Friday, September 25, 2015

The A to C and Audience Engagement

I like to read what interests me, that sounds like common sense but I say that because sometimes that takes me to interesting places.  In this instance, I'm talking about improv comedy.  I've never done improv comedy, but it sounded interesting to me. and I wanted to read about it.  So, awhile back, I bought The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, where they break down their school of thought and theory in improv comedy, and some of the games that they play.  I finally got to read through it this past week and barring a review of the whole book, there were a few ideas that I really connected with.

One principal that came up was "A to C'ing", which I had never heard but I'm sure some of you are familiar with.  Essentially in improv, you're constantly heightening the stakes, and building off of ideas.  Everything put out into the world by your partner, you're supposed to treat as a fact and then propel your thoughts off of that.  It's constant listening and response— an often overlooked portion of good acting.

The A to C idea is that if your scene partner introduces idea A (let's say they say the word 'truck'), rather than jumping directly to a B idea (a direct word association or knee-jerk response, like "driver") you go to the C idea, take your B idea and compound that (something like "screw").  Suddenly the subject of your train of thought evolved from a vehicle to a tool.  It's an unexpected move (which is often where the comedy lies), but has a train of thought that could be followed logically, creating an organically complex evolution of concept.

In the editing world, I see A to C'ing as a method of avoiding on-the-nose storytelling where we are talking about the idea and showing it at the same time, and instead drawing correlations, metaphors or emotional representations on screen of the subject matter.  So let's say we're talking about domestic abuse, rather than showing someone getting abused, or even "aftermath" of a bruised and beaten person in the fetal position looking out the window, we show an insert shot of a tea kettle whistling.  It's in a home setting, so there's a trace to the original idea, and the whistling is emotionally disturbing enough that the dissonance of that conveys an emotional thread that is true to the subject matter.  It's better storytelling.

A to C'ing is great because it goes back to a principal of storytelling that I believe separates the men from the boys, so to speak.  This idea I'm talking about is playing to the audience's intelligence rather than feeding them emotions.  You allow the audience to fill in the blanks and on a primal level, they become more empathetic and emotionally available to the story.  They're engaged and receiving an award for slight cognitive work.  It's active rather than passive storytelling.  I've often described it as "staying ahead of the audience" so they're constantly having to keep up.

I wrote recently about how the feature documentary I've been editing had a big change in its last revision where this very principal reared its head.  Essentially, we had a convention of voiceover in the edit that framed our entire story from the perspective of our protagonist.  Because we went that route, on the surface it gave us the ability to hear the character's thought process and psychology as he goes through his journey.  It became a trap though for two reasons.  One, it became an outlet for information that wasn't 100% clear visually in the raw footage.  So audience feedback was mainly focused either on wanting more information, or wanting less dependent on their personal taste.  The more we tried to address those issues, the less satisfied the audience was with the story.  The second trap was that the voiceover attempted to answer psychological questions and in turn, alienated the audience by telling them what to feel.  So in turn, our feedback was focused on the distaste for our protagonist because what he was feeling was not in line with how they felt.
So the solution was stupidly simple.  Remove the voiceover convention and suddenly test audiences stopped asking to learn more about the backstory and instead began actively participating in the here and now of the story, and rather than being told how things felt, they could perceive and deduce their own opinions on the conflicts of the protagonist.
We moved the story from a passive framework to an active one and the audience perceptions of the film completely changed.  Suddenly they engaged deeply with the material and were having meaningful discussions after the fact.

I'm not totally poo-pooing voiceover.  I think it's a valid convention to introduce when necessary, but perhaps not in an intimate film such as this one.  It is a very clear lesson for me though in the value of audience engagement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An Epihpany In A Year Long Project But A Life Long Understanding

In working with this feature doc I've been editing, and my recent reading of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", the theme of "purpose" has come up and all the questions along with it.  What is a good life?  What is the most primal want I have?

For me, I think I'd hope to approach everything with 'balance'.  People call it Chi, or aligning chakras, or simply "having a level head"... for me it's about trying not to get too excitable about the high points, and keeping your head down and reassuring yourself you'll get through the very low points, and reflecting and gleaning value from both situations.

Things outside your control aren't worth dealing with, and the things that are, deal with them orderly and calculated way.  Balance is in doing right by your family, living a fulfilled career (taking risks when you can, and pulling the plug when it's not working), helping others move forward in their lives, and leaving behind something worth talking about with others.

Maybe for me, that's partly what this blog is.  No one knows about it now, and while this is going to come off as completely narcissistic, I suppose in a way, I one day hope people could look back on my ramblings here, and see the seeds of the ideas that have influenced my taste, my sensibilities and the types of stories I'm drawn to in my future work.

If anything, I hope this gives some other aspiring nobody out there permission to think freely, allow yourself to ramble and make bolder statements in a forum that is fairly unpopulated.  It's like screaming into a pillow, or praying for some.  You talk out what's on your mind, talk in circles, poke holes in your own constructions and what shakes out the other end is a clearer understanding of concepts, abstract thought, and philosophies.

I think there's a stigma in free thought, or at the very least, a lesser perceived value in it than it than there once was.  We're encouraged to be witty and concise with our online content.  Fuck that.  I want to say what I want to say with no limitation of characters, and no worries of people picking apart an idea.  A sculptor doesn't know how to sculpt until they shave just a little too much off and have to start again.

 I'm making mistakes and I'm thankful for that.  This blog is my sandbox.  Not everything I say in it is going to be truthful forever.  I'm sure if I went back to some of my original posts, when I was swooned by idealistic theories of storytelling based on whatever kick I was on at the time, my claims would appear a little too bold and uninformed for them to be 100% true...

But I can't negate their value.  I needed to believe in something in the start of this journey; I had to work with some direction for my compass to point in order to find my way.  And those ideas evolved.  They lead me to other terrains, they've opened up doors, invited me into more fertile lands and new epiphanies.  They're just as valuable to me as the conclusions I've come to currently.
I've come to value stumbles, because with unassuming reflection, they become lessons that last forever and cause impressions upon your future work.  You essentially are growing more valuable at every step of the way.

This week, we went through a major change in the edit of this documentary I've been working on.  My intuition upon completing my footage log and starting the structure assembly of the edit nearly a year ago was that there was enough information in the visuals that voiceovers and interviews were unnecessary.

Then when I began editing, after the tracks were laid for the opening of the film, I skipped to the end  and began cutting the final sequence so I knew what to work towards.  I ended up with a very impactful ending that was right in line emotionally with the logline we had drafted up.  The problem was, it required voiceover as a vehicle to give us our protagonist's perspective in the story.

That meant a commitment to that tool for the rest of the film... my instincts told me no, but the edit felt like it was necessary.  I began to sell myself on the idea.  Suddenly, we were then given permission to inject context and exposition, as well as the protagonist's emotional state in times when we wouldn't have been able to otherwise.
We got cozy with the idea, and wrestled with it to squeeze as much out of its abilities as possible.  We said what we wanted to with it and at that point, we thought we were working towards a good destination for the film.

Flash forward nearly 6 months later, 9 revisions, 6 screening sessions of varying success, maybe 15 hours of voiceover logged after the fact, and a swimming pool's worth of coffee consumed, we drew a pretty hefty conclusion: voiceover was a mistake.

The problem was, we committed to a more indie/art house lean into our later drafts of the edit.  As such, the story is told in an intimate, and breathing voice as it examines a friendship and a failed road trip.  The voice over widened the scope too much, and called attention to an opportunity to otherwise explain all loose ends within our narrative.  And the more we tried tightening up our story and the more screenings we had with individuals in that art house camp, the more it became clear that voice over was a contrivance and a distraction.  We needed to tighten the boundaries of our sandbox so as to not even allow the opportunity for outside information beyond what was able to be derived from the screen.  Less is more.  This was the biggest lesson in that old film school adage "show it, don't tell it". We were creating a vacuum to a film that would thrive with open interpretation.

After our internal screening today, our suspicion was affirmed and I believe this is the right direction to go.

So we're now attempting to make a sprint towards this year's Sundance deadline, and hopefully that will put us in a good place for the film and take me one more step in understanding this crazy craft, giving me a little more equity for the next story, and will eventually lead to that legacy I was talking about earlier.  Perceptions of your own work evolve no matter what: either you end up somewhere unexpected, or they travel in a circle and you end up back where you thought you would.  Either way, whether your expectation is met or is completely derailed, you're growing.  Growing towards that more balanced self with a greater understanding of your storytelling abilities and hopefully a more realized comprehension of the human condition (because that's really what good storytelling is, right?)

I can't call what we've been working towards WITH the voiceover a failure, or a mistake even.  It lead us to the conclusion we're at currently.  Had we not gone down that road, and explored every avenue of it, we wouldn't be able to confidently say that our presentation of the story in its current form would be the most ideal iteration.  So, I'm thankful for the gallons of coffee consumed while banging our heads against the wall trying to make the mechanism work.  It has a time and a place, but not for this particular story and there's a peace in admitting that.

Who knows, maybe another epiphany will strike and we'll realize the avenue we're headed down isn't ideal either.  But I assert that I'll bring balance to that situation.  If it truly is right, we'll vet it and see the value for the newest conclusion and appreciate even more the depths of exploration we've gone through in getting to that point.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Little Catch Up and Some Storytelling Knowledge!

It's been over a year since my last post.  Holy crap.  A lot has happened— too much to catch up on.  My character's been tested, the depth of my passions, and the integrity of my convictions... but I've been quietly moving forward with learning as much as I can about this wonderful craft.

A few quick highlights since my last entry:
I DP'd a feature film, which ended up being a live-and-learn experience.  It brought me closer to a few crew members, but ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth for inexperienced microbudget productions.  Never again, lads and lasses!

I've been editing a feature documentary that's hopefully seeing picture lock soon.  It's been a fantastic learning experience and has really taken my comprehension of storytelling and structure to a whole new level. 

Final Draft's been open quite a bit for me— writing a few shorts and a new feature.  The feature is currently in exploration mode, where I'm just putting pen to paper and seeing what comes out.  So far, I'm feeling good about it.  It's kind of a darker family comedy and could be an interesting piece.

I've been reading quite a bit.  Biographies, philosophy books, potential stories to adapt to screenplays... it's been keeping the creative juices flowing.  I'm currently reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which has me thinking quite a bit... and leaves me wanting to go on a cross country motorcycle trip.

Earlier in the year I directed a short film with two fantastic actors.  It's been completely finished aside from an ADR session that's set to happen in November, so I believe we'll be sending it off to festivals once that's completed.  It was honestly the best directing experience I've had to date and has really made me appreciate what good actors can bring to the table.

Other than that, there are quite a few interesting things on the horizon for me.  As they get closer to being a reality, I'll share them, but they're certainly exciting to say the least.

SO the whole reason I logged back in here was to share with you this fantastic list of storytelling tidbits compiled by Chuck Wendig, who's a fantastic resource on the craft of storytelling.  He put together 101 tips for writing a story.  I suggest you read the full list: 100 Random Storytelling Thoughts And Tips... but I plucked a few of my favorites and wanted to talk about them a little bit.

1. If you’re bored, we’re bored.
This is my modus operandi when it comes to editing, and more and more in my writing as well.  Keep your sense keen and don't ignore the fact that you're not feeling it.  On the other end of the stick, don't let that talk you out of finishing your piece either.  Thick skin and momentum will keep the ship moving forward.

9. One of your greatest skills is misdirection. You seed the truth of the magic trick early on in the story. Then you convince the reader that the truth isn’t the truth at all — until the time comes to reveal. And okay yes fine sometimes you are a Druid summoning swamp-elves out of the murk. Sometimes writing is sacrifice, not magic trick. Sometimes it’s all of those things.This one felt like just a fantastic reminder of a powerful device in your toolkit.  Setting a scene is often difficult enough, but then going a step further and realizing that the scene has too much information and gives away a potential mechanism to illicit emotion.  Stay sharp and keep that misdirection in mind.

12. Love, hate, jealousy, life, death, betrayal, lies, revenge: these are the widgets, levers and flywheels that keep the story running, and that keep us coming back. Lubricate the gears with blood and tears.I love the idea of blood or tears being the stakes.  It's such a primal way to work.

20. Pretend while writing that your job isn’t to tell a story but it’s to manipulate and emotionally injure the audience. Because that actually kinda is your job. You monster.I'm a people pleaser.  It's hard to break that cycle when writing.  I have to remind myself constantly to be crueler to my characters, and in turn toward the audience.  A cringe is a good thing.  It means that paper thin vale of your story is being upheld and the audience is feeling the emotion and engaged.  I just finished reading Mel Brooks' biography— the dude got away with every taboo thing he could think up.  He did it to shock people.  It got a rise out of them.  It made them squirm in their seat.  Then he'd turn it on its head and make you feel okay about it.  Something tells me that type of thing wouldn't fly as easily today, but go for the jugular and shed a little blood.

25. Humor is the hardest emotion to get right. Here’s a tip: don’t treat it like humor. Humor is funniest when the characters don’t find it funny. They’re not telling jokes. They’re not self-aware of the humor or the absurdity. To them, it’s dreadfully serious. Sure, YOU think it’s funny that they’re fighting a bunny rabbit with giant human nipples for eyes and loud, eruptive fart sounds every time it attacks, but THEY don’t think it’s funny and in fact they’re probably really terrified.This usually happens on such a subconscious level, but it certainly is a great reminder to frame it up that way.  The other tidbit to add to this is from Robert McKee who says that comedy is drama under conditions where you know the character won't get hurt.  I think Wendig's point is more on situational authenticity, where your character isn't aware his story is a comedy, and McKee is on the reality, or the proscenium in which that situational authenticity can take place.

27. Every scene is multipurpose.Nuff said.  Actually, to add to that, every scene must have an emotional core, and some would argue new information illustrating a new facet of a character a new direction for the character to take.

33. Characters are not role models. Characters should never ever ever be role models.At the core, this is an extract from the idea that all characters must have faults, and their mistakes are for our benefit.  It is the human condition to make mistakes.  A super hero may be a role model, but it often comes at the cost of an emotional emptiness or a moral dilemma that they must wrestle with.

37. Embrace dramatic irony: when the audience knows something characters don’t.
This guy goes with numbers 9 and 12.  It's another core tool to work with to squeeze out emotion.

41. End chapters interestingly. Which means with uncertainty, suspense, excitement. Lace the end of a chapter with the equivalent of narrative heroin. Readers will turn a page to get the next hit.
42. But don’t always give them the next hit. Keep them waiting. Tantric storytelling. They want you to keep driving straight. So, for a little while, take a hard right. Make them want it harder. Give the audience a straining story boner. Narrative blue balls or whatever the equivalent to lady blue balls is. Cerulean Clitoris, perhaps.
These two go together.  I think just developing your sensibilities and anticipating the needs of your audience.  The rough edit of the documentary I've been working on began with three scenes in a row that left the audience hanging with more questions and very few answers.  We thought it was a nice way to wring out some exposition while allowing the audience to participate in the story and think about it.  Well, having that many "to be continued's" left people frustrated and felt like they were being slighted.  Be mindful and listen to Uncle Ben when he said "With great power comes great responsibility".  Use these tools wisely.

52. Let the characters talk as long as they want to.
53. Be prepared to cut a lot of what the characters say.

I love this encouragement here, followed by harsh reality.  Always be willing to travel down a rabbit hole and see what comes out of a character.  Something a gem bubbles to the surface.  But when your story's all done and you're sixty pages over, show that discipline and cinch up the rambling that lead to that one great idea.

73. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. This is the blood and bone of storytelling. Character wants shit, does shit, shit happens. Character discovers character is not the only character in the world and is in fact in a universe dominated by many other characters who want shit, too.
It's momentum to your story.  The most basic building block of drama— being aware of this constantly and staying one step ahead will keep your story interesting.

88. Active over passive. Character agency over character inertia.
Going back to McKee again, he separates stories into a triangular continuum: Archiplot which is the commercial, by-the-book, happy ending type of storytelling.  Your character is proactive and seals the deal by the end.  On the other end of the triangle are Miniplot and Anti-plot.  Miniplot deals with a more intimate, passive character, and Anti-plot is like cuckoo land where nothing makes sense.
In traditional storytelling, having a more active character is what's expected, but it would be silly to completely ignore toying with a character who gets swept up in the inertia of a world and has some sort of existential crisis over it.  Indie movies wouldn't exist if we didn't have the more passive, whiny Eeyore character.

98. Storytelling is a series of promises, some broken, some fulfilled. Know which is which and know why each must be the way it must be. Fulfill more promises than you break.
One of my favorite film professors in college DRILLED into our heads the mantra "Everything is Setups and Payoffs." We practically chanted it in a seance during class.  It's a wonderful lesson in economics of storytelling and being mindful of purpose.  Both Wendig and my film professor's ideas are stemming from Chekhov's Gun principal which states "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."  Stay lean, folks.