I teach technology. Specifically, how to understand and use the latest tools our industry provides to tell stories with media. However, from time to time I wonder whether this deep focus on tech is the best use of my time and whether I should be doing something different.
It is in the midst of these periodic musings that this blog was written.
I was wandering in a bookshop the other day when, amidst a pile of old books, I discovered an especially thick one with a photo of a gorgeous house on the cover. Removing it from the pile and opening the book, I saw it contained the blueprints to build the house shown on the cover. All the plans I needed to build the perfect house were contained in that book.
Except the instructions alone were not enough, because I didn’t have the technical understanding of how to read those blueprints and apply the tools to create that house.
This set me to thinking. It is axiomatic in our industry that story is paramount. But, a story without the craft knowledge to support it is like a blueprint without a builder – an unrealizable dream.
Listening to Alan Edward Bell (editor: “Water For Elephants” and “The Amazing Spider-man”) speak at a recent user group meeting drove this home. He talked about how he and his team spent time “shaping the story” from the materials that were shot on set. Yet, in almost the same breath he spoke about how his knowledge of his editing system and his ability to use it to create effects allowed him to test ideas and craft the story until everyone was happy with it.
I like that phrase “craft the story.” It implies a marriage between technical skills and story-telling skills. As I was reflecting on this further I realized that it takes three elements to create a film: story, craft, and resources.
Story is the creative compelling idea – expressed in characters, situation, or plot – that underlies the entire production. It is exactly like the blueprint of a house.
Craft are all the technical skills that are necessary to tell that story in an effective manner. In the example of our blueprint, to construct the house we need the technical skills of carpentry, plumbing, wiring, painting… all the myriad crafts that go into building a house.
Sometimes, the person writing the story has all those skills; sometimes, but rarely. In most cases, you need to assemble a team. Which brings me to the third point.
Resources are what you need to attract and maintain the team necessary to create the story. Traditionally, we think of resources as money. But resources are far more than that. They could also be donated time. Donated equipment. Time off from work. Access to specialized equipment, personnel, or facilities.
Resources create the bridge between a great story and the craft skills necessary to bring it to life. Many young filmmakers create teams of talented people who donate their time in return for the fun and challenge of working on a project. This donated time and enthusiasm is just as important a resource as a financial backer writing a check.
Finding the right story is the start. But the hard part is taking that blueprint and turning it into a finished production. A three-legged stool requires all legs to be equal. Valuing one leg more than the other two makes the stool useless.
Story – Craft – Resources. You need all three — either contained in a single talented individual, or created out of collaboration. Equally necessary – equally valuable.
As always, let me know what you think.
7 Responses to Story Is Not Enough
As I moved from working as a camera/TD/editor to working as a writer for four seasons of a network series and several show pilots/film scripts and now back again to editing and camera, I have found my own set of important parameters quite similar to Larry’s observations.
While the three points of “Story, craft, resources” are absolutely true, I feel that story is the foundation where the other points can take root and florish. Story doesn’t have to be a detailed written script, it can be a single abstract idea but that idea has to be certain and solid. An idea as simple as, “Beautiful clouds” or as complicated as “Cloud monsters attack New York City but it turns out the monsters are really physical/psychic projections from disgruntled citizens who have undergone a new plastic surgery treatment”. Obviously one needs few resources and decent craft while the other clearly needs lots of resources and lots of craft. The second idea is so absurd that the story has to be solid for it to work. Without a solid story, well edited and tested it will never work well (although that doesn’t seem to stop a certain network from airing similar storylines).
I also find that craft unfortunately gets split into two categories, technical (camera, lighting, sound, etc.) and talent (actors, interviewers, etc.) with the emphasis going to the technical to achieve “a look”.
Several years ago I worked on a production where the producers were fixated on image technique, especially DOF because that’s all people talk about now. The resources weren’t there to cover playing with lenses and focus pulls and the production suffered, time and morale, as a result.
My first sit down with a client always starts with, “What are you trying to say to the viewer?” That is the story and once that is understood, we can move on. Even if the project takes a 90 degree turn into something different we have an understanding that makes working better. For me story is the foundation where everything else that goes into a production lives. A great story with good craft can trump poor resources with intelligent decisions made to balance all three.
Very impressive! I’ve never heard anyone sorting out the forest that way before. It certainly brings a fresh perspective into view for me.
If one were to put a yardstick against each of those 3 for ones’ self, I’m sure many of us would find we are stronger in one than the others. The benefit of taking that measurement, would help each of us figure out how much help we need in each area.
Everyone I know in the industry feels a bit bi-polar regarding emphasis on tech/story. I just took a call from a director who I often consult on production and post — most of the time it amounts to me calming him down, and giving him only what he needs to know regarding correct shutter speeds, frame rates, and the like so that he can focus on content. Then with tech out of the way, for the next half of the conversation we wind up talking about story.
But you’re spot on. In film-making the two will always be intertwined. What I love most about your training is that it lets me cut through all the tech haze quickly so I can get to the content. Without an adequate understanding of the craft, we’d never be able to get to story! Even screenwriters have to learn the proper cinema grammar and structure before they can sit down and hammer out the next Citizen Kane.
Until we have technology that can literally attach to our brain and retinas and create stunning sound and imagery from our thoughts alone, we will still need to learn the tools of our trade. And, even then, when this “thought movie tech” comes to be, we will still need people who can troubleshoot it so we can get back to creating our “thought movie stories.”
When the time comes, I’m counting on excellent Larry Jordan training on “getting the most out of your brain/retina devices.”
All that being said, I’d love to see more content from you regarding story and storytelling. Perhaps a webinar series with you and Norman Hollyn that does a modern take on Aristotle’s Poetics?
This is great! I’ve wondered the same thing – How much should I focus on storytelling versus learning techniques/software? I really like how you’ve brought them all together. They all overlap. I’ve thought about these concepts before, but this gives me better language to express it. I’m prepping to teach a technical editing class soon, and this will likely be part of it 🙂
The idea of filmmaking as “craft” is one that I have long held and your metaphor of building the house is exactly how I like to describe the process of filmmaking to those who are largely unfamiliar with it. The small film school that I attended did their damnedest to ingrain the “auteur theory” into our heads. That a film is the result of the singular vision of the director. I held that belief in my head until the very first day I set foot on a professional film set. (As a PA in the locations department for a CBS TV movie.) I had the immediate awareness that I was on a construction site. In fact, when the film industry first established itself in my home state of North Carolina, most of the below the line crew were recruited from the local construction industry. Since then, I have always viewed film as a truly collaborative medium…and a craft. But like you said, Larry, it’s not just the collaboration of people, but Story, Craft and Resources must work together (ideally) in harmony to create a good film. That’s a very hard thing for one person to pull off. That’s why the best filmmakers start with a great idea (story) and surround themselves with even greater people.
It seems to me it’s always the people who have the technical talent already espousing the ideas you mention. For example, if you ALREADY know how to edit in Avid, light a scene correctly, have access to hard-to-get locations, etc. you will say that story is king. Having a great house blueprint without access to knowledge of plumbers, electricians, framers, etc. will do you little good, though, as you point out.
It really is a 3-legged stool, as you point out, and this post helps me articulate that better.
Larry, did you buy the book with the House Blue prints?