What I'm Working On Now

Three short films are in Post-Production, soon to be submitting to film festivals.
Producing/editing a pilot for a new web-series inspired by the Alice in Wonderland tales.
Producing/editing a documentary on Gene Roddenberry and the genesis of Star Trek The Original Series.
There are a number of other projects in development, just waiting their turn to be produced.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Editing and its Role in Cinema Storytelling

     The first lessons in film making I received were all on the editing process. For three weeks, our instructor walked us through the principles and rules of editing and, understandably, many of us were confused. Why teach editing first when that's the last step in the process of making a movie? Thankfully, our instructors were wiser than us students and now looking back it makes perfect sense why they would structure the classes as they did.

      Years ago I taught American Sign Language at Utah State University. Many times I had students who had learned a lot of signs (vocabulary) but not much of the grammar (ASL and English have very different grammar structures) and so when they signed, it was difficult to understand what they were trying to say. So it is with movies. There is a language to film making. The footage is the vocabulary and the editing is the grammar. Once the grammar is understood, then and only then can the vocabulary be used and practiced in the correct manner, instead of developing bad habits. Like my old students, I had learned certain vocabulary elements of film making but I had only minimal understanding of the grammar.

      Editing a movie is not a matter of whether you cut the actual film or if you use digital editing software. Rather, editing is the process of shaping the story that the camera has already captured. Understanding that makes editing even more important before the editing begins. The film makers need to be aware of what the editor will need to tell the story; establishing shots, wide shots, medium and close ups, pans, wipes, dollies, etc.

      Visual storytelling is the art of knowing what to show and how to show it. The experienced film maker knows this and so prepares each shot accordingly with the editor in mind. There is a rhythm to it all, depending on the mood, action, etc. that is taking place. Take a scene from any movie and break it down into the different kinds of shots, then look at how long each shot lasted. There is a rhythm to it all. Even in long takes, where the camera keeps rolling, following the action, the dynamics of the shot will change, most of the time.

      Take, for example, my short film “Zombabies”. Not a perfect movie by any means, but it makes for a good example here of what I'm talking about. The film begins with a couple of shots, 5-3 seconds in length, enough to get the feel for the location but not so long that the view gets bored. At around 14 seconds into the film, the music shifts and we get a medium wide shot of the baby in its crib with the mother coming to comfort him. The shot lasts for almost 10 seconds, that's almost double the length of the film so far. This has the effect of impressing on the views mind the importance of this event.

      Now for the quick cut. The baby bites the mother. This shot is brief primarily for two reasons: first, the believability of the bite is lost if the shot is held longer (look at the shark in “Jaws” as another example of this), and second, the shock of the quick cut enhances the viewers feelings of unease.

      Now we're back to another long shot, just over 10 seconds long, to give the actress, and the audience, time to come to terms with what's just happened. The mother decides it was nothing, sets the baby down and goes back to what she was doing. The audience is left to fight their instincts over the conflicting information. Babies are cute, innocent and occasionally messy. Whereas they have seen the baby bite the mother, and they, most likely, know the title of the film and so are expecting the worst.

      Monster vision. Many people have used it before me, and the shot in this film following the mother is, admittedly, a tad too long, it still has the desired effect of cementing in the audiences mind that there is indeed something sinister going on with the baby.

      A quick cut to the second baby. This shot is less successful, I believe, though the film is better with it than without. The film needed something to lead the movie out of monster vision and back to the mothers, as well as a way to introduce the idea that the second baby is soon to be infected. However, the shot itself lacked clarity on the second point. Regardless, the flow of the film won out and the shot, though brief, stayed in the final cut.

      Now the editing gets quicker with a series of shots back and forth from kitchen, to zombabie and back and forth until the second mother is attacked. As a side note, the triple stage zoom was an idea from Alfred Hitchcock's film “The Birds” when the first death is discovered. The quick, sudden jumps into the face of the victim were jarring and enhanced the effect much more than a simple zoom would have accomplished.

      Again, the cutting is fairly quick moving through the attack, culminating with the second mother being tripped and eaten. The first mother slinks back into the bedroom and, though the cutting is still at about the same pace, the phrenetic motion is muted and so the audience get's to feel a bit of relief without sacrificing all the tension that's been built up. The fan shot was very important to give that room a sense of the familiar, nonthreatening. Just enough to lull the audience into a false sense of security.

     Que the laughter and the slow pull back to reveal the baby in the room with the mother. The shot is relatively long, 7 seconds, with the baby only coming into view at the very end of the shot. Again, this only adds to the anticipation of the audience.

      The hard cut to black followed closely by the fade in to the hand, with the zombabie playing with the fingers, establishes the passage of time while also insinuating all the horrible things that happened to the mother that I didn't have the budget to film. The munching on the finger at the end was the icing on the cake, twisting the stomachs of the audience and once again playing with their instincts that scream babies are cute and innocent and under no uncertain circumstances would they ever do anything so wrong as eat their mothers.

      The ebb and flow of fast and slow cuts, knowing when to hold a little longer, when to cut a little sooner, all take time and practice to get good at. I want to reiterate that this is by no means a perfect film. There are plenty of shots that should have been longer or shorter. This was, after all, only my second film. Regardless, I also believe it has a lot to teach about editing. I didn't go to much into detail on the sounds/music I used here but that is another area where editing has a powerful influence. Go through the film again and watch for how I used the sound-scape, when I faded music versus hard cutting it. What sound effects did I use, and why did I ignore other sounds. All of those things were considered when I was making the film. I wasn't perfect, again, but take a look and see what you think.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Game Structure and Designing a World

      From time to time I get involved in tabletop role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars Saga Edition (now discontinued) as well as some others my friends have made themselves. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these games, I'll give a basic explanation of how they work. For those of you who are familiar, feel free to skim past the next couple of paragraphs.

      In tabletop role playing games (hereafter referred to as RPG's), one player is designated as the Dungeon/Game Master (DM or GM). This player creates the world, based on the RPG's rules, including the obstacles the other players face, the enemies, the puzzles, traps, quests and just about anything else the players will encounter. Often times the DM/GM is nicknamed the god of the world since what he/she says is law. Some DM/GM's are more lenient while others are more strict with what options they place before their players and what detours they're willing to allow the players to make from the main story arc of the game. A single game can span several playing sessions, taking weeks, months, and even sometimes years if the players have the desire to draw things out that long.

      The other players all get to make characters and play in the world the DM/GM has created for them. They can work together to complete each quest, or opt to fight amongst themselves (usually inuring the wrath of the DM/GM and making their campaign more difficult). The main point of it all, though is to play their character. Each character has stats for their attributes: Intelligence, Strength and so forth. So even if the player is a genius, if their character has low intelligence, then the player is suppose to play their character to reflect that lower mental prowess.

      Alright, enough explaining the game play, on to why I'm bringing this up. While in the past I have been a player with a character who runs around and lets my DM/GM define the world I played in, I have since become the one who plays the DM/GM and it has helped my storytelling in ways I didn't expect.

      As stated before, it is the DM/GM's responsibility to create the world in which the players interact. As such, I have had to plan ahead, taking into account possible side plots the players may pursue while ensuring I always leave plenty of options available so they don;t feel like I'm steering them down a one way road. Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about.

      At the beginning of the gaming session, the players found their city under attack. They were told by their Master to stay hidden. The players characters were all children and so, understandably, they hid. When things started to go from bad to worse, however, the players were posed with certain options: do they try and escape, do they keep hidden or do they try to stand and fight?

      I as the DM/GM don't know before hand which possibility the players will select and so I, in my planning before, had to map out where each course of action would lead. This example is a fairly straight forward one and wasn't all that hard to craft. There are other, story altering decisions that appear from time to time that change how the rest of the campaign will play out. For example:

      Following the invasion of their town, the players had to flee. They were given the choice of several locations to which they could flee, each with its own challenges, risks and rewards. Each location, I had determined in advance, would lead the players down drastically different stories. And while I would on;y have to flesh out one of those stories depending on which the party chose, the world they're playing in is still all interconnected and so events in those other places would still effect them even though they never went there. Because they didn't go to that other town, it fell to the invaders as well and so later when they meet some refugees who are from that town there will be people and events that wouldn't have otherwise taken place. Some good, and some bad will come because of the decisions they made.

      The game world can be as complex as I want it to be, just like when writing a book or making a film. The depth of the story can only go as deep as the storyteller is willing to dig. By forcing myself to dig a little deeper in these games it has helped me to do the same for the stories I write and the movies I make.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Devious, Plotting Writers and the Effects of Foreshadowing

I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen. The prose was about what one would expect from an inexperienced writer. The story flowed but had some classic problems. The characters were mostly flat with a few pleasant outbursts of depth. Problems aside, the themes were strong and everyone who read the story agreed that there was something special happening in the story.

So, having just spent next to a year writing this novel, I sat down and began the painful and arduous job of rewriting. I dissected the book, chapter by chapter, using a spreadsheet to help me organize each plot line, each character arc and everything else I felt like tracking. As the story evolved in my spreadsheet I rewrote sections to allow for smoother transitions and more logical progression of story elements. At last, I opened a brand new text file and I began to write. Even though I'd already rewritten large sections of the story, the writing was uneven. Besides, I've found it more helpful to begin with a new canvas. As I worked through the rewrite I referenced back to my notes and previously rewritten sections.

Halfway through this rewrite I hit a wall. It wasn't writers block, but I knew I couldn't move forward with the rewrite until I came to terms with a word that had been nagging at the back of my mind for some time: Sequel.

Half formed ideas had been playing in the dark recesses of my mind for the better part of six months and I couldn't move forward any more until I gave the ideas a genuine appraisal. I saved my rewrite and put it aside while at the same time I opened up a new text file. At this point in time I was a much more instinctual writer when it came to making characters so I did a few free writing sessions to get some voices on the page. The first voice (or character) I wrote about was familiar, it was the main character from the first book. No surprise there. His voice was older, more weathered and sadder but it was still him. The second voice that coalesced on the page was a voice that had dominated those half formed ideas in the back of my mind. He didn't have a name. That puzzled me. I kept writing and a small, scared boy with amazing abilities (but no memories) took shape. He reminded me of certain aspects of myself when I was younger (memory loss excluded). I drafted an outline, promising the scared little boy that I'd come back for him and then returned to my rewrite.

With the sequel in mind, I laid the groundwork in the first book to flow into the second. I planted hints and suggestions and in the end (the end of the book that is) I was able to take a turn I always felt was right but could never seem to get to before.

The rewrite was still not perfect but after more than a year working on it I needed a break. The sequel practically wrote itself. Page after page flowed out of me. By this time I'd learned to plan ahead and had the story plotted out with all the sub plots and character arcs laid out. I hinted at future events, sowed secrets and resolved issues from the first book. I was almost done, only one or two chapters from the end. I opened a new text file. This wasn't uncommon, I was always writing short stories to keep me going and break up the monotony of working on only one project at a time. But as I wrote, a beautifully visual opening with intrigue and suspense, I found that this was not an isolated short story. In fact this wasn't a short story at all but the beginning of a third novel. I had a trilogy. This was upsetting because I'd been planning on wrapping things up at the end of book two. But there in front of me on the page was that nameless, scared little boy, now a grown man, and who was I to argue.

I finished book two as I had originally planned; it just felt right that way. There were still a few questions left unanswered (a good book, in my estimation, always leaves a few questions for the reader at the end) and I figured I could use those as a tie in for the third book. At this time in my life I was seventeen, had a part time job at an Elementary School mentoring kids, and I was going to school year round at Utah State University taking eighteen credits a semester trying to get my BS in physics before my twentieth birthday. Needless to say, I was busy. I put writing on hold for a bit and focused on my studies.

By my eighteenth birthday it was apparent that my breakneck pace in academia was going to kill me. I'd been sick for several months and decided that, for the good of everyone involved, I would slow down. I settled into my new pace and my health stabilized. By this time I'd forgotten about the third book. In fact, I hadn't written much of anything for some time. I enrolled in a writing class and got my creative juices flowing. As I worked on my writing assignments I would periodically skim through old stories that I'd written, seeking inspiration or fixing problems that I found therein. During one of these forays into my literary past I came across a file titled “Finish Later_Book Three”. Curious, I opened it and read the opening to the final book in my trilogy with new eyes. The sad boy had grown up while I'd been away and he was ready for his story to be finished.

Due to external circumstances, I only had until the end of the year to finish the book. Otherwise I'd have to wait another two years before returning to it. I wrote feverishly. I'd write a page or two, then the sad little boy would shake his head and I'd have to rewrite it. After a while I got back into the swing of things and I was cranking out ten pages a day. At the same time I churned out two more drafts on both the first and second books. That year is still my most creative year.

At last, the sad little boy smiled, nodded his thanks to me, and walked back into the darkness from whence he'd come. During the rewrites of the first two books I'd planted many more plot lines, strengthened characters and otherwise made the trilogy a singular whole. I put a few polishing touches on the third book before I took my two year sabbatical.

Since then I've continued to polish and edit the trilogy. I've lost count of how many more drafts I've done but the elements that I planted early on, the plotting and foreshadowing from those years ago, have continued to grow and bare fruit, without which I doubt the story would have survived.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Journey Through Visual Storytelling

      Video games have always been an interest of mine. I'm not terribly keen on the first-person shooters, sports or racing games. When I go looking for a game to play, the main criteria for what I want always lies in the story. I love a game that unfolds an intriguing and complex plot while you make your way through each level. Not every game is expert at telling their story, and even fewer have a great story to tell. However, every once in a while I come across a game that changes the way I think about storytelling.

      This past weekend I had the opportunity to play a game called Journey. The game play is simple, there's no way to die, and it took me around an hour to beat the game. That said, it was one of the most impressive games I have played in a long time. Before moving on to the story elements of the game, it must be said that the game is visually stunning. The landscapes, the architecture, even the characters have a beauty about them that no words can do justice to.

      As you play through each level, you discover new elements of the world around you. No words are ever spoken but through the genius use of pictograms the tale unfolds of the rise and fall of a once great civilization. As you play, a companion may join you in your Journey towards the mystical mountain peak where the final answers are hidden. This companion is another player and you may work together or ignore one another as you make your way through the world. The game is quite beatable going solo and so there is no real stress on relying on one another. That said, as the story unfolded I found myself impressed by the emotional impact of having a companion with me through the Journey.

      At the end of the game I was stunned by the deep symbolism and found myself wondering, in the best possible way, what it all meant. I know I've been rather vague in a lot of my descriptions, and for that I apologize. But understand that I could never do justice to the story and symbolism with my words. This is truly a story that must be played to be understood