Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Power of Story

Before I joined the faculty at the AAU, I had very little formal experience with story development. Certainly, the years of watching feature film and animation shorts provided me with a critical understanding of each medium and the thematic commonalities and structural differences between them. While in film school, I took a story writing course from Paul Lucey, a television writer and an able critic of short-form storytelling. I recommend his book, Story Sense, a complete guide for the novice storyteller, replete with script breakdowns and his own detailed scene-arc formulas.

Prior to film school, I had taken several creative writing courses, an initial touch with science-fiction writer Paul Garson, (The Great Quill), and then three more with T. C. Boyle, who had yet to reach the his critical successes in both short story anthology and feature screenplays.

While soul-searching through my baccalaureate program, I took a few journalism courses as I considered a degree in Journalism and Advertising Copywriting. Dropping further backward in time, I recall that I had briefly served as the Feature Editor for my weekly high school paper, The Tiger, during the first semester of my senior year.

All along, I have been an avid science fiction and fantasy genre reader, involved with the early genesis of Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons and M. A. R. Barker's , Empire of the Petal Throne. These board games required live role-playing, scenario building, and the ability to manage creative gaming teams. I never really thought about the skills that those early days provided to those of us who called themselves dungeon masters. It was a form of creative performance, story development and thematic flow.

However, I had never considered myself a story developer or writer before coming to the AAU. It was only after attending the first round of MFA midpoint reviews in 2005 that I began to help candidates develop story, craft small character arcs, and begin to deal with the exigencies of short form academic project work.

Identifying Emotive Structure

I learned more about short form structure from my colleagues, Chris Armstrong and Tom Bertino as we sat around the table during and after mid-point presentations in the years I worked at AAU. Both had early experience at Hanna Barbera, working in traditional character animation roles, and went on to forge careers in feature character animation with Industrial Light and Magic. Tom is a veritable living encyclopedia of the animation arts, and still teaches the History of Animation course at the school. (If you haven't taken his course, consider it one of the best critical foundation courses available.)

After seven years, I became adept at cutting through complex story baggage, bloated beat timing, excessive physical humor, hackneyed referencing, vast and barren prologues, and a host of typical storytelling traps that new storytellers fall victim to.

Over time, the key to successful short form writing became clear: build a story structure that allows a character to present well-defined motivation. Put another way, a short form writer should create an environment wherein a character can be released and allowed the freedom of predictable reaction, while not telegraphing the twist until the final gag.

Some Simple Rules

In order to craft successful short form animation projects, you have to follow a few simple rules:

(1) limit the number of actors
(2) get into and out of physical gags quickly
(3) understand the power of the camera (cinematic language)
(4) let the performance sell character motivation
(5) build story momentum with iconic character decision-making

Limiting the Actors

In academic production, you're often working solo on a three minute short. You must balance delivery (time budget) with story scope. For example, instead of launching a project with fifteen mimes in a clown car, you'd be best served to present a single mime, late in picking up his fourteen buddies, changing the flat on his clown car. Okay, now make the clown car invisible, like all things mime. Put the invisible clown car on a steep hill. Make it a tremendously hot day. Rinse, repeat.

If you can isolate your character's performance by utilizing a well-defined obstacle, you don't need more than a single character and a single monolithic challenge. The iconic impossibility of the challenge and the off-beat way your character solves his or her puzzle will deliver project success, whether that is a laugh or a poignant pause.

And while we're on the subject of actors, skip dialogue. If pantomime-based stories have proven nearly impossible to pull off in a short arc production program, then consider the difficulty of scripting a dialogue piece and then, once the script is complete, taking the piece into full production, starting with character modeling, rigging, blend shapes and automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Going mo-cap is expensive and has yet to be perfected at the professional level: (see A Christmas Carol or Beowulf).

We'll touch on this later, but dialogue and lip-sync skill sets are best proven in smaller dialogue tests gleaned from specific coursework. You should have several of these on your reel and they'll be sufficient to prove that you can work with both rigged and shaped-driven phoneme animation.

Start On Action

One common error that novice writers commit is a long expository or prologue opener. They spend countless panels in backstory, slowing the pace to a crawl and losing the viewer. If you need a set up for you first gag, tell it visually, through cues. A slow pan along a wall hung with pink picture frames filled with photos of baby can easily introduce the nursery and your main performer. Add a few layered tracks: a music box and some random baby sounds and lift the mix as you move into your opening shot. Whatever you do, get there quickly.

Camera Language

Whether it's an action whip pan after establishing an exterior, a hand held focus/refocus as you track with your main character, or a slow push through a wall, you'll need to spend some time understand effect camera work. This is the absolutely essential silent partner of your short film, and without its help, no matter how crafty your story is, your viewer will walk away unsatisfied. Take a course or buy a book. Understand the basics of stage lines. Understand the basics of cinematography. You don't need to be a DP, but you must learn to use your camera to provide intimacy and grandeur as called for by your character's performance and scene staging.

35mm lensing is great for family photos, but sometimes you need to go wider (< 20mm) for effect. You can enhance a plot point with a super slow motion effect, and on the other hand, simulated time-lapse photography can provide the right story solution: playing with temporal reality is often overlooked.

Emotion as Performance

If you look under the hood of your characters, you should be able to easily identify three major motivators that allow your character to breathe within your structure. Think of your story as if it is a home, and your character, and all of its actions are derived from the detail that you've provided this environment and initial character cues. For example, a massive Viking raider decides to give up pillaging and applies for work with a temp agency. There he is in the waiting room. How do you set up the gags? Do you show him being put through a series of clerical tests? Can you introduce backstory through a thought bubble device? Temp Agency Viking might be funny. You know he won't succeed in any sort of non-pillaging job for long. The audience will be expecting some massive gags as he stumbles his way through a series of jobs that he simply wasn't designed for. You let the character and the structure open new gag routes for you. Let the character take on his own life. Crafting story in this way will never fail you.

Build Momentum

I've heard the three gag rule. You have your protagonist attempt a thing a least three times, with a success on the fourth and final attempt. That seems to work for short form comedy films. Add to this the fact that you need to build the intensity of each attempt until the finale. The weight of the gags adds to the character's perceived frustration with his or her inability to overcome the insurmountable odds you've set before them. Keep the obstacles clear and iconic. You need big action to convey subtlety. The bigger the pose the better the performance sell. Just watch the Warner Brothers Seven Minute shorts. Take a look at the extreme poses and the massive overlap. While you can't do squash and stretch as easily in 3D, you can still craft strong poses to sell your performances.

Make sure your edit quickens as you start overlapping gags. Don't create a series of three or four second shots, paced evenly until the finale. Learn to edit your material so that you are building pace, leading your viewer to the finale, hustling them along your red-herring route to a surprise ending, giving them exactly what they never expected, and having them laugh all the more at the deception. Pacing comes from the better understanding of film editing. Not a bad idea to take a course in film editing, too.

Water Under the Bridge

I have had so many story ideas pitched to me that I've lost count. A very small fraction of those stories are good. Good story development takes time and collaboration. It would be great if you guys could get together and have story workshops, where you pitch your ideas against the mob and see what you get back. There's nothing like a dozen or so writers all banging ideas off one another.

Avoid Psychotic Plots

Keep in mind that your dark, goth, animal sacrifice thesis project will weigh heavily in your portfolio assessment once you've graduated. Sure you'll have a bunch of exercise animation tests to prove your understanding of weight and stage awareness and overlap and all the basics of animation. Your thesis project, however, might just be the evidence of your ability that you'll need to secure your entry position in the field. If your reviewer is so turned off by your subject matter that your .mov ends up in the Recycle Bin, you've lost.

That's not to say that contemplative and poignant pieces cannot be successful: on the contrary. You simply need to show that you can handle the crafting of a start to finish project, convey emotion, do it with quality and attention to detail, and move your audience, whether it be to laughter or tears. Just don't offend them. Do that after you've worked awhile, at least.

I'll analyze specific examples in an upcoming post.


  1. Thanks for sharing some wisdom on story development. Just curious, did you dream up those story examples or are they borrowed from stories once pitched to you?

  2. I'll post some examples shortly. These just came to mind...