Monday, January 29, 2007

Arousal Feedback, Draft 3 -- Last Call!

Only two more days are left for all you feedback readers to send in your critiques! You've already had over three and a half weeks, so no excuses now... (Draft 2 readers are absolved, but everyone else should form a line over here with their hands out, palms up.)

Seriously, if you want to send in your feedback for Arousal, you've got until Wednesday evening @ midnight...

(Ray gets an extension to Sunday because he's cute and cuddly.)

Is it a painting? Or a car?

Over the years, I've developed my own theory about art and working on art. It seems to apply to a wide range of other things as well, so here it is.

Whenever you're about to work on a project, how much do you care for it? If you absolutely adore it, and would work on it for free, it's a painting. A painting is special. It's your baby. You have to shelter it as it grows, help it refine itself over time. When it's complete, it can either stay with you forever, or it can go out into the world. You know it needs to go out and be seen by others, but you hold onto it for a little while because after pouring months or even years of yourself into it, it's hard to let it go. You don't want to see your baby fall down in the cruel world outside. But you know it must go, so you put it in a gallery show. Someone else sees the value in it and wants to give you $4,000 to show your painting at a museum. You want to spit in their face—how could any price tag be attached to your unique art, your hours of tireless effort? Yet you understand that giving your painting to a museum would let it be seen by others—which could mean they'll experience the painting's story as vividly as you experienced it during its creation—so you think about it. Then another person comes along and offers $8,000... although what he'll do with your painting is unclear. You get the impression that this "private art collector" only wants your painting to use as part of his own painting collage. Worse, he might even destroy your painting and, if he owned it, that would be his right. You sell your painting to the museum for $4,000 and never look back.

If the project you work on is less than fun, something that you must drag yourself to work on, that project is a car. Its primary purpose is functional, not aesthetic. You use it to get to work and back. You forget to clean it as often as you should. Your windshield gets nicked and you leave the glass ring there for months until you eventually replace the windshield. If your car ever got totalled, you could easily replace it with another. When it's time to upgrade, you accept the highest bidder for your old car and don't care what the new owners do with it. When you buy a new car, you choose one that saves you the most money and keeps your self-respect intact.

Every project you do for yourself starts as a painting, and usually every project you do for others ends up being a car. Sometimes they may entice you into thinking their car is a painting by giving you part-ownership, and sometimes it works. Frequently, they only want you to be a passenger, not an art enthusiast, but the clever ones get everyone to think the project is a painting.

Essentially, it's about ownership: it's the difference between owning a home and renting a home. Homeowners care about their house, whereas tenants? Not so much.

When I write a screenplay, I work under the belief that it's a painting. I have to. It's the only thing that keeps me going. Should someone want to buy it when it's done, I have to shift my mindset into seeing my script as a car because once they buy that script, it's theirs. They can chop it up, add a stupid ending, dumb down the dialog... and I can't say shit about it. They own it and I don't. It's a car. I'm cool with that.

Knowing if you're working on a painting or a car will prevent much frustration and anguish. My delusion is seeing everything I work on as a painting when it simply ain't so. Another day will pass when I realize I'm actually driving to work rather than relayering a fruit with deep reds. When that happens, I break out my paints and decorate the dashboard. If I have to live in a Skoda for a while, at least it's going to look nice!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Company in the White Suit

In The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guiness plays a scientist who invents a highly durable fabric that never gets dirty. You can imagine the cascading reactions to this incredible invention... first, "This is great! We'll only have to make one suit for everyone!" and then, "This is horrible! Everyone in the clothing business will be out of a job!" Guiness' character goes from hero to villain in a heartbeat.

This is the conundrum of our modern world: with each new technological invention, significant social and economic changes are sure to follow and how you react to these changes will place you in one of two camps: the Industrial Age camp, which favors stable and steady-paying jobs, or the Information Age camp, which favors innovation and efficiency. Eventually, the Industrial Age camp will become extinct and the transition to the Information Age will be extremely painful for everyone still holding an Industrial Age mindset... people always fight nail and tooth to protect their lifestyle because change and growth hurts.

The cultural and economic differences of these two camps are stark: Industrial Age countries like France, where the unions are all powerful, have static economies and higher unemployment. It's tougher to be fired there, so inefficient workers are able to stay with a company longer. Information Age countries like America have companies not loyal to particular employees and thus can fire workers whenever they have to. Information Age companies are more dynamic and can compete better because they save more money.

America isn't totally an Information Age country, but it's getting there. American title companies outsource their online title research to the Philippines because they can get 10 queries per dollar spent vs. 1 query per dollar using America workers. More money saved = more profitable business = more wealth = better economy = more information age jobs.

When desktop computers were introduced to help design British newspapers in the 80s, the British typesetters' union went on strike for weeks... but today all British newspapers are laid out with desktop computers. And now newspapers aren't really in the publishing business—they're in the news providing business. Focus too much on how many newspapers you're selling and you'll be out on the street in a couple of years. Focus instead on how to make money from the content on your news website and you'll keep pace with the winds of change.

The other day, a friend was saying that iPods weren't the best product on the market, that he listens to music on a competing product (which I won't mention because I'm a mean and venom-spewing reptile). Here was my response:

While Apple may not have the best product, they're like McDonald's in they they don't make the best hamburgers, but they have the best system to deliver it. Well, maybe not the best, but Apple has managed to convert, and retain, people like me into cultists.

It's no secret Steve Jobs was at the center of that innovation. And when he left Apple, everything went corporate again. It lost its flair. But when Jobs came back in from the cold, he did it again: Jobs envisioned Apple as being at the center of the digital lifestyle. iPods are only one piece of his grand plan; if you snap digital photos, create graphic novels, listen to or create digital music or movies... you name it—if it's digital, Apple now has sleekly designed software and hardware to do it. Best of all, the software and hardware all talk to each other seamlessly. That's the power of the Apple brand—interoperability. Apple's cool parts make one head-shakingly cool whole.

The iPod was only Apple's first strategic lure for PC users into Apple-ness. It worked like butter, and the iPod's various incarnations have consistently tricked more PC users into using a minimalist version of Apple's snazzy OS X. This led to more and more buzz... by the time Apple's iPhone came out this month, my PC user friends were practically salivating over it. Even I, the perennial Mac user, didn't care that much for it... but they're going crazy! I knew Apple had been planning this for many years, but it's the first time I'd seen tangible results of their branding campaign. You can get a glimpse of Apple's marketing strategy by looking at this:


Actor Brian Dennehy was explaining in an interview that he wasn't more famous because he "hadn't created a need for Brian Dennehy". You can be the best actor or writer or businessman in the world, but if nobody knows about you and nobody knows why they need your product over the competition's product, you might as well hang up the spurs. As you illustrated with Apple, you need not even have the best product, either—the loudest person shouting always gets the most attention.

A musician on the street plays his guitar—if you like it, you give him money, but you're not obligated to. This is called busking and the rules of Darwinism dictate that if the musician doesn't get enough money dropped in his hat, he eventually starves and chooses a different job. At least with his hat out there, he still has a chance of making enough money to keep making music. Napster elevated busking into a highly efficient system of thievery by letting anyone hear the best musicians in the world while also throwing away the artists' hats. So if everything that musicians and movie producers produce can be copied onto a CD or DVD for free, how (and why) would they ever make more content? There's no incentive.

Then along came iTunes. Want to see the entire first season of 24 for only $35? Why not? It's easier and faster than downloading them all off eDonkey or Limewire. Want to listen to a particular recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's "A British Tar"? Download it for only 99¢. Apple had finally found a healthy business model to generate revenue from distributing digital entertainment. It was secure. It worked. The catch? You have to watch all your downloaded movies with iTunes and listen to all the music either on iTunes or with your iPod. Apple created the business model—so they set the rules. You don't like the rules? Don't use their system.

Apple's overt strategy has been to switch PC users to the Mac platform so more consumers buy Mac computers and the iPod was thought to be the best bait to accomplish that goal. Thus, Apple mandated that no iTunes purchases can be played on anything other than Apple's hardware. That's kind of harsh if you prefer other hardware, but it's all part of Apple's plan to get people hooked on Macs. France has already passed a law to break that stranglehold and today a growing number of European countries are joining that fight:
European drive against iTunes builds support
10:44 a.m. EST, January 23, 2007

OSLO, Norway (AP) -- German and French consumer groups have joined a Nordic-led drive to force Apple Inc. to make its iTunes online store compatible with digital music players made by rival companies, a Norwegian official said Monday.

Currently, songs purchased and downloaded through iTunes are designed to work with Apple's market-leading iPod players but not competitors' models, including those using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media system. Likewise, iPods generally can't play copy-protected music sold through non-Apple stores.

Last June, consumer agencies in Norway, Denmark and Sweden claimed that Apple was violating contract and copyright laws in their countries.

Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman Bjoern Erik Thon said French consumer lobby UFC-Que Choisir and its German counterpart, Ferbraucherzentralen, joined the effort late last year, and other European countries are considering it. Finland's Kuluttajavirasto consumer group is also part of the effort.

"This is important because Germany and France are European giants," Thon said. "Germany, in particular, is a big market for digital music."

The Nordic regulators have met Apple officials at least twice on the complaints.

"Apple is aware of the concerns we've heard from several agencies in Europe and we're looking forward to resolving these issues as quickly as possible," Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said Monday.

"Apple hopes that European governments will encourage a competitive environment that lets innovation thrive, protects intellectual property and allows consumers to decide which products are successful."

Thon said Norway gave Apple until September to change its polices, or face possible legal action and fines in the country.

"It cannot be good for the music industry for them to lock music into one system," he said.

A French law that allows regulators to force Apple to make its iPod player and iTunes store compatible with rival offerings went into effect in August.

Apple has been working to expand its iPod sales in Europe and said during its quarterly report last week its advertising and sales efforts were paying off.

Company officials say the iPod gained market share in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Denmark during the holiday period.

Governments, not shareholders, are telling businesses what to do??? Apple has created a business model that works—and now Europeans want to change it. Instead of voting with their wallet by giving their money to one of Apple's competitors, they've chosen to walk into a Rolls Royce car lot and scream until they get a hybrid. Has anyone ever wondered why there are no other significant competitors in the digital entertainment distribution market? Nobody else has found a profitable business model! It's not like all potential competitors are being discouraged from creating products that distribute digital entertainment—it's just that Apple is the only company that's created a viable format for producers and consumers.

What makes this story even more interesting is that Apple makes its bread and butter from selling hardware, which is an Industrial Age commodity... whereas iTunes is a multi-platform software that sells content—an Information Age commodity. Apple is obviously migrating its revenue stream from one camp to the other, but until that migration is complete, Apple still needs those iPod sales, which means keeping a lock (for now) on their proprietary iTunes format for as long as they can.

Who will adapt to whom—Apple or Europe? Either way, it's going to hurt. Change always does.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Safe Harbors Update

So many of you have been asking me... and it's true—work has finally resumed on Safe Harbors, my 90% CGI feature film. Part of what's taken so long is crafting a backstory with enough layers so as not be cliché, but not brainy and convoluted for its own sake. Maybe one month I'll come up with a great idea, something to add to the layers of the onion to peel back as a major plot reveal, then many months later come up with another cool reversal that adds more texture and unpredictability. Add, subtract, add, subtract, add, subtract. I'm confident the end result will be compelling.

It's helped a lot to listen to Ron Moore's writer room podcasts behind Battlestar: Galactica about Season 3 where you get a glimpse of how one of TV's best sci-fi shows is hammered together one episode at a time. Frankly, I was shocked to discover Moore had such a vague idea of where BSG was ultimately headed. The way I see it, you have to know a little more clearly where you're going than that. But I'm not Ron Moore. Yet.

The plain truth of it is that Safe Harbors' rich setting can generate enough story material to spit out a TV pilot, a series and a major motion picture (or three). So the scope of the backstory, covering hundred of years, was so vast that I couldn't get my head around it. I needed a visual aid, some way to see when events happened and how they affected later events on the timeline.

Our world consists of patterns: scientists uncover the patterns hidden in nature or throughout history and artists create patterns in a story for a viewer to uncover. The best artists forge patterns as precise replicas of patterns found in nature, either resonating some inner truth (the metaphysical) or some outer truth (the physical).

In order to create a story, a real story that's convincing enough to let your characters roam around in, you need to create a realistic history. In my case, quite literally—I needed to create a historical timeline for my false universe. So I found a way to create a mutable timeline in Excel to tinker with dates, moving entire sections of the story forward or back in time as needed. At left is an actual closeup of a part of my timeline, though I've excised the identifying bits so you can relish them later...

Robert Heinlein created an interesting sci-fi universe by writing one story at a time over his career. Heinlein advanced each story slightly ahead in time of his previous story so that he could refer to characters from previous stories, which elevated his individual stories into parts of a much larger whole. While he may not have intended it, his short stories were eventually compiled into a Future Histories book.

Here, check out my Excel spreadsheet timeline:

Friday, January 19, 2007

We take filmmaking EXTREMELY seriously

These are the people I work with:

We make movies. We don't mess about.

Fun with color correction

I've used Photoshop for 20 years and while I'm still far from being an expert, a small color correction can really improve a picture's quality. I did color correction on some photos for a friend's web site and thought it'd be fun to share a couple of the results. I'm sure I could easily sink another hour of work into each, but you can already see the difference after 10 minutes of tweaking.

Before color correction:

After color correction:

The ocean is still too green, but I'd have to mask her out to do a proper color correction, which is another 15-20 minutes.

Before color correction:

After color correction:

Doesn't it look like a thin grey veil has been peeled off the original? Few people really understand the value of color correction until they see results like this.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Here it comes...

Netflix is finally making good on its promise—they're offering instantly downloadable movies through their web site:

LOS GATOS, California (AP) -- Netflix Inc. will start showing movies and TV episodes over the Internet this week, providing its subscribers with more instant gratification as the DVD-by-mail service prepares for a looming technology shift threatening its survival.

The Los Gatos-based company plans to unveil the new "Watch Now" feature Tuesday, but only a small number of its more than 6 million subscribers will get immediate access to the service, which is being offered at no additional charge.

You just know Blockbuster's techies are scrambling to catch up, but this is only the most recent salvo in the struggle to provide disposable digital entertainment. If I can buy a movie for $1.99 through iTunes, why would I want to view it on my laptop? Because I don't want to keep 500 terrabytes of movies on my hard drive. Netflix is still the best way to see a large quantity of movies without worrying about late fees or where to store the DVD case. Now, because you can download a movie to your laptop, it doesn't even matter where you are.

One day, hopefully, consumers will be able to buy a "right" to view a particular movie at any time, and then downloading movies whenever you want to see them will at last become the new business model for digital entertainment distribution. This will cut out the annoying format upgrades we seem to go through about every 10 years (VHS to DVD to Hi-Def to Blu Ray to WTF!!!), but which means less money for DVD manufacturers and duplicators. All I can say to those poor storefront souls is... this is the world we live in now, people. Adapt.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Royal Abstract

Although he's packing his bags for Iraq, there's still some question whether Prince Harry will really see any combat:

The defense ministry has previously confirmed Harry could go to Iraq if his unit was deployed there, but said he might be kept out of situations where his presence would jeopardize his comrades.

Hey, be real—how many Iraqi insurgents are really going to recognize Prince Harry? Even if terrorists had a picture of him pinned to their RPG turrets, I mean... seriously. Not going to happen.

But it got me thinking. This guy is royalty. And, as an American, I kind of have a problem with the whole idea of royalty: my country was founded on the vitriolic denial that any person is "more equal" than anybody else. No one should get special treatment... ever. Of course, that's an ideal to strive towards in an imperfect world, but inequity has been on my mind recently, especially about political leaders.

On NPR's Fresh Air the other day, House representative Rom Emanuel was asked about his involvement with the Clinton impeachment, and he quickly interrupted—"I just want to say that I found the whole situation incredibly tense and thought Clinton should have resigned. I never once had a problem with his affair, but lying under oath was really unforgivable. As a leader, I felt he had a duty to set an example for the rest of us and I thought lying under oath was incredibly irresponsible of him." Few people seem to remember that Clinton wasn't just a leader, an elected official, even the President, but he was also a lawyer—he, above all others, knew the import of lying under oath and should have had the decency of not trying to argue the meaning of is. If you're guilty, do what everyone else does—plead the 5th. Or resign your position. Because if one person can get away with lying under oath, then I'll be expecting my own "Get out of Jail free" card in the mail this week.

I once asked a foreigner what they thought I was feeling when I saw Clinton testimony broadcast on national TV... they had assumed I was ashamed. While that's partly true, I wasn't ashamed for having America's dirty laundry brought into the open; I was ashamed that Clinton had brought this mess into the spotlight to tarnish America's image. Thus, quite to the contrary, I was fiercely proud that America's judicial system was healthy enough to prosecute our highest elected official for his illegal actions. (To clarify, my position is 100% apolitical—Nixon and Clinton should have shared jail cells.)

And this last week, Gerald Ford died. America's period of mourning for a president is six days. Not to be a party pooper, but that's five days too many. President or not, Ford was just a guy.

When I said that last bit to my wife, she looked at me and said, "He's not just a guy."

And that's the problem.

Novelist Margaret Atwood has said she's in favor of a monarchy, not because she wants some random family touting undeserved priviledges, but because our human nature drives us deify our leaders... which then makes it difficult to critisize them and still seem patriotic. Instead, Atwood would prefer a generic head of state to draw praise and awe so our elected leaders can serve the function we've assigned them—to be our servants, not our masters.

Governments already sort of solve this problem, in their own way. America has a president and a chief of staff. If the shit hurled at the president gets too thick, the chief of staff gets swapped out. France has a president and a prime minister (President Mitterand went through about 7 prime ministers during his 14 years, if memory serves). Et cetera.

Reality check, though: the presidency is not made up of one man or one woman—the presidency is only a position (albeit an important one). Why is this important? Because you can kill a man, but you can't kill a presidency.

So after Ford left office, what's with calling him "President Ford"? It's that deification Atwood talks about. It's why America and other democracies around the globe establish term limits for their most prominent political leaders.

Or imagine you've lived in Cuba for the last 40 years: if you're under 45, you'll have literally known no other national leader for your entire life. When Castro dies, you might not even care he's a dictator... since he's been the rock keeping your country afloat and now he's gone. God is dead. Nobody could ever replace him.

I don't want a monarchy, but it does bother me when I see flags at half-mast for a American president for nearly a week. He's not a Pope or a King with divine right. He's just a guy. And he should be treated like any other person who dies, with a day of morning. Maybe a couple of thousand years ago, we'd bow down and kiss the dirt he walked on... wait, that's another dude. Sorry.

The larger issue here is how we define our relationships to the objects and people around us, which is the central theme of existentialism: do we define things by their essence, by their meaning, by their abstractness... or do we define things by their experience, by their tangible concreteness, by their uniqueness? If we see an object or person as its essence, then its destruction is not a massive loss to us... whereas if we see an object or person only as its experience, then no other object or person can ever replace that loss.

For example, if the desk where the Declaration of Independence was signed were accidentally destroyed and an exact replica were put in its place, how would we react to seeing the replica? Can we "abstract" the replica and imagine the original desk? And is that good enough? Or are we bitter with remorse that the original—so unique in its creation—is gone forever?

Philosopher Martin Buber describes these two approaches as "I-it" relationship and an "I-Thou" relationship. The "I-it" relationship views the essence of a thing, the abstractness of it. To see things from an "I-Thou" relationship is to recognize that each chair and each carrot and each person is the only one of its kind. As my friend Jim Latham said, "If you had an 'I-Thou' relationship with everything, you'd never even leave the room." (And here's a bonus epiphany—movies where heroes remorselessly kill villains are "I-it" movies, like movies about ninjas, but movies where heroes have a conscience about killing their villain are "I-Thou" movies, like movies about samurais.)

Abstraction is the key. We abstract things of like kind: trees, cars, chairs, apples, etc. Words help abstract because they only define the similarities between items... but none of their differences. Words refer to the essence of things. There is, however, one case where words don't function as abstractions: a person's name.

People can't be abstracted. They are unique. They are one of a kind.

Or are they? Are they really?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lunatic Messiah Graphic Novel Tests

The producers of Lunatic Messiah are toying around with the idea of doing a graphic novel, which reminded me about Comic Life, the extremely cool graphic novel software bundled with my MacBook.

Since I'm doing publicity for the film, I already have about a gajillion photos from each shoot... and Comic Life makes it easy to import pictures from iPhoto and apply image filters to make each photo look like a graphic novel. The rest is pretty basic stuff, like selecting a font used for comic narration over the last 40–50 years.

Here are the results, a simple 4 page test. Took me about an hour. Click to enlarge:

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Last Looks on Wiki

I made my first substantial Wiki entry today (unless you count correcting Wikipedia's improper uses of "it's" as substantial and if you do, I want to make babies with you!). There was a gap on the First Assistant Director page about Calling The Roll, an oft-overlooked but invaluable service on any film set. A good 1st Assistant Director who can efficiently steer your crew can make your life like butter. The world is a little shinier for all fledgling filmmakers now!

Here's a link to the page, but for posterity, here is the page in its current form; my additions are in dark green:

== Calling the Roll ==

One of the 1st AD's responsibilities is to "call the roll", which means that when all of the relevant HODs (heads of department) and Above the line (film production) people seem ready to perform a take, the 1st AD initiates the take. Over the years, special procedures have been developed for this task in order to achieve the maximum economy and efficiency during shooting, which is usually some variant on the following dialog:

1) WAITING ON... 1st AD's are constantly calling out which department is responsible for any delays. If the lights need to be adjusted, the 1st AD calls out, "Waiting on Grips" and if the actors are still in their trailer, the 1st AD calls out, "Waiting on talent", and if it's mascara smear, "Waiting on Makeup", etc. This step prevents much wasted time no matter the size of a film's budget.

2) LAST LOOKS, PLEASE. Once everyone is in place and rehearsals and blocking have finished, the 1st AD calls out "Last Looks" so everyone is given a chance to make last minute changes—to the set, to the hair and makeup, to the lights, anything.

3) QUIET ON THE SET. The take is ready to be filmed. The 1st AD calls out, "Quiet on the set." This alerts everyone that the take is ready to be filmed.

4) ROLL SOUND. The 1st AD waits for complete quiet, then signals the [[Production sound mixer]] to "Roll Sound", after which the Mixer rolls his sound gear, verifies it's working, and replies, "Rolling" or "Speed".

5a) ROLL CAMERA. The 1st AD then signals the DoP to "Roll Camera"; the DoP rolls his camera, verifies it's working by watching timecode for three seconds and replies, "Rolling" or "Speed".

5b) LOCK IT DOWN! Right before the DoP says "Speed", sometimes the 1st AD will also call out, "Lock it down!" to make sure nothing on set is dropped during the take because it wasn't "locked down"—everyone must now be totally quiet and move out of the frame.

6) MARKER. The 1st AD then signals the Clapper loader, or 2nd Camera Assistant (2nd AC), by saying "Marker" or "Slate it". The 2nd AC marks the shot by clapping the clapperboard, or slate, and reads it aloud to mark the scene for editing purposes): "Scene 67, Take 4".

7) The Director then says, "Action", although a 1st AD might perform this function if the Director prefers it.

Only the Director says "Cut".