Here's my nearly 52-minute conversation with Studio Sherpas about our journey in and out of weddings, how to break down barriers, and some solid debate around the value of going deeper with your work.
I was scrolling on Facebook a couple weeks back and saw this rather insightful post from Nino Leitner.
He was judging an international wedding video competition and was pretty stunned with what he was seeing.
He sure is right–the cinematography in wedding films has gone through the roof.
Leveraging new technology, the understanding of light, lenses, and composition, and folks getting far more adventurous in post.
Sadly, he was also right on his many other points.
The one that particularly caught my interest was this:
"How bad the storytelling is."
What a wild paradox we have on our hands. A collection of gorgeous pixels that come together to say very little.
Now I used to be a wedding filmmaker back in the day. In fact, it’s how I cut my teeth in this whole filmmaking biz. With a background in psychology, my interest was less in the wedding and more with the people.
Right before we transitioned out of weddings into full-time commercial work and education, we were charging between $20-50k for a wedding collection. Now I certainly don’t want to say that the price paid equals quality, but I do believe we must have been doing something right.
And so today I’d love to take a moment and share my perspective on where we’ve gone so drastically wrong with wedding videos today.
If nothing else, I hope these ideas help you reconsider your approach so that it may be as intentional as possible.
1. The couples could be replaced by mannequins and the results would be eerily similar.
This one is tough for some people to really grasp if they haven’t spent a lot of time understanding story.
What’s the difference?
Well, character is about depth, desire, and intention. Truly developing a character involves imparting their personality on the audience. When you’re done, you should get a sense of who these people truly are.
But the reality is, most couples are simply interchangeable. That means that you could swap in a different couple with the same venue, attire, and details and you’d end up with the same wedding film.
The people, and who they are uniquely, have done little to influence the content being created.
Now I can hear some of you starting to get defensive. “My clients just want me to cover their wedding day, and they always love what I put together.”
If you’re making music-video type pieces that make YOU and your client happy, then all the power to you. But realize that the idea of capturing character in your wedding video is what allows for who these people truly are to be communicated to future generations.
Sure, it may be funny to look at Sally’s wedding dress from 30 years ago. But when Sally’s long gone, I bet those around her will value something that helps communicate her essence far more.
Check out this wedding film we did for Winnie and Jerry in California many, many moons ago. Watch it not for the cinematography, ‘cool shots’, or even the storytelling. But rather, I invite you to pay attention to the characters.
Watch Winnie and Jerry and, at the end of the video, ask yourself how much you know about them.
That’s character development.
Want to do fewer music videos or more character-driven stories?
Try getting to know those who are getting married. Not for their wedding colors, bridal party, or budget size. But for what truly moves them, what they dream about, and what continually brings them together.
Our favorite question used to be “what’s your favorite cookie?” Such a simple question yet it can say so much about somebody not just in what they answer, but how they answer.
2. The story structure has become more predictable than Wheel Of Fortune for 3rd graders.
Don’t believe me just how predictable they’ve become? Choose 5 wedding videos at random and watch just the first 5 shots and I bet you’ll see a drone in the majority of them.
As Nino clearly noticed, drones are being used a ton. But rarely are they used legally, or properly. A pretty camera in the sky does not a story make.
In it’s simplest form we can think of a story in threes–beginning, middle, and ending. Now, if that means your wedding video always starts with morning, into the afternoon, then evening–it becomes quite predictable, no?
Some have decided to push back on this wave of predictability by putting shots and sequences in a totally random order. But that’s no more effective than giving a friend driving directions by deciding to put all the turns in a random order.
Why is it important to not be predictable?
Well, the moment you know what’s going to happen, most will lose interest. Which is way a general audience can’t make it through more than 12 seconds of an average wedding film.
Your story’s structure is what can create engagement in your film. At the most basic level, the goal is to try and get the audience invested and have them wanting to know what happens. Hollywood and documentaries often employ conflict to grab your attention and set the characters off on a journey.
Admittedly that is harder to embrace in a wedding film, but that’s no excuse for not doing everything in your power to at least salvage some semblance of a plot within your video.
Check out Jess and Brian’s Irish wedding film. This time pay special attention to story structure and look at how the narrative is woven together.
It’s not predictable, yet also not random.
I hope you feel like you’ve gone on somewhat of a journey into how and why they took on this Irish wedding and what is about. And at the end, I hope you really feel like you get these two people.
Want to increase the plot within your wedding videos?
Make a list of everything happening that day and do as much intel as possible. Try to check out the vows, the speeches, the ceremony program–anything you can get your hands on.
Look over everything you can find and try to make connections. Try to find themes between materials. Perhaps somebody talked about dad wearing a kilt and you expect he may actually be wearing one at one part of the wedding celebration. Or maybe somebody else will talk about the groom’s love for drinking and you might just be able to capture that in the days leading up to the wedding.
Find new ways to string together your story and lean more in character–who these people are–and less on the prescriptive formula of a wedding video.
Now again I have this sense that some of you are getting defensive. How in the heck can you spend all this time looking at materials for just one wedding, plus shooting events around the wedding when you have over 50 in a year to capture?
And to that, I'd reply...
3. The needle is dropped down on the last song of the record.
I’m going to get a lot of flack for this one, but I truly believe that a wedding is more than just one day. Somehow, at some time, somebody decreed “WEDDING VIDEOS MAY ONLY BE FILMED BETWEEN 6AM AND 10PM THE DAY THE COUPLE GETS MARRIED” and everybody else fell in line.
But the wedding day, the actual marriage, it’s much more the crescendo of the story–it isn’t the whole story. While you’re spending late nights in the edit bay trying to crank through the never-ending backlog, people are falling in love, they’re proposing, they are coming closer together, and then eventually they marry.
If you were a sports filmmaker, you’d be shooting just the last three minutes of the fourth quarter.
Now let me be clear–I’m not suggesting you go out and film for weeks leading up to the wedding at no charge. No, no, no. Instead, consider getting to know your couple (see step one), looking for connections between all the events that are happening (see step two), and then proposing a story that goes beyond the wedding day.
Remember this. You run a business in which you’re highest billable time is when you are out shooting. So why the heck wouldn’t you consider broadening the billable days beyond just that of the wedding?
We’ve shown up at 6 am to film the bride’s father milking cows on the family farm. We’ve arrived months in advance to follow the bride as she tries to find the perfect dress (after 100 failed attempts). And one time we even went on a hunt to get broll of rubber duckies and tomatoes (Asa and Coralie will always hold a special place in my heart).
Check out this film, An Italian Polaroid, and look at how all of these ideas come together.
The story comes together over multiple days, you get to know real people, and the story structure is far from predictable. Yes, we spent another 5 hours developing the creative and another 8 hours filming outside of the wedding, but we also billed over $20,000.
This ‘story' thing in wedding videos is really worth your time to consider.
Now here’s the thing, the really big point I hope all of your remember–the wedding is just a backdrop, it’s the people that make the story.
Get to know these people–really, truly, deeply–and you’ll find many creative sparks on how to approach their film in unique and intentional ways.
I may not shoot weddings anymore, but I’ve felt the grind, and I have a deep passion for helping other wedding filmmakers create better content and get paid what they’re worth while doing it.
Here's a quick recap if you'd like to take your wedding storytelling deeper:
- Get to know the couple and think about how you can shoot content that helps to convey them uniquely. An hour of focused pre-production can pay massive returns.
- Try to develop a story structure that is neither predictable nor random. Do your research and look for themes or common elements that you can use to string the narrative together. Remember that your goal is engagement, so try to give the audience a reason to watch.
- Consider starting your story before the wedding day. If you have things that are relevant to the couple and would make for a far better story, consider suggesting additional coverage and looking at how you can really broaden your paradigm of what a wedding video has to be.
UPDATE–this post caused so much controversy, we did a follow-up podcast, which you can find here.
Now, if you want to take your wedding business to the next level, I invite you to join me on a webinar next Tuesday, March 28th at 1:00PM PST "How To Build An Irresistible Wedding Brand That Sells”.
To make this as accessible as possible for filmmakers of all levels, we have a flexible pricing model of just $89 to $189. That’s for the 2.5 hour webinar, a recording, and some powerful resources before and after.
We’ve got less than 200 spots left, so head on over here for more info.
Personally, I’m really excited to challenge all of you to see what’s possible for both your weddings and your business.
Most of you have spent your entire career looking at the world through a camera with a fixed lens. But the truth is, those damn lenses have been interchangeable all along and all you have to do is click it off and try a much broader perspective on for a moment.
Over the past 10 years, as we’ve worked to build a powerful and repeatable storytelling process for filmmakers, we’ve studied pretty much everything under the sun even vaguely related to story.
In fact, Muse is really the culmination of many different storytelling philosophies, mixed in with a healthy dose of psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience for good measure.
But this post isn’t about Muse. Instead, it’s about one of the most enduring and prolific story structures of all time. I’m talking, of course, about the Hero’s Journey.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Hero’s Journey, and I’m 100% certain you’ve seen its principles at work in many of your favorite films. From Casablanca to Star Wars, from Lion King to Lord of the Rings, the Hero’s Journey is everywhere.
And it’s not just used in films either. You can find elements of the Hero’s Journey at play in just about every type of storytelling media imaginable, from books to plays to video games and beyond.
So this post will break down the basics of what you need to know to start putting the Hero’s Journey to use in your own stories.
Lastly, if you really want to supercharge your knowledge of this framework, you should check out our cool Hero’s Journey ebook, which has even more depth on these storytelling principles, along with beautifully illustrated story examples.
To get it, just enter your email address below and you’ll be able to download it right away!
Where Did the Hero’s Journey Come From?
In his seminal 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell lifted the veil on what he called the “monomyth.”
After an illustrious career studying mythology across different cultures and time periods, Campbell discovered something fascinating.
Without fail, the vast majority of myths followed the same basic story patterns. They had the same overarching structure, contained the same types of characters, and had the same universal themes.
Basically, humans from every corner of the earth had been using these basic story elements to communicate with each other for thousands of years.
Campbell then put the pieces together, gave them names, and solidified everything into a neat and cohesive structure. And just like that, the Hero’s Journey was born.
Why On Earth Is It So Powerful?
Story structures on their own aren’t particularly powerful or useful. For instance, just stringing together a series of plot points in the right order has little inherent value.
Where storytelling becomes incredibly powerful, though, is when it connects to us on a deeper, more fundamental level. Luckily, the Hero’s Journey has built-in mechanisms for creating those types of connections.
There’s something about it that appeals to the deep-seeded psychological patterns and tendencies that all (or at least most) humans have.
In essence, it taps into our innate human desire to become better versions of ourselves. It gives us a sense that real, meaningful transformation is possible. It shows us that we can become stronger, overcome our inner and outer obstacles, and win the day.
Plus, as an added bonus, the various character archetypes and themes and inner struggles of the journey can be understood and felt across cultures. It's a truly universal storytelling technique because it ties into so many fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
And that’s what makes the Hero’s Journey such an invaluable tool for storytellers. It’s not just a useful template for crafting stories that enthrall a wide range of audiences, but it helps storytellers connect with them on a deeper, more emotional level.
So um... How Does It Work?
Alright, so let’s get into the fun stuff and discuss how this actually works.
The Hero’s Journey is broken down into 12 distinct phases, and each serves a purpose in moving the story forward and connecting us not just with the hero, but with the overarching themes.
Here’s the breakdown of the 12 phases:
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
We’re introduced to the Hero in the Ordinary World. In this stage, we’re just getting to know him, seeing first hand the people and places that fill his life, and what he cares about. But ideally, we’ll get much more.
Think of this kind of like a first date. But not a cheesy one with lots of awkward silences and superficial questions and answers. One filled with fascinating and relatable insights about who this person really is.
Since we’re going to experience the Journey from the Hero’s perspective, it’s important that this stage is used to help us identify with him as deeply as possible.
2. CALL TO ADVENTURE
Once we’re established in the Ordinary World, something powerful needs to happen to start the Hero on his journey. Otherwise, he’ll continue living just as he always has.
The Call to Adventure can be anything. It can be an external event or an internal realization of some kind. It can be the introduction of a new character, or the disappearance of an important object. Maybe it’s just an unexpected text message or piece of mail.
Whatever it is, it needs to throw the Ordinary World out of balance, be high stakes enough that the Hero must take action, and, if you really want to up your storytelling game, tap into Hero’s fears and anxieties.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL
At first, the Hero will refuse the Call to Action. He may even balk at the prospect of taking a journey of any kind. After all, the Ordinary World is a comfortable place for him.
He’ll try to rationalize all the reasons he shouldn’t embark on this journey, but in truth, it’s almost always fear that’s holding him back. Accepting the call would threaten his established identity. It would mean embracing an uncertain future.
However, at a certain point, he simply must accept the call. He has no other choice.
4. MEETING THE MENTOR
Even though the Hero is ready to embark on his journey, he likely doesn’t know where to start. Before heading off into the unknown, he needs the right information, tools, and mindsets so that he can be prepared for whatever comes his way.
And that’s where the Mentor comes in.
The Mentor is most often a person who can impart their hard-earned wisdom and experiences to the Hero to better prepare him for his own journey.
However, the Mentor can also be something as simple as a map, a clue, or the discovery of information that will give the Hero confidence to begin the journey. In the digital age, the Mentor stage could be fulfilled with a nice google search montage (preferably set to Eye of the Tiger).
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
This is the point of no return. Once our Hero crosses this (usually symbolic) line, he’s fully committed to the journey ahead, no matter what it has in store.
Often though, the Hero is still reluctant to enter in the Special World of their journey. It might even take another event (something that amplifies the stakes of the story) to get them moving. Or maybe the Mentor gives them a good swift kick in the rear.
Upon crossing the threshold, the Hero is now in the Special World, where there are new rules, new values, new people. The journey has officially begun.
6. TESTS, ALLIES, & ENEMIES
Now that our Hero has officially entered the Special World, the real fun begins.
This is where he starts testing his courage and abilities by overcoming obstacles. It’s where he begins to encounter Allies (people who help him through a challenge or join him on his journey), as well as Enemies.
7. APPROACHING THE INNERMOST CAVE
After getting acquainted with the Special World and making it through a series of early tests, our Hero is ready to approach the Innermost Cave.
Think of this as the place (either physical or mental) where the central conflict of the journey takes place. Everything that’s happened so far has been building to a climactic encounter in the Innermost Cave.
But before an approach can be made, the Hero must prepare. He must steel himself before facing his fears head on.
8. THE ORDEAL
At last our Hero is in the heart of the conflict, facing his fears and taking action despite them.
However, in this stage, his Enemies are stronger than he is. He’s on the verge of death, either in a real or metaphorical sense, and the audience should feel at its lowest point. There must be a sense that all hope is lost.
But from death, our Hero is reborn, stronger than before and ready to continue his Journey. He slays the dragon, wins the day, and overcomes his greatest fear.
9. THE HERO SEIZES THE REWARD
After his trials and tribulations, our Hero has earned a reward.
Rewards come in many forms. In the old myths, it was often something tangible like an elixir or magical sword. But it can also be intangible — greater wisdom and insight, a renewed sense of courage, deeper connection with the world or oneself. The possibilities for rewards are endless.
All that matters is that it’s something the Hero has wanted and needed all along, something that was missing from his life in the Ordinary World.
10. THE ROAD BACK
The Hero must now complete his journey and make his way back to the Ordinary World. It won’t be smooth sailing, though. It almost never is.
Just like Crossing the Threshold into the Special World and journeying to the Innermost Cave, the Road Back is paved with additional conflict. Think about it. Some of the greatest chase scenes in movie history come after the Hero takes their reward and flees the Special World as fast as they can.
The Hero has made his way back into the Ordinary World. Now it’s time for one final battle.
This is his final test. It’s all about asking: has our Hero really become stronger and more courageous through his journey, or was it all a fluke?
By making it through one last encounter (maybe even one that puts our Hero on the edge of death again), he shows that he’s grown immensely from his journey. Not only that, but the knowledge he’s picked up along the way is just as applicable in the Ordinary World.
And indeed, once he’s overcome the final obstacle in the Ordinary World, our Hero proves he really has been transformed by the journey.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
Our Hero returns to the Ordinary World with the spoils of his journey, otherwise known as the Elixir.
Again, the Elixir can be something tangible like an item of value, but more often than not, it’s something deep within the soul of our Hero. He’s stronger now. He’s beaten his demons. He’s followed through on something important, and has grown as a result.
Life returns to normal for our Hero. But it’s an even better sense of normal than the one he started with. As a result of his journey, he’s created a better version of himself and a better life.
All is right in the world. That is, until a new Call to Action arrives and the cycle begins again.
Will my stories feel “stale” if I use Hero’s Journey?
This is far and away one of the largest objections people have to using the Hero’s Journey in their own work.
Though the Hero’s Journey can and has been used as a plug and play formula, we’d almost always recommend viewing it more as a flexible set of guidelines.
If you follow the structure too rigidly, you definitely run the risk of telling a story that feels obvious and stilted and maybe a little bit trite. Most everybody, regardless of whether they know it or not, is familiar with the Hero’s Journey. It’s practically in our DNA at this point.
So as storytellers, it’s in our best interest to dress it up a little and use it subtly, maybe expanding on some of the stages and shuffling them around a bit. And definitely feel free to play around with character archetypes and keep audiences on their toes.
Where the Hero’s Journey still shines, regardless of how you use it, is in giving us a framework for a compelling and relatable inner journey for our main character. The plot points and supporting characters and structure are still important, but it’s the Hero’s inner journey towards overcoming fear that makes the story ultimately resonate.
If you can get that part right, you’re on the right track.