Filmmakers often ask me this question, is their film idea a story or a portrait? Sometimes they have already shot and even partly edited their film when they ask me this. It’s an important distinction, for reasons I will explain in a moment. In order to be able to discuss our work we need to define our terms. The following are the commonly accepted definitions we use as filmmakers. Stories and portraits have different characteristics, so it isn’t too hard to tell what you have. I suggest you start with this checklist.

PORTRAIT
CHARACTER (someone / something)
SETTING
THEME
STYLE
MOOD

STORY
CHARACTER (someone / something)
SETTING
THEME
STYLE
MOOD
BEGINNING
MIDDLE
END
PLOT
CHANGE

You will notice that the one thing the story has that the portrait does not is a plot. A story described events as they unfold through time, where there is change. With a portrait, there is no change. It describes, but does not progress.

Why does this matter? A portrait can be fantastic, entertaining, even enlightening, but it will never be able to sustain over the length of time you can sustain a story. An audience start to need change and development to stay with you. I would say a rule of thumb for a portrait is about 20 minutes maximum before the audience get a bit twitchy.

As you can imagine, it is a good idea to plan what kind of film you want to make from the get-go. If you want a story, you need to choose a subject where change is possible, look out for and film scenes that show this progression and really use all the tools available to you in the edit to shape the story as dramatically as possible. This shaping is explained in ‘Three Act Structure: What Can it Do for You?’