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Short Film: A Thousand Words

New short film! The Block One Studios and Stembridge Mill logos are together for the first time in quite a while! (To watch bigger, follow the link after the video embed)

A boy wants to write a letter to his dad, but can’t figure out what to say…

A Thousand Words from Block One Studios on Vimeo.

While in South Carolina after Thanksgiving last month, Geno DiMaria and I decided to make a short film. Here’s how it happened.

Monday was Dominic’s day off from the Apple Store, so he and Geno and I headed to downtown Charleston to walk around. We went to a little coffee shop called Kudu and brainstormed together on a couple short films. The first of these ideas was about a boy who couldn’t find words to write in a letter, so he draws a picture instead. Our inspiration? Geno’s brother John has been really getting into drawing lately (he’s got an eye for it, too).

The next day, we shot. It took probably 3 or 4 hours total (I think), and was a really fun collaborative effort between us. He had been wanting to use some lights he’d gotten a while back, experimenting with using colored tissue paper in lieu of gels. My 750W Lowel Tota was our sun outside the window. We swapped off slider work, holding tripods steady, ideas for shots. It really was a journey of creativity, too — we didn’t have a written script per se, but knew how we wanted the story to begin, progress, and end. Similarly, post-production was fairly collaborative — even though I did the editing, Geno and I kept a flurry of emails going as I uploaded rough cuts and he gave feedback on them.

And that’s how it happened. Hope you enjoy!

7 Days in Haiti

In May of 2011, I was part of a team of men who went to Mare Rouge, Haiti on a mission trip. We were there to work at a school for orphaned boys, doing construction projects, discipleship, and to be an encouragement to our Haitian brothers in Christ. This video is the story of our experience.

7 Days in Haiti from Chad Stembridge on Vimeo.

There’s so much I wish I had done differently or paid more attention to while capturing the footage during our mission trip. But I do believe it’s good that the story of Human Care School for Orphan Boys in Haiti is finally being told.

To learn more about what Heart of the Bride is doing in Haiti, check out their website.

HD is Overrated

*GASP* What did I just say???

Okay, quick disclaimer: I like HD. There’s nothing like being able to watch a video in high quality filling the whole 24 inches of my iMac screen. And the color definition… Yep, I’m looking forward to the day when I can afford to switch from Standard Definition to High Def (Red, anyone?).

However, I don’t hate SD. HD can be so overrated, in my opinion — there’s nothing magical about it at all. An HD camera + bad camera operator + bad editor + bad color grading = bad 1920×1080 video. The only difference between that and SD is 1,728,000 effective square pixels. And that’s only from a technical standpoint.

HD doesn’t automatically make weak acting or story stronger. My desire is to learn how to tell a great story (which includes knowing how to operate a camera well, edit well, grade color well) with whatever equipment I have. Not that technical aspects aren’t important, of course.

But this is why I think HD can be way overrated: storytelling should be more of a priority than the technical equipment with which it’s being told.

When the Bad Guys Win

valkyrie

Let’s face it — the reality is, the good guys don’t always win (though we who are Christians know that ultimately, the good guys do win). Such as it is, the stories we write won’t always have happy endings (at least, not in the timeframe of the story itself). But before we can charge into writing that tear-jerking ending, it’s always a good thing to keep in mind that there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

I don’t consider myself to be an expert writer. However, I can think of two great examples that can be examined in order to see how to treat this kind of resolution. Let’s examine Zulu Dawn versus Valkyrie.

Zulu Dawn tells the story of the British invasion of Zululand. The Zulus win in the end.

Valkyrie tells the story of the last Hitler assassination attempt, led by Oberst Claus von Stauffenburg. If you’ve studied history, you already know that the bad guys won — Hitler was never assassinated.

There’s a huge difference between these two films, even though they both have the same kind of resolution. Zulu Dawn was a flop, while Valkyrie was a box-office success. Why?

It’s a fact that audiences want good guys to win. No matter how much “art” is put out by modernists who think bad needs to triumph for a story to be creative, the vast majority of audiences want good to win. When evil triumphs and gets away with it, it’s going against the grain of the way people’s minds work.

Zulu Dawn isn’t a movie I recommend seeing. There’s a reason audiences didn’t like it! In the story, there were two sides: the British, and the Zulus. The plot, of course, was that the British were invading. The problem, however, is that there were mixed messages in the story. The British were sometimes portrayed as the good guys, and at other times as oppressive imperialists. The Zulus were sometimes portrayed as the objects of that oppressive imperialism, and at other times as brutal savages.

In other words, there was never a clearly defined “good guy.” Audiences ended up not liking either side. The British: they are shown as a civilized camp; then mercilessly killing Zulu scouts; then triumphantly setting up in Zululand; then making stupid mistakes; then courageously standing against the massive Zulu forces; then being brutally slaughtered by them; and finally at the end of the film, bravely saving the Union Jack from being captured by Zulus. The Zulus: they’re shown as primitive savages; then as being oppressed by invaders; then mercilessly slaughtering the defeated British without preference, wounded and unwounded alike.

The film leaves the viewer with a bad taste in his mouth, confused, depressed. It’s a sad movie, but in a stomach-wrenching kind of way. Yes, it’s what actually happened, but perhaps this historical event might have been better not being made into a movie.

Valkyrie, on the other hand, clearly defines the good guys and bad guys. World War Two’s Nazi regime is widely known — we didn’t have to be told that they’re the bad guys. von Stauffenburg is quickly set up as the good guy and hero, he having strong feelings against the evil that the Nazis are working — even though he’s one of their own.

From the beginning of the film, the audience knows he’s going to lose. However, the storytelling makes viewers sit on the edge of their seats, fully identifying with the German resistance, hoping that somehow the story will turn out different than how they know it will actually end.

I’ve watched Valkyrie twice, yet the suspense never goes away. The viewer feels the excitement of every assassination plot, the disappointment when the first two fail, the adrenaline of the resistance movement when Operation Walküre is put into place after the bombing of Hitler’s planning session. And when Berlin begins to fall back out of the grasp of von Stauffenburg and his conspirators, the helplessness is felt. The resistance movements are the heros to the very end, literally to their deaths.

Every hero dies in Valkyrie. Unlike Zulu Dawn, however, the viewer comes away with a sense of respect for them, an appreciation of their sacrifice even through the failure.

The lesson that can be learned from these films is:

• Good and evil needs to be clearly defined.
• Heros must be able to be identified with and likable, though flawed.
• When bad guys win, an audience needs to know that the good guys were still the ones who were right, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: the Story Structure

Lately when we’ve watched a movie, I’ve been paying particular attention to story structure. This is probably due to my focusing on screenwriting and how to construct a great story, which I’ve found to be quite fascinating. It’s something that, through learning and practicing, I feel like I’m getting a bit better at it, though I still have a long road of learning ahead of me…. I still need years and decades of learning and experience!

We watched the well-known film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last Friday night, so I decided that I would chart the Story Structure on a Paradigm. I’ve already done this with a couple of films (the Toy Story movies, to be exact), but only within the context of three acts. There’s a whole lot more to the Three-Act Story Structure than I had thought about three or four months ago. Hence, I used Syd Field’s Paradigm method of structure, which goes into the smaller details of the three-act structure.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: the Story Structure

ACT I

The setup: Congressman dies and a new one is needed; inklings of the sinister “Machine,” Jefferson Smith’s introduction and character development as a normal U.S. citizen who loves his country and fellow citizens.

Plot Point I: Jeff Smith reveals his desire to build a boy’s camp in his state.

ACT II

Dramatic Context (first half of Act II): Smith starts his Senate job, begins working.

Pinch I: Run in with the press, discussion about Truth.

Midpoint: Smith proposes his bill (for the building of the camp) in the senate.

Dramatic Context (second half of Act II): The Machine (political corruption vs. truth)

Pinch II: Paine’s pushing Smith to compromise truth, attacks Smith’s character.

Plot Point II: Smith is accused of corruption, deceit, etc., by Paine and the Machine.

ACT III

Dramatic Context: The last battle for truth

Resolution: Paine confesses to corruption, Smith wins the victory.

So that, in a nutshell, is the story structure of the film. What do you think? I might be wrong about my identification of some of the elements (I’m not totally sure about the two Pinches in Act II…); feel free to discuss this in the comment section below!

As far as some of the other elements of the story goes:

Protagonists: Jeff Smith, Clarissa Saunders

Antagonists: The Machine, the Press, Senator Paine

Jeff Smith stands strong in his principles, Senator Paine finally changes in the last five minutes, Clarissa Saunders changes from helping the Machine in the first half (up until the midpoint of Act II) to helping Smith in the last half, some of the Press changes, the Machine never changes (it remains corrupt and evil).

The MacGuffin: Smith’s Senate Bill

Pretty interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Toy Story: An Analysis of the Story Structure

The other night whilst my dear mother was enjoying some sort of “Snowman Party,” us guys (Dad, Tyler, an I) were at home (boys night in!). I was elated that a couple XLR cables had arrived that day, and after doing a test with my shotgun mic (which, before this, I had been unable to use due to my lack of a cable) which went extremely well, Tyler suggested that we do a “Toy Story” marathon. That means watching Toy Story and Toy Story 2 back to back.

Though I wasn’t particularly excited at the chance to sit in front of a TV for four hours doing practically nothing, I did. But just before we started, I had an idea.

So I got my trusty pad of paper and a pen, and sat poised and ready to write as the first movie began.

Instead of a wasted four hours, it was perhaps a little beneficial, as I was learning about story structure by taking notes (and watching camera moves… BTW, did you ever notice that there’s absolutely no depth-of-field in the first movie, except for where there’s a matte painting behind the 3D animation?) on it.

I thought that I would share my findings with you. So here they are:

Toy Story


Story Structure
ACT I
— Inciting Event — “Bank Robbery” introduces the setting, main toys (characters), Andy, Andy’s room.
— Introduction of Settings

  • Toys are organized
  • Use of dutch angles to create confusion (okay, so that doesn’t have anything to do with the story…)
  • Toy “hierarchy”
  • Introduction of new character “Buzz,” conflict
  • Conflict deepened, introduction of the “Sid” plot
  • ACT II
    Main Plot

  • Woody’ conspiracy against Buzz
  • The two are lost
  • Enter Sid’s house
  • Buzz discovers the truth about himself
  • Hope rises for escape, is dashed, mistrust in Andy’s room at it’s height
  • ACT III

  • Buzz loses all hope
  • Conflict heightens
  • Victory, but then complications
  • Buzz is lost
  • Conflict from dog, traffic, other toys
  • Small bit of relief
  • All hope is gone
  • Hope rises, problems are overcome (“Wait a minute… I just lit a rocket, and rockets explode!”)
  • Conflict is resolved!
  • Toy Story 2


    Story Structure
    NOTE: It’s kinda hard to tell whether or not this movie is in a standard 3-act story structure, or a 5-act. The conflict is different from that which is in the first movie, and there are several “false fronts” that lead into the actual plot. For the sake of simplicity and not exploding or imploding my own brain, I’ve organized this into the 3-act story structure.

    ACT I
    Inciting incident (supposed)– Buzz in space, actually a video game
    Introduction:

  • Woody going to camp, lost hat
  • Theme of “belonging” introduced
  • “Al” introduced (in the TV ad)
  • Setup for plot:

  • Woody is broken, has to stay home, dream sequence
  • Finds “Wheezy”
  • The yard sale, goes to rescue Wheezy, complications
  • Inciting event (actual) — Woody is stolen (leads into the actual plot)

    ACT II

  • Toys trying to solve mystery
  • Al is the culprit, Woody is captive
  • Backstory to Woody’s value, introduction of the “Prospector,” “Jessy,” “Bulls-eye”
  • The plot to save Woody
  • More backstory for the “Roundup Gang,” museum plot
  • Woody loses his arm, delays Al
  • Failed attempt to get arm back
  • Toy’s victorious invasion of Al’s Toy Barn
  • Video game magazine element (tied back into the supposed inciting incident, tied to other future elements as well)
  • Introduce second “Buzz,” develop the conflict in Al’s Toy Barn
  • Theme of “belonging” further developed
  • Woody’s choice of staying or leaving
  • Toy’s failure to find Woody at Al’s Toy Barn
  • Zurg introduced, problems overcome, connection to video game magazine
  • Roundup Gang preparing to leave / toys getting closer to rescue
  • Rescue operation going amiss, conflict with the Buzzes, conflict with the Prospector, escape deterred by Al
  • Conflict with Zurg, exit the Buzz/Zurg/video game plot (these elements simply help the toys get on with the plot)
  • Problem overcome (“Pizza anyone?”)
  • ACT III

  • Airport conflict, confusion
  • Disappointment
  • Conflict with the Prospector (again…)
  • Rescue
  • Problems, attempted rescue by Woody,
  • Ingenuity/conflict
  • Resolution (Woody is fixed, the theme of “belonging” is completed)
  • McGuffins

    And now for a few thoughts on the McGuffins from each movie. If you don’t know what a McGuffin is, read about it here.

    Toy Story’s McGuffin
    What’s the first movie’s McGuffin? I believe that it’s RC. Yep, the little remote control car. Why?

    1) RC is used to enter the main plot in Act II with Woody’s conspiracy
    2) RC brings everyone back together again at the resolution (well, except for Mr. Potato Head, who ends up being spread all over the floor of the moving truck by RC)

    Toy Story 2’s McGuffin
    Woody. He’s the second movie’s McGuffin, at least, that’s what I think. Perhaps I’m wrong (the video game element could be it, but I tend to think of this element as a secondary McGuffin that simply helps the plot along a bit).

    But think about it: Woody is what’s stolen (and thus brings in the plot), he’s the one who is crucial to the Roundup Gang (without him, they go back into storage), and he’s crucial to the Andy’s Room toys as well (in their rescue operation, which is the main plot).

    Woody brings all the characters together (except for the second Buzz and Zurg; I tend to think that the video game element is a whole different side-story), tears them apart (not literally; only in that the Rounup Gang’s hopes and dreams are torn between Woody’s desire for Andy, and to keep the Gang together), and finally brings the movie to it’s climactic resolution (he rescues Jessie).

    So those are my thoughts on the movies. What do you think?

    I’ll also say that, for some reason (perhaps it being simply because it’s been so long since I’ve watched them, or perhaps because the Lord opened my eyes to it), there seemed to be a hint of mockery going on at Christianity. It was extremely subtle (and perhaps I’m wrong, don’t take my word for it), but I could see it there. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d have to watch it again and specifically take notes for that (I can’t remember exactly what the elements where at the moment)… So I’ll just leave it at that.

    So anyways, I feel like I learned a little bit from charting the story structure!