WGN Around Town’s Ana Belaval

CJ_AnaIn the spirit of this morning, I cooked a tasty omelette and then headed downtown to Marcel’s Culinary Experience where WGN Morning News’ “Around Town” was shooting seven live segments with reporter Ana Belaval. I had the opportunity to meet Ana, her producer, and camera person. The team does live segments everyday plus Facebook video posts.

Ana came to WGN from Univision where she started as an assignment reporter for the Chicago affiliate and climbed the ladder to become a network correspondent and substitute anchor in New York. Her long-term goal was to work in the general market, which happened when WGN picked her up—one of the few Spanish reporters to cross over to the English broadcast market.

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Watching her mad skills was an absolute joy. Not only did she capture everyone’s attention in the room, but she came across naturally and approachable. Watching a couple of the live segments allowed me to see why she was able to win three Emmy Awards. But reporting wasn’t her only ability.

She bantered with the producer several times and constantly salted in off-the-cuff jokes from her quick wit. It was clear that the producer loved working with her and that the team had a true entertainer in their midst for those slow moments waiting for the clock to signal the next live segment. I couldn’t help but notice that Ana’s ability to keep her team fresh guaranteed high production values.

Ana’s humor flowed naturally in the moment with great precision, as if she had stand up comedy experience, which I later learned she does. Several years back, she was asked to participate in a celebrity stand up comedy event and received more laughter and applause than she expected. Inspired by the audience that night, Ana started writing jokes and testing them out in comedy clubs and during television appearances.

ana_coffee.pngHosting WTTW-TV’s “The Chicago Stand Up Project” was a great side gig for Ana to perform her routines, while introducing the latest comedians joining her on stage. She also spent time on local shows for the Latino community, giving back to her Puerto Rican heritage. Blogging was even a part of her life for a time, having developed the popular “Ay Mama” blog that eventually ended due to time demands required by her and her writers’ families and professional schedules.

I have no doubt that Ana’s natural talents will continue to shine for years to come and are likely to show up in additional venues. She can be followed on Facebook at http://facebook.com/wgnanabelaval/ and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anabelaval or @anabelaval.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers
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7 Steps of the Actor’s Ownership Read  

sample.jpgInterviews and award shows reveal that actors must own their character to excel at their craft. Directors must do the same, but with multiple characters. The hard work for the actor and director starts with what I call the “Ownership Read” of the script. With each reading of a script, the actor and director look for certain elements to build an award winning performance.

I’ve shared in the past about the first read being a tool to determine the story’s strengths, the emotional pulse or rhythm of the story, and the effectiveness of the turning points—none of which can be determined during a subsequent reading. The educated, award winning actor reads and analyzes the script 5-8 times during the process of developing his or her character. The second reading is best done as the Ownership Read.

The Ownership Read requires the following seven steps to gather and mold the proper information about the character:

STEP 1: Read your character out loud without influence.

The actor’s ear is well trained through experience and workshops. By reading the script out loud, the actor can quickly ascertain the voice of the character. This process also allows the psyche to pick up on nuances that might otherwise be missed. It’s important that the reading is not done as a performance, but a straight reading to avoid adding undesirable characteristics or embellishments. This also allows the words that were carefully selected by the writer to inform the character’s development.

STEP 2: Skip reading the action lines.

The character is the only focus during this read through, so action lines are avoided. Some argue as to whether other characters should be read, but I hold to the idea that if it is necessary, which it shouldn’t be since the script was already read in full once before, the other characters can be read silently—and only when necessary for context.

STEP 3: Paraphrase the character’s profile.

By finding a friend or a partner to test the materials, the actor shares the character’s profile by saying, “This is a character who….” This is the first real step in the ownership process, as it gives the actor a clear understanding of what the outsider sees in the character. Some of the wording will sound strange to the actor because he or she is not the actual character. The amateur actor will immediately get an itch to suggest dialog changes because it doesn’t sound “realistic” or like them. But this read is to learn who the character is, not conform it to the actor’s personality.

STEP 4: Paraphrase the character’s profile in a personalized fashion.

This step is identical to the previous step except for one major change. The actor this time shares the character’s profile by saying, “I am a person who….” This approach automatically shifts the perspective and ownership to the actor as if he or she is the character. Suddenly the wording brings up defense and justification mechanisms—the real beat of the character’s lifeblood. This practice also shifts the passive view of the character into a proactive or driven view. This perview empowers the actor to conform his or her negatives into a presentable positive, regardless of what outsiders might actually think or see.

The process makes the antagonist more powerful and gives strength of character, regardless of good or bad, to supporting roles. The biggest difference from the previous step is the uncanny ability for the actor to gain empathy for the character—being able to play a flawed individual as if the flaw was an asset, generating three-dimensional character traits.

STEP 5: Build a backstory and hidden secrets based on what’s gleaned from the read.

The natural results of exploring the character through this process is a depth of knowledge and behaviors that are worthy of exploration. By considering how the person got to the place they’re in at the start of the story, the actor is able to build a backstory that gives credence to the scripted voice and behaviors.

This reflection, coupled with the new-found empathy, allows the actor to mold his or her instincts and responses according to the new character—making sense of the dialog not previously understood. The added bonus from the generous amount of material also gives the ability to plant a secret to keep throughout the shoot that brings more depth of character into the eyes of the actor during close ups.

STEP 6: Avoid the obvious, as nothing in a script is obvious.

Most amateurs take the script at face value and miss the subtext, underlying character elements, and hidden reveals. The actor must take note of anything that appears obvious and dig to find out what is really being said. By assuming nothing in the script is obvious, the actor is forced to conduct a deeper dive to find out why the character says what they say. The focus is on looking for hints of depth behind every statement. The actor can even ask and consider the question, “Does this line have more than one meaning?”

STEP 7: Commit to the character.

The number one reason a character fails is because the actor skips the due diligence to develop the role. The second reason comes into play when the actor doesn’t commit to the developed character. Locking in the character is mandatory. Should there be a script or action conflict found later, the actor can talk through the issue with the director—the best troubleshooter on set. Remember, the director knowns the character best, that is, next to the actor.

The greatest pitfall of a rookie actor is attempting to rewrite lines of dialog before understanding the character. Unfortunately for all involved, should one of these types of rewrites be accepted, the character is most likely going to shift from a three-dimensional to a two-dimensional character. The pro actor always dives deeper into the character to learn why he or she says the line to avoid flattening the richness of their uniqueness.

Actors that are unsure if their rewrite suggestions will help or destroy their character should trust the director (as long as he or she is a pro). No great director will ever choose to direct a script with poorly written characters. After all, they’re responsible for the overall story, and their credit will be on the film for a very long time.

Meaning built within the dialog can only be understood in the right context. In Step 3 the dialog might suggest to an outsider that the character is short, ill-tempered, and rude. But in Step 4 the same dialog packaged through empathy reveals that the character is actually tired, abused by the system, and protective of his or her heart. Therefore the actor should never suggest a rewrite until he or she has totally understood and owns the character.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

Timing is Important, but Story is King

LIVING IN THE

The motion picture industry understands how to time the release of a feature film. Studios block out release dates years in advance to make sure their blockbusters have little competition. Even independent films attempt to release during down screen times to minimize the competition. But there seems to be a group of filmmakers that are more concerned about the actual dates than the competition.

Faith-based filmmakers compete for release dates around Easter, convinced their audiences want to see a religious picture during the highly celebrated season. While that might be the case, past surveys consistently reflected that those who enjoy the faith-based genre are only willing to see 1.5 movies in a given month.

That means the first faith-based film released, with some level of fanfare during the Easter season, will take the audience out of the equation for other faith-based films. This year I Can Only Imagine released first and drew in $80MM, Paul, Apostle of Christ released second and drew in $17MM, and God’s Not Dead 3 drew in $5MM.

While a substantial consideration, it’s not always the release dates that make the difference. The above films happened to be released in order from best to worst story. Regardless, an overabundance of a genre’s films during a specific timeframe can quickly saturate a niche market.

Plus, the average moviegoer only watches four films a year. That means the person who watched I Can Only Imagine and probably watched Black Panther only has two more films left to watch. The faith-based film attender might hold off on another genre film to consider a summer blockbuster that their peers will discuss at the water cooler, and a Christmastime film for the entire family to enjoy.

When I’ve talked to producers of faith-based films, they’ve made it clear that they never consider secular competition. This is a peculiar situation since avoidance of thought never reduces the number of actual competitors vying for box office dollars. And, everyone in the industry knows that PG-13 films, which are typically aimed at some form of family, are watched by members of all faith groups.

Movieguide’s annual report to the industry points out how family-friendly films, with elements of faith and patriotism, always bring in more box office dollars than the competition. This has been consistently true since I’ve tracked it over the past 20 years. In fact, when the audiences of successful blockbusters are looked at closely, people who live by faith are the ones that make a significant uprise in the box office.

One could surmise, yet no one has taken that bold step to publish a thesis on the topic to date, that those who live by faith are the determining factor in a film’s box office success. If that is the case, then faith-based filmmakers should become masters of the craft in order to drive their films’ successes. And, those who live by faith must be educated in how their ticket purchase determines what films succeed.

Now, I’m not talking about forcing change by purchasing up tickets for bad faith-based films to spur on the genre. I’m talking about faith-based filmmakers learning how to tell great story. The audience will always promote a film with great story. Consider Black Panther as a perfect example of a great story that took off.

Some might say it was the black community that came out in droves to support the film, but I say that’s foolishness. Anyone tracking Tyler Perry’s career knows that he regularly draws the niche black audience, which doesn’t look anything like the audience watching the Black Panther. The story was great and therefore pulled in a great audience.

I’ve heard that there are 12 faith-based films attempting to position their release for next Easter. The one that will win the box office is the first best story released. The others will have dismal results. This begs a new question—Why aren’t the 12 faith-based films releasing one a month throughout the year?

The answer suggested to me last month by a faith-based producer went like this… “Faith-based films preach; they don’t tell story, so none of them can stand on their own without the churches pushing people to attend.”

While the producer sounded cynical, I’m pretty sure his comment has some merit. Film is a story-based, emotional medium that does not handle preaching well. Radio, on the other hand, is an ideal medium for preaching. Finding the right medium for the right message is crucial to reaching an audience.

Independent horror films use similar production processes as faith-based films. Instead of focusing on preaching, horror films focus on generating screams or startlement. Both typically generate about the same expense to box office ratio and few of either genre put story first.

A Quiet Place is a horror film with a message on parenting that is driven by story, not scream gimmicks. Because of its focus on story, the film should soon cross the $150MM box office mark. The key to the film’s success wasn’t being timed for Halloween, since it was released this spring, but the fact is the story was king, focusing on parenting children in a hostile world.

Release dates are important to avoid too much competition, but without story being the key focus, timing won’t matter.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench

LH_Monkey_WrenchBack when I was a rookie, I was asked to chase down a left-handed monkey wrench. The AD said it was critical for the next scene and I had to find one at all cost. He was adamant about it and made it clear that he trusted me to get the job done. He told me not to bother coming back if I couldn’t get one into the hands of the Gaffer within the hour.

I hustled toward the car with several perplexing thoughts. My dad was left-handed and he never used a left-handed wrench of any kind. In fact, every wrench he owned could be used in either hand. I became suspicious in that moment and wondered if I was being targeted with a test.

Taking a left before I got to the parking lot, I snuck around to the generator and asked the Best Boy if he had ever heard about a left-handed monkey wrench. He chuckled and asked if I had overheard someone being initiated. I told him a couple people were talking about it and I knew no such tool existed, but I wanted to make sure. He said, “It’s an initiation, which means we’ll have a light day. If I were you, I’d change departments for the rest of the day and find someone to serve.”

I headed over to the props truck and told them that I heard they needed help. “Yes,” shouted the Property Master. “Today’s a light day, which will allow us to catch up and organize the truck for the next few heavy days we’re about to hit.” I dove in and worked hard.

Later that afternoon I bumped into the AD. He switched his smile to a firm, piercing look. “I told you not to come back unless you found a left-handed monkey wrench.”

“On my way to the parking lot I bumped into the Property Master. She was struggling to organize the truck for fear of not keeping up with weekly schedule. Knowing that your success is critical to this picture, I volunteered to help make sure the props department would meet with your requirements. I knew your success was more important than finding a left-handed monkey wrench, especially since our Gaffer is capable of getting the job done with just about any wrench.”

The AD smiled at me and nodded his approval. “I’ll see you back on my team tomorrow,” he shouted as he strolled away.

My initiation was over and I wouldn’t be tested for the remainder of the picture. Unfortunately several people walked off of the film because they feared being controlled like a child controls a toy or plaything. They didn’t understand the difference between a one time test to see what a person is made of versus a controlling personality that continually chokes life out of a project.

Since most people’s next meal ticket is based on the strength of their last picture, it’s important for all members of the production team to develop good boundaries so they do not succumb to a real controller. Unfortunately the person with the control problem is sometimes a department head, an investor-producer that doesn’t understand the filmmaking process, or worse yet, a rookie director who never learned how the creative process works.

What Real Controllers Want

The controller wants what you have because he or she lacks those valuable qualities. The most sought after quality is being able to feel good about yourself without having to receive a pat on the back from someone else. Controllers also hunt down those who are secure in their skin, accomplishments, and overall position in life.

And, if your attention makes others feel good, the controller will be all over you. In fact, if you can feel good about other people and aren’t intimidated by their successes, you’ll have a control target placed on your back.

Controllers find it easier to put others down in order to feel good about who they are. The higher the position held by a controller, the more likely he or she will carry fear, having been promoted to the level of incompetence or the unknown.

The only way to alleviate a disaster during a film production is to set healthy boundaries and use the established hierarchy protocols that allow all departments to function properly.

What Not To Sacrifice

All too often we let go of things that are important to us in order to survive the constant attacks from a controller. This forces us out of the life we were meant to lead and we slowly become something that no longer looks like us. It therefore becomes critical that we set healthy boundaries to protect our hearts and our future. And yes, that might require you walking away from or avoiding certain people while on set.

Some elements worth protecting include the understanding that your ideas and contributions matter. Another consideration to keep yourself strong is to stop others from pushing your buttons, belittling your accomplishments, or talking down to you. But most importantly it’s prudent to make sure you never become a doormat by allowing others to push your needs below theirs.

Oh, it’s okay for you to choose to put others above yourself, but it’s not okay to allow others to force you down to make sure their needs are met. Choosing to serve others from your heart works very differently than having someone guilt you or coerce you into meeting their needs.

The controller must not be allowed to manipulate you and put your career at stake. You must fight to maintain who you are regardless of what they do. It’s not easy, especially when the controller gets others to “help” prepare you for your next level. Those well-meaning people buy into the controller’s manipulation and do his or her dirty work to take you down a few notches in the name of preparing or strengthening you.

Unfortunately you might have to walk away from the well-meaning people to protect your heart and career. Once they realize that their help actually hindered or hurt you, they will try to appeal to your good graces, but it might not be prudent to allow them back into your life—a difficult decision that only you can make.

The next time someone asks you for help that pulls you from your path in life, make a mental note that they might be a controller or a controller’s enabler. Set your boundaries and make sure your valuable, creative assets are well protected. Then get on being the best you that you can be, while having a lot of fun in life.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Launching a Story With an Inciting Incident

Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.

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The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.

A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”

The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.

The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.

Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.

The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.

The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Finding Your Voice

After spending a few minutes with me you’ll find that I tell a lot of stories. I come by it naturally, as my dad told stories every night at the dinner table. His daily adventures as a cop were thrilling, hilarious, or absurd. And yes, he did get shot in the line of duty and lived to tell the incredible story.

Even in his death, dying in a mysterious plane crash during a freak storm, he guided me with clues into a life of storytelling. I found myself hunting down every unanswered and mysterious story behind his death. My curiosity grew, as I delved deeper into the 100 out-of-place coincidences that I discovered.

5357__ROlJiMzo6Later in life I’d hear Hannah Brencher share about how our voice, as a writer or filmmaker, is birthed in our experiences and emotions. Brencher said, “Live and then write it down.” It’s such a simple activity that develops our voice, yet it’s all too often overlooked.

The process solidifies our experiential and emotional patterns rising from our soul to our consciousness—the very thing that determines our life passions. Once we see these patterns outside of ourselves, our minds are capable of standing firm in our beliefs and perspectives. The repetitive nature of the process also strengthens our resolve and gives us the tools to help others.

But our value is of little worth to those we inspire, unless it’s coupled with the elements that can seed their life for great results. To bring a sense of fulfillment to our followers, we must find a way to teach, rather than just inspire them. We must transcend the typical story by salting in life elements that can be embraced by those we serve with our words and films.

Brencher shared how she went camping with no more than the idea of camping on her mind. She wasn’t prepared, and had no idea how to build a campfire useful for warmth and cooking. Thankfully a guy one site over lended a hand and built her campfire. He also replenished it later that evening and fueled it again to cook breakfast.

That afternoon he broke camp to continue his travels. She too left, even though she paid for two nights, because she still didn’t know how to make a fire. In that moment she realized that inspiring people is nice, but teaching them how to inspire themselves is better. The experience raised a new passion in her that would permanently alter her voice. She learned that as a writer she needed to give everything she had, not just the inspirational pieces.

Give everything you have “in the moment you are asked to give it all,” became Brencher’s new moto. It’s a moto for those with little to share and those with a lot. The size and strength of our voice is not what’s important, but the value we bring to others.

Brencher’s voice was uniquely hers and couldn’t be copied by anyone else, except through plagiarism. No one is able to create a similar voice that can stand the test of time. It’s only when we dig deep within our personal experiences and emotions will our voice rise and be like none other.

Spending a couple decades listening to my dad share true-life stories, coupled with a rise in my curiosity from the 100 bizarre coincidences associated with his death, sent me on a journey of countless experiences and emotions that forged my voice…. A voice that was like none other. A voice that hopefully inspires and teaches.

Maybe it’s time for you to consider journaling to bring your needed voice to the forefront.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Write, Read and Watch—Lessons from Marvel’s Jim Krueger

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I got together with a couple dozen creatives over the weekend for a workshop on story. It was a great time of networking with like-minded artists. Jim Krueger, a storyteller, comic book writer, novelist and filmmaker, was the keynote speaker. He’s most known for his works (including Earth X) at Marvel. He also won the prestigious Eisner Award for Justice (DC Comics).

Jim pointed out the three things that all writers need to do each day: write, read, and watch.

WRITE

Writers need to write everyday to strengthen and mature their “voice.” Jim, who tries to write four hours every day, believes that the writing process helps us to pour out the very thing that can fix our broken world. He also suggested that we have to know ourselves in order to find those internal nuggets of value that are worthy to be shared.

He gave us an exercise to write down our top 10 films that we love followed by the top 10 films we hate. The correlation was amazing and helped us to discover the passion that stirs within us. Within the stories we hated was an internal “No” wanting to be expressed. This pensive drive reveals the “Yes” that we want everyone to embrace—the very thing we must write about to be fulfilled.

READ

Screenwriters need to read the best scripts in the genre in which they write. Authors need to read the best books in the genre they write. Studying the best allows us to improve our techniques, while also learning what has already been done. Unique character reveals, rhythms, and pacing become second nature when we immerse ourselves in the writings of the best.

Being able to spot in others’ works what makes us feel good, and why, helps us understand how to craft our own stories that inspire. This is an important base element in writing that will attract followers and build a fan base. It’s the fulfillment of a natural need, according to Jim, who said, “People need to feel good about themselves after watching your story.”

WATCH

Since our world was transformed from a literary to a visual culture, Jim recommended that writers watch feature films and long form television to study what’s being created for the market and what is well received. While he didn’t intend to do a commercial for Movie Pass (now $6.95 for a monthly subscription program), he did recommend going to the movies often for study purposes.

James Patterson, who writes first thing every morning, shared in a class that I took a couple years ago, how he heads to a theater and watches a feature film after his morning writing session. Since he goes daily, he doesn’t always stay for the entire picture, but learns what he can about the market, what’s been done in the realm of stories, and any story techniques that he can observe and capture.

After convincing us that we all needed to be writing, reading and watching, Jim shared that the rules of story must also be followed with no exception. “Rules as a storyteller are never to be broken, only worked around with loopholes,” he said. When rules are broken, the audience can’t easily follow the story and loses interest, so it’s important to make sure the core elements or the logic and reasons behind the rules are never altered.

Jim pointed out that the limitations put on the storyteller are actually valuable creative tools. “Limitations allow us to put surprise and wonder into place,” he said. Understanding how wonder plays a role in the development of entertainment gives us the fuel to explore an idea until it rises to its best version before releasing it to the audience. Jim suggested that it could take anywhere from 4-6 weeks for an idea to mature to its highest value.

At the end of the day, Jim autographed three panel original art from his next published work due out in a few months. Keep your eyes out for his work.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers