Tag Archives: storytelling

James Bond to Baba Yaga: adventures in Story Theory

I’m thinking incessantly about stories at the moment. Not, surprisingly, the old ones set in Russia, involving red shoes, golden rings, bears, witches and houses on chicken leg stilts. I’ve recently been returning to one type of story which had a huge influence on me whilst growing up, and still does – the cinematic, the film, and in some cases, the blockbuster. At the beginning of this year I decided to learn how stories are actually structured and formulated, and this led me unexpectedly into the world of screen-writing theory for TV and film, via John Yorke’s book, Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them.”   By treating blockbuster films as common members of the same story world also inhabited by fairytales and ancient myths, I’ve delved into the fascinating set of patterns, shapes and codes which underpin them all.

Over Christmas, my family and I settled down to watch the latest Bond film, Skyfall, as I excitedly proclaimed that it was the best one yet. When it was over, my father announced that it was ‘bollocks’ – unbelievably slow-moving and boring – “the only good bit was the first ten minutes” (which featured a fight atop a speeding train, followed by Bond falling off a viaduct and seemingly plummeting to his death into the river below). My brother agreed that he had found the rest of the film a bit boring.

I found all of this amusing because for me, Skyfall was not only the most interesting Bond film I’d seen (I’ll be honest, I’ve never been that interested in them), but I felt that finally, after growing up with cocky, self-assured, lobster-faced (sorry Roger Moore) Bond’s japes in Moonraker, Live and Let Die, Octopussy,  etc, Skyfall finally offered a glimpse into the man beneath the ‘Bond facade’.

The climax of Skyfall brings Bond back to Skyfall Estate in remote Scotland, where he grew up with his parents as a boy. The psychotic baddie is on his trail, and Bond and M are battening down the hatches, a sense of foreboding hanging in the air. Yes, the action virtually grinds to a halt at this point in the film, but something else is going on. Bond is back in the place where he lived as a boy, reunited with the estate’s wild-eyed gamekeeper, who knew him back then. Showing M around the castle, he points to the trapdoor leading down into the cellar, and says of Bond: “The night his parents died, he went down there and didn’t come out until the morning.” 

Later that night, the psychotic villain and his barbaric helpers arrive with helicopters and machine guns, destroying Skyfall Estate until only a fireball remains. Bond survives by sheltering in that same cellar where he hid the night he learnt of the death of his parents. He eventually comes out alive, but his childhood home has been obliterated. Skyfall EstateTo me, this climax in the film has as much…harmony, symbolism and material worthy of Jungian analysis…as a Grimm’s fairytale. Circumstances have brought Bond back to the underground chasm of his unresolved grief. For a short little while, he drops the artifice of being ‘James Bond’ and faces up to the reality he’s turned his back on for so long – a childhood marred by grief. That night, as the enemy destroys the dusty, gloomy home of his childhood and he shelters in the cellar below, it feels as though James Bond cannot run any further from his past. The ‘enemy’ has cornered him, in the place he thought he had managed to evade. That night, symbolically, he faces that place – something is released. He comes out with nothing left, materially – only himself.

Whether you see it as a masterpiece worthy of endless Jungian analysis, or a particularly slow-moving Bond film, Skyfall highlights some key principles of story structure which I’m learning from Yorke’s book.

 In his introduction, Yorke states that “dramatic structure is not a construct, but a product of human psychology, biology and physics.” The more I explore this structure underpinning story, the more clearly I understand what Yorke means. It’s a science. The pattern and shape of a story is no different from a mathematical equation, a chemical reaction. It’s a world of positive and negative, of opposing forces attempting to find harmony with each other. The only difference between science and storytelling is that in story, these little (+) and (-) symbols are veiled beneath characters.

Once upon a time, a character lacked something they desired, went on a journey to find that thing, and  found it. A negatively-charged molecule goes on a journey to find the positive charge that it lacks: it’s a chemical equation. The greater the obstacles facing that molecule, the more satisfying the story, and through facing those obstacles, the molecule ends up changed: in a different chemical state. As Yorke says, “The essence of all drama is built on change, and the internal struggle a character must undergo in order to achieve it.”

the holy grail of a story” a character goes in search of what they desire and lack – (they might have to look in many different places) – and in doing so they become complete.”

But Yorke’s book also puts its finger on the crucial reason why so many stories which follow this pattern do not deeply challenge or stir us. We consume these well-crafted stories and the messages within them, as in the case of the blockbuster film, but they wash over us and leave us gently entertained, but rather indifferent. Yorke points out that although all stories somehow involve a character with a desire, and track their journey to fulfil this desire, the stories which really affect us involve a character whose desire is in conflict with their need. 

Many stories, from fairytales to blockbusters, involve a character’s successful search for a particular thing, concept or outcome – wealth, popularity, strength, a ring, a grail… Yes, these characters often undergo inner changes in order to find this thing, teaching us about sacrifice, bravery, perseverance, etc. etc. – but they are what Yorke calls two dimensional stories. What happens when a character starts off searching for something, and in the process of reaching it, realises that they were searching for the wrong thing in the first place? This…is meaty. This is a three dimensional story which gives us a glimpse of what we really thirst for in a story – a character dealing with inner conflict.

In a three dimensional story (which Yorke describes as a sort of wholesome, multi-grain, sourdough rye bread compared with the ubiquitous, white supermarket loaf of the two dimensional story) a character starts off with a set of ‘superficial wants’, but during the course of the story these are “…rejected in favour of the more profound unconscious hunger inside.”  These stories speak of the ultimate challenge we face as human beings – the ability to separate the things which we think we need or want from those things which we actually need – by that, I suppose, I mean things which bring us true inner fulfillment. But what is inner fulfillment anyway? What does it even look or feel like, and how many of us humans are midway through misled quests, some set to last decades, perhaps lifetimes?

A film which I watched so many times throughout my early teens that it seemed to form a comforting wallpaper backdrop to that chapter of my life is Reality Bites (1994), a kind of Generation X indie hit written by Helen Childress and starring the beautiful, youthful Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Re-watching it now, I understand why I needed that film – and its story – so badly while I was growing up. It’s a perfect example of three-dimensional storytelling.

Reality Bites (1994)Reality Bites (1994)

Lelaina (Ryder) has just graduated from university with a media degree and wants to make a difference to the world by becoming a documentary film maker. She works on her own documentary films in her spare time, whilst earning a living as a runner for an awful, soul-destroying TV chat show. She meets Michael – a nice, really nice, yuppie TV producer who falls for her and wants to help her fulfil her dream by getting her documentary onto a mainstream MTV show. Then there’s Troy (Hawke), a greasy-haired, unemployed slacker and musician – highly intelligent, unfulfilled in life but acutely aware of the games people play to climb their way to supposed ‘success’ – and he doesn’t want any of it.

Who should Lelaina choose – good, kind-hearted Michael, who has the potential to help her reach her ultimate goal in life, or bitter, jaded Troy, whose opinions hurt and offend Lelaina, yet seem to hold an inescapable power over her? Every ounce of good sense dictates to the viewer that she should choose Michael, the good guy, whose genuine interest it is to bring Lelaina fulfillment. And yet – some irrational impulse within you urges her to choose cynical, messed up Troy – who cannot promise her anything, who is riddled with fear and self-loathing.

Why? At last I think I understand why. Because although Michael offers Lelaina the thing that she most wishes for, it is not the thing that she really needs. Lelaina has been chasing the wrong dream. To successfully ‘break through’ in the world that she’s hungering after would involve compromising herself – but she couldn’t know that until she arrived there, and by then it would be too late. Troy doesn’t offer Lelaina the path to her dreams – he offers her the chance to see that what she was chasing after was a false dream that would have forced her to become someone she was not. By pointing out that what she is thirsting after is a load of bullshit, Troy is actually offering Lelaina a gift far greater than Michael’s promise of success on an MTV show. Reality BitesStories like these were vital to me during my adolescence. Without realising it, they showed me that so many of the goals being presented to me were misleading ones, and inspired me to begin to make choices which would lead me towards the goals I truly wanted, not goals that I, or other people, thought I ought to have.

So much is said about the importance and need for stories today, but learning about how they are structured and how they work has been a real epiphany for me. This is a science – a harmonious world unto itself, governed by its own set of laws and forces. And somehow, by understanding the laws inherent in story, perhaps we begin to see those very same laws at work in our real lives? If we can analyse stories to clearly see the inner predicament facing a character, surely we can use that very same analysing method to make sense of our own lives?

Maybe a fluency in this ‘story-crafting’ language is a long-overlooked, key component of human emotional intelligence? Perhaps it is indisputably treated as such in the cultures where stories are, to this day, known to contain tools for healing physical and emotional ills? (as spoken of in this lovely blogpost by mythopoetic writer and artist Terri Windling) Perhaps story intelligence is another, as-yet unacknowledged approach to learning within Howard Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences? People are certainly beginning to gather for serious discussions on how we can use story to address the environmental, ecological and spiritual problems of our time – the Findhorn Foundation’s New Story Summit was one such recent experiment.

Although I continue to hungrily absorb these insights in story theory from the screen-writing world, from which the blockbusters of tomorrow will be born, I will be bringing them back into my own domain, which probably has a lot more in common with Baba Yaga than it does with James Bond. But delving into the world of the blockbuster film has taught me more about story than I could have ever imagined, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

Baba Yaga, by Rima StainesBaba Yaga illustration by Rima Staines

 

 

 

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Performing Objects Conference 2013

Last weekend I headed to the lovely Falmouth in Cornwall for a day at the Performing Objects Conference, a four day symposium delving into the broad visual arts field inhabited by puppetry, digital puppetry, toy theatre, automata and more. I now attempt to translate a notebook of hurried scrawlings into a coherent report of the day.

The morning began with a Character and Story Development for Puppets workshop with Jonathan Leach, described in the programme as an illustrator – a modestly quiet and friendly young guy accompanied by a huge trunk. He proceeded to empty the trunk and cover the conference room table with a staggering selection of his puppets, ranging from waify little rod puppets to huge, mythical beings taller than him. All of them had an eerie, otherworldy look to them, with hand-stitched suede exteriors (which Leach enjoys working with so that the puppets can age over time), natural gems for eyes and, in some cases, real animal hair or fur. They were mysterious, beautiful and haunting puppets and I developed a particular crush on Hugo (below), an 1000yr old forest fawn with luxurious, silky goats hair and a jacket handsewn by Leach from dozens of tiny patchworked fabric strips. But the really interesting thing was the role served by Leach’s puppets – he’s an illustrator, not a puppeteer, and he brings his illustrations to life via his puppets in order to delve into their characters and develop his stories more deeply. (He first got into stories when, as a dyslexic school student, he was advised to turn his story ideas into scripts). This strange colony of beautifully-made puppets, acting as ‘intermediaries’ between the world of visual ideas and the blank page left a real imprint on me.

Hugo, by Jonathan Leach
There was time for a brief visit to the Poly‘s Felicitous Objects exhibition, ‘a gathering of assorted performing objects’ in association with the conference. There was a range of impressive automata, several paper theatres and other interesting storytelling devices, but I was most struck by Sabine Beitzke‘s beautiful and unusual Embedded (see below), which appeared to me to be a cross between a traditional storytelling scroll and a sleeping bag – a unique, multi-sensory storytelling environment exploring the territory between illustration and performance.

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In the afternoon, Jenny Romaine and John Bell of Great Small Works delivered a paper on Puppetry and Community Activism which put fascinating perspectives on their use of arcane folk theatre traditions such as toy theatre and carnival puppetry to express strong social and political messages on the streets of New York. Here is some footage from their 2010 Greatest Smallest Parade, a procession of miniature, handmade floats accompanied by a brass band through the streets of Brooklyn (this was whilst I was on an internship with the company – spot my mini Hundertwasser House float about 20 seconds in, and throughout the film!)

Romaine blew the minds of most of the people present at this seminar by introducing us to the term dazzle camouflage, explored in relation to political theatre in Ezra Nepon‘s brilliantly-titled MA thesis, Unleashing Power in Yiddishland and Faerieland: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience. Romaine told us that dazzle camouflage refers to a little known practice, during the First World War, of painting war ships with brightly coloured, contrasting patterns rather than trying to conceal them by painting them the standard sea-grey colour (see below). They took this seemingly odd approach on the basis that it made the enemy struggle to determine the ships’ speed, direction and position – instead of concealing themselves, these ships chose to draw attention to themselves and to then dazzle, baffle and confuse the enemy – and it seemed to work.

'Dazzle Camouflage' WW1 boat
Analysing the idea of dazzle camouflage in relation to the arts and political activism opened up a whole colourful can of worms. In this era of post-modernism it is brave and perhaps a bit foolish to be colourful, vibrant, quirky and childish with your creative aesthetic – ‘highbrow’ culture prefers understated-ness and is wary of anything that comes across as a bit earnest. But by adopting a guise that is charming, aesthetically extravagant and playful, you are able to sneak your way into the Establishment via the side door and then reveal your underlying political messages in a quirky and ambivalent way, without causing hostility. When everyday people doing their shopping in a city centre see a typical demonstration taking place – glum faces, placards, tabards, etc – they often keep as much distance from it as possible because they find it unsettling and threatening. But when they see colours? Big papier mache, childishly-made folk art sculptures and puppets? People with painted faces performing, playing music, wearing costumes? A crowd of people of all ages will gather to enjoy it, and although a lot of them might just enjoy the visual and sensory entertainment, some people will quickly decipher the political message carefully embedded beneath the spectacle. By using the principle of dazzle camouflage artists can use popular, ‘lowbrow’ art forms (puppetry, carnival arts, circus arts…) to disarm, and charm, the general public and get their heavy messages across.

The afternoon ended with Colette Searls’ fascinating plenary address, Digital Puppetry – When Images Perform. Searls, an associate professor from the University of Maryland, explored the the principles of puppetry in relation to the current trend of mo-cap (motion capture) technology in blockbuster animation films such as Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar, and articulated the essential problem she, and many other animators have with this increasingly popular technology.
In the beginning, Searls explained, there was the animated film – images and characters created entired through the animator’s imagination and drawing skills (whether by hand, or using computer animation software). It was completely different to non-animated films, of course, featuring actual human actors, and each type had its own unique merits – in animation, the limitless fantastical possibilities of the animator’s creativity, and in non-animation, the power of real actors. But the along came mo-cap, which involved getting actors (or, commonly puppeteers – who often have a heightened awareness of the mechanisms of human movement through learning how to manipulate puppets) to carry out physical movements and facial gestures with dozens of sensors stuck to their skin, enabling them to be translated directly into animated characters to make them incredibly human-like (see Zoe Saldana in Avatar, below).

Zoe Saldana in Avatar
This is amazing and very clever, and means that our animations are becoming even more amazing…right? Well, no, says Searls. As the line between the animated and real becomes increasingly blurred we encounter a problematic concept coined in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori – the uncanny valley. This term refers to the feeling of unease and disgust that humans experience when they see something that looks and moves almost, but not quite, like a human, and has also been explored by Freud in his 1919 essay The Uncanny. Take a look, for example, at the image below from the new animation Tin Tin, which uses some of the most advanced mocap technology yet. As discussed in this Guardian article, the characters are incredibly human-like but simultaneously there is something eerie, vacant and empty about them: as Searls puts it, ‘you can see the cladding but not the soul.’ Searls argues that this type of animation loses all the merits of traditional animation (the creativity), whist simultaneously losing the merits of non-animated films (human actors). When strong actors are translated into animated characters, such as Robin Wright in Beowolf, Searls argues that they are diminished to an ‘overlay’ of a face, and nothing more.

Tintin
Searls’ point is that in order to avoid the uncanny valley animation has to return to its roots, and maintain a healthy distance from reality, between ‘the performer and the performed’. And of course anyone who makes, uses or appreciates puppets would probably agree with that.
As the talk came to an end, my mind was racing off in tangents thinking about the uncanny valley in relation to botox, and in relation to emoticons, those crass yellow faces with happy or sad expressions which have become so commonplace in text messages and on Facebook. It seems that in all areas of life we need a clear separation between that which is real, and that which isn’t – and that’s what allows us to truly suspend disbelief and harness our emotions.

The Theatre of Dreams, and Dahlicious Day

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Over the past week I have been making the Theatre of Dreams, a portable, easily constructed and dismantled travelling toy theatre. And on Friday I took it on its maiden voyage, to Brixton Primary School for an all-day workshop exploring the characters in Roald Dahl’s children’s books. With some delightfully small classes (including very authentic Oompa-Loompas with orange faces and green hair, and even a human ‘golden ticket’) I introduced the style of toy theatre performance and each child made their own toy theatre Dahl character, with me frantically cutting and twisting lengths of wire in readiness for completed puppets.

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The children then grouped up and devised their own short sketches, based on unlikely encounters between characters of Dahl’s various stories, such as Willy Wonka, Fantastic Mr Fox and Mrs Twit. Once everyone had grasped the basic principles of effective toy theatre performance (move characters slowly and minimally, keep them facing the audience, etc) some clever and amusing little plays developed, some featuring music and even rolling credits.

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This promises to be the start of a series of forays into storytelling within schools, via the visual arts. I’m going to return to the drawing board and figure out ways of making better, even more beautifully-crafted paper puppets and scenery with children, and delving further into their story imaginations to start exploring themes in more depth.