Archive for the ‘story’ Tag

The Story 2019 – the first decade

On Friday I went to my ninth The Story (I was working abroad one year and reluctantly had to pass on my ticket (though at least it found a good home with Jörg Tittel, producer of the forthcoming Brexit comedy short Nyet) ). It is an annual day-long conference/gathering focused on stories and storytelling – the only such event I go to religiously every year as it is unfailingly a source of inspiration, being a rich mix cutting across mediums and platforms, usually with a good sprinkling of digital. It was initiated by Matt Locke of Storythings when he was working with me at Channel 4, so I was able to get in on the ground floor.
I spoke at The Story No. 9 to introduce a documentary inspired by The Story No. 8 – director Victoria Mapplebeck showed her first smartphone doc at No. 8 and I commissioned a second one, Missed Call, for Real Stories, which was just coming out of the edit at the time of last year’s The Story where we played a teaser clip. So an organically Story project.
This 10th edition had the familiar alchemy, a range of story forms and storytellers which complemented one another beautifully.
2008 / A Gathering Space / Scotland at Venice Biennale of Architecture - curated by Patricia Fleming

2008 / A Gathering Space / Scotland at Venice Biennale of Architecture – curated by Patricia Fleming

First up this year was curator Patricia Fleming, the driving force of the Fuse initiative in Glasgow in the 90s which connected and supported over 500 visual artists, including a good smattering of Turner Prize winners such as Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce. Patricia is evidently a master of putting empty buildings to constructive use and collaborating not only with the artists but also with the suits, including developers and the suity end of the architect scale.
11-11-memories-retold game still

11/11 Memories Retold

Next up was a Creative Director at Aardman Animation, Finbar Hawkins. He’s been with the Interactive team for the last five years and was one of the prime-movers behind the First World War game 11/11 Memories Retold. I worked with that very talented team at Aardman about a decade ago on an animation hub called 4mations, in a team with the then Channel 4 Arts Commissioning Editor Jan Younghusband and animation veteran Camilla Deakin of Lupus Films. Finbar gave a detailed walk-through of the process of creating the game and the thinking behind many of the creative decisions. The decision to reject proposed Vorticist/Paul Nash-style imagery in favour of Impressionist style and palette was an interesting one – the game does look beautiful [Note to self (inspired by Finbar’s talk): go see the Bonnard exhibition currently showing at Tate Modern].
Morph aardman animation

Keeping it thumby

Particularly interesting was the story structure section where Finbar described how the two writers had to impose structure on the narrative when they were brought on-board. Also the focus on meaningful choices in the game which impact on the story/editorial as the underpinning of the interactivity really spoke to me – much the same principle as informed the multiplatform projects I led at Channel 4. I loved the use of animal characters to provide other perspectives – a cat for exploring, especially confined spaces, and a pigeon for overhead views. But most of all I loved an imperative phrase quoted from Aardman main man Nick Park: “Keep it thumby”  – i.e. not too smooth, retaining the feel of the human creative touch.
on guard world war one postcard august 1914
The narrative of the game was based on letters home from the front. It’s a subject I’ve been immersing myself in recently through found postcards like this one and the one above. Found stories was at the heart of the next session, the highlight of the day for me because of that shared interest, a fabulous presentation by Brooklyn-based multimedia immersive artist Alison Kobayashi. As soon as she showed her collection of old ansaphones with their unerased tapes – in other words, treasure trove of found audio stories – she had me hooked. Then her mention of her collection of eBay-acquired Black & White photos of rainbows was cherry on the cake. The combination of found narrative, collecting and surreal humour is 100% my bag.
Say Something Bunny at UNDO Project Space

Say Something Bunny at UNDO Project Space

The meat of her talk was about her 6-years-in-the-making Say Something Bunny project – a live participative performance centred on a ‘wire recorder’ found recording from 1952. The wire recorder was a short-lived recording device through which sound was recorded on a spool of wire. The performance derived from the recording Alison acquired of a New York family playing with their new machine – singing, kvetching, teasing, joking – involves an audience of 25 seated in the round. To make things even more rich, the found audio is a palimpsest with an old radio show previously recorded bleeding through onto the overdub.
missed call research in film award 2018

Scion of The Story

Missed Call (mentioned near the beginning) recently won a Research in Film Award of which we were all very proud as research is rarely put in the spotlight. Research and Deep Listening is the beating heart of Say Something Bunny. It highlights Connections and Serendipity which are core to Simple Pleasures Part 4, being core to Creative Thinking and Innovation.
I had a serendipitous encounter with Alison in a nearby Korean restaurant at lunchtime after her session and will follow her work closely henceforth as I felt we fish in the same waters in the same spirit.
Alison Kobayashi at the story 2019 conway hall london say something bunny

Alison Kobayashi being true to herself

Alison spoke about how important it is to…
alison kobayashi at the story 2019
This was a theme echoed by comedy writing partners Joel Morris & Jason Hazeley – veterans of Viz and Charlie Brooker telly stuff (incl. Philomena Cunk) as well as the wags behind the adult Ladybird Books (like the one I was given by my other half at Christmas: ‘How It Works’ the Husband) – in their closing session (slight time warp here).
How it Works: The Husband

How it Works: The Husband

Their talk about Big Laughs in Small Spaces analysed the art of ultra-short stories and jokes. Like Alison, they highlighted the role of the audience in filling out the spaces and used this story to illustrate their point:
Joel Morris & Jason Hazeley at The Story 2019 conway hall london
Seemingly, although often attributed to Hemingway, it dates from some less famous source in 1906. It is a great example of a story that bursts into bloom as soon as it touches your imagination like one of those Japanese paper flowers hitting water.
chalk_outline bullets cartridges
Joel summarised short jokes as “the chalk outline & spent cartridges” – all that’s needed to set off the audience’s imaginations and creativity.
Knights Of founders Aimée Felone and David Stevens

A sparky double act: Knights Of founders Aimée Felone and David Stevens

A lovely touch of dynamic, young entrepreneurial creativity showed up in the form of hot-off-the-press new publishing venture Knights Of. Aimée Felone and David Stevens have launched their enterprise from a pop-up in Brixton followed by a crowd-funding campaign which attracted the attention of some of the big boys, including Penguin who match-funded their fundraising efforts. Their enthusiasm and energy was infectious.
Videogames- Design : Play : Disrupt Victoria and Albert Museum, London
As was curator Marie Foulston’s for all things video game, including her Wild Rumpus Collective pioneering new ways to bring games to public spaces and in particular her exhibition at the V&A (which closed today after a six-month run, though it is moving on to V&A Dundee) Design/Play/Disrupt. It strives to present the video game as a design object with an associated design process. She used a glittering quote from Frank Lantz
Games are operas made out of bridges
to capture the combination of artistic emotion and technical craft. I heard someone else today use the phrase “poetry and pipes” to describe the same concept (but I’m darned if I can recall who it was talking about exactly what).
It was great to see physical notebooks as design artefacts. I’m a great believer in notebooks and in pencils. There’s no digital way of reproducing quite the thumbiness of these tools.
Spider-man- Into the Spider-verse 

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verseMore gorgeous colours

Bringing some Hollywood glam to the afternoon Justin K Thompson Production Designer of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse talked us through the making of the animated movie, which may well win the Oscar as I am writing this post (having already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, for which I voted it), using fascinating layered moving picture illustrations to show how shots and sequences were conceived and built up. I was particularly taken by the colour palette and mood board illustrations and the ‘colour script’ which captures the colour and lighting across the whole movie. Justin, with whom I had a brief chat on leaving Conway Hall, captured the driving concern to get back the tactile quality into animation, the qualities which made us fall in love with comic books, the line work, the imperfect printing – in other words, Nick Park’s thumby qualities which bring the humanity to animation and other artistic disciplines.
Justin highlighted a couple of key aspects of creativity – the permission to try & fail (in an intelligent, progressive way) and perhaps above all the ludic quality (which Marie Foulston also touched on) – the best creative projects are made fun as the team are empowered to try new things.
Justin K Thompson Production Designer of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse 
For pure speaking-verve, it was hard to beat the very engaging Head of Engagement at the Museum of London Sara Wajid. She brought us back in touch with those childhood experiences of museums as playgrounds (again that ludic dimension of the creative experience).  Having highlighted the nadir of “book on the wall” museum experiences (I have a strong fairly recent memory of that in the British Museum where my MA had not equipped me with the wherewithal to understand the labels by the permanent exhibits). Sara drew attention to the quality of “bounce” – the word of the day – gritty energy to debate and then get shit done. She advocated bringing the vibe and dynamics of the TV comedy writers’ room to museum design and curation. She discussed all this in the frame of diversity – one of the first talks on that dimension of creative enterprise I’ve heard that captured the true energy and advantage of mixing things up, of bringing together talents and ways of thinking from all quarters.
Museum of London moves to Smithfield Market

New Museum of London space in old Smithfield market

She gave us a sneaky peak of the new Museum of London space in Smithfield market. Conway Hall, the home of The Story, is another great London space. It opened in 1929 as the base of what is considered the oldest surviving free-thought organisation in the world, established on 14th February 1793, 226 years to the week before The Story No.10. (My first visit to the Hall was a creative one – my first commissioned photo shoot, around 1987 – to photograph Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone for Sinn Fein’s An Phoblacht magazine.) With its legend (one of Shakey’s, from Hamlet)
To Thine Own Self Be True
high above the speakers, it is the perfect reflective, ethical, free-thinking place to learn from and delight in stories.
Conway Hall to thine own self be true hamlet
***
Previous The Story posts (with pics) include:
2014
2012
2010
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Story Structure

In recent years the word and concept of Story has become fetishised. Every dull brand has a story, every prostituted hack is a storyteller. But despite this cheapening, Story remains a fascinating aspect of human behaviour. I have been interested in the structures underlying Story for many years. A couple of landmarks were being sent, on my second job, at Melrose Film Productions by my boss and mentor the late Peter Cole (ex-BBC Panorama), on an early outing of Robert McKee’s Story course in London. And reading Into The Woods by my former Channel 4 colleague John Yorke (Head of Drama).

robert mckee story book and course

Also on the McKee course, which has since become something of a screen industry cliche, were John Cleese, Joanna Hogg and a famous British sci-fi writer, I think it was Brian Aldiss but I forget. It took place at the Liberal Club off Northumberland Avenue over a weekend and it was a profound experience. I remember writing to McKee after to thank him for a transformational couple of days.

into the woods book john yorke

Into The Woods I found a great synthesis of the various theories I’d heard over the years.

Another key experience was the first time I worked on a development with my Little Dot colleague Paul Woolf. I was a Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 at the time and he was a senior Development Producer at Maverick TV. He is now based in Philadelphia heading up Unscripted Development in the US for Little Dot Studios and we’ve been working together closely throughout 2019 – a lot of Skyping. I was struck by how Paul applied story archetypes to the factual entertainment programme we were developing at the time – not an obvious tactic but it worked really well.

I use concepts of Story Structure all the time in developing documentaries, even when derived from sources more focused on movie and drama scriptwriting. In the area I work in much of the time, short form online docs, there is a tendency to neglect narrative and default to what are in effect mini character portraits. I’m a real Story merchant, pushing all the time for narrative drive in documentaries.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

A good example is the recent Real Stories Original Violet Vixen. The young director, Leanne Rogers, brought me some lovely footage centred on Leo, a charismatic 11 year old exploring his gender identity. But there was little story in place. I gave her a commission for a 25-minute doc on the proviso that she add an element to up the narrative drive. I suggested she encouraged Leo (and his mum) to go see his hero. It turned out his hero was Courtney Act, drag queen graduate of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Leanne managed to pull off the encounter and the trip down to Brighton to meet Courtney (the charming Shane Jenek) gave the film a spine. Our timing was lucky too as Courtney won Celebrity Big Brother while we were in the edit – he has since been given his own show on Channel 4 this Christmas.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last year thinking about Story Structure. My starting point was reflecting on Why Do Us Humans Love and Tell Stories?

Cavemen at camp fire telling stories cartoon

My conclusions in brief can be summarised thus:

* to distract us / entertain us
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences
* to get a sense of there being order
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations
* to get guidance on how to understand other people
* to connect to others through shared experience
* to pass on information
* to pass on values
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison)

All of these seem to me to grow out of our Human Condition and the imperatives of evolution.

* to distract us / entertain us – the world is a tough place
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences – evolution has made us great pattern spotters
* to get a sense of there being order – we need a sense of meaning and purpose
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations – we’re more likely to survive if we’re well prepared
* to get guidance on how to understand other people – we’re more likely to thrive if we have insight into how our fellow bald monkeys think
* to connect to others through shared experience – we have an inherent need to belong (to the family and tribe and race)
* to pass on information – e.g. to help our offspring survive & thrive
* to pass on values – to help our society run smoothly
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group – we need the group to survive
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison) – the world is a tough place.

In the same way, archetypal stories grow directly out of the human condition. Let’s start at the beginning – Birth. One of the main story structures is Paradise Lost. We spend nine months floating around in a benign place, well fed, nicely muffled sound, a steady reliable rhythm of heartbeat. And then we get ejected. Into a tough place.

When I was doing some research on that second job at Melrose I went down to the old Docklands to meet a bloke whose big theory was that the trauma of Birth was the defining moment of our whole lives. I’ve reflected on that from time to time over the years and I buy it more and more.

So what I’m calling the Paradise Lost story is: I was in a perfect place. I got ejected. I need to get back there. I reckon this is reflected in all sorts of human behaviour from people tending to drift back in their later years to where they grew up (or a place similar to it) to men spending so much time and effort trying to get back up that little birth canal. This story is intimately linked to the concept of Home.

It’s the central human story of the Bible – the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s there in The Godfather – Michael gets sent off to Sicily after tasting the forbidden fruit of illegal killing (the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey) and works his way back not just to the family kitchen but also to the desk in the background. It’s there in Where The Wild Things Are – Max gets sent to his room and from there finds himself in that wild place, it’s fun but he’s happy to sail back to the peace of his childhood bed.

al-pacino godfather murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey

Of course it also the story of both Trump and Brexit as highlighted in John Harris’ excellent 3-parter for BBC Radio 4, The Tyranny of Story, which has been repeated this week. “Make America Great Again” – America was a great place (e.g. in the post-war 50s boom); that disappeared; Trump is going to bring it back. “Take Back Control” – Britain was a great place (e.g. when we had an empire); that disappeared; Brexit is going to bring it back. Neither Hilary nor Remain came up with an effective counter-narrative.

where the wild things are maurice sendak book childrens

Over the holidays I’m going to reflect more on the connection between the human lifecycle (both as individuals and a species) and the core human stories.

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