Visual Effects vs. Storytelling

by Joshua Baker

What’s the best movie ever made? WRONG. Its Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. At least that’s what my 13 year old self would have told you.

Anyone who’s seen Phantom Menace knows that it was a visual wonder for 1999. I may or may not have watched it 11 times in the theatre.

And then I got older, and met girls n stuff, and revisited the Phantom Menace, and my loved kind of waned. Yes, there were flaws – Jar Jar Binks was annoying, and there were all these boring political senate parts… but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem was.

But Lucas re-released the movie in 2012. And I went again, for old times sake – and I realized I WAS TRICKED. State of the art CGI, incredible music, mind melting sound design, and a lightsaber battle more intense than a schoolyard Pog championship – all fooled me into liking a really REALLY poorly-written movie.

Despite working with arguably the most talented film industry type people (like Industrial Light and Magic, the people who literally pioneered movie special effects with Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Star Trek, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar…) the movie manages to still be widely regarded as not very good.

Why? It all comes down one thing: Story.

Being the CEO and Creative Director of a video photo media and marketing company, I’ve given this topic a lot of thought.  If its possible for the biggest names in hollywood to regularly green-light really bad stories, how much more so can us little guys mess it up? Well, the latest tech in video-land in definitely getting some of us filmmakers and photographers side-tracked – just take a look through Vimeo. Lots of sauce, little substance.

Remote controlled quad-copters, cranes, steadi-cams and sliders. 4K resolution and high frame rate.  All very cool stuff.  Thank you for your beautiful over-the-top-indie-soundtracked-visual-volcano-of-awesomeness, but now, tell me what actually happens in your video?  Why does your video matter?  What is the human story?

Interestingly, it’s possible to create AWESOME marketing campaigns, great video and imagery, with really low quality tech. For example, security cameras. I’m not a big fan of Coke, but this security camera commercial is well done. And using any fancy special effects would probably have made that commercial worse. The fact that the quality is low helps tell the story that it was legitimate real people secretly captured.

So, is it possible to do both? Can you use amazing special effects, 3D, latest tech, and still create a masterpiece?  In theatres across North America, it’s not very often you get a visual masterpiece that leaves you thinking more about the story in the end.

But it has been done ~ take Gravity.

If you’ve seen Gravity – you know what that experience feels like. 10 minutes into the movie you’ve completely forgotten you’re wearing 3D glasses. It’s the ONLY time you’ll hear me say this: See it in 3D. And when you walk out of that movie, the fist discussion you have is about the story – themes of life, and dealing with loss of a loved one.

What does this all mean?

Visual Effects = f(Story)    (Visual Effects are a function of Story.)

If my company is going to create great video, great photo, great marketing campaigns, we don’t start with camera specs, effects, big cranes or fancy gear, 4K or HFS, computer graphics or motion stabilizers or remote control helicopters or ANY OF THAT.

We start with a great story.