Definition: Story

What story is, and what it isn't.

Last month we took a closer look at Ease, our first pillar of Mastery. This month we’re focusing more on our second pillar; Emotion. Specifically how to tell a story with our artwork in a way that resonates with other people.

What Is a Story?

A story, well told, is a beautiful lie that reveals a greater truth.

Or at least that’s how I tend to look at it. Particularly in fiction, we’re weaving together a tale with elements of life and ideas that have never actually occurred (and in some cases never could) to convey a larger concept and communicate it to other people.

All art tells a story, the difference between truly fantastic art and good art is in the awareness and deliberate planning of that story. A lot of the time people viewing art get to decide on the meaning for themselves, and this doesn’t change when you plan the story, but it does mean you can deliberately leave more clues and are more likely to communicate the same broad idea you intended.

What a good story can do

It’s easiest to explain story through animation, so I’m going to share a couple of examples where I believe this has been done exceptionally well.


In each, an obvious story was being told and because they poured so much time and effort into their creation, Jason Keyser (Alight) and brown bag films (Granny O’Grimm) have made it so that you can pause in any frame and feel that same sense of drama and emotion. Feel.

This is the essence of your second pillar of 3D mastery; eliciting an emotional response from the people viewing your work. Nothing will fulfill that faster than a good, well crafted story.

What happens when you tell lazy stories

There are plenty of examples of lazy storytelling in pretty much every industry. Especially when you look at the mainstream film industry (warning, I’m about to get on my soap box).

Hollywood, while capable of creating utterly fantastic movies from time to time, has turned poor storytelling into an artform. Every year (sometimes every month) if you pay attention you’ll notice the same basic stories being told, in the same basic way, only with one tiny change or a difference in cast.

Year after year the same thing happens; Release Romantic comedies around Valentines day, have some action movies in the summer, some horror in October around Halloween, and some Christmas type movies in December. Sprinkle in some truly good movies and we won’t notice that the rest are absolute dross.

Now please understand, I’m not saying that the people creating these movies are setting out to make something mediocre or dull. Far from it. I know that individually we all work damn hard in this industry and, given the space to do so, we’d love to innovate. Heck it happens every year too, we see some really awesome movies that break the mold and pull us in a new direction.

What I AM saying is it’s very easy to ‘almost’ tell a good story and fall short. Or to get caught up with deadlines and reach for something you know will work, hoping to bring the quality back up later. Or to have budget issues and really just need a ‘solid’ movie this time, so you can innovate your ass off next time. Or to whittle away from a good story to something that will ‘play it safe’ and make back the production costs.

It happens. It’s not inherently wrong (though I’m not the biggest fan of it myself), it’s just the wrong approach if you’re looking to truly master your craft.

/End soapbox.

Point being, you can still create something that is technically good without a fantastic story, but it will never grip or have the soul of a piece that’s truly excellent.

How this impacts you, the artist

Now chances are, if you’re here, you’re not in charge of massive movie productions where you can control every part of what you’re creating. It’s far more likely that you work within one small part, or you create static artwork in 3D, or you work on shorter or smaller budget animations as a way to get noticed.

Story still relates to you, even if ‘all’ you’re doing is lighting and texturing, for example;

Have you ever watched a making-of or read through a work-flow tutorial (there are several good ones over on 3D Total in their Tutorial section) where just one component takes it from a cool idea to absolutely jaw-dropping?

I’ve seen it happen with pretty much every stage of production (though you have to look really hard to notice some of them).

That lighting scheme that takes a normal looking alley and turns it into a shady back door into the underworld (literal or figurative).

That piece of texturing that turns a fairly normal looking vehicle into something with a life and story, telling it through rust and scratches.

Even that interesting way of rigging a monster that makes the flesh move realistically, enough so that you suspend your disbelief for that one critical moment and can actually agree that this thing could really exist and function.

Or, that image that your eye keeps wandering back to as you stroll round a gallery, even if you’re not entirely sure why, because there’s just something about it that calls to you.

Story = Soul. Soul = Attention, and Adoration. Those things lead to more of the stuff I know you want (such as money, fame, improved skills, etc).

It’s important.

Next Steps

Here’s what you need to do to make sure that you have the time available to breathe life into your work. Set aside a day or two at the beginning of each new project to really understand it and figure out what direction you want to take it in. We’ll go more in depth as to how in the next couple of weeks, however make the commitment to take that time in the beginning, now.

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