An excellent collaboration between three organizations (National Park Service, Global Explorers, Madhouse) serves as a model for broad communication of an environmental issue.

THE DAY THE LIGHTS WENT OUT. A great video collaboration of three groups.



Last December, Dorie Barton, Brian Palermo and I conducted our storytelling workshop with the wonderful folks of the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. A couple months later, one of them sent us the above video they had just commissioned, seeking our opinion (hoping that we would approve). All three of us were thoroughly impressed, telling them it is the very embodiment of all that we teach in our workshop.

What a great piece of work. Which makes twice now that the folks we’ve run the workshop with have produced excellent work — the other being the NRDC folks with their couch video that we raved about last month (we did a workshop with them last August). Let me now extoll the virtues of this video.

STORY DEVELOPMENT – Each of the three groups played their respective roles. The National Park Service folks decided they wanted a short video that kids would connect with about the value of night skies. They partnered with the Global Explorers, who work with groups of kids and know the audience well. They in turn contacted Madhouse Productions in Toledo, Ohio who came up with the great little story of the kid and the night skies. I spoke with Rob Seiffert of Madhouse who directed the piece. He said their entire company threw their hearts into the production of the film. It really shows.

NARRATIVE – What a great little story. It’s set in total “storytelling mode” which is just about the broadest possible voice. It actually feels a lot like Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” from a couple years ago. It’s a simple story, yet there’s a few twists and turns along the way.

Notice the story conforms completely to the “And, But, Therefore” template we talk about in the workshop. The story begins at 0:10 with a number of expositional facts: a “man” bought a house AND began painting the night sky AND his paintings sold like hot cakes BUT (right at 0:50) the stars disappeared as the man lost the night. They hit a second BUT moment at 1:05 with “But with every flipped switch …” which just elaborates on the first one. Then at 1:25 the narrator says, “Til one day he went out …” which is pretty much the same as the THEREFORE element — it’s the action he took in response to the circumstances.

In a single sentence you could restate this story as, “A man painted the night sky AND did well selling his paintings BUT then one day over-development ruined the night skies THEREFORE he figured out a way to put the lights out and restore his night skies.”

This is why the story works so well — it has a good, simple, logical structure to it. This is what story development is about — smoothing out the pieces of a story so they make sense and flow smoothly like this.

PRODUCTION VALUE – Amazing job from Madhouse Productions working on a limited budget. It looks like a major movie production, but was made for a fraction of the cost of what folks in Hollywood would have needed. This is one of the benefits of working with production companies outside of Hollywood. Having shot films here for nearly twenty years, I can assure you of this.

CASTING – The kid does an excellent job. There’s no dialogue, which helps, but still, there is performance involved in EVERYTHING when you’re making a film. I once had a film where we needed a close-up shot of a hand picking up a pen. I ended up letting my assistant director do the directing for the one shot as I took a break. When I saw the footage in dailies I couldn’t believe it — the actor’s hand came into the frame, paused for a second, then picked up the pen clumsily. Even something that simple can end up with a bad performance. Directing is endless. The kid is perfect.

MUSIC SCORE – Great calliope music, perfectly scored to the entire film — not just “needle drop.” It helps move the story along and bring it to a solid conclusion.

VOICEOVER – The narrator’s voice is so incredibly close to Morgan Freeman that two of my friends immediately said, “Oh, I love Morgan Freeman!” I’m not sure that’s actually a perfect thing. It’s the one element that’s a little odd, perhaps, but there’s no way that’s a shortcoming — to perfectly replicate one of the best and most distinctive narration voices in cinema.

Overall, it’s really a great film that I’m sure will have very long “legs” because of it’s high quality. No, it doesn’t give you a ton of factoids about night skies — that’s what websites are for. What it does do is hit you inside at an emotional level on why clear night skies matter.

The most important comment I have overall is that film is first and foremost an entertainment medium. It just is. Members of the general public expect films to be at least lightly entertaining. Information bogs down a film. You might say, “but what about documentaries?” Look at what Michael Moore did with that medium — he produced his wildly entertaining documentaries and set all the box office records. It’s just the way it is. It’s about the “arouse and fulfill” dictum — use the film to arouse the audience, then the website to fulfill the interest you have stirred.

This film is lightly entertaining. It’s great. It will have a long life. Congratulations to everyone involved. It’s a role model for all we are advocating with our workshops.