Storytelling – Words or Pictures?

I have always been a visual communicator.  For over 35 years I have been making a living taking photographs for magazines all over the world.  I have always “seen” the world and captured its stories through visuals.  Somehow, it was far easier for me to communicate with images than with words.  Sidewalk performer King Biscuit Festival Helena, ArkansasBut it was also a bit frustrating for me because many times when I was photographing a person, I felt like I was leaving a portion of their story untold.

When I photograph people, invariably I spend a good deal of time talking and listening to them.  It’s this rapport that usually enables me to capture a more intimate photograph. For me, this has always been my favorite part of the “process”, yet I never had an outlet for my subjects’ words, other than through the captions of my photographs.

When I started producing documentaries, my conversations with my subjects finally had an outlet through their recorded interviews that became the backbone of the “script”.  Even though the script was not something that I wrote using my own words, I was instrumental in the process because I was selecting the words and giving them an order.  I was involved in the process and structure of screenwriting.

In recent years, I have become fascinated with story structure and screenwriting.  I have read numerous books on the topic of screenwriting and this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in an intensive 3-day workshop with John Truby.  John has taught some of the best screenwriters around.  I knew going into this, it was going to be a great and informative workshop, but I had no idea how rewarding it would be.  Essentially, John gave me knowledge of the “process” and the structure of storytelling to enable me to take an idea and turn it into a really good story.

I have come away from this workshop with a deeper understanding and respect for a well-written story.   We can all spot poor writing in a film.  It stands out.  Even the layman who knows nothing about “the process” or story structure can identify really bad writing.  The audience may not know why the story or the film doesn’t work – they just know it doesn’t and they’re not buying it.  Like any other craft, screenwriting has gone through stylistic changes over the years, but the fundamentals remain.  After all, telling stories is as old as time and there has always been a constant – and that is “the audience”.  Ultimately the audience will decide if a writer has done their job well.

I think those of us who are “content creators” in this era of multi-media communications need to broaden our understanding of all kinds of mediums in order to effectively communicate.  Many times, I see creatives become too narrowly focused on their one set of tools and in the process lose sight of their end goal  – and that is to deliver the message or story to the audience.  Ultimately, the audience will always let you know if you’ve hit the mark or not because they are looking at the “whole” and not the “parts” of the story.


The Love and Angst of Learning

I don’t think there has ever been a point in my life when there wasn’t something that I didn’t want to learn about.  I’m just a very curious person who has an insatiable desire to learn. I’ve been learning about filmmaking over the last two years and I am addicted to learn more.  I am realizing that I have always thought in a cinematic way.  As a photographer, I saw my stories as films – a pagination of images – combining to form the story in my mind’s eye. I am so intrigued right now with the craft and structure of screen writing, and want to learn more.  I have a story in my head that I want to “get out” and I see the visual elements playing out in my head.  Now, I’m starting to “hear” the story and the words and I want to learn how to craft those elements into the beginning of a screenplay.

Last Christmas, I got the Rosetta Stone course for Spanish.  When I was traveling with Erin in South America, she became my translator and I was really frustrated that I couldn’t understand the language, so I vowed to learn Spanish.  I’ve been trying to squeeze in the time to learn electronically, but it’s so hard for me.  Languages have always been difficult for me – even English.  Really the only way to learn a language is to immerse your self into it.  I try to tune into conversations when I hear Spanish being spoken and make feeble attempts to participate.  Slowly, I’m getting better but I doubt I will ever be able to roll my r’s.  I have found though that when I “relax” and imagine myself as someone who is fluent in the language, I do much better.  The same thing happened when I was in New Zealand last fall and I got on an ATV vehicle for the first time.  I just pictured myself as being one with the machine and I did just fine.

Lately, I’ve been teaching myself editing with Adobe Premiere.  With Final Cut Pro going to a completely different program, I wanted to expand and learn Premiere.  But, what really prompted me to learn is that I will be going to China for a month, to teach Chinese journalists how to “tell stories in motion”.  I knew I needed to learn an editing application that was cross-platformed and Adobe Premiere was the obvious choice.  Learning Premiere has been easy, especially with I am such a big fan of Of course, knowing how to edit helps.  Essentially it’s not much different than Final Cut.  Things are named differently, but the basics are the same.  There are also a lot of things that I love, especially the easier integration with other Adobe products like After Effects, Photoshop and Bridge.  Now the Adobe Suite has a screenwriting application, Story. Could that be the nudge needed to follow through on the screenplay that’s beginning to play out in my head?

So, my learning path continues. But I’m also playing my part by passing along what I know.  Things have a way of coming full circle.

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Looking Back

Today, I’ve been looking back through two year’s worth of blog posts that I have written. Wow – I’ve written a lot!  I really surprised myself at just how much when I started gathering the content that I had written in regards to the making of my documentary, Opening Our Eyes. I’m putting together my 2nd ePub that will be a companion to my first ePub, recently published on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

My focus is centered on the “craft” and the making of the film, and I talk about everything from “the gear” I put together for our 99-day journey around the world to the distribution process for the final film. A bulk of the content has already been written with photographs ready to upload and links.  It’s just a matter of consolidating the information and presenting it in a more concise way.

Earlier in the year, I paid my dues in the learning department when I put together the first ePub.  After my experience working with a professional formatter, I quickly realized what not to do.  One big thing I learned was not to get too heavy with the images because the first generations of Kindles have only b&w displays.  I also learned not to create intricate designs in Pages because later I had to undo all the work I had done for a PDF version of the printed book.

I am amazed at how much I have written over the last few years.  It was interesting to look back through some of my blog entries, and see how I was “processing things”  at the time I was writing those posts.  I’ve never really kept a journal before, accept for a one year period in my life, between the ages of 19 and 20, when I was making my first journey around the world.

I’m really happy that I have archived these stories and records of my life, but that’s not what motivated me to first start writing. I used to wake up super early in the morning – my mind spinning with ideas and random thoughts, not allowing me to get back to sleep.  So, I would get up and I started writing down my random thoughts and I found it therapeutic.  It was like having a conversation with someone and sorting things out.

There are chunks of time in my life that I simply don’t feel like writing or that I have nothing to really say.  My mind seems to go into a dormant phase where I convalesce with other distractions – usually mindless ones. But then there are days when I just have the need to get my thoughts down on paper.  I’m grateful for those days – on days like this when I take the time to look back from where I’ve been.

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It’s a humid, Saturday morning in the dog days of summer.  There’s a dozen things I should be doing – paying the bills, doing the laundry, filling out film festival submissions and catching up on the endless little details that have consumed me with my film.

And yet, I write.  I started writing about 7 years ago when I would wake up super early in the morning with my mind spinning with ideas and not allowing me to turn over and go back to sleep.  So, I ‘d get out of bed and write about whatever was running through my mind at the time and I would put those thoughts out there in my blog. Colleen Wainwright is running a whole series of interviews with writers on her blog as part of a fund raiser and I was honored to be included.

In the beginning, I got a lot of encouragement from a friend who gave me the confidence to write more and I did. Some days the words would just pour out of me and many times, I’d see them quoted later in other people’s blogs and I couldn’t believe that I had written them – almost like an out of body experience.   Now, writing has become a habit and a way for me to organize my thoughts and turn chaos into order and thus my dreams into realities.

Many people tell me that I’m incredibly open and honest.  I’ve always found that interesting – the fact that was something to comment on – but at the same time feeling very flattered.  If someone tells me that I’m the “real deal”, that’s about as high of a compliment that one can give me.

If “authenticity” comes across in my writing or in the visuals that I create, then I think that I’m must be doing something right, because I use my words and my images to connect with people and that really only happens when I’m being true to myself.  I think people can sense that – it’s not something you can fake.  You’re either genuine – or you’re not.

To be honest, because I am “genuine” and tend to “tell it like it is” – it has been a blessing and a curse – but I can’t seem to help myself.  I’m a sucker for a good cause and I’m one to always strive for consensus as opposed to “getting my way” or motivated by a personal agenda.  When, I’m on purpose and not driven by ego – good things happen – and like-minded people are “attracted” to me like little magnets in the universe.

Now, I’ll go do the laundry.

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Misplacing My Muse

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written in my blog. That’s not like me. To be honest, I just haven’t felt like writing. I thought that I had lost my muse – like it was some real person in my life who had “cut me off”. Whether the reason that I was giving myself for not wanting to write was real or fictionalized – I just didn’t have the desire – so I didn’t. I started writing a couple of years ago, when I would wake up at 4AM with my mind spinning and couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I got out of bed and wrote about whatever was going through my head at the time.

My daughter Erin (and others) will tell you that I’m an extrovert. That’s accurate for the most part, but I also have another side that surfaces every so often that makes me want to withdraw. And that’s when I have the urge to “feed my head”. I read a lot and have conversations with friends who plants seeds in my head that may turn up later in another project. I’m refueling. I’m tuning into myself.

But getting back to the whole “muse” notion. I think I may have been confusing a “muse” as being someone who was real in my life. Someone who would stimulate my mind with fresh ideas and encourage me to pursue them. Sure, I have had people in my life that did just that for me. But what I really think was happening was more subtle – or at least was subtle to my conscious mind. My perceived “muses” were really just causing me to look into my inner voice and myself. In other words the “muse” was inside me.

I’m not sure what is a more frightening thought – to think that a muse is someone tangible who may come into and out of my life leaving me vulnerable to these outside forces – or that a muse is my own inner voice who just doesn’t seem to shut up some days. Maybe a muse is a bit of both – my inner voice but also how I choose to react to outside forces.

Regardless, I have learned to go with the flow of energy that is there in the present. It’s far better than to fight it. That’s not to say that I don’t fight “resistance” and I do not define resistance solely as outside forces. In fact, most resistance comes from my own mind and ego – always trying to rationalize and give me good reasons why I should not pursue something – why I should not confront my fears.

So if there are weeks that go by and I seem to have disappeared – if in fact the disappearances are even noticed amongst the other distractions of life – know that I am taking some time off to feed my own head.

I’m just trying to sing the song I was meant to sing.

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Editing Tips From Kurt Vonnegut

Recently I came across a blog article entitled “Writing Tips from Kurt Vonnegut” which was posted on Melody Godfred’s blog “Write in Color”. It was short and sweet and to the point, listing 8 great tips. Two of those tips really resonated with me because at the time I read them, I was entrenched in editing my documentary and I was struggling with a couple of story issues.

  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.

For the most part when I write I’m usually writing with someone in mind. But I realized when I was editing the 11 stories of this documentary, I was getting caught up in trying to tell too many stories for too many people with their needs in mind. And in the process, I wasn’t getting anywhere in telling the central story of the film. After reading these words of wisdom from Vonnegut, the master of storytelling, I stepped back and envisioned myself with a friend, telling the story of my film and it became clear what I needed to do.

One thing I’ve always done when editing video is to create the beginning and the end first and then fill in the middle. So when I read the tip about starting as close to the end as possible, it reinforced the idea that I needed to have a very clear idea on how I was going to end this film. I had already decided that I wanted to contrast the beginning and the ending visuals so I applied this thinking to the story itself.

I get a lot of questions from people about the mechanics of editing video – like how to do certain things in Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere – and I answer the best I can. But I also point out that it’s easy to get caught up in what the software can do and forget about the story that you’re trying to tell. My advice is to read as much as you can about the craft of storytelling. I learned a lot about story structure from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. I learned that every good story has a few key ingredients – irony, conflict, resolution, a hero, change – all basic universal themes. Tutorials on Final Cut aren’t going to help your storytelling skills and without a good story – you might just have some “eye candy” to music.

There is just one more tip from Vonnegut that I’ll leave you with – make sure you check out the other 5 tips.

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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And Me Without My Camera

I flew out to LA on Friday and had a free afternoon before giving a seminar the next day. I had packed light.  I was only in town for a short stay and most of it devoted to my presentation. So I left my cameras at home.

I was staying in Santa Monica so when I got into LA that Friday afternoon  I headed to the Santa Monica Pier. It was the quintessential California day – weather wise bringing back a lot of memories from when I used to live in Santa Barbara. For anyone who has ever been to the pier you’ll understand when I say it was like a circus of vibrant visuals.  Within a matter of minutes I was regretting the fact that I didn’t have a camera. And then a funny thing happened – I started recording the visuals in my head and using words instead.

  • Colorful bumper cars against a bright green wall that vibrated in the late afternoon light.
  • Two men crossing paths each recording their own observations with their mobile devices silhouetted against the glare of the sun on the water.
  • Garry King  “on the scene” the street musician doing his own thing pumping out smooth sounds that drifted off in the wind.
  • A man who looked like Santa Claus and sounded like Cat Stevens singing the House of the Rising Sun, quickly followed by I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.
  • A fisherman  weathered and alone.
  • A 400 lb mime painted silver and pulling his pedestal down the pier behind him.

Today as I headed to the airport in my rented hybrid car an old flatbed pick up, era 1920’s pulled up beside me at the light. For an instant I locked eyes with the old Mexican gentlemen who gave me a quick smile and I thought to myself – and me without a camera.

Maybe it’s time for me to get an iPhone.  If only the phone part was better.

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