David Paul Graham and Professor Tom Lefler, Theater and Film
Traditionally, narrative films begin with a story to be told and every decision made in the film making process should take into account what would best in order to tell that story. I proposed to create a narrative film a very different way. I thought it should be possible to create a pre-inventive film where the pieces of the film exist before inventing the story.
I set out to film random events, or pieces of a story, and then later create a story into which they could fit. This proved to be a more difficult task than I assumed it would be. The first challenge lied in simply filming the random events.
First of all, I wanted to ensure that what I shot would be truly random, and not part of a premeditated story. After a few shots I found how difficult this would really be. I started trying to connect the different shots in my head and I began creating a form of a story in my head after just beginning to shoot.
I did a few things to prevent my footage from becoming premeditated. First of all, before shooting at all I composed a list of different visual images that I thought would be fun to shoot. The qualifications for the list were that it had a way for an actor to do some action and that it was visually stimulating. By making this list before shooting, and then trying to incorporate as much of that list into my shooting, I was able to avoid having to decide on many new shots once a story was beginning to formulate in my head.
Another help in avoiding a premeditated story was using other people’s ideas instead of just my own. I asked friends for suggestions of visual images and did my best to include them. Also, during the shooting process my actress gave many suggestions of locations or actions to incorporate that further steered us away from any story that was formulating in my head.
A further challenge was trying to make sure my footage was random, but not too random. To ensure it wasn’t too random, I first decided to focus on one main character. Thus, almost all of my shots included my main actress in one way or another. Another decision I made so that it wouldn’t be impossible to the shots together later was to not include dialogue. I decided to work with only the visuals and not with the audio. There were a few shots where things were said, but only the emotion is conveyed.
In directing my actress during the shooting process, much was done to keep things very spontaneous and unplanned. Actually, as directing goes, little was done. I described the general actions I wanted from her, but my actress often decided on the emotion to put with it. If the emotion was an important part of the visual image I had in mind, though, I would then ask for a specific emotion. We never entered the realm of motivations or objectives. I left that completely up to her. That way, if I was subconsciously trying to tell a premeditated story, chances were that my actress was telling a different one.
Once I had finished the shooting process I watched the video of the footage and made note of the shots we ended up with. I observed both action and emotion. I then put each shot description on a separate piece of paper and experimented with putting them in various orders to come up with different storylines. I did not finish until I came up with the story that I thought the shots told most easily and coherently.
Once I came up with a story and an order of shots to tell that story, I edited them together. I then showed this edited video to people uninvolved in the project to see if they saw the same story that I was trying to tell.
The story I came up with was of a young woman learning to be happy with life no matter how it treated her. The vast majority of those who watched the video understood the same general story that I was trying to tell, but no one interpreted all of the specifics exactly as I planned them in the editing process. For example, there was a sequence where the main character sits on a brick mailbox in various positions, obviously waiting, and then gives up and goes back inside. I was trying to use those shots as if she were waiting for someone, but was stood up. This is because it was shot at my house and I often wait for rides while sitting on that mailbox. Practically everyone who watched the video, though, understood that she was waiting for something in the mail that never came.
In my final story, some images were used more symbolically than literally. I used them to show what was going on inside of the main character rather than simply what was occurring to her in her life. One example was as she walked out of the tunnel in the HFAC and came from the darkness inside into the light of day. A small number of those who viewed the video consciously recognized the symbolic nature of these shots, but at least half of the group seemed to understand the feeling that was behind the symbols and incorporated those feelings into the story.
In discussing my final video with my actress, she thought of some minor editing changes that I could make to tell the same story better. It would change a few minor specifics of the story, but would make it much clearer and the message behind it would be more powerful. I hope to make those editing changes in the future and have a second viewing of the project to see if they helped.
I realized from this conversation with my actress that, though I may not have made perfect editing choices, I feel that I found the best story for the images I shot. Michelangelo felt that by sculpting he was freeing the shapes that were inside the rocks he was working on. If there was some story somewhere among the images I filmed, I think I found it. It may not have been the most perfect telling of the story, but nevertheless, I found the story and told it.
In the end, I would not consider my project a storytelling success. People would not pay money to watch my project and simply enjoy the story it tells. For what I set out to do, though, I feel that my project was a success. I was able to film random events and images and later create a story into which they fit. And, for the most part, the story was understood by those who watched it.