The Muse Storytelling program: We ask Patrick Moreau some tough questions.

UPDATE: (19/11/2015) Since writing this article I have left the Muse program (with a full, no hassle refund as promised). I just think it's far too expensive for what it is. Personally I only listened to the audio versions of the lessons - I never watched the videos because the visuals didn't contribute anything to what is being said and I found the hand gestures and bright colours very distracting. My personal attitude is that in relation to the actual substance of the course, it is far too elaborately, ornately and extensively packaged - and in my opinion that is what you are paying for to a large degree. I honestly think I would have got just as much - perhaps even more - from a series of podcasts. I just found all the hype, bright colours and gesticulation far too distracting and cheesy.

Personally I don't think there's much to the basic substance of Muse that you can't learn for free (or at a much lower cost) from researching storytelling - particularly storytelling in relation to marketing - online and/or from books. The internet is overflowing with blogs, articles, videos (including numerous Ted talks) and infographics about story structure and storytelling and their relationship to marketing. By approaching the subject this way you also get to develop your own approach to using narrative to craft more compelling videos - which for me as a creative is a far more rewarding and exciting approach.

Stay tuned for blog posts in the coming weeks and months covering my progress with learning about storytelling for video ...


When I finally decided to join the MUSE pilot program a few months ago it wasn’t without reservation. I had literally just launched my video production company and the list of things I needed to spend $500 (about £350 here in the UK) was very, very long indeed. Filmmaking is an expensive occupation and of course launching a business isn’t without it’s costs. Because of this - and the fact I have a young family to consider as well - every penny needs to be spent with utmost care and a firm belief that the investment will show a measureable return in the future.

As I engaged with the MUSE program over the past few months, it became clear that the focus on storytelling (and accompanying support and community) it provided was invaluable to the development of my business if I ever wanted to be anything more than just a camera-for-hire. Unfortunately, there were a number of issues I had with MUSE that just kept getting in the way of me feeling one hundred percent settled and comfortable with the program. So I put together a list of my “gripes” and approached Patrick Moreau - one of Stillmotion's Creative Directors and my first point of contact when it came to MUSE - with them in hand.

“There were a number of issues I had with MUSE that just kept getting in the way of me feeling one-hundred percent settled and comfortable with the program.”

First a bit of background for the uninitiated: MUSE is a "storytelling process" designed by the filmmaking agency Stillmotion. It's a blueprint intended to help filmmakers craft stronger, more affecting stories. I'd say it caters most directly to those of us doing promotional or corporate video production, but also to wedding filmmakers and to some extent short-form documentary filmmakers too.

The "pilot program" offers early adopters of MUSE the opportunity to help shape the program while Patrick, Joyce, Amina and the others at Stillmotion finesse it. Stillmotion have been developing MUSE for years now - using it as a blueprint for their own high profile projects and teaching it around the world in the form of live seminars. Don't go thinking the pilot program is their way of asking naive young filmmakers to pay for the privilege of helping them build a product from scratch so that they can sell it at a profit later. There's no question MUSE is their baby, and an impressively substantial one it is too. Let me put it this way: the emperor is definitely wearing real clothes. I'm just not sure he's got any underpants on and the fancy jacket he’s wearing doesn't fit him very well.

“The emperor is definitely wearing real clothes. I'm just not sure he's got any underpants on and the fancy jacket he’s wearing doesn't fit him very well.”

We online consumers live in funny times. Blurred lines between impartial news reporting, marketing, product placement and outright promotion can be disorientating and personally I'm prone to more than a little paranoia when it comes to product marketing. Niche markets get reported on by sites whose motives and allegiances are not always transparent. It can be hard to know who to trust when you need to make a buying decision. Unfortunately, this confusion is further muddied by the fact that hyperbole is so rife within the online filmmaking community that sometimes it feels like an official language. Trusting a brand or company is everything to me if they want my money - hype and aggressive marketing just muddy the waters and nine times out of ten I walk away.

“Hyperbole is so rife within the online filmmaking community that sometimes it feels like an official language.”

I have no idea what kind of marketing strategy Stillmotion took with MUSE and I'm certainly not accusing them of any underhandedness. Whatever their strategy was, it clearly worked on me. Do I regret this? I'll get to that in a moment, but what really troubled me when I was deciding whether or not to join the program was the apparent absence of any article, review or video describing MUSE as anything less than the filmmaking equivalent of sliced bread. It wasn't that this made me suspicious - it's just that I found it almost impossible to see anything at all beyond the hyperbole. I wanted something that felt objective - something that talked about positives and negatives. As an early adopter unfortunately that wasn’t really available, so I was left to figure this stuff out for myself.

“What really troubled me ... was the apparent absence of any article, review or video describing MUSE as anything less than the filmmaking equivalent of sliced bread.”

Ultimately I think that my reservations all boil down to a question of personal taste, and how much hype one can stomach as an individual. Personally I’m a snob and a cynic, so my hype threshold is very low - so low in fact that I've now had several private conversations with Patrick about MUSE in an attempt to see past the ‘home-grown buzz’ and superlatives, to get a feel for what the program is really made of and where it's going. Because to be completely frank, there have been times I've worried that I've been 'played' by a very adept group of marketing professionals. Is MUSE really worth that $500 price tag?

“I’m a snob and a cynic, so my hype threshold is very low … there have been times I've worried that I've been 'played' by a very adept group of marketing professionals.”

 

So without further ado, let me share with you the most recent set of concerns with which I approached Patrick, and his very generous, comprehensive responses to them ...

 

Q&A: Matt Smith of Lintelfilm vs Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion

Matt Smith: "Hype." Of course what does or doesn't get classified as hype is subjective and everyone will have different feelings about how "hyped" MUSE actually is. I have a very low hype threshold and I smell it in the most innocent of places. I like transparency and - particularly considering we pilots are supposed to be helping build the online MUSE program from the inside - it feels weird to be held at arm’s length with talk of "incredible value" and other marketing spiel. Why do I sometimes feel like you’re trying to sell me a used car?

Patrick Moreau: I think it’s fair here to note that we did an hour long webinar talking about updates to the course, software we are developing, and even showing sketches of what was in the works. All of that was much more than needed to be shared and was an effort to be fully transparent and show the community that we are constantly building and that we value their early support as Pilots. This webinar was then embedded into the course for a month afterwards.

MS: "Marketing to Marketers." Stillmotion's bread and butter is creating what I call "promotional documentaries." This is commercial work - essentially a form of video marketing - and I would hazard a guess that a good proportion of  MUSE pilots are in that line of work too. This of course means that we are reasonably savvy when it comes to marketing. Again it may well be a personal thing, but I'd much rather feel respected enough to make an informed choice using straightforward, unmediated information - rather than have exclamations of "incredible value" blasted at me in primary colours while a clock ticks loudly in the background saying "if you don't act on impulse right now your chance will be gone." (note to readers: there was a limited sign-up period, with a deadline, within which pilots had to sign up for the program). This approach doesn't instil trust or confidence in me. It smells of marketing and, yes, hype. But as I say I'm a grump and a cynic.

PM: We’ve always said we aren’t after every sale, we don’t want everybody, we only want those who Muse can truly help. And if it isn’t for you, we have a great 100% refund policy.

"We don’t want everybody, we only want those who Muse can truly help. And if it isn’t for you, we have a great 100% refund policy."

Now, to your point about the deadline. Scarcity sells. I certainly won’t pretend that I or you don’t know that. However, our principle motivation for time-based registration periods is because we have Muse Guides and now Guided Challenges and to deliver a highly interactive experience and support you in the learning experience, it’s best if we go through it together. So that means a class model, where we have a few classes every year. And we’ve done a ton of research to back this up. The average completion rate of open online courses is only 20%. We want 80%. We know that Muse doesn’t matter if you don’t actually learn and apply the ideas. So we consistently evolve the program to increase engagement and support Learners in making it through the material. This is all ‘after the sale’ with no additional revenue or items for them to purchase (aside from small print collateral which is marginal from a revenue perspective). This is us backing up our promise that Muse will help you go deep with story.

MS: "Practice what you preach." This is not a comment on the quality of the information within MUSE (I'll get to that soon). This is about how the information is imparted. In my opinion it's a problem that exists throughout the videos within the course. Take for example the video about "Place" - which emphatically explains how important it is to show and not just tell (i.e. that you can't engage a viewer with just descriptions, you need to show them images that allow them to come to their own conclusions about a topic otherwise you risk losing their attention). This is of course stellar advice, but it's being imparted - as is much of the course - by Patrick, Joyce, et al, through the not-very-illustrative medium of gesticulation.

"This is of course stellar advice, but it's being imparted - as is much of the course - by Patrick, Joyce, et al, through the not-very-illustrative medium of gesticulation."

This standing in front of the camera, talking and moving your hands around is telling, not showing (precisely the thing they're asking us not to do). To be completely fair there are also "case studies," which go a long way toward illustrating certain ideas, and the occasional, brief infographic (however in my opinion these are elegantly stylised collections of descriptive words, rather than extended graphical representations of ideas). It also doesn't help that I often find the very practiced gesticulation quite distracting. Until recently it was possible to download audio-only versions of the MUSE videos, and I found it much easier to take in what was being said that way. The videos are highly polished - full of primary colours and enthusiastic expressions - but they don't do much showing, mostly just telling (and that of course can be done largely with just audio). So again I'm left feeling as if maybe I've paid a lot for something that could have been cheaper if it was packaged just a little more modestly.

PM: Understood on your point, and fair. Everything we’ve built comes from an educational psychology perspective that looks at how to move people from remembering, to applying, to critically analyzing and using a concept. It’s only at that top level of interpretation and analysis that we truly become masters of our craft. And so we try and present material that helps you on that journey. We share the concept via us sharing it on screen and we most often back it up with broll and examples from actual films (Hook, Hurdles, and Jab is a great place to see lots of examples—showing the technique and ideas). The reality is, simply showing you the technique without telling it will go over most peoples heads.

"We aren’t trying to connect you to the Muse brand, we’re trying to change your storytelling."

We aren’t trying to connect you to the Muse brand, we’re trying to change your storytelling. So we do need to impart knowledge more directly, then illustrate it in a concept. However, even that isn’t enough, you need to really apply the ideas and work on the interpretation and analysis. To help with that we introduced Guided Challenges, one per Pillar, where you get a challenge that pushes the core storytelling concept, and when you complete it, you’ll get personalized feedback from our team. You may not agree with our approach, some certainly won’t, but it is absolutely well researched, meticulously crafted, and built with incredible intent.

MS: "Price." MUSE - even the *value-packed, never-will-it-be-cheaper* Pilot Program - is expensive (*despite us first-intake pilots being enticed to sign-up with the suggestion that MUSE would never again be cheaper, it has in fact recently been offered to some for less money).

"Despite us first-intake pilots being enticed to sign-up with the suggestion that MUSE would never again be cheaper, it has in fact recently been offered to some for less money."

Today I bought a tutorial series from Ripple Training, which covers some similar subject matter to MUSE. It has the very unassuming title Commercial Editing Techniques and consists of seven videos that are on average about 15min long each. That’s similar to the average length of a MUSE video I would guess. The Ripple videos cost me $29 for the lot. I currently count seventeen videos altogether within MUSE - that's just a little over twice as many as the Ripple program. Obviously MUSE offers other elements such as text pages and a certain amount of one-to-one support, but it costs over sixteen times the price of the Ripple course (and indeed the Ripple course actually requires video, as the majority of it is showing real-world approaches, not just  "telling" ideas). In my opinion Ripple make some of the best training videos available to filmmakers online - they are seasoned industry pros, respected by people at the top of the filmmaking industry. There's no hype when they’re selling training - I get a straightforward email when a new product is out, telling me in a straightforward manner what it is ... and they let me know about any discounts. Personally I like that approach, and I like the price. So no I don't find MUSE a bargain, even at the "never-again" "low" price it’s at now.

PM: Comparisons are tough. Shall we equate a Hemingway novel with that of a novice writer who just finished a first draft simply because they are both printed on similar paper and ink and have roughly the same number of pages?

"Shall we equate a Hemingway novel with that of a novice writer who just finished a first draft simply because they are both printed on similar paper?"

It’s the content of course. And our content is something we take great pride in. We have a researcher on our team that looks at current research and academic journals. We consult with leading experts, like neuroscientist Paul Zak, a leader on how storytelling affects our brain. We constantly push our understanding, and therefore our content, all the while developing it to be more approachable and practical. I’d challenge you to find another group out there that puts so much concern into the depth of their ideas as well as the presentation of them (and that includes universities and colleges who are LOVING Muse and adopting it for their film/journalism/documentary courses).

We’ve chosen a price that makes this sustainable for our team to keep pushing, innovating, and delivering what we feel is the strongest content in the strongest way—all in the name of helping you be a more moving and intentional storyteller. While one may not understand all that happens behind the scenes, you’re likely not aware of the completion rates of open online courses as an example, we do hope and ask that our Learners trust that we are making decisions to best help them get there.

It all comes back to our promise and why we built this. We believe in the power of story and we think it should be more approachable. Their should be more great stories out there. And we’ll continue to try and make every decision with that filer [sic], not internally and externally.

"Have we made mistakes? Certainly we have. We’re growing quickly and needing to learn even faster."

Have we made mistakes? Certainly we have. We’re growing quickly and needing to learn even faster. Early on we said Muse would never be offered for less. As we re-launched for our second class we offered less access and less with your registration for a lesser price. That means we did violate our earlier claim that it would never be ‘less’. We worked hard to value and protect the investment of our first Pilots (we wouldn’t be here without them) but several things lined up, largely the software we are building, and it meant that our strategy had to change.  We’ll continue to move forward trying to build the best process for storytelling and developing innovate ways to help you learn it, use it, and have it be a real difference in your journey. And when we make mistakes, the best we can do is acknowledge them, explain what happened, and show that our underlying promise will not change.

 

So what do I think, now that Patrick has responded to my concerns?

Ultimately I think it comes down to one simple thing: there isn't anything else out there offering what MUSE does, and for me that's the bottom line. The online filmmaking community has desperately needed what MUSE is offering for a very long time. Go on any filmmaking forum and you'll be engulfed by camera-addicts afflicted with serious GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Within every thread-battle over which new camera makes last week's "essential” camera obsolete and only useful as a doorstop, there will be one obligatory person shouting "it doesn't matter about gear! Because Content is King!" And of course that person is always right. And everybody knows it. Too many filmmakers waste time chasing incremental improvements in image quality while neglecting the thing that good films are really made of (hint: a word beginning with "S"). The sad thing is that even if they did want to kick the GAS habit, there really isn't anywhere for the afflicted to turn to. They're restricted to an online filmmaking world of gear, gear, gear. Or at least they were until MUSE came along. MUSE offers filmmakers a deep, extensive program and community within which to explore that "other half of filmmaking" and as far as I can see that doesn't exist anywhere else.

"Too many filmmakers waste time chasing incremental improvements in image quality while neglecting the thing that good films are really made of ..."

So here's what I have to say. If like me you would benefit from support and guidance when it comes to the content-building side of filmmaking (are there any filmmakers out there who wouldn't?!) give MUSE a chance. It's plugging a huge gap that most video professionals simply can't afford to ignore. Yes you have to pay a pretty penny for it, but as has been said before the amount is trivial compared to the price of a half-decent lens, a good mic, or any number of other pieces of kit. MUSE - uniquely (online) as far as I can tell - offers the opportunity to focus your energy on the side of filmmaking that really matters and that has to be worth a lot.

So yes I do think MUSE is a worthwhile investment, in spite of my list of gripes. Sure I'd rather not have my super-hyperbole-sense triggered quite so often, but for me this doesn’t negate what MUSE offers, it only detracts from it a little. Personally I'd prefer it if Patrick and the others stopped waving their hands at the camera like politicians, but that's just my opinion, and I'm a grump, a cynic and quite frankly a snob.