Apr 24, 2009

Article: The Three Pillars

Apr 24, 2009
In the endless quest for new methods of categorising Films in pedantic and unnecessary ways, we've recently chiselled this bad boy out of some metaphorical rock.

Time will show whether it was granite or sandstone, but so far it has held up reliably.

The Three Pillars
Planning Tone
Heart, Creativity and Comedy

This is the Characters, the Arcs, the Themes, the Message, the Poetry and the stronger emotions.
If you've mastered this Pillar, the audience will have an unbreakable loyalty and investment in all your characters.
Usually Drama, Romance and Historical films have this as their central Pillar.
Schindler's List
Heart: Very emotional
Creativity: Based on real life
Comedy: Serious drama


This is the Ideas, the Situations, the World, the Mystery and the unique experiences.
If you've mastered this Pillar, the audience will love experiencing your world and looking at things in new ways.
Usually Science-Fiction, Fantasy and some Art-House films have this as their central Pillar.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Heart: Characters unlovable
Creativity: Interesting, inventive and unique
Comedy: Only funny in a not-meant-to-be-funny kind of way

This is the Jokes, the Gags, the Craziness, the Parody and the lighter emotions.
If you've mastered this Pillar, the audience will laugh till they cry and have a really good time.
Usually Comedies and Light-hearted films have this as their central Pillar.
Hot Shots! Part Deux
Heart: No lessons or character arcs at all
Creativity: Based on other films
Comedy: Hilarious

How to use Pillars in your idea:

Every Idea needs to decide on one Central Pillar.
Even a Romantic-Comedy needs to decide if it is a Comedy or a Romance first.

In odd cases, some genres rely on an additional 'Specific Emotional Pillar':
- Horror movies for example would have Horror
- Pornography would have Arousal
- Documentaries would have Education
- etcetera
These are automatically the Central Pillar. If this Pillar fails, the movie fails.


Once an Idea has its Central Pillar, it needs to find its natural Limits.
(Our #1 Writing Rule: Give the idea what it needs, not what you want)

Finding an Idea's Limits means finding how much of the other Pillar's the idea can use. I always ask myself:
How much Heart Pillar before it takes itself too seriously?
How much Creativity Pillar before it becomes bogged down or overwhelming?
How much Comedy Pillar before this becomes ludicrous?
Usually there is no limit to the Central Pillar.

Most Ideas, because of their needs cannot master all three Pillars - rarely can they even fully master two. This can be a handy guide to finding an Idea's inherent potential, but is by no means foolproof.

The better a film masters all three Pillars, the better a movie should be:
  • Movies that master one or two Pillars, but not their central Pillar can be enjoyable but are usually not memorable.
  • Movies that master their central Pillar, are usually very good movies.
  • Movies that master their central Pillar and one other, usually go down as classics.
  • Movies that completely master all three Pillars aren't really made, but movies like Titanic and the Indiana Jones series have come close.
(This is of course assuming the original Limit assumptions were accurate)


Once it's all said and done, these rules by no means guarantee a good movie. Ideas seem to still have natural limits. Pixar's Cars I believe was done as well as possible (I hesitantly label it a near perfect movie, polished to its highest sheen) but even then I didn't really care for it that much.

Secondly, there are so many other factors such as budget, acting, design etcetera that go into making a movie or any idea that the Pillars are really only useful as either a writer's aid or a 'diagnostic tool'.
EDIT: Recently we watched The Brother's Grimm (2005) and not since Shaun of the Dead have we seen a movie that so clearly does not know what its central pillar is. At some points it felt like it wanted to be an all out kiddie slap-stick comedy, at other's a full fledged fantasy, even at some points an adult-gore horror. Story tones should not compete, they should compliment - and without knowing your central pillar, you run the risk of elements cancelling each other out. Done right, this movie just might have been the next Princess Bride.
Also, I award the 'Gingerbread Man Scene' the Nicholas Cage Award for Jumping-the-Shark before it even comes close to a franchise.


  1. As we've discussed in real life, I wholeheartedly agree with these pillars.

    An excellent tool for crafting a film with a clear vision in mind.

  2. that was wonderful, you've though about this a lot.
    The blog looks great and also can you tell me more about stumped!! is it a show and a book? has this book been printed?!!

  3. The book is being shopped around to publishers as we speak and should be published sometime within the year if all goes to plan.

    The series concept is what inspired the book and our goal is to have it be our first animated children's series, the launching pad for our careers. But these things take time, persistence and patience.

    Patience, you know, that chick down the road with all the cats? She creeps me right out.

  4. for a second i thought you knew where i lived and i was trying to think where this lady might be, then i realised it was a pun.
    oh my gosh!!!!
    i am so stoked and excited for you guys,

  5. Thanks Jen - It means a lot coming from an award winning director!

  6. Cool post Helmutt. Might put this theory to practice if I ever stop being dead to the world and make a graphic novel.

  7. Please do!

    It can be nothing but a win-win for everyone involved


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