A Dreamer Walking

Three Acts

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 24, 2012

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.

To My Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 11, 2012

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.

Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 4, 2012

Great suspense does not come through mastering its technique. Of course without good technique you can’t create good suspense. But, as I said in past posts Hitchcock is considered by many, including myself, to be the master of the technique of suspense yet for me his films rarely exceed the level of mediocrity. I have yet to find a non film student who thinks any more then I do about Hitchcock’s movies. His characters are too one dimensional and dry. We never are able to really connect with them. When the audience can’t connect with the characters of a film the film’s suspense loses it’s power.

What matters more then perfecting the technique of suspense is creating a story where the suspense has true meaning. You must establish the characters before you put them in danger. You must give them a voice that is unique and approachable. In a world full of violence where we imitate killing people for kicks and giggles, in games like Call of Duty and Halo, we require more connection then ever before if we are to care about a characters wellbeing. The reason why the most action and suspense is held until the end of a film is because the climax is the time the audience is most involved with the story they are watching. One of the greatest mistakes a filmmaker can make is trying to put too much suspense and action into a movie. Most young filmmakers today feel they will bore their audience if they don’t have a big chase, sex scene, or gun fight every ten minutes. A monster does not need to be around every corner.

What you need to make sure you have is interesting characters and a good story. To create good suspense you need to understand its place in storytelling. Suspense can not carry a film, it is only the icing on top. The combination of great story and just the right amount of icing is what makes film so worth watching.

Suspense is created through uncertainty. As I have said before, the uncertainty in a story does not need to come from a character being in physical danger. The uncertainty in film revolves around the arc of the story. The arc of a story usually has to do with the inner and outer conflict of the main protagonist. For example, the outer conflict might be the young man trying to win over the woman of his dreams. However the inner conflict would be something like the young man fighting to believe in himself enough to pursue the girl. The more invested we are with the inner conflict the more interested we will be in finding out if he will get the girl or not. My problem with Hitchcock is he is usually just concentrated on the outer conflict, which creates a much weaker suspense. The suspense generated from inner conflict is like adding several more strings in order to create a much stronger rope. You are taking a risk when you dive into inner conflict, because you force your audience to get emotionally involved. Like any kind of deep relationship, you have the potential to break one’s heart.

Hitchcock said the reason suspense is so much better then shock, is because suspense lasts and entertains for much longer. The reason I believe emotional suspense is better then just physical suspense is because I believe emotional suspense lasts much longer. When you connect a character with your audience you create a bond that lasts much longer then any movie. You bring the uncertainty the audience member observed in the theater and make them reflect upon it in their own lives. We begin to wonder if we can do the things we saw those characters do on screen. We begin to start our own journey and create our own arc.

Suspense has the power to entertain. It does not have the power to satisfy. In order to satisfy we need to go beyond suspense and into substance. We need to make our stories worth telling and give our audience something to take away and come back to.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Brave- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 1, 2012

Pixar’s Brave is the first movie the studio has produced with a main protagonist being a woman and it was going to be Pixar’s first film directed by a woman. The story was actually inspired by the director Brenda Chapman’s relationship with her own daughter. However about eighteen months ago Chapman was taken off the project. In her place came Mark Andrews. Andrews brought to the project a deep understanding and love for Scotland and an ability to make big and decisive changes in story. What I believe was lost when Andrews came on board was the intimate understanding of the bond between a mother and a daughter.

The bond between Merida and her mother Queen Elinor is the key to the whole story.  But what Pixar creates is caricatures of the mother and daughter, rather then well rounded characters. Brave is the fairytale version of Freaky Friday. The only real difference is a change in location and time period. The film does not really try to have us understand why the characters are the way they are. It is as if Andrews thinks the flat stereotype of a self consumed teen and an all knowing mother is enough to impact and inspire his audience. In one scene Elinor talks to her husband and Merida talks to her horse while we cut between the two explaining their positions. The problem is they really don’t say anything we haven’t heard a hundred times before in other films. Merida is doing what she is doing because she wants her freedom. Elinor is doing what she is doing because she loves Merida. We never see how Elinor making Merida be proper and get married is loving. We never see Merida understand the value of freedom. Because the characters are not explored thoroughly as individuals, the eventual bond between the two feels artificial. We see the same themes of Brave in movies like Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon. However the individual exploration of the characters in Finding Nemo and How to Train Your Dragon is what makes those movies worth going back to again and again. In Finding Nemo the father Marlin needs to face his own insecurities in order to let his son Nemo take risks and explore the world. In How to Train Your Dragon young Hiccup needs to dessert his need to live up to his Viking roots before he can find his own voice and really appreciate the leadership and sacrifice of his father.

The change Mark Andrews said he made was with the stuff holding the story back. With Brave we get a very fast paced story which lasts just slightly over ninety minutes. I have heard more then one Pixar director explain their love for director Hayoa Miyazaki and his brilliant ability to celebrate the quite moments in film. Well, there were really no quite moments in Brave. The score was over used. The key development scenes in the movie were accompanied with songs. Although the songs were well written and well performed, they felt like cop outs, easier than making the director and artists take their time and find visual ways to express their points and explore the characters development. With Andrews came action. He said in a recent interview he was the one who really made the evil bear Mor’du a key character in the film. Yet, Mor’du seems to be little more then a device to scare the audience. Whenever the movie seems to be slowing down Andrews throws in some kind of energizer, whether it is a song, an action sequence, or just a sight gag. He seems scared to death to just let the audience come to their own conclusion without any kind of music or piece of drastic action forcing them into it, and thus he does a huge disservice to the story. He has mentioned many times in interviews about how proud he was that Pixar and Disney let him go darker with this movie. However, Andrews idea of “darker” is little sequences designed to raise the audience’s heart-rate. My idea of “darker” would be a story where there is  consequences of feeling real loss. There is not even a scare at the end end of the movie to remind us what the characters needed to go through in order to learn their lessons. At the beginning of the story Merida’s father King Fergus fights a bear and we learn that the bear took one of his legs off. Yet, through out the rest of the movie Fergus with a peg leg can move just as easily as the rest of his men. There is no mention of it hurting, no real body language to tell us he had this devastating thing happen to him, it is more played for comic relief.

The humor in Brave is a bit choppy and many times quite shallow. I was fine with Merida’s triplet brothers adding some humor with their adventures through the castle, giving the maid trouble and always trying to get their hands on any kind of goodies from the bakery. We also see some brilliantly animated sequences and some clever wordplay that will get the audience bursting out laughing more then once. Some of the comic relief we get from King Fergus and the three other tribe leaders, along with their children who are shooting for Merida’s hand, is quite funny. Yet, the humor seems to come at a great cost. Each one of the young men shooting for Merida’s hand are played for comic relief. By doing this, these men are romantically appealing to no one. Rather then create one or two men who actually look interesting and are legitimate suitors for Merida, Pixar takes the easy way out through making all of them seem completely unreasonable. By doing this Pixar belittles the stance Merida makes when she refuses to be betrothed to any of them.  There are no men in this movie that even try to represent serious adulthood. They are all played for comic relief, and after a while it gets old. It seems like Pixar was trying to impress us with the women of the movie through dumbing down the men. Well Pixar, I am not impressed.

Brave has awe inspiring visuals. It is filled with marvelous animation. There are times where Andrews’ fast paced and to the point directing style is completely necessary. The animation and pacing for the sequence where Merida shoots for her own hand at the end of the first act is worthy of appreciation and study. We meet some fun characters and Pixar brings into the story a lot of charm. Yet, in the end Brave seems like a powerful idea that was hollowly realized. Pixar’s “clever” take on the traditional fairytale is to have no prince charming. But what they do is trade out one cliche for another and end up saying nothing new. For children the movie will be a lot of fun and adults can defiantly be entertained by it. This might be quite enough for most people, just not me. Judging from Pixar’s last two movies it seems like the studio that once showed themselves to be out of the box and director driven are sloping down to becoming the typical Hollywood studio– who likes to imagine themselves as much more then they really are.