A Dreamer Walking

Invisible Ink- Finding the Reflections

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 8, 2011

The book Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, calls this section The Use of Clones. “Clones”, as Brain McDonald explains, are “characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path”. In essence clones are characters that represent a truth or a possible truth about your protagonist. I rather use the word reflection then clone. A clone means a genetically identical organism. However, the way McDonald uses the word he does not mean identical as much as he means “similar” or “reflecting of”.  One of the examples McDonald uses in his book is Gollum, in Lord of the Rings, being a clone of the main character Frodo. Gollum is not identical to Frodo but he represents what might happen to him if he chooses a curtain path. In the end, as McDonald points out in his book, we measure the success of Frodo by the failure of Gollum.

I am going to use this section in Brian’s book as a jumping off point, like I usually do with his topics. However, even though Brian is writing mainly for writers, I am writing for both writers and directors of film. Because of this I will try to take his points about clones and apply them to filmmaking in general.

In any given story it is our job as storytellers to make sure everything is there to inhance the point we are trying to make. We need to concentrate on what the foundation or theme of the story is and build everything around the foundation. If something in our story does not contribute to our theme, it has no use being in our story. We do not create characters, environments, or events just to “flesh out our world”. We create for a purpose. As I stated earlier a reflection’s purpose is to express a truth or possible truth about our main character(‘s). Reflections are all around in filmmaking. They might present themselves in other characters, through situations, or even through the world the characters inhabit.

Imagine yourself going through a house of mirrors where you see yourself reflected in all kinds of ways. Some reflections are not realistic, they distort you to make you look stronger, fatter, or smaller then you really are. In film reflections are not replicas of your main character, they are supposed to show a truth about your character through a curtain lens. In the end, this lens can be extremely miss leading or extremely helpful to the change your main character goes through. It all depends on how you choose to use the reflection tool in your storytelling process.

Reflections are sometimes used to help the main character of the story understand something. They are sometimes just used to help the audience understand something.  A simple example would be Luke Skywalker and Darth Vador. Not only does the audience relize what Luke can become through the reflection we see in Vador, so does Luke. It is made clear to Luke he can fall into the darkside just like his father and in the end this revelation guides the path Luke chooses to take. In The Lion King there is a scene towards the end of the film where the main characters Simba looks into a pond and sees his father in his reflection. It is explained that Simba’s father lives inside of him. This helps give Simba confidence to step up and become king.

A movie I believe does a remarkable job expressing reflections is Peter Pan (2003). Most of the reflections in this movie are purely for the audiences sake. Peter Pan is a fairytale and like most good fairytales it does not make any efforts to stick to the realities of this world. Instead we are introduced to an environment that completely reflects who the main character is. Even the villain of the piece we find out is a reflection of Peter Pan. To help establish my point I would like you to watch this scene from the Peter Pan (2003) movie (you can start at 1:30 and only need to go up to 8:00).

Notice how abstract the environment and lighting is. As soon as Hook says, “She was leaving you Pan”, the environment begins to change. There is even a time when Peter is lit by a cold blue light while Hook is lit through a warm red light, even though they are outside in the same environment only feet away from each other. There was no effort by director Paul Hogan to create a realistic scene. Paul wanted to show us what Pan was feeling. The more Hook upsets Pan the more gloomy the environment gets. Neverland is a direct reflection of who Peter Pan is. When the kiss comes everything changes again, the stars are even changing to reflect the emotions he is going through. He shoots out a burst of energy blowing away the pirates and he flies up basking in the moonlight.

Notice through out the scene how eerily similar Hook is to Peter, to the point he begins to fly just like Pan. At the beginning of the scene Hook is a very accurate reflection of who Peter is. This is what McDonald’s main point was in his The Use of Clones section. You often see the villain of a movie reflect a dark side of the main protagonist. The reflection is clear between characters like Batman and the Joker, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and here between Hook and Peter Pan. Hook even says, “You’ll die alone and unloved… just like me“. The point is to express the danger the protagonist faces. We begin to understand the small things which differentiate good from evil. When we see how easy it is to choose the dark side, we begin to appreciate the hero’s choice to rise above.

I could literally talk hours about how reflections are used in film. The point comes back to what I talked about in my previous post, show don’t tell. We as filmmakers must find ways to express the inner battle going on in our characters soul, visually. We do not need to be as blunt as Peter Pan, but we must find a way. There may also be times in your stories where the main characters needs to face a reflection in order further his journey, such as Simba seeing his father in his reflection, Woody, from Toy Story 2, seeing what his future might be through the toy Jesse,  and Edward Norton’s character seeing who he he could be (or is) through Tyler Burdon in the movie Fight Club.  You can even create a change in your character through showing a reflection of the world without him or her in it, as we see in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

Reflections are a wonderful tool used throughout filmmaking. You do not necessarily need to have a reflection shown through every character you create. There are times where reflections never go farther then expressing a truth about the protagonist to the audience. The reason why reflections (or clones) are refereed to as Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald, is because they are not supposed to be obvious. They are around to bring us farther into the story, not take us out of it. We must use reflections wisely and with care so they are never too obvious to the audience. However, reflections are everywhere in film. Whether it is through the way a scene is lit, sound is expressed, set is dressed, or camera is handled, our job as filmmakers is to reflect something about the world and characters we are portraying, to our audience and maybe even to the characters in our film.

Invisible Ink- Be the Drama Queen!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 9, 2011

Did you know rats can’t cook? Did you know fish can’t talk, balloons can’t fly houses, monsters are not in your closet waiting to scare you, toys are not alive, cars don’t have emotions, humans do not have superpowers, robots can’t fall in love, and ants can’t invent things? Many of the most popular films ever to come out of Hollywood are the ones that are most illogical. I mean think about it. There is no such thing as a Jedi who can use some magical force to read your feelings and there is no such world populated by blue aliens and floating islands called Pandora. Why do we go to movies which show these things if they are not really real?

You might be the kind of person who does not like fantasy. You might only go to movies like Schindler’s List or Pursuit of Happyness, movies which are based on true stories. So at least those movies are real, right? Have you ever seen someone in real life who had a personal theme song play whenever he showed great emotion? Have you ever been in one place one second and then dozens of miles away in the next second in real life? The fact is all film is an illusion. Every action and camera move is thought out before hand. The lighting and most of the props have been planned out way before anything is actually shot. The goal for  filmmakers has never been to give you complete reality, you can just go outside if you want that. The goal is to give you an emotion which hopefully is more real to you then most of the emotions you have through real life.

Personally you can not convince me the animals in the Disney animated movie Bambi were just a bunch of drawings. You can not convince me the emotions I saw in the movie Schindler’s List were not real in some way. Characters like Wall-E, Thumper, or Forrest Gump have become just as real to me as any character I run into while going on a walk or shopping. In fact, these fictional characters have impacted me in ways few real people have.

In the book Invisible Ink Brian McDonald quotes famous director Billy Wilder, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion“. Movies do not need to hit on logical truths all the time, what they need to hit on are emotional truths. Sometimes exaggerating logical truths can help highlight an emotional truth. No one does this better then Pixar in my opinion. Rats can not cook, however the premise of the Pixar movie Ratatouille is a ambitious rat, in Remy, venturing out to become a chef. As illogical as the premise is we as the audience are thrilled when we see Remy begin to succeed in his ambitions. The fact that Remy is a rat gives us even more fuel to root for him because we know he is fighting a huge uphill battle, I mean most restaurants are forced to close if it is discovered rats are in the kitchen. We begin to see Remy as a symbol of a man overcoming the impossible in order to fulfill his dreams. The idea of a rat wanting to cook captures us because emotionally it hits on a truth which is extremely real and relevant. Watching Remy succeed in being a chef allows us to realize we are capable of succeeding in things which we are told by the world are impossible or closed off.

It is the filmmakers job to become the drama queen. Film and stage acting are the places where we are allowed to let it all out and use everything to further our point. The reason why we have music playing in the background or use quick cuts is so we can get across to the audience a very real idea. The reason it takes so long to plan out the camera moves, acting, lighting, and set design is because we want all those things to further the actual emotional theme of our film.

A good man to study in order to see to what effect you can use cinema to further your theme is Martin Scorsese. Some of his earlier movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull went against many rules of filmmaking at the time. In Taxi Driver there were times where Scorsese would just wonder off of the main character, use fades to show his character moving across long distances, and shoot medium shot of a character talking to another without having the other character in frame. These very gutsy techniques worked because Scorsese understood how they were contributing to the theme of his film. He didn’t care if he showed more blood then what would be realistic from something like a gunshot wound, if he point was being made. (Check out this LINK to read more about how I feel Scorsese is a perfecter in using the elements of cinema).

Everything needs to be about the theme of the film. You must figure out how to get the most drama out of the performances and camera shots. Sometimes in order to get a curtain point across you need to go completely against logic. You must be careful to not lose your audience through going too abstract and it is important to stay true to some rules. In a movie like Ratatouille we are introduced to a rat who wants to cook and we are able to except this concept. However, we still need to see Remy go through the obstacles of becoming a cook. We still need to buy into him as a character and relate too the struggles he goes through.

I actually think Billy Wilder’s statement, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion“, is slightly misleading. We do need things to be logical in some ways if we want to generate believable emotions from them. However, they do not need to be logical in the way “rats can’t cook” or “houses can’t fly” are. We need what we see in the movies to make logical sense emotionally to us. They must hit on a core belief we have as human beings. If someone falls in love with another character in a movie but the relationship has not connected with us as the audience, we will call it corny. If a character dies on screen but it doesn’t feel believable, we won’t be effected by the loss.

Make the character, environment, and story resonate with us as the audience through what ever rout you think is best. I do not need to believe characters like Wall-E and Forrest Gump live in the world I call “reality”. However, I need to have the characters and stories you tell become something I can believe in. But first the stories you create need to become real in the realm you call your “imagination”. When they become real there you can start translating them to film.

Invisible Ink- Don’t tell me, SHOW ME!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 3, 2011

Seeing is different from being told
— African Proverb

This is how Brian McDonald opened up the topic of “What It Means to Dramatize an Idea”. This post is actually concentrating on the second part of Chapter 3 in his book Invisible Ink. I think in chapter three Brian hits on several different storytelling points, so I have decided to write four posts on the chapter (HERE is the link to the first post).

In storytelling our job is not to bluntly give our audience all the answers. Creating a story where you tell the audience exactly how and what to think is a quick way to get them to walk out on you. If the audience has been given all the answers there will be no drama. Drama comes from the uncertainty and questions the audience has. The drama comes from the audience figuring out the answers for themselves. Our job as filmmakers is to give the audience the equation and let them come up with the answer.

Let me go back to the example of The Incredibles to explain myself. The main theme in The Incredibles is “family is most important”. The reason why The Incredibles works so well is we are never told family is most important but rather we are shown. There are several scenes in which it is visually expressed how important family is to Mr. Incredible. One of the greatest examples would be the scene where his wife and children are flying to the island where he is being held capture. Syndrome, the villain of the movie, shoots missiles at the plane. We see Mr. Incredible at his most vulnerable. He begs Syndrome to call off the missiles, but sadly with no avail. He is forced to watch helplessly while the rockets hit and destroys the plane. He thinks right then his family is dead. We don’t need him to say, “my family is important to me”, we literally feel their importance through his emotions.

Words can easily be deceptive. David Fincher said, in his commentary on the movie Se7en, he believed the verbal language was invented so people could lie. Granted, David Fincher is one of the most cynical people I have ever come across, but what he said has some truth. We have the ability to deceive people through our words, but our our actions and emotions give us away.  We as filmmakers are measured based on how much we can get the audience to buy into the story we are telling. If we are told someone is in danger but don’t have it expressed well through the powers of cinema– through sound effects, music, cutting, lighting, and good acting– the audience won’t care. If an actor does not believe in what he is saying the audience won’t believe it. When I watch a movie I do not care whether I have seen the same type of story before. What I care about is whether or not the visuals and characters are believable. Do the performances feel authentic? Do the visuals demand my attention?

The message of “family being most important” has been told before. What makes The Incredibles work is the way the creators are able to get us to buy into the message. At the end of the movie Mr. Incredible wants to fight Syndrome and his evil robot alone. Mrs. Incredible is angry Mr. Incredible doesn’t want her help and demands to know why. Mr. Incredible breaks down and says, “I can’t lose you again”. Right there we are shown how important family has become to Mr. Incredible. His words are validated through the scene before where we saw the emotions he went through when he thought he lost them. His words are also backed up by a great performance. Mr. Incredible can barely look at his wife while he expresses his fear.

Cinema is all about dramatization. Brian McDonald puts it this way in his book, “Dramatization is a way to get your intellectual ideas across to your audience emotionally”. Drama is built entirely on emotions. When we connect an idea emotionally to our audience we have effected them in a way that will last much longer then a two hour theater experience. Facts are meaningless unless they have an emotion behind them. Being told guns are dangerous does not impact us nearly as much as seeing exactly how guns are dangerous. One of my mentors used to take his children to the garage after he killed a deer hunting and show them exactly how the bullet killed the animal. He would show them the insert wound, the blood, and how the bullet effected the deers insides. It is a fact guns are dangerous. However, the fact meant very little to the children until their dad expressed the fact through a dramatic example.

When we as filmmakers don’t give the audience all the answers but rather let them come to their own conclusions a satisfaction is created which could never have been achieved if we just came out and told them what to think. There are movies such as The Social Network that intentionally try to not take sides. In the movie The Social Network there is no obvious villain or obvious hero. This is actually one of the film’s strengths. We are shown plenty of details and have plenty of emotions about each one of the characters. The fun part is how we end up dealing with the emotions we experience. In The Social Network for example, depending on who you ask, the good guy may be different because we each interpret the situations differently. We end up leaving the movie thinking, debating with one another. We do not have a clear opinion but rather a curiosity and interest in hearing what others think. We may even want to see the movie again.

Whether it is to make a point or just get someone to think, you will get much farther through showing rather then telling. The goal should never be to come up with a clear cut answer. Rather, it should be to express something from your own unique point of view. You must have an idea behind what you are showing. You must give me a reason to keep watching and even come back again. But, you need to realize the power is in the image not the word. The goal is to show me something that doesn’t just give me information but rather stimulates the imagination.


Invisable Ink- Is Something There?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 26, 2011

“Why do people tell stories? The stories that tend to stick to our bones are those that teach us something. This, I believe, is the primary reason we tell stories–to teach.”

This is how Brian McDonald started the third chapter of his book Invisible Ink. I don’t think I can open up on this subject much better then the way he did… so I have chosen not to.

Why do we write stories? It seems one big “no no” is to create stories that have a message. I can not tell you how many commentaries and film documentaries I have watched or listened to in which the director and other filmmakers try desperately to avoid saying they are giving us a message through their movie. For some reason they feel if a film is admitted to having a “message” it begins to be more like an after school PBS TV special then an actual piece of entertainment. Why this concept has spread I do not know.

We must not be afraid of embracing the kind of storytelling that will impact our audience in more profound ways then making them say “ooh” and “aw” whenever they see a cool camera move or special effect. Storytelling that lasts is storytelling that impacts. You can not impact someone with your story if you do not have anything to really say. As McDonald says, you need to develop an armature. McDonald explains an armature like this, “For us story-crafters, the armature is the idea upon which we hang our story”.

What is the fundamental idea you are wanting to hit on with your story? What makes the story worth telling? Simply put, what is the storie’s heart? Usually you can explain the heart in a sentence or two. A good example would be Pixar’s The Incredibles. The armature for The Incredibles could easily be, “Family is more important then any possession or title“. At the beginning and through the middle of the film we see Mr. Incredible desperately trying to regain the affections and luxuries of being a Superhero. The heart of the story is about Mr. Incredible realizing his most valuable possession is his family. Everything done in the movie is in support of the overall message of family. We learn from Mr. Incredible’s experiences. Throughout the movie the story teaches us fundamental values in extremely entertaining ways. The values are the things that are going to last long after we leave the movie theater, not the sweet special effects and camera movements (and let me tell you The Incredibles had a lot).

In essence McDonald explains the armature as the theme of our story. One crucial detail to understand is a theme is not a word, it is a sentence. Our theme can not be something like “Anger”. Theme is not a subject like “Baseball” or “Hacking”. The theme is the moral or point of our story. It must be explained. An example would be, “Anger will lead to destruction” or, “Baseball is a game of discipline”.  Everything else in the story we are telling must be built to support our theme. If a character or a scenario is not contributing to our overall theme, there is no reason to have it be in the story.

A good way to study theme is to study Pixar and Disney animated films. Animation usually tries to simplify everything. In animation usually there is a clear antagonist and clear protagonist and the story has a clear and usually simple message. All the extra weight is cut off to create a simple 90 minute film that will entertain all age groups. In no way am I trying to demean the significance of family films. I find the simplest of messages are often the most profound. Finding Nemo, Up, Beauty and the Beast, and Pinocchio, are some of the most influential movies I have ever watched. They are also movies that have a message the rest of the elements of the story are supporting to the highest extant possible. As I started to explain in my last post, the hard part of movie making is not making the story more sophisticated but rather making the movie have meaning that is supported by all the elements of cinema. This is what takes a overwhelming amount of effort, dedication, and time. But I guarantee you it is worth it!

Invisible Ink- Simplicity

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 12, 2011

In Invisible ink Chapter 2 we are introduced to the Seven easy steps to a better story.  In this post I will not be repeating the “seven easy steps”. To hear about them please buy the book. The underline point Brian McDonald was trying to make in the chapter however was a good one. He expressed his frustration with writers who usually try to create a overly complicated story.

What makes for a overly complicated story is when the writer tries to bring more plot into the story then what is actually needed. Simplicity is usually key when developing a story. Your job is to not lose the audience on the ride you are taking them on. You entertain the audience not through creating a twist at every corner but rather digging deeper into the story you do have no matter how simple it might be. You can have the most complicated plot imaginable, if you do not create a connection with your characters to the audience however, nobody will go along for the ride.

One of the masters at creating a connection between audience and character was Walt Disney. Hardly any Walt Disney movie was heavy in plot. He had simple beginnings, middles, and ends in almost all his movies. What Walt cared about was the connection between the audience and his characters. Walt was one of the first to push the cartoon industry into developing character personalities. In some of Disney’s first full length animated films, such as Pinocchio and Bambi, the first half hour involves hardly any plot at all. He just allows us to be introduced and get connected with his characters.

At the beginning of Pinocchio we are introduced to the cynical Jiminy Cricket and see him observe Pinocchio being turned to life. The whole movie is character driven. Walt does not do anything without the purpose of helping us understand Pinocchio more. The story line is simple; a toy puppet who wants to become a real boy. The first act consists of us understanding the toy maker Geppetto’s wish to have a real boy and seeing Pinocchio come to life to potentially fulfill that wish. The second act consists of Pinocchio’s wrong turns in his pursuit of becoming a real boy. The third act is about Pinocchio finally realizing his mistakes and setting out to save his father from Monstro, the whale. As a result Pinocchio sacrifices everything. The blue fairy comes and revives Pinocchio and turns him into a real boy creating the happily ever after ending.

Let me break it down for you. In the first act we are introduced to the environment and the characters. As Brian McDonald puts it, “It tells the audience everything they need to know to understand the story that is to follow”. In the second act the story actually begins. Everything should be cause-and-effect based on what happened at the end of act one. In Pinocchio the end of act one was hearing Pinocchio’s ambition to earn the right to become a real boy. The second act consists entirely of the mistakes Pinocchio makes in his efforts. If you are thinking it in visual terms, the second act consists of the climb to the top of the mountain.

The third act is when the character makes it to the top of the mountain only to find out he needs to face a dragon in order to survive. In Pinocchio’s case it was a whale. The third act begins at what ever point sets off the chain reaction for the climax of the picture. In Pinocchio you can say the third act begins when Pinocchio sets out to find his father. After defeating Monstro the whale and saving his father there is one scene showing Pinocchio being turned into a real boy and Jiminy Cricket closing the book to a happily ever after ending. As McDonald says, the key is to not have too much story after the climax of the film, just enough to let us all know life goes on.

The Pinocchio story was not overly complicated. As I said before, Walt was an expert at simplicity in his plots. However this does not mean the movie was easy to make. Disney and his artists worked very hard to figure out the meaning behind the stories he was telling. Creating meaning is actually the hardest part of storytelling. We as storytellers need to have something relevant to say.  I will touch up more on this subject in my next Invisible Ink post.

Instead of putting extra time into making a story more complicated, find ways to simplify it. Simplicity is key. What the audience wants is an interesting world to explore and characters to get to know. Understanding this is crucial. Plot can often get in the way of these things.

Just like the drawing on the top of the post, you must get rid of all the lines that are not necessary for telling the story you want to tell. With the medium of animation in general the filmmaker’s job is not to create a realistic replica of life. The filmmaker’s job is to simplify until all we see is a few lines that describe the characters and environments on screen. This simplicity allows the audience to follow the characters’ movements more easily and not get distracted by the backgrounds. Storytellers could learn a lesson from the medium of animation. All animation is, is a few lines that move creating the illusion of life. All storytelling is, is a few words put together in order to let our imaginations run free. Too many lines or too many words can ruin it all.

Invisible Ink-Beginnings

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 4, 2011

I just started reading this insightful book by Brian McDonald called Invisible Ink (Click on the title to go to the Amazon page). In a effort to understand the book to a fuller extant I am going to start a series on what I have personally gotten out of reading each chapter. So each one of the posts that come from me studying this book will start with the title “Invisible Ink”. However, my goal is not to copy and paste from the book. My goal is to use this blog as a testing device to see if I am able to own the material I am reading and give you my personal perspective on what Invisible Ink means.

I have found most of the lessons in this book, so far, are not new to me. However, Brian has expressed them in such a structured way that I have found them easier to understand.

As Brian McDonald puts it, “Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words”. It is crucial before we get too far into the facts of the story we are creating, we think about the meaning behind it. When we are able to figure out the meaning of our story everything else starts to fall into place. Film is not just made up of duologue and the dialogue we do see can never be taken at face value.

All the obvious points of a story need to have a greater meaning that are not obvious to the audience. When we look at a movie like Pixar’s Up, we don’t just see a story about a old man flying his house with balloons. We see a story about a man who wants to go on an adventure and flies away in his house because he wants to get away from the rest of the world. In essence the flying house represents a need to be alone along with a need to uproot oneself from tradition in order to experience the world or life in general in a new way. The grand adventure the old man Carl and his neighbor Russell go on is only a story device to make them, along with the rest of the audience, understand the beauty of the quite moments in life.

The underline meaning of a story is much more difficult for one to figure out. But here lies the key to great storytelling. The true beauty of a story comes from the invisible ink. It comes from the things that are not necessarily said but are communicated through the foundations of the story and characters you have created.

You as a person might be able to talk the smooth talk and have all the right looks on the outside. However, if what you say and what you do does not ring true with others on the inside you will quickly be forgotten. The same concept goes with storytelling.