Saturday, January 08, 2011

Story, in Fifteen Minutes

So at work I volunteered to help a group of seventh graders with their animated films. They get two weeks (!) to make a thirty to ninety second film, and they asked me (and fellow board artist Raymond Persi) to sit with them and help them with their storyboards, as well as talk for fifteen minutes about the basics of story.

So how do you boil down "story" into fifteen minutes?!? Also I only had an hour or so to prepare. So here's what I said to them, some of you might find it interesting (but also familiar).

I boiled story down to three "C's" for them. The first C I talked about is "CLARITY".

This one is particularly important for them because they are working within a very small box, in both the length of their film and their "production schedule". When making a short film clarity is of the utmost importance because you don't have time to explain a lot. If you're trying to make a film about an exotic planet where all the rules are different from Earth, by the time you've acclimated the viewer to your world and explained all the rules, your film is over.

So I always suggest that short film directors look at TV commercials for inspiration as how to tell a thirty-second story clearly and succinctly. Great commercials are made with a ton of economy, discipline and smart choices. Also, many times they start in a very familiar situation so that the audience gets oriented quickly and knows exactly where we are....then you can take a leap into "the fantastic", if that's what you want to do, or turn the everyday on it's head for comedic effect.

These four Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee commercials are good examples (I only showed the first two to the students). There are some great commercials out there, and admittedly these aren't necessarily the most amazing mind-blowing examples, but then again I didn't want to show anything inappropriate to the seventh grade audience so I went for the safe subject matter.

Clarity is tougher than most people realize I think, even us "professionals" have a hard time with this. It's easy, once you've thought through your idea, to think that your drawings are explaining what's inside your head, but the viewer doesn't have the benefit of hearing your thoughts. The drawings (and eventually, the animation) have to carry it all. That's a very tough limitation, and you need to keep your "objective eye" s that you can step back and look at your work once in a while and see it the way fresh eyes will see it. Or find someone you trust and bounce it off them once in a while.

Okay, the next two "C's" are CHARACTER and CONFLICT. You've probably heard all this before, but it's all vitally important, and it's basically what we spend all our time talking about in the story room while we craft movies at Disney.

Basically, the "CHARACTERS" part means that you should always strive to create characters that are original, entertaining, appealing, and that the audience can empathize with...meaning that they like the characters and are willing to root for them to get what they want. Then the audience will care when your characters end up in....

...CONFLICT, which of course is the heart of all storytelling. Without conflict you don't really have a story. In general, the bigger the conflict, the more that is at stake in your movie, the bigger the odds against your characters, the more interesting the story.

So if you have characters that the audience is actually rooting for, and conflict that seems almost insurmountable that they have to resolve to get what they want, then you have a great story.

Also, one last thing: a great story is one that ends by resolving the conflict in an unexpected way that the audience doesn't see coming. But I don't know how to make that idea start with a "C" so I'll just tack it on.

Easy, right? Two weeks should be plenty of time, right?

In all seriousness, I had a great time working with the students and hopefully they will enjoy making their films and be happy with their end results. Whether a film takes two weeks or five years to make, the elements that make the film great remain basically the same.


Daniel said...

Great post Mark. Now, meaning of life...Go! You've got fifteen minutes! :-D

Wolf Lahti said...


Heather Dixon said...

This is fabulous. I love how story-analytical this blog is. So tasty.

Question: Do you feel that story has to be "dumbed down" to achieve universal appeal?

antonia said...

Hey Mark,
I discovered your blog recently. I'm surprised at the amount and quality of material you have posted along the years. So I wanted to thank you for sharing!
I just saw Tangled with my 4 year old niece and we both loved it (it just came out here in Chile). It was really cool to be able to read here all the different story possiblities and how the movie ended up the way it did. I am and art and animation director at a small animation studio, but since there's few of us I get to input my opinion in the story stage. It's good to hear everyone goes through the same long hours of debating over the details!

greetings from Chile!

Antonia Herrera

James Lee said...


RB (Caterwaul Studios) said...

Good post. I vote for, "Catch Off Guard."

mark kennedy said...

Dan - hmm, good idea for a future post.

Wolf - good suggestion.

Heather - no, not at all. I think the most successful films are frequently ones with very smart stories. I think simple stories work best but it's hard for people to keep them simple because they feel that complicated automatically means smarter...but it doesn't, in my opinion.

Antonia - glad you liked it, and yes, we do spend hours and hours doing that too! Keep at it and we will too.

James - Not bad.

RB - Not bad either!

Arkonbey said...

the post was, as usual, very informative and the commercials are okay, but they're still pushing processed, over-packaged junk you shouldn't eat anyway. Afterschool snack? Eat a piece of fruit, kid! Why? Because that's all you're gonna get.

Thus ends the rant.

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