A Dreamer Walking

Invisible Strings

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 20, 2012

Filmmakers are puppeteers. We control pretty much everything. We create the story; deciding who is good and who is evil, who wins and who loses. Everything from writing the script, to framing the shots, to cutting the film is part of the complex process of creating the illusion of life for our audience to be entranced by. Some puppeteers are extremely literal in their stories; creating worlds and characters that are quite like real life. Some puppeteers however are quite abstract; creating worlds where fish can talk and balloons can fly houses. There are many talented puppeteers. Most of them like to show off their skill by creating characters who are basically capable of anything. By creating visual effects that completely blow the audience away. And by using their editing and camera skills to show off their magnificent skill as puppeteers. However, the greatest puppeteers, the puppet masters, are the ones who make their tremendous string work invisible to the audience watching.

Making one’s strings invisible does not mean you need to make your film completely literal. Animation  for example is an extremely abstract concept. Animation studios like Disney and Pixar do not even try to create literal copies of the world we live in. They create entire worlds of their own where kids can fly and toys come to life. However, all of their stories are reflections of emotional truths. They create characters that have feelings just like us. No matter if it is a robot trying to find love or a rat who wants to cook, their characters reflect each one of us and the obstacles the characters face are reflective of the things we face in every day life. Because the worlds and characters strike an emotional truth with us the audience, we forget about all the strings controlling them.

There are many basic things that need to be done right in order to hide one’s strings. For example, the reason why the invisible cut is so important is because you want to create a flow of motion through your cuts that does not distract from the story. Music needs to always be in service to the story being told. If it comes in at the wrong time or becomes too overpowering it can very easily take the audience member out of the moment. One of the greatest criticisms of 3D is that it creates the illusion of things coming at you and can easily feel intrusive rather then inclusive to the audience member. The reason filmmakers take so long getting a shot set up and edits just right is because they want everything to feel like it is a natural piece of a greater whole.

The most important things to get right in order to hide one’s strings is the story. The story needs to be structured in such a way that if feels real. Although a movie like Finding Nemo is about talking fish, the story is structured and executed in such a way that the story feels genuine. There are several elements about the fish that remind us of real life. The main fish character Marlin is a single parent who suffers from the insecurity of losing his son. His son Nemo has a birth defect which is reflective of what many people suffer from in our world. And, the core idea of a father trying to connect with his son is something almost all of us can connect with. The story also unfolds in such a way that the farther along it goes the more we get connected with the characters the world it takes place in. Marlin loses Nemo and sets out into the ocean to find him again.  The struggles Marlin goes through during his journey allow him to deal with his insecurities and understand more about the values of his son. Finding Nemo is just an illusion created by the filmmakers, yet their strings go unnoticed because we are so caught up in the story.

There are some filmmakers who don’t care about connecting you to there characters or making a plausible world. There only goal is to take you on a ride. However, these kind of filmmakers get old fast. The actions we see unfold begin to look cheesy because we have not bought into their stories emotionally. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a good example. The movie always felt like a story that was created in tribute to earlier films, not because it had something new to say. The actions that unfolded during the movie often felt too elaborate and overdone. It wasn’t enough that Jones got away from the bad guys lair he needed to also survive a nuclear explosion. One impossibly huge waterfall wasn’t enough Jones and the rest of the crew needed to survive three. Again and again visual effects and elaborate camera shots overwhelm us and make obvious the strings controlling the story. When we no longer feel what we are looking at is real we quickly lose any thrill in watching it.

The key to being a good filmmaker is not necessarily the extant of one’s knowledge of the vocabulary of film. Rather, it is how well we are able to execute what we know for the sake of the story. Sometimes elaborate camera work and spectacular visual effects is just what the story calls for. What the audience wants is to be entertained. They want the actions they see on screen to thrill them and that only happens if they are emotionally involved. When all the puppet masters strings are being used for the sake of the story they disappear. When the strings disappear film stops being a mere illusion for movie goers, it becomes real.

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Writing Screenplays

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 17, 2012

I have started several screenplay’s in my life and have pretty much been scared off of all of them. Of course I tell myself I am going to come back, but usually I never do. I think a lot of it has to do with my insecurity as a writer. I don’t think I am good enough. I don’t think I can ever be smart enough to write for several different characters all of whom have different perspectives and intellects. I can never do enough research. I can never express myself in the poetic way I see so many other fine writers express themselves.

One of the writers I look up to is Andrew Stanton. He helped write the majority of the Pixar films. His stories are superbly structured. Everything is preparing the audience for the punch line. He knows how to put us in suspense through doing the unpredictable. He knows how to create characters with depth.  And his stories are always imaginative and unique while also being reflective of undeniable truths we see in everyday life. He has created two masterpieces himself in Finding Nemo and Wall-E while also helping directors like Pete Docter, Lee Ulkrich, and John Lasseter set their stories in the right direction. I don’t think anyone at Pixar would deny that Stanton is a great writer, except perhaps Stanton himself.

Knowing that Stanton is one of the lead writers for one of the most creative studios in Hollywood, you would most likely be surprised to hear that Andrew Stanton has said himself that he doesn’t really like to write and doesn’t consider himself to be very good. He dreads the time his screenplays are read out loud and he never feels like they are finished. He did not go to school for writing. His only experience has been on the job. The only way he feels it is good enough is through rewriting; not just once but rather dozens of times.

Stanton has never treated screenwriting like it was a piece of art. To him it is just a step to something great. When we treat writing as though it is just another step we are freed up to really try our best and fail miserably. Stanton has described screenplays as the screen authority that commands to be followed. It is a cinematic direction manual. It is not for the audience to see, it is for the people who are making the movie to see. His philosophy is to get something onto paper so he can begin to rewrite and refine his work. Once Stanton gets his work out there others are able to help. Pixar happens to have some of the best story helpers in the business. The Brain Trust is not afraid to be blunt with their writers and directors. They help Stanton’s writing go from good to great.

When starting a screenplay the only person you should try to satisfy is yourself. Create the story you want to create. You can read all the books there are on screenwriting, you can do months of research, and you can spend all your money on the most state of the art writing equipment. All of this however is not going to guarantee confidence. The value of writing is that it allows us to put what is in our head onto paper. Don’t treat screenwriting as anything more then a way to get your ideas out there, in a structured way, so you can improve them. After you have something you are able see and show others, you can start to refine. You will never know how good you are until you start doing it.

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Worth Fighting For

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 24, 2011

2008 National Board Of Review Awards Gala

You know Andrew Stanton has helped write more then a dozen of the Pixar movies. The two films he has directed, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, have both won Oscars for Best Animated film. After realizing this, would it surprise you to know he doesn’t really like writing or directing? Stanton has talked more then once about the frustrations and exhaustion that comes with writing and directing. He has talked about the insecurity he has with being a writer and how he is scared to death when he turns his script in for other filmmakers to read. Stanton refrains from writing until the very last minute, he has described himself as a master procrastinator. He has also talked about how all the little details that come with directing wear him down. Four to five years on each project is a long time. What makes him stay in there? Why do so much work if it is so hard to do? I do not think Andrew finds satisfaction in the middle of production like someone such as John Lasseter does. It might be because Stanton is always thinking of other things and keeping his mind on the project at hand is extremely hard to do. It might be because he second guesses the value of what he is doing.   At times I am sure he feels his time would be spent better doing something else. After all writing and directing a film does not leave much room for family activities and social events. It might be because of an insecurity, the whole project lays on his shoulders what if he makes the wrong decision? I believe Stanton’s struggles with filmmaking has to do with all these insecurities.  However, a filmmaker has two choices when faced with insecurities such as these ones. They can run and hide or face them head on. Based on Stanton’s track record I believe he has chosen the latter.

Andrew Stanton counters the wear and tear that comes with needing to deal with a bunch of little details by being very picky about each little detail. He does not burden most of his colleagues with an idea until he is sure the idea is worth fighting for. He needs to figure out whether or not it is worth spending four to five years to make. John Lasseter even talked about bugging Andrew Stanton about the movie Finding Nemo.  Stanton would not even tell him what it was about until he thought he had a story worth committing too. For the movie Wall-E Stanton started development for the project when he was supposed to be on vacation. He thought that if the story turned out to be nothing special he wouldn’t have wasted anyone’s time.

A good question is, what makes a project worth committing to for Andrew Stanton? A key things to realize is Stanton does not think short term he thinks about the big picture. He does not go through the pains of writing and directing lightly. He wants to find a story that can entertain audiences for years to come. He finds universal themes to put into his stories. He concentrates on the insecurities of parenthood in Finding Nemo, what it means to be a friend in Toy Story, and the essence of what it means to love in Wall-E. We can relate to the characters Stanton creates because even though they might be robots, toys, and fish, they are full of human flaws and needs. Woody in Toy Story is insecure in his relationship with Andy. Marlin in Finding Nemo is scared his son might not be able to handle the real world. Wall-E is lonely.  These themes and character qualities represent the heart of Stanton’s films.

At the beginning the only thing Andrew Stanton has is an idea. Production represents the war Stanton faces in order to bring the idea to life on screen. When you go into battle you need to have passion. Stanton wants to make sure he can give the story everything he has. He knows there will be those days where nothing is working. He talked in an interview about needing to have enough passion to push through those times. Stanton talked about how he wants the audience to be thinking the characters he creates have feelings and lives that go on after the movie ends. This is what makes a movie worth fighting for to him. Stanton knows if he fights through and wins the war he will give us characters that truly become real in our hearts. Characters like Woody and Wall-E have a life of their own in the minds of many kids and adults. Film is the ultimate illusion of life. It takes a lot of work to pull off. But the results can be well worth it because they have the potential to be endless.

Andrew Stanton is one of those directors who will not commit to any old project. I think he is one of those artists who needs to both write and direct the film. He writes the films himself not because he thinks he is a brilliant writer but rather because he wants to find a story that is personal to him. Andrew Stanton is not a good director because he can’t make mistakes. No, he will be the first to tell you he makes mistakes all the time in in the development of his films. The thing about Stanton is he does not give up. He works through the mistakes. Andrew Stanton is a great director because when he finds something worth fighting for, he will not stop or compromise with the vision. He will fight until he gets the idea on screen.

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Opening Doors

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 10, 2011

Andrew StantonWriter/Director Andrew Stanton is a firm believer in not creating but finding the story he is trying to put on screen. He has talked about filmmaking being more like a archeological dig then performing magic tricks. He believes the pieces of the story are already out there, they are just waiting to be found. The great task for Stanton is figuring out ways to open doors so he can get to the foundations of the story.

Stanton once talked about filmmaking being all about finding ways to open those closed doors in your brain. He listens to music, studies art, debates with peers, and tries to use events from his own life to unlock those doors that are stopping him from finding the heart of his stories. Andrew Stanton does not dictate and make the story be something it shouldn’t be, rather he serves the story and tries to find ways to flesh out what is already there.

I am a big advocate of serving the story. I think filmmaking is like putting a huge puzzle together. Once you find enough pieces you begin to figure out the function of your film and the story starts to take on a life of it’s own. However, if you try to force in a piece that does not fit you can ruin the whole picture. Andrew Stanton ran into a problem like this in his movie Wall-E. He wanted the robot Wall-E to be the hero at the end of the film. In the draft he originally had Wall-E’s love interest Eva get severely injured at the end of the film and Wall-E save her. However, during one of the test screenings Stanton realized it actually needed to be the other way around. Stanton had spent the whole movie showing how Wall-E impacted all the characters around him. At the end it was time to show how much the characters had changed. He could not express the characters’ growth if Wall-E stayed the hero.

Stanton once talked about the difference between a good film studio and a great film studio being what happens during the 11th hour. He said at the 11th hour in Wall-E they found a bone that completely changed the dinosaur. The studio had the option of ignoring the bone or embracing it and working their butts off to fix the mistake. They decided to work their butts off. They came together in the service of the story and created a much more satisfying ending where Wall-E gets injured and the characters around him work together to save him. In the end Stanton found the right key and was able to unlock the door to a film which entertained and moved millions of people and will keep on doing so for years to come.

I think it is much more wondrous to look at filmmaking as something more then creating the illusion of life. I think filmmaking is about finding real life. I would never contribute the stories I create to just me. They are all built out of real things I find through living life, research, and having a relationship with God. I hope Andrew Stanton keeps on building his stories out of the real things he finds in his life. We do not invest in toys like Woody, fish like Nemo, or robots like Wall-E if they don’t touch us on a very personal and real level. Stanton’s constant devotion to story has opened many doors for us through out the years. I look forward to seeing what door he opens next.

Andrew Stanton- Screenwriting Expo

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 27, 2011

You really do not get better then this. This is a recording of Andrew Stanton talking many years ago at the Screenwriting Expo. Basically Andrew breaks down story development through talking about mistakes he and Pixar made from Toy Story all the way to Finding Nemo. It is a brilliant lecture. Often you learn better through mistakes then through success. All the Pixar movies that have come out so far ran across problems somewhere in their development process that needed fixing. This is a lecture all about the problems Pixar had with their movies and how they were able to work through those problems to create some of the best animated films ever made. Andrew Stanton has come out of nowhere to astablish himself as one of the greatest screenwriters in the film business. I would strongly suggest any filmmaker out there to take notes. Enjoy!