Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Story Myth -Patrick

It has grown tiresome and frustrating to me... People talking about the importance of story. It seems like a reflex answer.. making a film? better have a good story! Now, how many have ever contemplated the overwhelming importance of CHARACTER and IMAGERY. I will go as far to say that you don't need much of a story at all, especially within a short film. As long as the characters breath an essence of life that supports the overall CONCEPT, and the IMAGERY is appealing and accurately supports the characters. Stories, especially complex ones, can actually hinder the characters, that often just want to go about their business being AWESOME. Below.. the character of Travis Bickle and the warped world he perceives carries the 1976 film "Taxi Driver." The story is interesting, but that's not why the audience is attached.Have you ever not wanted a movie to end? That's due to rich and believable characters, not to the story. Sure.. why not give them a simple story to play in, but in the end.. it doesn't matter. It's ALL THE CHARACTER.
One of the best examples of this is Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused", where there is NOTHING to the story. It's a great movie because of the characters, the story itself is simple to say the least. Another tell tale sign of a movie that rides on Character and not story, is that if you can imagine the characters still living and interacting after the film is over, and you're curious about them.
Above, an image from one of my favorite films of all time, Ron Frick's "Baraka", a film that has no story, just beautiful mind blowing IMAGERY of our world and it's people. The film holds your attention the very same way a beautiful painting would.

I know that a lot of people will argue with me on this one, and often times it comes down to semantics. Some would counter that "Idea" and "Concept" are the same as story. But so often I've talked to short filmmakers struggling to figure out their complex stories, when all along they should have just been focusing on "framing an idea", and representing that idea with a strong imagery and characters... the story will take care of itself if the idea is strong and the audience can relate to it, especially within a short format. wussies.


  1. Maybe "story" has become the usual suspect.

    When you see a clunker it's fairly academic to find fault with the story and suggest how it could have been better. But it's fairly rare that we see a bad movie and imagine that changing a character would have allowed the weak story to stay in place.

  2. All right, let’s do this whole “discussion” thing.

    Pat, I agree with what you`re saying. Even if a story is GREAT, if the characters playing out that story are not enjoyable to watch (whether that mean they are funny, cool, easy to empathize with, or easy to hate) then the overall experience is destroyed. I will also agree that if you put a bunch of likable character together then it really does not matter what they do … it`s just unbelievably enjoyable.

    I`m going to use a nerdy reference that you are probably not familiar with… but it works perfectly with the points I want to make. The anime series “One Piece” is virtually unknown (and was improperly imported) in America but it is the MOST UNBELIEVABLY popular show ever here in Japan. Right now (10 years into it) it`s at almost 450 episodes and 10 movies. (The newest just released movie broke Miyazaki (Ponyo) records)

    Not every episode and NO movie advances actual “story” or “plot” but DOES have the characters just DOING stuff … and they are SO likable that people (myself included) LOVE IT.

    That being said (you knew this was coming) I feel the whole “story doesn`t matter” thing only applies to short-films or stand-alone-artistic movies. (Which you [the viewer] are sitting down to watch for a quick experience) The characters might be most important … and watching them do ANYTHING might be cool … but in the case of series, books, movie series, or movies that want to include LOTS of specific philosophical/ sociological/ argumentative points, then, at the end of the day “what was the point of watching these characters do stuff if they never EVENTUALLY did anything of purpose?”

    If they make a new “One Piece” movie with the characters just sitting around talking for 40 minutes … that’s fine, I`ll (and 90% of Japan) will still go see it and have a great time, because the chemistry between the characters will have us all laughing and crying. But by the END of this TV series (or book series it`s based on) if the characters don`t reach their goals, or don`t get revenge, or we never find out “who done it?” (or if we DO find out “who done it” but it`s super stupid) then OVERALL the series will be quite a disappointment. It`s the HOPE for (and eventual actualization) of “cool stuff” happening (the story) ALONG with the fun characters that keep people tuning in over and over again.

  3. I agree that story isn't always important. But it does become a factor when a film is TRYING to have a good story and fails. However, a film that isn't trying that hard story-wise, like the examples you give, can be successful without one.

  4. Having gone over this so many times, I currently believe that the answer is idiosyncratic to the project. It's like when I first discovered Jacques Tati. It was a double bill of Jour de Fete and Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. As I sat through them I remember thinking "there's nothing going on. Get to it already, man!" However, by the time they finished, I found myself so involved in Tati's World Of Incident, I didn't miss the story. It was it's own language (I also walked home through Central Park like Hulot.)

  5. I agree, Characters are far more important than "plot." you can have an interesting movie that isn't plot-driven, but has compelling characters, but without characters, seems like it would be impossible to have a good story. The best stories are those that are born naturally out of interactions of interesting, well-developed characters, and the inevitable conflicts that arise from those character's different wants/goals/needs, as well as the various misunderstandings in the communications between characters. Stories are much less interesting when the characters are driven along by forces beyond their control; not that such tales are without merit, as in such cases character can still be revealed in how they respond to those outside forces, but it much more interesting to see stories that are driven by the characters' own actions and the repercussions of those actions.
    Character first! story will develop naturally out of that!

  6. It's also a stupidly intangible concept. People reverently say in hushed tones, "The Story is key," and feel like they made a meaningful statement that only Pixar executives and they can truly grasp. But in no way will this belief actually lead to a good story!

    When people say, in hushed tones, "I love good art," we have an understanding that this in no way suggests their own art is good. I don't see why a shallow reverence for the word Story should be any different.

  7. It is a bit ironic that Pixar is linked with "Story is King" because I think they do a far better job at coming up with strong characters and appealing visuals. People liked Wall-E because Wall-E and Eva are great characters; the story structure goes off the rails in the second half of the film. Likewise, Up has its fair share of half-baked story moments, but the audience goes along with them because they care about Carl and Russell.

  8. jim.. well said.. Wall E suffers from it's story.. the characters and their business on the screen are awesome! matter of fact.. pixar films work DESPITE their stories cuz the characters are SO appealing and so well constructed.

  9. The whole idea of character vs. story seems like nouns vs. verbs or matter vs. energy or even chicken vs. egg.

    Taxi Driver is one of those films whose meaning changes for me over the years. It's got great emotional power & moral ambiguity. If Scorsese was trying to say something specific, I'd rather not know.

    The problem with plot is that it can force the course of events in an effort to make the movie mean something. The characters then have to be reverse-engineered to make these events seem organic (if not the inevitable outcome of their unique personalities).

    It doesn't always work.

  10. But what if the point of creating a film (or book, etc) is to TELL a story? Like you (the creator) would like to tell a story to the viewers.

    I agree that characters are unbelievably important and likable characters will determine whether or not you have a successful project, but isn`t saying (with a matter of fact tone) that "the characters are everything, just let them do their thing and the story is second" a slap in the face to anyone who "wants to tell a story"?

  11. good question henry... i like to think that the story is there to serve the characters, but i can totally see how it can be reversed.. i just may not respond to those type of films.. it's almost myth type stuff.

  12. Man, I can't stand that anime crap that's 1,000,000 episodes of characters blah-blah-blahing to no particular purpose ... can't say that I really care about "characters" generally, unless they are acting out a good story. Why should I give a tinker's cuss about fake people doing nothing of note, when i could walk out my front door and see much of the same? Story really *is* the thing. That you're easily amused and / or into purposeful misreadings of cinematic storytelling doesn't change that. On the other hand I do have Asperger Syndrome so maybe I am missing something compelling about all this "character"-driven stuff. Meh.

  13. I've always figured if the characters are good and interact well with each other and their surroundings, then they pretty much make the "story" from just whatever it is they do. Each action they take or thing they say or emotion they cause the audience to feel could be considered a "plot point" blah blah

  14. Pat, you're sort of chasing your own tail here. Of course movies like "Baraka" and "Dazed and Confused" have stories. They're just not traditional three-act Hollywood ones.

    "Dazed and Confused" is so well written, it gives you the illusion that it's improvised and free-wheeling. But of course that means it's been brilliantly scripted. That's the beauty of the story and the strength of its WRITING. Characters and dialogue do not generate out of thin air, Pat :) A good writer will disguise his or her story by making it APPEAR to be spontaneous. Don't go attacking the foundations of story and writing if you simply mean to say that you do not prefer a complex plot.

    "Baraka" has a story too. Its story is told through the point of view of the director and the editor. Those beautiful images and time lapse compositions were not randomly selected. These filmmakers had something to express, their images paint a larger picture, and yes, it tells a story about humanity at large.

    I think you are trying to champion the idea that "art" should feel spontaneous and natural - and of course that's not a bad thing - but I think you are being fooled by the illusion. Good films like these are constructed down to each frame, and it all starts with solid writing and a clear world view.

    "A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing." George Lucas said that once, and he's correct (ironically, years before he apparently forgot how to write). Mere craft alone is hollow and empty if there's not any purpose to it.

  15. Even the most experimental film has a "story". It is king. Without character development story suffers, that is - if you're creating a "narrative" driven film.

  16. hey anonymous,
    "it all starts with solid writing" is exactly the cliche bill and I are talking about... it simply DOESN'T always start with solid writing. writing is a single element the filmmaker can use. as an animator, for me it starts with the IMAGE in my sketchbook, and from there a CHARACTER with a purpose follows.

    i kind of predicted this would get lost in semantics. some of us have a broader definition of what story is. when i say story, i'm talking about the writing, plot and structure. perhaps those are just two elements within a the larger STORY.

    writers LOVE to take full credit for movies, and it pisses me off. i think acting adds more to a character than written dialogue.

  17. Pat, based on the examples you cited - "Dazed and Confused", "Taxi Driver", it DID start with solid writing. It's not a cliche, it's just true. Those are terrific scripts. And yes those films are also boosted by terrific acting and characters, but they first sprung from the writer's brain. I'm not saying writers should get full credit, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  18. Just like writing - whether it's a narrative, exploration of abstraction or somehwere in the middle, there's got to be some foundation for the statement - some structure in there. Even Brackages Mothlight has some color patterns - and then again I am amused when students interpret it with character-based narrative. Good thread.

  19. These arguments are pedantic and uneducated. The only way to pry meaning from these posts is to separate storytelling from screenwriting and that's totally impractical. If you don't want to write, then don't. This is exactly an illustration of what is wrong with American animators. You aren't trained or skilled enough with theme or content to be considered great artists, and you aren't trained or skilled enough with words, language, or story to be great filmmakers. So you're caught in this middle ground. Bill, your work is gags with a few flat characters and necessary narrative. Pat, your films are stylings of generic metaphor that, while creative, bring no unique ideas. Both are accepted as good animation because they are executed beautifully- but Kubrick and Kurosawa you are not. Ideas are not your strongest suits.

    And that's fine- but to actually suggest that other animators HOLD BACK on story or that it's possible to PUT TOO MUCH EMPHASIS on it- ludicrous. And above all- irresponsible. Animators look up to you and animators need to know about stories, even if there's no dialogue. I have never heard two animators be more idiotic.

    I got onto Bill about this on his post, now here's yours, Pat: Character and Story ARE THE SAME THING. There is no academic or practical discerning between the two in making films. It's literally a DAY ONE lesson on screenwriting- aka DRAMATIC AND VISUAL WRITING. Character is story and story is character. Dazed and Confused is the perfect example of this- the QB that doesn't want to sign the contract and be manipulated, the younger bro avoiding the paddle night, there's conflict, drama, character arcs, dialogue. How many awesome lines are in that movie? Just because you can't write to save your life and you know nothing about screenwriting doesn't mean that screenwriting isn't an art in and of itself. An art that neither of you seem to practice, so-- How about this- instead of saying you don't use the technique because you don't need it or its useless or something, and it' all about image- why don't you just admit that you don't use it because it isn't in your skillset? It's more comfortable to draw the story for you. Which is fine. There is an entire medium that you don't know how to utilize, you're just spinning it into a yarn that sounds positive- which it isn't. What you're saying is, we are professional animators and we can't write.

    The sad thing is that you're on all your blogs saying essentially "don't get academic; stop talking and do the thing," which I agree with- but here you are preaching non-script and, I'm sorry- are you a screenwriter? Are you known for story structure? Big plot points and awesome reveals? Weeping audiences? No. You're known for images. So you're into theory now? Have you studied lit theory? Do you have a background in Dramatic and Visual Writing? Right.

    So STFU and let animators that want to get into more than Freud quotes and dick jokes get into it and dig deeper. Freakin A man. All form, no content gets animation nowhere new, and it's partially the reason that 2-D is still dead in this country.

    Story is as important as everything else, and almost all modern animation lacks a good one. Preach imagery all you want, I love Brakhage and Lynch and non-narrative; I love your work too. But you're beating up on narrative and giving examples that are completely story driven, and with awesome screenplays to back them up. Taxi Driver, Dazed and Confused- this is bread and butter story driven, dialogue-heavy content that isn't exactly known for just brilliant imagery, dude. Who cares about D&C's cinematography? That's props for writers you should be giving. They're artists too.

  20. as an animator who has struggled with the trials of writing a good story, this post was insightful. especially when the story in question is for a music video. as long as the meaning is universal and the characters breathe life and feelings we can relate to, words are not even necessary for it to be understood. here is one video i recently watched again for inspiration...

  21. yes, I understand this completely Joy- and I too feel that animation is at its strongest when it doesn't use words or dialogue or exposition as a crutch. It forces animators to use their character's performance to emote, and it forces the story to flow at a much more (usually) deliberate and calculated pace. But shouldn't animators be doing this in the first place? In fact- if they new MORE about storytelling and screenplays, they would know a lot more about structure, which is also a good tool to have. Why limit oneself?

    what I'm refuting is, and with Bill's too- the notion that story is somehow not as important for animators. that words and writing should be secondary. it's a needless limitation, and it's irresponsible for two people who teach animation to cut story up into either being strictly visual, strictly based on script, too heavy on words or structure, or to cut it up at all. a good story's a good story, and if you are interested in using coherent narrative in any way, this nitpicking on whether or not scripts, words, structure, story are important- or lead to better films- is all really something that holds animation back.

    It's like: You can't always teach art, right? So you teach people that story isn't as important as visuals. Well, if not everyone knows how to make good art, or to move people with evocative content- then throwing students and followers into the sandbox without emphasizing content will only yield more vapid, inane crap that isn't any good. It's just more sandbox crap with no meaning. I'm not saying pull back the imagination, focus on story- I'm saying story, narrative, screenplays, whatever you call it- it's just as bloody important as everything else. If not moreso.

    you've failed to convince me that saying "I'm tired of people telling me story is important in animation" ala these posts- is any way insightful, meaningful, or anything more than an animator being uneducated about the history of storytelling.

    PARTICULARLY when Pat (and Bill) are using examples that are completely story driven- Taxi Driver is a NOTORIOUSLY celebrated screenplay. Dazed and Confused is a well-studied coming-of-age nostalgia boon with tons and tons of well-structured character arcs. 2001 is a FLAGSHIP example of narrative. In other words- yes, animators need visual storytelling, sometimes more than words- but Pat and Bill both sound, to me- i mean this in the least hostile way- like they have no idea what they're talking about.

    I don't like it when people have no idea what they are talking about.

    The biggest problem with American animation is that nobody is teaching animators how to tell a good freakin story. Words or no. Why is Pixar so amazing? Viz and sound, sure- but they've got what so many others get wrong. STORY.

  22. P.Smith: "I kind of predicted this would get lost in semantics. some of us have a broader definition of what story is. when i say story, i'm talking about the writing, plot and structure. perhaps those are just two elements within a the larger STORY."

    Perhaps. Actually, unless you are talking about semiotics (symbols, like Greek logic problems,) semantics is how word order creates meaning. That is: semantics requires more than one word. People were getting lost in definitions, single terms. Not meaning created between them. You hadn't really defined story in your original post, but now that you've fully defined your term, "writing, plot, and structure-" I can say:

    You say writers get too much credit? BAH! I say they are too often overlooked. It sounds to me like you hold a grudge against writers, and I still wonder if you ever even learned to write. Or maybe you worked with crappy writers sometime? I had an intense series of hardcore Composition -not story- workshops in undergrad that kicked my ass and left my blood on the walls. I'm much better with ideas because of it. You make due without words, which is admirable. ...But you seem down on those who use them- and for no explicable reason. And that's just... unwarranted. Uneducated. Shameful, for an art teacher!

    Plot and structure knowledge CAN make animators better at what they do. Period. Words and writing ARE necessary for criticism, history, and proper evaluation of work. Period. If you can't write, you're half of what you could be.

    Pat and Bill's examples show this- their criticism of these film stories holds no water. They don't know enough about story to make these statements, and they don't know enough about film history and crit to back these statements up.

    Animators- don't heed this tripe! Read good books! Do written research! Tell good stories!! Most of all- learn to write! You WILL need to use it, even if for artistic criticism! You'll be better off knowing how than not.

  23. oh snap. thanks for the comment jack, and yes you are right about a few things, in particular the schooling you just gave me on "semantics".. also, about writers. i wouldn't say i look down on them, but i've struggled with them so many times over the years that i have to admit it's grown tiresome. there are a lot of bad artists out there, and just as many, if not more, bad writers. i have trouble trusting people who don't draw.

    fortunately there's a hell of a lot more that goes into being a good teacher, namely the ability to INSPIRE.. and the honest belief that I can't teach anyone anything, only open their minds to new ideas.. mine, yours, all of us. Students are smart enough to know what to listen to... it's us teachers that are doing most of the learning.

  24. I agree with your post, Patrick.
    But I still think that Koyaanisqatsi is a much better film than Baraka. Koyaanisqatsi is in my top ten of all times, I´ve watched it many many times which is possible due to the total lack of a story. It never gets boring caused by foreknowledge. It´s like a piece of good music, but it still communicates a lot of fantastic ideas.

  25. Pat, indeed. And strangely, thanks. Inspiration- the ability not just to convey, but to evoke and inspire- is probably the most important thing in a teacher, and you've clearly got a hold of that. Tho I'm not really a student any longer, I do look to your work, hell- your world, for inspiration. You and Bill. Even if I disagree about some of your technical treatises.

    I guess I'm a "story" oriented animator, and strangely for my upcoming film- for the first time- I didn't write a script. Straight to thumbnails, then to boards. New territory for me. But I still can't forget my roots- words are almost always an important way to wrap my head around chronology of things. Keep the narrative in order in my head. Even this new film started with a (very rough) step outline on paper.

    "I have trouble trusting people who don't draw." Hah! That's quote-worthy. I know what you mean. One of my roommates out of school was an "aspiring" screenwriter. I saw him sit down and write one day in 2 years.

    Hisko, Koyaanisqatsi (and Baraka) have been on my list for a while, I'll have to check 'em out.

  26. think Family Guy is character driven?
    Taxi Driver doesn't have a story?
    gimme a break....
    ever watch an eric rohmer film?