Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #11

Today, I took the following actions in pursuits of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked on the edit for my friend-colleague's theatrical project. I didn't accomplish as much as I ought to have, but some is better than none.

2) My co-writer and I put in three hours' work on our feature, after being stalled on the inelegant but apparently unavoidable structure of our film's teaser. I went into idiot-savant mode and tore through our third act, looking for anything and everything that might require any kind of connective tissue in the first act. My co-writer classified my savant-isms and then we went to work analyzing them. This enabled us to do some wonderful refining to the connecting points in our 1st and 3rd acts -- which is a milestone of sorts, being at the stage we can definitively state that we're refining our outline. Of course, our second act has an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to it directly, but because so many of our refinements are about alleviating the burden on our 2nd act, our 1st/3rd act work actually sometimes doubles as indirect 2nd act work as well.

3) And I watched THE QUIET MAN, which is a phenomenal film. But I am conflicted over how Ford deals with the boxing back-story, primarily because it seems to me we should be understanding why Thornton won't fight for his wife so that we can feel his internal conflict as it reaches its boiling point. Instead, we're left on the outside for the better part of the film, observing a man who seems frustrated and conflicted, but being unable to connect with why he feels this way. Ultimately, it makes Thornton look like a cipher at best, an unsympathetic coward at worst -- until, that is, we're given his backstory. It just doesn't make any narrative logic, given Ford's storytelling preferences and presumed intentions, that he would deliberately make this film 1/2 observational "character study", 1/2 passionate romance. I don't want to kill one of my heroes, but I do think this may be a mistake. If nothing else, I think it's telling that the backstory has to be revealed on the back of the box in order to sell the film's story coherently. It's no SEARCHERS or STAGECOACH, but it's still a good film.

4) The making-of also gave me what is likely the best, simplest acting lesson I've ever been given: "[Maureen O'Hara] looks me in the eyes... [and] makes me act by making me react." -- John Wayne

Hasta manana.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #10

It is so much easier to do this regularly when I'm working a regular schedule.

I've accomplished much since I last wrote in here -- so much that I'm not even sure what I've already mentioned or not.

To catch things up, I'll mention the following:

1) I cut my short film to pieces and stitched it back together. It's now a lean, mean motherfucker. It still has some residual issues, but the key is that I cut out 1/4 of the material and it still works. from 25minutes down to 17 -- and it makes sense that it works at 17, because the script was 17 pages. Who knew?

2) My co-writer and I have continued our trend of radical albeit essential revisions to our feature. It goes well. Today we re-visited our teaser and I'm quite happy with it now. It's not locked yet, but it's a step-and-a-half in the right direction.

3) NEMO is truly brilliant. The more I study it's construction, the in awe of it I am. Say what you will about it's family-friendly-ness, but it's made by some incredibly smart, skilled, and talented people, working at the top of their form to tell a story they felt in their bones. May I strive for a story so well-constructed, anthropomorphism or no.

4) I revisited POLTERGEIST yesterday and that was an eye-opening experience. My god, I hadn't seen the film in at least ten years and it's incredible how it holds up. Hooper drops the ball in the finale with the real estate boss and considering that was the only portion of filming Spielberg wasn't present for, I guess I'm not surprised. POLTERGEIST is nothing like any of the Tobe Hooper films I've seen, and is clearly a through-and-through Spielbergian effort. I can't believe that man was ghost-directing (pardon the pun) POLTERGEIST at the same time he was working on E.T. That's incredible. I also had an epiphany about Spielberg's visual sensibility, but I've neither properly digested said epiphany yet, nor would I be up for regurgitating it if I had.

Night, all.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A lesson in humility

"The humble improve" -- Wynton Marselis

Not wasting time by learning from less than the best is common sense, but the temptation is always there to lower your standards, or see if you can see what other people see in pieces of shit -- such as my recent [redacted] revisit.

I have to admit, in this flawed spirit, I recently watched what I'd always assumed was a bad '80s B-horror film. I had never seen this film, however. Well, I watched and it is in the final summation a bad 80s horror film. The story is garbage, the performances not particularly good. But -- the visual storytelling, while not great, was still pretty impressive considering the kind of movie this was for. While watching this above-par-for-its-ambitions movie, I found myself realizing that I likely could not tell a story that well. For all the credit I sometimes give myself, I couldn't do better than a bad 80s horror film. This was humbling. What was more humbling was that I immediately looked up the director's filmography thinking, "Surely, this guy must've moved on to something because he at least shows promise, if not mastery here." His IMDB page was empty. There or four DTV flicks, a low-rent reality TV show. Then nothing.

If this guy who directed what must've been received as surprisingly solid when it came out in 1987, couldn't make a career out of it -- then what does that say about me, who probably couldn't do that well at this point in time?

Now, it's possible there are a hundred and one reasons why the guy went nowhere -- addiction, trauma, disinterest -- but the thought was still humbling. It reminded me that making a decent film is not enough. You have to make the best possible film you can -- and even then, continue to better yourself.

It made me realize how rare a Duel or a Terminator are straight out of the gate. Either of which I'll be lucky to make at any point in my career.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #9

The weekend.

Saturday I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) My co-writer and I put in hours on our feature. Definite progress.

2) I edited my short film, cutting together the final scene that was lost when FCP crashed a few posts ago. It's better now. Much. I'm glad I got a "re-do".

Sunday I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) My co-writer and I put in three hours on our feature. We have locked the 'Kansas" component of our first act. And worked out the entire arch of the mentor's supporting plot. We are ready to begin "Oz" Tuesday (Monday being Valentine's, we won't be working. But not because he has a date, poor bastard. I'm the married one.)

2) I spent ten hours editing my short film. I made some very savage cuts to the thing. The good news is it's now structurally sound. Act breaks all fall at the points in time where they should. The mini-epiphany I got out of this, however, is that not every scene can be approached as a complete film. That's good in theory, but then you work your way into the scene the same way you work your way into the film. Entire films and maybe even individual acts can suffer a gentle opening, a gradual easing into the piece, but scenes cannot. The majority of my cutting was removing these elegant albeit time-consuming entrances.. It's possible I've taken out too much though. We'll see in the AM. The version in question is 17 minues, 41 seconds long. If brevity is truly the soul of wit, then it should unquestionably be better than the 25 minute version.

3) Daily story study: I will read a fable.

4) Daily visual storytelling study:
I will study Rockwell.

5) Daily discipline:
see above.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #8

An Incredible family dinner. The extraordinary in the context of the mundane.

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked cutting / post-ing video.

2) I met with one of my mentor's for a quick chat which turned into an epic talk (as they always tend to do). Lesson of the evening: " 'Incongruity' is a powerful took. Making the sweet looking be mean, or the powerful-looking be meek can be either funny or scary, depending on execution. But it almost always works as a way to engage people." [Paraphrased] Brad Bird used this as his guiding principle in THE INCREDIBLES: every amazing thing is grounded in something ordinary, every ordinary thing is grounded in something amazing. What incongruity does is give you immediate contrast, as immediate as contrast within a single character. This contrast gives you a stick by which to measure the extraordinary, it provides context. Incongruity is simultaneous context.

3) I watched THE CRAZIES again and confirmed that it is, in fact, pretty damn okay. Outer boundaries, connective tissue, and visual storytelling -- it's refreshing to see some actual craft put to work. Imperfect, but entertaining and competently crafted.

4) I watched MASTER & COMMANDER, the far superior high-seas adventure film and the true best picture of 2003. Its script-writing isn't as focused as it could be, but the "lesser of two weevils" lesson is pretty well elucidated through the key events of the film. The surface writing is sharp, the acting exceptional, the visual storytelling gorgeous. Possibly the most unfortunate franchise non-starter of the last decade. Besides M&C, there's really only PIXAR, Ken Burns, and THE KING OF KONG to remind us that anything even happened those ten years.

5) I fell asleep. And woke back up to blog. (Okay, not really. My wife needed to be picked up from work. I have simply used this as a second chance to blog tonight).

6) I walked a mile to meet my mentor, and then back to work to check on a render, then 3.5 miles home. That's 5.5 miles. Not bad.

7) Daily story study: I will read a fable.

8) Daily visual storytelling study: I will study Rockwell.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #7

This one's going to be short: no grand epiphanies. That and I'm fading fast.

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked a six-hour shift editing video.

2) I saw BLACK SWAN with my family. Moving on...

3) I put in two hours' work with my co-writer on our feature, even though we were/are both frazzled at the end of a long week. We did not have any revelatory break-throughs, but we did make incremental and definitive progress: we worked out the first real sequence of the body of the film. It's not half-bad, and definitely better than our previous notion of how we'd begin. Believe me, we're doing our damnedest not to bore you folks.

4) Daily visual storytelling study: I'll study some Rockwell.

5) Daily storytelling study: I'll read a fable.

6) Daily discipline: I wrote a blog.

'Night, all.

Daily Productivity Blog #6

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked all day.

2) I walked three miles from work to my edit bay.

3) I took a still frame of what I would consider to be the anchor image in each scene of my short film. I arranged them in Photoshop and created what is in effect a comic book out of them. I shuffled them around. I cut scenes. I arranged them in chronological order, reverse chronological order, hyper-anachronological order. You get the picture. I may have found a structure that works. It works on paper at least. But after working into the wee hours of the morning when I have to get up and put in a few hours at work tomorrow, I actually feel rather dissatisfied. I completely re-cut the film's sex scene and I'm not sure I like it. At all. But my time had run out if I'm to get any sleep tonight and so I left the new verson of the film compressing with a bitter taste in my mouth... (cont'd at bottom)

4) I'm going to study Rockwell if it's only a fleck of paint.

5) I'm going to read a fable.
(cont'd) ...so I'm going to go brush my teeth now.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #5

Chess legend Bobby Fischer

Day 5 in a row (mostly). How long does it take to form a habit?

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I returned two prop guns to the man who was kind enough to lend them to my short film. Way overdue, but better late than never. Because he's such a boss gentleman, I'll give him a shout-out here: Shawn Anderson, a true G&E mensch. Seek him out if you're looking for a gaffer/key grip in the Seattle area. He has a grip truck at reasonable rates.

2) My co-writer and I finally managed to cram in a few hours' long overdue work on our feature script and we managed to accomplish quite a bit. It's really kind of amazing how much shit you can get done when you implement a deadline, however vague, to put a sense of urgency in your work. We made some significant structural changes tonight, locked others in solid, and discovered the nature of the four primary relationships in our film. This discovery necessitated us first admitting that one particular character was a cipher, and not in a good way. Once admitted, everything pretty much locked into place almost instantly. We had to talk it out, but it was amazing how clear the relationships became once we copped to a problem.

3) I watched about a 1/2 hour of John Ford's THE QUIET MAN, and until the later script work was done, I didn't expect anything to rival the revelation that came from watching that movie. I had no idea, til now, that the scene Elliot mirrors in E.T. when he lets all the frogs go, is the beautiful and bold first kiss between John Wayne and Scarlett O'Hara. Once it came up, it was an instant, gut recall: I immediately saw the scene playing on the TV that ET's watching, and Elliot reenacting it. What's truly miraculous about this remembrance is that I haven't seen E.T. in maybe a decade (an error I aim to soon correct). A recall so instantaneously of a film last seen so long ago is a two-fold testament to the iconic power with which Ford staged and filmed the scene in THE QUIET MAN, as well as to the emotional homage Spielberg staged for E.T. It's no Tarantino/Rodriguez ape-ing, it's an honest-to-god rearticulation of that scene for his movie's own emotional purpose. That's how you pay respect. May I have the skill, fortune and sense to do the same, should I ever require an homage. By the way, Republic Pictures' transfer on their QUIET MAN "Special Edition" DVD is easily the worst I've ever seen. Handheld bootlegs re-scans of ALIENS VS PREDATOR in Iraq had better color fidelity and sharper focus. Get on it Criterion!

4) As I was leaving my old edit room tonight, after the 2 hours of story-breaking, I had a sort of revelation about the script-to-production ratio. I was thinking about how my co-writer and I have been working on our story in various forms since the end of July 2010, minus two months we took off so I could focus on reshoots for my short film. Still, with the schedule we've mapped-out for the remainder of our scripting process, by the end we will have put over 15 months of work into the script (at an average of 15 hours' work per week). Surely, this time-span would be comparable to any actual production of the film, from prep- through post-. So let's say that the script-to-production ratio of this film -- should we be so lucky -- is 1 : 1. I then compared this to what the going ratio is on my short film, which will probably end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 : 20. There are so many problems I'm having to fix with reshoots and clever editing, that could have easily been fixed at the script stage. Now, I'd like to mention that the first iteration of that short film was my graduating thesis project and I was on an incredibly tight deadline in an academic environment that was at times unsupportive of narrative filmmaking, at others out-right disdainful. And I will also say that the long editing and reshoots process has been extremely educational for me, especially with respect my evolving appreciation of the malleability of visual storytelling. All that said, DESERTERS will be good, but it will be a much costlier and harder-fought "good" than had I taken the time to get the script right. This is not a regret, so much as a cost/benefit analysis. I also think this is true of CAVITY, the last feature script I wrote. If we consider the drafting of it as the actual "production" of the script, and the outlining as the "writing", then that process was probably more like 1 : 100. Had I spent at least half as much time "writing" CAVITY, I wouldn't have to do so much narrative tapdancing and "reshooting". The lesson here is one of the oldest: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss-Poor Performance. CAVITY is 200 pages long and took me a week of outling and three months to script. On my current script, my co-writer and I have been working eight months on our outline, and don't plan to type a page of script until sometime in late summer/early fall. It will be between 100 and 110 pages. Lesson-learned, bitch.

5) I wrote a blog.

6) I will read a fable.

7) I will study Rockwell.

8) I will go to bed by 12:30.

Rock 'n' roll.

Daily Productivity Blog #4

A flawless scene. Still from John Ford's Stagecoach.

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked all day. Getting paid to cut & assemble video still carries a luster even though my work for them is going on four weeks.

2) I stayed late at work. I'm giving this it's own number, because staying late is its own achievement.

3) I applied to a second job for editing. Fingers crossed.

4) Though tonight was a work night for our script, my co-writer and I were buggered by a sudden domestic problem I had to take care of and so were unable to devote much time to our script. However, we still managed to talk over a connective tissue issue (say that five times fast) involving our villain and hero's final exchange and how to best illustrate their mirrored qualities: paths not taken, regrets, an apology too late, etc. My references for this were to the "Southern Gentleman" in STAGECOACH and Amon Goethe in SCHINDLER'S LIST (which has been our chief reference for the villain all along, in addition to Archibald Cunningham from ROB ROY). Matt brought up the end of KOTOR -- a game I've never played, despite being a huge BioWare fan due to MASS EFFECT -- and it seems to be perfect reference. As he describes it, it's an even better emotional articulation of the idea than what is done in STAGECOACH. There the idea, while sound, is truthfully one of that gargantuan film's very few shortcomings. But it still sorta works. Our particular notion of implementing that idea is solid, it just needs finessing. Suffice to say, if we can make you cry when Hero and Obstacle exchange their final words, then our job will have been done very well indeed.

5) I walked (most of the way) home from work.

6) I studied Rockwell.

7) I will read a fable.

8) I am calling it a night as early as possible.
Good night, world.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Daily Productivity Blog #3

I failed to blog last evening, so I'll just consider this one a "weekend blog".


1) I worked for 5 hours with my co-writer on our feature script. We met our goal for the session: resolve the Outer Boundaries / Teaser issue helped in part by reading Finding Nemo's script earlier in the week.

2) I met my former neighbor for a few beers and talked movies for two hours. It was a true discussion, not just chit-chat.


3) I had a two-hour meeting with my short film's sound designer/composer to get the post- ball rolling.

4) Unfortunately, my second action taken Sunday in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft was an attempt to deal with and overcome failure. Final Cut crashed on an edit, corrupting the file, and the auto-save vault had been inactive for the past two weeks. I lost a considerable amount of work because I wasn't adequately backing-up my files. So after a few good swings at a duffel bag, I settled in to re-cut a few of DESERTERS' scenes that were lost. It took me the rest of the day to do, but re-examining scenes I'd put to bed gave me an opportunity to play with some restructuring and to fine-tuning. There is one last "lost scene" that I didn't get to due to time, but it's the largest of the remaining ones and will have to wait until later in the week.

5) I'm watching A BUG'S LIFE and I can't believe I ever thought that ANTZ was a pimple on this film's phenomenal ass. The visual storytelling is clear, simple, and effective, and the drama is pretty good too. Considering Seven Samurai's story archetype has been an epic samurai action film, a badass Western, and a children's animated film, stories truly are in the telling. Most interesting about watching this is noticing how they've interpreted and diverged from the original material -- it's the same story, only not.

6) I will study a Rockwell.

7) I will read a fable.

8) And I will rack-out soon.

'Til tomorrow, signing off.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Daily Productivity Post #2

Image by Jack Kirby

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I worked a full day's worth of work. Video editing is not a bad way to earn a living, even if the hours are erratic.

2) I walked 3 miles to a meeting.

3) Said meeting was to catch-up and return favors to a friend and colleague who is in need of video edit mojo.

4) I promised to cut said friend/colleague a 30-second trailer of a past-production in order to to help win grant money to revisit it. I cut a 45-second trailer from her 55-minute show and it's pretty okay. Hope it gets the job done.

5) I had a very long and enriching conversation with my writing partner on why our ability to re-shape the world through our stories is a good and important thing. In short, there are two kinds of important stories, each kind every bit as necessary as the other: Cautionary Tales, i.e. "don't do this bad thing or this other bad thing will reult"; and what he and I called Aspirational Tales, i.e. "strive to live up to this good thing and just maybe this other good thing will result." After we both had a long, rough, stressful week, Aspirational Stories really seemed to be on our minds during this discussion. I may blog more later about this.

6) I had a long and (mostly) respectful argument with my former neighbor on Facebook about the state of modern film, and the movie producer-consumer relationship. I had a good analogy that I'll reprint here:

The onus should always be on the producer to deliver a quality product, not on the consumer to determine or define or contribute to its quality. It is the craftsman, the artisan who does the work so that the product can be appreciated and of service to the consumer for the money they paid.

A truly well-made chair does not require "some assembly", it comes fully formed: beautifully rendered, structurally sound, and lest we forget -- resplendently comfortable.

In this same way a good movie must arrive fully formed: beautifully lit and composed, structurally sound in both plot and image assembly, and ultimately comfortable to the audience. And don't confuse "comfortable" with "comfort food". Perapetia is comfort -- Oedipus, Hamlet, and The Godfather are comfortable because they generate catharsis through their release of dramatic tension.

These three different stories are products, fully-formed on delivery.

7) I studied some Norman Rockwell.

8) I read a fable.

9) I wrote a blog. Say it with me: Recursion's a bitch.

And done.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

NEW RULE: Daily Post #1

I've decided that, since this blog is going on FIVE YEARS OLD, I'll probably continue to futz around with it indefinitely so, what the hell, I may as well embrace it. Even if I don't really like the idea of being a "blogger", a label I just yesterday remarked to my co-writer as referring to "old codgers with nothing to say". Prejudice against their kind aside, depending on my mood I either have too many better and more important things to do than blog, or am too lazy. Probably a bit of both, with a dash of simply-not-having-anything-to-say.

But here's the rub: from now forward, I will post here each day, and each day I have nothing to say or am too lazy to say it, I will at least write a few short words on what I've done this day to move me closer to mastery of "the cinematic storyteller's craft" -- a phrase which, if the masthead at the top of my blog didn't give away already, is my motus operandi and shall henceforth and herewith etc. be used a shit-lot.

If it's phrasing bothers you, I suggest ending your readership here.

On with it:

Today I took the following actions in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft:

1) I read 70 pages of FINDING NEMO's 140-page(!) script...and thanks to this, have very likely solved the first act "Outer Boundaries"/character context issue my co-writer and I have been dancing around for months now.

2) I worked a full day's work. Surprising, I know, but what's especially great about this is that I actually got paid to further my pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft -- in other words, I got paid to edit "some video". Still, pretty sweet. Bonus: lots of opportunities to practice Hitchcock's "Image Size" principle.

3) I walked the 3.5 miles from work to my apartment, partly to save money, partly because it was a nice damn night, and partly because my chairborne ass needed to move. Being "fit" is also what I would consider part of the "cinematic storyteller's craft".

4) I spent a few minutes discussing Finding Nemo and the O.B. issue with my co-writer even though he's sick, I'm exhausted, and it's a Thursday, which aren't big writing days for us. A few minutes, however briefly, are better than none.

5) I finished reading a draft of Mentor A's (I have two wonderful mentors! -- one of my precious few fortunes) third, forth-coming book on storytelling.

6) I'm going to bed before midnight!* A regular, healthy sleep-schedule, while inconvenient and probably rarely ever practiced, must still be aspired to.

7) I read a fable.

8) I wrote a blog. Recursion's a bitch.


I guess that's all, but eight concrete actions taken in pursuit of the cinematic storyteller's craft -- should I just capitalize this and get it over with? -- is pretty damn good for a day I'd kind of written-off as a productivity-loss. And that is exactly why I've decided on this daily "productivity blog": in case it's not obvious, I'm not doing this for you. You'll hopefully enjoy the result of my labors, but this? This "daily blog" is for me.

*Note: in taking the time to proof-read this post, it is now 35-minutes past midnight.

**Final thought: should I be so candid? WWJD? That's "What Would John (Ford) Do?" or alternately, "What Would James (Cameron) Do?". I certainly couldn't imagine sonuvabitch John Ford sitting around, publicly patting himself on the back for reading a few pages of a script.

So in the spirit of Mr. Ford and in honor of yesterday being his 115th birthday, I'll offer an alternate blog:

Fuck it.