“Here we are now, entertain us.”
OK. I’m consciously dating myself here. This refrain is of course the iconic mantra from Nirvana’s anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song came out in 1991, a year after I graduated from Prep – and has since been dubbed “An anthem for apathetic kids from Generation X” – of which, I am a member.
This idea – of being a faceless, apathetic drone in an endless sea of hapless consumers – flies in the face of what we learned at Prep – to hear the prophet Micah’s call to “Act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God, for the transformation of ourselves and the world.” It’s a distinct part of who we are as a community and is the furthest thing from wearing the sad mantle of apathy. Transformation is the antithesis of apathy.
I am by trade a storyteller. I write and direct screenplays for commercials, corporate brand films, documentaries and narrative films. Robert McKee, arguably the most revered guru on the art of writing screenplays says in his iconic book, Story: “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘…the center cannot hold.’
Technology, in all forms of media these days, seems to be the focus of modern storytelling at times. So much so, it often eclipses the storytelling itself. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference from a beer commercial and a blockbuster movie. There’s obviously a lot of great, substantive material people are creating – it just seems like it gets harder and harder to find it.
Think about the last time you finished watching the latest mass-explosion, eye-popping CGI extravaganza. Did you ever, at any point during your viewing, ever reach the CGI saturation point and wonder, audibly or not: “Is there a story somewhere in here?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to date myself again, but I’m just as big a sucker for cinematic eye-candy as the next red-blooded American who grew up with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The difference is, that while Raiders was a hugely visual story with amazing, exotic images – at the core of it, there were developed, real, characters – with human flaws, failures, hopes and dreams. Of all the compelling images in that film, perhaps none was as arresting as the moment in the beginning of the film when Harrison Ford emerges from the shadows of the jungle to reveal…his face. A face full of human complexity and mystery. A face brought to life by an actor, driven by a carefully crafted screenplay, written to create a complex character. A character and a film that remains, (in my mind anyway) unforgettable. When this happens successfully, we empathize with that character, want to walk in his shoes, feel what he’s feeling and consequently invest in his life for two hours.
This can happen in our daily lives as well. To be a transformative, genuine human being of any faith or belief system, is in a way, to immerse ourselves in a form of fiction writing – of storytelling – a faith-formed act of fiction. When we allow our imagination to wonder what existence would be like for the woman we just drove by – in line for a bed at the shelter – we’re creating unwritten fiction. We imagine what her torn clothes would feel like on our skin, what the cold cement may feel like under our hip if the shelter were full. In that moment, whether written or filmed or not – we are a storyteller. And if we are to truly live up to our Jesuit education and training, our job as storyteller is to see the face of Christ in everyone around us. Even when faced with human disappointment, shady dealings and injustice, we are called as Mother Theresa said to “…see the face of Christ in every woman and man.”
So what does all this have to do with technology? Well, technology in general – and media-based technology in particular – has never been faster, more powerful or accessible. Anyone can go out and purchase a DSLR camera, a laptop, editing software and a hard-drive for under $10,000. Not too many years ago, the tools to make similar moving images would cost hundreds-of thousands of dollars. With resources like YouTube, some basic instruction and a gentle learning curve, a young person could be shooting, editing and distributing gorgeous media all over the world. Accessibility to media technology has democratized an industry and craft that was simply inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t in the Hollywood studio system – or had access to vast amounts of capital to fund independent film projects. The question is, “What are we going to do with it?”
At the core of utilizing all this technology is the story. And at the center of the story remains the human connection. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a documentary, a corporate brand film, a project for school, or a presentation for a board room. Without a story that allows viewers to empathize with its characters as true human beings – the technology is meaningless.
Here’s a small example of technology working for story. Last summer I was asked to write and direct a 60-second commercial for the United Nations Development Programme. The spot was to star soccer stars, Didier Drogba and Zinedine Zidane and premiere at the World Cup in South Africa. Its intent was to raise global awareness of the UN Millennium goals to greatly ease poverty and suffering in third world nations by 2015. They asked if I’d be willing to do the piece pro bono, coordinate with collaborators in New York, Belgium, Switzerland, Brazil and the UK – and bring it all together in 4 weeks. I thought about the scope of the work a while and finally accepted after a gracious and talented Seattle crew agreed to collaborate with me. (Including talented acting services from a distinguished dad of several Prep alums.)
So I wrote a script centering on people of all sizes, colors and ages coming together through soccer, the world’s game, to join the fight to beat poverty. It focused on their faces. The folks at the UN liked it. So off we went. We shot the Seattle portion at Qwest Field. Drogba and Zidane were filmed in Europe and we edited all the footage here in Seattle. To be sure, there were moments of high tension – but in the end – we brought it all together and delivered on time. Here’s where the technology came in. Conference calls and real-time video chats looped in every collaborator from around the globe. The DSLR camera, laptop and hard drive system mentioned above produced rich images with shallow depth of field on a pro bono budget. Editing and subtitling in English, French and Arabic were done through all hours of the day and night – live over a video chat – while sharing the same editing screen over multiple laptops via the internet. I could literally make directorial decisions from my laptop at home – looking at the same screen my editor was sharing with me over the Internet from his studio – miles away. In the end, we came away with a story based on human connection. The technology available helped us pull it off in four weeks – and allowed the United Nations to distribute it all over the world.
So here we are, now. It’s 2011 and technological tools to tell stories through motion pictures are more available than any time in history. And that accessibility is only going to increase as technology gets faster and prices get cheaper. But media technology – and our ever-increasing access to it – is nothing without a real story at its core. Stories have the power to transform – but only if they’re rooted in empathizing with the human condition.
We’re not all bound to be filmmakers. But there’s no question that as future generations of Prep students emerge to transform the world, media-based technology will be crucial to their learning and lives in one way or another. The tools should (and I’m sure will) be made available to help Prep students thrive in a technologically evolving world. Using that technology to its potential will help them tell their stories. Prep’s unwavering devotion to Cura Personalis – Care for the Person – should (and I’m sure will) be at the core of these stories.
As David James Duncan notes in his book, God Laughs and Plays: “This (storytelling)…is Christ-like…not just to those practicing the art form known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or sustain this world through love.” Stories aren’t simply to entertain – or be entertained. The stories we consume, write and create with our lives should transform us – and in turn, allow us to transform the world around us. When love for each other is at the core of these stories, the center may indeed hold.
First published in Seattle Prep Panther Tracks – Fall, 2011
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