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How To Make A Good Story Great. A Super Bowl Feature.

10 min read

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

 

About Patrick Moreau

I love stories that challenge the way we see things.

49 Comments

  • Don Summers says:

    I didn’t notice the shots, I only felt the story. And oh, how beautiful.
    That’s when you know you’ve succeeded in your craft.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • As always, amazing story telling! Thanks for inspiring us!

    • Appreciate it William!

      Excited to share some of the earlier cuts (down the road) where we really struggled to introduce the conflict early enough in the film. What a huge difference as it was shuffled around. Amazing how much structure makes or breaks a story even with the exact same elements over a 5 min span.

      P.

  • Chris Rasmussen says:

    Great story. Great opportunity. Great lesson. Great work team!

  • Wonderful story so beautifully done! Congratulations to your team and to Aunt Jane!

  • Jen says:

    Hail to the Stillmotions! You guys are insanely awesome.

  • Madeline says:

    Love your work, beautifully done and touching – stories with heart!

  • steve jameson says:

    Watched it three times. AWESOME job, guys (and gals)! Great story told.
    You rock!
    I hope you can keep your team together for a long time.
    sj

  • Maribeth Romslo says:

    Love this lesson about questioning your assumptions, and challenging set ways of thinking that often hold you back. I once had a boss that when our team was struggling creatively, she would say, “OK, come up with the worst possible idea. Pitch me something that is so bad it might just get you fired.” It’s a great exercise because it can help get you out of a creative rut. Change your brain space for a bit. Challenge the assumption that only fantastic and complete ideas are worth entertaining. Create a safe space to laugh at truly awful ideas. And there just might be something in an terrible idea that sparks a brilliant idea.

  • Patricia says:

    I know it’s about the story for a film but really Patrick, the advice is about how to live. The story of your life. It is a joy to watch all of you crafting your stories and your lives with that willingness to crack the limits. I’ll be jumping up and down on Sunday when they show Aunt Jane’s story — not for a touchdown!!

    • As always, I appreciate your words Patricia. It is pretty special how much filmmaker can teach us about life when we open ourself up to the possibility. To be present, more intentional, and most certainly to appreciate everything around us (but we’ll save that for it’s own post).

      :)

      P.

  • Barry says:

    Great visuals, as always, but the voice-over was particularly well crafted.

  • Patrick haven’t seen you guys since DC early last year for the premiere of “Stand With Me.” Loved every second of this masterpiece. I was moved to tears and
    I appreciate you sharing your challenges and how you all dealt with them. Bravo as always friend!
    – Eduardo

    • Eduardo – I will definitely make sure to share that with the team (if they don’t catch it here themselves). Thanks for sharing your reaction to the piece with us. And, as an interesting side note – Mary, our writer, showed her boyfriend an early cut. We had a temp voice over from somebody at our studio and he was in public – yet he was still moved to tears when she made it on the field :)

      P.

  • Ailey says:

    OMG love this heart melting story! and the movi shot was great :)

  • Tim Fok says:

    Gave me the tingles, twice. Great storytelling!

  • Daniel Crowe says:

    Echoing Don…so great to start watching for the technical and then be immersed in Aunt Jane’s story…I especially loved that Shane & Vincent shot in the middle of the story. That really helped bridge the story to me.

    Would love to hear your thoughts & tips on adding motion to those tight interview shots…was that shot on a monopod?

    Great work as always!

    • Hey Daniel,

      We call that interview a PB&J interview – which we are going to explore in another post soon. The gist is that you interview somebody while they are doing something they enjoy – like reviewing the photos – and that makes it a much more natural conversation and interesting visually because you can move between them and their action. It is harder to pull off in nearly every way, but when it works the results are pretty amazing.

      So, with that in mind, the tight camera here was constantly moving off a tripod. We brought a heavy duty manfrotto so it was super smooth even with a crawl. Joyce has tons of practice on that small float and just keeps the camera moving and following the story. If Jane gets emotional, she comes up to her face, and as she references memories or photos, she pans down to the album.

      That 509HD Manfrotto head when properly balanced can really work wonders in an interview. A friendly tip though – it works much better with longer focal lengths such as 85 or 135 where a slight motion is easily felt and it can be felt by the viewer more as the interviewee or stories emotion. Movement on the wide camera can feel more like the world is shaking, and can be a distraction if used too much or improperly. So in this case – the wide was static and the 85mm was constantly moving.

      P.

  • scott allman says:

    Another fabulous job by Still Motion! You guys set the bar really high and the work you do is an inspiration us all!
    Thanks

  • Seth says:

    Aunt Jane’s endzone dance makes me happier than anything I will see during the actual game on Sunday. Great stuff! Also – if you ever amend your list of 11 ninja tools, #12 should probably be rollerblades.

  • Nick says:

    When you brought Aunt Jane to the stadium to finally realize her dream, was she aware of what will be happening ahead of time?

    Or did you manage to keep it a secret until the final reveal?

    • Nick – that was one of our biggest fox-chicken-seed scenarios that we had to work out, it just wasn’t as entertaining for the post itself.

      First off, when Grant interviewed Aunt Jane, he asked her about her dream several different ways – so much so that we were concerned she might catch on.

      She then went with Wilson to Phoenix to show fans how footballs are made. We got the call about needing to be there at 8am the next day, and while scrambling to the airport, also had to coordinate with Wilson to get Jane ready without her knowing.

      Molly (from Wilson) who you see in the scene where Jane is told about getting on the field – was absolutely spectacular at letting Jane know she needed her in the lobby for 7am to do some extra media things, but also making it seem totally casual. Everybody in the car knew what was happening except for Jane. Then we stopped in front of the stadium, gave Molly that ‘it’s go time’ kinda look, and that’s when she told Jane in the parking lot just down from the stadium.

      She really had no idea – and that is part of the power in the story, for us, is that you see just how much it means to her in the authentic moment of her finding out.

      P.

  • Mark says:

    Several great stories in there, Patrick. Aunt Jane’s made me cry, and clap. Congratulations on both your success and another wonderful, thoughtful, inspiring, telling of a story.

  • Jacob Cichy says:

    You guys not only continue to raise the bar on storytelling and filmmaking but also on yourselves; living and getting all there is out of life. It’s reflected in every shot and every film. The feelings go deeper and deeper emanating always from within each of you while bringing them to the world through each film. Awesome and outstanding tend to still leave something unstated.
    Love,
    Jacob

  • I laughed, I cried, I loved every minute of that story. You guys are such a source of inspiration – thank you so much for sharing both the great stories, but the stories behind the stories.

  • Hey Patrick,

    How are things? Hope you are well…
    Just read the ‘How to Make a Good Story Great…” article… How great is that!?! Really glad things came into play, well, you guys figured things out :-) The feature is beautiful!

    Just wondering if I could pick your brains for a little second…

    That MOVI shot with the C100… Would you be able to tell me your camera settings? I mean, what lens you tend to use and what is normal f stop for that kind of shot?

    Also, I am just starting to play with C-log… I was wondering if you could share your preferred settings for shooting on a C100… Do you use C-log? If so, how do you expose when in C-log? I’ve found that I can actually overexpose and the highlights will be kept…?

    I would love to hear your opinion some time.

    Big thank you!

    • Hey Gione,

      Of course.

      That was C100 on the Movi M10. We had the 24mm Cinema Prime at about ISO 1,000 and the F5.6. I brought the ISO up to get me a higher aperture as we wouldn’t pull focus during the shot. I would have gone up to F8.0 with more light.

      As for picture profiles – we don’t use C-log. It is an awesome profile but it just feels too flat and we find it harder to feel the image in camera. SmallHD has a few new monitors that let you shoot with a flat profile then apply the look in the monitor (as a preview) so in that case we would use C-Log.

      Right now though, we just use a modified Wide DR profile. Pretty much standard with the blacks pulled down just a bit which reduces color time in post (while also decreasing your dynamic range slightly when shooting).

      P.

  • Drury Bynum says:

    This is a terrific film. I agree strongly with everyone’s assessment here. And I appreciate that you guys share this information in the way you do. I should add that the Storytelling with Heart workshop changed my life and the way I do business, so I am deeply grateful. However, I am curious about the choice for the voice over. It feels nearly robotic and distracts from the story, like the actor is focusing on the words more than the meaning behind them. Was this an issue for you guys? Maybe I’m alone on this one.

    • Hey Drury,

      So awesome to hear how much Storytelling With Heart has impacted you.

      We spent a lot of time working on the script and choosing the right voice for this piece. We are very thankful to Andre for making the time to do this and we think his voice really elevates the story overall. Of course, not everybody loves cupcakes – so perhaps it didn’t feel right for you. But from our end, we had smiles from ear to ear as we did the VO session over Skype.

      P.

  • Steve Muza says:

    I love watching films and getting caught up in the story and not the production of the story and this piece did just that. Love the balance between normal speed and slow motion!

    • Thanks Steve. We definitely used more slow motion than in the majority of our pieces, but one of our keywords here was legacy and the off speed certainly adds a great weight and importance to moments that will no doubt stay with Aunt Jane for a long time. During the football making process, the slow motion was also a great way to show you the precision and detail that goes into it. So much detail is lost when you see it in real-time.

      P.

  • Josh Woll says:

    You beautiful crafted and stitched this story as perfect as they make each of those footballs. Coming from a DP’s perspective, I was lost in the stunning visuals and story. Tears flowed when she was told her dream was going to come true. I loved when the group photo was taken and then that same image was put into her album, subtle and brilliant. It’s truly amazing when you put all the elements of story, visuals and sound together to make such an incredible piece. Every filmmaker is fortunate to have your company share their stories and knowledge. Thank you. :)

  • Tom D says:

    Love the game-upping going on with the blog lately – inspiring stuff.

    Now have visions of P rollerblading with a Movi, but wearing hotpants and roller-girl style leg warmers… there’s an image you won’t get out of your head soon.

  • Jane Helser says:

    I would like to thank you Partick and all who had a part in this story of my working with Wilson for 48 years. I had no idea how big this was going to be. I hope you and Joyce got some rest after the shoot in Arizona. You are the best. Take care and best wishes to you and your whole team.

  • Chinces says:

    Your work is amazing!

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