Story First

Story informs script writing, cinematography, visual effects, motion graphics, music, sound design, and editing.
All filmmaking disciplines should work to support your story.

Story first. When clients and collaborators approach me to float ideas for videos they want made, they’re often coming from a variety of directions. Some just saw an awesome animation and want to know if we can pull off something similar. A marketing manager just had a pamphlet made and a colleague told them they now need “some online video content” to fill out their marketing strategy. Another client was moved by a documentary they caught on Netflix last night and woke up thinking about a testimonial for their product: “You know, just follow one of our customers around for half a day and watch them use our stuff.” And the most common request: “We need a one-minute video sitting on our home page that tells people what we do.” While hearing them out, I quietly begin thinking of ways to use story to achieve their goal because anything we end up creating will fall flat with viewers if we don’t bake in a great narrative arc.

It seems obvious once its said, but there are millions of examples on the web to prove how often story structure is either overlooked or mishandled. What formulas make for great storytelling? That’s a major theme of this blog and a question I’ll continue exploring in its articles.

Filmmaking calls on the collaboration of many artistic disciplines and all its specialists are passionate about their specialties. Visual designers understandably place high value on smart visual design and typography. Music composers talk to the deepest parts of our soul with their emotional magic. Cinematographers and photographers spend a lot of time thinking about light and figuring out how to get their hands on expensive lenses. Visual effects artists forget to sleep and eat while committing themselves to pulling off mind-blowing illusions. And often-overlooked sound designers take pride in invisibly convincing your mind to fully accept imagined worlds through their use of foley and sound effects.

All these artists rightfully adore their art forms and want to push their respective crafts as far as they’ll go. I personally love watching or listening to work that does nothing more than highlight the technical mastery of one or the other. As filmmakers, however, our job as director is to tell the audience a story. We’re in charge of ensuring that story reigns supreme from the time the script is first written, through the production phases, and into to the final editing phase. Although we love all these arts, our job is not that of the museum curator or concert hall programmer, but entertainer and informer.

The temptations to veer off track abound. The script writer will come up with a really funny line that needs to “go in somewhere.” During a morning run, Spotify will serve up an irresistibly great new track that you’re now convinced should be at the heart of your next project. At an industry mixer, you’ll meet a crack team of visual effects whizzes. They’ll show you some breathtaking comps they’re working on and you’ll want to use them somehow. Then there’s your go-to videographer calling you about using a camera that shoots in high frame rates and how the project just has to have some gorgeous slow motion underwater shots in there somewhere. And of course your poor client is calling. She just came from a meeting with a company analyst who saw your storyboards and demands you now bloat your flawless, already-approved, viewer-friendly script with cumbersome marketing jargon and esoteric statistics. For the love of the viewer and the success of the video, none of this goes in unless it directly supports your well-crafted story.

And it’s fine to consider any execution style. All styles are worthy if done right and when you’re a hammer (doc filmmaker, narrative filmmaker, animator) all video projects look like nails. That’s fine. The piece can be shot as a mini doc, as a poetic piece of fiction, or as a fully animated cartoon, but only a carefully-built story arc will hook viewers at the beginning, captivate them to continue watching, persuade them of our message, and compel them to share it with their friends.

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