Last night my girlfriend decided I needed a good cry and put on the movie Up. After the now-infamous Carl & Ellie montage we paused the movie to catch our breath and chuckle as if we weren’t being emotionally annihilated by a children’s movie. We checked the DVR and realized we were barely 10 minutes into the movie, the montage taking up only about 5 minutes of that. Somehow in this short span of time, the dastardly writers, editors, composer, and director strummed our heart strings like Hendrix. I can only imagine the plight of parents in the theater with their kids for the first time, not expecting this colorful cartoon about the spirit of adventure to dive into themes of death, mourning, and… losing a pregnancy? Damn Pixar.

How is it possible that certain movies can set the hooks in so deep, so early? Why do we fall in love with these characters instantly? They get us from the start and it often makes for a more invested and rewarding experience throughout the story.

Screenwriter and author Blake Snyder coined the term “Save the Cat” in his book sharing the same name. According to Snyder, this term identifies the point early on in a story where our protagonist does something caring or honorable (such as literally saving a cat) to gain favor with the audience and secure our support for the rest of the story. You can pick this moment out in any movie. Examples of this include Steve Rogers standing up to a much larger bully in Captain America: The First Avenger or Aladdin giving up the bread he steals to starving children instead of keeping it for himself. These moments are often much more clear in super hero movies and animated films as these stories have mastered the art of simplicity. Because of this, I believe these are some of the most powerful stories ever told.

After sniffling through the opening minutes of Up, I felt inspired to tackle the idea of instant attachment.

Emphasis on the Visual

I should preface this by saying I am by no means discrediting the role that music plays in storytelling (I’ll save that for another post). What I mean is how the absence of speaking can heighten other aspects of a story, much like a blind person’s other senses becoming extraordinary (source: Daredevil).

Up shows us a whole movie in a 4 minute montage. The montage covers not only the span of a relationship, but the span of a lifetime. It shows us the joys of young love, the depth of mature love, and the tragedy of letting go of the person who means most to you (what the hell kind of kid’s movie is this?!). Without dialogue, it uses musical themes to push our hearts to the point of soaring or gently prod us when it wants our hearts to ache. The montage uses visual rhythm and the use of callbacks to make us nostalgic for things that literally happened minutes ago. It’s insane. And it’s incredible storytelling.

While we’re on the subject of animation, it would feel wrong to leave out Wall-E. In a ballsy move for a “kids” movie, Pixar decided to leave no dialogue whatsoever in essentially the first third of the entire film. Since nobody is feeding us plot, we find ourselves sitting a bit more on the edge of our seat and focusing on what we see. The striking visuals of a polluted and abandoned Earth keep us engaged in an eerie way. Conversely, the focus on Wall-E’s Mr. Bean-esque physical comedy and his OCD-tinged satisfaction with his job create an instant warmth where there would otherwise be none.

There is something so human about Wall-E returning to his home in the truck and organizing his room. The hooks set it when we see him watch “Hello Dolly”. He’s a robot who we’re led to believe is the only “living” thing on the planet, but he longs for companionship. No one says a word to us and this rolling piece of scrap metal has become more human than some actual people I’ve met.

Visual storytelling relies almost entirely on expression. Animation excels at this especially. More than any other part of the body, we key off the eyes for most emotional cues. This is something animators probably put endless hours of thought and design effort into. There’s a reason for those big classic “Disney eyes”. Expressions of the eyes should inform us of almost everything we need to know about how a character is feeling. From tiny, almost imperceptible, micro-expressions to powerful shifts in tone.

With the exception of maybe music, this is the most important part of a story. After all, if you can’t effectively convey the proper emotions, no matter how subtle, how is the audience going to feel empathy for your character? Wall-E is the perfect example of this. Wall-E does not speak. Aside from occasionally parroting his own name with different inflections, it is up to his big, binocular-shaped eyes to tell us how he’s feeling. Subtle lens movements within his eyes and a simple tilt function are all that’s needed. It helps that he has RPDF (resting puppy dog face) as well.

The Empathy Puzzle

In 2014’s animated short “Feast“, produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios (go figure), we follow the story of a puppy (GO FIGURE) that is rescued from the street by a caring young man. The two become instant family, doing everything together- especially enjoying copious amounts of junk food. We see the puppy grow up while the man’s life carries on in the background. Everything we see is from the perspective of the floor, puppy-level if you will. In under 2 minutes we have established a loving bond between a man and his dog through nothing more than various shots of the dog eating.

At the 2 minute mark, the young man meets and falls in love with a girl, who begins to change his eating habits to reflect a healthier diet. Grocery shopping, yoga, and the devotion of most of the man’s attention go to this girl. Obviously, the puppy throws a fit over this new lifestyle. However, despite the puppy’s disapproval, the man is happy.

At the 3 minute mark (the exact halfway point), the man storms into his house, grabs an armful of junk food and carelessly goes to town. The puppy is thrilled but…something is different. The man is by himself, the house is darker, there is no music whatsoever. If you never thought a piece of parsley could make you well up, THINK AGAIN. It is at this point that we realize we’re not watching a story simply about a dog and his food. The heartbreak the man has experienced does not need to be explicit to be effective.

Around the 4 minute mark, after stealing a piece of food that reminds the man of his girlfriend, the puppy leads him on a chase to win her back.

Some time later, with the man and woman happily back together, our hero puppy finally settles by his modest bowl of regular dog food. He is content. Until… he follows a trail of food leading him to a highchair. It is here the puppy meets the couple’s infant child. In a rain of cupcakes, family, and happiness, the story concludes.

6 minutes. In 6 minutes (with almost no dialogue), the creators of this short were able to sell you on the premise and characters, keep you engaged with phenomenal editing, and hit you deep in the feels. Yes, this is very simple storytelling. It’s a short film, it needs to be. But that doesn’t make it any less compelling. It follows a 3 act structure (divided into 2-minute increments) and has the same major beats of a traditional feature-length film.

“Feast” utilizes the instantly relatable bond between somebody and their dog. We then witness the classic love story we’ve seen a billion times (boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back) but through the eyes of a hungry puppy. It creates a veil of naivety and genuineness that I believe really bumps up its emotional potency . We suddenly experience these themes of love, friendship, jealously, and loyalty twofold. We feel a unique connection to the puppy (the lens of the story) with whom we started with. We feel left out when he does, relieved when he does, etc. While we’re preoccupied with this, the story sneaks up behind us and slaps us on the back of the head with a story of heartbreak we all have a soft spot for.

Much like a good song, a good movie is a template on which we can overlay our own personal experiences. They give a voice to feelings we don’t know or are too afraid to confront. They visualize feelings in a way that is just distant enough for us to make the leap on our own and become provoked to call upon our past. A movie is like a puzzle made out of pieces that we have alternates for. Sure the movie will eventually put its own pieces down to finish the plot, but we can also place our own pieces down to finish it. A good story allows the greatest number of pieces to fit. It’s immensely satisfying and allows you to learn so much about yourself. This is why I love movies.

Caught in the Middle

Next I’d like to compare two unlikely partners in storytelling: Shrek and The Dude. Bear with me.

Both movies star a deadbeat protagonist completely content with their (lazy and kinda gross) lifestyles. They’re isolated, they don’t care what anyone else thinks of them, and they are happy. There is something infectious about this “no fucks given” attitude that I believe makes it extremely easy to get on their side. Ignorance is bliss.

Both movies start by setting grand expectations and then immediately squashing them. They modernize and parody old stereotypes. From Shrek’s classic fairy tale narration dumping us into the now famous montage set against Smash Mouth’s “All Star” to The Big Lebowski’s epic opening monologue paving the way for The Dude to crack open a carton of milk in the middle of a grocery store. Both these stories subvert our expectations and introduce us, not to a hero, but to the normal guy minding his own business who gets caught up in the middle of something much larger than himself.

Whether parodying classic fairy tales from the perspective of a reluctant ogre or poking fun at westerns from the perspective of a man so apathetic it’s almost impressive, these stories remain just offbeat enough to catch our attention from the opening minutes. People want to see something new. It makes us smirk when we see the same old cliche get egg on its face. It’s refreshing.

This was the first thing that came up when I searched “Shrek gif”

It’s important to note the simplicity of the protagonists’ motivations are key. Shrek just wants his swamp back. The Dude just wants a new rug. They are otherwise unaware of the bigger story they have just stumbled into, becoming unlikely heroes.

A Flawed Underdog

With the ogre caught in the middle we must see what little good there is among the bad. With the underdog we must see the flaws among all the good.

Not only does Raiders of the Lost Ark begin with one of the most gripping introductions to a movie of all time, but it’s a great example of giving us a character to fall in love with from the start. Right away we’re intrigued with an expedition through South America. After a tense moment, we’re given a proper hero’s introduction as Indiana steps out of the shadows shortly after whipping a pistol out of an explorer’s hand. Indy then leads us through a booby trap infested cave and right to the doorstep of his prize: the golden idol. After a false victory of swapping the idol for a bag of sand, Indy triggers the booby traps, causing the cave to collapse. We’re treated to one of the greatest set pieces in movie history before Indy is finally caught by the film’s antagonist, Belloq, who steals the idol right out of Indy’s hands.

With little to no dialogue (noticing a pattern here?) we’ve established this is a fearless, no-nonsense leader. We learn he knows his way around a dangerous situation and can hold his own. We also learn of his flaws. A streak of cockiness (false victory with the idol) and perhaps being a bit too trusting (“throw me the idol and I throw you the whip”).  Finally, after Indy’s efforts to retrieve the idol, Belloq simply outnumbers him, takes the idol from his hands, and states “There is nothing you possess that I cannot take”. We learn that Indy puts in the death-defying hard work but seldom comes out with the prize. Indy is set up as the underdog, perhaps the most powerful magnet for a character.

The icing on the cake comes at the end of the introduction, as Indy frantically runs from an army of native warriors, screaming for his partner to start the plane. This isn’t exactly a man with a plan. The cherry on top of course being the reveal that Indiana Jones, the fearless tomb-raiding adventurer is afraid of snakes to the point of panic. While his strengths are admirable and incredibly bad ass, it’s his weaknesses that make Indiana Jones worth rooting for. Without his flaws, Indiana Jones is merely a successful archaeologist. Cool? Sure. Would we love him? Probably not so much.

It’s the same reason we root for Ferris Bueller even though he’s sort’ve an asshole. He fights against the system, no matter how unlikely to win. We’re introduced to possibly the smuggest character in history (aka my hero) but one who oozes charisma. It’s hard not to crack a smile during his monologue. He’s immature and incredible irresponsible, but he does it in style. As Ferris breaks the fourth wall, explaining to us how to fake-sick to get out of school, I can’t help but be reminded of Macaulay Culkin, in some weird, reverse version of Home Alone. Instead of clumsily explaining exposition to a side character, he literally talks to us.

Ferris and Indy are never expected to “get away with it”, but they always barely do in the end. They ride the thin line of charm, skill, and luck in the most precarious fashion.

In Closing

Visual focus, using the empathy puzzle, an unlikely hero caught in the middle, and the flawed underdog are all devices commonly used in storytelling. Many stories incorporate all of these in some shape or form (E.T. I think does this very well).

These character traits are usually exposed in the first 10 minutes of a movie and more effectively evoked with actions rather than words. They are simple in scope and move fast enough to keep us engaged. These movies’ intros serve as micro-stories that almost everyone can relate to or be entranced by instantly.

Then…and only then, can the move begin.

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