Storytelling, team-building, and the magic in between. A conversation with Stillmotion. / by Dom Sinacola

"When you’re first starting out, there’s nothing more important than just getting out there and doing it…" – Joyce

"When you’re first starting out, there’s nothing more important than just getting out there and doing it…" – Joyce

The story of Stillmotion is all about collaboration.

Or maybe flip that around: for Stillmotion, collaboration is all about story.

For more than a decade, from wedding films to a feature-length documentary and the Final Four, from Toronto all the way across the continent to the West Coast, the filmmakers in Stillmotion—a full-service production studio based out of Portland, OR—have always depended on story to guide them—their past, their present, and wherever they’re going next.

Which may be obvious, especially here at Story & Heart where we believe we are all telling our life story, right now, that we are all contributing to some greater narrative—that we will all have a beginning, middle, and end, both individually and as a community—but that’s exactly the point:

Story defines us. Just as much as it helps us understand who we are alone, it shows us who we can be together.

For Patrick Moreau, a co-founder and director at Stillmotion, story is where psychology and philosophy meet, and then hardily shake hands:

How do I connect to other people and other things and make sense of the world? So much of it is in separating oursel[ves] from the universe and then needing a way to connect back and connect with other people. It’s like the fabric of society and community and connection and communication. ...story is just how we connect to everybody around us.

Story demonstrates how we can understand ourselves apart from the world, but then shows us, more importantly, how we’re hardwired to bridge that gap—to re-connect.

So, what does this all mean for Stillmotion’s story? According to Patrick, a good storyteller, visual or otherwise, is by nature someone who celebrates collaboration:

It’s part of the evolution of the industry that we’re in, where we’re seeing that paradigm shift...this larger consciousness that we are all on the same team. That we are going to make this craft better when we do it together. That we don’t see ourselves as islands and individuals and competition.

"Those that collaborate realize that you gain much more by giving than by trying to keep everything to yourself." – Patrick

"Those that collaborate realize that you gain much more by giving than by trying to keep everything to yourself." – Patrick

Team-building: it’s been something at the core of Stillmotion since it began in a psychology student’s dorm room over ten years ago. It’s been essential to the studio’s growth, as has visual storytelling, and with these two facets in sync, Stillmotion has been able to take on the kind of exciting, broad, far-reaching projects that keep them passionate, curious, and confident about the power of the craft they’ve devoted themselves to.

With that, we recently sat down at Stillmotion’s Portland studio to pick Patrick's and Director of Photography Joyce Tsang's brains about that intersection of story and community.

And just as on April 29th, during our Ask Us Anything Event, when you’ll be able to ask Joyce and Patrick what makes their filmmaking hearts tick—ask them that one nagging question about filmmaking or storytelling that you’ve never had the chance to ask—we took the opportunity to ask our own burning inquiry:

How does understanding story help me build a team of collaborators?

Or, scratch that: how does understanding how to build a team of collaborators help me tell better stories?

Care of the folks at Stillmotion, here are 4 ideas that make team-building and storytelling two sides of the same filmmaking coin.

1. Both story and collaboration are biological impulses.

This is an idea we’ve explored many times before, especially when discussing Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, but still, we’d never pass up a chance to remind anyone in eye-shot how organically human beings are connected to story and community, how both are yardsticks for mental well-being.

Patrick told us about a study he read that identified how the human brain is affected by story:

...they found that the two main neurotransmitters [activated] were oxytocin and cortisol, which correlate to empathy and stress.

...you look at stress, stress conflict, which is a cornerstone of journey and story, and you look at empathy, which is connection, and why we use story. If you look at it from a scientific background, so much of story is about connection and conflict. ...It’s really fascinating that you can look at it philosophically—process and structure—yet it boils down to a chemical basis in the exact same formula...

In a short film Stillmotion made for Canon, “Pulse”, which chronicled the creation of BioBeats, a phone app that measures your heartbeat—through the phone’s camera lens, no less—and then converts it to music, stress very literally became the catalyst for collaboration.

Talk about a new way of “listening” to one’s body.

Just as storytelling is necessary to identifying ourselves, all the way down to the chemical reactions that course through our brains, so is collaboration a necessity: we work together because we need to.

Joyce can’t help but agree:

The exciting thing for me when we talk about collaboration, at least in filmmaking, is that it’s almost always needed. There [are] so many roles that need to be filled that you can always find a way to collaborate with someone if that’s what you want to do.

2. Both story and collaboration can be intimidating.

Since storytelling is so imprinted into the essence of who we are, it’s not a stretch for any filmmaker to convince him- or herself that there’s no story left worth telling, nothing new to say that someone else hasn’t already said so much better.

Patrick:

...as a studio, I think the goal is trying to tell stories that other people won’t tell. And either they won’t tell them because they can’t see how and they don’t have the confidence to, or they won’t tell them because they don’t see the story in the same way we do. So we’re looking for stories and things to say that nobody else can say.

Collaboration can be similarly scary, especially in filmmaking, which has in the past decade become a freelancer’s world. This means that creators who have worked for so long on their own, or with an exceptionally small (two-person, say) crew, assume that the industry just simply works that way.

Paranoia takes over. Patrick continues:

So often we’re scared...we put ourselves back in that little shell and like: “I don’t want to show anybody.” But yeah when you share it, when you open yourself up for that, it makes you an infinitely better storyteller and you will progress at an exponential rate…

Storytelling isn’t meant to hold one experience above others, but to connect us, to give us a way in, access to the greater experience we all share. In the same way, a truly collaborative team will celebrate the unique individual while championing the greater whole.

In fact, Stillmotion’s “Old Skool Cafe” is all about what happens when people who feel like they have nothing to contribute, or nothing worthwhile to give or say—or who have for the most part never once in their lives worked with a community before—come together to tell their stories to build something bigger than themselves.

Just as a story is a whole greater than the sum of its combined narratives, so one must build a team around each member’s individual talents, giving each person a vital part to play in something so much grander than whatever they could build alone.

3. Both story and collaboration reach for bigger, broader things.

There is no shortage of ambition within the Stillmotion ranks. Which is probably why they chose to tell stories through film as opposed to any other venue, creative or otherwise.

It’s the producer in me. It’s the efficiency. You can impact more people with less...You have to take [the audience] outside of their comfort zone, and you have to push them to understand themselves and what this is about in a different way.

That was Patrick, who sees film as a medium intended for accessibility. Joyce speaks about visual storytelling more personally:

"...because I’m female or I’m smaller...there’s different ways around that, and whether that’s gear or that’s story, it’s all about how you approach it that makes a big difference." – Joyce

"...because I’m female or I’m smaller...there’s different ways around that, and whether that’s gear or that’s story, it’s all about how you approach it that makes a big difference." – Joyce

I feel like we can tell a much better story when we’re connected to that story in some way. Whether it’s the character, cause, or what have you...If we genuinely care and want to make the story known, then we can do a much better job at it than if we pick a story that we really didn’t care for.

Be it a narrative well told or a team well built, both story and collaboration expand our perspectives in ways impossible to perceive on our own.

Joyce continues, speaking not only as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but as someone who is only 5’1”:

...if you look at [my size] as less of a challenge, but how can I bring another perspective to the story?...

Gear being more accessible, and having the education that’s available in our industry now, and having the internet, I think it’s more about finding a way to connect with the story and finding your own perspective to tell it…

Joyce isn’t speaking about Stillmotion’s connection to broader social causes, necessarily, but that as a woman, her perspective is essential to her visual stories reaching as many hearts as possible—both within her team at Stillmotion and without.

Take their film, “The Last of the San People”, which was made in the midst of the team's filming a much more expansive documentary feature, #standwithme.

The film covers some broad topics—from the preservation of indigenous cultures to the impact of cross-cultural values—but what each person in the film shares is just that: the inherent sense that they are sharing in something so much more important than themselves.

It’s written in the film’s description on Vimeo too:

Some stories you can't not tell.

Which cores straight to the heart of the power of story and collaboration: with an almost mythical awe, we can be a part of something that will reach so many more people than only one of us could, that can touch every one of those people personally—by reflecting something essential to the the human condition—and that can, in turn, change the world.

4. Both story and collaboration are unending.

So, congratulations, you’ve changed the world. Now what?

Let’s think about this differently. We asked Patrick when he knows a story is done:

So I think that while it’s still super subjective—there’s not like all of a sudden a red light goes on and we can be like: OK, we can walk away—you are asking yourself: have these things been communicated to a strong degree?

It’s a valid question, especially considering the origin of #standwithme, where the crew met the Harr family half-way through their lemonade stand run, and left before...well, not to be facetious, but they left before slavery was done.

Joyce levels with us:

...you need to know what you want to say before you go into a film. Because if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to communicate, then you’re just spinning a wheel, you’re always going on, saying like, "Do I have it yet or not?" We always talk about your take-away: if you know what that is, then it’s a lot easier to figure out when that story’s done.

Which is more than a testament to planning ahead. What Joyce is saying is that storytelling is in itself a process that will never end.

We will always be telling stories, and we will always be storytellers—one story is just one piece of the big story we’ll always be telling.

"So often we just think about the camera and lens and the light...but so much more of it is the experience you create not just for the talent, the subject, the person in your film, but for your team as a whole." – Patrick

"So often we just think about the camera and lens and the light...but so much more of it is the experience you create not just for the talent, the subject, the person in your film, but for your team as a whole." – Patrick

We just have to focus on what that one piece is communicating, and make sure it does so clearly.

Collaboration works in much the same way, as in: it never stops working. Which is why Stillmotion is so invested in education. Just check out their Vimeo page, and you’ll see one one tutorial after another.

By teaching others what you know, by sharing your knowledge and experience within the context of a fostered community, you learn just as much in return. And one can never stop learning.

Collaborating, exactly like storytelling, is a matter of growing together: sharing a journey, not to reach the end, but to support each other along the path.

A teacher is a leader, and for every team Stillmotion builds, they in turn learn one more thing about what collaboration means. As Patrick says about leadership:

In task-based leadership...you just deliver the sum of your parts. But you truly get immersion, you truly get something greater when people are connected and there is open, honest collaboration.

And if story is a human being’s most primal point of connection to others, communities, and ideas greater than the individual, then it must be true for the storyteller in the same way it’s true for a leader: magic happens when we work together.

Patrick and Joyce will be two of the incredible filmmakers that will be joining Story & Heart for our Ask Us Anything Live Community Event—and we couldn’t be happier to continue to engage them in conversation, but this time with all of your filmmaking and storytelling questions!

Follow the action live right here.

Or to participate with the live Google+ Hangout On Air, join our #HangoutWithHeart here.

Share this event with your friends and fellow filmmakers by using the hashtag #HangoutWithHeart and then tune in at 6:00 PM PST!

And meanwhile, if you have additional questions for Stillmotion that you weren’t able to ask when registering, a good place to put them would be in the comments below. Either that, or keep them in your pocket and have them on hand during the live event itself, when we’ll try to get to as many additional questions as we can.