Three Act Structure

By Lee Manansala

Take a look at this film by my friend, classmate, and colleague, Jeremy Brunjes, who is teaching DMA’s digital filmmaking courses for teens @ George Washington University in Washington DC this summer :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMc6VRsbnlg

It’s a four-minute black and white film with no dialogue, shot in three days (it would have likely taken less than two days had it been shot on video rather than film) by a crew of five people.  There are two main characters and it takes place entirely in one location.  The film cost about $500 to produce, most of which was spent on food for the cast and crew, props, and costumes.  Jeremy and I are of the same low-budget, “get out there and shoot” spirit, so he’d be pleased by my following assessment: it doesn’t get simpler than this.  This simple little film earned its maker a 6-month exclusive screening deal through LStudio.com and has screened at numerous film festivals, including Jackson Hole Film Festival and Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.  The film is a success because it’s story is very well structured, its main character is active and easily relateable, and the film’s coverage—shot selection—is thoughtful and economical (there isn’t a single unnecessary shot).  The technical aspects of filmmaking—the camera equipment and editing and authoring software—are hugely important and must be learned, but story, character and coverage trump all.  This, more than anything, is what I try to impart on my students at Digital Media Academy.

Indulge me for a second.  Imagine if you will, a skeleton (preferably a human skeleton, but whatever works for you).  The skeleton must be structurally sound in order for the body to function properly, right?  And no matter what kind of body that skeleton is supporting, all skeletons look more or less the same.  This is story structure, and in particular this is three-act film story structure.  Act one introduces a main character and he or she has a dilemma to solve, an evil to escape, or a goal to achieve.  Act two involves the main character dealing with that dilemma, escaping that evil, or reaching towards that goal.  Act three is the resolution.  The character does or does not solve the problem, escape the evil or achieve her goal.  In short: character needs something, character tries to fulfill that need, character ultimately succeeds or fails.  Sounds simple, right?  Stiflingly simple, in fact.  But this is, after all, just the skeleton, and it’s the stuff the skeleton is supporting that makes a body interesting.  It’s the characters in the story, the things they say and do, the needs they try to fill, the people, places and things they encounter along the way—this is what we remember about the films we love.  Napoleon Dynamite is an awkward teen trying to navigate his way through adolescence.  Bruce Wayne is a cocky billionaire trying to balance his need to fight evil and his need for personal happiness.  Two completely different characters from two completely different movies.  The movies do have two things in common, though.  I love them immensely and their stories, when it comes down to it, are identical.

My point is this:  I don’t want to limit my students, and I have never stifled their creativity in any way.  The characters and situations my students come up with are wonderfully inventive and unique.  But whether they’re looking to entertain a sudden interest in making movies, or if they’ve been looking through a director’s viewfinder since age 5, I feel it is my duty to point them in the right direction.  It is an ability to tell a good story that gets you into a top tier film conservatory (Jeremy and I can attest to this).  A producer won’t even read your script if within the first ten pages it’s clear that the story structure isn’t sound.  You’ll never get hired as an editor if you can’t recognize that a shot or a sequence isn’t adding anything to the story.   But never forget that it’s your creativity that makes you you, it’s what distinguishes you from every other filmmaker, and it is what makes the digital filmmaking for teens courses at Digital Media Academy so much fun.  The course allows you to take your creativity and actually create something.  It just so happens that you’re creating within the most popular, complex, and collaborative artistic medium the world has ever known.  Sounds intimidating, but believe me, it’s actually pretty simple, and really fun.

I am set to teach the digital filmmaking courses for teens at Harvard and Brown, but in the meantime, I’d love to answer any film and video related questions you might have.  I’m easily reachable—and friendable—at:

www.facebook.com/lee.manansala

You can check our Jeremy’s award winning work at:

http://www.jeremybrunjes.com/

Sign up for classes at DMA’s website:

stage-news.digitalmediaacademy.org