Friday, January 07, 2011

The Advanced Class – Back to Basics

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

Many times after one of my six-week classes is completed, a student, excited by what he or she has just learned, has said to me, “You should teach an advanced class!”

I am always flattered, but always a little surprised. Advanced? I know for a fact that they have not mastered the most basic principles, and yet they feel that they are ready to move on to the next level. Being introduced concepts is nothing like truly understanding them.

I never cease being bowled over when someone blows off a concept as basic—some people are always looking for “something new.” But storytelling is as old as humanity and there is nothing new to it. Someone may have a new way to say an old thing, and that might help the concept be more clear to some, but if it is real knowledge, it will be an old concept.

Stories and storytelling are rooted in human emotions, motivations and psychology, and these have not changed. Until they do, no one will have anything truly new to say on the subject.  Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something. (My apologies to William Goldman)

One can change the form that stories take—for instance, from stage to film. Film was new and techniques of using that medium to best tell stories had to be developed, but stories and storytelling are still rooted in common human experience. This will never change. This is why Aristotle’s Poetics is still read and studied today, because despite all of the changes and advancements made in this world nothing of consequence has changed about the fundamentals of storytelling.

The best way to discover “new things” is to contemplate the old ones. Contemplation is not something Westerners put much stock in—and we Americans are particularly bad at it. We need to know it all—right now! But contemplation—deep contemplation over months, years or decades—is the only way to fully understand anything worth learning.

Someone recently requested that I post pictures of my bookshelves on my blog. I’m guessing she thought it might give some insight to how I have learned what I know. I don’t want to be presumptuous here, there are plenty of people out there don’t think I know much at all. But if you think I have anything worthwhile to say, this is how I learned it.

When I was very young I used watch television shows and movies. I took them apart the way other boys took apart their toys to see how they worked. In the ’70s, before the days of videotape, I used to audiotape television shows and study their construction. I knew about act structure before I ever read one book about it or even knew it was something other people studied.

We were poor. I remember days without food. I remember going to school with an empty belly. I wanted more than anything to have a movie camera, but there was no money for such a thing. One day Mister Rogers showed how to make flip books on his show and I became obsessed with making them. I have no idea how many I made, but I made at least one a day for years. People who were adults at the time still remember me making these flip books. I learned things then that I still use today.

In 1975, I met a kid with a movie camera and we made a Super 8mm film, an animated film using plastic army men called The War. My strongest memory from that time, my strongest feeling, was: Finally. Finally I’m getting to make a film. I was 10 years old.

The first movie camera I owned was this exact model.  It was not even super 8mm – it was 8mm.  It was a very old camera even when I was using it.

A few years later I called all of the people who had anything to do with film in my town and asked if I could come see what they did. A few said yes. And one guy, who had a small animation company, offered me an afterschool job. This was about 1979 or ’80. This is also around the time I wrote my first screenplay.

Film, filmmaking and storytelling were my life. I read about it all the time. I read every interview with every director, screenwriter, animator and special effects guy I could find. And then I would watch films and television trying to spot the theories and principles talked about in these interviews, to see if these things were really there and if they worked the way they were supposed to.

When anyone would say that they had recently seem a film they liked or didn’t like, I would grill them about what they liked and what they didn’t. I would sit in movie theaters and watch one screening after another of a film, studying them. I noted where people reacted from one screening to the next. Some screenings I would watch the audience more than the film.

I didn’t know it, but I was lucky in some ways: I didn’t do well in school and was never told that I was smart. I had dyslexia, but no one bothered to diagnose it. I thought that I was stupid, thought that I never understood anything, so I worked extra hard to understand the things I was interested in. I thought about concepts for years. (The only adult outside my family who ever told me I was smart was my mentor, Bruce Walters.)

I won’t recount my entire life here, but suffice to say that I have spent my life contemplating the very first things I ever learned. By the time I teach them, argue about them in a coffee shop, write about them in a book, or lecture on them, I have literally spent years in deep contemplation on the subject.

Once you think you understand something, you will stop learning about it and your knowledge may stagnate and even atrophy.

I have become confident that I understand the things I have studied, but I know that there is still much to uncover on these subjects. Because all of these hours over the last 35 years (more really), have taught me one thing above all others: There is no such thing as “advanced.” All there is is a deeper understanding of the basics.

P.S.  Here are some famous people who also have dyslexia


imyjimmy said...


Maybe what folks are asking you about are the more technical terms that are involved with film making.

Stuff like what types of cameras, camera lenses (apparently the ability to tell what lens someone is using in a particular shot is an indication of how hardcore you are about film making), the names of shots (medium shot, vs close up, etc etc), blah blah blah.

The list goes on. You mentioned screenplay writing software and that might come up too.

Yeah, the more I try to mingle with other "story" people and film folks, the less I hear about story. What's up with that?

And do you really need to know what type of lens someone used at a particular scene just to show how "hardcore" you are about film?

Christine said...

This is a good post...even though I am not a writer, I think a lot of what you talked about here applies to drawing and painting, and being an artist. Thanks for sharing this!

Unknown said...

Thanks for another great post, Brian. I am in deep agreement with you, but wanted to point out that the request for an Advanced class may be borne more of humility than unconscious ignorance - a desire to go deeper into the principles and concepts you have taught rather than to move on to something else.

In most people's minds "advanced classes" do one of two things:

a) The drill down on a previously introduced or covered topic, so as to provide a greater depth of analysis or fuller exposure to the concept or principle. They may also get into the nitty gritty of DOING the thing, rather than in just understanding it.

b) The show the interplay of multiple, previously introduced concepts, principles, or dynamics that had only been studied in isolation during a non-advanced or intro level course.

I'm not sure either desire is a bad thing. Speaking as someone who enjoyed your first book enough to rush order your second one, I think it is only natural to finish your material wanting "more stuff like that." Yes, I also bought the Teleplays of Paddy Chayevsky and understand the need to actually read screenplays, watch movies, and reflect, but I can certainly sympathize with those who desire an advanced class for the reasons I just mentioned. And, in fact, I'd rather encourage you to create just such a class.

- Jeff

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

You are talking about the technology babies – people who grew up in a world full of technology. Not just technology, but ever-changing technology.

Filmmakers joke about this because you will work your but off making a film – trying to get the story right and all of the other elements of film and when you do a Q&A after a screening the first question is always, “What did you shoot that on?” Almost all of the questions will be like that. This has become a private joke among filmmakers.

Brian McD said...

Hey Christine,

Thanks. I almost did post this blog because it’s pretty personal – some of it anyway. But I thought it might help some people and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Thanks for reading it and I’m glad you saw something here you could use.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jeff,

I get that, but I only have so much to say. Some people think I say too much as it is. But I only know what I know – and that took a lifetime to acquire. I am learning new things all the time, but they are only, as I said, a deeper understanding of the basics.

In fact, I get so that I can really simplify the stuff and then people blow it off because I didn’t use enough words, pages, charts and graphs. I think what I consider advanced would be as popular as a lead balloon.

Thanks for reading the books and wanting more -- it is always nice to hear even if I have no more to teach. At least not until I live another 45 years.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I think it's spot-on to say that we are looking for learning something new and fast and now.

I can personally agree that the temptation to take another class in order to gain the knowledge to write something amazing is a lot more appealing sometimes than the work of studying, absorbing and taking time to soak up the basics to which I've already been exposed.

Yes, there are those who want an advanced class because they want to continue down a path that has excited them, but there is no substitute for carefully putting into practice what they just learned and doing it until it becomes a habit.

One thing classes help us to avoid is the self-discipline that writers need to practice if we're going to be in this for the long haul.

Thanks again for reminding me of the humility of carefully and patiently studying the basics.

I really appreciate you taking the time to share your personal story of growth and study. It is encouraging and inspiring.

Thank you,

Mancomb said...

Thanks for posting this Brian; I know it's not easy to share personal stuff online. And I totally agree with what you've said here. Too often do I get into the mode of thinking, "Yeah I know how to draw and paint already..." And I catch myself sometimes on other things as well. But I have come to see this way of thinking as nothing more than a mixture of pride and fear manifesting itself to look like impatience.

You once said to me (and I am paraphrasing a little here), that "sometimes the only way out is to go through." I think this certainly applies to this post as well, because the only way to truly understand the things that I am passionate about, is to bite down, take the time, and always hold fast to the knowledge that I don't actually know as much as I think I do. Your post is a good reminder.

And I can testify that out of the art classes that I have taken in the past, the ones where I walked in thinking like I actually knew the subject well, were the ones where I learned and grew the least. I have found the reverse to be true as well.

Brian McD said...


Thanks for the feedback. It’s nice get the support of people who follow this blog when I go out on a limb a bit with something more personal.

Thank you,

-- Brian

Brian McD said...

Thanks to you too, Michael.

-- Brian

markdavid said...


Where can I find information about taking one of your courses? Apologies if this blatantly obvious, but didn't see any info anywhere.

Thanks for your dedication to the craft.

Brian McD said...

Hello, Mark. Thanks for the comment.

About your question, what state are you in?

-- Brian

markdavid said...

Vancouver, BC - quick drive to Seattle !

Brian McD said...

Hey Mark,

Sorry for taking a while to get back to you.

I don't have a class around Seattle for a while. And when I do it will be a six-week class.

I'll try to be better about posting links that inform folks when I have classes.

markdavid said...

Thanks Brian, I think a lot of people would be interested to know about any classes or seminars you will be hosting, so please keep us posted!

ERIK said...

Hey Brian, just want to say thanks for going out on that limb. I don't think you should ever question the propriety of a thing you've got to say. If it needs saying, say it.


Brian McD said...

Thanks, Erik.

jean said...

Hello Brian,

I've commented before about how I find your teachings about storytelling to be so much better than any of the many other books I've read on the subject and, after much time, I've finally figured out why. Your blog posts are constructed in the same way as stories--you tell us what you're going to tell us, you tell it, then you tell us what you told us. So simple--why did it take me so long to see?