Stillmotion’s “Our Journey Home” & How the MUSE Storytelling Process Guided Stillmotion’s Creative Choices in Making It.

by Karin GottschalkLeave a Comment

The problems of this world often feel so acute, so insoluble that too often we tend to believe that nothing can be done about them, that there is no hope.

They overwhelm us and a helpless despair sets in. We freeze up. We give up. It is even easier to succumb when we find ourselves alone, apart from others like us. Isolation can exist in the middle of a city of millions just as easily as in the midst of a desert.

One solution available to us creative types is to go out of our way to find others with similar interests, especially if one of them is the desire to help solve the world’s problems or at least draw effective attention to them. One voice in the wilderness can be ignored. Two or more are a little harder to dismiss.

A movie studio in Portland, Oregon, came about when more than two likeminded individuals got together to “embrace the magnetic force of an artfully crafted story”.

Stillmotion”, states that movie studio’s About Us page, “started in weddings as a way to buy camera gear while in University.” But it was Stillmotion’s approach to story that got them noticed, not the gear they owned, and led to a string of heartwarming and award-winning documentary movies. ‘Our Journey Home’ is Stillmotion’s latest.

‘Our Journey Home’, made for ReThink, an initiative in support of the benefits of public housing in the United States, features six main characters who turned their lives around with the help of public housing.

“Our Journey Home” The Official Trailer

‘Our Journey Home’ is a fifty-minute film that feels like it is just five minutes long, a hallmark of engaging stories. Five people from three families whom public housing helped rebuild their lives tell us how it happened, where they came from and re-enact moments in that process of rebuilding.

‘Our Journey Home’ is not a crisis documentary in the sense of shouting out loud that something is badly wrong in our society and must be fixed, now! Shouting rarely draws the right sort of attention to any problem.

Instead, the makers of ‘Our Journey Home’ take a quieter, more thoughtful approach, driven by Stillmotion’s patent-pending MUSE storytelling process, the same one they have been teaching in workshops around the world.

The MUSE Toolkit comes in an environmentally-sensitive custom-designed box and contains a frameable poster, wearable reminder buttons and three copies of the MUSE Story Workbook. Stamped on the back of the postcard at left: the purchase of "every MUSE Toolkit helps provide 1 week of education for a girl in Sierra Leone".

The MUSE Toolkit comes in an environmentally-sensitive custom-designed box and contains a frameable poster, wearable reminder buttons and three copies of the MUSE Story Workbook. Stamped on the back of the postcard at left: the purchase of “every MUSE Toolkit helps provide 1 week of education for a girl in Sierra Leone”. Photographed on Panasonic Lumix GH4 with Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, lit with Rotolight Neo 3 Light Kit, processed with Macphun Intensify Pro. Image below processed with Macphun Tonality Pro.

“Speak to the heart to move the mind” is MUSE’s guiding principle and, from the evidence of ‘Our Journey Home’ and previous Stillmotion projects like ‘The Final Stitch’ and ‘#standwithme’, it works.

It really works, and it is about more than the art of storytelling. MUSE guides each movie’s cinematic decisions as well. I won’t repeat what Stillmotion’s team has already said so well, save to recommend you download the ‘Our Journey Home’ press kit and read the section titled ‘Stillmotion’s Creative Approach’.

Next, download the ReThink Documentary Creative Brief and compare it with the press kit. Creative briefs are usually written long before the actual production, after initial research and planning has begun.

The MUSE storytelling process relies on keywords, lenses “to filter all of our decisions” as stated in the creative brief. The keywords around which ‘Our Journey Home’ was built are home, awareness, bridge, empower and lost, and the creative brief expands on each and its meaning within the context of the movie.

The MUSE Toolkit comes in an environmentally-sensitive custom-designed box and contains a frameable poster, wearable reminder buttons and three copies of the MUSE Story Workbook. Stamped on the back of the postcard at left: the purchase of "every MUSE Toolkit helps provide 1 week of education for a girl in Sierra Leone".

Stillmotion's MUSE storytelling process as depicted in the poster included in the MUSE toolkit. A much larger version of this poster was on display at the MUSE Storytelling training I attended earlier this year in Sydney.

The brief’s list of characters is substantially the same as those who appeared in the movie, but two dropped out of contention between brief and finished production. That often occurs with documentary projects as life events, careers and other commitments get in the way. Deep planning of the sort intrinsic to the MUSE process helps productions bounce back when the inevitable occurs.

The final four pages of the ReThink Documentary Creative Brief are frames from the documentary’s hand-drawn full colour storyboards. They are a great demonstration of how closely the movie adhered to the producers’ shot planning and how it veered away from it when those two characters dropped out.

The biggest difference between the completed movie and the creative brief is the addition of a two-fold expert in homelessness, Dr Tony Robinson of the University of Colorado, Denver. He is clearly a bit of a character and adds spice through that and the fact that he has experienced both sides of the same story, as a former homeless person and now as a campaigner for public housing.


Last but not least, singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher provides another perspective again on public housing, again as a former homeless person and now as a celebrity campaigner for ReThink.

Jewel opens and narrates ’Our Journey Home’, and she and her son are intimately depicted in their own home via the intimacy and face-to-camera directness enabled by a version of the Interrotron device invented by documentary directing great, Errol Morris.

Joyce Tsang, cinematographer of ’Our Journey Home’, will be sharing more about the technical side of making the movie in a coming Stillmotion blog post. In the meantime you may wish to find out more about two different versions of the Interroton that Errol Morris used so effectively when shooting twenty hours of interviews with former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for ‘The Fog of War’.

The American Movie Company rents out its own version of the Interrotron as well as the one made by EyeDirect. I have had my eye on EyeDirect’s Folding Mark E, priced at just under US$1,000, for some time now.

For interview-heavy documentaries shot on location all over, the portable EyeDirect Folding Mark E should easily pay for itself. I have always found face-to-camera interviews far more engaging to watch than those where the subject speaks to an invisible presence off camera.

In ‘Errol Morris’s “Interrotron” Works Wonders for Documentary Interviews’ published by The Broadcast Bridge earlier this year, Director Bill Milling of American Movie Company said about the Interrotron: “If the director is looking right at his talent, why would he want to work any other way? They’d get the interview on the first take. It would save hours of time.” [bctt tweet=”‘Our Journey Home': How the MUSE storytelling process guided Stillmotion’s creative choices.”]

Announcing ‘Our Journey Home' a Stillmotion Originals Documentary

Via Stillmotion:

Pre-production started in early February (roughly) and it began with a nationwide search for characters. We needed to find people with great stories as those would connect you as the audience much more than seeing a panel of experts discuss an issue. We had an amazing Street Team of volunteers who started knocking on doors. We did an online survey. We spent months meeting with hundreds of people who were in, are, and around Public Housing.

Through this we not only found some really inspiring people, but we also learned SO, SO much more about the issue from a variety of perspectives (which is the idea of Listening in Muse).

Within Muse, which is our storytelling process, there are a series of milestones in the creative where you can check in with the client and make sure your goals and visions are aligned. The first check in is all about Purpose—sharing our keywords. The second is when we submit character briefs, the people we are suggesting for the film that will convey that Purpose. And then the third, and last before production, are story boards which lay out the Places and Plot—the journey that we’ll take the viewer on.

Stillmotion Our Journey Home

This was our first feature-length film for a client, and our first of this scale using Muse. We really took the time early on to educate everybody involved about our process for building the story and the reason behind each step. Largely due to that, it was impressive how smooth the entire creative process went.

Read full article at Stillmotion “Announcing ‘Our Journey Home' a Stillmotion Originals Documentary”

Read my previous article on MUSE at Stillmotion’s ‘Storytelling With Heart’ Touches & Teaches the Real Heart of Story

(cover photo credit: snap from the Stillmotion)

Karin Gottschalk

Karin is a documentary moviemaker, journalist, photographer and teacher who conceived and cofounded an influential, globally-read, Australian magazine of contemporary art, culture and photography. While based in Europe, contributing to the magazine and working in advertising, she visualised a future telling the same sorts of stories with a movie camera and audio recorder. Now back in her home base in Sydney, Karin is pursuing her goal of becoming an independent, one-person, backpack multimedia journalist and documentary moviemaker. Mentorless and un-filmschooled, she is constantly learning and sharpening up her skill set.
Karin Gottschalk

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