The Buzzword: Storyteller

From out of nowhere, buzzwords appear like a menace and descend on our lexicon to lay waste to meaning and substance. They latch onto our brains and empty them out. Soon we find ourselves using buzzwords for our own grim purposes.

“Warm when wet” and “Light and fast” are two of my “favorite” buzzwords from the outdoor industry, emerging sometime in the late 1990s/early aughts but staying strong to this day. I’ve heard everything from an anorak to a headlamp described as being “light and fast.”

Of course there are also words like “adventure” and “epic” that are so overused that Homer wouldn’t recognize them.

Sometimes, buzzwords come in the form of grandiose self-description.

You’re not an “Alpinist.” You are a mountaineer.

You’re not a “Writer.” You have a blog.

And you’re not a “Storyteller.” You have an expensive camera that shoots slow motion and makes one too many time lapses.

Indeed, Storyteller is the newest buzzword to appear among industry creatives.

A storyteller, of course, is someone who tells stories. Lately, though, many filmmakers are describing themselves as “storytellers” in order to instill a grand idea about the content they are producing, even if that content is as bereft of Story as it is chock full of beautiful but otherwise meaningless motion imagery.

In my opinion, a few (not most) supposed “storytellers” are conflating overwrought visual gimmicks with Story—to the detriment of the sacred latter. It’s purple prose transformed onto the big screen.

Knowing how to capture a bunch of time lapses to include in your video about your climbing expedition, as beautiful as those time lapses may be, doesn’t make you a storyteller.

Capturing a skier carving through powder at 240 fps and rendering it in sweet slow motion—or as I call it, “soul motion,” because slow motion is just so soulful—doesn’t necessarily mean that an actually story is being told.

In this admittedly over-the-top rant, I’m likely not giving enough credence to what unspoken messages and ideas can be conveyed through the visual image. Still, I see a lot of outdoor adventure films … and not many of them are fully realized Stories.

Last month I attended the riotous 5 Point Film Festival, here in Carbondale, Colorado. I found it interesting to see what were the audience favorites.

cas_jonesy_17i3vej-17i3vel
Cas & Jonesy in “Crossing the Ice,” one of the best adventure stories made.

There seemed to be a pretty solid consensus—at least among the people I spoke to—that two of the best films of the festival included Kyle Dempster’s bike ride across Kyrgyzstan and “Crossing the Ice,” a film about two Australians completing the first unsupported there-and-back mission to the South Pole.

I found it affirming that these films were not shot with fancy cameras. They did not contain a single time lapse that I can recall. They were shot with cheap hand-held DSLRs and/or point-and-shoots. But the reason these films worked so well was that they were fully-realized Stories—the plot, structure and character arcs all worked, all the story beats were hit and we saw all the right emotional turns at appropriate moments throughout the film.

This is something we’ve known ever since Aristotle wrote the Poetics: Story trumps all.

Also, the characters in these two particular films had genuine goals—primal goals—that we could relate to and root for. Their inherent desires to be emotionally and spiritually changed through their own chosen adventures (not ones offered to them by their sponsors, for example) resonated with the audience. In a nutshell: their experiences were authentic, their passions genuine, and it was all told in such a way that we could believe in the authenticity of their desires and experiences.

I’ve been thinking about why these films worked better than the other, more professionally produced films that I watched at the film fest. I’ve bounced off my ideas to a few people, too.

Matt Segal said to me that he believes “Crossing the Ice” is actually one of the best adventure films ever made, not because it’s a good film but because it’s a great adventure. What Cas and Jonsey, the films’ lovable and determined heroes, accomplish is such a rare adventure that that is where the film derives its power.

I saw his point, but it was really just another way of saying my point: which is that Story trumps all.

Michael Kennedy pointed out that it actually might be impossible to have an authentic, meaningful experience or adventure with a film crew in tow. The two are irreconcilable.

I think he might be right: You can have a genuine experience … or you can go on a trip and have some people make a movie about you. But can you do both?

There are maybe only one or two examples.

I think that this idea brings me to the crux of the issue. In today’s world of adventure and climbing, are people genuinely seeking adventures in order to test and change themselves in some meaningful ways?

Or are they doing trips just to do trips, and making movies about the trips in order to provide worth and value to their sponsors?

It seems to me that there are increasingly more people out there who fall into the latter category than the former.

I always laugh when bloggers come to the conclusion that the soul of some sport is dead or diminished—and I’ll spare you the hyperbole of doing that here and now—but I think that it’s worth questioning our motives as climbers and adventurers in this day and age when media is regarded necessary to fund our trips, and we expect to see  a new, beautiful but ultimately vapid Vimeo vid of some heavily sponsored far-flung trip almost every other day.

The question that we as storytellers, climbers and adventurers really need to ask is: What is the real story we’re trying to tell? Are we doing something we want to do, or are we doing something we think people want to see?

And perhaps the way to figure that out is for the people who go on these trips to ask themselves: What do they really want and why do they want it? Because whether you’re writing a book or making a movie, figuring out the answers to those questions are the first steps to telling a good story.

  • Ian MacLellan

    Happy to read this. I think about this all the time on my own photo and video projects.

    I think the audio can be the most useful tool to differentiate and elevate “send” videos and pushes me to want to take a radio production workshop. A film like Dark Side of the Lens(https://vimeo.com/14074949) that is less story based and uses a lot of those film techniques you emphasize sticks and becomes a story because of the audio. I’ve just listened to it a few times and it works just as well and it’s a piece that I constantly find myself thinking about. To a lesser degree the new Granite Earth video from Louder Than 11 (https://vimeo.com/66479330) was also a nice break from their normal stuff completely because of the audio. You get a little geology lesson thrown in there as well.

    I wish there were better places to discuss the merits of individual videos, but it isn’t really the culture to write something critical or meaningful in a Vimeo comment after watching something that was beautiful, just flat. Usually I’m just watching these videos in between editing and am not really looking for anything more than something cool and it’s so hard to have the patience to wait 2-3 minutes for the characters or plot to develop.

    Hopefully outdoor brands make more videos that don’t even reference the product and are just good stories.

    Big River Man is by far my favorite adventure movie it’s got no fancy camera tricks at all.

  • lizzyscully

    I enjoyed this blog post and want to address these statements:

    “In today’s world of adventure and climbing, are people genuinely seeking adventures in order to test and change themselves in some meaningful ways? Or are they doing trips just to do trips, and making movies about the trips in order to provide worth and value to their sponsors?”

    I can’t answer this question for anyone but myself. But, I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m doing both of those things you mention:

    1. I am a journalist by trade/education. I definitely consider myself a good storyteller. These days I run a business managing other peoples’ social media because it pays the mortgage on my 625-square-foot house way better than writing for climbing mags ever did.

    2. I’m going on a big climbing expedition to Greenland in 10 days.

    3. I got the money and in-kind support for the trip primarily because of the social media plan that I put together to promote the trip and its sponsors.
    4. We will probably make a film about our adventure, though who knows what that film is actually going to be about.

    The way I see it is that social media and all this access to film offers someone like myself, who has expertise in all these areas (climbing, writing, and social media), the opportunity to tell a story in a new and different way. I think it’s incredibly cool to see part of a story rendered on different mediums–Instagram, FB, blog, film. Get a taste of the experience as it’s happening on social media, read longer stories (if you want) about certain aspects of the trip on blogs, and then get some awesome visual experiences through film and photos.

    I don’t actually know if I’ll successfully pull this story together and be able to tie all those pieces together, but I’m going to have a really good time trying. And, in the meantime, I’m hopefully going to climb some super rad exciting awesome big walls along the way.

    Again, I can’t answer your question, really. I agree that a lot of films don’t have much of a story to them… most films, in fact. But I see great there is a lot of opportunity now for people do tell stories in new and creative ways. I think we are just seeing the first waves in an evolution of how stories are told.

    • 5Point Film

      Keep us posted on your trip Lizzy!

  • 5Point Film

    AB, Thanks for the post and thoughtfulness…and for coming to share the experience with us!

    After watching 300+ films in 6 months leading up to the festival…I agree that more work and intention for better storytelling can be practiced in this genre by some of our wonderful creatives. I love the trajectory this genre seems to be on in valuing this element as well as the value of quality film in the process. I don’t think the cost of the camera makes a difference in the effect that a camera has on the adventure…but it is what the filmmaker and editor do with the footage after, that makes a difference in the story being told. I agree that “soul motion” and time-lapse are techniques we see often in this genre, however, if used thoughtfully, they can be a powerful tool to enhance the viewers experience through evoking emotion, setting or changing the pace and tone of a piece…not to mention giving a sense of place.

    I also note that the way someone’s body language can tell a story without conversation, a film with a great emotive score, no dialog, or spoken elements, and quality cinematography can tell a true story. I’m not saying that this is always accomplished…but through a thoughtful combination of auditory elements combined with incredible visuals…it is perhaps more possible than a story trying to be told with sub par camera work, less than ideal music score and no dialog…so I do feel credit needs to be given for the ability for those tools to really elevate a piece, and tell that story, while employing all the classic elements of storytelling.

    I also note that in the best stories much of what draws you in are the protagonists. It takes a good character to make a good story. For 5Point, these three guys live our 5 Guiding principles. They are humble, committed, respectful, purposeful, and balanced in their endeavors. They are adventuring for the sake of their own experience, and capturing it along the way. They have heart, in a big way. The combination of a great edit into a 3 act structure/manipulating the footage using the classic elements of storytelling after the trip, the protagonists having great personalities, attitudes, and character, set to the backdrop in the natural world…well that is a winning recipe for a great adventure film in our opinion…mix that in with some incredible footage…artful ” adventure porn” pieces and well there you have a signature 5Point night.

    Thanks AB! Good conversation here. I appreciate the attention to this topic.

    Ian we love “Dark Side of the Lens” and Lizzy hopefully you will keep us posted on your trip. Come tell a good story to us over coffee when you get back! Safe travels.

    Sarah

  • Thanks Sarah! I just got a chance to read this awesome comment. Great stuff!