At its core, filmmaking is the art of manipulating image and sound for the purpose of telling a story.
Sure, the idea of storytelling may have generated some negative buzz in the past year because calling oneself a storyteller has become, well, trendy, even in industries that have little to do with storytelling. But the truth is that story is built in to our DNA. In the most basic and vital sense, story is how humans make sense of the world. It's our built-in mechanism for connecting the dots and crafting meaning and linear histories from the seemingly disparate moments that make up our collective lives.
And when it comes to filmmaking, story is everything. It's our number one tool for engaging an audience in a film. If we hook them by the heart, make them care about our characters, get them involved in the journey, well, then we can lead them anywhere. But the truth is that many of us don't actually understand story from a conceptual standpoint. We know about three-act structure, and we probably know about inciting incidents, that conflict is key, and all of that jazz. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the minutiae of the craft, many of us would be hard-pressed to say exactly how each individual story element affects the audience and moves them towards your intended purpose.
That's where our friends at Stillmotion come in. For years, Stillmotion has been on an epic quest to deconstruct storytelling into its most basic elements in order to create a repeatable step-by-step process for telling stories that move an audience. They've not only dug through the greatest stories ever told in this pursuit, but they've delved deeply into the psychological and neurological research behind why humans connect so deeply with some stories, but not with others.
What they've come up with is MUSE, and it's the most comprehensive, approachable guide to telling a story through the medium of film that has ever been created. As of today, MUSE comes in the form of an online course and physical toolkit (but more about that a little later). For now, here's the trailer for the MUSE pilot program, which officially launches today:
Here's the short version of the video if you can't watch. Stillmotion is launching the MUSE pilot program today, and registration is only open for one week. After it closes, there won't be another opportunity to snag the MUSE experience until later in the year. For $497, you get access to the full online course, which contains 8 unique and in-depth modules of storytelling goodness, plus a physical toolkit shipped to your door that contains workbooks, a poster, and a few other goodies.
You might be wondering what kind of content comes in the online course. In an excellent post on the Stillmotion blog last week, Patrick shared a small excerpt from the course that explains story structure in perhaps the clearest, most actionable terms that I've yet come across. Warning, this video alone may fundamentally change your understanding of effective storytelling.
A Brief Review of MUSE
For the past two weeks, I've had the honor of participating in an early version of MUSE, and I can tell you that it may very well revolutionize the way we think about storytelling. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but hear me out. The folks at Stillmotion are deeply passionate and highly-skilled storytellers, and they're equally as passionate about educating the next generation of filmmakers. The convergence of these two factors results in something that is truly one-of-a-kind.
What makes MUSE so fantastic is that every little step of the storytelling process is highly actionable. It's not an esoteric or purely conceptual course, but instead a crash course in the very same process that Stillmotion uses every single time they set out to make a film, and as such, it comes with so much supporting material and so many case studies that it's pretty much impossible not to understand the underlying concepts if you work your way through the entirety of the material.
As it stands right now, MUSE is a storytelling process for non-fiction storytellers. It's very explicitly designed for pulling characters and stories out of real life and crafting them into an engaging and moving narrative. This makes MUSE perfect for documentary filmmakers and people doing corporate work. If you work in those areas and want to sharpen your understanding how to craft a story, MUSE might be one of the best investments that you could ever make.
In its current form, MUSE isn't necessarily a tool for narrative filmmakers. While the content itself is relatively universal and can certainly be reverse-engineered and applied to the writing of a script, the course and its corresponding physical materials are mostly designed for documentary and corporate filmmakers. Stillmotion combats this a bit by including an in-depth case study of the recent narrative feature Still Alice. The inclusion of this case study makes it far easier to understand how these concepts can be applied to the process of creating characters, locations, and plot from scratch. Here's the trailer for Still Alice in case you haven't seen it:
In my chats with Patrick Moreau, founder of Stillmotion, he's shared some of the MUSE roadmap for the coming months and years. While the course is definitely designed around telling non-fiction stories at present, it's quite literally just a foundation for things to come. The idea is that the course, as it exists right now, will be the basis for more topical iterations in the future. There could a MUSE process specifically tailored to crafting a narrative film from scratch, or it could be even more specifically designed for dramatic films or comedic films or horror films. The possibilities are endless.
Sometime in the next few weeks I'll have a far more in-depth review of MUSE, although by that point, registration for the pilot program will have closed. As it stands now, I can't recommend it highly enough for non-fiction storytellers who work with existing characters and places. If you do that kind of work for a living, MUSE could make you a much stronger storyteller, which may enable you to work with better clients and charge higher rates. For narrative filmmakers, on the other hand, MUSE is definitely still valuable as there's no doubt that the process can be applied to the writing of a script. It will just require a bit of reverse-engineering on your part to make it work for you in that context. I'd still recommend it for narrative filmmakers, but just beware that it will require a bit of extra work.
If you're interested in learning more about MUSE and potentially signing up for the pilot program, head on over to the website.