What A Story Artist Can Learn From Some Holiday Classics
So here we are, Xmas season!
I have two Christmas films to tell you about, one you may not have heard of, and the other you may not remember. Both are full of great scenes and are both great examples of using a holiday as a setting to tell a story.
The first, Tokyo Godfathers, is about as unconventional a Christmas story as you can get.
While Christmas is celebrated in Japan, the country itself is predominantly Shinto or Buddhist. Still, this movie has all the hallmarks of a great Christmas movie. It’s a story about struggle, rejection, and pain. In the end we get redemption, understanding and forgiveness. It’s hard not to watch a good Christmas movie like this and not get a little choked up at the end.
So how do you get the audience to care about your characters? The main thing for your audience to get caught up into your story’s characters is for them to relate to them. The audience must feel some empathy for them. Possibly a task even more difficult to do in an animated film.
Tokyo Godfathers does this effortlessly. You are introduced to its main characters and from the start you pity them. They are homeless bums, you might pass by every day. This character type is one of intense emotional conflict that most people recognize.
On one end you despise them, they stink, there are dirty, and the sight of them is totally unpleasant. Then there is the other side. They are human and most can relate to them on at least that level. Now all the film has to do from this point is build empathy by letting you get to know them. The more you know the characters the more you care about what happens to them and the more their vulnerability becomes a story conflict.
In one scene, all of this comes together.
Hana has just been released from the hospital after collapsing in the street. Gin has just discovered that the nurse assisting Hana’s doctor is in fact his long lost daughter. As he tries to confront her and apologize for his absence he reveals the truth of his situation to her. He tries to reconcile but continues to lie. It’s about all he can bare but his daughter forgives him and offers him a chance to re-establish their relationship.
Then, Hana explodes exposing all of Gin’s lies in front of his daughter. His words are harsh and damning but the facial expressions are exaggerated and contorted in a comical way to add levity. The words are all things that needed to be said and will become just as important for the film’s climax later.
Afterwards Miyuki finds Hana (in a wide shot on a bridge above the city) and tells him he shouldn’t have done that in front of his daughter. Hana simply replies. “If she is his daughter, she will forgive him.”
The next example worth studying is Die Hard.
Yup, that’s right.
One of the greatest action movies of all time is also one of my favorite christmas movies!
Rather than focus on one scene I think you have to look at Die Hard’s themes to get the full benefit from it. I like to think of Die Hard as one big huge company Christmas party that gets out of control. I really like to think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind when they first discussed the film.
Die Hard might not be the first thing people think of as a Christmas movie but to me it’s close to the perfect Christmas movie. It’s set at Christmas in LA and it covers all the tradition issues most people face during the holidays. Being away from home. Families struggling to come together. Reconciling past family drama and allowing the Christmas spirit to infect everyone. Even the title soundtrack is all classic Christmas songs.
So, it’s Christmas Eve, and a bunch of people have gathered for a Christmas party. The McClane family has been split up due to differences and work choices by the wife. So Dad lives in New York and Mom lives in LA. The children misses their dad and both parents miss each other. They are trying to come together when a group of terrorists not only interrupts their reunion, but threatens their lives. Through the whole ordeal McClane has the attitude of a guy stuck in Christmas shopping traffic trying to get home. “Why is this happening to me?” And Die Hard is filled with great scenes that mocks itself.
The complete spirit of Christmas in this film comes at the end. McClain has just emerged from the burning wreckage of what’s left of the Nakatomi Building. Debris fills the courtyard as papers fall from the tower like snow.
His wife in his arms he looks up and sees a pudgy LA Cop Sargent Al Powel looking at him. After a moment the cop’s cold stare turns into a big smile as they both realize that each is the voice from the other end of the radio where they bonded during the ordeal. They embrace and it’s like an old friendship is rekindled. A bro love story sub plot concluded in glory.
Die Hard teaches the story artist how relationships can be formed through conversation and dialogue then backed up by action. Christmas is portrayed in movies as a communion of fellow man. It is a setting where the idea that all fellow humans are your Sargent Powells. This setting begins with conflict and family strife. The family reunites. Redemption for our past. And all in time for Christmas morning.
As you construct your stories remember to:
- Create empathy with your characters using the settings and character models people are familiar with.
- Dig deep into the larger theme to use the universal message from it as a basis for your story.
- Don’t be afraid to mix traditional themes with unconventional settings or characters to tell a story about that theme.
- Add self deprecation to your character to make them more relatable.
Happy storyboarding this holiday!
Ho Ho Ho,