Feelings, Pictures, and Ideas

What makes a good piece of media? I was asked this question during our first Vault meeting. I remember saying something along the lines of “it makes me feel things” or “it makes me think things”. Probably the former more than the latter, since at that time I had been binging on the saddest things I could find. When someone suggested that they enjoyed stories with happy endings, I felt an immediate urge to correct them. I love stories that rip my insides out, with moments that help me clean my eyes and lessons that rewire my brain to a new area of my heart. What makes something impactful? Humans are complex creatures yet they still connect to some bit of nonsense made by another human from who knows where else in the world. This nonsense is what we call a story, an abstract thing with some kind of meaning to whoever created it, with some kind of progression and characters that exemplify some aspects of the human condition. 

Of course, not all media has to be a story. I’m focusing more on those that somewhat resemble a story, a hero’s journey or whatnot. Today, I will be writing about something made by Exurb1a (aka the existentialist turtle), a YouTuber who has been with me since high school IB ToK class. I will be analyzing and then we’ll be okay (video linked here) using Exurb1a’s principles for good storytelling, since what’s a better way to demonstrate a theory than to use something the author created himself? 

I was recently reminded of Exurb1a after he released a review on the recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. He reflects on why he enjoyed a kid’s film so much and concludes that the film covers all of Feelings, Pictures, and Ideas, which is a theory he covered in one of his earlier videos as linked here. In summary, this theory is that we think good stories are good because of a combination of those three factors. Here is my interpretation: Feelings are what the creators make us feel, using everyday emotions that people relate to. Pictures are the context, artistic delivery, and quality of imagery that the audience can see (or visualize in their head). Ideas are abstract concepts and opinions that require some kind of thinking to rationalize and understand. 

And then we’ll be okay is a 20-min video about the story of Tao, a man who seeks revenge for his father’s death by traveling up a mountain to kill a snake. His journey brings him to a wise woman who bestows upon him various treasures. He eventually realizes the meaning of his quest and learns lessons along the way. 

We’re introduced to feelings at the start of the video. Tao has just lost his father, who taught him everything he knew. This loss, even if you have never experienced it, still hits hard. There is something irreplaceable that has been lost, a pent-up longing and love that no longer has a destination. This is the feeling that drives the video until the end when Tao decides to keep the locket as a memory of his father. Throughout the video, there are also a handful of moments where I felt feelings being triggered. Looking at the remains of past cities and the deaths of the New Gods, there is a bittersweet yearning for civilization. These slightly melancholic feely-brain-chemicals make me want more, they make me sad and I love it. Feelings elicit a physiological response in the audience and there is no denying their importance in media. Memories associated with strong emotions are remembered more vividly and can even be distorted to a greater extent. Therefore, media associated with strong feelings – or not even strong feelings, but well-executed nuanced feelings – are more memorable. 

Stories often start with “once upon a time”, and are followed by a setting that, whether far away or close to home, allows the listener to associate certain images with it. In Tao’s village, the humans seem like insignificant figures against backdrops of green hills and vast skies. The humans are made of starlight, suggesting their closeness to the cosmos compared to the earthly scenery around them. I am not here to analyze this video like an English essay, but I just wanted to point out the pictures. Indeed, there are pictures – lots of them, in fact, changing every few seconds. One of the more iconic scenes is the one where Tao puts on his glasses and is enveloped in bright patterns that transition into the cosmos – it’s also one of the only places in the video with animations. It is executed as if the viewer was falling with Tao into a rabbit hole of knowledge, but how often do you get to see yourself falling into a knowledge hole? Put simply, we like looking at pretty things, especially when those pretty things look new and make us think of other things. 

Pictures, of course, are not just limited to visuals. If you only listened to the audio of this video, you could still imagine the rolling hills and clear streams of the mountain and then the dirty rocks that look like death. This is because pictures are not just visuals, but are context. Does the portrayal of something trigger an association with another place? If yes, then the work has already been done. The picture is now tied to feeling and idea. 

Lastly, here I would share the quote that gives the video its name:

‘We’ll know everything, and then we’ll be okay.’

‘We’ll kill everything, and then we’ll be okay.’

‘We’ll forget everything, and then we’ll be okay.’

‘We’ll live forever, and then we’ll be okay.’

‘We’ll cling to everyone, and then we’ll be okay.’

And even then, we weren’t okay. Because that’s not how the game works.

Every sentence of this quote is an idea, a takeaway from this video. This quote captures humanity’s desire to eliminate misery through knowledge, destruction, oblivion, immortality, and dependence, but none of that is enough. “We’ll be okay” is the most reassuring thing one can say to a lost human race trying to survive in the middle of space, but still nothing is okay. I can’t quite explain the fascination we have with quotes other than the fact that they make us think. They’re a bunch of words that attempt to capture something abstract, and we love them because they remind us, with a bit of egotistical thinking, of our ability to use our prefrontal cortex. “Oh, that’s another way to phrase it”, we would say. It’s not that media can suddenly give us the answer to the universe. They simply give us a new way of thinking about something we haven’t thought about in a while, like that unending desire to destroy that which causes misery. We think of our personal misery of losing loved ones, but we realize with our little philosophical brains that this misery applies to everyone else in the world. The snake is what places our personal misery on a collective scale. Media introduces to us ideas that might not be practical to think about on an everyday basis, but that still make sense to whomever it is presented to. Thus, perhaps it is a form of escapism to think about ideas that others are thinking about in order to gain insight into our own lives. 

So what does this all mean? First, I now realized that the combination of all these factors led me to click “like” on this video years ago. Second, Exurb1a’s theory made me look at most stories I experience these days with his three criteria. Though we cannot quite figure out what makes something so good, this is one frame we can use to judge media. Lastly, this is a guideline for making something well-rounded and memorable. I can gather a handful of moments when I was inspired to make something that hit one of the three categories – I have a fair collection of cheesy love poems or giant paragraphs of existentialist ideas. But, how will I create a story worth experiencing? 


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