long as the real editor believes that it can work, in some ways, I don't like to throw too many cogs in the wheel before I can show them, "Here's what happened." Sometimes in that situation, I just wait, execute it, make sure it looks good, then I'm like, "Here's the story. "It's a little different than what we thought, "but it still works." That sort of thing. Yeah?
Great question, thank you. Another one from Dania Ali, thanks. Keep bringing those questions in, these are fantastic. With regard to stories changing, over time, she's saying that, as photographers, as videographers, our styles, our techniques, our level of expertise, change as well. Do you find that sometimes one might lose the ability to use footage that they shot three years ago, that might not be at the same par?
Yup, that is definitely part of shooting a lot too, which is that if you're coming from your gut, and you're always putting your best effort forward, and you're trying to really shoot... This is part of why shooting the world, the way you feel the world is, and doing things, not so much to please others, but to be genuinely honest about how you see it, and translating it through you... It will, hopefully, always feel like your own stuff. But certainly, from year one of shooting "The Pearl" to year three or four of shooting "The Pearl"... Our shooting was better, way better. We had to cut around to a lot of the earlier stuff, I was making tons of mistakes at first, in part, I was shooting on a 5D and I kept wanting to take pictures, so I interrupted all of this video by clicking my shutter. That is a problem. Even switching cameras, upgrading gear, stuff like that. You will find that some of your earlier material can sometimes feel a little weaker. Again, it won't always be chronological in your edit. In some ways that helps, because if you start with this really strong stuff, and then there's a little dip in the material, it's maybe not as obvious as starting from really weak stuff that no one wants to watch, and then people have clicked away from it by the time anything gets good. Yeah?
This question comes from Chris Walt who said, with regard to creating story, the question is of balance between on-camera interviews and voiceovers, is it best to avoid on-camera, because that's the same old, same old? Or if not, what is the key to an interesting, on-camera interview?
That's a great question. We are gonna tackle interviews tomorrow, when we talk about sound, but for right now I would say, in my own work thus far, I haven't really wanted many on-camera interviews. Everything in "The Pearl" is voiceover. It was all taken on-camera, then we used it elsewhere. But we're gonna tackle interview stuff tomorrow, which I'm excited to talk about, because it's super important.
Sure. Okay, so there is story structure, that you have to be thinking about when you're making films, short or long. You have to think about, where does this begin? What's the structure, and where does it end? And within that, there is scene story. And every scene, you should be thinking about it in the same way. Not only is your overarching story a story, but every scene is like a mini-story. That means that we need to know where we are, we have to understand who the characters are, we've got to get in there, something has to happen, it can't just be pretty footage. There was so much that my co-director and I shot, because it's just pretty. And the editor was like, "That's great. "I'm not gonna use it." Because it didn't serve any purpose. I would just want to go out there, and collect stuff that's gorgeous. And sometimes that can be little breathers, those can function as little changes of pace, or getting you from one thing to another, but they're not really scenes. In a scene, something happens. There's a mini-story that happens in there, and you have to think about, how do I get in there? What's gonna happen? And then, how do I get out?