11th Jan 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Sprite Fright is Blender's new Open Movie, now in development. You can follow progress and updates on the Cloud. Here, we share tips from director Matthew Luhn’s approach to story--for fellow directors, artists, writers, and film fans.
Since he can remember, Matthew Luhn has been preoccupied with the power of plot. Matthew’s early memories include his dad’s unusual approach to bedtime stories: Tales From The Crypt, one of several horror influences that would eventually inform Sprite Fright.
Given this unconventional background, as well as his wide-ranging experience as a writer, animator, Pixar story supervisor, and story coach, it’s unsurprising that Matthew has some eclectic ideas about how tales are told.
In fact, a vital lesson wasn't drawn from a screenwriter or novelist, but a tech legend.
Steve Jobs was Matthew’s old boss at Pixar. But this isn't the role Matthew references when he discusses Jobs' story skills. Rather, Matthew was inspired by Jobs’ masterful product presentations for Apple. In his book, The Best Story Wins, Matthew describes how Jobs would adhere to the “emotional rollercoaster” of good storytelling, alternating moments of “tension and release,” setting up a question then withholding the answer. For instance, Jobs would build tension by calling smartphones “stupid,” tease out his critique, then create release by revealing the iPhone as the solution to your smartphone-related troubles.
From Matthew’s time as The Simpsons’ youngest animator, he learned how to merge comedy with storytelling. “Comedy can be slapstick,” he says. “It can be gags. There’s visual pantomime, where you make people laugh without using words. Or there’s the notion of comedy as simply a reversal of expectations: you think that one thing will happen, but then there’s another.”
Beyond its technical aspects, Matthew is attracted to comedy as a gateway to emotional depth. “Comedy can also be blended very well with heart. Especially the early seasons of The Simpsons do this: it’s a cartoon, it’s silly, but it also ends up evoking emotion.” This idea resurfaces in Sprite Fright, where Matthew adheres to his credo of “When I make things, I always want to make people laugh,” while also conveying a sincere message.
Matthew’s passion for story is as much about brainpower as belly-laughs. He’s developed an analytical appreciation for the craft. “I’ve torn all those Pixar movies apart and rebuilt them. I’ve inspected them in order to find out what makes them tick.”
In his path to mastering story, Matthew’s studied the theories of renowned screenwriting coaches, including the likes of Robert McKee, a teacher famous for his exhaustive guidelines. Still, Matthew is careful to avoid formulae. “We all know plenty of TV shows and films that don’t adhere to perfect story structure, and they still work. You can bend those rules, and that’s fine.”
For Matthew, story is one thing above all else: entertainment. And the core of entertainment is feeling. “You make people laugh,” he says. “Make them scared.” Preferably, you alternate the extremes, taking the crowd on that rollercoaster Matthew so admired in Steve Jobs’ presentations.
Of course, selling a smartphone and telling a convincing story in film aren’t directly comparable. For one, film needs a protagonist. “Call them heroes, main characters, whatever you want,” says Matthew. “In order to make them relatable to your audience, you need to give them a clear goal.”
And then you need a hook. By Matthew’s reckoning, you have mere moments to hit your audience with a conflict, some unexpected set-up or startling idea. An example from Matthew's own CV: "What if a rat wanted to become a French chef?" The response is, of course, Ratatouille.
Of course, a blog post of a few hundred words can’t do justice to a lifetime dedicated to storytelling. If you’d like to know more about Matthew Luhn’s approach to story, a good place to start is his book The Best Story Wins. Amongst its excellent advice is a deep awareness of how our species is wired for story, from early "storyboards" on cave walls to Disney. Story is part of the reason our species bonded and survived. After all, the people who listened to a story about where to find bison and avoid tigers lived another day. And those who didn't...well, their descendants aren't around to make movies in Blender.
As Sprite Fright moves into production, Matthew is keeping story front and center. “The part that’s always the north star when you’re making something is figuring out the story. You can’t guess on that. It’s not going to get solved when you start animating. You’ve got to make the story work. I love the Sprite Fright story, and I think it’s just going to get better.”