Sometimes we just don’t dream big enough. Most of us believe in thinking outside of the box, in being creative, yet we often just don’t see the walls that are holding us in. And for us, when we look at how to make a good story great, it all comes down to one simple idea.
Question your assumptions.
As an example, take a look at this riddle.
A fox, chicken, and chicken seed are on one bank of the river, and you need to get all three safely to the opposite bank.
- You can only take one across at a time
- Left alone, the fox will eat the chicken, or the chicken will eat the seed
So how do you do it?
It’s all about questioning assumptions and not adhering to our imaginary constraints.
Those who struggle to answer this riddle get stuck by what they assume they cannot do.
The answer? Take the chicken over first, leaving the fox and the chicken seed together. Go back over and get the fox, but rather than leave the fox with the chicken–game over–you bring the chicken back with you.
Leave the chicken on the first bank, and take the chicken seed back. Then come back for the chicken last.
So many assume that they can’t return with the chicken.
We reference this riddle–fox, chicken, chicken seed–on every shoot we head out on. Because every shoot has some big, weird, or random challenge come up that needs to be overcome. And whether you tackle that challenge, and how you approach it, plays a huge role in the final film you’re left with.
This past week we got the chance to produce, direct, shoot, and edit our first feature for CBS and Showtime. It’s been an opportunity that we’ve waited years for and something we weren’t going to take lightly. And to top it off, it was a feature leading up to the Super Bowl and would involve filming how every single NFL football is made.
And throughout the entire process of this amazing Super Bowl opportunity, had we not questioned our assumptions we’d still be on the other side of the river. We’d still be trying to keep that chicken alive, not realizing we can bring it back with us. Not realizing that questioning our assumptions and challenging our thinking is how we make our story better.
There are a couple moments in particular where we really had to challenge our assumptions, and because of that, the feature, The Final Stitch, became something much more.
Our first step in any story is to hit the ground and do our pre-production. Grant drove a few hours into the small town of Ada, Ohio. The place where every NFL football is made, which was the basis of the story.
He walked all over town to take photos, meet people. He stopped at local watering holes, and got a feel for the town. In his research he met Aunt Jane.
And this is when the magic happened.
She’s a very unassuming and sweet woman who spent 48 years stitching footballs for the Wilson factory in town. Aunt Jane has had a hand in making footballs for each of the Super Bowls. Ever. All of them.
And she also shared her dream with us.
For the near half-century that she had worked at Wilson factory she longed to walk out on the field where her life’s work spends the rest of its life making history. The fact that the balls she made have been used in every Super Bowl just didn’t feel real to her–and walking on that field was the one thing that she felt would make everything she’s done mean so much more.
This was one of our first fox-chicken-seed moments of the shoot.
It’s a pretty sweet dream for a 67-year-old lady from a small town. But we weren’t asked to shoot in Phoenix. And we imagined that the Super Bowl field isn’t something you can just walk up to, knock on the door, and the NFL will say, “Sure, come on in and check out the field, we’ve been waiting for you!”
If we dared to dream big enough, we knew we’d have to get Aunt Jane on the field of the Super Bowl. If we wanted to make a good story great, we’d need to get her on the field.
And we no longer had Pete, Gareth, and CBS as a safety net to solve our problems. They were definitely supportive, but it was on us to make it happen. It started with Wilson, who loved the idea, and then they had contacts with the NFL (perks of being the official game ball I guess).
We’d been working back and forth with the NFL on whether we could get access in time. We’d been offered the field for the Pro Bowl, which is very generous of the NFL, but it just wasn’t Jane’s dream or our story. Then an email came in at 4:45 p.m. on Friday.
The NFL had given us the OK to shoot Aunt Jane on the field (still unbeknownst to her) at 8 a.m. the following morning. In Phoenix, Arizona.
We’re in Portland, Oregon.
In this case, the assumption was that we’d figure find a way to get there. Like Dave Jacka says, you’re only limited by what you think you can do. And once we committed to getting Jane on the field, we truly believed we could make it happen.
The latest flight out was for 6:35 p.m. It was now 5 p.m.
It was an extraordinary challenge, but everyone in the studio went to work, frantically looking up travel possibilities. Nearby airports? Fly into Las Vegas? How far is it too drive? (Too far.)
Joyce had 10 minutes to pack eight bags of gear, putting our priority gear in two cases that we could definitely have with us for carry-on, in the event that we arrived too late to check anything. There would be no stopping home, there would be no change of clothes. We’d also soon learn there would be no sleep.
Fearing the worst, we put the word out on social media that we may arrive with nothing but our cameras and might need some help.
We arrived at our hotel in Phoenix at 2 a.m. – with all of our checked luggage.
And a few hours later, at 7 a.m., we had the opportunity to not only get the ending for our first television feature, but to literally make Aunt Jane’s dream come true.
That was twice that we challenged our assumptions of what was possible and didn’t allow ourselves to be constrained.
Yet another fox-chicken-seed moment of the shoot came while we were in Phoenix.
When we filmed the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio we got a number of beautiful shots, but none of the final step of inflation. We always try to focus on what we need, rather than covering everything. So when we looked at the whole ball making process, it just wasn’t something Aunt Jane did nor was it all that visual. So we skipped it.
And then it happened: #deflategate.
The folks at the network called to confirm that we had gotten inflation shots. But of course, we didn’t have any. Not a single one.
But thanks to #deflategate, we needed those shots.
So how to solve it? We looked at flying back to Ada for a couple shots. Or perhaps Grant could drive back and try to shoot those by himself with a DSLR and make it match the crew of four and Red Epic the rest of the piece was shot with. Both of those didn’t feel like the safest options.
The assumption here was that somebody would have to go back to the factory to pick up those shots. But that is just like the assumption you can’t bring the chicken back across the river.
Then we remembered: Aunt Jane was in town, in Phoenix, to demonstrate the football-making process to football fans. So perhaps the inflation process was also being demonstrated. We called our contacts at Wilson and we were in luck, there was the exact same inflation machine at the convention center.
So how do we make a convention center look like those shots in the factory? We knew we’d have to be really careful with our lens choice and composition. But more than that, we’d need light too. Problem was, this was a natural light shoot that had 10 minutes of packing before we left for the airport, in other words, we had zero lights.
So while Joyce started looking up every Home Depot in the area (remember that tutorial on how to light an interview for $26?), I started walking the convention floor trying to see what we could do. First stop was the NFL Network booth. We’d worked with them many times and perhaps they could help. Good idea…but they had nothing extra.
And then I spotted Dale, a super talented gaffer we’d worked with over a year ago on several different projects. He was in the middle of setting up for a different CBS project but was more than happy to grab us a couple lights, stands, stingers, and flags. We were off to the races.
When we challenged our assumptions we recreated the look of the factory in the middle of a convention center with a little help from our lenses, lights, and sound design.[do action=”pullquote-tweet-withurl”]When challenges come up, and they will, see them as hurdles and not roadblocks. Our biggest mistake is assuming we can’t.[/do]
So if you want to know how to make a good story great, for us it all comes down to challenging your assumptions. Your assumptions of what’s possible, of what’s expected of you, and of what’s holding you back.
Take a moment to ask yourself one simple question: If I was completely unrestrained, how would I make this better?
Or take somebody you really admire within your field and ask yourself, How would he or she approach this?
This simple exercise, intentionally freeing your mind of constraints, will help you see things that you never could before. And it will certainly take a good story to great.
An amazing example from weddings is that classic shot of the bride coming down the aisle. If you were to poll every single wedding filmmaker ever you’d learn that we’ve all gotten that shot. And for most of us it’s a must-have shot for every wedding we do. And so we spend years being constrained, trapped by our assumptions, and not taking the story nearly as far as we could have. Now I can say from experience that you can shoot the bride coming down the aisle from some very different locations and the world won’t fall apart.
One last tidbit before I share The Final Stitch with you.
I was rollerblading around the Wilson factory with a Movi and C100 in tow. The shots looked alright and we were just about to wrap for the day. Then I caught myself, and I asked “How could this be better?” and “What would Shane Hurlbut do if he were shooting this?”
And all of a sudden the world opened up. Shane Hurlbut would most certainly have more action happening. Vincent Laforet would tell me to use every axis available to me.
And a few minutes later, the shot was exponentially better. It started with Grant throwing some balls into a bin, and then having that ride down a conveyor belt. And while I certainly see several ways we could keep making this shot better, it’s far stronger because of those few simple questions.
When we don’t question our assumptions we’re adhering to restraints–even if we can’t see them.
I’m really proud of the work we did on The Final Stitch. I’m really glad to have met Aunt Jane and to have had a hand in her special day. I’m really grateful that Pete and Gareth from CBS gave us the opportunity to put everything we’ve learned into practice. A super special thanks to Cameron (@Cameron987 on Twitter) for helping out at 2 a. m. with a cable that got missed in the rush to the airport. And to Andre Braugher for being able lend his voice to the narration of Aunt Jane’s story.
And of course, the biggest thanks to Wilson and Aunt Jane for being so open and supportive in the making of this story.
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What’s a time that you didn’t question your assumptions and it held your story back? Or, what’s a time when you did question your assumptions, and it led to a breakthrough in your story?