Friday, February 23, 2007

The (image of the) person you're about to see is not real

Albert Finney's 1981 movie Looker tells the story of real models being "sampled" to create a perfect computer generated actor... so perfect that viewers become completely hypnotized when watching. Perfect for commercials. And newscasts. And movies.

The future catches up with a vengeance—the image below is a real actress, but the image is not a picture... it's all computer generated (click on it to enlarge):

Here are the pictures used as reference points (with the bottom left the finished CGI image):

Still don't believe it? Here are the settings in 3dsmax:

This astonishing work and provides a glimpse about the future of digital entertainment. Sure, this image is basically a souped up scan of a real person, but the technology now exists to create computer generated still photos of imaginary actors (Time magazine once combined 100 American faces into one face to give us an idea of what our descendants might look like), then computer generated moving images of imaginary actors... and then Rachael.

Full article about the above photo here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Power of The Quest

A bunch of cavemen peer inside a dark cave... inside is something they could all use—perhaps an animal to kill for food or bear skins for warmth—but only one of the cavemen can go inside, either due to his natural skills (he has the most strength or the best eyesight) or his inclination. He goes inside and, after a time, emerges with a new resource that helps everyone. His individual success is everyone's success.

This is the nature of the quest: a knight is sent away to slay a dragon in order to rescue a princess, break a spell, or free a kingdom, or all three. Either way, a knight's quest is basically an individual's errand which also benefits the group and though thousands of years have passed since we learned to walk upright, the quest has evolved and infused itself into countless professions. We still prefer to let those with specialized talents do the things we can't or won't do for ourselves: lawyers, doctors, realtors, plumbers, politicians, diplomats, soldiers, scientists, teachers, webmasters... the list is endless. Go into that cave for us so you can get "X" for me/us. Each person has a different cave to go into, one that best suits their personality and skill, and the deeper in the cave they go, they'll likely find something nobody else has.

Artists also go on quests, although their terra incognita is metaphysical, and as such manufactures a tangible resource from nothing but ideas. Nevertheless, each type of artist—painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians—they all delve into areas we have neither time, desire nor ability to explore. Taking a deep breath, they hold their torch up and enter the cave to find something that will either make us all laugh, or sad, or angry, or horrified. If we've seen something like it before, we're not too impressed, but if it's completely new, we fight for a chance to see it, hold it, experience it. This found object is the purest distillation of art and it can be like crack cocaine when made right. It can be a painting filling you with limitless joy, a song or symphony striking a chord so perfect to bring you to tears, a poem unearthing a buried and terrifying truth... or a film yanking us into its story headfirst and doesn't let go until its final "The End".

Go inside the cave for us, they say.

Why? It's dark in there. It might be a while before I find anything good to bring back.

That's okay. We need a story. A good story. Something to make us laugh or cry.

What for? It's only a story.

Stories help us relate to the world: they help us imagine how we could fight our own dragons. And we can't do that for ourselves. Not like you can.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Crossing The Line: A Primer for New Filmmakers

New York City, 1989, NYU film school. I sat with 30 other aspiring filmmakers listening to Ben Hayeem talk about "crossing the line", an often undervalued and misunderstood piece of filmmaking grammar. 18 years have passed since that lecture and I still use the lessons he taught us that day.

To understand the "line", you have to first understand its importance in the right context: imagine you're verbally directing a blindfolded group of people through a rocky cave... except your instructions are on a pre-recorded tape. If you made one dictation mistake, your viewers might get lost, at least temporarily, and—because your instructions are pre-recorded—they're unable to clarify any misunderstandings... so everything you record for them has to be perfectly clear because any distractions would take their attention off the path. For example, if you gave them instructions in a thick foreign accent or used improper grammar, they might focus on that miscommunication rather than their path. Of course, there's no rule keeping you from talking with a thick foreign accent or using grammatically questionable words like irregardless, but making those kinds of missteps risks distracting, confusing, or even alienating, your viewer. Seriously, why risk it?

The "line" is a filmmaking convention used to help viewers immediately grasp where their viewpoint is in relation to the action of a scene. It originates from the confines of a stage play and, like many artistic techniques, is only noticed when not executed skillfully. The line is usually associated with a character's sagittal plane (see above diagram)—an imaginary line slicing right down the middle of our bodies—because the sagittal plane follows human interaction the closest: we usually face each other when talking and each actor's sagittal plane can be joined into a rough line that establishes the domain of an imaginary stage.

Before I explain the line in detail, here's a visual example. Imagine you see these two guys, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, from Hero:

You can safely assume that they're looking at each other, right? Jet Li is on your left and Donnie Yen is on your right. Got it?

But then the next shot you see is this:

Something's wrong: Jet Li was supposed to be on the left, yet he isn't... I'm so confused. Instead of enjoying the scene, I'm distracted by trying to re-orient myself... oh wait, I get it—we're not seeing them from the same side! The camera has jumped across the imaginary lines connecting these characters' sagittal planes. That's crossing the line.

Here's another filmic faux pas:

Though these guys are really looking at each other, they appear not to because the camera has crossed the line for one of the actors, but not both. If these two shots were the only ones we saw, we'd be very confused if the actors started fighting each other because it looks like they're actually facing the same direction.

So okay, you're getting a feel for this. Time to really break it down.

Let's assume I'm sitting at the back of a room, and in the middle of the room are two people: Person A on the left wall and Person B on the right wall. If these people talk to each other, there's an imaginary "line" you can draw between them and when I look at them, my head snaps back and forth as if I'm watching a Tennis match.

Person A (on my left) looks to my right, or "camera right", while Person B (on my right) looks to my left, or "camera left". Simple, right?

A —> <—B

The assumption is that I haven't moved. But let's say I walk to the front end of the room, excusing myself as I pass directly between both guys. When I turn back to look at them, I see this:

B —> <—A

Here's what all that looks like on paper (the camera angles are color coded):

When you walk from the back of the room to the front, you cross the line, which isn't bad in itself... just that changing the camera angle on one actor by crossing the line suggests that the other actor's camera angle should change in tandem. Otherwise, the viewer can get confused about where their point of view has been suddenly moved to. As in everyday speech, we could use a double negative ("I don't see nothing") and still convey the grammatically correct meaning ("I don't see anything"), but a double negative is distracting to many people. So why use it?

Here is the entire sequence from Hero in its exact order, with commentary:

Master, Jet (L) & Donnie (R). Establishes the geography of the scene.

Med, Donnie. "You don't scare me!"

Med, Jet Li. "But I'm Jet Li."

Med, Donnie. "Hmmm, perhaps you are a worthy opponent." 
No problems so far; we're watching a tennis match.

Beginning of Med Dolly shot, Jet Li. Okay, we're crossing the line here... Jet Li went from looking camera right to camera left.

End of Dolly shot, Jet Li. long as the next shot of Danny isn't looking camera left as well, everything will be cool.

Med, Donnie. Doh! Since Donnie is also looking camera left, now the viewer might be confused. But now we're dollying...

... and we're moving to cross the line now...

Jet is ever ready. His eye line is now almost perpendicular to the camera.

Finally, we've crossed the line for Donnie.



Okay, we've successfully moved across the line. Almost. The viewer got a clue that the camera was moving across the line, and while the shots weren't perfectly in sync, the camera stays on the other side of the duo.

What's this? Oh, the music guy. He's putting away his musical instrument.

Now he's walking away.

Okay we're back to Jet & Donnie... but WTF??? Are we back to the first place we were standing??? Hmmm. Well, okay. I guess the camera will stay here for a while.

In the next shot, a dream sequence, the camera has jumped back over the line again! Aaaaaaaaa!!!!

Ideally, as a director, you should never be worrying about the line—that's what your script supervisor is for. In theory, they'll be constantly double-checking the Cinematographer's setups to see if he's crossed the line. In reality, I once had an experienced editor on set to verify the complex staging checked by the script super, DP, and the director... and all of us still got it wrong. Without storyboards, it's dangerously easy to cross the line.

Fortunately, most people don't even notice when directors cross the line because a good establishing shot will tell the audience where the actors are within the scene. In the example above, with only two actors and wide establishing shots, it's safe to move the camera over the line multiple times with no noticable effect. However, without that wide establishing shot to orient the viewer, or if the scene involves a ton of characters, planning out shots to avoid crossing the line can mean the difference between being an amateur and looking like a pro.

Here's the entire clip from Hero:

In researching this article, I learned that Ben Hayeem died in 2004. He was a soft-spoken soul who taught countless filmmakers the nuts and bolts of the craft. We keep Ben's lessons at heart as he lives on through us.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Creating Worlds, Creating Characters

I'm a huge fan of Farscape and Seaquest DSV, two TV series created by Rockne S. O'Bannon, so when I saw that Rockne was speaking at the 2006 Screenwriting Expo, I couldn't resist going... and I wasn't disappointed.

Rockne is a soft-spoken, easy-going guy—he said up front that he was kind of forced to coming up with a egocentric title like, "The Rockne O'Bannon Way" so he thought he'd do his best to provide some insight on how he writes so much material on Farscape and other shows he's worked on.

Because I was in the process of developing the epic storyline of Safe Harbors, Rockne's lecture was far and away the most useful to me; it's a sensible process that anyone can follow. Perhaps his biggest insight was using character relationships as a shorthand to flesh out a character, rather than filling out a disembodied 10 page biographical questionnaire.

Without further ado...


David Mamet has said: "Writing a feature film or a play is like running a marathon, but writing a TV series is running to death." We're entering the first generation where everyone is watching TV, so TV is the medium we all share. Working fast to produce quality content for TV is extremely valuable.

The point is not to become overwhelmed by the process. Ray Bradbury has said, "Write faster than you can think." By writing quickly, you should be turning off your ability to focus on what you're writing. You'll still be doing the traditional cleanup of what you write later, but the important thing is to produce a lot. Screenwriting is a disposable genre—you get notes from producers, from actors, from everyone—so you should get used to writing a lot of pages so you're not too committed to what you're writing. When David Mamet was asked why he wrote, he said, "It's easier than thinking."

The two most important things that lay a foundation for story are characters and landscape. Your characters should appear real and fit into the world you create, and the landscape is necessary to ground them. Manhattan, Tatooine, the island in Cast Away—each are unique settings that draw out your characters. The iceberg theory says that only 1% of what you see on screen is being shown about your world and its characters. To fully flesh out the other 99% isn't absolutely necessary, but it does inform the process. Most of the time, it's just painful to create stuff that you won't ever see, but it can be a good touchpoint to access other storylines.

The off-stage movie. Wordplayer has an article talking about the movie that happens outside of the actual movie. Like in Jaws, what would happen if you remove the shark from the story? What ELSE happens in the story that makes it interesting to watch?

Relationships. You can spend a lot of time doing a very detailed character biography, and these are very good, but they slow you down and aren't the most efficient way to access all the backstories of your characters. What is more important is the relationship between the characters. How do the characters relate to other characters in the story and all the people in their lives?



Quickly, write down anything about that reminds you of your story, whether it be books, music, movies, personal anecdotes, art... spew as much as you can onto the page to allow you to remember what made you want to tell this story. ANYTHING!

Some questions to ask in this process:

  1. What other film or TV show successes do you want to emulate? What kind of audience will see it?
  2. What is the marketplace? What's the studio for it? Is it obscene, does it push the boundaries? Then it's a piece for HBO or Showtime. If it's more mainstream, then ABC or NBC is more the market for it.
  3. Why is this my story to tell? The more personal the story is, the more I feel emotionally connected to the subject matter, and the better story I'm likely to tell.
  4. Draw out a rough beginning, middle, and end to the story—don't be committed to one particular beginning or ending, either. Make lists of many potential setups and outcomes. Lists are great because they allow you to not get bogged down in making a decision about something, but keep the brain juices cooking.

At the end of all this, you should be able to write a short two page document to register with the WGA that includes a beginning, a middle and an end.


It's always better to have too many characters than too few. If you're doing a simple story like "man kills man", you've got two main characters to flesh out.

  1. Populate the world. Get a huge piece of art paper (even as large as 27" x 40") and start by listing lots of interesting professions. Choose two professions that are in enough opposition to make for an interesting interaction. We chose a postman and a televangelist. Now we're going to "populate" the world of each character. You want to think of people who relate to that character in their world. You'll probably start with the most obvious person who'd come into contact with each character: family, friends, workers, acquaintances, alumni, etc. It's okay if they are cliché, just keep listing the relationships as they come to you and you'll find out more about that character's world, and have a map of character interactions from which to reap for storylines later. For the postman, we started with wife, family, people on his postal route, dogs who attack him, oncologist for some therapy he's enduring, professor at a school for continuing education. For the televangelist, we listed a media adviser, his "flock", his makeup artist, mistress, political connections. Eventually, you'll have so many people that you'll want to break them into subcategories to better organize them.
    This character chart naturally suggests conflict and story because of the relationships between the characters. If we were doing an episode of Law and Order, it would be a great list of red herrings and clues.
  2. Fears & loves. What do your lead characters fear the most? What do they love the most? These are the most extreme emotions that best define your character. Make lists—don't commit yet to one particular emotion because the pressure to have the perfect choice will slow you down. Just brainstorm about potentials.


This step will generate the most information. List all the places where each character would likely go. For the postman, it would be house, postal route, in laws' house, college (you can do sub-categories for larger places like college —> canteen), etc. The more places you list, the more characters will likely be generated for your Character Chart. Story ideas will naturally start to come off of this map. The televangelist's places could be a TV Studio, a smoke-filled back room, home, church, etc. Maybe the postman meets younger girls at the college canteen where he takes continuing education classes... maybe one of these women is the daughter of the evangelist, or the makeup person of the televangelist... the relationships will start to show themselves.

Mansions & sewers. After spewing out all these ideas, think about what extreme high end or low-end places the characters can go to in this story. Mansions are the ultimate wish fulfillment, and sewers are the darkest places one can go. This adds texture to your characters and gives them something interesting to react to.


The action climax is not as important as the emotional climax. How do you know what the emotional climax is? Ask yourself what would matter to you, and thus to the audience? Consider Joel Silver's films with big explosions—we don't really care too much what happens to the characters because there's too much action and not enough emotion. However, in Finding Nemo, you really care about the ending. In Aliens, you're so emotionally invested in the characters that you think the aliens will jump out at the last second even as Newt goes into her hypersleep pod. In Jaws, when the shark dies, we rejoice because justice has been served. In Lethal Weapon III, when the corrupt South African diplomat villain is killed, we're happy because we're experiencing the emotional climax of the story. The emotional climax is the ultimate moment of showdown.


Now it's good to take a big step back and gets a bird's eye view of story. What are the broad moves of story? At USC, they call this step identifying the "sequences":

  1. The televangelist is murdered and the police suspect mob connections,
  2. Police are wrong and suspect mistress,
  3. Police prosecute mistress, etc.

For The Godfather, the sequences would be:

  1. The Corleones are powerful, but don't traffic drugs
  2. The family is in danger, etc.


This is an extension of step 5—take the broad iconic moves and covert them into mini-movies that have a beginning, middle and end. For The Godfather's first broad move (The Corleones are powerful but don't traffic drugs), this would be:

  1. Wedding (beginning),
  2. The horse head scene (middle)
  3. They don't traffic drugs

For the second broad move (family in danger), this would be:

  1. Father gunned down (beginning)
  2. Michael protects father (middle),
  3. Michael shoots cop (end).


Rockne sees everything as a personal story set against an epic backdrop.

Eavesdropping on dialogue. Is your dialogue interesting enough to overhear if you were standing nearby?

Sol Stein on Writing. A good book—Stein once gave two actors radically different interpretations of their scene (without them knowing) and watched the magical conflict of their reading. One such scene had an actor playing a mother called into a principal's office about her son, the other actor was the principal. The actor playing the principal was told the son was a devil child and that he should be expelled as soon as possible. The actor playing the mother was told her son was angelic and could do no wrong. Both actors were playing off the same script, but their interpretations were diametrically opposed, which made watching their interaction fascinating to watch because the subjective subtext was feeding their lines.

If you have a card, play it. The tendency for most writers is to delay a powerful plot development until the end of the scene in order to make it the climax. Instead, play that "card" at the beginning of the scene—then the scene becomes about the reaction to this major plot development, which is much more interesting.

Put yourself in the editing room. If you had shot everything and were looking at the edited footage, what could you safely take out to make it shorter. Rockne said he would constantly get scripts at 61 pages and know that something would have to get cut to get it down to 54 pages.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Will he get the camera?

Here's my friend Hans bidding on a 35mm camera... will he get it?

(Thanks for letting me crash in your hotel room, bro!)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Global Warming?

I'm not a huge fan of dogmatic people. In fact, I hate proselytizers who blindly bulldoze anyone who opposes them... it's hateful and self-centered and unfair. Of course, I've been guilty of it myself on occasion, but I've tried to be introspective and keep an open mind. The problem with having a truly open mind in the pursuit of Truth is that your fundamental belief system can be radically undermined at any time.

Recently, the global warming debate has been heating up (sorry, bad one) and I've had to reexamine what I think about it all. I remember hearing a scientist say years ago that one volcanic eruption is thousands of times more harmful to the ozone layer than humans burning fossil fuels. It seemed to make sense at the time and I clung to that belief for many years. Besides, how could we puny humans change something so vast as the Earth?

And then I saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. I'm not saying I'm totally convinced—even experts can disagree, right?—but the data Gore lays out is compelling. He explores many different aspects of the debate, and each section convincingly points to two conclusions: (1) global warming exists and (2) humans are causing it.

I didn't want to believe it. I still don't want to believe it.... but after looking at the data he presents, I can't honestly say it's all a lie originating from dogmatic tomfoolery. Gore may be onto something, and even if there's a very small chance he's right, it would be negligent not to at least consider it very carefully.

The most influential piece in the film is a 6 minute clip about CO2 emissions and I was ecstatic to find it on You Tube. If you're still on the fence about whether humans are causing global warming, watch this clip and I bet it will make you think twice:

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Irregardless is not a word!

It's either regardless or irrespective, but not both.

That is all.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Type 0.7

I'm shaking my head in bewilderment and handing you a book, open to page 307... trust me, you have to read this:

To understand the technology of civilizations thousands to millions of years ahead of ours, physicists sometimes classify civilizations depending on their consumption of energy and the laws of thermodynamics. When scanning the heavens for intelligent life, physicists do not look for little green men but for civilizations with the energy output of type I, II, and III civilizations. The ranking was introduced by Russian physicist Nikolai Kardashev in the 1960s for classifying the radio signals from possible civilizations in outer space. Each civilization type emits a characteristic form of radiation that can be measured and catalogued.

A type I civilization has harnessed planetary forms of energy. Their energy consumption can be precisely measured: by definition, hey are able to utilize the entire amount of solar energy striking their planet, or 1016 watts. With this planetary energy, they might control or modify the weather, change the course or hurricanes, or build cities on the ocean. Such civilizations are truly masters of their planet and have created a planetary civilization.

A type II civilization has exhausted the power of a single planet and has harnessed the power of an entire star, or approximately 1026 watts. They are able to consume the entire energy output of their star and might conceivably control solar flares and ignite other stars.

A type III civilization has exhausted the power of a single solar system and has colonized large portions of its home galaxy. Such a civilization is able to utilize energy from 10 billion stars, or approximately 1036 watts.

Each type of civilization differs from the next lower type by a factor of 10 billion. Hence a Type III civilization, harnessing the power of billions of star systems, can use 10 billion times the energy output of a type II civilization, which in turn harnesses 10 billion times the output of a type I civilization. Assuming a civilization grows at a modest rate of 2 to 3 percent in its energy output per year... we can estimate that our current civilization is approximately 100 to 200 years from attaining type I status. It will take roughly 1,000 to 5,000 years to achieve type II status and 100,000 to 1,000,000 years to achieve type III status....

To describe our present day civilization, astronomer Carl Sagan advocated creating finer gradations between civilization types. Type I, II, and III civilizations, we have seen, generate a total energy output of roughly 1016, 1026, and 1026 watts, respectively. Sagan introduced a type I.1 civilization, which generates 1017 watts of power, a type I.2 civilization, which generates 1018 watts of power, and so on. By dividing each type into ten smaller subtypes, we can begin to classify our own civilization. On this scale, our present civilization is more like a type 0.7—within striking distance of being truly planetary....

But the transition from type O to type I is also the most perilous, because we still demonstrate the savagery that typified our rise from the forest. In some sense, the advancement of our civilizations is a race against time. On one hand, the march toward a type I planetary civilization may promise us an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity. On the other hand, the forces of entropy (the greenhouse effect, pollution, nuclear war, fundamentalism, disease) may yet tear us apart. Sir Martin Rees sees these threats, as well as those due to terrorism, bioengineered germs, and other technological nightmares, as some of the greatest challenges facing humanity. It is sobering that he gives us only a fifty-fifty chance of successfully negotiating this challenge.

I could include the bit about type IV civilizations, but isn't your brain already hurting?