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.