« Instant Photography: Polaroid Pogo and Dell Wasabi Printers | Main | Verizon Wireless Friends & Family Plan »

The Lean Forward Moment: Creating Compelling Stories

It's the story stupid! Creating compelling films or TV or even webisodes comes down to the story, but also how it is told -- how you use the tools of your craft to draw in your audience with a strong emotional connection to your characters and their story.

In earlier eras you might have learned and honed your craft as an assistant on a production or as an apprentice film editor. But those opportunities are limited with today's smaller and dispersed production teams.

Film schools provide another way to teach the craft, if you can find a way to communicate years of hands-on experience in a classroom. Norman Hollyn has done this in developing his concept of the "lean forward moment," from his experience as a film editor and music editor, and working with Hollywood greats including Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Hollyn is currently head of the film editing track at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, and has published his ideas in a new book, The Lean Forward Moment: Create Compelling Stories for Film, TV, and the Web.

The entire book is structured around this central concept -- first clarifying the key elements and characters of a story, then using that understanding to identify the "lean forward" moments of change in the story, to help focus your filmmaking tools and technique to better create those moments on the screen.

Hollyn uses a variety of examples thought the book, from The Godfather to Terminator 2, Citizen Kane to Finding Nemo to The Matrix, Lost to The Real World (on TV), as well as from less well-known and independent films.

He starts by refining the "logline," a story summary that helps shape the storytelling by clarifying the emotional path of the characters. He then expands this with a carefully-written scene analysis of a "lean forward" scene, such as the chase in the LA drainage canal in T2, and Michael's restaurant killing scene in The Godfather.

Much of the rest of the book then describes how this careful understanding of the story and its characters guide the filmmakers in their decisions on how to stage and shoot the scenes. Each chapter than walks through these scenes from the perspective of the stages in filmmaking: writing, production design, directing, cinematography, editing, visual effects, music, and sound.

We visit these scenes again and again, studying how each of these elements contributes to highlighting for the audience what it truly important in the scene. From subtle details of lighting and music, to careful consideration of camera placement and motion to focus on the reactions of the key character, the filmmakers grab the emotions of the audience and get us to lean forword into the story.

After discussing some genres and special cases that may be exceptions to his rule (horror films, music videos), Hollyn concludes with the "dirty little secret" -- now that you've spent all this time learning to use these concepts to analyze a script and craft a scene, you should know that in practice, professionals actually don't use the "lean forward movement" -- at least consciously or overtly. But, Hollyn argues, this is how filmmakers do think, so when he explicitly uses these concepts in discussions, they understand what he means.

Hollyn's bottom line is that thinking and analyzing a story in this way can solve a lot of the difficulties in making all the little decisions about how to make a movie (or other production) -- It all comes down to really understanding and communicating what is important, from the big story to the individual scenes.

Order The Lean Forward Moment from Amazon.com

Details ...

The Lean Forward Moment: Create Compelling Stories for Film, TV, and the Web

    by Norman Hollyn

    New Riders Press, Jan. 2009

    Paperback: 384 pages, ISBN 0321585453

    List $44.99, street $29

Table of Contents

1 Crafting Change - How We Tell Stories
2 Loglines for our Films
3 Writing
4 Production Design
5 Directing
6 Cinematography
7 Editing
8 Opticals and Visual Effects
9 Music
10 Sound
11 Genres and Special Cases
12 Putting It All Together
13 The Dirty Little Secret

Manifest Tech Site