Monday, December 31, 2012

A Gift To Kick Off The New Year

A good portion of my free time this year was dedicated towards reading and continuing my studies in film. One of the best things to come out of this year was a process I've started doing called 'Tone Cutting' which is taking a film, stripping the sound out of it and manually inserting a one frame tone blip at each cut and cross fade. The purpose is to keep your attention solely on the editing, composition, pacing, camera movement and blocking of a film. It's a lot of work and a true discipline to sit through an entire film just watching the technical aspects of it, but it really has been rewarding beyond measure. I've been hesitant to share it with others for legal reasons but it seems as though I can share the links privately with people and still be in the clear. At this current time, I've got 18 films completed, with the help of William Cabral and a 19th on the way. I'm sharing this because it's been so educational for me, and if you're serious about your craft I'm all for having more eyes look at and analyze some of these classic films. The only thing I ask is that you start a dialogue in the chat box about things you've learned or particular scene favorites. And if you decide to share the private album link with anyone, please encourage them to discuss the films as well. I also encourage you to watch a few films on the list you haven't seen first. I got more out of watching these films in a Tone Cut before actually watching them for the narrative. My favorites so far have been The Conversation, The Cranes Are Flying, I Am Cuba and The Conversation. I've got a list of a good thirty films that I'm aiming to cover over the next year but will only continue to do these until I feel I've learned enough from them. There's no guarantee if they'll stay up, especially more publicly offered so I encourage you to watch them sooner rather than later. Happy new year, film geeks. Keep learning and growing!

password: tonecut

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Your Milkman Is Now Live!

So if you're a follower of this blog, you'd know that I started this in part to document the progress of my thesis, and in particular, a short film I made called 'Your Milkman'.

Well, now after nearly two years of writing, pre-production, production, post, and now its festival run, we've finally decided to put it online publicly for the world to see! It's been a fantastic learning experience for me by allowing me to apply my mistakes towards future projects. I'm truly grateful for the experience!

If you've got 12 minutes to spare, check it out!

Ten Weeks In The Cuckoo Clock

A little over three weeks ago, I sat down to start penning Ten Weeks In The Cuckoo Clock, a feature screenplay that's been rattling around in my head for the better part of a year. Now the first rough draft is done.

Now I've outlined several screenplays in my time, and began writing a half dozen but this is the first I've actually sat down and written from start to finish. 100 pages of gold. Well, not exactly. I realize that this is only the first of many steps that must be made to see a film like this come to fruition but it's a big accomplishment I'm proud of nonetheless.

A curious thing happened to me while writing this; during the low points of the script, where our protagonist's character is challenged and rattled, I felt a similar funk as well. It put me down for several days and the only prescription was to write through it. I guess I can see how writers are alcoholics and depressed most of the time, having to constantly experience these up-and-down manic circumstances you put your characters through.

My next goal is to figure out how to shape this amorphous, spineless ooze I spat out on the page, and turn it into a rigid, tightly-woven story that conveys the same messages and themes, but isn't so fat and sluggish on its feet. I think over the next week, I'm going to go through the script on my own and really see where my characters are, and where I think they need to be. Set the terms and conditions of the story and see how I can make that happen in the most concise way possible.

My biggest challenge will be the "Kill your darlings" portion of all this. There's just too many scenes I love and I feel like at this point it's going to be an uphill battle of problem solving and messy negotiation that goes along with this process. And I know I'm at least six months out or more from having a tightened draft. I just hope I believe in this vision strongly enough to see it through to a presentable, pitchable version that I'm happy with and still believe in.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

As someone who waivers interests between cinematography, editing, directing and writing and whose compass happens to be currently pointing more toward the writing side of things, I found this pretty interesting. 

Emma Coats, a Pixar storyboard artist, posted on twitter a few weeks ago a list of 22 rules of storytelling that she has learned during her time at Pixar.  Although lists can be rather off-the-mark and more entertaining than educational, I think this one is really something to keep in mind.

I've always admired Pixar's masterful storytelling.  They always pick a hook and build beautifully simplistic tales from that and although there have been a few franchises they've made that haven't interested me, I recognize just how successful they are at appealing to mass audiences with every one of their stories.

So when I came across this list, my ears perked up!
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beasts Versus Trees: Two Interpretations on the Grandest of Themes

A few weeks ago, I walked down to our local Landmark theater and got to see Beasts of the Southern Wild after hearing a co-worker talking about it.

This is probably one of the most moving and tastefully-done examples of the Folklore/Fairytale and Child Wonderment pillars of my thesis that's been done in recent years.  So that immediately got me to sit up straight.

Very quickly, I was sucked into Hushpuppy's mythical world of The Bathtub and was in awe of the the brilliant metaphors that are woven into this poetic story.  I immediately downloaded the soundtrack (also co-created by Director Benh Zeitlin) and was left stewing over the film for days after.  I loved the movie so much that I made my fiance (now wife) come with me to see it a second time and this is what got me weighing the themes a little more deeply and appreciate the several depths that this film has to offer.

On the very surface, it's a fairytale about a girl coming-of-age.  The girl, Hushpuppy, and her father live in a mythical place called 'The Bathtub' that has slowly been isolated from the rest of the world due to the rising sea level from melting icecaps.  They live in a comminty of southern folkies that all live as happily and vivaciously as can be, despite their sub-third world living conditions.  Hushpuppy goes on a quest of sorts after she realizes she "broke the universe", and she attempts to fix things on her own, but realizes she needs the help of her ailed father and her mother to give her the most basic survival skills to make things right again.

On the very basic sub-surface, it's easy to see that the film is a metaphor for life in the south post-Katrina and sort of spins it into an imaginative version of how things happened from a little girl's perspective.  It could be seen as a psychological coping mechanism of this particular little girl who turns tragedy into fantasy (ala the early Italian Neorealism/Magical Realism of Vittorio DeSica in Miracle In Milan).  From that perspective alone, the film has enough legs to stand on its own.

The next level of depth to the film exists in the idea of universal balance.  In her naive, imaginative mind, she is convinced that she broke the universe by defying her dad (first by setting fire to her shack, and then by hitting him in the heart causing him to collapse).  From this, she hears the menacing sound of glaciers breaking apart a world away from her, and knows that something bad is about to happen.  After braving a storm of biblical proportions that floods out The Bathtub, her father plans to 'fix everything' and blow a hole in the wall that surrounds dry land to drain it out.  They succeed in their plan and the water level decreases, but unfortunately this doesn't fix anything, and they are forced out of their homes and sent to shelters back on the mainland.  Hushpuppy describes the shelter and its occupants as 'fish in a fishbowl without any water' and as such, they escape back to their watery haven back in The Bathtub.  It is not until she comes to terms with life and death is out of your control that she is able to overcome this turmoil.  This realization also dovetails into the other deeper theme of the film: personal balance.

Hushpuppy, for the first two thirds of the film is raised by her father, who treats her like an androgynous survivor rather than a little girl and pushes her more towards manhood than womanhood by teaching her to fish like a man, eat crab like a man, drink like a man and arm wrestle like a man.  He even addresses her as 'man'.  This creates an inner turmoil and forces her to break away from this lifestyle and travels to find her mother in a brothel-type shack shrouded in a warmly-lit glow of maternal comfort distanced far from the gritty, hyper-real life of The Bathtub that her father so passionately embraced.

It is not until she has had a taste of both worlds and learned from both her mother and father how to survive in the world that she is able to confront her inner beasts (shown metaphorically through the confrontation of a physical beast of a mythical buffalo-type creatures called an Aurochs).  It is at that point she transforms and finds both personal and universal balance, which gives her the strength to face this beast and protect her family.  In a sense she goes from being a weak follower to a strong leader once coming to terms with personal and universal balance.

While I was in the theater watching the film for the second time, I realized how closely these themes paralleled that of The Tree of Life, which many hated for its abstract expressions on existence, but at least in my interpretation of it, I saw the idea of the personal and universal balance the key themes of that film as well.

Tree of Life addresses universal balance by showing the big picture concepts like the formation of the universe, the coming of dinosaurs, and the first instances of compassion (humanity) for another creature.  And it addresses personal balance in an individual's dissonance growing up in a household where the mother represented nature (or goodness stemming from the natural world) and the father represented grace (or actively choosing to be good, and the idea of spirituality).  Again, in Beasts the parents represent similar principals and it's ultimately up to Hushpuppy to find the balance.  In both films, they allude to the fact that both ideas are necessary.  You're an individual and need to be balanced, but you're also part of a big picture that you're unable to control.  Coming to terms with both will allow you to live life fully.

What's interesting though is despite very similar themes, they're both treated so differently and from what I can tell, Beasts is sort of an easier pill to swallow for mass audiences.  It's possible that it's received better because it's more of a romantic poem that doesn't use big words in its cinematic vocabulary so the masses can "read" it, rather than an abstract haiku that takes days of gestation after the film to really get it and fully appreciate it.  I enjoyed both films immensely but Beasts is an entertaining type of journey, whereas I felt Tree of Life was a more spiritually fulfilling, yet cognitively taxing type of process. 

What I love about Beasts of the Southern Wild though is that it really shows the principals of my thesis at play and shows how it can be done effectively.  It deals with the efficacy of the pillars, it's poetic, and it's timeless.  It takes people's knowledge of Katrina and that sort of New Orleans culture and applies that just enough to get audiences to actively connect and participate in this modern fairytale.

For me, this film is why I wanted to be a filmmaker.  It's unique, moving, inspiring and connects with a mass audience in a creative way.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bicycle Thieves: The Lesson of Invisible Cuts and Composition

As I've finished up the ToneCut of Bicycle Thieves, I've realized that this film really has a lot of invisible cuts.  Even while I was finding the cuts to insert the tone, I had to really keep close attention to see when the cuts occured in some spots.

I think this is attributed not only by intriguing blocking and compelling performances, but also the use of paralleled compositions.  The use of matched framing from cut to cut, particularly in horizontal space, is more frequent than I've noticed in the three previous films I've ToneCut.

The use of paralleled compositions tricks the eye into passing over the cut simply because the eye is not forced to re-direct to a new position.  It's already where it needs to be to see the focal point of the next image.

Watch the clip I posted and see for yourself the delicate care taken by DeSica and Carlo Montuori in making the connecting shots happen.  Really the whole film is like this, but I just wanted to at least provide a small slice of what's going on here.

'Bicycle Thieves' ToneCut (Six Minute Compositional Analysis)
from Daniel Skubal on Vimeo.

That's an incredibly powerful tool that is often forgotten and can really get you past the proscenium arch and get you into the film.  I wrote previously about a conversation I had with a co-worker about how there's a distance in both performance and cinematography in Citizen Kane that is just more difficult to sympathize to the story at all.  I would theorize that perhaps part of the problem is that the cinematography and, in particular the cuts, call attention to themselves and don't guide the eye as gracefully as Bicycle Thieves does.  Instead, Citizen Kane hosts stark cuts with focal points all over the screen.  It's not as comfortable to watch, and therefore is less inviting to sympathize.

One could argue that Citizen Kane thrives rather than suffers from this approach, because Charles Foster Kane isn't supposed to be a likeable character, so sympathy isn't required and the dissonance of a lack of grace in the framing and cuts helps present his character in that manor.

In 'Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of a Contemporary Blockbuster', Warren Buckland analyzes Spielberg's successes and failures in using matched framing from cut to cut.  Early on in his career, his attempts weren't nearly as successful as when he hit his stride in doing so.  And although I haven't given a deep analysis of any of his films yet in this ToneCut style (I will, don't worry), his parallel compositions are like punctuations or signposts throughout the film rather than part of the continual style of the story as in Bicycle Thieves.  Perhaps the best example of this is the use of the Paramount logo fading into the mountain peak at the beginning of Raiders of The Lost Ark.  When used correctly, it's a brilliant submersive effect that invites the audience into the story.

At first I thought the cuts in Bicycle Thieves were just coincidental in how graceful the cuts were, but as I made my way through the whole film, I realize that DeSica masters this.  The affect of this technique in Bicycle Thieves really is one of the best examples of invisible cuts in the history of cinema.  Are there any other films that you can think of that employ the same idea?  I'd love to take a look at them and I'll add them to the list of films to look at in ToneCut form.

Again, I'm willing to share the full ToneCuts I've done, just so long as you provide me with a writeup of what you've noticed throughout the film as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

'Your Milkman' Receives First Laurels!

One of the main reasons I began this blog was to document the process of making my short, Your Milkman.  Well for those of you who haven't heard yet, we completed post production a few weeks ago and have begun entering the film into smaller festivals.  So far we've submitted the film into five festivals and will be slowly submitting it to more down the line.

While we weren't expecting to hear back from any of them until at least August or September, I'm proud to say that we received an email this week saying that we were an official selection for the Action On Film festival!

This is my first attempt at submitting a project into the festival circuit, so I've done quite a bit of reading on it and nearly everyone advises to really know your film's worth and potential and target festivals that suit your particular project; and we did.  We've been going for festivals that see more of the smaller, up-and-coming teams, and so far it's looking promising.

My goal for entering the film into these smaller festivals is to take all of the earnings we receive and put them towards the next film (which will be going into pre-production in October or November).  Even if we could raise 20% of what we're wanting, I'd feel like it was worth it.  So here's to the first of hopefully many more laurels that we can put next to Your Milkman!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tone Cuts Log 1: What I've Learned From Bertolucci, Hitchcock, Welles and DeSica Thus Far

So as I've been going through these Tone Cuts, I've been walking away with all kinds of pearls of wisdom.

In The Conformist, you see just how carefully crafted shots can be.  The use of color, balance and movement are quite revealing if you pay attention to them.  The moving master shots in this film are inspiring.  They almost always begin with a reveal of information, only to pull out, pan or dolly to reveal more information in the frame; whether that's introducing a new character, balancing an unbalanced frame, revealing a prop or symbol in the background or simply lending to a change in character progression.

That type of camera movement can help keep an audience entertained and guessing what will happen next.  In this case, the storytelling is ahead of the story itself, which is rewarding rather than insulting to audiences.  Those moving masters are juxtaposed against quicker cutting into a near-ideal pacing for a film of its tone.

In my previous post I touched on a theory I have of mine dealing with tension and release of storytelling and how crucial that is to the pacing of a film, which is reflected in how a film is perceived by audiences.  If a film is a constant pace with no relief in tension, the film can feel longer, drawn out, boring or redundant; even if the cuts are Michael Bay-fast.  It's straining for an audience to give 100% attention for an entire film.  When applicable, a break in the tension of a long establishing shot, or even a moving master that doesn't cut away can provide some source of relief to the tension and help balance out the pacing of a film.

There are numerous other things I walked away with from The Conformist, but that is perhaps the most significant and prevalent.

My second Tone Cut was Vertigo.  I wanted to try watching the film before I began cutting in tone just to try something different.  I was grateful I did.  Within the first five minutes of my cut, I was able to see the notion of 'invisible cutting' where the technical aspects of the film are masked by their necessity and ability to propel a story along.  I was completely blinded by the fact that nearly 70% of the film is Jimmy Stewart looking at things and how brief and to the point the scene changes were (always accompanied by a crossfade to illustrate a passage of time).  In fact, as I was going through the tone cut, I was getting annoyed with how much this happened.

I would love to do a supercut of every shot of Jimmy Stewart not speaking, and just looking at things.  Because I'm a bad film student, I must admit I've only seen a handful of Hitchock films up until this point, so I was unaware of how frequent he employed this technique.

It wasn't until I watched the 90 minute documentary on Rear Window that it was pointed out that the reaction shot is such a prominent trait of Hitchcock films.  It was like a lightbulb turned on and I immediately understood how the effect of that technique could so powerfully penetrate the subconscious of the viewer.

Again, to reference my own posts, I wrote a few months back about the Kuleshov effect.  As I was researching it, I came across a little vignette about the effect as explained by Hitchcock.  And now realizing just how much of a reoccuring technique it is across his films, he's probably the best person to be talking about it.

Beyond the reactionary shots, his very strict grammatical usage of camera movement and shot progression is something that really stuck out with me.  He wrote the book on shot progression in terms of moving in consistently from a wide shot, to medium shot, to closeup when the dialogue calls for it.  It's the most by-the-books technique you could ask for and that alone is something to strive for if you call yourself a filmmaker.

My third film was Citizen Kane, and much like Hitchcock, stuck pretty close to the rule book in terms of shot progression and crossfading to indicate a passage of time.  Citizen Kane illustrates an understanding of what both The Conformist and Vertigo achieved individually; the control of tension and relief, moving masters and a by-the-books use of film grammar.  And while Greg Toland and Orson Welles broke the ground on the way the film is shot, it really sticks to the very basics of storytelling.

On that note, I spoke with a co-worker of mine after getting through a majority of the tone cut and he admitted to me how uninspired he was by the film and had a hard time understanding why it is so revered beyond its technical achievements.  He made a point that I'd never heard anyone bring up before.  He said that the way the film is shot, although technically masterful, didn't give him an intimate feel for the character.  "It felt as though the frame was always a barrier rather than a window" which I thought was interesting.  He went on to tell me that it didn't allow him to feel for the character, and was always at a distance from him.  Any time the camera moved to make an emotional point, it felt contrived and only distanced him further.

It led me to thinking about the cinematography of the film and although I don't feel as strongly as he does about the film, I do believe that in a sense, he is correct.  The cinematography is similar to how Tim Burton films conduct the camera, in that the camera moves don't move for the character in the story, but rather move for the style of the story.  Canted or extreme angles of characters give an offputting feel.  They're uncomfortable and can easily go beyond their value in telling a story.  A wide angle push in on Kane's face is uncomfortable to watch, and most likely attempted to portray him as a monument of a man; a goliath of an individual, it does indeed offput the audience and distances them from connecting with Kane as a sympathetic character.

It's an interesting discussion to say the least and I can certainly see the argument my co-worker was making.  Regardless, it was a masterpiece in its own right and certainly worth an analysis on many fronts.

Now I've began my fourth film, one of my all-time favorites, Bicycle Thieves.  DeSica is a master at invisibly cutting and moving the camera because the story and characters are so captivating.  I'm actually having trouble noticing every cut as I go through it because I find myself getting lost in the blocking and performance of the actors.  I'm sure I'll learn more as I get through it, but for now I simply wanted to get my ideas down to serve as a log of my education while doing this little project of mine.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Eyeing the Cuts: An Analysis of Classic Cinema

In my previous post, I mentioned a documentary I've been working on about master cinematographers and the amazing amount of knowledge I've gained by listening to them speak and reference their inspirations.

Possibly one of the greatest gifts I have received from this documentary is a recommendation by Stephen Goldblatt, ASC (The Help, Julie and Julia, Closer, Lethal Weapon).

He advised to watch film-- good film.  The classics.  Turn the sound off and watch the cuts.

I'd heard the bit of advice before, but for some reason it resonated with me as I've plowed through the rest of this documentary.  I took his bit of advice to heart and created something I've begun to call 'Tone Cuts', in which I take a classic film, toss it into Final Cut Pro, mute the soundtrack and on every cut and fade, I put a one frame tone cue.

While it's a glorified version of Stephen's advice, it really keeps your attention focused solely on the image, the movement of the camera, the use of lighting, color and contrast, the pacing of the film and of course the construction of the film.

To add an extra layer of enrichment to the process, I began with a film I hadn't ever seen before; The Conformist.  Watching a film for the first time without sound is the true test of a film's cinematic depth.  If you can, even at the very basic level, understand what's going on without the sound, I believe the filmmaker is truly making use of the medium of cinema.

By chance, I happened to pick one of the most brilliantly photographed films I've seen.  Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris) is seen by many as one of the greatest masters of cinematography ever.  This film was a landmark in the use of production design, color and movement of the camera.

It's difficult to sum up all that I learned from watching this from cut to cut.  One of the greatest lessons I learned from the Tone Cut of this film in terms of editing was the brilliant pacing of it.

The pacing of an entire film, and even in a scene of a film is crucial to keeping the attention of the audience.  I have a theory floating around in my head about the direct correlation of pacing and how well a film is received.  It's all about tension and release.  Fast cuts and long takes.  Dissonance and Consonance.  Camera movement.  Color.  Light.  Balance is needed to both build tension and receive rewards.  It's satisfying to see fast cuts followed by a long shot.  The importance of providing the audience with both high tension and satisfying release is what can make or break a film.

Already, I've made my way through The Conformist, Vertigo and Citizen Kane.  Each one is providing me with a unique perspective on film theory and almost a back stage pass to witness the true craft at play without the story being on the forefront.

I feel as though this should be a mandatory project for a budding filmmaker to do.  With just some freeware app that converts DVD's to MOV's, and about 5 or 6 hours of spare time, you can make your own tone cuts.  The malleability of looking at a film on an NLE's timeline and getting the opportunity to look at every frame and every cut of the classics at your own pace is one of the most open-ended educations you could give yourself.  You should have no excuses to do this for yourself.

For those interested, I'm not opposed to sharing the Tone Cut of these films I've already completed; if and only if you are willing to share with me your notes and what you've learned from these films as well.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Fly On The Wall: Listening to Legends and My Love of the Craft

For the past six months, I've been acting as a co-producer and lead editor for a feature-length web documentary on cinematography and storytelling. In it, I've had the chance to witness and listen to some top cinematographers provide incites into their philosophies and life lessons they've learned over the years. It's been a complete joy to receive this education and inspiration from these individuals and I only wish more young filmmakers could have the same opportunity.

One of the questions we've been continually asking has been 'What do you love about what you do?' And as broad as that question is, most of these legends answers were relatively similar. They loved working with people, they loved telling stories, they loved how different each day is.

I've been thinking about how I would answer this question and I think my answer is a little more self-serving and romantic than most of these legends. Perhaps it marks the infancy in my career in contrast to them, or it shows where my hunger lies in terms of growing in this profession, or maybe I've just had more time to gestate and consider my answer.

For me, I am in love with the idea of the Craft. Not just the craft of cinematography, the craft of directing, the craft of writing, or the craft of editing. I am in love with the craft of filmmaking. By that I mean that ever-evolving, ever-yearning fire in the belly that we all have to learn everything there is to know about telling a story through moving pictures.

The craft, to me, is about developing our sensibilities and expanding our knowledge of the grammar of filmmaking to obtain an emotional response from every single shot of a film. It's a life-long dedication to learning, sharing and collaborating with individuals with that same yearning. I think that's the best encapsulation of my love for this career.

It's the subtle nuances that matter in storytelling and the delicate idea of the craft that really excites me. What the story is, is just as important as how the story is told. And I think deep down inside me, that is the core of why I love filmmaking. It's about how the words are turned to life. It's about the slightest facial gestures in a performance, about that right camera move that accentuates the emotional tone of that particular shot. It's about how all of those shots are cut together in sequence, their pacing and how the film feels as a whole.

Warren Buckland talks about the idea of 'Organic Unity' in Directed By Steven Speilberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (a great read for anyone interested in deep analysis and criticism of Spielberg's body of work); where the message of the film, the tone and structure in which it's told achieve harmony and work together to take that story to a new level. I think when organic unity is achieved, it is the ultimate reward for someone like me who loves filmmaking for the sake of the craft.

It's the payoff of hard work and the majesty of 'movie magic' when things just click and fall into place that really keeps me going. I love film for what it is. It's an illusion in which a mass of people with different backgrounds, different problems, different fears can all go into the same dark room together and share the same cycle of emotions. That's powerful.

I will forever be on the hunt to expand and improve my skills as a filmmaker in order to achieve organic unity and provide that dark room full of strangers something that will unite them for that brief instance in time and resonate with them and in some capacity shape them as human beings.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Your Milkman Behind The Scenes Series

So as some of you know, I wrote, directed and produced a little short film this past summer called 'Your Milkman'.  Its intent was to explore elements of my thesis, and serve as a platform to make and learn from our mistakes.  I wanted to both learn for myself and to educate others along the way with it.

From our very first pre-production meeting, we began documenting the process.  We took photos, recorded videos, shot interviews and captured audio recordings of all our meetings.  After nearly ten months of pre-production and many large hiccups along the way, we were finally ready to shoot the film.

After two incredibly productive overnight shoots, we had the film in the can.  Now 8 months after wrapping principal photography, we're just wrapping up post production.  In a few short weeks, we will be ready to release the project to several film festivals.

A big thanks goes out to Eric Kessler and the folks at Kessler Crane.  With their help, we've been able to not only make our film, but also put together and host a series of production logs documenting our trials and tribulations of the production process, and really show what it can sometimes take to pull off an independent project.

Although we couldn't include everything that happened during our journey, this ten part series covers a broad spread of the pitfalls we faced and the explanations as to how we overcame those obstacles.

The first episode can be see below, or the whole series can be viewed here.

Producing both the film and the behind the scenes project at the same time was a little more difficult than we originally anticipated, but I'm proud to have walked away from the whole project with both a completed film and a comprehensive documentation of the whole process.

As things wind down with post production, I've been able to do some self-reflection on the goals I set for the project and am incredibly proud to say that I'm walking away from this film with more knowledge than I could have ever hoped.  Although it can take years to hone the craft, I feel as though I've been able to take a leap forward towards that goal with this project.  For everyone who has helped us get to this point, I can't thank you enough.

Between the talent of the crew and cast we assembled, the obstacles we faced along the way, and just the shear difficulty of even attempting a low budget period piece, I feel as though I'm a more educated and experienced filmmaker and I can't wait to begin working on the next project.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My Journey Through Kerouac's On The Road

I'm just coming to the last pages of On The Road as part of the research I'm doing for a screenplay I'm eyeing to write.  I've come to one conclusion: this is some dangerous literature for a glittering, wide-eyed young pup wanting to add scores to their life experiences.

His writings stir up something indescribably 'mad', as he puts it.  It's an itch that even strikes me at 25 and is a lifestyle so far removed from my own that I can only live it vicariously through the text.  That's the power of On The Road.

The same itch that Kerouac had found for his book hit me at age 18 and spawned a similar adventure and even a similar traveling circuit as he took in his first round of travels, but with much more preparedness and cutting out the trip east of Indiana.  My adventure was ended abruptly in a pretty terrible car accident, though.  But it still left me yearning for more afterwards.  Life on the road in America is dirty, but terribly romantic.

In reading On The Road, I can see how this morphed generations; especially considering how constricted and conservative society was at the time.  This became an almost how-to guide for anyone lost in the world and looking for adventure.  It's the cheap way out of problems, and although Kerouac's trek doesn't land him with what he was hoping to discover, it's understood that it's the adventure itself that matters.  It's being down and out and making something of your situation.  It's learning to appreciate the small stuff in the hardest of times.  Some cultures send their children out on their own into the wilderness for months on end to learn self sufficiency.  They leave boys and return as men.  I see this same journey in On The Road.  Although the landscape might be different and Kerouac was certainly not a boy when he began his life on the road, it's about learning yourself and learning the world and returning with wisdom.  It's your basic hero myth.

Kerouac paints a picture of adventure with poetics and romanticism; penning a simplistic and free lifestyle set against a beautiful America.  It's fantastic and wondrous, but only runs so deep.  I'm sure the masses who attempted this trek after finishing the book were sorely disappointed when they found themselves stuck in the middle of Kansas on a back country road, drenched in cold autumn rain with hunger pangs hammering away at their ribs, tremulously dangling their thumb for a ride as butterflies flew out of their empty pockets.  It's a sucks-to-be-there-but-sure-sounds-good-on-paper type of situation.  But I think most good literature is like that.  There's conflict, and you feel for them, but at the same time you feel wrapped up in the warm blanket of poetic pages and know things will be fine in the end.

Kerouac introduces future generations to a whole vocabulary of colorful words and philosophies.  He writes continuously through the book about the 'mad' people they meet and the 'kicks' they get into.  That's the heartbeat of the beat generation, and I think the real value that resonated with that particular generation.  It's appreciating character, and acting on impulse.  I think, at least for the first generations to read this, it spoke to them as a call to break free from conformity and monotony, and live life wildly on impulse.  It's as if the book says 'I know we're all messed up, but that's just fine.  Go out and live messed up together.'

With that said, there's also another matter of fascination: the syntax of the book.  I chose to read the 'Original scrolls' of On The Road rather than the edited version that Viking published in 1957.  The book is one long paragraph and was originally written as one continuous scroll that, to Kerouac, represented 'the road'; the words were simply the characteristics of that road.  I think that alone elevates the book from being classified as pages of poetic journal entries into the realm of artwork and true American literature.

There's been a myriad of different critical reviews-- some called it complete incoherent garbage while others praised it as a masterpiece.  I fall somewhere in between.  At times, yes, it does feel like rambling journal entries that are scattered and difficult to follow, but at the same time I don't think you could write such poetic prose without mapping it out (and that's made clear in the foreword discussing his manuscripts and journals leading up to writing it).  Although it's loose in structure, it's obvious that Kerouac put thought and care into the structure and rhythm of his sentences.  There's no denying that.

I suppose with every generation, sub-cultures form.  From that, martyrs, icons and sign posts arise that help shape and explain those microcosms.  On The Road does that for the Beat culture.  To that first generation that got their hands on it, they lived it in spades.  To me, reflecting on it years later, I can still appreciate it and understand its significance.  And even today, the ideals of that lifestyle and the yearn for simpler times reflected in Kerouac's book are even moreso wistfully sought.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Forging Mountains of Gold and Diamond

As I delve deeper into research, I’m quickly realizing that the thesis is really about defining the importance of romanticism and how each of my ‘pillars’ ties into the encapsulation of how we perceive ourselves and the qualities of life that we see as important.  Storytelling at its core is spinning tales of life and reflection of the human condition.  You use poetics of prose or visual persuasions to frame your story.

All forms of storytelling is about illustrating the ordinary and rendering it extraordinary.  The best stories don’t do that to a select minority, but spin the tale to sing to the masses.  This is how ideas are changed, this is how society is shaped.

The ‘pillars’ I've defined (nostalgia/Americana, cultural constants, child wonderment and folklore/fairytale/myth) are all avenues of romanticism.  They’re retellings, expectations, customs and societal understandings of what we wish to perceive as how the human condition exists.  

On a more personal, self-serving level, I think what attracts me to the principals of the thesis is that it lays down a groundwork for me as a filmmaker to develop my own sensibilities as a storyteller.  I understand it, and can see how some of the greatest artists have gone through the same process.  It’s an understated, but crucial part of the growth of anyone vying for success in film.  Speilberg put this into practice in the late 70’s and early 80’s with all of his hits-- he explored these same avenues on his own and figured out what worked and what didn’t, and once he developed that sense, he could spring off of that to make some of the heavier, more culturally resonating films of his career.

The same thing could be said for any of the other major artists out there.  I see it in some of the artists I've already examined.  I've seen it in Norman Rockwell, George Lucas, Walt Disney, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the list could go on and on.  They’ve all gone through this soul-searching period and once they latched on to the principals that this thesis talks about (unknowingly of course), they were able to figure out their voice.

Rockwell did it with his vignettes of American life, that even at the time of creation, were regarded as nostalgic and yearning of a forgotten yesteryear.  George Lucas went through this by exploring Americana in American Graffiti and folklore/fairytale and mythology in Star Wars.  Walt Disney tackled principals of child wonderment, folklore/fairytale and mythology, and both Twain and Fitzgerald gravitated toward Americana to forge their voices and develop their greatest literary successes.

They all had a sense of romanticism and poetics going into it all, and were attracted to specific instances of the romantic pillars for one reason or another, but all of them succeeded at least initially in this and were able to develop an artistic voice out of it.

Finding your own artistic voice is the one major principal that’s often overlooked or sometimes discouraged in film school.  You are lead to believe that developing a ‘style’ limits yourself as an artist and that you should not market yourself as a one-trick pony.  But you need to develop boundaries for your filmmaking sandbox, otherwise your sandbox will just become a desolate desert.  A basis needs to be chosen and rooting needs to be established by a filmmaker in order to truly flourish as an artist.

The other major thing I’ve learned thus far is the importance of hard work, study and analysis.  That’s the other major principal that’s looked over in film school and is often the reason that the professors of that filmschool ended up as professors rather than filmmakers.  They did not truly learn and develop enough of a craft and voice before they gave up.

There’s a misconception among budding artists that they’ve got what it takes right off the bat to be successful-- they assume they were born with the knowledge to make a film, paint a picture, write a song, tell a story.  They’re conditioned to think that if they’ve got talent, and maybe even a few connections in their particular industry, that they’ll become a rising star and knock their idols off their thrones.  NO!  It takes dedication.  Writers have the best bead on that discipline.  You don’t become a success without first paying your dues and failing at your first few thousand pages.

You need to write, reflect, rewrite, seek critique, rewrite, and rewrite again.  It should be understood that great work, even by the masters, doesn’t take a day to make-- it takes months, years or lifetimes to make a great piece of work.

It takes discipline to learn any craft.  There’s such a disconnect in principals between people just starting out and people who have carved a career for themselves.

You have to make it happen.  You have to put in the time.  You have to read the books.  You have to study the greats.  You have to practice, fuck up and feel the shame and torment of those initial failures but then learn from them.  You need to get over that initial slump of screwing up your work and not achieving the true vision you had in your head when you began creating.

The problem is, most people don’t have enough faith and willpower in themselves to take it beyond that.

It starts with ‘I want to be a writer.’  ‘I want to be a painter.’  ‘I want to be a filmmaker.’  Okay, so do that.  Study the true masters of your profession.  Emulate.  Learn from the best.  Collaborate.  Develop taste and preference.   Manifest opinions.  Always be self reflective.  Ask why-- ‘Why am I attracted to this artist’s work?’  ‘Why is this considered one of the classics?’  ‘What are their techniques?’  ‘How was this created?’  ‘How can I get to their level?’  ‘Why doesn’t my work create the same impact as theirs?’ ‘How can I learn from my failures?’  These are all INCREDIBLY important questions that have to be constantly asked and constantly honed as you produce new pieces.

Allow yourself to make a whole mountain of garbage.  Spend years doing that.  It may feel like you’re always at the bottom of the mountain and that no progress is being made, but if you’re keeping at it, it will happen.  One day you’ll look down at the pile you’ve been standing on and realize you’re pretty damn high.  Whoopee!  You’re just about there.

As you put the finishing touches on the pieces at your summit, climb to the top, plant your flag and claim it.  It’s your mountain of garbage.  It belongs to nobody except yourself.  After the cheering and celebration dies down and you’re left standing there alone on the top of your body of garbage, don’t forget to descend from your place of high stature in the garbage kingdom.  When you get to the bottom, hop in a car, take a train, or travel by horseback and ride as far as you can from it.

Bring a friend or an enemy and make a day trip out of it.  Once you get far enough to be out of it’s shadow (as the sun is now setting, because you’ve been traveling all day), stop your transportation and look back at your mountain with your travel companions.  Truly look at it.

Then look at everyone else’s garbage mountain around you.  How does yours differ?  What is that little twinkle that shines in yours that the others may not have?  What was it in the way you constructed yours that draws you back to it and give you enough pride to call it ‘mine’?

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ve got it.

You can only make a mountain of precious gold and diamonds only if you have the blueprints from building your mountain of garbage.  If you have the blueprints and know how to make your mountain stick out among the others, you’ve got it made.

Now how’s that for a little inspiration?

I feel as though I’m still pretty close to the bottom on forging my mountain of garbage, but I know I’m still creating and still scaling it in indefinable increments.  The advantage I’ve got is that I have a strong feeling that I already know how my mountain is going to stick out among everyone else’s.

In that revelation, I’m not so rushed to make it to the top before everyone else, but instead, am able to create a wider base to begin with and can really take the time to learn the fundamentals, emulate the masters and let myself learn from the mistakes I make without falling so steep when things don’t go as planned.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Artist, Hugo and the Kuleshov Effect

I've been pretty hush hush about my thoughts on the best picture nominees this year. It's hard to contain my excitement with how many great films came out and how many were recognized for that.

Perhaps it's my unquenchable thirst for anything nostalgic and pertaining to the craft of filmmaking but Hugo and The Artist were my top picks this year.

Hugo was a wonderfully woven story drawing comparison to the early days of the magic of cinema and the limitless potential with which the newer medium of stereographic 3D beholds (despite dissenting opinion of its true place in filmmaking from many critics). Any filmmaker who disliked the film is in the industry for the wrong reasons. I read reviews of critics picking apart every detail of the film. This blog isn't for you if you were a member of that camp.

This is for those who were inspired by it and rejuvenated by the majesty of film, and the alchemy side of the craft. The draw of a continuous piece of celluloid flickering against a wall in a dark room. Two hundred mouths agape, all sharing the same emotion; sharing the same laugh, the same tear. It's the magic of movies and the whole emotional side of the craft that matters.

I believe aside from Hugo, The Artist explored this beautifully. From the moment I saw the trailer a year before the film was actually released, I had high hopes for it.

Both showed such a strong understanding of the craft to tell two very different stories, but each capable of soliciting the same wonderment you experienced as a child seeing some of your very first films.

I'm truly captivated by that emotional draw of film, and the mechanics of that process and just how putting the most elemental principals together can completely put an audience in a state of wonderment. It's a difficult feeling to achieve as an adult, as most of us are jaded and often forget what it means to appreciate the things we did as children, but the truly successful moments in film often draw back to very elemental and primal experiences with which we all shared growing up.

I have the utmost respect for Mr. Hazanavicius, and felt privileged to tell him that in a short little back-and-forth email between he and I several months ago. It takes true mastery to tell a story with sound and picture, but to limit yourself to just picture is a true accomplishment. After leaving the theater, I found myself inspired and it left me considering just how important the rudimentary mechanics are in filmmaking and just how important it is to know them.

Flashforward a few months and this little spotlight piece by Joe LaMattina rolls out on Michel Hazanavicius, who discusses the challenges in directing The Artist. In it, he mentions among other things the 'Kuleshov Effect'.

I must have been asleep the day we talked about this in my film theory classes at Purdue; I was shocked I hadn't heard of this yet. The Kuleshov Effect exhibits the most basic functions of storytelling in film I've stumbled upon. It shows the direct relationship of human and subject, and from that, the audience is capable of filling in the blank.

You show a man with an expressionless face looking at something off-camera, followed by a shot of steaming spaghetti and meatballs, and cut back to him with the same void expression. The audience reads his emotion as 'hungry'. You show the same shot of the man's face and then a shot of a coffin and back to the expressionless face, the audience perceives it as sadness. You show the SAME shot of a man, followed by the shot of a beautiful woman walking with another man, and back again, and it conveys jealousy. It's fascinating mechanics, and I feel like the principal is rarely used anymore, even though it's often more entertaining and effective than just a spelling out of the emotions through overly-complex editing sequences. This should honestly be one of the first lessons in film school over anything else. It teaches not only the importance of simplicity, but also the importance of all departments, performance, cinematography and editing. A story can be told at the most basic level this way, and it's truly sad that this basic mechanism for storytelling is often looked over and viewed as archaic. Thank you Mr. Hazanavicius and Mr. Scorsese for reminding the whole new emerging crop of filmmakers how to tell a story.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review: Perspective: Hollywood doesn't like itself

An interesting, more cynical spin on what I'm after with the thesis. Nostalgia is such a core element to storytelling, and although this piece seems to denounce it as a passing fad; a reverberation of social climate of the now, I beg to differ.

I guess what I like about this article is that in a round about way, explains the importance of what I want to touch on with the thesis. There is a reason these films are being selected to review under the 'best picture' microscope. I think the article is too hasty to dismiss the importance of nostalgia, but where it does right is that it identifies all these films as expressing some sort of nostalgia, but fails to see the bigger picture.

It's been said that a society gets more nostalgic under troubling circumstance, specifically with rough economic times. We cling to our roots; our culture that put us in the high place we are now. It reminds us who we are, and how bountiful and rich our experiences as a whole have been. There's statistical backing to prove that. An article I read months ago (too lazy to dig it up right now) reported on a study that showed increased sales in folk music during pressing economic times. As far as I see it, folk music is an offshoot of nostalgic longing. It's a cultural reflectance. It's about the common man. It's Americana. There's a correlation there.

To identify JUST this year's Oscar nominations as waxing nostalgic is near-sighted. I argue that this has been a recurring theme throughout the history of story telling, and I would be willing to say that this theme has been prevalent every year. I mean, any period film has some value of nostalgia, at the very list in its production design and romanticism of how it's told. It goes with the territory. Any story with a palpable tone to it expresses some form of nostalgia.

To the person who says that this is a new trend is keeping the blinders on. If anything, this is an indication on the importance of such themes.

Read the article below.

Perspective: Hollywood doesn't like itself -- just look at Oscars

By Neal Gabler, Special to the Los Angeles Times

February 19, 2012
This is the Oscars' year of nostalgia — or at least that has been the pronouncement among observers. There is, of course, "The Artist," a silent film set in the silent film era. There is Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," which is the story of the rediscovery of one of the early pioneers of the movies, the French director George Méliès. There is Woody Allen's"Midnight in Paris" in which the protagonist slips through a hole in time into the Paris of the expatriate '20s.

There are Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," which borrows the cinematic syntax of John Ford and feels like one of Ford's 1950s Cinemascope epics, and "The Help," which has the sensibility of a 1960s social issue movie. Even "The Descendants," Alexander Payne's film about a middle-aged man whose life is shattered and who must come to terms with his disillusion, is redolent of smallish, personal 1970s and 1980s filmmaking.

But if Oscar voters are waxing nostalgic, as they clearly are, that raises the question: Why now? What is going on that makes them long for yesteryear? And the answer just might be that what is going on is a form of masochism.

One of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood is that it is full of self-loathing. We tend to think that the denizens of the film industry luxuriate in the popcorn movies they deliver to us, that they love the bombast that is now the primary reason people go to the movies. Indeed, the stereotype of the movie mogul is still a man or woman who cares more about money than prestige, and who boasts, as a writer once remarked of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn when Cohn said a movie wasn't any good because he kept wiggling in his seat, that the whole world is "wired to his ass." They are us — only richer.

But even though it is true that the people who run Hollywood love the grosses that a superhero movie or a high-tech thriller or a teenage sex comedy bring into the studio coffers, the industry has had a sense of reserve and higher purpose that goes back to the movies' early days. The very first movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox and the Warner brothers, to name a few, didn't gain traction in the business by talking down to their audience but by talking up to it. They eschewed cheesy movies for more elegant fare — pictures like the religious epic "Ben Hur" for MGM, the Dickens' adaptation "Oliver Twist" for Fox and Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" for Warners. They raised the movies' status and their own in the process.

Though it certainly hasn't neutralized the lust for money, now that Hollywood's executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates, the lust for respectability has only intensified. One can see that attitude on display every Oscar time when the industry rewards what it regards as its best, which is why British films typically fare so well. The Brits, by Hollywood logic, are a class act, and handing them Oscars is proof that Hollywood itself has taste. It may make a lot of junk, but it doesn't mistake that junk for art. Junk, not even high-grossing junk, doesn't win Oscars. High-minded movies do.

And that is where the self-loathing comes in. There aren't too many executives in Hollywood who love wearing the label of panderer, not too many who like being regarded as money-grubbing boobs. As the critic Richard Schickel once put it, American movies are made only for teenagers or for Oscars, and most execs would probably prefer the latter. Alas, those teen movies are what keep them in their offices and keep Hollywood purring. But it doesn't mean that they like it that way.

As true as that was in the past, this dichotomy seems to have been especially true last year when the teenage movies weren't very good and didn't exactly set the box office on fire either. One could say that they even reached a tipping point in 2011 — a point where the bombast turned to noise, the special effects to exhaustion, the plots to unimaginative confusion. So the Oscar nominees may not be just a demonstration of a sudden burst of nostalgia. They may be a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself and of the movies that have defined it for two decades. This doesn't mean that they will retreat from teenage blockbusters. It just means that they are using the Oscars to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make.

The proof of what one might call "anti-blockbusterism" is not only the form of these movies or their setting but their subject. "The Artist," which was praised upon its release and then scolded for being a big stunt, is not just a silent film. In telling the story of a silent movie star who becomes an anachronism when sound is introduced, "The Artist" is, among other things, a movie about innovation and limitation — essentially about the limitations of innovation. If one takes sound to be a metaphor for every technological change in the movies, "The Artist" speaks to our obsession with the new and our casual dismissal of the old, though it also addresses how technology transforms the very cosmology in which we live. Honoring this production — made by the French, no less — is Hollywood's way of giving itself the finger.

Similarly, "Hugo" isn't just a Jean Renoir wannabe set in 1930s Paris where people love the movies. It is a film about the magic of the movies — especially the old-fashioned magic that could be conjured through the simplicity of costumes and sets and stop action rather than through computer-generated images, and it is about how quickly we forget the past in the sweep of the present. Like "The Artist," it attempts to rediscover the past, a stripped-down, nontechnological past in which the connections to film were emotional or spiritual and not just physical. In effect, in celebrating early movies, it is also a rebuff to contemporary ones, its own 3-D notwithstanding.

One could say the same thing about "War Horse." This is a decidedly old-fashioned movie in which even the palette resembles the Technicolor of the 1950s, and it is clearly meant to replicate the emotional tonality of those old films as well as their look. But Spielberg has also made a film about very primal communions — between boy and horse, between boy and father — that belie so much of modern blockbuster filmmaking where action supplants feeling. His nostalgia, oddly enough, is for the kind of movie his own movies helped destroy.

And in "Midnight in Paris," while the seduction of the past certainly expresses nostalgia for a bygone era, that nostalgia is for the sparkling vivacity of that era compared with our own predictable and dull one. Not for nothing is the protagonist a numb Hollywood screenwriter searching for inspiration. Allen may finally be skeptical of the idea that the past is always better than the present, but the film is nevertheless a tribute to art that mattered — to art that did more than diddle. It too rejects Hollywood.

This is, then, a special kind of nostalgia — the nostalgia of retribution. These movies are less about a lost past than they are about an unsatisfactory present. In modern Hollywood, it is easy to hate what you do. This year the Oscars are giving folks there a chance to say so.

Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and other books is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC; he is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

From The Margin to The Imagination

After bursting out the gate of the new year, I have already penned four un-produced short films all using my thesis as the foundation.

I've been juggling my free time lately between researching for a feature screenplay I'm aiming to write, and delving deeper into the dark, unexplored territories of my thesis. Both activities have caused me to slingshot myself into academia and plow through my never-ending stack of books I've set aside for these particular projects.

It always feels good to strike another text off the list, but out of this I've discovered a smaller, simpler pleasure.

I buy all of my books used through Amazon and other resale shops for purely economic reasons. I get a lot of books from libraries with their logo stamped on the inside cover, or straight off the shelves and out of the homes of academic-types who for whatever reason have decided they could afford to abandon these pieces of literature and part ways with them.

By the time I get them, I normally just put the new arrival on my shelf and get to it once I'm ready for it.

Well, for some reason, the last four or five books I've gone through, there's been extra gifts inside. The previous owners have left, like a footprint in otherwise-perfectly untouched snow, a mark of their own. A signature of their behavior, their history, and their personality on their journey through this text.

As the inside cover of this particular memoir reads "Christmas '93-- Kurt! Have a very Merry! -E" It made me wonder about Kurt and E's relationship, how they know one another and why E was in such a hurry to write the message that she would have forgotten to write 'Christmas' and the end of her message. And why would Kurt abandon this book? Was E hasty in everything she did, which was the eventual downfall of their relationship? "Have a Merry!" Kurt reads. He smiles at E for thinking of him and giving him a gift in the first place, with this kind, although not quite thought out personal message inside. Years later, Kurt would decide to sell some of the stuff he'd accumulated over the years and find a box labeled BOOKS in the attic. He'd open it, find the book and read the inside cover. "Have a Merry! -E" A wave of all the bad memories would sweep over him and that ill-written phrase would suddenly become the symbol of what their relationship was; a series of failed expectations and misunderstandings. "That bitch. She couldn't even write this message without screwing it up," he thinks to himself. He tosses it in his 'sell' pile.

Maybe I'm over analyzing it, but it's certainly intriguing to retrace the steps of the previous reader. Empty back pages of the same book are defaced with pen scrawlings by Kurt, of words that are obviously foreign to him. The list reads 'Epistomology, embrosse, hermeneutic, prologomenon, peroration, tropes, funicular, desuetude'

"I'll write these down and look them up later," Kurt most likely thought. Kurt's a life-long learner, just like me, you see. But I doubt as he was writing these vocabulary-expanding terms down that years later this stranger out of Chicago would be reading the intimate process of admitting defeat. It's exposing and truthful-- to write down such a thing. It's a practice encouraged in elementary school, and although I'm guilty of the same, it's a painful thing to examine.

Had he known some stranger would be reading the list of words he wrote down to learn, and most likely forget again, I have high doubts that he would have written them down so with something so permanent as pen. Your secret's safe with me, Kurt. I won't tell.

Other things I've stumbled across are these small reminders to the reader; scribbling ideas in the margins, circling phrases, or simply just a check mark next to a favorite paragraph, as if to say "AHA! This is EXACTLY what I was hoping for out of this book!" What I like is examining these particular bits of text and asking why this particular text might have been important enough for someone to choose over everything else.

Oftentimes it makes sense what their train of thought was on the note, and you may even connect with this great ghost reader and share the same idea, but the odd ones are the truly intriguing puzzles. It's like trying to play that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, trying to connect the dots of this person and try to understand their thought process.

I just think it's a fascinating little subplot of someone's life that you only get with reading a used book. It's like finding someone's journal and reading their deepest darkest secrets, or voyeuristically observing someone's actions. The markings of used books can be a goldmine for these little incites into the human condition and I just love that.

It's the difference between admiring a young face, and really appreciating an old weathered one. A young face can be beautiful-- but lacks any depth. It is what it is. It hasn't cried enough tears or smiled enough to tell any other tale.

An old weathered face is much more interesting to look at. If you can get past the culturally-engrained mindset of judging things based on their beauty, and really force yourself to examine the terrain of their face-- every scar, every wrinkle, every imperfection, you'll start to see a tale of where this face has been and what they've endured. That, to me, is much more intriguing.

So to all the Kurt's out there, I hope that this is never read by you and that you stay naive enough to keep scribbling away in the margins and then casting your messages off to drift in front of the next pair of eyes that is lucky enough to read them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

S.O.S Message to George Lucas

I'm writing this as sort of a public display. In writing my thesis, George Lucas has been a huge inspiration toward it. Although consistently criticized for his approach on the craft and release of multiple editions of the Star Wars franchise, his storytelling techniques have rendered some of the most timeless classics of the 20th century and while I don't consider myself a diehard fanboy who debates the minutia of his stories, I have the utmost respect for him as a filmmaker both in his bold choices and willingness to take risks.

I was saddened to hear last week that he has announced his retirement from the film industry. Whether or not that was a true statement or just a public outcry to stop nitpicking the details of his films, it's obvious he's worn down and lacking the passion to continue, so I've prepared a letter to him asking to reevaluate his decision. Please read and help spread the word.

Dear George Lucas,

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, you created an independent filmmaker's empire. It was a ragtag group of filmmakers who wanted to tell stories the way they wanted to tell them. Your stories captivated audiences, not just of your generation, but of future generations. Somewhere along the way though, you lost the magic that shot you to the top in the first place. I think harsh criticism from fans, opposition and shunning from other studios, and an over ambitious scope of stories (resulting in churning out only a few directed films over your career) has left you disenchanted with the film business... but I strongly suggest you to reconsider retiring from your once-ambitious passion.

With your creations of American Graffiti, Star Wars and Indiana Jones you cracked the code on creating a timeless classic. American Graffiti used the culture of the 1960's as a sandbox to tell a simple tale of kids on the cusp of growing up. The plot is a nice sweet story, but where it really shines is the setting in which the story takes place and the very reason you wanted to make it in the first place; the hotrod lifestyle. For the generations that were there during that time, you captured the essence of it so well that they were immediately transported to that era. And for those of us that weren't around during the 60's and never got to experience that culture, you left us with the bittersweet taste of nostalgia on our tongues, yearning for a lost era of innocence, rebellion and youth. The film romanticizes a time period and puts it in a time capsule to revisit and yearn for over and over again.

And again, with Star Wars, you created the coveted timeless classic. With this, rather than using American culture as your sandbox, you used religion and mythology- something the masses are quite familiar in some form or another. You created a world with subliminal undertones to our own, but made it magical enough that we'd rather be there instead. Your space opera hit the right chords in every way and made them so re-watchable.

And finally you did it a third time with your story writing on the Indiana Jones series. Instead of religion, mythology and American culture, you used the culture of cinema itself to tell this story. By this, I mean you took the existing mold of cliches, stunts and formulaic archs of adventure serials from the 40s and 50s and built it up into this timeless entity that bottles the spirit of adventure and instantly brings any adult back to childhood courtesy of the wonderment that radiates from these films. They're truly timeless.

Where I think you went wrong in all of this was that you let your self-doubt get to you. You added the computer junk and the remastering of already-remastered material to Star Wars to cover up the dated technical mistakes out of fear of losing your film's timelessness; to keep it fresh and youthful. You did it to preserve your magnum opus. But timelessness isn't about the actual technique feeling dated, it's about your story sticking throughout the ages. It does.

I'm writing this as a message in a bottle to send it out to sea to float from blog to blog, in hopes of it somehow drifting to the shores of Skywalker Ranch (which I've stayed at and is quite beautiful to say the least). I hope this letter at the very least causes you to re-evaluate your thoughts on retiring and inspires you to refocus your passions and to continue to make films the way you want to make them, how you used to long ago. Forget the flack from critics and fans. If you have a story to tell, tell it and make it how you want to make it.

To anyone who may read this, let the bottle float a little further and repost it so it can get to its rightful destination.

Thanks for everything,