Stillmotion: Masters of Story

We spoke with filmmaker Patrick Moreau, of Stillmotion, about crafting remarkable stories, recent film projects and the launch of the Muse Storytelling Process.

How did it all begin for Stillmotion and for you as a filmmaker?

It all began just over a decade ago when I was studying Psychology at university. We wanted to use filmmaking, particularly documentaries, as a way of exploring the things we were learning about.

As university students we needed a way to fund our film gear, so we got into filming weddings. Soon our approach to shooting weddings started to get noticed and a crazy series of events happened from there.

Canon noticed one of our weddings and put it on national television; another wedding film went viral and the NFL saw it, which resulted in a year-long contract with them. CBS saw the work we were doing for the NFL and they brought us on to do a feature-length documentary about the Arrowhead football game, which went on to win three Emmy Awards.

Being Canadian university students with Psychology backgrounds who were now shooting the playoffs for the NFL and working for companies like CBS was mindblowing. We were getting calls from massive brands like Apple, AT&T and Calloway, saying that they loved the way we were telling stories about real people, getting a richness in our visuals and a depth in the characters.

This brought us from Toronto to California, and now here we are up in Portland.

What does Stillmotion look like these days?

Stillmotion is now made up of three different parts. We have a production side, what you would imagine as the commercial side. We’ve done all kinds of pieces across the globe with the theme of human interest stories. We are drawn to companies and people doing great things and we look at ways we can use our storytelling to help them with that.

Then there is our original side, where we find and tell our own stories. So one of the first major things we did was #standwithme, a documentary about a nine-year-old girl who uses lemonade to fight child slavery. This was all our own undertaking; we funded the majority of the film and took care of it from beginning to end.

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This January we are launching a documentary web series called The Remarkable Ones, which will feature intimate stories of incredibly inspiring people from around the world, their journey, and the biggest thing they want to share with the world.

The third part is the education side, Muse, which is where we go deep into storytelling training.

Why are stories so important, and why is video so good at telling them?

Story is deep within us. Even before written language we used stories to communicate, to pass on information and knowledge.

Think about this for a second. If you’re given three random words, say, walk, dog, night, what do you think of?

You will probably imagine a dog walking at night, right? You will make a story out of three random words. We are hardwired to create connection out of chaos, and story is often how we make sense of the world.

I think we all get rather turned off by hearing facts and statistics, or being told how to feel or what to do – it doesn't take long before we shut down and turn off. But story has the ability to connect us emotionally, take us on a journey, and still bring us to those same conclusions.

With video, you have so many different ways of bringing your story together. We can shoot across the globe, over a decade, then bring that together into a few minutes that says something so much bigger. It’s very hard to do that in any other medium and have that same kind of deep connection as you can with video.  

Video can make it so tangible, we can see and hear, it’s such a real experience that it adds more authenticity. You have a deeper trust if I show you a character. If I show you Dave Jack the quadriplegic pilot trying to put himself to bed, you have a very deep respect and trust that this is true. While I can write about it and you would still have some level of trust, when you see it and your body is viscerally drawn to lean in and help, it just goes so much deeper.

What advice would you give to businesses who want to be more successful with video?

If you were to ask a top Hollywood director or an experienced filmmaker if they would take either the best gear in the world or an incredible story that must be shot on their iPhone, ten out of ten would take the incredible story.

Understanding the power of having a solid story, of strong character and structure, and really deeply knowing what that means, that’s the biggest thing. With a strong story, we can work with just about any tool and still connect. We can bring our audience in and have something that is going to be successful and communicate what it needs to.

My advice would be to get away from the gear and focus on really understanding the story and how human connection works. Master story first, then start looking at how to make it technically stronger.

What projects have you been working on recently?

The Remarkable Ones is something that we started beta testing this year. We made a couple of episodes, put them out there, and we’re so excited by the response. When it's your own series you want to be careful about how much investment you put into something when you're not sure how it will be received.

One of our episodes, The Elephant Whisperer of Chiang Mai, was featured on UpWorthy and has had about 3 million views. It’s pretty incredible for a small studio to go out and find their own story and tell it the way they want to tell it and then have that many people, not just see it, but write comments that are really powerful. It was responses like that that really inspired us to bring this series to life. We’re getting ready to launch a series of episodes in January 2016.

We've also just released a feature-length documentary called Our Journey Home, which explores the issue of public housing, and more than that, how home shapes us and our ability to dream. We’re lucky to have the singer Jewel onboard as our narrator. She was homeless for part of her early journey, so it’s really awesome to have someone who has such a strong connection to the idea of home and homelessness to be the voice of our story.

Tell us about your workflow and how you manage all these projects with your team?

Because we have so many different things happening, our biggest challenge is how to stay connected to everybody. In the past post would just grind to a halt because you’d be waiting for someone to take a look and offer feedback, or you would have to move forward to meet deadlines without getting the proper level of collaboration needed for great work.  

Bringing in Wipster has allowed us to not just be more efficient but also to communicate and collaborate much better.

As we were finishing Our Journey Home I was in the studio for several weeks, but we never actually sat down and made notes together, it just made more sense to put it on Wipster.

If we watch it together and just throw out different feedback, will we all have the same level of input by the end of it? Are you going to be able to faithfully take down everything and ensure the editor properly understands where it needs to go? All of that is solved when you've got a platform that allows each person to watch, leave comments, comment on each other’s comments, and then for the edit team to go through and mark things off when they do them, and ask questions if they need to.

The science of collaboration suggests that we’re much better when everybody is in a space where they feel they can share and be heard. In a group review, you’ll often have only a few voices come. Wipster is a powerful way to ensure everybody has the time and space to share their thoughts and be heard while remaining incredibly efficient.

We didn't have Wipster for our last documentary, #standwithme, and we were regularly leaving the studio at 4 or 5 am. On this latest documentary we had very few late nights, and much better communication and collaboration, and I believe that is largely due to communicating through this lovely service called Wipster.

What are your top tips for filmmakers to stay inspired?

The biggest thing that I would suggest is to go out and do passion projects, to follow stories that you really love. It can be so easy to get burnt out on client films and living in revisions and following somebody else’s creative. While we all hope to do commercial work that we really care about, there is nothing like finding and building your own stories.

While it can be hard, taking the time to go out and find those stories that you really care about and connect with is the number-one way to stay inspired. It reconnects you to why you do this in the first place and you can learn and grow because you don't have any excuses: you have complete creative control.

Make the time and space to explore your craft creatively. It’s one of the largest investments you can make into your business and yourself.

Tell us a bit more about the Muse Storytelling Process

As with anything, gaining a deep understanding of your craft and how it works enables you to do what you do better. That's been the guiding force behind building Muse, trying to create the most approachable, tangible, accessible guide to storytelling.

There is so much talk of story – you see it in many bestselling books, the idea that you should tell a story, that story is so powerful, and so on, but there really isn't anything out there right now that shows you how to do that – where to look, what to look for, and how to build it. Not to mention explaining why those components are actually useful, how they affect your audience.

That's what Muse is all about, giving you clarity and confidence as you tell your stories. Muse helps you deeply understand the core elements of a remarkable story.

More than just learning about story, it's also a big part of staying inspired, because you start to see why things didn't work. You start to become much more effective in what you do. Once you have that, it's all about going out and practicing and making it happen, and then you start to get results. Then the results back up the effort and the effort increases, and boom – our results are better again. You create this amazing upwards spiral of growth.

We launched our pilot program of Muse in June 2015 and had 1000 people signed up in the first week, which we’re so grateful for. This allowed us to take three months to bring them through the program and get great feedback, which we have used to make improvements.

We’re now bringing Muse back out January 2016 with courses that focus specifically on Documentary, Commercial, or Wedding filmmaking. We’ll even have a mentorship option where you can get a portfolio review and a custom learning plan.

Head over to Learnstory.org to learn more about Muse and to enroll with a special offer in the January 2016 course. 

And make sure to watch Patrick's TEDx talk: