The Searchers (1956): Directed by John Ford
The Searchers is a beautiful movie. There is no time in the movie where I rather be somewhere else. Ford never dwindles too long and has enough interesting characters to make everything feel worth it. However most of the characters feel one dimensional. They have personality but they lack the depth needed to have a lasting effect on the audience. The only cahracter with any depth is John Wayne’s Ethan. We see his past in his eyes. He is a war veteran for a side that lost. He is a man turned cold through seeing too much violence and death. The moment of great emotion are usually shown through Wayne’s character. He is a man full of hatred and demons. He can barely tolerate his partly Indian blood partner Martin. The story revolves around both Ethan and Martin’s search for a family member taken by the Comanche. However, we have no idea whether or not Ethan’s hatred for the Indian will mean the death of his converted niece. Ethan’s hatred for the Indian is seen through out the film, it is breaking at the seems and expressed so vividly through subtle action. One of the greatest close ups in cinema is done through a push into Ethan’s face when looking with malice at a middle aged converted white woman.
Ford is able to say volumes with a little. He holds the camera still, refrains from showing too much action, and resists using the close-up too often. Doorways, windows, people, and the great landscape of Monument Valley are used to great effect as framing devices. The eye travels effortlessly to the people Ford wants us to see.
We are not given a story with a clear bad and a clear good. Though I think Ford shows the stereotypical and one dimensional perspective of the Indian he also shows how the evils of the “white man” were just as extreme as the evils of the Comanche. There is great emotions coming from the characters when we see the burning of Ethan’s brothers home at the beginning of the film and yet Ford gives us just as dramatic of a image of an Indian camp being burnt to the ground with little emotion expressed from the films antagonists. The villian of the movie Scare says he kills because the white man killed his loved ones first. Scare is a direct reflection of the main character Ethan. The same hatred that drives Scare drives Ethan. I don’t know whether or not I like Scare being played by a dressed up white man. However, this could be a further commentary by Ford on how the savage Indian we have in our minds when we think about the West has less to do with reality and more to do with Hollywood’s manipulation.
As cynical as The Searchers is it also has a great sense of humor. From Ethan’s unwanted partnership with Martin, to the head strong Lori who just can’t help but be in love with Martin, to the over the top reverend played by the great Ward Bond, Ford keeps us entertained while not taking us away from the seriousness of Ethan’s wrath. Ford has the power to play one fight as a sort of comedy relief and a few minutes later play another piece of action as a serious piece of action full of suspense.
We do see Ford’s very cynical and shallow opinion of youth in the film. Martin really doesn’t develop in the stoy. He is constantly made fun of and is treated like a little incapable kid by most of the other characters. Lori is portrayed as a restless over tempered girl. Martin is barely capable partner with hardly any openings to give us something to relate to. And Ethan’s niece Debbie, the girl Martin and Ethan are searching for, is only used as a plotting device and nothing more.
Though Ford delivers on the turnaround of John Wayne’s character Ethan I see little authenticity in the development of the secondary characters. The love story between Martin and Lori is shallow and nobody but Ethan is given room to really grow through out the film. However, the characters are full of entertainment and Wayne is able to give Ethan a great amount of empathy. Ethan holds plenty of depth to keep the audience interested through out. Ford has confidence with his storytelling skills. He rarely misses a beat. At the end of the film Ford manages to deliver on our hopes and bash them at the same time. The music drives the story forward and visuals are a wonder to behold. Ford brings humor, suspense, action, horror, and happiness to the film and gives us a truly great story. John Wayne’s Ethan seems to be a direct reflection of John Ford. He often seems cold and will never be able to live on the inside with the rest of us, yet deep down his heart is in the right place full of the humanity that keeps us going back to the movies.
Joe Wright is one of those filmmakers who likes to let his audience know he is telling a story. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice the main character Elizabeth is reading a book, which Wright described as the beginning of the story she is about to go on. In Atonement the first thing we see is Briony typing out the last part of her play. At the end of the story we find out she is in fact the author of the story we are watching. The Soloist revolves around a group of articles the main character Steve Lopez wrote for his newspaper. Hanna was described by Wright as a sort of fairytale and we see Wright express this motif constantly; through the main character Hanna reading out of the Brothers Grimm book, the way Wiegler dresses in green and red to resemble a witch, and the fact the whole third act takes place in a deserted circus land which resembles something you would see in a classic fairytale. In Wright’s latest feature Anna Karenina he goes a step further in making it obvious what we are seeing is made up. He fictionalizes the story by setting it in a theater. Wright makes it obvious the actors are on the stage when performing. Instead of cutting to another scene we at times see prop men come out and change the location in front of our eyes. We even have scenes take place in the prop room, backstage, and up on the catwalks.
If you really think about it most films have very little resemblance to real life. Even the ones based on true stories are completely manipulated in order to express a curtain view. Whether these views are of substance, accurate, or worth your time has everything to do with the storyteller. Joe Wright is a master at using the tools of cinema to manipulate the audience’s view. Wright doesn’t even try to hide this fact. He wants you to understand you are watching a story and not reality. He tells you this through the way he composes shots, uses music, and edits his films. In fact every time a filmmaker chooses to make a cut, use a curtain angle, or bring in music he is manipulating the audience’s emotions. Wright just is a master at it. His job as a filmmaker is not to tell the literal truth, it is to use the tools of manipulation he has at his disposal to tell the emotional truth of his story.
”A storyteller is someone who hides the truth in fiction so you can see it better”
This is one of the best explanations of a filmmaker’s job. We have the power to send people off to lands where gods and giants rein, to galaxy’s light years away, or to worlds that resemble ours but have toys come to life and animals talk. Wright makes no attempt to make you believe what you are seeing is real. He understands the power of the audience understanding they are watching a story. He wants to exaggerate what we see in real life and create an experience. His job is to understand the heart of his story to such a great extant he could manipulate whatever he needs in order to make the heart of his film resonate with the audience. Wright has experienced life. His films are proof of this.The heart of his stories come from a real and truthful place in his heart.
The reason films like Hanna, a story of a child trained assassin, or Pride & Prejudice, a 17th century drama, resonate with the audience is because they go beyond their genre and show universal truths. Whatever Wright thinks he needs to peel away in order to express those truths more clearly he will take away. It is why we see such impressionistic work in a movie like Anna Karenina. Wright felt the story of lust and love would work better if he heightened the surroundings. He uses extreme color schemes in order to express the emotions of the story and his characters. In the movie Wright does not waste time cutting to different scenes. He has many of the sets change in front of our eyes because his characters’ lives are in constant flux. In Wright’s films we follow his characters’ emotional arcs. The surrounding is completely changeable depending on where his characters are emotionally.
Telling a story requires a lot of talent and technique to get it right. The director needs to be thinking about the framing, music, lighting, sound design, costumes, actors, camera movement, how all those things contribute to the scene, and how the scene contributes to the whole, through out the whole filmmaking process. This takes a lot of devotion and study to get right. You will not get someone who is interested in putting in the countless hours of time and effort unless he is completely devoted to telling the story he has to tell. Joe Wright is a storyteller and his art is telling a story. No wonder he likes acknowledging this in his films from time to time. Yet, Wright doesn’t care whether you catch his acknowledgments. He actually wants you to get so interested in his worlds and so close to his characters you get completely invested in the story. He wants to reveal to you the wonders of the worlds he creates and the emotions of his characters. He wants to tell you a story you will never forget.
From my studies I have found there are two very distinct kinds of directors both of which I have tremendous respect and admiration for. There are the Fincher’s and Kubrick’s of the industry who are known for being perfectionists. Many say they already have the movie in their head before they shoot their first shot. Their job is to get what is in their head into the camera. Usually this involves countless hours of tedious work, where the director is trying to control as many details as the time allows to get his vision onto the screen. The other type of director I have encountered is the “Go with you gut” directors. These directors are the Eastwood’s and Spielberg’s of our day. Every day is a inspiration to them and they let these inspirations drive their directing. They do not obsess over flaws in the frame, in fact they capitalize on mistakes a actor makes or the weather creates and bring a more authentic feel to their films.
Joe Wright is a director who falls under the category of “go with your gut” directing. He has done his research but he relies on the performances, costumes, and locations to guide his directing. He wants to be inspired. This is one of the main reasons he does not like working on sets. No matter if he is shooting a period piece, a thriller, or a buddy movie, Wright wants to find actual locations to do most of his shooting. He get’s inspired by the locations and they become just as involved with his story as the characters. His mission is to inspire the crew and the actors to do their best work. He sets things up so the actors can actually mingle with the extras when they are not shooting. He plays music and gets rid of as many distractions as he could so his crew stays on task. During inmate scenes Wright said he tries to have only him, the sound recorder, the grip, and the cinematographer present with the actors so they could feel as comfortable as possible while executing their scene.
One thing you will notice with almost all of the personal scenes in Wright’s movies is his use of the a handheld camera or steady cam. In his commentary on Pride & Prejudice Wright talked about how most of film is about the technical part of filming but the handheld empowers the actors. The great Italian director Federico Fellini is widely known for making the handheld style of filmmaking popular for the coming of age generation in the 1970′s. The first Rocky film was a breakthrough movie with the steady cam. Through the use of the hand held and steady cams filmmakers found they were less limited with the camera and could explore more personal things and create a more realistic feel in their stories. Using handhelds and steady cams allows the camera man to react to the action on screen in a much more intimate way. Wright likes to respond to what he sees and what he feels. When we watch Wright’s brilliant multiple minute single shots in Pride & Prejudice, Hanna, and Atonement, they are successful because they allow us to take a uncut second person view of the situation and soak in the environment, characters, and story as though we were there. We feel like we are in a 17th century ball, walking in the midst of beaten down World War II soldiers, and trying to escape from secret spies, all because of Wright’s superb ability to transport us into his worlds through the intimacy of the camera.
Even music is used in many of Wright’s films through the response of natural sound effects in the environment. Atonement starts off with the main character Briony at her type writer finishing her play. The typing from Briony slowly transitions into Briony’s theme music with the type writer noise maintaining the basis of her themes beat. At the end of the first act when Robbie is taken away, his mother begins to bang on the front of the police car. The banging becomes the main beat for the powerful climatic music used to end the first act. We see a similar use of sound in the movie Hanna, where helicopter propellers, traffic sounds, and combat noise transitions into the main themes used in the Chemical Brothers score. This is just another example of how Wright is inspired by the world around him and lets it guide him even in post production.
A good directer needs to balance between being prepared and leaving room to be inspired. After watching Wright’s latest film Anna Karenina it seems he brings his response oriented directing style farther then ever before. Unlike Wright’s other films Anna Karenina is mostly shot inside a set. He wants to bring to attention the story he is telling is piece of fiction intentionally dramatized to provoke emotion. Everything seems to be a response to Anna’s emotions. There is even a time where everything stays still until Anna’s vigorous passion awakens them. Wright wants to awaken his audience . He will hit us with emotions that sometimes defy logic. In most of Wright’s films he does not even try to hide the fact we are watching a story unfold. He has no intetion in making these stories look real. Instead he wants them to feel real and he will dramatize whatever he needs to to get the desired effect. He is looking for the audience to feel anger towards his characters, love, sorrow, and happiness. In short, Wright is looking for a response.
I first started to research director Joe Wright when I found out he was dyslexic. He has said in interviews his dyslexia made him feel stupid and is one of the big reasons he didn’t finish school. The man just didn’t read as fast as other students and he wasn’t a linguistic thinker. I am sure the school system was, like it is to so many other dyslexics, not kind to Mr. Wright. It is interesting however that Wright says his dyslexia is also the reason he has been so successful in the film profession. In a interview on The Telegraph Wright stated, “I think my dyslexia was a vital part of my development because my inability to read and write meant that I had to find knowledge elsewhere so I looked to the cinema”.
A fair question to ask is “why did Wright fail in school but find substance through the cinema?”. In order to understand you must learn a little more about dyslexia. Dyslexia is usually labeled as a learning disability. Those diagnosed with dyslexia usually have a hard time with organization, reading, writing, and spelling. The majority of school systems rely heavily on verbal and linguistic teaching creating a huge disadvantage for dyslexics. Knowing this it is easy to understand why Wright failed in the school system. However the cinema can also be a learning tool. The cinema teaches through the use of images. Through the cinema’s stories we learn lessons on politics, geography, evolution, religion, humanity, and so on.
Dyslexia is not a learning disability, it is just a different way of thinking. Dyslexics think through images. Some of the strengths associated with dyslexia are the ability to think spatially, being able to look at a problem from multiple angles, advancements in the imagination, and being able to see the big picture of any given problem or project. If you watch Joe Wright’s movies you can see how he has a firm grasp in all these areas.
When listening to Wright talk about his films it seems he relies more on instinct then any literal reasoning. He has done the research for his project but he wants to let the locations and visuals dictate the way he films. Because of this we find every frame in his movies stimulating. His main mission is to provoke emotion through his visuals. Wright never lets the details of the plot get in the way of his characters’ emotional growth. As a dyslexic myself I remember taking tests and always doing badly because I didn’t remember names and dates. What fascinated me and the things I constantly talked to my parents about were the emotions of the events I had learned about and how those impacted the people during that time period and how they related to me in the present. I understood the material but didn’t have the ability to express my understanding through writing or the the tests I took. I can imagine Wright had a similar problems.
For Wright the literal facts seem to be the farthest from his mind. In Wright’s first feature film Pride & Prejudice Wright doesn’t care about the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is at a much lower class then Mr. Darcy as much as he cares about the emotional effect that fact has on their relationship. In Hanna the whole plot point of the title character Hanna being genetically altered in order to be a better killer was described by Wright as no more then a “macguffin” (a plot device with little to no explanation, used to propel the story). What mattered is this plot point propelled us into an emotional story. We see a child grow up and emotionally go to battle with what she was made to do and what is morally right.
One of the most important things a director must be able to do is have the big picture of the film in his mind while shooting individual scenes. It has been clinically proven that dyslexics use their right brain to a much higher extant than most non-dyslexics. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for seeing connections that tie things together and seeing how parts relate to wholes. The beach scene in Atonement and the exploration of Skid Row in The Soloist are examples of Wright leaving the main characters entirely in order to observe the bigger picture. He is able to ground his individual stories through showing us the world around the stories.
Wright creates connections in his films in many ways, including the use of mirror imagery, musical themes, and repeating pieces of dialogue. In Hanna we see the title character use the same line of dialogue to start off the story and the end it; making us reflect on how or if the events she went on had created any change. Two of the key scenes of Atonement are when the main character Briony tells the great lie to the investigators towards the beginning of the story and the truth to the reporter at the end of the story. The lie is what sends us into the conflict the rest of the story revolves around and the truth is what resolves the story and brings the audience closure. Wright binds the two scenes by using the same framing, background, and has the main character Briony looking strait into frame both times. We instantly see how these scenes are connected and how important they are to the narrative of the story. At the beginning of Pride & Prejudice we hear the musical theme we come to associate with Elizabeth and the Bennett Family. However the same music is played by Mr. Darcy’s younger sister when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s house. Though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s worlds look quite different the music unites them emotionally. Wright’s ability to understand the complete story gives him more insight on how to direct these individual scenes and connect them to the greater narrative.
No matter how much a dyslexic has worked to overcome their natural weaknesses the struggles are never completely resolved. Wright still says it takes him much longer to read a script or a book then most people. However he has found ways to change these perceived weaknesses into strengths. Wright has said, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it”. It is not a accident that three of the five movies Wright has directed have been based on literary classics. It’s not that Wright is against reading, very few dyslexics are. It’s just the words come to Wright’s mind as pictures. Wright’s ability to see what he is reading allows him to translate the written word to film in a much more visually expressive way.
There are many others who have struggled in the classroom to become some of the greatest filmmakers in history. It is suspected that the great filmmaker David Lean struggled with dyslexia as a child. He hardly got by in the school system and was constantly made fun of by peers and his father for being a slow learner. Steven Spielberg is another diagnosed dyslexic who also severally struggled in the school system. These filmmakers did not just overcome their their dyslexia they have used it do miraculous things in the cinema. I feel Joe Wright is on his way to do miraculous things in the cinema. Many would call movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement some of the best films of this new century. It is hard to not call his five minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation one of the most miraculous shots in all of cinema. Wright continues to explore his art form and he is going in an ambitious direction. His last two films have been criticized for being too out there and against the grain of established cinema. However “against the grain” is a perfect description of dyslexia. We think in a different way and are often called failures in the established system because of it. However many of these school system failures, such as Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison, have the greatest success stories in our history.
There was once a time when film was seen as no more then a medium for interesting magic tricks and simple sight gags. In fact some of the founding fathers of film, such as Thomas Edison, saw little future in the medium. They thought it was going to be a passing fad, an attraction that could not hold but a few minutes of an audience’s attention. This makes me question how many great inventions failed due to lack of vision? In the last century film has progressed from a passing attraction to a fully developed entertainment, an entertainment that has both thrilled and inspired billions. Film’s success has not just been achieved through the revolutionary technical developments- developments such as sound, color, and computer generated visual effects- but also an ability to dive deep into human nature and give us thorough and diverse looks at what makes us who we are.
When film went farther then simple magic tricks and sight gags the audience started to really get interested. Filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and later D.W. Griffith brought to the medium thrilling stories which began to entrance a much broader audience. Slowly in the mid to later years of the silent era of film we began to see characters who had individual personalities. The personalities we saw in some of these characters were so impacting audiences kept coming back to see them in action. The most revered of these personalities in the silent days was Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. The Tramp was a hopeless romantic with a heart of gold. Chaplin was able to capture his audience’s hearts by being vulnerable with them and making his gags and stories speak to the essence of his character. He was one of the first to perfect personality storytelling; where the audience goes to the film just as much for the characters as the story.
Walt Disney was another one of the visionaries to take a hold of personality filmmaking. While all the other cartoons were making shorts revolving around characters with little personality doing funny and abstract gags through the freedom of animation, Walt was hard at work defining his characters and revolving the humor around their personalities. One of the prime examples of this was the 1933 short The Three Little Pigs. In the short Walt and his artists were able to show district personalities between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. While the pigs represented the innocents of America, and through the third pig, its determination to work its way out of the great depression, the wolf represented the evils of the depression and its determination to sink the American spirit. Immediately audience members were able to connect with both the good pigs and the bad wolf. The characters personalities allowed the audience to get more involved with the story and made that short one of the most acclaimed of all time.
In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt took personality animation several steps forward. He created in each one of the dwarfs an individual personality which not only progressed the story but also gave the audience a deeper connection to the whole. Through just the names of the dwarfs a tremendous amount of personality is suggested. All the characters’ actions and gags were processed through their personality. A character like Dopey had an innocent type of humor which came from his oblivious view on the world while a character like Grumpy made the audience laugh through his negative and stubborn opinions. Walt took the basic outline of the Brother Grimm’s Snow White story and got rid of all the excess material in order to concentrate more on his characters’ personalities. A lot of Disney’s Snow White story revolves around simple things we see in every day life. We watch the Seven Dwarfs at work. We see Snow White and the animals clean the dwarfs house. We observe the dwarfs while washing up for supper. And, we watch the Dwarfs and Snow White participate in a festive dance inside their home. These events are made entertaining through Disney’s wonderful ability to entrance us with his characters, personalities. Characters like Dopey and Grumpy are engraved in our imaginations because of how they conducted themselves in these seemingly ordinary situations.
One of the most influential series in this last decade has been the Bourne Trilogy. Literally hundreds of action films began to adapt the Bourne film’s hand-held, tightly cut, film style because of the movie’s success. However, the film’s success did not come from the specific way it was shot. The power of the series came from the filmmaker’s devotion towards the title character, Jason Bourne. Although the movies had tons of high quality action, it was the character behind the action that drew us in. In the first film, Jason Bourne learns to see himself as more then just a military project. In the second film, Bourne is forced to come face to face with the sins of his past. In the third film, Bourne sets out on a journey to understand what made him choose to become who he was. All these stories revolve around Bourne’s search for humanity. The action in the films gets its strength through the audience’s invested interest in Bourne’s personal story. We know the struggle Bourne goes through when he is forced to kill, when he loses those who are close to him, and when his past won’t leave him alone.
The moments I remember in film are when William Wallace yells “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart, when Jefferson Smith says “I guess this is just another ‘lost cause’ Mr. Paine” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and when Raymond Babbitt touches his forehead to his brother Charlie in Rain Man. These moments touch my heart because of what they say about their characters. The filmmakers spend the whole movie connecting us to their characters so these moments at the end of the film are able to truly impact us. Stories must be about the character. Don’t make your stories so big you lose their humanity. During it’s production Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White, was called by most newspapers “Disney’s Folly”. Every one thought it wasn’t possible to entertain an audience for more then an hour with a cartoon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded because Walt did not consider Snow White a “cartoon”. To Walt the characters in his movie were real. They had interests and feelings that Walt and his artists spent countless hours trying to understand and defend. Because these characters were real to Walt, they became real to us.
Create stories that go beyond the imaginary and become real. The characters in your stories can not be in place just to move the plot along. They must go beyond cliche’s and speak to the individual. Th protagonist, villain, and secondary character who only is seen for a few minutes in the film can become unforgettable if you spend enough time figuring out who they are. Give us a reason to come back. No matter if they are made by drawings, in the computer, or through an actor’s performance, you need to create characters with personalities and passions so real they can influence millions.
Film needs to impact us emotionally. We are drawn to stories because of the battle within. If the film does not impact us emotionally it will fade and be replaced. Three movies which can’t be replaced in my eyes are Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and Walt Disney’s Bambi. These are all films responsible for making me want to be a filmmaker and all of them are more than half a century old. Their outer stories are much different from anything I have experienced however their inner substance connects to the core of who I am. The themes in these movies transcend age groups and cultures.
When creating a story the last thing you should do is create something about normal everyday life. To be honest most everyday life is quite boring. Even those working in the military spend more of their time eating, sleeping, and walking around then participating in life threatening combat. No, if there is one thing the films of the past have shown us its that we don’t need to base our stories on the physical realities of this world. Films are supposed to be impressionistic. They are supposed to send us to new worlds where animals talk, ships travel through time, and dark wizards rule the earth. One of the reasons I admire animation so much is because none of it is real. Animation effects your emotions through a bunch of pixels created in a computer or through a bunch of drawings created with a pencil. How crazy is it that a pencil can bring life to a puppet, make an elephant fly, and give a beast a soul? The shapes and lines you see in animation are never meant to represent outer reality, they are meant to connect to the audience’s emotions. They add or subtract things based on whether or not they are relevant to the battle being portrayed within.
The outer part of your story must draw your audience inward. Sometimes you draw the audience in through creating an abstract world, sometimes it is through diving into the details of the world we live in. Some storytellers are afraid if they go into too much detail they will lose their audience. I believe the more detail you go into with your story the more you will hit on universal truths. We all have the need for happiness, joy, and love. We all go through times of sadness, bitterness, and anger. We all fight battle within ourselves about our lust for power and our need of humility. Dive deep enough into your stories to find these basic truths. Don’t hesitate going into a story because you think part of your audience won’t find it interesting or won’t like it. If you find the story interesting it is worthy enough to be seen. Find ways to make the story entertaining and push your audience’s comfort zones. Create worlds we haven’t seen before or dare us to look at the world in a different light.
All the things happening on the outside of your story deal with the present. The inner battle involves the past and the future. We never fight for the moment. The fights are caused because of something that happened in the past and/or something that you want for the future. This is what I mean by “inner battle”, it’s the context in which the fight is taking place. The context must transcend culture and time. Your character.s battle must connect to what we fight in daily life. Even though Chaplin’s City Lights was made and takes place during the beginning of the depression, we are able to connect to the story because the characters express emotions independent of a specific time or place. Key themes such as the outsider in the lead character The Tramp, the power of kindness expressed through The Tramps concern for the blind girl, and prejudice seen in the movie through the separation of classes, are all things we can relate to a half century later. Chaplin uses his key universal themes to bring understanding on what it was like to live in the depression and as an outsider. Not only does he allow us to understand the battles we are facing today a little better, he also gives us insight to what it was like back then.
Great movies are able to bring us understanding. They remind us even though the battle on the outside at times couldn’t be more different, the inner battle is something we all face and understand. At the end of every story the conflict on the outside and the conflict on the inside collide. At the end of Bambi, Bambi needs to face hunters and a forest fire in order to emotionally prepare himself to become the king of the forest. In It’s A Wonderful Life the main character George Bailey spends his whole life selflessly helping his town while all the while questioning his worth. At the end through the physical example of seeing life without George Bailey we are able to understand his emotional and spiritual worth.
There are many who would say The Movies are supposed to be an escape so the audience could forget about the everyday realities of life. I disagree. The Movies are supposed to be a reminder about what is important in life. They communicate even though we will go through rejection, physical danger, and feelings of self doubt, we can come out on the other side stronger. The Movies don’t take us away from the realities of this world they give us perspective and insight that brings understanding. We begin to understand the battle within is universal. The Movies give us the weapons and inspiration to fight it.
I give you a ball. What you do with this ball could easily tell me how good of a storyteller you are. Here are a few questions I want you to answer. What kind of ball is it? who has the ball? And most importantly, what is going to happen to the ball?
You can turn the ball into a basketball and have a basketball player shoot a basket with it. I personally would call that a bit cliche and uninteresting. You can make someone throw the ball into someone’s groin area. Many would call that funny! But, is it any more original or less cliche? A lot has to do with why he threw it in someone’s groin. You also have the ability to do nothing with the ball. You might think, “This is stupid and I am going to stop reading now”. Well, it is fine with me if you deny this perfectly functioning ball (that I already created for you by the way) and leave. However, choosing to leave just might be contributing to the trapped situation you are in. Some people never end up writing anything because they are too afraid of what others might think, don’t have enough time to put pen to paper, or are not confident enough in themselves to believe they have anything worthy enough to say. Well, I have something to say………….”DON’T BELIEVE THESE LIES!”. As an individual you should always have something worthy enough to say. Don’t worry about what others say, even the harshest criticism could be used for good. And, if you don’t have the time to be creative I very much question why you feel you should still be living. Let me quote acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in saying, “The difference between Page Two and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death”. You might also argue a “ball” is too small of a thing to interest anyone. Why create stories about balls when we can create stories about huge battle ships, missile shooting robots, and blood thirsty warlords? I guess my only reply to this argument is, “bigger does not always mean better”.
With this ball you need to go farther then “cliche” and have it be more then just an object to set up a cheap sight gag. Creativity is a personal thing. You want this ball to say something about who you are and what you think of this world. How will you make the ball personal? I would turn it into a baseball. Why a baseball? Because I grew up playing the sport. I was a pitcher. There is a lot of emotional connection I have to the game. Maybe it could be the last game ball my character won before he called it quits. Maybe it could be the baseball my main character was given after being denied trying out for the big leagues. “Before you come back I want you to get to know this thing”, the scout says tossing the rejected player a baseball. “If you like it so much I want you to throw it so nobody could hit it”. There, I just set up my whole story within a few lines. I am dealing with a lot of emotional elements, all of which are represented in the baseball. The ball represents the game he loves, a rejection, and a challenge that the main character doesn’t know whether or not he can fulfill. For the rest of the story I could use the ball as a reminder to why my main character is working so hard to become a great pitcher.
Great storytellers do not need to take us to a galaxy far far away or show a situation where the life of mankind is on the line, in order to interest us. No grand monster, clever plot twist, or epic action scene will impact an audience more then a personal story. All a good storyteller needs to do is make even the smallest of objects and situations personal and insightful. If you believe yourself to be a good storyteller I challenge you to make a lot out of something small. Create interest where many would say there is none. My favorite thing involving a ball is baseball. I challenge you to show me a better one. You have the power to do what ever you want with the ball. Don’t think about doing something nobody would ever think of. Don’t think about trying impress us with your story. Just think about why it matters to you personally. Believe me, if it matters to you at a foundational level it will matter to someone else as well.
I can not create a story without thinking how it reflects my perspective on family, politics, and most importantly God. Many have debated on whether faith in God limits the storyteller or frees him. Because I personally have chosen to devote my life to God my creative decisions always need to be filtered through my faith. There are an extra bundle of questions I need to ask myself when creating a story. Is my story giving God reverence or putting Him down? Am I allowing Him to speak to others or am I turning others away from Him? Does the point of my film justify the immorality I show in the story? I personally believe because the Christian industry is so afraid of the way their films reflect God they limit their creativity. You could justly ask how am I different? How could I possibly create satisfactory entertainment with all these questions interfering with my creative decisions?
Christian films such as the Left Behind series, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants don’t seem to attract much more than the audience who already agrees with their message. I watched christian produced films all through out my childhood. Hardly any of the movies taught me how to think. All they really tried to do was teach me what to think. The morals of their stories were obvious and often shallow. All of their stories make a big deal about the importance of “choosing Jesus”. It’s the answer to every problem. “With God on our side we can do anything”. The rest of the world is shown to be completely corrupt and evil. Most Christian films talk down to non-believers. They don’t take the time to understand the outside world and thus are not able to bring substance or give insight to the world’s problems.
Most of my friends’ faiths stops them from opening up to the outside world. The stories they create are black and white. They lack the shades of grey that bring depth to good storytelling. In real life the answer is never as simple as “choose Jesus”. The problem is never as simple as “He doesn’t have faith in God”. When a name becomes the most important point of a story you will lose your audience. The Christian industry is stuck on a name. They put the name ahead of the person’s character. The relationship a Muslim, Buddhist, or any other religion seems to have with God means nothing. If you do not call him by the right name, you are screwed. Thus the name trumps any true value represented in the story. If the Christian industry is going to make a movie about friendship it needs to involve introducing one or both of the friends to Jesus Christ. If the story has to do with drug addiction healing only happens through relationship with Jesus. If the film has to do with abortion the value of life is only found through the realization that Jesus loves us. The Church actually frowns upon putting Jesus’ teachings above his name, as if saying “I believe in love” is more important then being loving. If Jesus represented the medicine that would cure the deadly disease in the story the Christian industry would have the story concentrate on the importance of those affected understanding what the medicine was called rather then how it could actually heal them.
Because of the Christian industry’s inability to see God anywhere else than in their religion they end up closing doors to the outside world and themselves. Their faith becomes no more then a hollow name. They create a set of chains which stop them from being creative and exploring the essence of God. The christian God, at least the God I believe in, is infinite. There is no limit to His depth. I observe a different part of Him in everyone I see. Jesus is clearly seen in the story about a child bringing meaning to an old man’s life or the tale of a goblin finding out growing gardens is better than battle and bloodshed. See, Jesus told many stories in his life, hardly ever did he say what faith his characters claimed to follow. Jesus was not interested in giving the world another religion. His stories were about exploring real issues, like what it means to love your brother, neighbor, and enemy. He didn’t want His followers to tell others God loved them, He wanted them to show others God’s love through helping feed, cloth, and heal “the least of these”.
I want all the stories I create to give people more insight to who my God is. The questions I ask myself before embarking on a story are not there to limit my creativity. The questions give me a direction to go and a reason to put my heart into my visions. I have a foundational belief that God gave me the visions I have in my head to show to others. I give God reverence by being true to myself and the stories I create. I allow God to speak to others through getting myself out of the way. The world is full of immorality. Immorality is justified when it is not being used as a form of entertainment, but rather as a way to bring a reality to my stories and show a contrast to my God. As a Christian community we need to have faith God can be seen in our stories even when there is no name attached to Him. We must have faith in who our God is not in what we call Him.
Most essays consist of a introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction is only about one or two paragraphs. In it you need to grab your audience’s attention with your subject matter. You need to introduce a problem and get your audience interested in learning about the solution. The body is where most of the writing happens. You need to go into the specifics of your subject and go deep into what exactly it takes to solve the problem you introduced in the intro. The conclusion is usually the shortest of the three. It is where you tie everything together. You must show exactly why your subject is worth remembering.
Filmmaking is not much different. Every story we tell needs to have a strong beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning the world of the story is established and the main characters are introduced. The fatal flaw the main character spends the rest of the story dealing with is also introduced. The second act is when the plot unfolds and the main character is taken on a journey that usually forces him to see and try to deal with his fatal flaw. The third act is where everything comes together to create the ultimate test for the main protagonist and we see if he overcomes his fatal flaw or is overcome by it. It really is as simple as that.
The three acts in storytelling are not in place to limit the storyteller. As I said, there is a beginning, middle, and end in every story. Most likely you will create a three act structure in your story whether you are aware of it or not. The goal is to not only be aware of it but also understand how it works best. You might have some great story ideas, however if not executed properly they will have little impact on your audience.
The second and third acts mean little if the first act doesn’t draw your audience in. The first act creates the foundation for the rest of the film to stand on. Both the world and characters of the story must be established in the first act. The action and plot will come later. In the first act you need to show us a world we will find interesting and introduce characters that we want to look into and understand. The protagonist needs to be someone we can relate to if not also like. If the character is unrelatable we will have no interest in his failures or successes. The main character should be comfortable in the prison his flaw has created. He might think he is on top of his game, but we need to see how he is also trapped. We must see his fatal flaw as a flaw. If there is no flaw there is no need for a story. Usually the main character’s flaw is hidden in his greatest quality.
Things start to change in the second act. Right around the 25th to 30th minute of most movies an event comes into the main character’s life that completely changes his routine. This is the introduction of the conflict. The plot must completely revolve around the main character and his flaw. Don’t throw your character into a situation just because you think it would be “cool”. The plot must give us a deeper understanding of the main character and bring his flaw to the surface of the story. The conflict must completely change things up while still staying true to the world you created. The main character is usually thrown into the second act, it is something he cannot control. The second act represents the journey. It’s the longest act of the three. A few new characters can be introduced as long as they help reflect the struggle going on within the protagonist. The second act shows the depth of the storyteller. Are the characters and the struggles the characters are going through cliche or unrealistic? Or, do you have a story that has layers, that feels personal and deep, and one that gives us a deeper insight into the world we live in?
Sometimes the second act is split in two. The first part could show the protagonist running away from his flaw and the second could be about the protagonist acknowledging his flaw and preparing himself to face it. If the character’s flaw is more than skin deep it will create layers in your story that will take time to uncover. It would be a huge mistake to hurry the second act up in order to get to the climax. Each journey is different and it is important to take the time that is needed. There could be action and a lot of adventure in the second act, but do not over do it. The second act is not about dazzling the audience right and left, it’s about a journey inside the human soul. The second act is preparing both the protagonist and the audience for the climax of the picture.
The transition between the second and third act usually comes on a low note rather then a high one. It is the calm before the storm. Do not clutter the end of your movie with too much action. Let your audience experience a low so the high is more impacting. Give the climax room to breath. The third act is where the main character either overcomes his flaw or is overcome by it. Everything must come together to make a final statement. How have the characters you established in the first act and the journey you took them on in the second act set us up for the final test? You do not need to give us any straight answers in the third act but you do need to create a sense of completion. For example, the fatal flaw you address in the third act might not be the only problem in your character’s life. However, dealing with the flaw might allow your character to see other problems in his life that he could deal with in the future. Sometimes you show the character dealing with those problems in the future by creating a sequel. Sometimes you just leave the rest of the story to the audience’s imagination. The key is that you dealt with the big problem you introduced at the beginning of the story. Whether you deal with it through tragedy or success is up to you. The third act is usually the shortest of the three. Make your point and don’t doddle. Once your climax is finished and you have made your point, tie up the rest of the story quickly. There is no need to linger.
What I have introduced to you is the basic structure of a three act story. However, it defiantly is not how every story works. Sometimes the stories have five or more acts. Sometimes the main character is the character with the smallest arc in the story. There are plenty ways a storyteller can bend and even break the rules. However, this is a good basis for a storyteller to start with. In every story there needs to be a world and characters we can invest in and a problem that takes a journey to solve. If you truly want to impact your audience with your ideas and stories you must learn how to structure them. You must not just have a brilliant story in your head, you need to know how to get it onto paper and from paper into the heads of others.
I will be the first to admit I am a Pixar fanatic. I have looked up pretty much every interview, watched or listened to every behind the scenes feature and commentary on Pixar. Few have taught me more about filmmaking and the art of story than Pixar studios. The studio was one of my first and greatest teachers in filmmaking. It is safe to say I have always held them to a higher standard than any other studio in the modern era of film.
I am not the only one who holds Pixar in great regard. There are millions of fans out there who count down the days until the next Pixar premier. Almost anyone who works in animation would consider working at Pixar a dream job. The beauty of creating quality work again and again is: you attract the most ambitious artists. John Lasseter, the president of Pixar Studios, has said several times that he wants people with a passion to tell stories to come to Pixar.
The roots of Pixar are very humble. The majority of its founders were computer programers who the animation industry thought had no business being anywhere close to animation. The rest consisted of artists who were thrown out or rejected from other studios for trying to shake things up or because they were not experts at a particular aspect of animation. When Pixar started making movies they intentionally went against the established mold. They created stories in which the characters didn’t break out in song every ten minutes, nor did they always need a villain. They created original stories that took place in modern day rather then fairytale adaptions that constantly evolved around a princess trying to find prince charming. Their films were conceived and created by the directors. Pixar’s greatest and most unique quality was its stance on being a director driven studio where decisions were made not based on marketing or by a collective but rather because the director of the film had a burning desire to tell the story he or she wanted to tell in his or her unique way.
At the moment Pixar is still extremely successful, at least in the public’s eye. Although Cars 2 came out to mostly critical scrutiny, earning a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%, it was a hit with the public earning a worldwide gross income of $559, 852, 396. It looks like Pixar’s newest film Brave is going to be a similar success publicly, although like Cars 2 it was not received as well critically. I personally have seen a huge difference in the quality of the last two Pixar films compared to their first eleven. I think anyone who studies story could point out the huge flaws in the last two pictures. The greatest flaw being the two movies seem to have no real soul. Yet, most Pixar fans and most of the people working on the two movies have refused to admit publicly any step down in quality within these projects.
Instead of working on the problems that have surfaced in Pixar’s last few films the studio appears to be choosing to avoid them. They still claim to be more then the typical Hollywood studio. They want to be seen as more. Pixar once showed themselves to be different from typical Hollywood by creating films that were conceived and driven by the director and not settling for mediocrity but rather only letting a film out to the public if it felt like it was living up to its potential. Yet, in the last few years Pixar has come out with Cars 2 a movie that was described by most critics and myself as mediocre. With the movie Brave Pixar had a story that could have completely turned the typical princess tale on it’s head, but half way through production they got cold feet and gave the story to a director who relied on stereotypes rather then personal conviction.
Pixar claims to be the studio that breaks rules and brings us original stories. I saw none of that in Brave or Cars 2. They claim to be a director driven studio that thinks outside the box. Yet, the first director was taken off of Brave for “story problems” she claims were actually “creative differences”. Could the problems be she was thinking too far out of the box? One of the things Pixar is most proud of is their Brain Trust. The famous Brain Trust is a group of Pixar directors and producers who watch each Pixar film in production every three to four months. They give the directors of the films notes on what they think is working and what they think needs to change. They are also, from what I can tell, the group who make the decision to change directors if they feel a story isn’t working. In the past I have written about the advantages of the Brain Trust. However, might the Brain Trust be the very thing taking the creative control out of the hands of the directors?
It is interesting that the only directors so far to carry their projects all the way through production are a group of five who have known each other since the beginning of Pixar feature film. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Ulrich, and John Lasseter were all key players in the making of Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. Brad Bird, the only other Pixar director to carry his film all the way through production, has known John Lasseter, President and co-founder of Pixar, since the 70′s when they went to school together. The rest of the people so far to begin creating a Pixar feature film, Brenda Chapman, Jan Pinkava, Brad Lewis, and Gary Rydstrom, have either been replaced or had their project completely abolished. What this shows me is a lack of trust in anyone new. Yes, it is nice to hear Lasseter talk about how he wants stories that originate from the heart of the director, but he seems very hesitant to give those visions a chance to come to fruition. Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust trusted these people to put their heart and soul into creating a story for the studio, yet gave up on them before they could finish their film. With a movie like Ratatouille we still received a very powerful story, yet in the case of Cars 2 and Brave the stories seem full of compromises and half baked ideas.
I have heard many directors at Pixar rave about visionaries like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. However these two artist did not have a “Brain Trust” who approved their every step. They made their movies the way they wanted to make them and risked the chance of failure with the public. Some of Walt Disney’s greatest masterpieces were not accepted by the public until years after their release. If John Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust want to have visionaries like Disney and Miyazaki, they need to risk giving their directors true creative control. To prove they trust other directors they need to not only allow them to come up with and develop new stories they need to continue to trust them to bring their stories to fruition. Lasseter has said in the past he would not allow a mediocre film out of his studio. Well, it is hard to describe movies like Cars 2 and Brave as anything other than mediocre. Pixar must not be like every other studio and run away from this fact. There will be mediocre stories that come out of every studio. The question is whether or not those in control at Pixar will still hold the trust of their visionaries as sacred or throw them under the bus?
Here is where I come in. I am an ambitious artist who has a burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. John Lasseter himself said that is what he most wants in the people directing films at Pixar. I am not the greatest artist but I am a great storyteller. I can thank Pixar for helping me become a great storyteller. The problem is at the moment I would be afraid to share my stories with the studio. You don’t know how hard and deeply upsetting it is for me to say this. Pixar was my teacher, inspiration, and dream. However, my stories are greater then any amount of gold, fame, or success. They all represent part of who I am and my unique journey. I will only share these stories with people I trust. Right now I can not trust Pixar with my burning desire to tell stories.
Pixar, you might be getting money, fame, and public success, but I fear you are losing out on something far more valuable.