Grandma’s Empty Story Chair

Grandma's Empty Story ChairMy favorite chair sits empty today, crowded in by boxes of stuff I collected over the years. Some of it will see its demise in the dumpster out back, while the more contemporary pieces will be given a home thanks to a local mission or charity.

When I left this world, I was freed from the days I spent in darkness. Having perfect sight again makes this new life extraordinary. My skin is silky smooth and my new body has no stretch marks from the excess weight I once carried on earth. I wish my great grandkids could see me this way.

I can barely remember the fear in the little one’s eyes as she reached out to touch my aged, wrinkled skin. The discoloration from medication gave my arm an eerie and deathly bluish shade. The texture alone was enough to startle any three year old, but I was glad she screwed her courage to the sticking place.

My heart raced with joy when her soft fingers touched my fragile skin. Caution was quickly voiced from my kids for my skin could be too easily torn—but I needed my great granddaughter’s touch regardless of the risk. Her loving, yet hesitant touch, gently slipped away and I fell back into my distant prison of old age. Always feeling alive, while trapped in a decaying body that no longer responded as I willed.

Now, glancing at my empty chair brings a subtle note of joy. I was glad for the opportunities I had, although few, to share stories from a time long ago. My son listened attentively to each tale and responded with questions that taxed my memory, as he searched for enough detail to remember my younger years going forward.

My daughter was also eager to learn more about my life including the love interest I had before meeting her father. She was the most empathetic person that listened to my stories and understood the value of each object I amassed over the years. The symbols were reminiscent of several life-impacting stories that I lived out and my daughter could retell most of them just by looking at the piece collected.

But today the boxes are being tossed because the grandkids and great grandkids see no value in any of it. My stories are fading as each representation rusts away or turns to dust. My empty story chair will soon be pitched, as its worn-torn look no longer matches the decorative styles of the day. And with it, I’m afraid family members will no longer cherish my remarkable stories.

Oh, my daughter will continue to share several stories, and my son will even share a few, too. But even he will one day contemplate the waning interest by his children and their kids. His time will become finite and he will have to choose between sharing one of my wonderful stories or making sure his grandkids listen to one of his. I would never wish that frustration on him.

Instead, if I could encourage him right now, I’d say…

Grandma’s story chair is empty and the artifacts surrounding it no longer speak of the thrilling life I led, so say goodbye to me once again, not fearing that I’ll permanently fade from your memories, and speak into the lives of your kids, grandkids and their kids. For you are of great value to me and I want your stories to resound with compassion and wisdom that will bless our family for generations to come.

NOTE: The sketch illustration was created by CJ in an attempt to make his story feel real. While not an illustration artist, CJ used his Bamboo drawing tablet to sketch elements from his mother’s living room.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

7 Common Mistakes of New Filmmakers

Shaky Camera TechniqueI’ve spent time with three filmmakers over the past two years coaching them on their freshman projects. They all had very different working attitudes, but they all made the same mistakes that are common among first time filmmakers.

Here are the 7 Common mistakes consistently made by newbies:

1. Lack of Preparation.

Every new filmmaker is so excited about shooting what’s in his or her head that they dive into production without the proper preparation. They don’t know that by the time shooting starts, seasoned directors have seen their film in their mind’s eye more than 100 times, working out every little detail. This lack of preparation is typically revealed by a lack of footage being shot that’s necessary to tell the story properly.

2. Bad or No Sound Design.

Audiences are used to full soundtracks, which young filmmakers forget to take into consideration until after their first film sounds thin or tinny. Even then, most newbies use 4 to 8 tracks for sound compared to 16, 32, or even 64 tracks of sound layering done by professionals. New filmmakers also have thin sound effects in their first shows.

3. Underdeveloped Story.

Beginners typically start with a cool scene idea that pops into their head and build a story over a handful of weeks. For most rookie filmmakers the development stage is the shortest. The pros take much longer developing the story. In fact, professional story development typically takes longer than preproduction, production and post-production combined.

4. Poor Casting Choices.

This is when beginners hire their friends and anyone that they owe a favor. People typically get cast based on their ability to “do business” on camera rather than being selected for their character development skills and performance. More experienced casting starts with a list of physical and behavioral attributes. The person’s ability to follow direction and draw an audience to the theater is also considered.

5. Bad Dialog.

Newbies tend to write their own scripts in a way that makes every character sound the same. Rarely are rookie filmmakers taught how to give different voices to their characters. Many times the pros will use specialists to make sure the dialog drives conflict and gives a unique voice to each character.

6. Use of Clichés.

The shorter the film the more likely a young filmmaker will use clichés and stereotypes in the creation of his or her story. The reason is based on their lack of development experience, the ease of shooting the obvious, and the lack of screen time available to explore the conflict. Pros avoid clichés like the plague.

7. Sporadic Collaboration.

Young filmmakers struggle with how to paint their vision to the cast and crew without compromise, while teaming through the cinematic collaboration process that puts excellence on screen. New filmmakers tend to find themself over controlling a project, which kills the artistry, or giving in all too often, which waters down the story. Experienced professionals know how to draw the best out of their associates through collaboration and then pick the best recommendation that’s in keeping with the vision, that is, if it’s better than the preplanned direction.

The apprenticeship process has been used for over a hundred years to raise up strong filmmakers, yet newbies continue to side step the process. For some reason most first timers desire to shoot their own film before they know how to make films, something that will continue for the next 100 years. A few survive that find mentors or get sucked into the system and climb up through the ranks. Those are the ones who learn how to avoid the common mistakes.

The Humanity of Dunkirk—Review

Nolan_at_CameraChristopher Nolan has another success on his hands with Dunkirk. While it won’t drive the box office like The Dark Knight, audiences will marvel at the humanity of self-sacrifice demonstrated. But before I say much more, I have to warn you that this film requires a lot of thinking and possibly a second viewing to fully comprehend.

Nolan’s artistic choices, which will not surprise fans, were spot on and amazing. However, his decision to tell three complete stories simultaneously, which all converge in act three, forces the audience to pay close attention during the entire two-hour film. This is not the type of film you’d want to excuse yourself from to take a call, get a refill, or use the restroom.

The story is about the actual events in May of 1940. Germany advanced into France and trapped Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. British and French forces provided air and ground cover, while troops were methodically evacuated using every naval and civilian vessel that could be found.

The orders were to evacuate 30,000 men leaving the rest as acceptable losses, but the man in charge demanded 45,000. Thanks to the self-sacrificing actions of many that evolved into heroes as the events unfolded, about 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were actually evacuated.

BeachThe movie opens with no credits and what appears to be a boring scene, until you realize it was one of the few lulls in an intense battle that catapults you back to the reality of World War II. The film alternates between three stories told from the perspective of land, air and sea. Each story focuses on only one hero in the making based on the significant self-sacrificing choices made.

While the film has little dialog, due to the circumstances that prevail on screen, each story rises in intensity to the point where you demand to know the outcome. You soon realize that your body is contorting in a rhythm that cheers on each protagonist to make the right choice, not the safe one. Warning: No one under five feet tall should ride this intense emotional rollercoaster.

I can’t remember a film that caused me to flinch, duck and squirm in synchronicity with the protagonist for some time. And when my favorite of the three storylines climaxed, my heart felt every pounding second of contemplating the young man’s decision. He did what was right for the war efforts, not what was right for his own soul. His self-sacrifice gave rise within me to rejoice at the epilogue of that storyline—and, determine for myself to consider the greater good of those around me over my own need for survival.

Dunkirk was a stirring and uplifting film worthy of an Oscar. But, most who attend the screening will get lost in the braided stories and wonder what I saw in the film. To them I heartily say, “Watch it a second and third time until you get it.” Yes, it is worth your time. But, if you only enjoy movies where you don’t have to think, avoid this one no matter what the cost. The value of this film only rises out of thought and ones ability to relate to one of the three main heroes.

AirMy friend emotionally clicked with the air story and I related to the sea story. But both of us took much needed time after the film to discuss what we saw, as the film’s complexities were similar to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Our discussion allowed us to better comprehend what we missed and the other had caught.

If it weren’t for the difficult-to-follow braided storylines, I’d give this film a 5-star rating, but its complexities reduces it to a solid 4-star rating. However, for those who don’t struggle to follow the three intertwined stories, you’ll certainly give it a 5-star rating, no questions asked.

As we reflected on the film my friend said, “I’m not sure what we just watched, but it’s obvious it was something really great. I think this is the kind of film you can watch over and over again, picking up on all the subtleties you missed in previous viewings.” I agreed. Dunkirk will be as great as you can keep up.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Throwing a Story-Based Party

partyBack when my kids were little, my wife and I threw story-based parties for friends. The food and the decorations perfectly fit the period and we even invited our guests to come in costume based on the party’s storyline.

Our World War II party took place in what looked like a bunker. The Star Trek party appeared to be on another world with very colorful foods. And, our western party included a shootout with a cowboy stunt team – and yes, one guy was shot off of the roof.

This weekend my son is organizing a “room escape” party – the latest in entertainment events. Not only will it have a theme, but it will also be story-based. The goal of those “locked” in the room is to search and find clues, decipher the codes and follow them to the conclusion that reveals the key to get out.

All of the best parties that I’ve attended were story-based. Story events take a great deal of effort for the host to prepare, but everyone will remember the event for decades to come. I still bump into people who rave about my Christmas party from twenty-five years ago when Santa showed up with his real sleigh.

Here are the steps necessary to create a story-based party:

  1. Decide what story you want to tell. This is simply a way of determining the guest experience you want to create. The creation of a story or journey of sorts generates a form of movement within the party that keeps things alive and entertaining.
  2. Determine what the guests will do. By creating an plan, the guests will be physically and emotionally moved through a series of actions that generate surprise, awe and memorable ah-ha moments.
  3. Select where they will do it. The physical place or setting is always paramount to a good story. It sets the atmosphere and peaks the interest of all guests in attendance.
  4. Pick when the story will take place. The time period plays an important role in the setting. The period can be modern day, the future, or somewhere back in history. Creating designs that reflect the specific period you choose creates richness to the party that is not soon forgotten.
  5. Choose what the guests will say tomorrow. All story-based parties generate a buzz of conversation. Friends tell other friends all about their experience the day after the party. In fact, the better the party, the longer people talk about their experience. Therefore, determining the result or the emotional takeaway you’d like to instill in your guests is critical to the party’s follow up conversations.

After you’ve made a list of the above items, you can organize the event in an order that works best for the story. The flow of activities is essential for creating a seamless environment that engulfs your guests in a great experience.

By thinking through all aspects of the event and scripting out the throughline or the flow of the story, you can create a party worthy of a theme park. Then make a list of all the details that are significant to the storyline. I like to use a visual board that I can attach magazine clips, photos and note cards.

The next step is easy. Look through all the brainstorming work you’ve collected and pull it all together. I’ve always found that the visual collection of the ideas seems to always imply an obvious storyline that will flow naturally and be a great success.

I threw a Mother’s Day party that was a nostalgic look at the 1940’s during the summer. It included an award winning barbershop quartet, dancers recreating the charm of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and a delightful meal common for the period. There was also a lot of beautiful lace table clothes and freshly cut flowers throughout the room.

Story-based parties are significantly more spectacular than store bought themes. They have a movement and richness that can’t be purchased in a box. It requires the host to be creative and think carefully about how to entertain each guest. It might even be the ultimate in hospitality because of the tremendous care taken on behalf of the guests.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers


Drive-by Creative Games

Ole Lady MobileI recently learned a new game from an administrator at Disney. When she has a long hard day, she likes to do something out of the ordinary. She likes to stretch her creative juices and explore story from a new standpoint on the fly. Playing a simple game with those riding in her carpool exercises her creativity.

The rules are simple. The goal is to create a story one phrase at a time. She goes clockwise and each person shares a phrase of the story. The key is that the story must include everything the person has recently observed.

For instance, let’s say Person One notices birds fly out from a tree, railroad gates go down, and a loud horn honk. Person One might say, “Birds flew from the trees as the railroad gates blocked traffic and a sinister horn echoed down the rusty tracks.”

Person Two must continue the story where One left off and it must reflect what he observed. Let’s say it was a train, school kids, and an irate driver stuck at the railroad gate. Person Two might say, “The loco train, known for attacking at a moments notice, chugged past the gates and angered a man who was blocked from seeing his daughter leave school.”

Sometimes people only observe a single item that stands out unique from the day’s normal activities. Person Three might say, “The swirl of dust in the alley behind the bakery swooshed up into a super hero ready to protect the student.”

By the time the train passes, Person Four might have captured her observations. She says, “Fearing a great loss from the micro burst, the loco train chugged out of sight, leaving the girl unharmed.”

The story continues for several more rounds until all enjoy a great story. Even the first four phrases suggest a story that can entertain, while developing the skills of a creative person. Here is the compilation of the first four phrases in story form:

Birds flew from the trees as the railroad gates blocked traffic and a sinister horn echoed down the rusty tracks. The loco train, known for attacking at a moments notice, chugged past the gates and angered a man who was blocked from seeing his daughter leave school. The swirl of dust in the alley behind the bakery swooshed up into a super hero ready to protect the student. Fearing a great loss from the micro burst, the loco train chugged out of sight, leaving the girl unharmed.

The beauty of a creative story game is that there are no wrong answers or phrases. Each person can impact the direction of the story and its implications. Conflict is naturally increased within the story based on the process that forms the content. And, everyone can enjoy numerous laughs as the story weaves in and out of its form.

© 2016 by CJ Powers

Emotional Beat of Story Changes Audiences

captain-americaAnimators almost have a corner on the structural elements required to emotionally impact an audience. While all filmmakers have the same opportunity to develop emotional storytelling techniques, animators were forced to learn the skills in order to give life to inanimate objects.

I produced my first animation in college. The experience caused me to stumble upon the key elements necessary to stir the audience’s emotions. The story must contain the “what” and “how” of a character to hook the audience. The “what” is the main character’s want or what he’s fighting for. The “how” is the action it takes to obtain it.

Strong stories have a proactive main character with an internal conflict. As he chases after his “what,” he experiences the internal conflict being played out in his external world. It’s not until he solves the internal conflict that he can solve the external conflict. The decisions that he makes toward this resolution not only plays out the “how,” but it also sends him on a journey that leads him to being born again—he becomes a new person.

This rebirth is also experienced by the audience, giving them the same tools for life that the main character experiences. This new life doesn’t mean the character gets his “what,” but it does mean he gets his “need.” In other words, the character doesn’t get what he was chasing, but he gets something better. He gets what he truly needed, even if he didn’t know he needed it.

The goal of every director is to entertain the audience and once they are receptive, direct their attention to the emotional core of the story. This changes the audience’s lives. Unfortunately, most rookie directors have no idea how to get the audience invested enough into the main character that his life tools become the tools of the audience.

But it’s not a secret. The core of every story demonstrates the essence of the director’s intent, whether he is privy to his own heart or not. The choice narrative in of itself holds the key.

Seymore Chatman, an American Film and literary critic said that form or narrative structure, “communicates meaning in its own right, over and above the paraphrasable contents of its story.”

This is why films like Captain America can win more people over to ideals like God and country, wholesome living, and righteous standards than most faith-based films.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers is a “flawed man” because he lives with real and honest character traits from the 1940s. He doesn’t fit into our modern superficial politically correct society. He has to figure out if he’s going to continue living with old world ethics or change. His struggle takes us on journey. We experience people making fun of him because he doesn’t swear. He is also laughed at and makes enemies for sacrificially and unconditionally giving of himself for a friend. But by the end of the journey he decides to hold to his convictions—The audience making the same decision for their own lives.

war-roomIn the successful faith-based film, War Room, Elizabeth is not a “flawed woman,” but her husband is battling temptations. Elizabeth doesn’t have to work through any obstacles to change, she only has to learn how to pray to save her husband from temptation. As a result, Elizabeth gains one tool (the power of prayer) for her life utility belt. The audience does not accept the tool because we never see her battle and overcome obstacles that give value to the power of prayer. We see that she only needs to put in her time and God answers her prayers.

Unfortunately in real life many prayers go unanswered, or the answer is “No.” We don’t get to see Elizabeth struggle through unanswered prayers and how they change her perspective for the good, creating a greater value in prayer than a god catalog order. Having her face unanswered prayer and finding the fortitude to continue praying anyway demonstrates to the audience how important it is to pray regardless of the outcome—a tool everyone would like to have in their life utility belt.

There is, however, one controversial scene where Elizabeth speaks out loud to the devil. Some might say this is a moment of her working through a struggle to overcome adversity and reveal the power of prayer, but its not. The scene only shows that by speaking prayerfully out loud you can also succeed by causing the devil to flee. Elizabeth doesn’t overcome any flaws or grow internally through adversity in any way, thereby not passing on any life tools to the audience.

Story is about change and growth. It’s also about redemption of our flaws being reworked to make us heroes, which all audiences want to implement in their own lives. Most importantly, it’s about instilling the value of the theme in the hearts of the viewers. When each of these things is in place, audiences add significant positive change and life tools to their life utility belts.

The irony is that the makers of faith-based films know the exact tools needed for people to live fulfilling lives, yet they don’t create stories that give these great tools to the audience. In the mean time, Hollywood, who knows little about life tools, makes great stories that hand both uplifting and destructive tools to the audience.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Storyboards Stand the Test of Time

StarWarsBoardStoryman Webb Smith invented the storyboard in the 1930s, while working at Disney Studios. The team developing Walt’s stories used 4X8 sheets of plywood that were covered in material. Pictures sketched on paper were pinned to the boards in the order of the story. The artists found it much easier to follow the boarded story than reading and rereading a script.

QuestThe practice is now industry wide and is used for the creation of commercials, stunt scenes and special effects. Writers have also found the boarding aspects of the process to be helpful in plot development and story structure. Even documentarians and some editors use a form of storyboards to help manage their workflow more efficiently.

Vision boarding, the latest form of storyboarding, has entered the corporate world with gusto. Entrepreneurs are using the boarding process to create visual dashboards and workflow charts. Marketing communication departments have also made adjustments to the concept by creating infographics.

Storyboards are successful because they make it easier for a person to visualize a pitch or a set of data in tables. The greater the need for fast information or a form of previsualization, the more popular storyboards become.

PrevizLimited animation was developed from storyboards and the testing of commercials generated the motion driven preview of storyboards. The process is called animatics. Even the blockbuster motion picture teams are now using previz (an animated form of storyboarding).

Josh-Kaufman-How-To-Get-Good-At-Anything-Sketchnotes-1BlackWebSince a picture is worth a thousand words, corporate employees are starting to take sketch notes during meetings. Sketch notes allow the employee to take more memorable notes that don’t pull the individual’s attention from the speaker. And of course, it’s a descendant of storyboards.

The more our world shifts from a literary to a visual society, the more popular infographics and sketch notes become. And, since the practice was formulated decades ago, it clearly is compelling and stands the test of time.

© 2016 by CJ Powers