What Makes A Good Story?

Field Notes Interview #35: Zachary "Zippy" Etzel, Story & Heart Filmmaker

In any form of art and expression, there are key elements in crafting a compelling story. Pacing, clarity, tone, emotion and connection to name a few. Our good friends at Story & Heart are here to help people weave and tell amazing stories. Though community building and insightful, educational tutorials and tools, they're bridging you and the story you want to tell.

When you meet and interact with Filmmaker, Zachary "Zippy" Etzel, you leave inspired. His stories and films are engaging, approachable and full of character. Capturing a wide array of landscapes, from the expansive backdrop of the wooded PNW, to intimate interviews with diverse voices. We chatted with Zachary about what a good story means to him, his relationship with filmmaking, the role of music in storytelling, and the exciting new developments happening with Story & Heart and the Academy of Storytellers.

M: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

ZE: I am Zippy. A rural farm boy from Oregon. An energetic enthusiasts of filmmaking, coffee, cameras, travel, storytelling, bicycles, collaboration, adventuring, dinosaurs, helping people, Saved By The Bell, and breaking into song. At Story & Heart, I’m a connector. I get to spend my days bringing filmmakers together—it’s amazing.

M: What's the first story that you remember?

ZE: I’m not exactly sure, probably something from my Mother or Grandfather—both impressive storytellers in their own right.

My Mom was an Airforce brat, and lived in many places growing up, most notably Okinawa (Japan) during the late 50’s, not long after the War, and the atom bombs. She would talk about the Japanese culture and her experiences as a child there. It seemed so exotic, foreign, far away, and awesome, like she had lived on another planet. My tiny child mind was always blown.

As well, my family has deep roots in the small town I come from—our family farm homestead (which is still in operation) was established in the 1890’s. When the family gathered at said homestead, which was often, my grandfather (who was born in the farmhouse) would regale us with stories from growing up on the farm, and our ancestors (his grandparents / parents / aunts / uncles) whose photographs are still present all over the old farmhouse.

This is a shot my grandfather regaling me and my cousins as kids. I think he was telling us about the time he met grandma, while picking apples. 

This is a shot my grandfather regaling me and my cousins as kids. I think he was telling us about the time he met grandma, while picking apples. 

It’s hard to remember what the first story was that he told me, but one of my favorites was about a weathered old guitar he used to play. It literally looked like it had been sitting in the barn unprotected for decades. Once when I was roughly six or seven, I asked him why he didn’t get a new one. He explained that guitars don’t realize they’re guitars for the first 50 or so years that they’re guitars, they still think they’re trees. Only after they’ve head time to “break themselves in” and become used to the idea of being a guitar do they start to truly sound they they’re suppose to, and find their voice. It stuck with me. I told my music teacher at school this, and he looked at me like I was mental.

M: What makes a good story?

ZE: Stories are how we relate to each other as humans, and make sense of the world we live in. If you think back to history class when you were growing up, you’re essentially learning stories. It’s similar many times in music, songs in of themselves, are essentially stories.

A good story makes someone feel something— good or bad, whether it’s because it’s relatable, bringing to the surface something that’s already there, or whether it’s new, touching you and opening you to challenges, introducing you to new parts of yourself, and feelings that you’ve never experienced before. These stories stay with you.

Thinking about the stories that I love, and why, it’s because they’ve touched me, and I still carry them with me.

I distinctly remember sitting in the theater watching Twelve Years a Slave when it came out.  At the time I was part of a team working on documentary about modern day child slavery, and during this process I’d been experiencing some pretty heavy stories and topics. This coupled with the story of Solomon Northup, during a less than savory time in US history left me in sort of a pile of myself at the end of the film.

Sunrise time lapse shoot at Smith Rock, Oregon. 

Sunrise time lapse shoot at Smith Rock, Oregon. 

A more lighthearted example is one of my favorite books of all time, High Fidelity (with a pretty good film adaptation). I worked at a record store in my early and mid twenties, and the characters, conversations, and discussion (or arguments) in the book felt like they were pulled right out of my day to day life slinging albums! I had lived more than a few of those pages. I’ve read the book a handful of times, and whenever I pick it up, I still get wrapped up in it. Like catching up with and old friend over coffee.

M: What is Story & Heart?

ZE: We’re on a mission to help storytellers tell amazing stories through collaboration and community. A bit more tangibly, we’re a story-driven video licensing platform and filmmaking community full of passionate like-minded storytellers who learn from, collaborative with, and encourage one another.

Our community members earn a passive income through licensing their footage, learn and teach all about about filmmaking at our online school (more on that below!), work on collaborative projects together (everything from community projects to prime time broadcast TV features), and bounce ideas and challenges off each other in our discussions area.

And on the flipside, storytellers in need of stock footage—agencies, creatives, non-profits, etc—now have access to beautiful story-driven footage crafted by crazy talented filmmakers. And when they can’t find what they’re looking for, our worldwide community of filmmakers is available for custom projects.

M: What is the Academy of Storytellers?

ZE: This is exciting! The Academy is our recently launched online film school! It’s a space where filmmakers from all different backgrounds and experiences can come together to teach and learn from each other about the craft and business of filmmaking.

The idea is taking the knowledge and skill that each of is holding inside of us, unlocking it, and sharing with one another. That’s what the Academy is on the most basic level. And not just the success, but the failures as well, because there is so much to be learned in those. People are always afraid to fail, but when someone who may be newer to filmmaking sees a filmmaker they look up to being vulnerable and admitting their own struggles and failures, it makes you realize it’s just a matter of stretching yourself and growing. It inspires you to keep going.

It’s been incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time to see people embrace the Academy, and hear the overwhelming positive reactions. To get an email from someone about how the Academy has changed their filmmaking path, and feels like it’s been worth more than film school is heady stuff. I think again it goes back to basic idea of helping people. By saving people hours of scouting, searching, and sifting, and creating a central place for people to connect, learn, and share ideas, it makes the learning curve much shorter, which in turns empowers them to get out there, shoot more, better hone their craft, and in the end tell better stories.

Helping someone else be successful, makes you successful. It’s incredibly exciting to share in others’ triumphs.

M: What’s included in the Academy?

ZE: The Academy is a different approach to teaching and learning. It’s collaborative education, with various filmmakers sharing the how and why of what they do best. This allows you to learn multiple viewpoints and philosophies, and take what you connect with and apply it to your own shop.

The other really great part is that our educators are all active members in our Community, which makes it much more of a personal conversation. You can ask Joe Simon, Gnarly Bay, or Stillmotion a question about your business and get an honest and thoughtful response back from them.

Shooting at Tanner Creek falls outside Portland, Oregon.

Shooting at Tanner Creek falls outside Portland, Oregon.

And it goes even further than just being tutorials, it’s a complete eco-system with screen flows, graphics that outline concepts, live webinars, downloadable resources, templates, discussions, and I’m really pulling for us to get a goat as well.

But seriously, it’s huge!

Barriers have been removed, and under one roof you can find all the relevant information and resources you need to become a better storyteller, and in addition to the resources, are others, just like you, are engaged and there for the same reason. There’s something amazing and inspiring that happens when you find “your people”, and we want to give that to as many people as possible.

M: What kinds of tutorials have you made?

ZE: From beginner to advanced lessons, we cover topics from pre-production to post-production, some of which include: Storytelling and Story Structure, Cinematography, Lighting, Directing, Sound Design, and Business—yes, we have lessons and discussions all about the business of filmmaking, including day rates, how to find great gigs, marketing tips, etc.

The Academy’s goal is to tackle all topics that would help you to grow and excel in the filmmaking industry. However in the spirit of community and collaboration, we always keep our ears open to suggestion for new tutorials ideas and topics, and thus new content is driven directly from the community— what they want to see and learn about.

M: How does music play a role in compelling storytelling?

ZE: It’s a storytelling tool, just as important as lens choice, camera movement, lighting, etc. When used properly, it’s almost like it becomes it’s own character in a piece.

I spent six years as a music supervisor, which led me to a term I call the Goldilocks rule. Meaning you don’t want the music in your piece to be too hot (overbearing and distracting), and you don’t want the music to be too cold (unnoticeable or poorly matched), it’s all about making it “just right”.

Shooting in 8 Degrees at Minute Men Park, Concord, Massachusetts. 

Shooting in 8 Degrees at Minute Men Park, Concord, Massachusetts. 

Going back to what I said earlier about songs themselves being stories, you are using these (or portions of these) stories to help influence, massage, and tell yours. Which is why it’s so important to be intentional with how, when, and why you use music in a piece, as well as making sure that you're choosing a song that help push the story your telling on screen in the direction you want it to, not just choosing a song because it’s hip or well known.

I also think it’s interesting how music can play a role in influence, even when it’s not appearing on the screen of the final piece. There are times when I’m shooting something, and I’ll have a song stuck in my head. Sometimes it’s something that I already think would work well with the piece I’m shooting, and other times it’s just a nagging catchy tune that won’t go away. Either way, whether I’m conscious of it in the moment or not, I’m sure it influences the end product in some way.

M: What do you have planned?

ZE: To continue to build the already incredible community that we have. More sweet collaborative projects, and films, and helping as many filmmakers as humanly possible. More fun, in person meet-ups, ice cream socials, bike rides, and hopefully lots of goat pettings.