Monday, June 29, 2009

TFS- Story Development Process, Part 1

As a reminder, I'm labeling all the entries for my new short film, if you want to place any entry into a context...

Personally, an initial story challenge isn't to come up with a story or a premise. The challenge is to come up with a story or a premise that means enough to me that I know I will stick with it through what might be a several year process. It has to be a story that is true to me.

Brand "Chris Walsh," if you will.

I'm at a point in life where I can fairly confidently state that I (hopefully) have time to keep making at least a few more films. But at the same time, I'm also at an age when I know I don't have as MUCH time as I used to have. Tick, tock, tick tock... a strong sense of one's own mortality is a wonderful motivator.

So, if I only have so much time left on this planet, what do I want to make with that precious time? I want to look back and be proud.

I gravitate to certain themes, it would seem. I get many ideas for "Twilight Zone" type tales, usually ones that have an aspect of a moral lesson attached, often about human mortality.

I seem pretty fixated on the struggle we all go through involving the fact that our physical bodies are so fragile, and prone to decay (hence the horror movie fixation? You tell me).

I generally aim to tackle hard-to-face topics, but served up in a tone and style that is attractive to an audience, (call it "charm") with some element of a "lesson" being conveyed through the story.

Here's some story ideas that have hit me over the last year or so (all to be staged in stop motion animation):

-a robot boy who struggles to bring his long-dead human creator back to life...

- an old woman facing what might be her last winter, when suddenly the devil appears. he offers to give her youth back but at a cost (of course).

- a man who cannot die, despite his best efforts, all the while his body is decaying (essentially a very dark comedy, zombie-style)...

And here's a few story development images from the "old woman" story, and the "man who wouldn't die" story. You can click to enlarge them.

As you can see, the process itself is a TOTAL mess, not fit for public viewing (except when being used for educational purposes!) Actually, speaking for myself, I LOVE seeing process, the work that goes on that leads to the finished work, so feast your eyes.

It's a personal process of connecting this to that in terms of story elements. It's a process of raising story questions on paper, crossing out and rewriting... it's a mess, but it's real, and it's on paper so as to refer back to.

In my opinion, few things are more harmful to early story development than to work it out on a word processor. It's just too easy to erase something utterly. It's too neat. When you do it on paper (or at least revise on paper, from a word processed document), you can see the whole thing laid out, forever (even if it's scribbled out). This informs the story as it develops, I feel. And it makes for a cool looking piece of post-modern storytelling, if you ask me.

So with no shortage of concepts in hand, it's simply a matter of starting to MAKE one, right?

Nope. As it turned out, finding the right story took about 6 months of developing various concepts and playing them out (story-wise), testing their strengths, testing whether the story had the substance to sustain me in what I knew was going to be a very long process of development, production, and post-production...

As an indie film maker, you HAVE to test your story for strength. It's the bedrock you'll build the whole thing upon. And you're going to sweat and bleed and cry so much for the thing, if it's story isn't perfect for you (as the primary artist creating the piece), you'll give up.

In several cases (including both concepts in the scans above), I would be completely enthralled with a story, and spend week teasing out plot points, imagining the staging, dashing out thumbnails sketches, convinced that THIS was the one, THIS was my next film!

But in each case, it was revealed that those concepts were NOT the real deal.I would develop and develop, only to find a roadblock in a story that wore me down as I tried to get around it. Or I'd find that my enthusiasm for the story would, sadly, simply dry up.

Thank goodness for "idea drawers", (or in my case, a journal) where all these half-formed concepts can dwell. By having a safe place to store them, it hurts a lot less to walk away from them, then if I had simply thrown them away. I can imagine the concepts "sleeping," "resting," or "waiting". But they're not "dead". Who wants to kill his own newborn ideas?!

And you never know what might be just the right idea, years down the road...

Anyway, these various story concepts depicted above couldn't hold up to the testing. With each one drying up on me, or road-blocking me in some serious way, the search continued. It's a process. You sleep, get up, think about new ideas, live your life... go to sleep, get up... you listen for a story to start talking to you... Working in an indie fashion, I can afford to take this much time on story. I set my own deadlines, so I'm patient. You CAN rush a story, but why do if you don't HAVE to?

I really respect stories, and their process of development. Letting a story reveal itself, in its own time, seems a respectful way to proceed.

And hey- it's my film, so I get to do it my own way!


jriggity said...


I had a hard day on my story today....and your post is just more for the fire!

I feel I got a great story....but reviewing my boards with some people today really crushed my spirit a bit.

things that I think are so clear ....arnt always there.

well.....great write up man...Ill kepp all you said in mind.

ChrisW said...

Well, I think your LAST film, Gerald's Last Day is proof-positive about how important it is to hone and craft a story carefully before committing to production.

And it's also a great example of a short film that a film maker can look back on "proudly". I don't mean that its warm content is something to be necessarily be proud of (a film maker can be "proud" of a G rated product, PG rated, R rated, X rated)...

I mean you'll look back proudly cause the story is rock-solid, really firm, no loose ends, no wobbly bits... you'll always be proud cause it's so tight.

I think that's really important for indie film makers to ask themselves- "Will I be proud of having devoted myself to this particular story, in 5 years time?"

Or will I cringe and say "Well, that was something I was going through at the time, see... and, I..."

Introspection and soul-searching as a story develops isn't just about developing the story, it's about growing as an artist and a human being too, I think. You learn a lot about yourself and your role as a human that effects others on this planet, through developing a story.

This from a guy whose next film might be a gore-filled monster fest. Go figure!

jriggity said...


thanks man....and we have story up front where it should always be.

I hear ya man.....We are commiting 2 long years to this next film....and we will definately be proud of it in the end!...

and Getting feedback in the visual telling of a story early is the time to get it. We got some great ideas last night after talking on how to make some moments very clear to the audiance.

this is why crits are so valuable as much as they hurt somtimes!

gore-filled monster fest that you will be proud of sound like entertainment to me! ha!!

cant wait to see it.

whats your timeline on that one?


ChrisW said...

"gore filled monster fest to be proud of"- not sure how I'll pull THAT one off! I might be all talk! I really like gory stuff (raised in the 80s on the cream of the slasher/gross out flicks), but again- do I want to spend what usually (it seems) amounts to about 2 years of my life doing "gore animation"?

Maybe "gore with a message"? Ha ha...

Big market for it, though- horror fans are rabidly (no pun intended) loyal, if you make something they like they buy it.

Anyway, I have some designs for some gross out, zombie-type puppets, but that's as far as I've gotten. Just sort of puttering away in the "vein" (good one) of horror...

The film I'm currently working on (True Family Story) is the main thing still, with more animation and sound to do, probably till early 2010...

Darkstrider said...

How well do I know the process... I probably have 8 or 10 stories in various stages of development... and some of them are cross-pollenated with THE SAME IDEAS!!! Sometimes as you say, an idea grabs me and I get excited about it... it become MY NEXT FILM FOR SURE... and then dome problem I failed to notice crops up and the idea get shelved, but maybe I like some concept from it, so I start to develop a different film around it. That one grows, reaches the point where I realize it has serious problems, and it gets shelved too... but maybe I try again, still with the same basic idea, or maybe another idea that came up in one of the outlines. This generates a family of inbred stories... if I ever make one into a film then it means I pretty much can't produce any of the other ones that are build from the same concept unless I radically alter it or find some way to do a series of films exploring the same idea.

I'm loving this direction on your blog... keep at it!

Darkstrider said...

Wow, I really need to learn to spell-check my posts before committing them!!!

ChrisW said...

Darkstrider, the awesomeness of your bad spelling is matched only by the awesomeness of your ideas.

The process you lay out for your story developments really points to how damn ORGANIC story development is.

A story twists and builds and crosses over with other ideas, and grows some more as a result of that blending, and then shifts into something else... it can be breathtaking to chart the progress of as story. It's SUCH a powerful thing.

In a lot of ways, story development is the most exciting process of making a film (for me). Partly cause it's so raw and intense and violent and terrifying- but often just in your own head, till you externalize it on to paper!

Darkstrider said...

You have quite a way with words.... with IDEAS!! Reading your posts makes me really want to see what kind of stories you have swirling around in that mind...