There are No Fish in “The Abyss”

Still from the Abyss
State-of-the-art 1989 digital effects, but no fish.

My writing partner and I were arguing about a scene in a new screenplay. It’s a time-travel piece, and he wanted to explain all the technical steps that lead a character to have a conversation with someone from his distant past. The reason? So the audience would believe their meeting could plausibly happen.

Makes sense. If we don’t show how the machinery works in detail, and explain how the two accidentally met over miles and eons, who will believe it? Credibility comes from detail, right?

It makes sense, but it’s totally wrong. Extreme explanatory detail in a movie is death. We want the audience to believe the story, not write a dissertation on it. If we write a film correctly, the audience happily buys it despite having to leap across vast detail-less gaps. As proof, I offer you: The Abyss.

After Aliens and a few years before Titanic , James Cameron wrote and directed The Abyss. The film tells the story of petroleum workers living thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. When a nuclear sub goes missing they’re recruited by the government to help rescue it– only to find that there’s an alien life-form doing mysterious things– in the Abyss. Dum dum dum…

My favorite thing about the Abyss: it takes place almost entirely on the ocean floor, but there’s not a single fish in the movie.

Technically that’s because Cameron shot most of the underwater scenes in a giant manmade tank. It was a difficult shoot, and trying to support living animals would have made it an impossible shoot. The digital technology of the day precluded layers of composite fish. Thus no fish in this underwater movie set in the ocean.

Does the script explain? Does a scientists character come forward to tell us why fish life around this part of the sea was wiped out, or refer to the region “the fishless void?” Nope, because that would focus our attention on the lack of fish. Instead the film ignores the obvious, tells a gripping action/romance with amazing digital aliens, and we never even think about the fish.

Beyond the normal audience suspension of disbelief (“For the next three hours, I will accept the existence of the Marvel Superheroes as if they are real”), all films require a high tolerance for reality violations. Why is the villain explaining so much before killing the hero? Would this romance really break up over such a minor lie? Why would a creature advanced enough to visit from another galaxy not have a foolproof way to protect itself from humans? How did those soldiers get all the way across Westeros so damn fast?

For most filmmakers, our first impulse is to explain everything. But explaining shines a spotlight on the problem. The art is in not explaining. Figuring out how to keep an audience with us while gliding over things that make no sense in real life.

Great filmmaking is magic, and like any magician, mis-direction is a key arrow in the quiver. Figure out how little information you can get away with and give them less than that. Resist explaining. Artfully treat odd things like they’re normal, and blow past them entertainingly enough to direct audience attention elsewhere.

And the next time you get stuck on a scene with tedious detail, remember: There are no fish in the Abyss.

Sometimes great storytelling is all detail- just not tedious detail. See Better Call Saul: the Devil is in the Details. I don’t see this as a contradiction, but let me know what you think in the comments.

Toy Story: Learning to Use Video Tools

Recently I picked up a multi-rotor drone to carry my HD camera.

I’m having fun flying my drone, but now my videos feel all the same: running along a straight line, go up and take a 360, fly really low almost touching the bushes. Pretty pictures, but not really good video.

Any ideas on how to script/arrange/film better videos for subjects as simple as “last weekend with friends”?

–Ed

Basic drones are mostly good for scene setting and beauty shots. Think fireworks from inside the blasts; an establishing montage of New York City between segments on a TV show; or a high shot of the OK Corral before the gunfight starts.

Drones can be breathtaking for video, but they can also be limiting if they’re used the same way all the time. There is only so much information the tops of people’s heads can communicate.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Okay, it might not have been Lincoln– maybe Socrates. But what he meant was this: you have a cool toy. It may not be the best tool for the job, but you’re so excited about it that you use it anyway. With boring results.

Worse, getting locked into the hammer/nail thing prevents you from seeing all that a hammer can do. It can flatten chicken breast, or pry out a screw. The handle could caress someone’s back or bat a ball. Twenty hammers, welded together, might make a great sculpture. It’s easy to get stuck in one use of a new video toy. Even if you have a hammer, there’s no reason to just pound things.

Which brings me to some general guidelines for using cool video tools the best way possible:

The tool serves the story. The story doesn’t serve the tool. What tale are you telling? You’re communicating in very different language about a christening when you shoot from high up in the ceiling of the church than if you’re on a tight close-up of an adorable baby. Is this an intimate, warm moment, or the climax of The Godfather?

Improve your tool-craft: If you’re feeling trapped by drone moves, it’s you, not the drone. In the hands of a trained pro, drones will blow your mind.

Try using your drone as a static crane, or a low angle dolly. Pick up a tracking unit to lock your drone a moving subject for exciting traveling shots. Choreograph a moving shot from street level to a 10th floor window as part of a scripted piece.  The old “fly and look” is just a small part of what it can do.

Practice my “50 Ways to Shoot One Thing” exercise with your drone and see if you can break out of your drone shot rut.

Do you need the tool at all? The Academy Award-winning doc Free Solo looks like it used drones, but it didn’t. Drones are illegal in national parks. If the filmmakers had had their hearts set on using drones, they might have given up on the film.

Resist the temptation to only use the tool: “Friends at a cookout” doesn’t scream drone to me. I want to be on the ground with your friends, or on macro lenses seeing super-closeups of delicious food (or barbecue disasters- I’ve had both.) Use the drone for what it’s good for, and shoot most of your story with a more human-friendly camera.

Ed asked a great question. Do you have a great question? Ask it here.

The Power of Story Booklet: Free Download!

Talking about “Story” scares people.  

That’s because screenwriting books are filled with stuff like “three act structure,” “inciting incidents,” “act 2 turns” and “petting the dog.” Let me save you some time: it’s all jargon you don’t need to know.  Story is simple: all you need is hero, beginning, middle and end.

Adding or strengthening story makes all film and video better– whether you’re shooting birthday parties  or scripted films with actors.

So I’ve put together this super-simple guide, The Power of Story, excerpted from the world’s best-selling cinematography book. And you can have it instantly!

Get The Power of Story below– free! Twelve pages, no jargon, and exercises you can try right away.  There’s no registration required. After you download, feel free to share the link with your story-challenged friend.

Cover of "The Power of Story" by Steve Stockman
Download this free excerpt just by clicking- no registration required!


Better Call Saul: The Devil is in the Details

There is no better show on television than AMC’s Better Call Saul, from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, ex of Breaking Bad. All four seasons are spectacular, but if you haven’t watched (or even if you have) it’s worth considering what makes it great.  Great writing and acting, sure, but for me the best part of Better Call Saul is that every shot, every sequence, every episode is about intrigue- built by lensing in to the details.

Season 1, Episode 1 doesn’t start with anything as obvious as an establishing shot of a shopping mall, or a freeway sign saying “Welcome to Omaha.” Nor does it give us a clue as to who the main character is, or where we are. Instead, the black and white opening shot is a hand slathering something creamy on a surface.  We don’t know if it’s vertical or horizontal, what the substance is, or what it means that the picture is black and white.

It takes a full ten minutes of detail after detail to tell us that Saul Goodman, hero of the series, has renamed himself “Gene,” is now working at a Cinnabon in Omaha.  He’s hiding, in fear for his life, but desperately misses the man he used to be.  We learn all this with static, detail-focused shots, and not a single word of dialogue. It’s a thing of beauty.

Better Call Saul is a master class in intrigue. Every scene in the show uses carefully layered detail to  give us just a tiny bit of information– and promise even more. That forces us to think– to participate–as shot by shot the show sinks its hook further and further into our brains. It’s like watching a jigsaw puzzle, where a small section of sky or forest or face becomes suddenly visible every few minutes.

In last week’s episode, a brand new character arrives at the airport and has to follow instructions given by burner phone. He drives to a deserted country road, where he’s forced to put his luggage next to him, put a bag over his head and stand on the side of the road. Waiting.

When we finally piece together, five minutes later, that he’s an architect on a job interview for an illegal building project, the reveal feels immensely satisfying. It’s like we did all the work of figuring it out ourselves- like we experienced all the anxiety-drenched emotion of a man with a bag over his head being dragged around Albequerque by criminals.

Details, rather than dialogue, intrigue us into caring about tortured relationships and nerve-wracking suspense. We feel the characters in a way we don’t when we’re just told about them. When a sideways glance between characters feels like a huge reveal, you know you’re being played by masters.

The lesson? Details intrigue us. They let us come to our own conclusions, making the story reveal happen inside our heads. And that makes the experience much deeper and more affecting.

How can you use extreme detail in your next shoot?

How to Shoot Vacation Video that Won’t Bore People to Death

Vacation video

This palm symbolizes “vacation.” It’s a long article, so I figured it needed a photo.

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours and hours of vacation video on a single chip.  But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore.  Instead they email links to their hour-long video and quiz you about how you liked it.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now.   Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.

 

Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!

Making Your Video “Ask for the Order” Doesn’t Work

This week a post on my Linked-In feed reminded me that all good video must “ask for the order” and contain a clear “call to action.” This concept was, as far as I can tell, invented by someone in an ad agency, maybe in the ’80s, and repeated enough that many people take it as gospel. The idea is that your marketing video must tell the customer exactly what you want them to do, and then request that they do it.

Thus a TV commercial that includes the magic phrase “Buy a Toyota tomorrow and save $200!” is presumed to be way more effective than the same commercial without. If you want them to do something, you have to ask. Simple right?

Simple, except that if direct requests worked in marketing this year’s award-winning Super Bowl commercial would be 30 seconds of white letters on a black screen: “GO BUY DORITOS. NOW.” (excuse me, I’m tearing up at the thought of how perfect that would be. SNIFF. So…beautiful!)

“Asking for the order” doesn’t work because brains. Starting roughly at age 0, we each have our own. Plus our own needs, own lives, and our own goals. Just because you’ve told us to do something doesn’t mean we’ll do it. The whole concept is completely contrary to the way humans actually get things done. Here I note that nobody writes articles suggesting “asking for the order” to motivate kids or spouses.

Yet the concept still lives, mostly because it’s a great business ass-coverer. It’s easy to understand and we can point to it when we’ve done it. Which helps us keep our jobs when it doesn’t work: “We asked for the order. Look, right here: the announcer says ‘Come to our Sale.’ Audiences, man…”

For those more interested in effective video than butt-shielding, I invite you to replace “ask for the order” with a concept that’s harder to execute and less obvious: Intriguing your audience. While “Asking for the order” tries to beat the audience into action, intriguing your audience invites them to participate in your video. Intriguing videos pull you in and excite your brain. They make you wonder what’s going on, what things mean, and what will happen next. Best, they allow you space to come to your own conclusions and when you do, take action on your own.

It can be tough to explain, but intrigue at work is easy to see. An early and influential master of intrigue, Tony Schwartz, started doing ads in the 1940s. Here’s a still-brilliant anti-smoking PSA he did in 1963. Over half a century later, the spot still intrigues. You can see how it pulls you in, makes you want to know what happens next. It doesn’t ask for the order. It makes you ask yourself.

Schwartz’s book The Responsive Chord has been re-released in a new edition, and it’s a great read for anyone serious about video marketing. (Extra Intrigue Credit: check out Schwartz’s classic “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign in 1964.) Everything Schwartz wrote in 1973 is still true today. Because even though our media is new, the brains we’re trying to affect are largely the same old model.

“Asking for the order” may help you keep your job in the short term, but intrigue will actually change consumer behavior and help your company’s bottom line. It’s a little mysterious. It takes more thought. It’s harder to see and harder to measure.

But once you start watching for it, you’ll realize the best marketing videos and TV commercials (and films! and TV shows!) pull you in, engage your brain, and make you a participant.

 

Do you have a question? Is it about video? Would you like to see it answered here? Please note that these are all rhetorical, and that you should ask your questions here.

Classroom Video: Free Downloadable Lessons

Are you a teacher?  Do you know a teacher?  Have you ever had a teacher?  If so, read on:

It’s the beginning of a new school year.  Which means one more year of school projects shot on video, and hours of misery for the teachers who have to watch them. Shouldn’t classroom videos be fun?  For everyone?

If only there was a way to improve your students’ video literacy, and make student video more watchable.  Like, say, a set of downloadable lessons that could turn students into little Steven Spielbergs in a few short hours.  And wouldn’t it be great if those downloadable lessons were absolutely free?

Well, they are.  We’ve put together 5 free, totally self-contained one-hour lessons to take the misery out of classroom video projects. Teach one or teach them all.  If you teach all five, your students’ videos will be 100% better.  Or at least shorter.  Which is also usually better (see lesson 5).

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.  100% Free.  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave, no hoops to jump through.

Please tweet or email the link to your favorite teacher!

downloadable lessons

 

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