Biz Stone Explains How He Turned 91 Random Photos Into a Movie

As one of Canon’s “Project Imaginat10n” directors, the Twitter cofounder worked with Ron Howard to turn photos into a short film.


Biz Stone’s directorial debut will open with a lot of swiping, pinching, and zooming in on images. “It’s a cinematic first: Instead of the Ken Burns Effect, it’s the Biz Stone Effect,” says Stone.


That may sound pompous, but a) he’s joking and b) as a cofounder of Twitter, Stone has had plenty of influence on the ways in which we view content now. “I wasn’t going to tell an old-fashioned story in which someone pulls out a photo album and starts turning pages,” he says. “That’s not how we do it now. We show each other photos on our mobile devices, pinch in on this…Isn’t she cute?” he says, as if showing off a photo.

Stone is one of the recruits for Canon U.S.A.’s ongoing “Project Imaginat10n.” The latest campaign saw the brand recruit five celebrity directors (along with Stone, Eva Longoria, Jamie Foxx, James Murphy, and Georgina Chapman) who will create films based on user-submitted photos along a series of themes; the films will debut in the fall. Stone was given 91 photos–nine on each of the 10 themes and the final image chosen by director Ron Howard–and he will use each of them in crafting a short film which will star Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine) and Lisa Edelstein (House).

Here, Stone lays out his thinking in selecting the photos, turning them into a clever a tale, making a movie–with some advice from Howard–and what it all means for his day job.

The Select

“I decided I would approach the process in the true spirit of the project,” Stone says of his photo selection session, which yielded the photos in the slide show above. “I did that without any prejudice and with no preconceived story ideas. I simply chose the photos based on their magnetism.”

But then: “I was like, oh, no what do I do with these photos–they’re completely unrelated?” He had picked one of someone wearing what seems to be a World War II gas mask, only it has, Stone says, “a crazy beak. I was like, Do I have to set this in the ’40s? What’s going on? Why did I pick a photo that’s underwater?!”


Turning Photos Into A Script

Stone was on vacation visiting his wife’s family in Nashville when he snuck away for a few hours one afternoon to a coffee shop, “like I do a lot when I write,” he says.

He sat with the photos. “I looked at the one with the boat and thought, What can I do with that that would be different? What if I miniaturize it, what if it were a tiny mini boat? So,” he goes on, recalling his thinking, “if there’s a tiny mini boat maybe there’s this old man who runs a hobby shop making this miniature world.” Then he turned to the photo of a woman falling into water. “It really spoke to me, it suggested to me a depression so I thought, okay, what if there’s a death.”

Then there were two photos that he felt were linked. One is a macro shot of an ant and the other is of an old man sitting and looking at the ground. “In my mind the old man is looking at the ant; the man is also lost, he’s empathizing with the ant. Okay, we have a sad old man who lost his wife to suicide because of depression that he didn’t want to acknowledge and because of that he has a difficult relationship with his daughter.”

The story tumbled out like that. The beak-like mask led Stone to think of ravens and Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven.” “That’s the jump!” he says. “I thought, Let’s do this whole story from the point-of-view of a little girl trying to bring her family back together, her mom and her grandfather back together.” In the spirit of the project, her mother is a photographer and the little girl has gone into her mom’s tablet computer sleuthing. “She’s been swiping, pinching, zooming, looking through her mom’s work photos and family albums and recognizing in several of photos we see the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. Then, as if he were the girl, he says, “Mom liked Poe, Dad liked Poe, and Grandma liked Poe. There’s this school talent show coming up and I’ll recite Poe’s “The Raven” and invite Grandpa to come and this two- or three-year rift will be resolved.”

Advice From the Master

As one of the leaders of “Project Imaginat10n,” Howard selected one of the photos–the one with a snail and a leaf–and he is there to act as a mentor in the filmmaking process. Stone particularly wanted to talk with him about working with a young child since Howard had been a child actor himself. Stone learned about the limited hours and strict rules for schooling a child on the set of a movie. “We only had (the young actor in the film) for a certain amount of time and that gave me sense of urgency when working with her. I was like, Let’s shoot the rehearsal–it’s a digital camera, so let’s press record while we’re rehearsing.”


Howard also lent wisdom on shooting stunts and shooting at night. “He said to prepare and then trust your team–you’ve got a great team, don’t worry too much.”

Stone on Set

Howard’s advice paid off beautifully. “A lot of times when I wanted to jump in and meddle I hesitated and let the team do their work,” says Stone. “I would duck over into what they call ‘video village’ and watch the monitor. I’d stay out of their way and only jump in when I really needed to.”

But there were a few things Stone learned all on his own. “Everyone was a lot happier than I expected them to be,” he says, recalling shooting outside on a cold night in January at the Disney Ranch north of Los Angeles. “It was really cold. I thought the different departments would be more catty, but there was a lot of teamwork. They were like, Yes, we can get that done. I was tiptoeing around [gingerly asking], Is it ok if we change this color? And the answer would come back: Sure! Great! I was really surprised.”

How Filmmaking Is (And Isn’t) Like Startups

“One huge difference: We don’t work outside and we’re not freezing while we’re working,” says Stone. “It’s similar in that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; everyone is doing one little thing. One person is creating the tiny figurine for my model, another is selecting lenses, there’s one technical team and one artistic team and [just like at Twitter or any of his startups] everything comes together to create one unified product that people will hopefully enjoy.


He goes on to enumerate similarities: “It’s like what I’ve done over the last decade. Filmmaking allows people to express themselves. Film is a carrier of ideas, a way of disseminating ideas to a lot of people.” And he now has an even deeper appreciation of delegation, he says, “a truer belief in that this individual can do this, and they’ll ask me when they need help; otherwise they’ve got it. It’s a good lesson learned.”

When he’s on set, working with the crew, “I feel like I belong,” he says. “They call me captain.”

So will he bring that way of working back to his day job? “I’ll demand they salute. At ease, engineers,” he says, imagining it. “At ease.”

See the photos that will be the basis of Stone’s film in the slide show above.

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.