Cinematic storytelling

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This is a presentation I give to people who are curious about becoming screenwriters or filmmakers. It talks about the power of storytelling to change history, then about basic cinematic story structure, then about the difference between screenwriting and other kinds of writing, then a bit about how the whole filmmaking process works. Feel free to modify as you'd like.

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  • Here’s a picture of a painting from a cave in France. Anyone want to guess how old this is? What do you think? 30 years? Like maybe your Dad drew it? Okay, how about 300 years, about fifty years before Cook first came to New Zealand? Nah? Let’s push back a bit further – to 3000 years ago. The Iron Age, a couple of hundred years before the founding of Rome. Does that sound more reasonable? It’s still off by a factor of ten. These paintings are about 30,000 years old. Now imagine these paintings in the flicker of firelight, as your grandfather tells you stories about how he caught the biggest buffalo while avoiding the ravenous cave hyena.
  • 5000 years ago, the Egyptians told stories about how the universe came to be, how society should be organized, and how to brew beer. (Thanks, Egyptians!)
  • 3000 years ago, the descendants of a dude named Israel told stories about their escape from slavery, and by telling that story every year at Passover they’ve maintained their culture for thousands of years.
  • 2000 years ago, a fella from Nazareth told stories that formed another of the world’s great religions…
  • …and 1400 years ago a dude from Mecca told stories that created yet another major religion.
  • 1300 years ago someone wrote a superhero story called Beowulf …
  • …which still holds our attention enough to put a cartoon Angelina Jolie in it.
  • 700 years ago, this dude Chaucer wrote a story about people telling stories, in order to criticize English culture of the time.
  • 400 years ago, my man Willy Shakes wrote stories of fairies, gods, Danish princes and English kings.
  • But why? What is it about stories and storytelling that makes it so fundamental to the human experience?  Well, it’s that last bit, exactly – experience.
  • One of the ways that we have been so successful as a species, and why we’ve been able to build on the successes of every generation that came before us is that we can learn from other people’s successes and failures.
  • Of course, some stories aren’t all the sophisticated when it comes to teaching lessons.
  • This tiny, frail Indian man told a story that gave enough strength and commitment to his people that they gained their independence without firing a shot. So if Hitler had one story and Gandhi had another…
  • …what’s your story? You are the change-makers of New Zealand, our future leaders. Whether you end up in entertainment, or journalism, or politics, or whatever, whether you deal in fiction or non-fiction, are you certain that your story is worth telling? Let me tell you a story about telling stories.
  • One day a guy he knew came up and said “Yo, So-crates, you gotta hear this thing heard about your student Plato.”
  • “Three filters? Whadda I know about three filters. But you gotta hear this.”
  • “Nah, I just heard it just now. But-”
  • “It’s bad, man! Like baaaad!”
  • “Well, not really. But-”
  • It doesn’t have to be all three.
  • A story can be true and useful, but not good.
  • A story can be true and good, but not useful.
  • A story can be good and useful, but not true.
  • This fella’s name was Aristotle. Super-smart dude – scientist, philosopher, teacher. But the reason we’re talking about him today is because he was also a drama critic. He wrote a book called The Poetics that still makes a lot of sense, thousands of years later.
  • What movies are these?
  • What movies are these?
  • What movies are these?
  • Theme.
  • What’s the theme? “The Honkey Hero” – same as Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Dune, Fern Gully, The Last Samurai, etcetc etc.
  • Each of the characters is a facet of the theme – “Who do you let define whether you’re a winner or a loser?”
  • This is a coming-of-age story like hundreds of others – a kid has an unrealistic idea of that the world’s really like, and through his journey through the story he grows up and gets a better grasp on reality.
  • Cinematic storytelling

    1. 1. Fiction can be true.
    2. 2. Fiction can be true.AND NON-FICTION CAN BE FALSE.
    3. 3. What’s your story?
    4. 4. TRUE and USEFULbut not GOOD
    5. 5. TRUE and GOODbut not USEFUL
    6. 6. GOOD and USEFULbut not TRUE
    7. 7. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER
    8. 8. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting]
    9. 9. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult]
    10. 10. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult] to [achieve something worthwhile].
    11. 11. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult] to [achieve something worthwhile].• Character, plot, stakes.
    12. 12. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult] to [achieve something worthwhile].• Character, plot, stakes.• Stories are about change.
    13. 13. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult] to [achieve something worthwhile].• Character, plot, stakes.• Stories are about change.• Drama is conflict. Somebody wants something, but something else gets in his way.
    14. 14. THE STORY OF (ALMOST) EVERY STORY EVER[Someone interesting] must [do something difficult] to [achieve something worthwhile].• Character, plot, stakes.• Stories are about change.• Drama is conflict. Somebody wants something, but something else gets in his way.• Stories are about emotion.
    15. 15. STORY STRUCTURE
    16. 16. STORY STRUCTURE
    17. 17. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics
    18. 18. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts
    19. 19. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%)
    20. 20. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%) • Middle (about 50%)
    21. 21. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%) • Middle (about 50%) • End (about 25%)
    22. 22. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%) • Middle (about 50%) • End (about 25%)• Introduce a character, put him up a tree
    23. 23. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%) • Middle (about 50%) • End (about 25%)• Introduce a character, put him up a tree• Throw rocks at him
    24. 24. STORY STRUCTURE• Aristotle’s Poetics• 3 Acts • Beginning (about 25%) • Middle (about 50%) • End (about 25%)• Introduce a character, put him up a tree• Throw rocks at him• Get him out of the tree
    25. 25. ACT 1 – THE SETUP
    26. 26. ACT 1 – THE SETUP• An overprotective father clownfish loses his son to poachers and must track him down.
    27. 27. ACT 1 – THE SETUP• An overprotective father clownfish loses his son to poachers and must track him down.• A Kansas farm girl is taken by a tornado to a strange land and told to defeat a wicked witch.
    28. 28. ACT 1 – THE SETUP• An overprotective father clownfish loses his son to poachers and must track him down.• A Kansas farm girl is taken by a tornado to a strange land and told to defeat a wicked witch.• A young orphan discovers he’s a wizard when he is invited to go to Wizard School.
    29. 29. ACT 2 – TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
    30. 30. ACT 2 – TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS• The Fellowship battle through many dangers on their way toward Mordor.
    31. 31. ACT 2 – TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS• The Fellowship battle through many dangers on their way toward Mordor.• The vigilante fights the criminals, terrifying them with his strange bat-like costume.
    32. 32. ACT 2 – TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS• The Fellowship battle through many dangers on their way toward Mordor.• The vigilante fights the criminals, terrifying them with his strange bat-like costume.• The girl works hard to be accepted by her grandfather, but he won’t let her do “boy” things.
    33. 33. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF
    34. 34. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF• The farm boy accepts the power of the Force and blows up the Death Star.
    35. 35. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF• The farm boy accepts the power of the Force and blows up the Death Star.• The young chef and the rat become partners in their own French restaurant.
    36. 36. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF• The farm boy accepts the power of the Force and blows up the Death Star.• The young chef and the rat become partners in their own French restaurant.• The ship sinks; the young man dies while saving the young woman.
    37. 37. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF• The farm boy accepts the power of the Force and blows up the Death Star.• The young chef and the rat become partners in their own French restaurant.• The ship sinks; the young man dies while saving the young woman.• The good guys win.
    38. 38. ACT 3 – THE PAYOFF• The farm boy accepts the power of the Force and blows up the Death Star.• The young chef and the rat become partners in their own French restaurant.• The ship sinks; the young man dies while saving the young woman.• The good guys win.• The good guys lose, but the audience learns a lesson.
    39. 39. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”
    40. 40. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.
    41. 41. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.• Theme / message / moral – the hidden meaning
    42. 42. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.• Theme / message / moral – the hidden meaning• Text
    43. 43. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.• Theme / message / moral – the hidden meaning• Text / Subtext
    44. 44. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.• Theme / message / moral – the hidden meaning• Text / Subtext / Context
    45. 45. “BUT WHAT IS THE STORY REALLY ABOUT?”• If a story is about what the story is about, you’re in trouble.• Theme / message / moral – the hidden meaning• Text / Subtext / Context• The theme is usually directly connected to the main character’s lesson. What do they need to learn to succeed?
    46. 46. THE SCREENPLAY
    47. 47. HOW IS SCREENWRITING DIFFERENT FROM OTHER WRITING?• Making movies is a collaborative art form• The screenplay is the start of the process, not the end• Adaptation• Think in pictures• Movies move
    48. 48. HOW IS A SCREENPLAY DIFFERENT FROM A BOOK?• 500,000 words for a novel, only 20,000 words for a screenplay• Only write what the audience can SEE and HEAR• Everything in present tense• Formatting rules are strict• Grammar rules are relaxed
    49. 49. …AND THEN WHAT?
    50. 50. …AND THEN WHAT?
    51. 51. Q&A

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