21st Sep 2021 | Open Movies | Sprite Fright
Note: the following piece contains spoilers.
Sprite Fright is the new open movie, now in production. You can follow its progress here. In this article, Writer and Director Matthew Luhn explains the importance of story, both for Sprite Fright and for artists seeking to improve their reel.
Matthew says, “Whether you’re working on your animation reel in order to get hired, or busy with some project using Blender, story is what makes your work stand out.”
He speaks from experience. From his background at Pixar, Matthew has seen vast numbers of portfolios. “When I’m asked to hire a new artist or judge on a panel for best animated short, what always stands out is who had the most entertaining or engaging story. You can have the best character designs, voice talent, music, art, and animation, but without a great story it all falls apart. The story is the glue that holds it all together.”
There are many examples of how to create great stories, some contained in books running to hundreds of pages (famously Story by Hollywood guru Robert McKee). “I’ve even written a book on storytelling,” Matthew laughs. “But I understand not all of us have the luxury to read and study every story theory book out there. So here’s my simple explanation: a good story has a setup, build, and payoff that takes you through a rollercoaster ride of tension and release, that entertains you and makes you feel something.”
When Matthew thinks about a story, he starts at the elevator pitch. “This is also known as the ‘controlling idea.’ Can I sum up the entire idea I’m working on in one sentence? It’s difficult, but it’s the first test and applies to everything from a ninety-minute film to a nine-minute short.”
As well as a means of distilling the film into a clear and concise idea, the elevator pitch helps when pitching. “The attention span of a human is only around eight seconds,” Matthew says. “So you’re gonna lose people if you can’t grab them quickly.”
And in case you’re wondering what an elevator pitch sounds like, here’s an example for Sprite Fright: “When a group of rowdy teenagers trek into an isolated forest, they discover peaceful mushroom creatures that turn out to be an unexpected force of nature.”
Much like overarching definitions of story, discussions on story structure can quickly become opaque. Matthew says, “Here is a simple way to understand and create a story structure. It’s called the story spine and I’ve used it on every film I’ve worked on, including _Sprite Fright._”
Matthew defines the story spine like this: “Once upon a time, and every day, until one day, because of that, until finally, and since that day. Each one of those prompts in the story spine is a more approachable way of phrasing more technical terms like exposition, inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. In other words, the story spine is a safety net to help you write a story and avoid getting hung up on terminology that could stall your creativity or kill it.”
Here’s an extract from Sprite Fright’s story spine, to help communicate how it works.
Once upon a time... Five British college students on a class research project hiked into an isolated forest.
And every day... One student--a timid but enthusiastic nature-loving girl--was the only one excited about the class project. The other students only cared about themselves but were willing to have her along to do all the work while they partied.
Until one day... While the other students set up camp and trashed the forest, the nature-loving girl discovered a secret community of cheerful human-like green creatures about six inches tall wearing mushroom hats.
Because of that... The girl and the other rowdy students learned that the green creatures were Sprites and took care of the forest. One of the rowdy students organized a plan to catch the sprites for fame and riches. The timid nature-loving girl discouraged the idea.
Of course, there’s more… but let’s cut here to avoid too many spoilers.
Once he has an overall structure, Matthew identifies the main two types of conflict (also known as “stakes.”) “Outer conflict is the goal of the protagonist or hero. For example, how will the protagonist or group of protagonists defeat the dragon, find the treasure, or escape from a forest full of green little monsters trying to kill them?”
The next type of conflict is often overlooked. “Inner conflict is the part that really pulls on people’s heartstrings,” Matthew says. “Inner conflict is the character arc. How does the protagonist or group of protagonists change during the story? For instance, the outer conflict might be that the main character has to defeat the dragon, but the inner conflict is ‘how did the main character defeat her or his old self and change?“
Usually, there are only two possible answers. “In almost every Pixar film I worked on, and many other films out there, the main character either learns to have courage or learns to care. Remy in Ratatouille learns to have courage, Woody in all of the Toy Story films learns to care, and in Sprite Fright, our hero learns to have courage.”
“If you have additional time in your story, you can add another step, namely ‘how do the other characters and the world change because of what the protagonist learned?’
One example of a successful psychological conflict is a movie from Matthew’s resume: Monsters Inc. “Sully realizes that scaring kids is cruel, and through his character arc of courage, transforms from being ‘naive to aware’, and in turn transforms the psychology of the world around him: monsters no longer need to scare kids to produce energy but can make them laugh instead.” So ask yourself, ‘What does the audience take away from the whole story? What did they learn?’ I’m hoping that through Sprite Fright -- this fun, twisted horror-comedy -- that people will absorb the idea of ‘respect nature: if you treat nature poorly, nature is going to get back at you.’ I wanted to weave that into a short film, in a not too preachy, fun way.”
“Great writing is all about rewriting. Working out the kinks in your story over and over again to make sure that the story works, is entertaining, and flows naturally,” Matthew says, “But through all those hundreds of iterations, you can start to become numb to what was funny the first time you saw it, or what was emotional.”
So after almost a year in development, how does Matthew know whether Sprite Fright still works? “What I learned from other directors at Pixar is to take detailed notes in meetings in order to remember how you felt, like ‘I cried when I first saw this shot’ or ‘I laughed out loud when I first saw this part.’ So once you become numb to watching an edit or storyboard sequence one hundred times, you can remind yourself of your first impression. I also feel that it’s important to share what I’m working on with people who have never seen it. People with fresh eyes, and then I get to see how they react to it. If I see them laugh, cry, or gasp all at the same points, then I know the story is working.”
Discover where you’ll laugh or gasp when Sprite Fright premiers in October. In the meantime, discover more of Matthew’s thoughts on story here, and more on his background here. For the initial pitch, take a look here -- it's probably the purest form of Sprite Fright's story until the film is released.