Thursday, December 22, 2011

Spielberg Web Series

A few weeks ago, a co-worker dropped this great video essay in my lap called 'Moment of wonder: THE SPIELBERG FACE'

For the handful of people who regularly read this site, it harkens back to a post I wrote back in July of this year.

I'd never heard of 'Spielberg face' before, but it's pretty much on the money of what I'd noted myself. It's a powerful tool indeed, especially in indicating a sense of Wonderment, which is a major pillar of my thesis.

The video describes it as a common cliche and an overused cue for an audience to feel something out of a spectacle, but I would disagree with calling it cliche. Cliche implies it's lacking in efficacy because of it being overused. While it may be overused, it can still ring in a highly potent emotional impact upon its audience when used in the right circumstance.

The video essay also dissects what they call the 'Anti-Spielberg Face', where the tool is used to convey trauma or a challenge of innocence rather than just a reaction to wonderment. It's really no surprise that the reaction can be used that way and I think this is sort of where the essay strays-- possibly for humor.

What they call 'Spielberg Face' is not just a tool for wonderment, but for any major emotional weight swinging with a character. Realization, enlightenment, or a dawning of a moment. It's a bit too narrow minded to call the tool 'Spielberg Face' and sells Spielberg short for his use of the technique and labeling it 'his'. The essay even recognizes its presence before Spielberg was even on the scene, but quickly dismisses it.

The essay may argue that he is a master at conveying that sense of wonderment with the reaction of Spielberg Face, but there's so much more to that tool than cuing the audience to feel something. It conveys weight, scale and eloquently conveys a major emotional change in a character without being explicit.

Now, it is a cue for the audience to say 'hey, there's a big emotional change happening', but it can also have a highly involving aspect to it as well, where the audience is engaged and challenged to figure out what the character is feeling on their own, without explicit statement of that emotion, or without complex exposition as to how the character feels.

The efficacy of 'Spielberg Face' stems from an audience figuring the emotion out for themselves. Even if the emotion is pretty explicit, in figuring it out for themselves, it further invests them with the character, allowing them to feel even more like the events are happening to them.

It's no surprise Wonderment is such a commonly used aspect of the tool. It's enjoyable for an audience to watch and endure that emotion, and it's repeatable. It's the same reason people are so infatuated with Disney. It's nonthreatening entertainment.

But what shouldn't be forgotten is the 'Anti-Spielberg Face' side of this is that there is a whole other slew of emotions that can be conveyed. All of which can resonate with the audience in a similar fashion because they challenge the audience to figure it out rather than explicitly stating the emotion. It's involving. It's entertaining.

Now that I've spoken my peace about Spielberg Face, there's this whole great web series being put on by the same people over at Press Play called Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg that I've been keeping an eye on. It explores the evolution of his style, and common themes and ideas used repeatedly throughout his works such as his portrayal of authority figures, violence, communication, and father figures.

Episode 1 can be viewed here. At this current date, there's four episodes available, but it appears they're launching one or two a week now and there's no information available as to how many of these episodes they will release, but for any fan of the craft, it's a fantastic series to get into.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Grinding It Out

I've had a video on my Vimeo account that's been on my 'Watch Later' list for months. It was something called 'Ira Glass On Storytelling'. And I assumed it would be a 10-15 minute little talk about his experiences. Well, today I finally sat down and watched it, and it turns out it's this short, sweet, little piece of kinetic typography based off of a talk he gave sort of as a dinner bell for all creatives out there.

It's wonderfully short and inspirational and really rings true to anyone interested in any form of storytelling.

I used to get so frustrated that I couldn't just sit down and write out a story. I'd have a certain style, emotion or situation that I'd want to play out and think would be cool to play around with in a film, but as soon as I'd open up a word document, I'd suddenly get a blank mind. I'd spend ten minutes making the title page look just perfect with the perfect spacing from top of the page to title, and adjusting the 'by line' so it looked just perfect. Then I'd plop down the 'Fade In.'

I just couldn't write anything. I wanted to, I knew the style I was going for. I just didn't have the discipline or knowledge of where to even start.

Only until maybe a couple years ago, did I crawl out of that funk and just began to write little stories. Stories I thought would be good to turn into scripts later. The formatting, the character's names, the order of events didn't have to be decided now. What was most important was getting the nice little seed of an idea from my mind down on paper.

Really the only challenge then was learning to capture the essence of why I liked the idea in the first place. Writing vaguely enough to still inspire me upon later readings, but specific enough to steer my memory back to the moment where my brain sent a jolt through my body and said 'Hey, write this one down. This is good.'

The whole idea of The List has been a major motivator for me. One in that I'm forcing myself to write out all of my inspirations and musings in one place and two, it allows me to exercise the whole discipline of capturing the essence of an idea in a shorthanded way. It's helped me organize my small little situations, styles and emotions that I once wanted to plug into a script, into something tangible and organized for me to work from when I begin writing.

My writing has become more frequent ever since I began The List, and it's serving its purpose to act as sort of a self-manufactured Rosetta Stone for the style that I like.

This week I began writing another little short story that I've been noodling for over a year now. After diving back into research and reading the biographies for my thesis, and my recent re-organization of The List, it has all helped re-focus my attention back onto the writing side of things.

Ira's text is an all-inclusive act of encouragement, for individuals both starting out, and season veterans of frustration. I think I fall somewhere inbetween. I'm not out of the woods yet, but I'm far strides from just starting out on this venture.

'Build up your volume of work', he says. It's a rewording of something we've all heard for years, 'The more you write, the better you'll get'. And it's certainly true. But the way it's framed, and the voice that the message is coming from makes those particular words extra encouraging. A sort of tangible encouragement, a relief of 'I know I can do this'.

Anyway, I wanted to share the little video with you Cine'ers if you haven't seen it. It's really important you watch it actually, if you're frustrated and stuck in the mud with your wordsmithing, that is. Just keep grinding it out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Everything you wanted to learn and more about animation

You might not know him, but it's nearly certain you've seen his work. Ren & Stimpy creator, John K., is a man to admire.

I recently found his blog and nearly two weeks into my discovery, I'm finding myself spending at least an hour a day going back through his archives and reading through the wealth of knowledge that he's shared with the world and am trying to absorb it all like a sponge.

The guy's a living legend, and it's easily apparent from his blog that he's a life-long learner and loves to share his most recent observations with anyone patient enough to read.

As I said in my previous post, I'm preparing to make a cel-animated piece called "Waltz with Tinsel" so the timing of finding his blog couldn't have been more perfect. Just skimming through his posts has been an awesome crash course on everything animated. From techniques and tips to handling the business side of things, to the whole mess of history that goes along with that beautiful art form-- he covers it all.

I think even the most savvy film geeks who might not even necessarily be into animation could get a lot out of it as well. Check him out here!

EDIT: Also forgot to mention his entirely separate blog just for students wanting to learn and practice animation, go here!

Biting Off Just A Little More Than You Can Chew

It's been a few months since I've written anything in here. It seems like the end of summer and start of fall is when I'm at my busiest; my creative juices start flowing and I really start cranking out work. And this year, it's happening in spades.

As most of you know, this blog was started for two things; to follow the course of my productions and to work on my personal thesis. Well, I'm quickly learning how difficult it is to be proactive in both these ventures AND remain objective in documenting them.

Over this hiatus, we completed production, and are in the middle of post production of Your Milkman. It was a two-night shoot that went incredibly well due to the dedication and talents of the cast and crew involved and was a fantastic learning experience for all of us. Currently, the rough cut is being polished up, and we're gearing up for sound design, composing and color correction.

On the side, I also began writing my thesis. About 70 pages in and just starting to get into the meat of things, I'm coming to grips that this is probably going to become a book, rather than just a lowly little thesis. And even if no one finds this stuff interesting but me, I'll at least have a documented copy that I can reference and sort of treat as my rulebook for making my own projects. It's really helped me articulate my thoughts on this stuff and discover just how grandiose the scope of the concept is to grasp. I've literally got a stack of books and research I need to sift through before I can even begin writing again.

And as of last week, we have figured out our next project: a cel animation. "Waltz with Tinsel" is the working title of it, and deals with the passion of filmmaking as a craft in a fun whimsical way. A large chunk of the thesis hails from the enchantment of animation, and is something I've always wanted to explore. It seemed like the logical next step.

Part of the challenge for me with these thesis-centric short films is finding the right balance between applying the practices of the thesis and the story. What I've learned from Your Milkman is now being applied to this animated piece. If Your Milkman was a near-literal translation of pieces of the thesis, Waltz with Tinsel is the opposition to that. It's subtler in the concepts, and lets the story take the front seat and tell itself.

With any of these projects, I'm forcing myself to bite off just a little more than I can chew. Your Milkman I intended to do as by-the-books as I could, and with that came assembling a crew of people who have never worked together, doing rewrites, raising capital, finding the right locations, casting, rehearsing, balancing budgets, worrying about all of the details that come along with doing a period piece, and to top it all off, coordinating everyone's schedule so that we could all meet at the same location for two consecutive evenings to shoot the film and put our months of planning into action. We lost crew, lost locations, equipment fell through, dates were changed around; it was a daunting year-long process that hasn't even finished yet.

With this thesis, I knew the scope was large and would take some time to research and formulate theories for each facet, and the more that I dive into it, the wider that scope seems.

And now with this animation, I'm delving into a frontier I've never explored before and only have a basic framework of understanding on it.

But there's something to be said for trial-by-fire situations. Sure you're going to make mistakes, but you'll have an enriched knowledge in a multitude of topics so that when the next project comes along, you can challenge yourself further. It's uncomfortable at times and a little reckless, but I'm learning lessons that I couldn't have otherwise if I played it safe and made something I was comfortable with doing. I'm learning to adapt and see things through, even if it means finding a new way to do it. And when a project is over and done with, I'm moving right on to the next one. It's helping me grow as a filmmaker, and it's rewarding to say the least.

So we're currently assembling a team of animators for Waltz with Tinsel. If you're interested, or know of someone who might be, I'd love to discuss that a little further. E-mail me at

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Geek Wisdom

So pretty much everything I read nowadays, I try to apply it back to my thesis somehow. If a book, song, or film does something well, I try to ask myself what it is I like about it, and try to fit it into the grand scheme of my ideas.

My previous post partially dealt with the unpredictability of (pop)culture. How one particular icon or song can fall into the spotlight and become part of our everyday vernacular, and others with similar value do not. What fell into my lap the same week I wrote that was a book called Geek Wisdom. I did a cover-to-cover read of it in a couple of hours as I awaited my departure from Chicago's O'Hare airport and as I was reading it I couldn't help but relate it back to my thesis.

Disguised as the bathroom reading material that you'd find at your aunt Maude's house, Geek Wisdom offers a bit more beyond just pick-me-ups and words of household wisdom. It serves as a snapshot of pop culture and re-applies the famed quotation back to the very culture that made them famous. There are six chapters that wax philosophical: wisdom of the self, relationships, humankind, conflict, universe and the future. It covers everything from Star Wars to Silence of The Labs.

I'm a bit biased of the book for three reasons. One, because it is co-authored by fellow blogger, cinephile and friend, Zaki Hasan. Two, that I am an utter geek and knowing probably 95% of the quotes proves that. And three, that the book provides a perfect snapshot of the cultural entertainment strata that I am using for my thesis.

Beyond extracting life lessons out of The Dude's affinity for his rug, this book provides a well-rounded snapshot of the last few decade's entertainment and I think it's a perfect setup for a book series that would continue that snapshot.

Check it out yourself. It's available on Amazon, and only like ten bucks!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Y, Oh Why Does Nostalgia Matter?

So this is one story I've really been looking forward to writing about. I stumbled across a New York Times article a few weeks ago from 2009 about my generation (Generation Y) and our apparent fascination with nostalgia.

You can read the article in full here, but to give you the jist of it, the article claims that Generation Y is overly-nostalgic, and at an earlier age than any generation previous to ours. Their argument was attributed to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The article then explains that a similar surge occurred with the generation that grew up around the JFK assassination and explains why George Lucas' American Graffiti was received so well with them. Whether or not that is the root of our yearning to remember the past is really a moot point.

I argue that we're not any more nostalgic than previous generations, but simply, our fancied items of nostalgia are now 100% accessible to us through the internet. Where previous generations could only rely upon memory to cling to nostalgia, our generation can simply type in anything our heart desires on Youtube and relive it exactly as it was. The internet in this regard, has become a catalog of culture and an ever-growing trail of breadcrumbs by humanity.

If I want to look up a commercial about one of my favorite drinks as a kid, Ecto Cooler, I can. I can watch it and suddenly my subconscious ignites the comforting feelings I hold associated between the drink and summer, swimming, camping and riding bikes. Who doesn't want to occasionally think about that? It's a memory jog that transports you to a moment that then sparks a flood of emotions and leaves you longing for more. It sounds like a bit of a narcotic, really, but it's a commonality we all share to some degree. It's human nature to use techniques of escapism. We vacation to clear our minds of the here and now, we go to class reunions to catch up with old friends and re-live memories from school, and we watch movies and read books in order to spend a few hours in someone else's shoes. Nostalgia is what we do to review our lives and gain further appreciation for one's life. Even if you're 100% happy with your life at this very moment, there are still those objects, events, songs, activities and cultural experiences we all shared growing up that serve as an avenue toward a type of happiness you may not even have access to anymore. With the most powerful forms of nostalgia, not only are you experiencing it by reliving it, but the experience is often common enough that it can be shared by everyone in your age group.

Shortly after finding the NY Times article, Roger Ebert posted an article titled "Clinging To The Rear View Mirror" that is also pretty pertinent to this discussion. Ebert discusses an interview he found from famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan (conducted by Playboy no less) that discusses our frame of reference to the world. He quotes McLuhan who said:
"Man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world."

That statement to me, defines the framework of nostalgia. As every generation develops their own unique cultural experiences and events, they can only truly appreciate them for what they were, not what they are. It's the same reason that humans are mentally incapable of fully psycho-analyzing themselves without creating some sort of bias. It requires perspective to see the whole picture and the only way to do that is examine it in retrospective, because not only is the environment different, you are different as well. I don't think you could listen to the radio right now and say "this is going to be considered an oldie, and one of the most defining songs of our generation," because you just can't tell what's going to be picked up in the long-term cultural strata.

In McLuhan's quote, he specifically uses the word "visible", which I find interesting. He implies that there is an invisible value towards everything that can only reveal itself after the cultural environment has changed. There's always a lag. In that lag, certain things fall out of memory, but the things that stick around in the cultural strata have a sudden increase in nostalgic value. I would argue, and I think McLuhan would have too, that these items are likely still in the strata because they become icons of an era in the same way that my Ecto cooler commercial became an icon of not just mine, but a majority of my generation's childhood. It wasn't important to my life by any means, other than it was a simple pleasure of childhood; just a treat on those hot summer days. It wasn't until it was gone and I had grown up that I appreciated it and it gained value to me. Its label, the color of it, the fact that it came in an aluminum can and required mom or dad to open it with a church key in order to drink the liquid ambrosia. It was unique. In retrospect, it served as a positive linking chain between several of my favorite childhood memories and likely did that for the rest of my generation as well (to those with mothers who let them drink it, anyway). If Generation Y is actually more nostalgic than previous generations, then consider me a major instigator of that culture. But I argue that capitalizing on the nostalgics is an important way of providing a deeper more enriching experience for your audience.

Oldies stay hits because, not only do they remind you of events in your past, but more importantly they also do the same for everyone else. Obviously not every song from years past is going to give you that feel, but based off of McLuhan's statement and my argument, the ones that will achieve 'oldies' status are the ones that spark a web of memories across a multitude of people.

I recognize these ideas are a bit abstract, especially linking the two articles together, but let's bring this back down to why this is relevant and apply it to my thesis. This whole concept behind the importance of nostalgia really falls under the umbrella of maybe four major pillars of my thesis. Nostalgia, child wonderment, folklore/fairy tale, and socio/cultural constants all act as tools to achieve the same result. A deeply-rooted bond between the art and the audience.

For the sake of time and wordiness with this article, I'm just going to focus on nostalgia for now, but you'll start to see how all of these are important. In a story that employs any of these four tools, there is not only a personal bond generated, but also a cross-relational bond from individual to individual, allowing the masses to connect and respond as one grand audience. And as most of the old guards of film will tell you, films are best viewed as a public experience, rather than a private. I would argue that it's for that reason.

I went to a screening last night of the Criterion archive's 35mm print of The Day The Earth Stood Still. I tried watching the beginning of that film once before on my own and I couldn't get into it, but the whole experience of it was enchanting seeing it in a theater with a captive audience. People were snickering together in small pockets across the theater, which in turn would make us laugh a little. It was as if the snickering gave us permission, a social cue, to laugh and enjoy it as well. It's a form of reaffirmation that you are understanding the film, in the same way it's as comforting to someone when they are speaking to you. The screening showed part of a dramatic serial and an old Tex Avery cartoon before hand and I think that alone got the audience in the right mindset of the film. It was a shared bond between the collective audience. I loved the whole experience, not only for the appreciation of the film, but appreciation for the situation. It was nostalgic for something I didn't grow up with but could still appreciate it, and that was amplified by sharing the film with a group of people and all giving one another permission to enjoy it. This enjoyment, in contrast with my original perception of the film watching it on my own, just reinforces that train of though. It really was appreciating the culture of it all, and the importance of sharing that experience with a group of people.

All of the great films arguably tap deep into the bones and bowels of humanity and really affect the audience to the core. I don't think nostalgia is the only way to achieve this, but I DO think it is a very effective way. Let me use a simple example here by examining the genius of Family Guy. Seth Macfarlane is guilty to the Nth degree of practicing this idea. The general shtick of the show relies on obscure cultural references that are not only humorous, but allow the audience to engage the material on a deeper level. I carefully say 'cultural references', NOT 'pop cultural references', because even though a majority of their jokes float on viewers' knowledge of pop culture, they aren't necessarily responsible for every joke on the show. For example, the joke of Peter and Lois occasionally falling down and skinning their knees and gasping in pain is one of those popular gags. Everyone has at one time fallen down and skinned their knee and some how the gasping and rocking back and forth makes it feel a little bit better. It's easily relatable and you can instantly bond with the material. Where a simple act of physical comedy might have been funny just on its own, it's now relatably funny because it's one of those little quirks in humanity that we all have done and provides a deeper connection between the audience and the material.

Now let me flip this on its head and get incredibly meta here. By a popular show, like Family Guy, uniquely tapping into those universal behaviors and making a joke out of it, it is suddenly pop culture. Once the joke is seen and is repeated, it becomes intratextual, in that it references itself, and it's funny not necessarily because it's a human behavior, but because we've all seen it before and it's something we all share. So pop culture can feed itself and work upon itself, but it's those types of connections with the audience that suddenly take a film, show, piece of art... whatever... to the next level to be recognized as something more timeless and relatable.

Again, I recognize how abstract the idea is, and it may sound a bit silly, but I think it's one of those tools that has been in practice since humanity's interest in entertainment. Somehow it has remained unlabeled and unexamined. To me, it's certainly a concept worth looking at when studying the canon of popular entertainment.

Wanna Work With Spielberg?

You'd better know your stuff. A list has been floating around the internet this past week called "The Spielberg Curriculum". It contains 206 films that Spielberg allegedly requires any collaborators of his to see.

Whether or not the list is a true manifesto straight from the horse's mouth isn't really important, but it just makes things more interesting. Plus, it just seems in line with several speeches I've heard from him stating essentially that.

This one produced for AFI specifically comes to mind.

Not only has someone kindly shared the list on a Google doc, but they've also gone through and highlighted all of the films on Sir Steven's list that are available on Netflix Instant View. Check it out here.

People seem to be upset that it's American-heavy and that there are virtually no modern classics on there, and that there are a lot missing that they think belong on there. Well, that's fine. These are movies HE recommends. If you want validity in your complaint, watch the films on the list and THEN you can criticize it and make your own list.

So how many have you seen from the list? My number is pretty shameful, at just under 40, with maybe another dozen or so that I've seen parts of. It looks like I've got a nice homework assignment to do.

EDIT: After a few days of the list being live, there is now a small disclaimer at the bottom stating that the list is debunked but still remains a fantastic list for film enthusiasts looking to learn the building blocks of storytelling.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Commonplace Books

It seems like the more focused my attention gets with this thesis, the more things seem to crop up that reaffirm the idea.

I mentioned awhile back on Living in Cine that when I started this thesis, I began putting together something I referred to as "The List". The list is basically my go-to junk drawer of thoughts, theories and individual items I've deemed as either nostalgic, or culturally significant that belong in the realm of my idea. And in just a year and a half of existence, The List has become my self-made muse.

It's sort of taken on a mind of its own at this point and one of these days I am going to organize it into more of a catalogue to separate my theories, borrowed quotes and cultural elements into separate categories.

While perusing the internet a few weeks ago, I came across this thing called Commonplacing. It's an old 18th century practice of thought that helped philosophers, authors and poets comprise their thoughts. Often a moleskin notebook, the author would record everything from fleeting thoughts of their own, quotes they heard in passing, to passages from books they read. The idea was all the same: record all ideas that inspires you in a certain subject matter. Sounds like The List to me.

After reading into it a bit more, my chest quickly became puffed up and proud once I heard that the likes of Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson kept them, and that the practice was taught at prestigious schools such as Oxford and Harvard. Commonplacing generally died out as paper and typewriters became more readily available, but the idea is still being used today by artists and authors to physically help organize their thoughts. (One such artist was Tupac, and the ever-entertaining Something Awful has published some of his thoughts).

While I would love to get my hands on Mark Twain's commonplace book, I think there's something said to just keeping the commonplace book for personal use only. It might be an amazingly fun sociology experiment mapping the thought patterns of a great mind, but some things are better left a mystery to discover on your own. I don't think one could really find inspiration the same way as if you discovered the idea yourself. It's a secondhand experience of inspiration. I think that's where the idea of the commonplace book resonates for me: it's a personal catalogue, tailored just for your brain, made to stimulate your thoughts and your thoughts only.

Even though the term is new to me, I feel like the application behind the commonplace book are still being put to good use today. Journals, blogs, even music playlists all provide the same service: a bin to collect one's thoughts and draw inspiration from. So here's to inspiration, no matter how you find it (or organize it for that matter)!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mechanics of Filmmaking: Chills and the Gravity of a Reaction Shot

Let me begin by saying, this is idea is mainly based off of my own observations, but hey, this is my blog and I get to write about what I want in it.

I've never cried during a movie. Ever. That doesn't mean I haven't felt emotionally moved by the craft, but I'm just not one to get weepy. I am, however, prone to chills.

You know... you're sitting there watching a movie you're really into and something HUGE happens in the story, and chills begin to go up and down your spine, the hair on your arms stands up... and maybe you even start to get choked up. Maybe a son just returned from war and walked into his parents' house after believing he was dead, or maybe the father showed up to the son's baseball game after saying he couldn't, or maybe a group of friends are sliding to their doom into a big incinerator and a giant claw comes and rescues them from certain doom... you know... the usual.

You're suddenly moved. Not just internally, but your body starts releasing chemicals, adrenaline starts pumping, and you have a physical reaction to the images projected on that forty foot glowing screen. It's not just you, it's a whole room full of people that experience it. I recently got to thinking... if you can achieve the same response at the same time from a whole room full of people, there's got to be some sort of science and method to the whole thing. Some sort of intentional precision of mechanics comprised of timing, performance and the culmination of events surrounding the event. But how is it cultivated and what is it that moves us? I was surprised by what I began to notice.

I really started to pay attention to when specifically the chills would come during a movie. More often than not, it's not from the big wide shot that displays the event that changes the tide of the whole story, but moreso the intimate close up reaction to the event. I believe there are a few things going on here that attribute to the chill occurring consistently.

Firstly, I've always heard people say that the best films are the ones that move you and evoke some kind of emotion from the viewer. The story needs to be captivating enough so that the audience can care about the character's journey so they are able to have an emotional reaction to it. There needs to be a grounds for emotional investment.

Secondly, I'd like to thank Rising From Ashes director TC Johnstone for articulating it this way: motion creates emotion. It's the whole reason we have cinematographers aside from lighting. I'm talking about using the motion of the camera, or blocking in some way to amplify the performance to really let that particular emotional moment sing. While I would argue that this isn't necessary for that key moment, it can enhance it tenfold.

Think of every Spielberg movie you've ever seen. A character sees/realizes the for the first time and that their world has just changed, the camera dolly does a low push in on their face reacting to it. Maybe we haven't even seen what it is yet, but DAMN it's moving. It's an emotional pinnacle for the character that is conveyed to the viewer, who responds with their own emotional pinnacle.

I would love to do a SuperCut (as they're being called these days) of as many reaction push-ins as possible in mainstream movies just to see how often it's used and how differently each one makes you feel. A slow push-in for a tender moment, a fast one for when the character sees the dinosaur or monster for the first time. It's a revealing moment that is just compounded by the motion of the camera.

Again, I apologize for relating a lot of my articles to J.J. Abrams these last few posts, but my thesis and study sort of revolves around Spielbergian techniques, and J.J. seems to be the most current filmmaker employing these techniques in that way.

In a recent interview promoting Super 8 that was conducted by Buzzine, JJ said something that sort of brought all of this together for me.

He talks about his "Little Man." Now before you all go busting up laughing, hear this idea out.

In the interview, J.J. is asked about how he approached the trainwreck sequence in Super 8 and made it such a fresh and engaging experience.

His response was this:
"There's this stupid thing I do sometimes when I'm doodling, which I'm always doing. I draw a circle and then I shade it, and then draw like a little horizon line so it goes from being this circle to being a three-dimensional circle. But then the thing is, whenever I draw little figure next to it of a certain size, maybe very small, suddenly that circle is this sphere that becomes a thing of scale. It's weird how it suddenly has this meaning and importance, only because of the person, the figure that's standing there. There's a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event. Suddenly the event has different meaning. It's not just the event which is maybe cool and interesting itself, but suddenly it's relatable and it's a relative experience."
(Read the full article here.)

The sequence begins with a fantastic reaction shot with a push in on Joel, and goes into a death-defying chase as these kids try to dodge an onslaught of traincars flying through the air and plowing into the earth all around them. I think J.J. is talking about here is really showing the gravity of the situation. The reactional push-in sucks you into the event. Their lives are about to change. He then keeps you engaged by keeping the camera on the ground and with the kids. From their perspective. This works out beneficially three-fold for the sequence.

Not only are you getting the benefit of seeing the emotion on their face as this event happens, but your peripheral is also chopped off as traincars are coming from both the side and top of the frame unexpectedly, and you're experiencing it with them right there, rather than as a spectator from afar. As an added bonus, you're receiving exactly what J.J. describes with the Little Man. A sense of scale and gravity of the situation. I would love to scrub through that sequence and analyze it a bit more once it comes out on blu-ray, but I can tell you there was more than one time in that three or four minute period that I got chills. It's just a really effective sequence that displays this entire idea beautifully.

Although he isn't exactly addressing the importance of the reaction shot, he is discussing how he handled revealing the gravity of the situation. And I would argue that the reaction shot also does this in its own way, but relies on the adjacent shot(s) of whatever it is they are looking at to show the contrast of that scale. One archaeologist versus a dinosaur. One boat captain versus a vicious man-eating shark. One child versus a barrage of traincars raining down around him... you get the point. Revealing scale and reaction is crucial to those iconic emotional moments of film.

This is a pretty bold statement, as I'm still in my infancy in learning this wonderful craft, but I believe this technique is one of the most moving and powerful tools in the filmmaker's toolbox. There are one or two major moments in my upcoming short film that use this technique, and each time it's used for a different affect. I'll be interested to see how it plays out on its own and how it plays in sequence next to the cause and reaction of each incident.

I'd like to finish out my thoughts on this with a couple trailers. All of which employ the reaction shot and get you excited about the film. Now as I said earlier, you really need to be invested in the character to get a total emotional response from it, but by not having an investment and just showing a series of reaction shots, you start asking yourself questions and mystery is instantly generated.

I want to start first with Spielberg's War Horse, because the efficacy of this trailer is up for questioning, but I think it shows the ideas listed above quite well. By my count, there are about six or seven major reactional push-ins throughout the trailer, intermixed with shots of scale and gravity. It creates mystery and wonderment (which as you know is what I believe to be one of Spielberg's major MO's). Very little talking in this trailer, just action and reaction. Watch it once all the way through if you haven't seen it yet, and watch it again to start paying attention to what I'm talking about. Action and reactions GALORE. Scale. Wonder. Mystery. It says a lot by saying a little. Now whether or not that makes you want to see another movie about a horse is questionable, but it's certainly interesting enough to keep you watching.

Now next up is the Super 8 trailer. I promise I'll shut up about all of it, but this is another prime and recent example of everything listed above. While this one has a lot more dialogue to string the story together, it's almost all voice over and placed under reaction shots. It's about a half and half mix of people reacting to something off screen, and the other half are events showing scale. When I saw the trailer initially, before I even had this idea to tie it into the chills, I said to myself "Wow, there is a LOT of shots that are just people looking at something off screen." But after reading the Buzzine interview with Abrams, and spinning my wheels on all of this, I think it's a perfect example of the core of this idea.

I like to watch a movie, but part of the fascination for me is also keeping a finger on the pulse of both myself and the audience as they react to the movie. When a chill comes. When the laugh comes after a joke. When people jump. Learning how people watch films is one of the most interesting and useful things when it comes to making films. It helps smooth over the learning curve on the craft when it comes to learning by making mistakes. Sure you can learn by experimenting on a dozen different films how to get a chill out of people, or you can see how the masters do it and reverse engineer it to make it your own.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Opportunity of a Lifetime

So as some of you know, a big part of my thesis was a stem-off from a realization I had while doing my poster series. I talked about this in one of my first blog posts here.

What I never expected was that that series would come full circle and allow me to work on a project that I've been watching VERY closely; one that appears to follow my thesis to the T. A film that gets me giddy as a schoolgirl just thinking about it.

I'm talking about Super 8.

I've done probably three or four posts on Living in Cine alone on J.J. Abrams and Super 8 and sort of how it all ties in together with my work. So what happened exactly?

A couple weeks ago, I received a text from my friend saying "Make sure you answer your phone when I call you." I happened to be at a barbecue and when my phone started ringing, I politely excused myself from the table.

"Dan, I just talked to my buddy who works at Bad Robot. He remembered your poster series and... They want you to try a crack at a poster design for Super 8!"

Silence. A wave of excitement, energy, and just sheer terror flushed over me.

He continued to tell me that I may be getting a call from either his buddy or J.J.'s producer, Bryan Burk in the next few minutes, so to be available. I waited for about a half hour, a huge knot tightened up in my stomach and I began to worry.

Those of you who have ever been to Chicago know that AT&T's service here is pretty consistently terrible throughout the city. It's especially bad in my area.
Thoughts raced through my head as I waited for the call. "Had they already tried calling but my horrible service didn't connect the call?" "Had they changed their mind?" "Is this really just an elaborate trick?" "What am I going to say if he does call?" "Is it too windy out here? What if he can't hear me?!" "Does my breath smell bad? What if he smells it through the phone? SHIT!"

At this point the rest of the people at the barbecue knew what was up and they were all giving me distance so I wouldn't have a panic attack or something.

The phone rings, and it's got an Indiana area code on it. A bit of calmness sweeps over me. "Good, it's not Bryan Burk himself," I thought.

I answered it and although my reception was bad and I was struggling to decode what he was telling me like it was a World War II cypher, I got the jist of the details.

"So you think you can do this?" He asked.

"I'm going to get started on this immediately."

I excused myself and ran home. They wanted three unique ideas by 10am the next morning. It was already 9:30pm, so I got a pot of coffee going and got right to work.

I've done tons of freelance work before, and pretty much every job I've ever had has required me to work under pressure with some sort of time crunch, but this was different. This was a potential freelance job from a company I could only DREAM of working with. Literally the epitome of where I'd like to end up.

A lot of design is research. I spent a good hour and a half gathering reference material and familiarized myself with the story. Paramount and Bad Robot both kept this project under tight control, and I was no exception, so I literally had just the images from trailers and promotion released to the public to work from. I gathered the story and really tried to come up with a really iconic poster. Initially I wanted to do a sort of Shepard Fairey/propaganda style, because that is what they initially gravitated towards in my series.

My fiance Veronica, got home just as I was finishing up the basic title and credit block elements. She knew what was going on and was SO excited for me and offered to help in any way she could, because she herself is an INCREDIBLE illustration artist. By about 2am, I had hit a dead end in the design I was working on and sort of felt the style I was aiming for wasn't really right for the tone of the movie. I realized it probably wasn't going to work and stopped myself before I wasted the rest of the night.

I woke her up out of a sound sleep.

"Veronica... I think I need your help."

She got right up and we began collaborating (this is our first project do so). I had an idea for the poster, but knew she could execute it WAY better than I could. We decided to do a Struzan/ Amblin style of Joel from a few images we had found, and depending on how quickly she could draft images out, we would do the other kids' faces.

Now I need to stop right here and say, although Veronica wasn't totally unfamiliar with a Wacom before, and owned one herself, she had never really had the opportunity to do anything with it. So we got her set up, and after some basic practice strokes with the pen, she started getting the hang of it.

She did an outline drawing and used that as her color reference. After a short while, and about a pot of coffee later, she rolled out with the first draft of Joel.

I knew how I wanted to lay it out and quickly tossed it on my machine and started rearranging and placing things like a mad man. At this point, the sun was rising and I kept looking at my clock. We didn't even have one design completely done. What if they hate it??

I really started to feel the crunch as I made some final touches to the design and tweaked textures and colors to something I was happy with. Around 8am, I got a text saying "How's it going?" I gave him an update and shot off what I had been working on.

At this point, I had been up for about 26 hours and could hardly concentrate.

He quickly replied to my e-mail with just "Fuck you, that's awesome! Make it dirty and beat to shit, and add a flare of some kind on it and call that one done."

So I whipped that out really quick and sent it out. He wanted us to get at least one more design together to show Bryan Burk, who was eagerly waiting to see what we would come up with.

"So we've got the one that is this romantic Amblin style, now let's do one that is sort of a more minimalist Bad Robot style. Make it as simple as possible. Do something with the train wreck."

I spent the next hour in illustrator trying to draft up something that would echo what he was looking for. It was a SUPER low draft, and more of a conceptual thumbnail more than anything. I wasn't nearly as happy with it as I was with Joel's poster, but I sent it off anyway.

I took a quick two hour nap and woke up to a message saying "Paramount saw it and liked it. I still need to hear from Burky."

Several hours later, unable to sleep and totally wired on coffee and adrenaline, I heard back again saying Bryan had an idea and wanted us to try it with Elle and the train wreck. They got us tiff files from the film as reference and we got to work.

We worked until about 2am and finally forced ourselves to go to sleep. We both had our basic elements started and could sleep peacefully knowing what we had to do in the morning.

Sunday morning rolls around, and not only do I have to roll out with another poster by 10am, but I also have to leave at that same time for rehearsals for Your Milkman. So we wake up in sort of a panic, I blow through a rough pass on my script and get my notes together for the rehearsal while Veronica picks up right where she left off with the illustration, and the clock starts ticking.

I end up having to push back rehearsals an hour just to finish the poster and get it out for Burk to see. We send this out and I head to my meeting.

When I arrive at the office, I get a text saying that Burk is going to call me. I'm freaking out a bit, but wait for the call.

I answer and Bryan asks how I am doing. "Fantastic," I reply. He starts off by saying how much he loves what we're doing and has an idea to tweak the train poster.

"That train needs to be inches away from her. Imminent danger." he says.

He gives me a few more ideas for his concept, and I express a few concerns for making it too close because of crowding the comp and making it look less like a train and more abstract.

"Do what you can to make it look like a train and we'll go from there. Also, where in town are you located?"

"I... I'm actually not in LA, I'm based out of Chicago."

"Darn, I was going to invite you out to the screening we're hosting right now."

Drat. (Does anyone say that anymore? They should.) From the brief conversation I had with him, Bryan seems like an incredibly enthusiastic and genuine guy.

I take my notes home with me, and by this time it's around 7pm. Veronica and I start hammering out the perspective. I render out a quick 3D box as reference for depth in Illustrator. She gets started on the box car.

Around midnight we send out another comp just to see progress and make sure we're going in the right direction.

I'm pretty damn tired, and can barely focus. I go splash my face with some water and see that a blood vessel has burst in my eye. I look like hell, but I'm thinking "This is the best opportunity you've ever been given, just keep pushing." And we did.

"Love it, keep it up" they reply.

Veronica illustrates up a Railroad Crossing sign while I begin working on sparks, smoke and debris details. The sun's beginning to rise as she finishes up the highlight strokes from the sparks on everything. We each have to be out the door at our respective 9-5's in four hours. I already know I'm going to be coming in late.

Once all of her elements are done, I force her to go to sleep while I do my magic.

After an hour of tweaking, I start to save my project. At this point, it's a 27x40" poster at 300 dpi and it's got about 120 layers on it. These things take time to save. I end up passing out waiting on the save and waking up an hour later in a complete panic. BACK TO WORK!

At about 10am, I end up rendering out the file and shooting it out to them.

I head into work, anxious all day as to what they're going to say. The deadline to make a decision on using one of our prints is quickly approaching. If they want more changes, am I going to have to leave work and stay up another night?

I get a few intermittent texts throughout the day that EVERYONE at Bad Robot loved the designs. The positive feedback helped, but I was still anxious.

On my way home, I was told that Bryan wanted to try one more placement of the train, but wanted to talk to Paramount about a drop dead timeline for when these had to be in for printing. I started working when I got home and figured out a quicker way to get the new comp turned around that evening. I was laying it out for Veronica to begin illustrating when I got a text saying that J.J. finally saw them and loved them, but they went with a simpler design to give away as a freebie.

To most of you reading this, you might feel a sense of disappointment that we weren't chosen, but aside from the lack of sleep, this past weekend was one of the most exciting opportunities I've ever had. The fact that I got to collaborate and foster a relationship with a few huge people, and that one of the pinnacles of my thesis, and a filmmaker I greatly respect, saw something I worked and liked it made it ALL worth it.

If anything, this will just open doors for Veronica and me. As an artist, pushing your bounds is something that's TERRIFYING to most, but has helped take my artwork into a new direction. And most of all, my fiance and I both learned that we can work incredibly well together on collaborations under the extreme conditions of a harsh deadline. I can't wait for another opportunity to come up for the two of us to work together on another poster. Her talent is simply incredible and I am just floored by what she does.

As a treat for ourselves for the 60+ hours we put into the designs, she and I have fixed up the drafts of our two main posters. Bad Robot has given us permission to share the final posters with you as a Living in Cine exclusive.

To view a larger version, click here and here.

Lastly to round out this spectacular experience, I received a picture text from Veronica while I was at work last week saying we had received a package from Bad Robot. What was inside?!

When I finally got home, I opened it up and found a bunch of copies of the original concept posters we did of both Elle and Joel, a Super 8 camera keychain they've been giving out as swag, and a thank you note from Bryan Burk. Truly awesome!

I have seriously been in amazement the past few weeks about the entire experience, and I feel like this project has just inspired me to work even harder on this thesis, on my design work and on my films, and keep striving to make my way up this creative ladder. I'm usually not one to share stuff like this, but this has been such a fun experience for Veronica and I. I feel like it would be selfish of me not to share it with you, especially to those of you who are interested in pursuing a career in illustration. There is no tried and true path to doing something like this, but what worked for us this time around was just knowing the right people and putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to be discovered rather than forcing your work upon others.

For those of you interested, Veronica also has a blog of her fantastic work:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Your Milkman Production Diaries Launches!

I've gotten a few e-mails from people asking why I haven't really been posting about Your Milkman. It's not that we've stopped production, in fact it's quite the opposite. Production is still going strong. The reason I've been quieter about it all is because Kessler U has picked up our programming for the Your Milkman Production Diaries.

Basically, we've been documenting the entire process of production and every week, we're rolling out with a new episode that takes us all the way through production.

I'm proud to announce the first episode launched yesterday. I know it's rough, but remember, this is truly behind the scenes of our process. It's down and dirty and in some cases, we're hiding the camera from location owners to get a peak of the whole process. This is a learning tool and I would have killed for a resource like this when I was getting into the craft.

So without further adieu:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Editing Theory: Balancing The Method With Emotion

Since about the turn of the year I've been on a reading spree, knocking out a book every week or two. I wish I had this much motivation in college, it's definitely helping me hone the craft more and figure out what kind of stories I want to tell.

When Stephen Goldblatt, ASC was in town for our taping of FilmFellas last year, he told me that if there were any books that any aspiring filmmaker should read, Walter Murch's In The Blink of An Eye, Karel Reisz' Techniques on Film Editing, and Sidney Lumet's Making Movies would be at the top of his list. I read Making Movies and finally decided to pick up In The Blink of An Eye.

Not only is it an incredibly fast read, it's packed with philosophies on editing and storytelling that I'd never heard before. And I suppose in my current state, editing is my primary mainstay. So understanding that side of the craft better will certainly help me.

What I found though, was that I was already practicing most of these techniques without realizing it. Murch proposes a hierarchy of six rules to cut by. These are:
1) Emotion
2) Story
3) Rhythm
4) Eye-trace
5) Two-dimensional plane of Screen
6) Three-dimensional space of action

This is a great framework to start with for new editors. Along with that hierarchy, he discusses rhythm.

Murch would verify his rhythm by watching his cut over and over again and stop it where he felt the cut should happen. If it matched his initial mark for the cut, he would leave it. If it was off by a frame or two, he would rework the cut until it felt right and invisible. It was refreshing to read that strategy is used by someone so prestigious, because that's how I judge my cuts as well. I'll basically give every cut two or three watches and make sure it feels right. If the performance, story and action all line up, it's a perfect cut and there's no better feeling in editing than that. This brought me to another point that I wish was covered more in the book; intuition and relying on emotion.

A big part of editing is not only drawing out emotion from an edit, but GIVING it your emotion WHILE you're editing. Although I don't necessarily know all of the formalities of editing, I rely a LOT on what FEELS right. I have learned to listen to my intuition on what feels right for the pacing of a particular project. I've learned this simply by doing, and was refreshed to hear Murch allude to it when he talked about the emotion behind "putting your body into the edit".

One of the biggest challenges for analog flatbed editors to go digital is that they're going from a process that requires motion from your whole body to put a film together; a graceful dance that requires measuring strips of 35mm celluloid with armlengths, physically grabbing a strip of the work print from a drawer, bringing it over to the table, and adhering it to the previous piece of celluloid, to a very mechanical and rigid process that requires very little physical motion. You're sitting, facing a screen and the only thing that moves are your hands to select key commands and scoot the mouse around.

Murch was no different in his difficulties adjusting, and when Murch went digital, he HAD to ween himself into it by forcing himself to stand while editing. He raised the monitors and keyboard up so it would give him at least the same stance as a flatbed. That's something I can definitely appreciate. Having precise kinetic memory of feeling out film timing simply by handling strips of film and deciding the cutting point just by looking at it requires skill. It's that kind of organic motion that really is putting your heart and soul into every cut.

Another gem from the book are Murch's thoughts on why editing works (which he explains mimics the blinking of an eye), and a proposed theory of his, in a chapter titled "A Galaxy of Winking Dots". He proposes a research experiment that monitors blinking patterns of an audience watching a film by using the infrared signal from nightvision of a camera which would render a galaxy of glowing eyes in a sea of darkness. He hypothesizes that if an audience's blinks are intermittent and out of sync, that people aren't truly fixated on the film. If they ARE blinking in a pattern, it means they are fully engaged with a film and that everyone is on a similar wavelength of brain activity.

I did some research of my own afterwards to see if Murch's study had been performed. Not finding much on my own, I contacted Tim Smith who, if you remember from a previous blog post, was one of the masterminds behind the DIEM project that performed the There Will Be Blood study with David Bordwell. He was very familiar with Murch's theory and referenced me to several studies that he and his colleagues had performed. One of which attempted to create Murch's experiment. They found that there was no notable pattern in blinking (with only a success rate of 1.2%). With that said, Smith clarified with this:

However, Murch may be on to something as subsequent studies have found a relationship between blinks and event boundaries: the perceived end of one human action and the beginning of another. Such boundaries often occur at the end of scenes or during changes in action within a scene.

I found that very interesting and would like to take the time to thank Tim Smith for sharing such fascinating research. If you're interested in reading the original studies, I'll provide the citations and links he gave me at the bottom of this article.

I've by no means mastered editing, but in cutting hours upon hours of material for narrative, documentary and marketing/commercial work, I've definitely learned a few things. Walter Murch draws out beautifully in his book the joys and disciplines of the craft from his personal experiences and serves as a great pillar of reference for those interested in the craft.

If you're interested in the links provided by Tim Smith, here they are:

Smith, T.J. and Henderson, J.M. (2008). Edit Blindness: The relationship between attention and global change blindness in dynamic scenes. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 2(2):6, 1-17.

Nakano, T., Yamamoto, Y., Kitajo, K., Takahasi, T. & Kitazawa, S. (2009) Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories, Proc. Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1673), pg 3635-3644

Nakano, T. & Kitazawa, S. (2010) Eyeblink entrainment at breakpoints of speech.
Exp Brain Res. 2010 Sep;205(4):577-81

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chuck Wendig's Law of Story

As filmmakers, it's important to occasionally remind yourselves of the basics of the craft. I came across this article today on Facebook, thanks to Cinefile's Nelson Carvajal, that did just that.

25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling

1. Stories Have Power

Outside the air we breathe and the blood in our bodies, the one thing that connects us modern humans today with the shamans and emperors and serfs and alien astronauts of our past is a heritage — a lineage — of stories. Stories move the world at the same time they explain our place in it. They help us understand ourselves and those near to us. Never treat a story as a shallow, wan little thing. A good story is as powerful as the bullet fired from an assassin’s gun.

2. Effect Above Entertainment

We love to be entertained. Bread and circuses! Clowns and monkeys! Decapitations and ice cream! A good story entertains but a great story knows that it has in its arsenal the ability to do so much more. The best stories make us feel something. They fuck with our emotions. They make us give a flying fuck about characters and places and concepts that don’t exist and won’t ever exist. The way a story stabs us with sadness, harangues us with happiness, runs us through the gauntlet of rage and jealousy and denial and underoo-shellacking lust and fear (together, lust and fear may stir a “scaredy-boner”) is parallel to none. Anybody can entertain. A juggler entertains. A storyteller makes us feel something. Makes us give a shit when we have no good reason to do so. Fun is not the last stop on the story train. The storyteller is master manipulator. The storyteller is cackling puppetmaster.

3. A Good Story Is A Good Story Regardless Of Genre Or Form

Segmentation. Checking off little boxes. Putting stories in the appropriate story slots and narrative cubby-holes. Is it a sci-fi TV show? A fantasy novel? A superhero comic? A video game about duck hunting? An ARG about the unicorn sex trade? We like to think that the walls we throw up matter. But they’re practically insubstantial, and once you get them in your mouth they’re like cotton candy, melting away to a meaningless slurry. Good story is good story. Those who cleave to genre and form — whether as teller or as audience — limit the truth and joy the tale can present. Cast wide and find great stories everywhere.

4. That’s Not To Say Form Doesn’t Matter

Story is also not a square peg jammed in a circle hole. Every tale has an organic fit. The medium matters in that it lets you operate within known walls and described boundaries.

5. Stories Have Shape, Even When They Don’t Mean To

You put your hand in a whirling clod of wet clay, you’re shaping it. Even when you don’t mean to. Sometimes you find a shape the way a blind man studies a face. Other times you know the shape at the outset and move your hands to mold the tale you choose to tell. Neither way is better than the other. But the story never doesn’t have a shape. A story always has structure, even when you resist such taxonomy.

6. The Story Is A Map; Plot Is The Route You Choose

A story is so much more than the thing you think it is. I lay down a map, that map has a host of possibilities. Sights unseen. Unexpected turns. The plot is just the course I… well, plot upon that map. It’s a sequence. Of events. Of turns. Of landmarks. The story goes beyond mere sequence. The story is about what I’ll experience. About who I’ll meet. The story is the world, the characters, the feel, the time, the context. Trouble lies in conflating plot with story. (Even though I’ve done it here already. See how easy it is to do?)

7. On The Subject Of Originality

The storyteller will find no original plots. But original stories are limitless. It’s like LEGO blocks. Go buy a box of LEGO bricks and you’ll discover that you have no unique pieces — by which I mean, these are the same pieces that everybody gets. But how you arrange them is where it gets interesting. That’s where it’s all fingerprints and snowflakes and unicorn scat. Plot is just a building block. Story is that which you build.

8. The Bridge Between Author And Audience

The audience wants to feel connected to the story. They want to see themselves inside it. Whether as mirror image or as doppelganger (or as sinister mustachio’ed Bizarroworld villain!). The story draws a line between the storyteller and the audience — you’re letting them see into you and they’re unknowingly finding you inside them. Uhh, not sexually, of course. You little dirty birdies, you.

9. But Also, Fuck The Audience Right In Its Ear

The audience isn’t stupid. It just doesn’t know want it wants. Oh, it thinks it knows. The desires of the audience are ever at war with the story’s needs, and the story’s needs are, in a curious conundrum, the audience’s needs. You read that right: this means it’s the audience versus the audience, with the storyteller as grim-faced officiant. In this struggle, fiction is born. The conflict of audience versus writer and audience versus itself is the most fundamental conflict of them all. The audience wants the protagonist to be happy, to be well. They want things to work out. They want conflict to resolve. The story cannot have these things and still be a good story. Good story thrives on protagonists in pain. On things failing to go the way everyone hopes. On what is born from conflict and struggle, not merely from the resolution. The audience wants a safety blanket. It’s the storyteller’s job to take that safety blanket and choke them with it until they experience a profound narrative orgasm. … did I just compare storytelling to erotic asphyxiation? I did, didn’t I? Eeesh. Let’s just pretend I said something else and move on.

10. No Tale Survives A Vacuum Of Conflict

Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. It’s a spicy hell-broth that nourishes. A story without conflict is a story without story. As the saying goes, there’s no ‘there’ there. The storyteller has truly profound powers, though: he can create conflict in the audience by making them feel a battle of emotions, by driving them forward with mystery, by angering them. The storyteller operates best when he’s a little bit of a dick.

11. The Battle Between Tension and Release

Tension is how you ramp to conflict, how you play with it, how you maneuver around it, how you tap-dance up to the cliff’s edge, do a perilous pirouette, and pull back from the precipice. You’re constantly tightening the screws. Escalation of tension is how a story builds. From bad to worse. From worse to it can’t get any worse. From it can’t get any worse to, no, no, we were wrong, it’s still getting worse because now I’m being stampeded by horses that are also covered in burning napalm. But it isn’t just a straight line from bad to awful. It rises to a new plateau, then falls. Having just witnessed it, birth is a great (if gooey) analog. Each contraction has its own tension and release, but the contractions also establish a steady pattern upward. Some have said narrative arcs are sexual, ejaculatory, climactic. True, in some ways. But birth has more pain. More blood. More mad euphoria. And stories always need those things.

12. Peaks, Valleys, Slashes And Whorls

It’s not just tension. All parts of a story are subject to ups and downs. Rhythm and pacing are meaningful. A good story is never a straight line. The narrative is best when organically erratic. One might suggest that a story’s narrative rhythm is its fingerprint: unique to it alone.

13. In A Story, Tell Only The Story

The story you tell should be the story you tell. Don’t wander far afield. That’s not to say you cannot digress. Digressions are their own kind of peak (or, in many cases, valley). But those digressions serve the whole. Think of stories then not as one line but rather, a skein of many lines. Lines that come together to form a pattern, a blanket, a shirt, a hilarious novelty welcome mat. Only lines that serve the end are woven into play. Digressions, yes. Deviations, no.

14. Big Ideas Do Well In Small Spaces

The audience cannot relate to big ideas. A big idea is, well, too big. Like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Or Unicron, the giant Transformer-that-is-also-a-planet. (I wonder if anyone ever calls him “Unicorn,” and if so, does that irritate him?) You must go macro to micro. Big ideas are shown through small stories: a single character’s experience through the story is so much better than the 30,000-foot-view.

15. Backstory Is A Frozen Lake Whose Ice Is Wafer Thin

Backstory in narrative — and, ultimately, exposition in general — is sometimes a grim necessity, but it is best to approach it like a lake of thin ice. Quick delicate steps across to get to the other side. Linger too long or grow heavy in the telling and the ice will crack and you will plunge into the frigid depths. And then you get hypothermia. And then you will be eaten by an Ice Hag. True story.

16. Characters Are The Vehicle That Carry Us Into (And Through) The Tale

The best stories are the stories of people, and that means it’s people — characters — that get us through the story. They are the dune buggies and Wave Runners on which the audience rides. Like Yoda on Luke’s back. Above all else, a story must have interesting characters, characters who the audience can see themselves in, even if only in a small way. Failing that, what’s the point?

17. Villains Have Mothers

Unless we’re talking about SkyNet, villains were children once upon a time. Which means they have mothers. Imagine that: even the meanest characters have mothers, mothers who may even have loved them once. They’re people, not mustache-twirling sociopaths born free from a vagina made of fiery evil. Nobody sees themselves as a villain. We’re all solipsistic. We’re all the heroes of our own tales. Even villains.

18. Heroes Have Broken Toys

Just as villains see themselves doing good, heroes are capable of doing or being bad. Complexity of character — believable complexity — is a feature, not a bug. Nothing should be so simple as unswerving heroism, nor should it be as cut-and-dry as straight-up-malefic motherfuckery. Black and white grows weary. More interesting is how dark the character’s many shades of gray may become before brightening.

19. Strip Skin Off Bones To See How It Works

A story can be cut to a thin slice of steak and still be juicy as anything. To learn how to tell stories, tell small stories as well as large ones. Find a way to tell a story in as few beats as possible. Look for its constituent parts. Put them together, take them apart. See how it plays and lays. Some limbs are vestigial.

20. Beginnings Are For Assholes…

The audience begins where you tell them. They don’t need to begin at the beginning. If I tell the story of a Brooklynite, I don’t need to speak of his birth, or the origins of Brooklyn, or how the Big Bang barfed up asteroids and dinosaurs and a flock of incestuous gods. You start where it matters. You start where it’s most interesting. You begin as late in the tale as you can. The party guest who comes late is always the most interesting one. Even still, it’s worth noting…

21. …If You Jump Too Fast Into Waters Too Deep And The Audience Drowns

Jump too swiftly into a narrative and the story grows muddled. We have to become invested first. Go all high-karate-action and we have no context for the characters who are in danger, and no context means we don’t care, and if we don’t care then we’re already packing our bags in the first five minutes or five pages. The audience always needs something very early to get their hands around. This always comes back to the character. Give them reason to care right at the gate. Otherwise, why would they walk through it?

22. Treat Place Like Character

For setting to matter, it must come alive. It must be made to get up and dance, so shoot at its feet. It has a face. It has a personality. It has life. When setting becomes character, the audience will care.

23. Always Ask, Why Do I Want To Tell This?

Storytellers tell specific stories for a reason. You want to scare the kids around a campfire. You want to impress your friends with your exploits. You want to get in somebody’s pants. You hope to make someone cry, or make them cheer, or convey to them a message. Know why you’re telling it. Know what its about — to you above all else, because then you can show everybody else what it’s about. Find that invisible tether that ties you to the story. That tether matters.

24. It’s Okay To Bury The Lede

Every story is about something. Man’s inhumanity to man. How history repeats itself. How karate-ghosts are awesome and how you don’t fuck with a karate-ghost. But you don’t need to slap the audience about the head and neck with it. The truth of the story lives between the lines. This is why Jesus invented “subtext.”

25. Writing Is A Craft, But Storytelling Is An Art

Writing isn’t magic. Writing is math. It’s placing letters and words and sentences after one another to form a grand equation. Writing is the abracadabra — the power word made manifest — but the story that results is the magic. That equation we piece together tells a tale and the arrangement that leads to that tale is where the true art lies, because it takes an ice scraper to pretense and throws an invisible-yet-present tow line from present to past. Writing is craft and mechanics. Storytelling is art and magic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Storytellers Are More Interconnected Than You Might Think

For the last few weeks, the filmmaking thesis that I've been working on has taken a back burner due to the ole' 9 to 5 and the production of Your Milkman. Well... sort of.

In this time, I began this sort of web flow chart project. If you'll recall, one of my first posts on this blog mentioned a list I had created of people whose work I felt lied in the realm of this thesis. I used those names and plotted out the interconnectivity between these filmmakers, storytellers, animators and artists.

After a couple of hours of cross-referencing notes, biographies, IMDB and the old reliable, Wikipedia, I began seeing a pattern emerge that spanned the entire duration of cinema and those who influenced it. There are core people in the industry whose names showed up time and time again. Those individuals ended up gravitating towards the center of the web. With the exception of a few outliers (who were either independent artists, referenced themselves, or I just hadn't found a connection yet), EVERYONE was connected.

The American Zoetrope crew, namely Spielberg and Lucas, and their regular producers, Kathleen Kennedy and husband Frank Marshall were at the hub, along with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell. I was shocked to see how STRONG the bridge was between all of the key players and forms of media.

It would be silly of me to publish a full size render of my work so early on without going over it again to connect more dots. I'm going to hold off on that for awhile, because I'm sure there are a few that I just haven't read about yet. But I thought this was too fascinating to NOT put up at least my initial impressions of it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

'Your Milkman' Production Gets Name

I'm pleased to announce we're officially operating under 'Tinsel Pictures' for 'Your Milkman'. My UPM needed a production name for some paperwork this weekend and without investing too much brainpower, I came up with 'Tinsel Pictures'. It sounded like old Hollywood. Something familiar and nostaligc. Very akin to the framework of my thesis.

So I present to you the Tinsel Pictures logo:

Animation coming soon.

Campaigning, funding and new crew!

Our last post yielded a sneak peak of the name of our production team: Tinsel Pictures. Well, to kick of this week's update, I've got an animated logo head that I made. Without further adieu:

So it's been quite awhile since we've done a production update. A LOT has happened, and here's the rundown.

First, our IndieGoGo campaign is over. I want to personally thank everyone who helped contribute and put the link out there for people to see. We had a fantastic response and we ended up raising $2,055!

A very special thank you to:
Liz Power
Becky Suhajda
Doug Dickinson
Paul Brighton
Divya Kumar
David Darakjian
Alex Lukens
Carlyn Paluch
Justin Jach
Tommy Beardmore
Kent and Joyce Dickinson
LaVonne Grimes
John Heilmann
Josh Bird
Craig Charters
Steve Sewall
Haley Dickinson
Robert Imbs
Peter Liguori
Ryan Clark
Brandon Leuken
Arick James
Philip Bloom
Giancarlo Ianotta
Mike Saenz
Jennifer William
Lorie Skubal
Kelsey Holton
Steve Weiss
Jay Blackman
Melissa Misenhimer
Patty Hart
Mandy Rogers
And the select few who chose to remain anonymous!

You guys all made that part of the funding possible and I am truly humbled by your support for this little project of ours.

So you might be saying to yourself "Gee, he was asking for $9,000. How is this film going to get made?" Well allow me to explain. Several months ago, I approached Eric Kessler of Kessler Crane about donating a gift certificate towards the campaign as sort of an incentive to get individuals to help promote it. He came to me a few days later with an even better proposal. If we produced a weekly web series following the course of production from our very first production meeting, all the way through post production, he would help with the rest of the funding needed to pull off the project.

Last week, we made it official and now his site, Kessler University will be exclusively showing our production diaries on a weekly basis all the way through the film's creation. We're all ecstatic and honored to be a part of the Kessler U site, which is becoming an incredible resource for indie filmmakers to go to and learn from.

So to round out all of the campaign details, I'm pleased to announce that Ryan Clark has won the Zacuto Rentals $500 gift certificate for linking the most people to the site. Ryan, I'll be e-mailing you shortly with the details! Congratulations!

As a side note to the contributors of this project, the incentives will be coming out as production moves forward. Obviously some will take longer than others (such as those receiving a DVD) so please be patient and if there are any questions or concerns with those details, e-mail me directly.

Let's move on to crew details. So at this point, we've locked in the major players. The only roles we're looking to fill are the script supervisor and some of the minor crew positions. Since our last update, we've brought on Tom Kenyon as our Location Manager and Mei Mei Lam as our Production Designer. We are thrilled to have both of you on board. Your talents and enthusiasm are infectious and we're looking forward to making this happen with the two of you.

Lastly, our production date has been pushed back to July now. It was just too impossible to pull off by the end of this month and giving us the extra few weeks to prepare has been welcomed by everyone. We all felt that pushing it back would only make the project that much better. So a minor delay, but a major relief of stress for all departments on this production.

That should pretty much get us up to speed on the major details. We'll be doing a weekly post along with the release of the show on the Kessler U site. Stay tuned for that!