Changing technology, storytelling and evolving skills.

I was in a conversation today about the importance of evolving our skillsets as media technology changes, and was reminded of this story from early Hollywood.  What follows is excerpted from a book which has been lost to me; it was given to me by a wonderful production assistant many years ago.

Ernst Lubitsch – Film Director

Lubitsch had a habit of crooking his forefinger over that enormous nose of his, and he said, “Junge, I want you never to forget this – what I am about to tell you. When the decision was made to change from silent films to talking films, the producers called together the greatest stars they had – this was in each studio. And the producers said, ‘You ladies and gentlemen who are the stars of the great silent screen, you must now learn to talk. You can no longer make faces and look camera left, camera right, up, down, what the director tells you to do, and then hope that he can put it together into a performance. You’ve got to learn to talk dialogue and play it. Those of you who can – you’ll be greater than ever. Those of you who can’t – overnight, no matter how great you are, you’ll be finished .

“Then,” said Lubitsch, “they called together all the great directors. And they said, ‘All you directors of the silent screen, no more running out in the morning with that box, a camera and an assistant, you shoot something here and you shoot something there, and then you bring it back . . . No, no. You gentlemen have got to learn to read scripts, to digest characterization, pace and how to tell a story that is written – and those of you who don’t – overnight, you’ll be forgotten .’

“And then,” said Lubitsch, “they called together all the great title writers, those who’d been the biggest of the silent screen, and they said, ‘You writers, no longer is it going to be something that you can bring in on the back of an envelope, – you have to become dramatists – you have to learn how to write dialogue, conflict, and so forth. And those of you who can’t – you’re finished .’

“And,” said Lubitsch, “that really happened, as you know. You could name the great stars of the silent screen who were finished – the great directors, gone – the great title writers who were washed up – but, boy, remember this as long as you live: The producers didn’t lose a man. They all made the switch! That’s where the great talent is. Remember this.”