I remember recently meeting a younger Executive Producer (early forties, I’d assume) who seemed quite eager to see my reel after I mentioned that I am a filmmaker with over three decades of experience. I showed him selects from my many PBS documentaries, my many films for foundations and non-profits, commercials and corporate image films, which he watched politely enough but I could tell he was less than impressed. A little chagrined, when I pressed him a bit further he told me how content was everywhere and he was looking for new ways to tell stories to cut through the chatter, indicating that clearly my approach to storytelling was not what he considered a new way.
I thanked him for his time realizing that not every meeting turns into a work opportunity, but the encounter played itself out in my head for many days after. Part of it was that familiar sinking feeling that maybe I was becoming obsolete in this very young industry. The majority of people whom I have known and worked with had been replaced, had moved on, retired or just left the business. Most of the younger people who have replaced them tend to work with people they are familiar and have a rapport with.
But the bigger issue for me was the idea that there were new ways to tell stories that maybe I was missing out on. Filmmakers have always tested the tools of their trade, from different lighting techniques, latest cameras, lenses, dollies, jibs, filters, nets and on and on. There is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment when one masters a particular visual style or camera movement or captures an image with that gorgeous shallow depth of field. And there are as many ways to edit a film as there are types of editors. There are always new ways to introduce type, animation and other graphic devices. One can choose from music and sound effects libraries from all over the world to add mood and tone to films but is that what constitutes a new way to tell a story?
I thought back to the many films I had scripted, directed and edited over the years and realized that they were all storytelling in the ‘old fashioned’ way. I like telling stories that complicate thinking, has layers of meaning and has a beginning, a middle and an end. I thought about all the books I had read, art I have appreciated and music that I have cherished and they always transported me with a story I connected with. Many filmmakers, myself included, swoon over beautiful cinematography, gorgeous lighting, crisp editing and want to emulate styles we admire but when the storytelling is muddled and elevates style over substance, the many wonderful techniques we admire so much leave most of us unmoved. This seems obvious, right? But still, we see so many mega budget films where the story is clearly flawed but somehow the studio got it made. I am sure many working on the film knew there were flaws in the story but it had star appeal, great locations, major computer graphics artists who could create magical worlds, so it got made and then just slid into oblivion.
The methods of creating stories have clearly evolved over time but has the nature of storytelling actually changed?
I thought back to most of the clients I have worked with over the years and none of them were as concerned with the latest visual techniques as they were with a story well told even if they could not always articulate it. Telling a story, be it on film, in the theater, at a gallery or at a party is an immersive process. We need to engage intellectually, emotionally and also rationally. In the worlds we create, we have to make sure all the points connect for a satisfying outcome, not necessarily happy or even positive but satisfying. Humans have been telling stories going back to the first tribes huddled against a fire listening in awe to the storyteller weaving fantastic tales of gods, heroes, thrilling hunts, great battles, unrequited love, pain, sacrifice and joy. We still connect to these basic visceral emotions when it comes to our stories.
When we listen to a piece of music, view a painting or a photograph, watch a film, or read a book, we can and should admire the masterful technique those practitioners bring to their art, but for that work to become transcendent, it needs to speak to us beyond technique and envelop us in a story we can care about.
After much pondering I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really think there is a way to tell a story in a completely new way. All great stories have been told again and again over the centuries. Political, economic and cultural considerations might change some of the trappings but the core remains the same. With this I reaffirm my abiding faith that our purpose as storytellers is to use the latest tools and techniques to tell good old-fashioned stories that resonate intellectually and emotionally with our audience.
Shiva Kumar is a storyteller who through his production company, Silver Arc Productions has been telling stories for over three decades now. As an actor, a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels based on Indian mythology and a documentary filmmaker, Shiva is happily steeped in telling old-fashioned stories. He can be contacted at [email protected].