Tag Archives: Up

The Unncessity of Dialogue

I’m in a filmmaking class here at NYU that focuses on visual storytelling. That is, no dialogue. At first that sounds like quite a challenge since it’s the script and speaking that tend to carry a story. So that got me thinking: what’re the benefits when we don’t have dialogue?

Anyone remember the video game LEGO Star Wars that came out several years ago? It’s a retelling of (obviously) the Star Wars movies only with LEGO. There’s no dialogue. The game relies on players inherent familiarity with the movies to convey the plot and also use a lot of gestures and emotions. It’s a simple form of storytelling — almost crude — but it gets the point across. What we get is a humorous, quirky retelling of and old story.

So it’s doable, sure, but is it effective?

Up. The first ten minutes of that movie tells one of the best, most heartfelt stories you will find in film. And five of those ten minutes are completely devoid of dialogue. In those five minutes (nicknamed Married Life, based on the piece from the soundtrack) we get an overview of Carl and Ellie’s life together. It’s the music that carries it. In fact, dialogue would have hurt the scene.

The impact of this wonderful scene comes from the animation and music. We don’t hear Carl and Ellie discussing their inability to have a child or the postponement of their dream; instead we seem them consoling one another and going through life. The speechless montage allows the creators to show us their story rather than telling us. The absence of dialogue can be a powerful thing indeed.

If you happened to see Wreck-It Raph in theaters you were treated to a beautiful short called Paperman. Paperman, like Married Life, is devoid of dialogue. Also like Married Life, it tells a complete story.

See, Paperman is a whimsical romance. It’s not a serious drama or even a romantic comedy; it’s a story about love and the degree of magic found in life. It’s in black and white, features a sort of CGI-2D animation blend, and has no dialogue. Dialogue (and even color) would take away from it. What makes Paperman great is how it’s not quite real life. In real life the boss would yell at him more, in real life there’d be more talking. But in real life paper airplanes don’t fly as well as they do in the short. It’s not meant to be real, it’s meant to be fantastical. Paperman’s music, animation, lack of dialogue, and very precise use of color bring it all together. What could easily end up a trite and saccharine is instead a beautiful piece of animation.

Sometimes we need a story that steps aside from the rigors of reality. The flourish of romanticism that is Paperman is a reminder that sometimes life can be simple and it can be hopeful The break from dialogue — and reality with it — allows us this diversion.

Long story short: I wanted an excuse to say something about Paperman. I got that excuse.

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Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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Everyone’s Got A Story

If you meet me in person, chances are at some point I’ll ask you what’s your story. Who you are. What brought you from wherever you’re from to where you are what now. Because whatever the reason, it’s your story and tells a good amount about you.

So naturally, when I watch/play/read something, I’m looking for a character’s story. What made them who they are? Sometimes, you don’t need a particularly deep story (Dr Horrible wants to be inducted into the Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer is going to stop him. Easy), and sometimes just a few hints along the way tells you everything (Russell’s dad isn’t around much, Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs).

But sometimes it benefits us to know more about the character. To know why they are who they are.

Lost went super in-depth. Every episode (at least in the first few seasons) followed a character’s life before the Island. We learnt about Charlie’s struggle with failure and his desire to be able to do something right and why Eko sought redemption so fervently. We were introduced to Locke, the broken man who wants to show the world wrong.

We get to see the defining moments in their lives. We find out why Sawyer is so desperate to be hated, yet also why he will leap to protect someone else. No action is out of character for them since we know them so well. It’s because of the sheer amount of their backstory that we feel like we know them so well. We have their stories.

Similarly, How I Met Your Mother, tells us the story of the group through the narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks (and sometimes within more flashbacks). We learn how the met each other and how they became the pseudo-family that they are. It’s their story, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the wedding(s), the deaths, and the births. We know Ted and friends as well as our own because we’ve learned their story.

The trend of finding out a character’s story is one taken up by the recent Marvel films. In Iron Man and Captain America (and The Amazing Spider-Man too) we’re introduced to them as Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker first.

Steve Rogers is the scrawny kid from Brooklyn with an indomitable spirit. We learn why he’s a hero before he becomes Captain America. For us, Steve’s story is enough to draw us in. We’ve seen where he comes from, before the serum, now show us where it ends. Had we met Steve as Captain America and just had hints about him being a skinny idealistic kid, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Uncharted 3 has a flashback too, to Nathan Drake as a teenager. He’s this orphan boy who’s somewhat lost, seeking adventure and wandering around. He meets Sully and we see where their bond came from. That bond then becomes the core of the story, and we care because we saw where it came from.

Then shows like Community or Firefly just hint around their backstories. Telling us key events but also hinting that these people are more than just skin deep. References are made in the Halo games to Master Chief’s prior exploits, To Kill A Mockingbird mentions that Atticus Finch has skills and a past that his children may never know. Hawkeye and Black Widow had quite the adventure in Budapest, Fezzik might have fought gangs for charity. Sometimes we don’t need to know what their stories are, just that they have them.

When we meet a character we want there to be more than just what we see. A good storyteller often has a biography filled with things we’ll never see and maybe just get a passing reference to. But it’s the mere existence — which will usually come out in the story — that helps make them real.

Point is: everyone’s got a story. So if it works for the plot (and it doesn’t always!), tell us. Tease us. Help us get to know them and make us want to follow them to the end of their journey.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors with characters who have some pretty cool stories!

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