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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Story Structure and “Arrival”

The Story Structure of "Arrival" (2016)

William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Princess Bride) wrote in his classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade that “screenplays are structure.” Because Goldman is a writing god, people listened.

They listened, but they may not have heard well. Goldman was saying that structure was necessary to a screenplay, but he wasn’t saying it was sufficient.  Yet many took Goldman’s point, misunderstood, and ran with it, pitching structure-first as the key to writing film.  Luckily, it mostly worked anyway, because most film beginners– and many professionals– fail to focus on a hero and a clear beginning, middle and end.

But here’s what Goldman never meant: He did not mean that simple, formulaic adherence to story structure rules was the ultimate endpoint to the art of film. He did not mean that movies should be about their structure.

But that’s where we’ve come to with most American franchise films.  A story structure you can set your watch to.  Reluctant, flawed hero is forced in act 1 to– at the 20 minute mark– take up arms; for the next 60 minutes to fight the villain and fail at the end of act 2; and in act 3 spend 30 minutes blowing up a boatload of buildings and saving the world. These films don’t just round the story bases, they stop on each one and have a picnic.

Making a movie about its own story structure has some advantages. You can tell where you are if you tune in in the middle. You can see the plot “twists” coming for minutes, so you feel smart.  It’s safer financially too, since simple stories sell better in other languages. It’s a win/win for everyone.  Kind of.  Because it’s also insanely boring.

The most artfully made superhero movies, like Marvel’s enjoyable Dr. Strange, combat boredom by hiding their rote story beats under millions of dollars in great acting, great joke-writing and beautifully crafted special effects. Yes, they blow up the world in act 3, but the “how” is smart and fun to watch (and in this case, backwards). But underneath the exciting ride, Dr. Strange is still traditionally structure-forward. Every question is nailed down, resolved and put away until the sequel. There’s not much of it still in your brain when you leave the theater.

This brings us to the lesson of Arrival, a brilliant new sci-fi film starring Amy Adams, directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a Ted Chiang short story.  Arrival isn’t about its structure. Instead, the structure serves the filmmaker’s inquiry, holding up what it’s really about: ideas. The film lightly touches the bases as it heads toward home instead of stomping on them. It even screws with its own structure, re-ordering it and playing on your franchise-film expectations to create tension and surprise.

Story structure 101 would say that Arrival is about a professor of linguistics (the hero) who is called in to translate for visiting aliens (beginning).  Traitors at the top-secret military base and a potential mis-translation of the alien’s language (middle) threaten to cause the humans on earth to attack the aliens, and each other (end.)  Each of those beats shows up on screen, and in a normal studio movie, that’s all that would.  Big battles, ratcheted up tension. But Arrival isn’t about its structure.

Overlaid on this basic structure is the story of a woman who raises a daughter with a fatal disease.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman learning a new language even though its screwing with her brain.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman confronting the military.

Overlaid on that is the story of a relationship between a man and a woman who meet, have a child, and then split up.

Overlaid on that is the story of aliens teaching humans that time doesn’t really work the way they think it does.

Story on story on story, beautifully interwoven in a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. The stories connect and cross, each with its own clear structure. Some take place in flashes from another time and place, so they’re not in order. In some, the director blows by the story beat so subtly you wonder if you missed it.  But you didn’t: he takes a tired “ticking time bomb” beat and, to great effect, practically ignores it. In a normal studio film it would be a 15 minute setpiece with accelerating editing and tense military music. You won’t find any of that here.  But the result of all this sure-footed interweaving of story is that we feel secure.  The film takes us on a journey.  Supported, we willingly go along, even if we don’t understand all of it.  The not-knowing is called intrigue. It pulls us in, and makes us wonder.

What it makes us wonder about are three important questions: First, scientists tell us that when you learn another language, your brain restructures itself to think differently.  What happens if you learn a non-human language?  Two: What if physicists are right, and time doesn’t flow the way we think it does?  And three: Is a life worth living if you know how its going to end?

These are important questions.  We care during the film, and we care afterward. The questions hold us in our seats, and give us something to think and talk about after the film.  Making a movie about it’s own structure is reductive, boring, and closes the door on a deeper interaction with the film. A movie that asks questions about our world is magic.

In an era where intrigue is the currency of modern entertainment, which should you do with your videos?  The answer depends on how ambitious you are.  First, be good at basic structure. Please. But once you are, use it to raise important questions.  And remember there’s nothing more intriguing than an inquiry into what it really means to be human.

As you might suspect, I think you should go out and see Arrival. Like, now. Then comment below, or tweet your thoughts @stevestockman.

Should You Be a Film Major?

I am an aspiring film director from the UK. I have always been passionate about storytelling, and was part of countless productions in school. Although I decided that performance wasn’t for me, two years ago I began to develop an interest in filmmaking. There is no better feeling than when you come away from a film with an emotion, feeling or thought playing on your mind. I read your book over summer and it has given me so many new perspectives on filmmaking and creativity as a whole.

Next year I go to University and I am currently deciding on a major for my degree. I’m torn between going with a film major — film and literature, and a film production degree– or perhaps a degree in something else entirely. Do you have any recommendations?

–Tom

In the grand tradition of adults giving advice to young people, Tom, let me answer your question with a platitude: “Aspiration is nothing compared to Inspiration.”  I made that one up, but feel free to print it on a tee shirt, or save it for when you have kids. Kids love platitudes.  Oh, they don’t?  Fine, I’ll try to explain with less pomposity:

Aspiration might lead you to a film major at a prestigious film school, with an academically rigorous program. Which is awesome, as who wouldn’t want to study the greats, guided by inspirational professors?  There is no questioning the benefit of an intellectual understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking.

But there’s another important part of your film and video education:  Film is a portfolio business.  You’ll be hired by others based what you make and who you’ve worked with. If you do good work with good people, other good people will hire you for more good work. A little circular, perhaps, but all it means is that you have to do actual film work to succeed.  Whether it’s making your own stuff on an iPhone or interning for a big production company, building a portfolio of work means you’re learning by doing and growing your film career.

Which means you need to focus on Inspiration.  How well does the program inspire you and help you make stuff? Does the curriculum encourage student production? Are the professors strong in experiential learning, helping students grow by doing? Encouraging them to meet each other?  Are there clubs and groups you can join to network with other students and do extra work on your own?  Is there an active film community in the college area, so you can intern or do freelance work? Does the college help find placement?  Do they have equipment and people who know how to use it?

Its great to have both kinds of programs, but if you have to choose, choose the one that inspires you to do the work. What you study in college– film major or not– isn’t nearly as important to your filmmaking career as what opportunities you’ll take advantage of when you’re there.

More on careers in film here and here!

Webcast: Why Bad Video Happens to Good Causes

Do you run a non-profit?  How’s your video storytelling?  Want to make it better?

If you answered “yes” and “meh” to the first two questions, the answer to that last one should be “Duh.” (Students of this blog will recognize here what we in the media business call a “rhetorical” question. Though I’m told there are some outside the media business who also call it that.)

I’m co-leading a webcast later this month with my friend Andy Goodman to help good causes in need of video improvement. We’ll talk about ten reasons why bad video keeps happening to good causes.  We’ll show you how to produce video your audience will want to watch and build a stronger video culture in your organization on a nonprofit’s budget.

“Why Bad Video Happens to Good Causes,” September 22nd from 11a-12n Pacific (2-3p Eastern). Tuition is just $49.50 per person, group discounts are available, and you can reserve your space here.

Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide– Free Download!

Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide

Video Boot Camp Guide for Teachers and Trainers. Download Free!

It’s the start of the school year.  Coming up: a year of student video projects.  And hours of misery for viewers.  If only there was a way to make student video better.  Hmmmmm….

Wait– I’ve got it!  How about this free 5 hour lesson plan to help your students do better video?  Teachers and trainers have been downloading it in droves, and why not?  It’s free!  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave.

If you’re a teacher or trainer, or know one, check it out.  And if you HAVE used the Video Boot Camp lesson guide in your classroom how’d you do?

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.

And please feel free to share the link– or download and email directly to your favorite teacher!

 Teachers:  Questions on how to use video in the classroom?  Ask them here!

Just Don’t: 6 Ways NOT to Shoot Video Interviews

I’ve written a lot about how to shoot video interviews (here, here and here, for example) but not a lot about how NOT to shoot video interviews. Here are some advanced “don’t do this” tips for you to go out and not do immediately:

1.  Don’t tell them what to say.  In commercial focus groups a few years back, we showed two different sets of “testimonial” type spots.  One set featured absolutely real people, who said real things about the product.  The other featured people saying more positive things about the product, but they were actors, and the lines were written.  Focus group participants told the moderator that both sets of testimonials were fake, and they thought everyone got paid, or were actors reading lines.  Nonetheless, they rated the spots with real people saying real things as more likable and more believable.

My theory is that cameras are lie detectors of a sort.  They magnify the facial detail that gives us clues about the speaker’s thoughts. Even if we’re not aware of it, we can tell what’s real and true, and we react to it differently. Ask real questions, get real answers, and your interviews will have real impact. (Some metaphorical support for this point of view: watch Richard Linklater’s should-have-won-best-picture Boyhood. See how different it feels to watch actors really age vs. putting on makeup.)

2.  Don’t do that “repeat the question back” thing.  You often hear interviewers tell their subjects to repeat back the question in their answer.  Something like: “When I ask you what your favorite food is, say ‘My favorite food is cheesecake.'”  The result: material that’s sometimes easier to edit, but often looks stilted.  Here’s a better idea: don’t ask a question that can be answered with one single word.  Instead, have a conversation with your subject.  If you get a one word answer, follow up with, “Tell me about the perfect cheesecake.” or “When was the first time you tasted cheesecake?”  Both open up the conversation.  Keep track in your head or on paper of whether you’re getting what you need. Remember that you can edit to massage the final interview.

3.  Don’t settle for masturbatory comments.  Chevrolet ran a series of ads this Spring in which “real people” looked at Chevy trucks and said things like “It’s great.” and “I’m surprised.”  It was about as interesting as it sounds.  You may think your job is to get them to say nice things about the product, but your real job is to get them to express relatable truths about the product that will intrigue viewers.  And trust me, “it’s great!” doesn’t qualify.  Blow past the superficial chaff and get to the wheat by asking “Why?”  Why was the truck great? Why were they surprised?  “Why?” forces people to explain themselves. You begin to see their point of view and hear their stories.  In an interview, that’s gold.

4. Don’t rush. When I do testimonial spots I spend a minimum of 20 minutes with subjects. For character interviews for an unscripted tv series, maybe 40 minutes.  This lets me develop a rapport with the subject and they have time to relax and be themselves.  Truth always plays better on TV.

5.  Don’t be rigid.  Flexibility makes your subjects more comfortable and more attentive.  You can both relax into a nice back and forth, following the conversational angles of interest.  This brings out your interviewees’ unique ways of looking at the world. If you stick strictly to your question list, you’ll miss surprises that are more interesting than you could ever imagine.

6.  Don’t abdicate responsibility.  It’s your job to pull information out of your subjects by guiding a great interview.  It’s not their job to know what you need, or try to please you. Practice, be open, and remember who’s driving the bus.

There are no bad interview subjects, just bad directors.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Some people don’t interview well.  But in my experience we’re talking at most 2% of the population.  If you’re having trouble with your video interviews more often, you might try not doing a few new things from this list.

Do you know more things not to do in interviews?  This is an excellent time to comment, below.

5 Tips for Father’s Day Video that Doesn’t Suck

Father’s Day Video.  Memorable–or as undercooked as the runny eggs and cold toast the kids bring Dad in bed?  Here are a five tips to improve the video you shoot this Father’s Day.

1. Find the Hero: Focus your attention on someone– anyone!  Having a hero invites us to think about our videos as stories about someone, which makes them more intriguing.

Choosing a hero changes the video.  For example, if Dad is the hero, your story might be “Dad gets woken up for breakfast in bed– at 4:30am.”  Told from Dad’s point of view, the story might alternate shots of the kids sneaking toward the bed, dripping coffee everywhere, with shots of sleeping Dad.  The grand presentation would focus on Dad as he gamely chokes down breakfast.

If your daughter is the hero of the same video, it might be called “Sarah surprises Dad.” That video might spend time with 7 year-old Sarah in the kitchen making eggs in the microwave (and a colossal mess) because she’s not allowed to turn on the stove.

There’s no wrong answer here– just focusing on someone will make your video better.

2.  Interview your kids:  We see interviews on TV all the time for a reason:  They work.  They work especially well at capturing the precious moments of childhood. You’re only 6 once.  Start before the big day and ask them to show you what they’re preparing, tell you how Daddy’s going to like it..how they thought of it…if it’s a surprise or not. Interrupt as little as possible.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get plenty of material for the inevitable embarrassing wedding video in 15 or 20 years.

3.  Interview Dad:  Dad’s less likely to say something cute, but your kids will want to remember what he looked like way back…um…now.  And future birthdays may also call for embarrassing video.

4.  Change your perspective:  We tend to stand and hold our video camera at chest height so we can see the monitor.  But where you hold the camera changes the look and feel of your video. Shoot kid shots at kid level for more intimacy.  Try shooting Dad shots from slightly to the side, or over his shoulder as the kids visit, or super close-up.  A different point of view reveals a different world (see also 50 Ways to Shoot My Daughter Doing Homework.)

5.  Stay Close. Zooming in may look great for a few shots, but as a shooting member of the family it also puts you far from the action.  This can make your video feel less intimate.  Father’s Day video is full of subtle emotion.  Stay close to the action and your family’s faces to catch it.  Added benefit: you’ll actually be able to hear what they say.  There’s no such thing as a “zoom microphone.”

Now that you’re ready for great Father’s Day Video, how about a great Father’s Day gift? Like the audio version of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck

Story as a Magical Organizing Force

I have a brain that likes things logical, nicely ordered and in line. You follow the rules, you get the result. I can’t get my head around the order of shots, stories and putting it all together.

Once a week we go to the grandparents house for dinner. We have a niece and nephew, 4 and 1 respectively, that come over as well. It is a good time had by all and I want to capture the moments as they learn and grow. I just can’t figure out what the story is. I get that I should take short shots of what’s happening but when you put them all together, will it make sense?

I’m pretty sure I am just overthinking it, and should maybe just try it.

–Bryan

Yes, you are and you should. But to help you, let me give you a feather to hold in your trunk– oops, I mean a rule you can follow to improve your videos.

Story is a magical organizing force that pulls your video together and makes it more watchable.  And you don’t have to do any writing or heavy thinking in advance to make it work.  Because magical.  Here’s your rule: next dinner, pick the first idea that comes to you and focus on that.

What’s interesting about, say, your nephew? For example, suppose you notice that, being 1, he’s learning his first words. “Baby talks.” Noun/verb. Bang! First thing! That’s your story.

Now shoot short shots of baby playing with language.  At some point, as people interact with baby, something interesting will happen.  Suppose you see Grandpa showing him how to say “fork” and handing him a kids fork. Baby puts it in his ear.  Grandpa repeats the word.  Baby tries to say it, instead uttering a familiar Anglo-Saxon epithet. Everyone laughs.  Baby repeats epithet over and over, then throws food on floor.  Grandpa makes a bad “Meet the Forkers” joke.  End of story.

The magical rule has given you an observational focus.  Grandpa trying to teach baby to talk. By becoming intensely interested in shooting everything about it, you magically find a story.  When this story is done (and it’s done when it feels done or starts to bore you) repeat the observation step and pick another story.  Now shoot that one.

At the end of the dinner you will have a camera full of little stories.  If you like to edit, cut the ones that don’t work so well.  You can package the best ones into standalone bites from vine-length up, depending on how long they stay interesting.  Or edit all of them into a video called (okay, this is not my most inventive title ever) “Dinner at the Grandparents’ House.” When you do, you will be surprised to find that these short and interesting stories fit together in some bigger and very watchable way.

To review the Rule* for Story as an Organizing Force:

  1. If you’re having trouble finding story, go with the first thing that you notice
  2. Become intensely interested in it and
  3. Shoot it until it feels over or you get bored
  4. Repeat
  5. Cut the bad stuff.

 

*Please don’t email about “rules” in video. Been there, done that.  Remember this is just a feather for Bryan.  For you, when it says “rule” please read “exercise.”

If you think the only thing that would make this blog better would be me reading it to you out loud, check out the audio version of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck.