You may not necessarily know its name or origin, but whether you know it or not, you are intimately familiar with Joseph Campbell’s theory of story and myth called the monomyth (or as it has more commonly been referred to as “The Hero’s Journey.”) Campbell wrote about it in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and since then, it has been used as a core explanation for great stories told since the dawn of communication. Christopher Vogler refined the concept in his 1998 book “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”, claiming it to be a key aspect of every successful film.
In short, the hero’s journey follows the path a hero takes in the course of a story: from humble beginnings, to receiving a call to action, taking the journey with all its trials and tribulations, then returning home a renewed person.
Campbell originally described 17 stages a hero goes through. Vogler narrowed it down to 12.
Departure (Act 1)
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting with the mentor
- Crossing the threshold into the “special world”
Initiation (Act 2)
- Tests, allies, and enemies
- Approach of the innermost cave
- The ordeal
- The reward
Return (Act 3)
- The road back
- The resurrection
- Return with the “elixir”
Translating to Real Life Stories
So how can The Hero’s Journey concept help you as an event or corporate filmmaker? By giving you a framework by which you can recognize the equivalent roles in the stories you’re telling, then construct the film you’re making in a similar fashion. Granted, the stories you’re telling aren’t going to be identical to the stages outlined by Campbell or Vogler. But if you can identify those major roles, moments, and milestones, then combine them creatively to feel like a traditional hero’s journey, you will be able to craft something very special.
Case Study: My Road to Kolkata
A few months ago I wrote about a trip to Kolkata, India I took to film a mission trip for one of my clients, Peachtree Presbyterian Church. They support Mahima, an after- care home for girls rescued from sex trafficking. Every year they send a handful of church volunteers to Mahima to meet the girls, hear their stories, see their transformed lives, and get a first-hand look at the need.
A few years ago I produced a short film for Peachtree where I highlighted a then high school student that attended the trip and how that trip affected her (she’s actually gone twice). This year was the first time her parents went, and it was there I found my hero’s journey story.
My hero was Brittney Vincent, an Atlanta wife and mother who lives an extremely blessed life. She knows and appreciates those blessings, so taking this trip was going to be one of the greatest challenges she’s faced. What made it more so was that she looked forward to sharing this experience with her daughter; yet unfortunately, due to school responsibilities, her daughter would not be able to attend this year. That was a devastating disappointment for Brittney.
The stages and elements of Brittney’s journey seem to track almost perfectly to Vogler’s stages.
- The ordinary world – Brittney and her family life at home
- The call to adventure – being asked to attend the mission trip this year
- Refusal of the call – she almost didn’t go knowing that her daughter couldn’t go with her
- Meeting with the mentor(s) – the executive director of Mahima, Smita Singh; and Ashok, the senior pastor of the Kolkata church that helps sponsor Mahima
- Tests, allies and enemies – the emotional toil, the fellow mission trip attendees, and the sex traffickers, respectively
- Approach of the inner-most cave – our walk through one of the red light districts (I can honestly say, with no hyperbole, this was like a literal hell on earth, complete with dark alleyways, gnarly trees, and a temple to the god of death and destruction.)
- The reward – seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and watching the dancing of the girls who have been rescued from that aforementioned hell on earth (or places like it).
- The resurrection, transformation and return with “the elixir” – the profound change in Brittney’s life because of this trip, and her commitment to bring this knowledge back to her family and friends so they can help make a difference (much the same way her daughter has done before)
Finding the Story
There were about five of us that attended this trip as representatives for Peachtree. In addition, there were three women from another partner church (Discovery Church), as well as the case workers and directors from Mahima, Mahima’s sponsor, JKPS, and the International Justice Mission (IJM). I had to make a conscious decision whether to do a more straightforward documentary approach where I interview everyone and give relatively equal play to all involved, versus focusing on Brittney’s story. Neither way is right or wrong. But there was something about the mother-daughter connection and the hero’s journey of Brittney that inspired me. In the end, I think it made for a stronger film.
I should point out that I did not go into this trip with the intention of telling a “hero’s journey.” Like most documentary-style videos I produce, I went in open to whatever story would unfold. But as the pieces fell in place, and as I recognized the roles, moments, and milestones, my course became clear.
So my challenge to you fellow filmmakers and photographers is this: whether you’re telling the love story of a couple getting married, or you’re helping a company promote its brand, look for those roles, moments, and milestones in your client’s story. Then follow your heart and make something special.