Muser Origin Story: Gwyn Cole’s New Life as a Filmmaker & Storyteller

We talk a lot about how we use the Muse Storytelling Process in our own work. Whether it's on feature documentaries, client films, or personal projects, we take Muse with us wherever we go.

But in truth, this is about more than a scrappy Portland production company in search of the best stories. It's about the idea that important stories, well told, can change the world. So for us, the goal is to put that power into the hands of as many people as possible. 

In fact, Muse is already being used by real people all over the world to tell great stories. Case in point, Gwyn Cole.

Gwyn's a UK-based filmmaker who transitioned from a long career in software engineering to a new one in storytelling. Despite only four years of experience in film, Gwyn recently had two shorts of his premiere on the BBC, and it’s all thanks to his deep commitment to telling stories.

We had a chance to catch up with Gwyn over the holidays and get the inside scoop on his career change, why storytelling has been the key to his success, and where he's going from here. Enjoy the interview.

MUSE STORYTELLING: First off, share a little bit of the context around your life. Why and how did you make the transition from being a software engineer to being a filmmaker?

GWYN COLE: I’ve heard it said that we go through a major change in our lives every seven years. Well, I was a software engineer for over 17 years and it seemed like I was well overdue for a major change in my life.

But it’s a tough decision to make, especially when one is considered an expert in their field. In 2002, I had co-authored a technical computing book with the world-renowned publisher Addison Wesley. However, all the technical expertise in the world can’t quench that deep creative thirst. I needed something fun, something visual and which allowed me to enjoy other people’s company.

I found myself at a crossroads; do I go for video or photography? At the time, photography seemed more tangible. It was then no surprise that this initially took me down the portrait photography route. I embarked on years of training with the world famous Damien Lovegrove — a master in portraiture and lighting. But as rewarding as photography was (and still continues to be), I was eager to go further… a lot further!

Talk about some of your first experiences with learning the process of filmmaking and actually making films yourself. Were there any frustrations or setbacks that you encountered?

After a while, I had upgraded my camera to a Canon 5D Mark II. I was delighted, as I finally had a camera in my hands that was capable of recording video. So I embarked on a journey into film by attending a filmmaking workshop. I figured this was a good place to start.

Sadly, I had more questions after the workshop than when I started. I suppose this is typical when trying to describe “progress”? I paid closer attention to the films produced by other filmmakers and again, I wasn’t inspired. Interestingly, I didn’t know why this was. All I could tell was that I didn’t care if I watched the films or not. I later discovered that those films and the workshop I attended hadn’t revolved around “story”.

I found myself back home, desperately wanting to pick up my camera to shoot something, but without “story” at the center of it, everything just felt so meaningless.

How did you first come across Stillmotion and Muse?

Unknowingly, my life changed when I discovered Stillmotion. They told the stories I so desperately wanted to learn how to tell. When I spoke to friends and family, I described their films as “human connecting stories.” This essential ingredient is what was missing in many of the other films I had spent time watching.

Soon afterwards, I was overjoyed to find that Stillmotion offered a workshop, and I booked a place immediately. Cost didn’t come into it. I’m a strong believer that if you want to know something, you have to go to the horse’s mouth. In the arts and particularly in film, this is really hard to identify. But to me, Stillmotion represented everything that made me excited about film and excited about story.

The first four hours of the workshop had changed my life forever. I went to sleep that night with my mind buzzing, knowing that filmmaking was for me and couldn’t wait to get started the next morning. The next day was spent learning how to tell stories the Stillmotion way. We put the Muse process into practice and it was like fireworks going off in my head.

The following day we were out on location, shooting a story about a charity that used hip-hop and graffiti to transform the lives of people living in San Francisco. We were in a small room, with a group of people singing rap songs, when Patrick Moreau literally put the camera in my hands and told me to get filming! There I was in the middle of the group, with a camera in their faces and having the most amazing time of my life. To this day, I still continue do whatever it takes to get the shot.

My biggest takeaway from the workshop was the Muse Storytelling Process. This was the jump-start I needed, and it gave me the tools to immediately start creating meaningful stories when I got back home.

How has the quality and scope of your work changed since starting to use Muse in your films? 

In terms of story, I started at zero in November 2012. After the Stillmotion workshop, Muse gave me a framework that allowed me to grow as a storyteller. Since then, I’ve used every film I make as an opportunity to get better, refining those aspects that make my storytelling stronger.

In October 2016, I collaborated with a fellow filmmaker, Russell Sheath, and together, we had two films broadcast on BBC television as “special reports.” I never could have imagined this outcome back when I started.

Although there are many things that contributed to this journey, it is true to say that “passion” is a major component. When you combine passion with story, it’s like you’ve just put on the best sunglasses that you could ever buy. You see the world through a brand new lens and you can’t stop seeing stories everywhere!

I think it would be fair to say that without Muse, I probably wouldn’t have a business.

This is because Muse gives you the tools to quickly comprehend the noisy world we live in and isolate the best story to tell. To put it more simply, one quickly realizes that “story” to most people is just another word, but those who have been through the Muse Storytelling Process, story becomes an essential element of vocabulary that has deep and fundamental meaning.

The key to success with Muse is to apply it in practice. The more I applied the process, the better I got at choosing and telling the right story. The pre-interviews with my clients became more engaging, because I could ask the right questions and get to the heart of the story.

Can you expand a little more on the BBC films? How did the Muse process help you collaborate with others?

One of the most inspiring aspects about filmmaking is the opportunity to work and collaborate with other amazing people. Russell Sheath, a close friend of mine, asked about a collaboration in making two films about infertility.

As far we know, these are the first films to be broadcast on the BBC that were created with the Muse storytelling process.

Although it was his first time using the Muse process, it was evident from the outset that Muse gave us the tools to share a common vision. It provided a means to work effectively on the shoot day, to ask the right questions during the interviews, to film footage that was story-relevant and to use a common language to communicate & solve challenges on the day.

The plan was always to submit the films to the BBC, which Russell did and the films were subsequently accepted for broadcast. They covered topics that were rarely spoken about, encapsulating deeply personal accounts and presented in a sensitive manner. As far we know, these are the first films to be broadcast on the BBC that were created with the Muse storytelling process.

Speaking of clients, how has Muse impacted your business?

In terms of my business, my clients are inspired by the Muse storytelling approach. They are attracted by how “story” can really impact their message. It’s true to say that we all want to be heard. What Muse does is to have a repeatable process that results in making films that give my clients a voice. The clients see that you really care about communicating their message and the efforts you go to in telling it in the best way possible.

The beauty of the storytelling process is that everything is considered. You make the right choices that are relevant to the story. It keeps you focused on what it is that you’re trying to say and it’s a process that starts at the beginning and stays with the story right through to the final edit. I think it would be fair to say that without Muse, I probably wouldn’t have a business.

In your eyes, what makes for a great story?

If I take a step back and reflect, I can say that I got into photography because of people. I got into film and storytelling because of people. I love hearing people’s stories and getting a first hand account of their experiences. So naturally, a lot of my films revolve around how amazing people are.

I think this is one aspect of why health organizations are attracted to my storytelling. It’s very easy to get driven by the facts and figures and the technical features of this or that. But no matter how amazing a technology is, it’s the people who make a great story.

In Muse vocabulary, I would say that my stories lead with People, out of the 4 pillars of story. One of the first things I look for in any potential story is a strong conflict. I seek to understand their struggles and those things that are holding them back. I chase that conflict and work out what it is that has to be overcome.

Patrick often writes about letting the story move you before you move the story. There’s no shortage of this in healthcare (the industry where I do most of my work). The most amazing people constantly humble me when I listen to their stories and experiences.

Sadly, many of my healthcare films are not available for public viewing. However, the following film is another example of how I put people at the center of the story. It tells the story of what it takes to win, set in the backdrop of a mixed martial arts fighter. You get a glimpse into Gareth Burn’s frame of mind (not to be confused with Gareth from the BBC films) and the relentless pursuit of skill that is required to win.

What’s next for you? Are there any cool projects on the horizon, or are there any stories you’re dying to tell?

I have so much I want to tell… I’ve found that personal projects have become an essential part of my work. They keep me pushing boundaries with my storytelling. I want to tell stories about commitment and dedication and what it takes to reach one’s dreams and goals. I also want to tell stories about portrait artists and painters, to explore how they see people and the world around us.

I’ve found that personal projects have become an essential part of my work. They keep me pushing boundaries with my storytelling.

Beyond that, I want to continue pushing my skills in field sound recording. In 2015 I spent time with the world-renowned sound recordists, Chris Watson and Jez Riley French. Chris is deeply connected to the natural world and wild life, and his captivating work is frequently aired over BBC Radio. Jez’s perspectives on sound had me spinning with completely new and profound sonic experiences. Meeting these two incredible people has influenced the way I look at sound. To this end, I would like to produce a series of short films that combine story, visual excitement and new sonic experiences.

Naturally, I will also continue making films for my clients in healthcare and meeting new and amazing people.

Where can people stay up to date with you online and follow your latest work?

I’m in all the usual places online… Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo and my website. I publish most of my work through my website and Vimeo. My Instagram is regularly updated with a collection of portraits that I’ve captured over the course of time.