Crafting the Visual world of George Saunders: On Story
By Tom Mason Anyone who has ever tried to make a film, write a story, or do any creative endeavor knows that making good stuff means learning to work within your limitations. Our film George Saunders: On Story is no exception. It’s based around a single “talking head” interview with a writer talking about writing, which was a pretty tough hand to deal ourselves.
This piece presented a dizzying array of visual challenges. First, talking head interviews are boring to look at. They’re hard to edit together without lots of other visual material to cut away to, and they do nothing to enhance the visual storytelling of a piece. They’re really just words. Second, it’s really hard to make a good film about a writer because writing is pretty much the most visually boring activity there is. NO ONE wants to watch someone sit at a computer thinking and typing. There’s lots of fascinating stuff about writing, but it’s all happening inside the writer’s head.
These visual limitations shaped every decision we made in making the finished film that you see before you. Here’s the backstory on how we tried to embrace them and why.
SHOOTING THE INTERVIEW
The first (and maybe most important) visual decision we made was how to shoot the interview. When we sat down to talk to George Saunders, we had no idea what we wanted the final film to look or feel like. The only thing we really knew was that this interview would need to form the backbone of the entire piece. The biggest challenge that posed was that any interview shot would start to feel stale with such heavy use, especially if it was the tired old visual cliché of an author placed in front of a bookcase. So in an attempt to leave as many creative options open as possible, we decided to shoot it with two cameras, both against separate green screen backdrops.
The main camera was a front angle master shot at 4k resolution using a 35mm lens and an eyedirect device to create eye contact with the camera. Both the wide angle lens (similar to the natural perspective of your eye) and the eye contact with camera were designed to make the viewer feel like they’re sitting close to him having an intimate conversation.
Additionally, the 4k resolution offered a built-in closeup angle. When working in 1080 HD, we could punch in to a closeup digitally without degrading the resolution or losing the eye contact.
The second camera (a nearly full-body seated profile shot) was turned vertically to maximize the space he took up in the frame.
These two (effectively three) green screen camera angles allowed us to come out of the interview with infinite background possibilities. Only months later (after we had edited his interview into a well-developed radio cut) did we give any more thought to the visual storytelling of this piece.
THINKING INSIDE THE BOX
While the infinite possibilities of green screen can be liberating, the infinite choice can be equally overwhelming. So where should we put him and why? We looked to Saunders’s own words to be the catalyst for any visual decisions we made.
In the film, he compares a story to a mysterious black box - something that you put the reader in and essentially stage a show that’s designed to reveal deeper truths. This idea seemed so evocative and beautiful, and it occurred to us that by opening up to talk about storytelling, Saunders was in effect inviting us on a behind-the-scenes tour of one of his own magical black boxes. This led us to ask ourselves a crazy question: could it actually be possible to set our film inside that imaginary black box world? We knew we had to try. We also knew that any visual world we created would need to feel like his stories - funny, weird, dreamlike, unpredictable, and most of all beautiful.
The opening visual is an attempt to establish the black box idea and pull you into it. We start in what initially seems to be a normal interview shot with a static background as he introduces the idea of a story being a place where magic happens. Because his original interview shot is on green screen, we’re able to place and move him anywhere in the frame. We’re then able to simulate the camera hurtling over his shoulder, through a smoky room towards a paper toy theater stage with a mysterious black box on a pedestal. This was by far the most difficult scene technically, as it involves over 20 individual video elements composited together in After Effects.
In searching for our black box, we wanted to find something that looked like a mysterious treasure chest. It had to look old, like something infused with magical power by a lost civilization. The box you see in the film is a 100 year-old Japanese “nagamochi” dowry chest that would have been used by a young woman to hold all of her most valuable possessions. Even though we don’t get into the box’s history in our film, knowing this backstory made it feel absolutely perfect. We shot it on a rotating pedestal against green screen, placed a battery-powered LED light inside, and rigged invisible thread to the latch to allow us to make the lid burst open with powerful light at the end of the shot.
None of the objects in this shot are computer generated - everything is a physical object that we shot video or photographed. The weird/surreal/magical feeling comes from putting them all together in a way that wouldn’t normally make sense. The theater is a German paper toy theater that’s about 8 inches tall in reality, while the curtain is a massive one opening in front of a life-sized stage. The weirdness feeling this produces is intentional - as Saunders invites you into his black box, you’re leaving the literal world and entering his imagination.
THE BAD DATE
As a fiction writer, George Saunders is creating a world in which he has absolute power over his characters and their fates, and much of his process is about trying to relinquish that power and not impose himself too heavily on his own characters. So in his great analogy about a bad story being like going on a date with index cards, he’s talking about the problem of over-manipulating. We decided to work with beautiful paper puppets by Norma Toraya that we found on Etsy to convey this sense of an over-manipulated interaction - you can see the puppeteer’s rods jerking them around, and the puppets themselves are literally two dimensional.
In addition, we were able to use the second green screen camera angle from his interview to composite him into his own imaginary world and seat him at a table within the puppet cafe. Just to keep things feeling weird, the table he’s sitting at is actually a miniature table with tiny plastic flowers and utensils. Once again, nothing in this scene is computer generated or animated - they’re all physical objects that we shot and composited together in After Effects. You might also notice that the background in Saunders’s main interview shot has changed in this scene too, and is now the view out the window the puppet cafe (a view of the 1920’s Atlantic City Boardwalk). He’s there in the scene, acting as our tour guide in his imaginary world.
REVISING AN ASSHOLE
We initially considered staying in the paper puppet cafe scene to visualize his next example about “Frank the asshole,” but realized that two-dimensional puppets wouldn’t be the right way to illustrate the point about building complexity in characters. Furthermore, his point is really about editing the words, not the actual scene of Frank snapping at the barista in the coffee shop. So we opted to show the evolution of this sentence using shadow puppets of the actual words moving in and out of the frame. Our puppeteer Deb Hertzberg spent days painstakingly slicing each letter with an x-acto knife and mounting them to sticks so that we could form the sentences by moving them in and out of frame.
The final images in this scene are shadows cast on a large white screen by a simple iphone flashlight. The camera was fixed on a tripod, shooting with a 35mm lens wide open at f 1.0. Surprisingly, all of the movement of the words flying on and off screen actually comes from moving the flashlight, not the camera. Finally, we used the profile shot from Saunders’s interview again here. We placed him in front of the projection in silhouette to remind you that he’s the real director of this scene, and that what you’re seeing is actually the live revision process going on in his own mind.
LEAVING THE BOX
In the last major scene of our piece where Saunders goes into broader reflection about storytelling being a stand-in for day to day life, we decided to return to the black box that we last saw bursting open at the beginning of the piece. We wanted this to reference the end of a story when we leave the box’s magical world to reflect on the deeper truths that have been revealed inside. Creating this shot actually involved drilling a hole in the bottom of our beloved antique Japanese box through which we inserted a rubber tube connected to a smoke machine. We placed a battery-powered LED light in the box to make the smoke glow, put it on the same rotating turntable, and shot it vertically in 4k at 60fps slow motion.
When placed into a 1920x1080 sequence, the shot still had enough resolution to cover the whole width of the frame, and plenty of height to allow us to do a digital pan up off the box into the smoke above. The images that you see appearing in the smoke (stand-ins for the characters in his stories) are mostly old home movies from the Prelinger Archives that were composited in using a Luma Matte in After Effects.
THE POWER OF TIMELESSNESS
In choosing to illustrate this story with a toy theater, an antique black box, and hand-made paper and shadow puppets, we were consciously drawing from storytelling techniques that have been around for a long time. We tried to follow some rules that we set for ourselves, that all the stagecraft we used would have been possible to replicate in a live theater show in the distant past. For all the modern technology that we use, (Digital cameras! imacs! After Effects!), we believe that the principles of good storytelling are timeless. George Saunders writes books - a medium that’s literally thousands of years old that still has just as much power over us as any medium created since. Ultimately, we modern storytellers are facing the same basic challenge as the writers, musicians, and cave painters who came long before us. Each story simply challenges us to “do something beautiful.”