One of the coolest parts of the Raindance Film Festival was my first introduction to VR technology. As I sat in a Masterclass I learned how challenging this new technology is for linear story telling. The viewer could be looking left while the big murder happens to the right. The rest of the story doesn’t make sense if you don’t have your head turned the right way. VR storytelling could become a challenge and an art of coaxing the viewer to look where you want them to look.
This could be a call to write a non-linear story. There could be a story where the elements inspire a person to explore as they feel compelled. The climax is their personal understanding of an important message – the meaning behind all the actions and symbols they experienced in the world of the story.
This idea was pretty exciting for me because I wrote a book on a story structure that is non-linear. There are thirteen beats – key elements in the transformation of the protagonist – but they can happen in any order. I don’t mean you can use flashbacks and leaps into the future. The story can unfold in any order and when a critical mass of understanding is reached the story reaches its climax. Its like the viewer is writing the story through the way they experience it. The story teller is creating the space where the elements of personal growth are all waiting to be found.
My book is called The Virgin’s Promise. Its name comes from a virgin forest – trees recognised as being valuable just for being themselves. The Virgin story is of learning who you are, separate from what everyone else expects of you, and bringing your true self to life. This internal journey is in high contrast to the hero’s journey, which focuses on overcoming external dangers.
VR storytelling, with the viewer as a part of the story, has a natural compatibility with stories of internal growth.
The movie Arrival for example, could make an excellent VR movie. People would know to go to the pod at a specific time each day to be pulled forward in the plot. The rest of the time they could be wandering between the masculine and the feminine perspective trying to understand whatever inspired their curiosity. They could be driven by a desire to experience novelty or to feel the contrast of masculine science and war and feminine communication and relationships thinking styles and see how those differences produce different world-views.
In non-linear story telling, the viewer could make their discoveries in any order and the insight would still be profound. The climax happens when the protagonist, in this case the VR viewer, reaches an internal connection to something that is meaningful.
The arrival of VR technology has created a marvellous challenge for storytelling. We can create devices that will pull the viewer in the direction of a linear story and we can write stories that are virtual playgrounds for the viewer to explore and reach their own insights.
Where did this film come from?! I finally caught up with a sci-fi feature called The Osiris Child, originally titled Science Fiction Volume One: The Osiris Child in full. This film is way, way, way better than it should be, and left me totally blown away. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is extremely impressive storytelling, with some cool ideas I have never seen before in any film. I can’t speak for others who don’t like it, but I can say this is exactly the kind of sci-fi I love. It’s remarkably ambitious storytelling on a galactic scale, created on a minimal budget, utilizing some sleek filmmaking tricks that actually make this successful. The world building (or rather, universe building) in this rivals Luc Besson’s Valerian, and in all honesty, upon first viewing I actually like this more than Valerian. I really, really enjoyed it – but I do not think everyone will. ›››
Can you learn filmmaking fundamentals in eight hours? Philip Bloom thinks so.
DP Philip Bloom has been on the film education and workshop circuit for as long as we can remember, and now he has released what looks to be his most comprehensive online course yet. Bloom’s Cinematic Masterclass contains seven, hour-long modules plus a bonus intro session that you can watch free just for signing up. The broad topics covered are: camera basics, visual storytelling, interviews, slow motion, timelapse, drones and aerial cinematography, story (putting all the pieces together in a real-world shooting scenario), and post-production. In his blog, Bloom says that the essential skills of lighting and audio are covered throughout the series, rather than in individual episodes.
In the free intro class, Bloom gives you the bare essentials of what gear you need for your first kit, like a fluid head tripod, camera, lens, monitor, mic and headphones, and, more importantly, what specific qualities you should look for in your purchases.
Color is one of the most powerful tools you’ll use as a filmmaker.
How do you tell a story? If you’re a filmmaker you know that you have so much more than the written word at your disposal. You have dialogue, camera movement, framing, costuming, set design, and editing all there waiting to inform and entertain your audience. But there is one very powerful narrative element that should never go unnoticed on any film production: color.
In this video, JP Caldeano of CINEMATICJ explains basic color theory, as well as how filmmakers can use color as a powerful storytelling device.
Caldeano does a great job of breaking down basic color theory for those who may not know much about it, but he also brings up a great point for those who may have more experience working with color with their films. It’s something that seems pretty simple but it actually goes unnoticed rather easily in the chaos of film production.
I have two favorite contemporary filmmakers. In terms of mainstream commercial films, there is Pixar. For independent movies, there are the Coen brothers. Both are hugely successful in what they do, commercially and critically.
In this 1-week online course, we will analyze most of the movies the Coen brothers have written and directed including such memorable films as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.
Through extensive analysis and discussion, we will dig into six narrative dynamics that appear throughout Coen brothers movies, and enable you to use them to workshop your own original story.
Let’s face it: The Coen brothers have created some of the most distinctive, entertaining movies in the last two decades. They return to certain themes, tropes, memes and talismans like this one: The Howling Fat Man.
We will look at that minutia because… well, it’s just fun. However our focus will be on larger principles that are more applicable to our own writing.
Here is the lecture schedule [all written by me]:
Lecture 1: The Coen Brothers’ Narrative Legacy Lecture 2: Ordinary Character / Extraordinary Circumstance Lecture 3: The Long Shadow of Authority Figures Lecture 4: The Shiny Hope of Grand Schemes Lecture 5: The Dynamism of Violence Lecture 6: Morally Complicated Universe Lecture 7: Unresolved Endings
Plus I will share 6 practical storytelling tips gleaned from Coen brothers movies.
The class includes:
Seven lectures written by Scott Myers Six Coen brothers inspired storytelling tips Daily forum Q&As Workshop writing exercises with feedback A 75-minute live teleconference between instructor and class members
Movies written by Joel and Ethan Coen have been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 4 times, and nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or 7 times, winning once.
Like Pixar, the Coen brothers have carved their own path and have proven themselves to be master storytellers.
I am excited to share storytelling insights I have learned from studying Coen brothers movies in this exciting 1-week online class providing insights you can use to elevate your own writing.
Consider joining me beginning Monday, May 22 for Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling, a great way to learn principles, dynamics and techniques apparent in the movies of these fine filmmakers to upgrade your own story-crafting abilities.
As the Dude might say, “That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.”
In Part 1, we considered a Harvard Business Review article about the influence of stories on the brain. My thoughts on the article:
For years, I’ve used the term audience identification. Something about your story, most particularly involving your Protagonist, must resonate with a reader. What that boils down to is creating a sense of empathy on the part of the reader with at least one of your central characters. If you do that, you shrink the distance between the reader and the story universe you are creating. Indeed, the reader can begin to live vicariously through the experiences of the Protagonist, the degree of empathy so strong as to pull the reader into the story.
It’s not enough to create empathy. Empathy does not necessarily translate into a compelling story. To do that, we need to craft a narrative that involves some sense of tension. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t have good drama without conflict”? That is the same sentiment as what is at work here. There have to be problems to solve and obstacles to overcome in order for a narrative to create a sense of tension in a reader. Of course, the presence of this tension presupposes a resolution to it which in turn provides a sense of emotional satisfaction.
The intriguing thing here is that while we, as writers, are thinking about emotions and psychology, much of it apparently boils down to a chemical reaction in the brain.
That chemical is called Oxytocin. This discussion led me to another Harvard Business Review article: The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool.
It’s not often that you hear Budweiser and Shakespeare mentioned in the same breath. But according to new research from Johns Hopkins University, the Bard’s deft application of storytelling techniques featured prominently in the beer company’s Super Bowl commercial.
In “Puppy Love,” a perfectly adorable yellow lab becomes inseparable friends with a Clydesdale. Sneaking out of his pen, the pup and the horse “talk” in the stables and cavort on an idyllic farm –until someone comes to adopt the dog. The distressed puppy whines and places his paws against the window of the car set to take him to his new home. All seems lost until the Clydesdale rallies the other horses to stop the vehicle from leaving. Reunited, the two commence frolicking in the horse pasture and, we assume, live happily ever after.
Here is the commercial:
Currently at 53M+ views on YouTube, so clearly something at work here in terms of the story. But what?
If Keith Quesenberry were a betting man, he would have cleaned up. The researcher at Johns Hopkins predicted that the Budweiser spot would be a winner after conducting a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. In a paper that will be published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, Quesenberry and research partner Michael Coolsen focused on brands’ use of specific strategies to sell products, such as featuring cute animals or sexy celebrities. But they also coded the commercials for plot development.
They found that, regardless of the content of the ad, the structure of that content predicted its success. “People are attracted to stories,” Quesenberry tells me, “because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.”
It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.
“Especially in the Super Bowl, those 30-second ads are almost like mini movies,” he says. Quesenberry found that the ads that told a more complete story using Freytag’s Pyramid — a dramatic structure that can be traced back to Aristotle — were the most popular.
Shakespeare had mastered this structure, arranging his plays in five acts to include an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a dénouement — or final outcome. The “Best Buds” story also uses these elements to great effect. The more of the acts each version of the ad had, the better it performed.
Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.
We can now add Cortisol and Dopamine to Oxytocin, all chemical reactions in our brains related to storytelling. But to get there via a story, we have Freytag’s Pyramid. Looking at it, I still see three movements with concurrent chemical reactions:
Empathy [Oxytocin]: Establish a point of emotional resonance with characters. Tension [Cortisol]: Create a dilemma that arouses disunity. Release [Dopamine]: Resolve the dilemma that brings about unity.
Yet another way of looking at Three Act Structure.
Of course, this approach assumes we want to write a story that leaves people in a happy place. Obviously there are stories that do not do that. Which is, of course, completely fine.
However there is a reason why a vast majority of mainstream Hollywood movies have happy endings. Actually two reasons: Meet Mr. Dopamine and Ms. Oxytocin!
In Part 3, we delve into the science of a well-constructed plot.
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
When it comes to perfect endings, look no further than Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners.’
[Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t seen ‘Prisoners’ and plan to go in blind in the near future, we recommend that you skip this article.]
Denis Villeneuve is a master of suspense. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a master of framing. But it wasn’t until Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners that the director proved he was also a master of endings.
In a new video essay from One Perfect Shot, H. Perry Horton demonstrates how the final 30 seconds of Prisoners comprise the perfect movie ending. As Horton points out, you can make or break a thriller in its final moments; either the carefully wound strings come unspooled, or they tighten, revealing a beautifully crafted work. In the ending of Prisoners, before the screen goes dark, Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski communicate an entire film’s worth of themes and character without the aid of dialogue or any further exposition.
When Martin Scorsese appears in his films, it’s more than just a mere cameo.
Spotting director cameos is like playing the cinematic version of Where’s Waldo. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for appearing in his own films, but others like John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, and M. Night Shyamalan have also done so in most of their work. While these cameos are mostly trivial in nature, or an entertaining continuation of a cinematic tradition, there’s one director that has brought great significance to his time on the other side of the lens: Martin Scorsese. In this video essay from Fandor, Leigh Singer explores how the director uses his appearances on screen to add dimension and complexity to his characters and stories.
Scorsese has appeared in many of his own films, including Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and even The Wolf of Wall Street as one of the people Leonardo DiCaprio’s character dupes into buying penny stocks over the phone. But perhaps his greatest cameo, or at least the one most people remember, is as the man who gets into Travis Bickle’s cab and talks about killing his wife in Taxi Driver.
Every moment of the storytelling process is filled with emotion.
If you’re a fan of Kenneth Lonergan’s films and plays, you know that he tells stories with characters wrestling with their deepest emotions, many times struggling with very real existential crises. And yet, Lonergan also has a wonderful sense of humor that he laces throughout these emotional tales.
The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Manchester by the Sea and much lauded playwright recently gave a very interesting talk for the BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture series, where he works through his personal experiences and describes how they relate to his writing and directing. Check out the lecture below, and if you don’t have time for the full talk, you can read our takeaways after the video.
Here’s what we learned from the first chapter of Pixar’s free storytelling workshop.
As we recently announced, Pixar’s latest partnership with Khan Academy explores “The Art of Storytelling” through six lessons. The animation house has partnered with Khan in the past, with numerous free tutorials on animation craft. This is the first time, however, that Pixar is opening up about its greatest contribution to the filmmaking universe: story.
In addition to employing some of the finest and most creative writers in the industry, Pixar has a unique process when it comes to storytelling. Each film spends at least a year in the research and development phase, where writers are encouraged to experiment—and fail.
“We Are All Storytellers,” the first lesson in the new Khan series, was released last week. We checked it out and compiled the most pertinent lessons. If you intend to try this lesson yourself, be forewarned: one of the exercises is to choose your top three desert island films, so set aside some serious soul-searching time.