Earlier this week, Stillmotion launched the pilot program for MUSE, their most ambitious and potentially game-changing project to date.
To recap everything that was in our first article, MUSE is a combination of an interactive online course and a physical toolset that is designed to empower filmmakers to tell more engaging, powerful stories. Even though the MUSE pilot program, which closes on Monday at 10am PST, was met with skepticism by many readers of this site, our good friends at Stillmotion wanted to give our audience an exclusive look at some of the actual content included in the course. They're insanely proud of what they've built, and they're confident that this material can help all types of filmmakers, not just folks working in the non-fiction realm of documentary and corporate, to tell more intentional stories that move audiences.
So without any further ado, here's an exclusive excerpt from Step Two of MUSE, which discusses the process of choosing Places for your story. For narrative folks, this will help you find locations, props, and situations that best suit your individual characters and story. As a quick recap of the step prior to this one, when Patrick and the gang talk about the "Heart of the story," they're referring to the lead character, the person whose uniqueness, desire, and complexity engage the audience in the story. With that out of the way, onwards to Step Two!
Why Place is Universally Important for All Filmmakers
Patrick and I chose to excerpt this specific piece of the MUSE process because the concept of Place is one of the most important parts of great filmmaking. Why, you may ask? Well, in short, because filmmaking is an inherently a visual medium. It gives us the opportunity to show the story, rather than tell it. In essence, choosing great places for your story actually enables the story to tell itself.
"As filmmakers, we work in a medium that relies heavily on visuals. We have an incredible opportunity to show our story, rather than tell it. We can craft stories that let the viewer be a witness rather than simply telling them how to feel or what to do. But to truly use story and let the viewer become a witness, we need to become a master of the 4 Layers of Place." -Patrick Moreau
In the course, those "four layers of place" that Patrick is describing are defined as the following:
While the course is replete with examples and case studies for how all of these concepts work together in order to form a story, perhaps the most powerful and engaging case study comes from a piece that Stillmotion produced. It's about Dave Jacka, a quadriplegic man with only 6% of his body function who, through sheer force of will, not only manages a life of relative normalcy, but who defies all odds and becomes a pilot. That in itself makes for an incredible story, but the way Stillmotion chose to capture it takes the story to another level entirely.
We could have simply interviewed Dave and asked him about how long it takes him to get into bed at night, about the hours it takes hime to put his clothes on. And we as the audience could hear just how tough it is. But when we apply the 4 Layers of Place, when we look at environments, objects, situation, and time, and consider where we can show rather than tell, a new world of possibilities springs up. Here's an example:
A wide shot of Dave’s room with all of his devices, all of the extra structures needed for him to go to bed, all in such a tight space, certainly communicates his unique struggle through his environment. A tight shot of the hook he developed to hold his wheelchair in place so he doesn’t tumble helplessly onto the floor would be an object that communicates his resilience and adaptability. Or seeing Dave actually trying to get into bed, a long hand-held shot that makes the viewer want to help, and lets us feel his struggle, would be a great example of situation. Or we could get up at 4:30am and be with Dave as he spends 3 hours preparing for the day just to make it to the air strip for sunrise—an excellent use of time to show how powerful his character is.
My primary criticism of MUSE in my early review was that, in its current iteration, the course is designed with non-fiction filmmakers in mind. That is, the toolset it offers really caters to documentary, corporate, and event filmmakers who are pulling characters and stories out of real life. However, lessons like this previous one show how applicable it is to every kind of filmmaking. We're all trying to let stories unfold on screen, regardless of whether we're doing it with manufactured sets and characters written from scratch or with real people and places. In that sense, MUSE is absolutely universal, and it will add value to your storytelling whether you're doing corporate work or independent narrative films.
Final Thoughts On MUSE
The driving concept behind MUSE is a simple one: Speak to the heart to move the mind. As filmmakers, most of us got into this game because we have something to say, a distinct viewpoint on the world that we're driven to express through moving images and sound. The problem is that expressing things through the medium of film isn't particularly easy. Even more difficult than simply expressing a point of view is leading an audience of people, who are likely pretty stubborn (as humans tend to be), to your intended purpose. That's where the power of story comes in.
You probably remember this commercial from several years ago, when it took the internet by storm.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnxaNoha9GA
Not only does this ad turn people with steely resolves into teary-eyed and warm-hearted lovers of humanity, but it's one of the greatest examples of what the MUSE storytelling framework can help people accomplish. Honestly, nobody really gives a shit about the Thai communications company that made the commercial. If it were a standard commercial, without any real story or emotion, it never would have expanded beyond the Thai airwaves. However, because the story is so powerful and universal, and because the characters are so emotionally-engaging, the audience has no choice but to go along for the ride and be led to the purpose. And at that point, when the commercial ends, you don't even care that it was a commercial. You've been enchanted by story.
Of course, we're not all making commercials. Most of us are here because we want to make art. We want to move audiences using compelling characters who embark on unlikely and extraordinary journeys, and who, against all odds, overcome seemingly unworkable obstacles. Humans are hard-wired to engage with that kind of narrative, it's just who we are. MUSE is designed to help filmmakers achieve stories like that, stories that speak to the heart of the audience.
If you're interested, the MUSE pilot program closes on Monday, June 8th at 10am Pacific, and won't reopen until later this year.