A Conversation with Rodney Vance

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Author and film producer/director Rodney Vance connects with readers and film viewers at the heart. He taps into those places that touch us deeply and weaves stories that resonate with our core values. Rodney has worked hard to build a career that includes being a head writer on two multi-award winning television series, Lifestyle Magazine and The Evidence, a screen and playwright, children’s book author, and has produced more than thirty stage plays and events. Rodney’s list of impressive accomplishments doesn’t end there though. He’s also the Writer/Director of Singular Entertainment, a film production company based out of Riverside, California, and the Chair of the Department of Film and Television at La Sierra University in California. What a pleasure it’s been getting to know this talented man and his remarkable work. Welcome Rodney.

Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

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Q         Although not currently in print, I have to ask you what it was about De’Monte Love’s story that lead you to write the book?

A         I wanted to do something to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The original idea was to create a small, cheaply printed paperback that could be placed on grocery store counters. People who made a donation could have a copy of the book. When a friend of mine pointed out the story of De’Monte Love in the LA Times it was just the perfect story. I tried to find him and couldn’t. I ended up hiring a detective to find his family so I could call them and get permission to tell his story. My neighbour at the time, Martino Dorce, agreed to do the pictures. He’s one of the top Haitian artists and he did an amazing job.

VanceThen we started looking for someone to publish our little book and distribute it to the grocery stores and wherever else people might see it. Visikid Books picked it up and they had the idea to do a beautiful hard copy edition of the book as part of their series ‘Heroes All Around’. They would donate a specific amount of money for each book sold. It seemed like this might give a longer ‘shelf life’ as it were to De’Monte’s wonderful story and raise more money for specific charities actively involved in Katrina-related work. So that’s what we decided to do.

Q         What is the message you hoped to convey with this story?

A         De’Monte Love is the real name of a boy who was six years old at the time of Hurricane Katrina. De’Monte and six younger kids and their parents had to wait on the roof of their apartment building after the storm because the streets were flooded. A helicopter came and took the kids and promised to come back for the parents but in the confusion they didn’t come back and the kids were on their own until, ultimately, the authorities managed to connect the kids to their parents, who had been transported to Houston by then. Can you imagine the anguish of those parents? De’Monte kept the little band together until they were rescued. Already at that young age he understood the need to take care of those less capable than himself. Even though he was only six years old he did what he could to Love the other kids. And by doing what he could, he did enough.

Q         In many of your works I note an underlying theme of human connectivity, our responsibilities to each other, and this planet we call home. Has this been a pre-planned vision for your work thus far, and if so, why?

A         I can’t honestly say that my work is as thought through as the word pre-planned implies. However, whenever I sit down to write I always take the time to really think through why ‘I’ want to write this particular story. How do I connect to it? When I know the answer I write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer. Later, when I’m really stuck or feel like I’ve lost my way somehow with the story, I pull out that piece of paper and read what I wrote. Usually I discover that the writing problem I’m having is really just a problem of getting off track somehow and losing my own connection to the story. The human connectivity and connection to our planet results from the personal connection, rather than from a deliberate attempt to connect more broadly.

Q         Clearly, entertainment is in your blood. What excites, draws, and holds you to this eclectic, creative pursuit?

A         I wrote my first play when I was in third grade. I published my first story in a national magazine when I was in seventh grade. I won my first national playwriting competition when I was a Junior in High School. Storytelling has always been the primary way I deal with the vexing issues of the reality I perceive. It’s a socially acceptable way to explore all the light and darkness in my own psyche in a manner that is more than casual. Let’s make that simpler. Stories make us human. Not only are they a way for us to define ourselves, but they define all of the communities around us. We are part of a family because of the stories of how mom and dad met or what we did when we were little or that time we swallowed a nickel. These stories bind us together as a family even more than blood. Ask any child adopted at a young age. It’s not fundamentally blood that makes you family, its stories. The same is true for our town or city. Los Angeles is the City of Angels, the City of Dreams, and some of those Angels are dark and some of those Dreams are Nightmares. We are Hollywood and Aerospace and Watts and Pasadena and a concrete River also called Los Angeles. New York has different stories and is a different place. Every place has its own stories. It amazes me sometimes when people show a little or no interest in the stories of their own home town. Our nation is also built on stories: the Civil War, George Washington, a City on a Hill, Vietnam… And our religions too, it’s all stories. Stories tell us who we are. Stories make us human. What possible work could there be that’s more interesting than being a Storyteller?

Q         What would you say has been the most difficult lesson of life for you to learn, and why?

A         Life is short. Only so many stories can be told. I need to focus on telling the stories that I tell instead of taking time to tell stories that other people want told. Although Storytellers must make money – and should be well paid considering the value of their service to their society – the core reason to tell a story is the connection I spoke of earlier. Money can’t be the primary reason to tell a story.

Q         Who has been your greatest mentor in life or business, and why?

A         So many mentors have been supportive at crucial times. My parents were there first. I had a High School English teacher named Miss French who introduced me to the world of plays by taking me to see The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. In college I studied theology under brilliant minds of professors like Fritz Guy and Richard Rice who taught me how to think. Davey Marlin Jones, a theatre critic for the CBS affiliate in Washington DC, introduced me more fully than anyone to the craft of storytelling. He taught me the language and gave me a voice. Sometimes the necessary mentor appears as an obstacle and a source of pain. They can teach you a lot.

Q         When writing, do you maintain a daily writing schedule? If so, what does that look like for you?

A         I have repeatedly tried to maintain a daily writing schedule because I believe in the concept. I’ve never been able to make it work. The thing that must be done ‘right now’ always intrudes. For me the trick is not the specific schedule but the commitment to write or create. Like eating or connecting to another person, you may not always do it at the same time every day. But you don’t live long unless you do it regularly.

Q         In addition to being a children’s book author, you are also a screenwriter and playwright, the President and Director/Writer for Singular Entertainment Production Company, and a Professor at La Sierra University’s Film and Television Department. How do you manage to find a balance in life, or do you?

A         Every day of life is a gift. You can let that gift dominate you or you can receive it and choose what you will do and what you won’t do. Watching sunrises and sunsets are important. The daily display the universe puts on is truly astonishing and all you have to do is look up and watch it. They are reminders that we are not important because of what we do. We can scurry around all the time and, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Yes, we have to earn money for food and shelter. Yes, we need human companionship. These are necessary things. But it’s easy to spend a lot of time doing things that we think are important, but really aren’t. Is what I’m doing at this moment in time more important than watching the sunset?

Q         You’ve achieved and touched on so many exciting, interesting things in your life so far. What haven’t you done that you’d like to?

A         I want to do what probably most everybody wants to do. I want to travel the world with someone I love and meet interesting people, write stories, and direct films that other people want to watch. I also want to lie in a hammock beneath a palm tree on the beach and doze the day away.

Q         What advice would you give to those just starting out in the world of writing and/or entertainment?

A         If you don’t like it, it’s not good.

Q         When you write, do you work from a complete outline, or do you allow creativity to take the wheel and lead you where it may?

A         Both.

Q         As we approach the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina that devastated so much of the southern United States in August 2005, what lessons, if any, do you think the world took away from that experience, and why?

A         I don’t think we learned anything at all.

Q         What’s next for you, Rodney?

A         ‘The Butterfly, The Harp and The Timepiece’, a ten-minute film starring Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, gets its World Premiere on Opening Night at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival on September 3rd. I’m very excited about this little film that intertwines three stories around a magic shop where, no matter who you are, you get what you need (like the Rolling Stones song says!). The writer envisioned a film with very little dialogue – but that didn’t feel like a silent film. We have less than a hundred words spoken in the film, but we do use a brilliant new song composed specifically for the film by Grammy winner Alex Geringas and Australian Pop Star Toby Rand. The song becomes more than a platform for the emotions. It becomes a narrative device, an essential component to the telling of the story. Pictures, words, and music – like Opera! ‘Napa Valley Dreams’, a giant screen film that includes the final on-camera interview and keyboard performance of Ray Manzarek of The Doors, looks like it will find a long-term home as a destination film at The Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo, the Gateway to the Napa Valley, on or around April 1. I’ve signed on to direct a new short film about Erwin Cossentine, a college president who fights very hard to keep his Japanese-American students out of the concentration camps during World War II. It also looks like I’m going to get to direct a feature I wrote the screenplay for about a Conscientious Objector who served as a Medic in Vietnam until the local North Vietnamese Colonel killed the love of his life and he decided to train as a sniper instead. Now there’s a story with complications!

Acuity Press has expressed an interest in publishing my children’s book ‘Pale Male and Wendy’, the story of a six-year-old girl whose great love for long words is exceeded only by her love for Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks of Central Park. It will come out in Fall 2016. In addition, I’ve just finished a new children’s book, a folktale about the origins of Jazz called ‘Jazz Boy’. I also love my job teaching film and television production at La Sierra University, but right now it’s time to step outside and watch the sun set.

You can find more information and connect with Rodney here:

Twitter: @RodVance

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Singular-Entertainment/506571409479086

Web:  www.SingularEntertainment.com

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Shakespeare for Screenwriters

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I’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare ever since freshman high school English class and, coincidentally, our study of Hamlet. That this prolific playwright could not only stitch together so seamlessly a multitude of complex characters – and swiftly move them about in a minimalist set – but also explore timeless themes that would still resonate hundreds of years later was astonishing to me. Had he lived and worked in this century instead of his own, The Bard might have dabbled in screenwriting, a whimsical “what if” I encouraged students to explore in my writing and drama workshops back in the 70s. Shortly thereafter, these speculations gave way to new conversations with actors in my theater company (coincidentally named The Hamlett Players), a touring troupe that echoed Will’s own creative approach to “less is more.”

It was, therefore, exciting to recently meet a kindred spirit in J.M. Evenson whose new release, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, will continue to fuel the discussions about enduring plots and archetypes as well as that longstanding debate of whether he really, truly authored all those plays and sonnets himself.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with some brief background on who you are and what you do.

A: I am both a writer and a scholar. I received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. I’ve been a writer in LA for the last 5 years. As a screenwriter, I’ve worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. In addition, I’ve kept up my scholarly work by teaching Shakespeare, composition, and film part-time at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. This book is, in fact, a perfect meeting of both my most passionate interests.

Q: How and when did you have the epiphany that a playwright who lived so long ago could impart creative wisdom to aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century?

A: I remember it clearly. One day, after finishing up with my teaching at Pepperdine, I was trying to come up with ideas for a new story. I thought to myself: if only I could write like Shakespeare! And it dawned on me: if I spent some time analyzing his works to see how he did it, or what they might call “reverse engineering” his writing, perhaps I could learn a thing or two. The idea for this book was born that day — I knew I could not be the only person who could learn a thing or two from the greatest writer who ever lived!

Q: Controversy continues to simmer among scholars regarding the true authorship of The Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  What’s your own position on the debate?

A: I believe the debate is motivated by class politics. Edward de Vere, the man most often identified as the secret writer of Shakespeare, was a cultured aristocrat. Shakespeare was, by contrast, relatively low-born. In fact, the class difference is a main part of the argument: how could such a low-born person possess such unrivalled genius? In their minds, genius is the purview of those with money. This is an argument I simply do not buy.

Q: In your book you make the point that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. What do you believe is the secret to Will’s sustainability and modern-day popularity?

A: I think Shakespeare’s unique creative genius transcends barriers of language, culture, time, and place. He never goes for the small story. Love, family, power, war — these are the issues Shakespeare addresses. His plays touch a nerve because they are raw, human, and utterly timeless.

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love them all, but my personal favorite is “Hamlet.” I wish I could explain why this is in terms that made sense. I can’t. It just grips me tight and holds me from the first words until the end. It’s love!

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean speech or catch-phrase?

A: I think probably the famed “to be, or not to be” speech from “Hamlet.” I’ve read the speech a thousand times — maybe more — but I find something new every time.

Q: Numerous film adaptations have been made of Shakespeare’s work. Which one resonates the most with you?

A: I actually love many of the adaptations. Some of them are excellent all around, such as Branagh’s “Much Ado,” which literally made me fall out of my chair laughing in the theatre; some are landmark films, such as Olivier’s “Hamlet”; some are of sentimental value, such as the Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever seen; some are of special interest, such as the ultra dark version of “Macbeth” directed by Polanski right after his pregnant wife’s murder by Manson. Each one offers new insight on these amazing stories.

Q: Which do you think lend themselves better to screen adaptation – Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies?

A: There have been dozens of remarkable adaptations of both his comedies and tragedies. I think directors like Joss Whedon, with his fabulous recent version of “Much Ado,” prove that Shakespeare’s comedies are as timely today as they were 500 years ago. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” shows that Shakespeare’s tragedies are powerful no matter which language they are filmed in. The history plays are also marvelous — Branagh’s “Henry V” is absolutely riveting, one of my top favorites. No matter what the genre, Shakespeare’s plays continue to speak to each new generation. It’s truly amazing.

Q: Give us an example of a modern movie that demonstrates the writing principles you see in The Bard’s scripts?

A: Let’s take an example from the most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes: Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

Q: How does Shakespeare’s five-act structure correlate to what we’ve been hit over the head with in three-act structure?

A: Here’s an interesting but little-known fact: there’s no such thing as a five-act structure for Shakespeare. The five-act structure is purely a construction of modern editing practices. If you look at the original works printed in the Renaissance, you will see that there aren’t divisions into acts or scenes.

I do think there is something to be said about Shakespeare and structure, however. Shakespeare wasn’t beholden to formulas. Some of his plays obeyed the set-up, rising action, falling action model; some do not. “Othello,” for instance, rises in action to (what we call) Act 3, Scene 3, when Iago convinces him that Desdemona is cheating on him. This is the turning point of the play — not unlike, say, the turning point in “The Godfather,” when Michael embraces his family (and The Family) and kills Sollozzo. Other plays, like “King Lear,” are structured like an avalanche: the play begins at a high point, with Lear happily dividing his empire, but then immediately begins an inexorable march into shocking tragedy. It ends with Learn naked and insane, holding his beloved dead child, with his empire ruined and everything lost, before he dies. It’s an unusual structure now, and it was unusual in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare was a maverick — he was then, and will always be, unique.

Q: If you could take any of his plays that have never been adapted to the medium of film, which one would it be, how would you define the new context in order to appeal to mainstream audiences, and who’s your dream cast for it?

A: Amazingly, there are no plays from Shakespeare that haven’t been committed to film. Some of the less well-known plays have not gotten the big release treatment from Hollywood, but all of them have been filmed at some point. The BBC has been diligent!

Q: What’s the most important thing modern writers can learn from Will?

A: I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.

I’d just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is to do whatever it takes to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today — just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.

Q: Shakespearean plays were typically light on the number of female roles in the cast (primarily, of course, because those roles were played by males). In your view, which of his works could best be adapted to a film – regardless of setting or circa – in which the cast was comprised of a majority of females?

A: I don’t necessarily believe that his works are light on female roles — or at least no more so than Hollywood today. In almost every play, there is a strong female character. In “Macbeth,” it’s Lady Macbeth; in “Lear,” it’s Cordelia; in “Antony and Cleopatra,” it’s Cleopatra. The list goes on. In some of the plays, the female characters steal the show, as is certainly the case with Lady Macbeth. Almost all of Shakespeare’s major female characters are fascinating in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are or were played by men or women!

Q: Let’s say, hypothetically, you could sit down for lunch with the world’s most prolific playwright. Where would you go and what three questions would you most like to have answers to before that meal is over?

A: This is a difficult question. I am not sure what I’d ask him. Probably the first question would be if he’d read my screenplay! (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

My first inclination is to say that I would ask him detailed questions that have been bothering us for 500 years: Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Iago do it? What drives Macbeth? But the truth is that I like the fact that we don’t have solid answers to these questions. I like the fact that there are ambiguities in the way these characters were written. Every time I read Hamlet or Lear or Othello, I see something new. The characters seem to change and grow as I change and grow as a person. It’s like the Mona Lisa: if we could change her smile, would we? She’d lose part of her charm.

Q: What’s your best advice to new writers who dream of making it big in Hollywood?

A: I had a wonderful teacher at UCLA, Professor Howard Suber, who told me that the most important determining factor in how well a writer will do in Hollywood is not their talent or their networking skills; it’s how they handle despair. It sounds depressing at first, but the hard truth is that you will encounter setbacks in this town. Everyone does! You just have to learn how to handle it. The most important skill you can have in Hollywood is persistence — never, never, never give up!

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have several projects in the hopper. First, I’m gearing up to teach an online class through ScreenwritingU on specific lessons that writers can learn from Shakespeare. Second, I’m finishing up a children’s book that I just wrote. Third, I’m almost done with the proposal for my next book on writing, about which I am very excited — stay tuned for that one!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say how delighted I am to be doing this interview here with you! Many thanks!

 

 

 

 

Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films

Make Film History

On September 16, 1890, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince boarded a Paris-bound train, his first stop en route to New York to present an amazing invention that would radically change the way people saw the world. Not only did Le Prince never reach his destination but his body (which seemingly vanished overnight) was also never found despite exhaustive inquiries by the police. Fortuitously, his legacy – a camera that recorded the first motion picture – seized the imagination of kindred spirits who saw the device’s enormous potential as a medium for mainstream entertainment.

In his remarkable new book, Make Film History, author and film expert Robert Gerst, PhD. invites aspiring moviemakers of all ages to learn from the techniques of 25 cinematic game-changers over the past century and recognize how to apply the innovative lessons of sound, color, texture, music and editing to the development of their own projects.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What ignited your passion for movies and what’s the first one you ever remember seeing? In what way(s) did that first movie “speak” to you?

A: High Noon! (1952) is the first film I remember seeing. My mother took me. What she thought a little kid would get out of an adult-oriented revisionist cowboy movie I don’t know, but my mother was someone who ignored what most people conventionally thought. She was willing to go anywhere and try anything. She gave me, I suppose, the capacity to see things my own way.

The film came on the screen.  “Do-Not-Forsake-Me-O-My-Darling” thumped along in the sound track.  I was enthralled. For years, I dreamed about that movie.  At school, when the teacher said, “Draw something,” I drew again and again my version of the landscape of High Noon. The movie, of course, is set in the American southwest, but I imagined it as a New England style foursquare house at the end of a sinuous road. Cactuses and mountains surrounded the house.  Above it, a bright sun with rays pointing to the cardinal points on the compass hung in the sky. (I now live in a house in Massachusetts that could double for the house I saw as the house of High Noon.)

When I viewed the film again a few years ago, it seemed a bit hokey. But when I saw it with my mother, it spoke to me. I remember High Noon, and remembering that movie inspires me to thank my mother for standing by me as I slowly became who I am. I only wish I had told her so while still she was among us.

Q: Are there some particular movies that speak to you today?

A: I like films that affirm, movies in which every element beats with the rhythm of a living heart.  Affirmative movies don’t necessarily talk happy talk. Lives of Others, for instance, is a very sad film. But the movie affirms that you liberate yourself when you liberate others. Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
infuses that theme into the tiniest features of the music, the camera angles, the costumes.

In Lives of Others, a surveillance man in East Germany begins as a high-ranking officer and ends up, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lowly postman. The film ends when he enters a bookstore and reads the dedication in the novel written by the artist he surveilled.  The bookstore clerk asks if he should gift-wrap the book. “No, it’s for me,” man replies. Freeze frame. It’s a poignant ending, an ending as affirmative as the final shot of Bicycle Thieves, where the man and his son walk off into the crowd together.

Q: You’ve come a long way from the days when you first cut movies standing at a Moviola. What are three high points along the journey that you feel most strongly shaped your approach to inspiring the next generation of filmmakers to go forth and be creative?

A: At college, Richard Wilbur, America’s first poet laureate, taught me what I know about poetry, and writing poems and stories and novels—all safely tucked away now in a drawer—taught me how to write prose.  Students I taught in a classroom at Mass Art taught me that people learn by doing.  Fatherhood invested me in the next generation.

Q: What would prospective film students be the most surprised to learn about you?

A:  I never went to film school. My film school was bird watching. When you watch birds, you wait and listen. You never know beforehand what you’re going to encounter, so you attend to whatever moves or twitters. That’s the state of mind in which to watch a movie and make one. I recommend bird watching to film students.  And I spent a couple of years learning to cut and shoot film. As it turned out, I didn’t become a professional filmmaker. I earned a Ph.D. in literature instead. But hands-on work making movies taught me how the most miniscule change in a line, a shot, and a soundtrack moves a film in a new direction.

Q: Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films isn’t the first book to be written about film history but it may be among the most distinctive. Tell us why – and how – you went about developing and researching this project.

A:  I wrote the book to help you unleash your inner filmmaker. “You” probably started with me. The digital revolution reawakened me. When I had practiced filmmaking years before, movie making felt as esoteric as alchemy. But suddenly a filmmaking studio was opening in everyone’s computer. In my computer, I had this second chance to fiddle with movies. The tug I feel, I realized, others also feel. People who once would express themselves in poetry and dance now crank out You Tube videos. Some of them might want to learn about how actors act, how editors mix sounds, how filmmakers in general gestate movies.

I proposed an early version of the book and interactive website to Ken Lee and Michael Wiese of Michael Wiese Productions.  Michael suggested that I recast the book/webpage introduction to film that I first proposed into a historically oriented introduction to film history and filmmaking.

I blurted, “Twenty-five moments that transformed film history!”

Michael blurted, “Zelig does film history!”

Zelig is that 1983 movie where, with optical printing, Woody Allen, chameleon-like, slips into historic footage from the past. I spent about two years researching and writing.  I spent some time in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles and visited the film archives and the restoration school at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I thought about the films I was screening for my film history students.  I read printed and digital sources, many contradictory. I tried to distill all this lucidly and accurately.

Once I submitted the manuscript, I worked for roughly another half year getting the web site to a state where Make Film History readers would find it engaging. On the site, reader’s access historic film clips, view film history photographs, and read related documents. The site features film clips that readers can download to solve or re-solve the question a chapter’s exercise poses. To enable even novices to experience the joy of building a movie moment, the site provides step-by-step editing instructions written for the entry-level software already installed in most computers.

Make Film History is a glimpse at twenty-five moments when movies changed. But it’s not an encyclopedia. It’s a love note.

Q: I love your interactive website (http://makefilmhistory.com). How did you come up with this and what was the most challenging aspect of developing it as a complement to the book?

A:  A long ago Mac Plus HyperCard computer game—Cosmic Osmo—inspired the website. Cosmic Osmo was an early attempt by Rand and Robyn Miller to enable people to slosh through a humorous, joyful universe.  Later they created Myst, which became so popular newspapers took to printing daily tips to help wanderers in Mystland progress from location to location. I myself never advanced past the Mystland dentist chair, but in my foursquare New England house my wife and son went everywhere.

Cosmic Osmo was my game, though. It was pure play—a cage operating according to rules that, once you discovered the bars, seemed to disappear and set you free.  Playing Cosmic Osmo felt like dreaming.  There were rooms to click around and planets to visit. The magus of this imaginary universe was one Cosmic Osmo himself, who pervaded the place.  The voice of Osmo, or one of his avatars, would sometimes and chant, “You’ve traveled through spaces, through all kinds of places, now please don’t disgrace, please play with our faces…”

If this sounds like Prospero’s cell, it was. In drawers and under objects you came across what you felt was Osmo’s presence. If there was a higher purpose to this game I never discovered it, but just playing this game unleashed my imagination.

I wanted the website for Make Film History to inspire similar feelings. The sequential chapters constitute a path.  Clicks take you to outlooks. You interact with film clips in the exercises. I developed the site in stages, first creating the navigation bar, then roughing out the master page for each chapter of the book, then adding content as I thought of it. Beyond the chapter structure, I certainly followed no outline. The pages just grew. They continue to grow. The site runs about 350 html pages today, probably about double what it was when I first put it up. Yesterday I put up a couple of pages about the Brox Sisters of the 1920s and maybe tomorrow I’ll add another page about video on the Internet.  I don’t know. Subsidiary pages begin with an image that mesmerizes me. Then I open a blank file and explain what I see in the image. Then I add sound or video for users to activate. I wake up in the morning and rarely know what glen of this forest I’ll be entering. But I know I’ll go somewhere. I use Dreamweaver.  I’m bird watching.

Q: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wondered about silent movies. We can read on the title cards what the characters are saying but they’re obviously speaking to each other during scenes for which there are no cards. Were silent movies fully scripted or would the director instruct them from the sidelines to “act like you’re upset,” “explain that you’ve lost something,” “convey suspicion,” etc.?

A: Silent movies traded in feelings, as music does. But no one feels a comma in an emotion. So no one wrote out scripts for silent films. If you think of a silent movie as a dance, you immediately sense the uselessness of a script. Directors would shout or whisper directions—“Move towards her slowly… Tell her you love her.” Beside the camera, violinists and other musicians often played to summon feelings out of actors. (Garbo favored a violin and cello duet). Directors made very long silent films without consulting a word of script. D.W. Griffith used no script to create The Birth of a Nation. Sometimes, one of his camera assistants asserted, Griffith would step onto the set to dance with Lillian Gish—“Miss Geesh” he called her— and then start shooting. Silent movies are dance or maybe semaphore. Motion makes them.

Though they weren’t scripted, most silent films were certainly written. There were two kinds of silent movie writers. One sort created what they called scenarios—story summaries for directors to chop and frame into bits of story played out in scenes. The other sort wrote intertitles. An intertitle was, in essence, a silent movie tweet. You said it fast and you said it first. The first shot of Sadie Thompson is words on a plain black background, “In Pago Pago—in the sultry South Seas—where there is no need for bed clothes—yet the rain comes down in sheets…” That’s title writing.

What actors said to each other in silent films they pretty much made up in the moment. Sometimes they said unprintable things. Profusely and obviously, characters cursed each other in What Price Glory?, and lip readers supposedly complained. Usually silent film actors tried to say what they felt their characters would say. Improv actors now work that very way.

Q: A recurring theme throughout your book is to “learn by doing” but even more so is the message to “learn by imitating.” Doesn’t this just perpetuate the cycle of reinventing the wheel through remakes, prequels and sequels and, accordingly, becoming predictable?

A: You can never predict where an exercise in imitation will take you because, however obvious the destination, the road keeps changing as you travel it: your own hand is always on the wheel. You start out imitating Fritz Lang and, if you’re made that way, Adam Sandler arrives. Michelangelo leaned to sculpt by copying statues from ancient Greece. Imitating teaches technique and it unshackles you.

Q: How does today’s movie business compare to what it was like in the past?

A: We’ve returned to the earliest years of movie making. It’s as if we’ve stopped the movie history feature mid-reel, rewound it, and George Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers have taken over where Edison left off.  The king is dead and the little guy is king. To me, this moment is unbelievably exciting. The twentieth century factory studio has vanished. Studios mainly market films now, not make them. Today, the studio name preceding a film is a Cheshire cat smiling into thin air. An ad-hoc production company of agents, producers, directors, and mother-in-laws actually made the film.

In today’s film world, you can shoot a major motion picture with a digital camera. Danny Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shot much of Slum Dog Millionaire on Silicon Imaging SI-2K digital cameras. The camera head weighs 1.2 pounds. You can rent one for a day or week at your local video equipment vendor. Used ones sell on eBay. You can edit your movie on your lap top computer using Final Cut Pro.

There’s a dark fringe to this brightness. The film business, like the book business, has no clear view of where the industry is going. So people can’t make long-term commitments. In its heyday and even afterward, the studio system was more stable. In a documentary about film editing, film editor Paul Hirsch says that he walked into the editing room and when he looked up, thirty years years had passed. People just entering the film business now won’t experience that.

Q: If someone came to you and said, “I want to break into this business,” what would be your three best pieces of advice?

A:

1. “Only connect…” reads the epigraph to E.M. Foster’s novel, Howard’s End. If someone offers you a job, take it. Grip. Sub-titler. Assistant caterer. Whatever. Get yourself an offer. Then take it.

2. Don’t call yourself —don’t think of yourself—as an ARTIST. That’s for someone else to judge. Think of yourself as someone who cuts shots or applies makeup.

3. Live with compassion. May I reblog wisdom Anthony Burgess evidently offered in Inside Mr. Enderby?  Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.

Q: Technology was quite a bit different even as recently as 50 years ago. What are some of the things that today’s moviemakers – who now have access to an impressive array of high-tech tools – learn from past approaches to lighting, sound and cinematography?

A: Watching the light, sound and cinematography in old movies teaches you that there really isn’t any such thing as “progress” in movies. Movies get easier to make and simpler to distribute, but they don’t necessarily get better. Contemporary film making tools are fantastically empowering. Even in software like iMovie, you can transition between shots in about twenty different ways. The great montagist of the 1930s, Slavko Vorkapich, couldn’t achieve more than one or two of those effects because optical printers then were unable to create most of them. But Vorkapich’s montages were diamonds. They express his sensibility, so they continue to communicate, regardless of how dated his films may be. Hearing César express his love for his son in Fanny is affecting, even if the sound track crackles in that early talkie. Watching the early filmmakers teaches you humility. Humility is the great teacher.

Q:  Have all the advances in eye-popping CGI and 3D come at the expense of weaker plots, poorly developed characters, and contrived dialogue?

A: Filmmakers may be de-emphasizing plot, character, and dialogue because movie viewers enjoy all kinds of things that CGI and 3D do well. Filmmakers seeking markets abroad find that memorable dialogue doesn’t translate well. Other elements of a movie—like action— travel better. In a comic book adaption I viewed this spring, the hero kept endlessly slipping in and out of his CGI skin. I struggled just following the story, but millions of people love this film.   The plot conforms, I’m sure, to the three-act structure paradigm that everybody quotes: Something bad happens. Something even worse happens. You deal with it. This movie almost certainly underwent an exhaustive plot point analysis to guarantee that, on page twenty, action required by the three-act formula happens. Good story bones must be there. But when I left the theater, I couldn’t remember what the movie was all about.

That movie is earning prodigiously. In two months, people in America and elsewhere have coughed up four hundred million dollars to view this film. That’s a pretty compelling reason to keep making movies like that. Save us, please, from the culture police. But I confess, my heart isn’t there.

May I float a possibly heretical thought? Plot may not be the be all and end all of movies. People have all kinds of reasons for enjoying performances. Spectacle can often be enough. Masques had minimal plots in the seventeenth century. Movies of the future may not be stories at all. In Brave New World, Aldus Huxley looked into the future and, instead of movies, he saw “feelies.” CGI spectacle movies may be moving the mainstream business closer to the non-narrative poetry of the avant-garde. CGI and 3D do not portend the end of movies. Martin Scorsese’s 3D Hugo, for instance, was beautiful.

Q: Many a black-and-white film has been colorized in an attempt to give it less of an “old” feel. What’s your reaction to this practice and what, if anything, do you feel gets lost in the transition?

A:  The actual number of movies colorized is miniscule. Of the thousands of films made by professional filmmakers since 1895, about two hundred seventy black and white movies—roughly one hundred sixty of them from the 1930s—have been digitally colorized since the early 1980s. For me, even one is too many. I understand why people who own rights to old black and whites consider colorizing them:  many people today say they’d never watch a black and white movie.  Maybe the 2012 Best Picture Academy Award for The Artist converted some of those people.

Black and white movies intrigue me as poetry sometimes does. Myth is universally understandable. Poetry isn’t. Poetry exists in a particular language and doesn’t survive translation. “Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a bear…. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” is untranslatable. John Ford’s The Fugitive would be just as untranslatable. Black and white infuses the worldview of that film. When a director uses black and white effectively, colorizing harms his movie. Maybe movies made by visually uninventive directors don’t suffer much from colorizing. But could you imagine Citizen Kane in color? I gather that Jean Luc Godard once toyed with the idea of colorizing Breathless. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Q:  Your book sets forth the premise that there are 25 pivotal points in the timeline of movie history. What do you predict will be the 26th?

A: The book stops at twenty-five points on a continuum. I think of them as freeze frames in a very long take. I’d love a chance to write about others. The Paramount Pictures School of 1925.  The last days of 35 mm projection in 2012. It’s endless. As the twenty-sixth, however, I foresee smaller, more modular and haiku-like movies. We’ll return to the ten-minute one reeler standard. Nine-hour movies are over. Twitter already circulates films that run six seconds.

Q: Your book contains lots of nifty exercises at the end of each chapter. I’m curious, though, whether a reader has to have extensive experience with digital filmmaking software in order to get the most benefit from the lesson.

A: You need to spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with basic features of the digital editing software installed in your computer if you’ve never done that before.  Beyond that, you’re good to go. The exercise instructions are written for iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, and I’ll be putting up Adobe Premier instructions shortly. The exercises work fine in more advanced digital editing software, too.  The goal is to unleash the filmmaker in everybody.

Q: Some people think that digitizing movie editing, shooting, and projection portends the end of movies as we know them. What do you think?

A:  I am excited about the future. Ending “movies as we know them” might be a good thing, if what supplants “movies as we know them” is movies we never thought of. Giving more people more ways to experience the joy of making, viewing, and loving movies is an absolute good.

Q: Hypothetically, you’re having a small dinner party and can invite any three of the visionary filmmakers referenced in your book. Which three would they be and what question would you put to each one that has never before been addressed in interviews or biographies?

A: To David O. Selznick: How did you feel about your father? To Dziga Vertov: Did you really believe that movies can make a new humanity?  To Georges Méliès: What do you think truth is?

Q: Can learning about movies help ordinary readers— who aren’t going to be movie professionals—live more imaginative and fulfilling lives?

A: There is an artist in everyone. We enter dreamland every night. Artists are just people who, when they wake, continue dreaming. Learning about movies induces in you the feeling, as love does, that you are not alone. That is, of course, an illusion. You are alone. But we live by that illusion. Movies are the meeting place of souls.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A Striped bass and blue fish, I hope. I’m going fishing.

When I finish with that, I’d like to write about husbands and wives who made movies together. Martin and Osa Johnson. Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber, for instance, were once the most esteemed movie couple in Hollywood. Now nobody’s ever heard of them.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: Like me on Facebook. Put in a word on my blog. I love to talk movies.

 

 

Writing the Science Fiction Film

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IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! IT CAME FROM THE PRIMEVAL WORLD! IT CAME FROM THE LABORATORY OF A MAD SCIENTIST!

Whatever its origins, there’s nothing quite like a good Sci-Fi flick to get us wondering, “Could this really happen?” In his new book, Writing the Science Fiction Film, Robert Grant not only dissects what makes this genre so popular with audiences of all ages but also provides aspiring screenwriters with the tools, insights and allegorical viewpoints they need to create their own plots that are out-of-this-world.

In addition to his accomplished background as a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, Grant is Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON and serves on the jury for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the UK’s most prestigious award. If you’re going to be warding off alien invasions, disabling evil robots, battling mutant crab monsters or tweaking around with time-travel, this is the go-to guy you’re going to want in your corner.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Were you a fan of science fiction flicks when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the movies that have stuck with you to this day?

A: Absolutely, I watched lots of Sci-Fi, some early favourites being Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, Day of the Triffids, Sleeper, Dark Star, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run… I could go on forever! And it wasn’t just films because, of course, there was lots of Sci-Fi on TV – Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and even The Jetsons!

I do think that I started to take it more seriously as I reached my mid-teens. Films like Fahrenheit 451, It Happened Here and A Clockwork Orange started to resonate more as I understood the subtext and what the stories were actually trying to tell me.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the influence that the Cold War had on Sci-Fi movies during the 1950s; specifically, using aliens from other planets as a metaphor for Communist invasion.

A: Well the influence of the Cold War on science fiction is undeniably huge. It was the time when the military-industrial complex came of age. Rockets and rocket power became more and more important on the battlefield and at the same time the proliferation of nuclear weapons brought the possibility of horrors like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to everyone’s doorstep along with the dangers of exposure to nuclear fallout. Science fiction used all kinds of horrors from shape-shifting aliens to giant ants to represent foreign invaders taking over the US and destroying everything that Americans hold dear and audiences were happy to take it all in.

Q: Flash forward to the 21st century. Who’s the enemy that the themes of current Sci-Fi films want to keep us paranoid about?

A: I think right now we are our own worst enemy. If you look at the current crop of science fiction films there’s a huge tendency to depict apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually triggered by our own wanton hubris. Films like Children of Men, Splice, Contagion, 28 Days Later, The Road, I Am Legend and so on explore what happens when technological advance goes on unchecked and unmonitored, and how much of a knife edge we’re on when it comes to the difference between success and disaster.

Q: Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres in which plots unfold in alternative universes/realms and with characters that possess non-mortal looks/abilities. What elements and distinctions should a writer consider in deciding which category his plot best fits?

A: Well science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different and separate genres and the clue is in the name. A good science fiction story will rely on the ‘science’ part of that moniker in order to work, and the closer to present day your Sci-Fi is set, the more your science has to make sense. Ultimately if the science isn’t coherent, cohesive, and at the very least feasible then your story will very quickly fall apart. Very crudely – and there are exceptions to the rule on both sides – fantasy doesn’t need an explanation for why something is the way it is or how something happens, it’s just ‘magic’, but science fiction demands explanation.

Q: What do you feel Sci-Fi offers to both writers and audiences that other genres do not?

A: Science fiction is known as “the genre of ideas” and that really does sum it up. Sci-Fi lets us examine big issues and pose difficult questions, putting a spotlight on them and saying “Look at this! Look what’s going on!” in order to get people to start talking about it, but importantly, it can do this without pointing fingers directly at any individual or group.

Think about what currently keeps people up at night. Global warming? Environmental damage? Terrorist threat? Erosion of civil liberties? CCTV and the lack of privacy? Rampant corporatisation? The poverty gap? GM crops? More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with these kinds of changes and the effects they have on society. It flips us out of our own cosy existence and forces us to think about society in different ways, showing us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way, that there may be a better way, but – and it’s a very important but – science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution, it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us to work out.

In the end it comes down to this; if you want to write about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you pretty much have to write science fiction.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that beginning Sci-Fi writers make (and how can they fix them)?

A: Unlike any other, science fiction is both a genre and a setting and unlike other genres it comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic Comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic and thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

Star Man (1984) is a romance and a science fiction film
Alien (1979) is a horror movie and a science fiction film
ET (1982) is a family movie and a science fiction film
The Terminator (1984) is an action movie and a science fiction film
Never Let Me Go (2010) is a drama and a science fiction film
Logan’s Run (1976) is a thriller and a science fiction film
Sleeper (1973) is a comedy and a science fiction film

You can see the dilemma straight away. What exactly are you writing? Are you writing a western set in space (Firefly) or a noir detective story set in the far future (Blade Runner) and, as you might suspect, the truth actually lies somewhere between the two.

All genres have their particular story beats, a romantic comedy has to have the “cute meet”, action movies have their “hamlet moment”, thrillers generally have a compressed time frame and those things must be observed. When figuring out your story, you will save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first and then as you re-write – and assuming the science is crucial to the story – build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a Sci-Fi world and shoehorning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Q: Give us some examples of Sci-Fi movies that embrace similar themes but are totally different from each other.

A: Good question! The easiest examples of this are how we typically represent ‘the alien’ in Sci-Fi and the two polar opposite approaches here. One way is the simple alien people, living their lives in peace and of no threat to anyone until we show up – usually to colonise their lands and exploit their resources – in films like Avatar (2009), Planet 51 (2009) or Terra (2007). The flip side of that are the films where we are attacked or invaded by aliens that are bent on wiping out humankind, which we see in everything from The Blob (1958) to Independence Day (1996) to Mars Attacks (1996). The themes are the same in both versions, the taking away of liberty and of freedom, loss of identity, the destruction of a way of life in pursuit of advancement, the loss of control to a dominant power, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. These kinds of films rose to prominence during the paranoia of the Cold War but they crop up time again, regardless of whether we are being invaded or doing the invading, with the same warnings. They point to suspect foreign policies, global corporatisation, erosion of civil liberties and just basic greed whether the method is stealthy and insidious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or brash and uncaring (War of the Worlds).

Q: There’s no question that technology (and especially 3D) has given Sci-Fi movies a completely different look and sense of realism that didn’t exist decades ago. Has all of this high-tech eye-candy, though, come at the expense of weaker stories, poor dialogue, and characters that aren’t fully developed?

A: That’s a complex question and a difficult one to answer, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Around the world a lot of smart, challenging well-written, engaging, science fiction films come out every year but don’t make it to the local multiplex and that’s where festivals like SCI-FI-LONDON do a lot to showcase Sci-Fi you won’t see anywhere else on the big screen. In a number of cases the money to make those smaller films has come from studio funds raised on the success of some blockbuster hit – the one paying for the other – and so we need those big films to help prop-up the industry at all levels. A director of photography, gaffer or post house will often look more favourably at working for basic fees on small projects coming off the back of a big project that was a success.

I think people forget that this is the film ‘business’ – with ‘business’ being the operative word. Box office earnings are up – mostly due to the escalating cost of seeing a film, especially one in 3D – but audience numbers aren’t growing as much so the big studios have to find different ways to maximise the revenue streams they can get from a property in order to make the most profit they can. This is why adaptations these days come from everywhere, not just novels but toys, comic books, video games and even theme park rides, because any way of leveraging profit from a film has to be explored. The downside of this is that if the decision makers don’t understand the audience properly, their ‘films for teenage boys’ get dumbed-down by sacrificing character, plot, dialogue and so on in favour of pretty girls and explosions, films that are expensive to make but are filled with eye-candy. Great if they’re a hit, very costly if they are not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, love him or loathe him Christopher Nolan has shown that if you treat the property with respect and credit the audience with some intelligence then science fiction films can be well written, complex, nuanced and challenging while still being filled with eye-candy and turning a big profit.

Q: A common cliché in movies of this genre is that as soon as the supreme bad guy is killed off, his minions always scatter. A wounded – or even dead – good guy, however, has loyal followers who will continue to fight. Is it that evil minions aren’t all that vested in the cause/outcome or that they just can’t function without a leader?

A: I’m not sure that it’s a common cliché of Sci-Fi movies or just a common cliché of movies in general, you could equally be talking about a James Bond film or Lord of the Rings. The practicality of writing is that minions don’t get any more screen time than they need and films are generally about the good guy vs. the bad guy so they stop once that story has been told. There are probably exceptions to the rule but….

Q: How much do you have to know about science, math and physics to write a plausible Sci-Fi plot?

A: In reality, nothing, but if you want your film to stand up to scrutiny then it at least has to be plausible and that’s where research comes in. Start online and Google the relevant science that relates to your story, then find a scientist and ask them if they’ll answer questions for you. Use Twitter or Facebook to track them down – they’re out there, they’re usually nice as pie and love to chat about their work. The trick for the writer is to figure out how much of the science the audience needs to know or understand for the story to work. If the answer is ‘absolutely nothing’ then great, don’t get bogged down in it, but if the story depends on the science to work – which is true for a lot of things that centre around contagion, genetics, environmental change, space flight and so on, things close to home – then you owe it to your audience to make sure you understand the basic mechanics and get it right. The mantra though is “only as much as is necessary”, you don’t want to be boring, but it’s worth pointing out that quite often you’ll find that the research conveniently helps with plotting, turning up things you might not otherwise have thought about.

Q: Aren’t Sci-Fi movies awfully expensive to make these days? What if someone is passionate about making an indie Sci-Fi film but has a really small budget?

A: Go ahead and make it! The world has changed and it’s never been easier or cheaper to get the technology at your fingertips to make any film, not just a science fiction film. But the best Sci-Fi is not always the big budget extravaganza. Primer famously cost just $7000 to make but other notable low-budget Sci-Fi films include Mad Max, Cypher, Pi and more recently, Moon, Attack the Block and Monsters. If you have a great story and a great script, then good costumes, interesting locations and great acting will take you a long way before you have to think about special effects, and these days there are a plethora of crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing sites to showcase your project and get help or raise extra funds. Be brave, be bold and go for it.

Q: In a Sci-Fi tableau, which villain would you personally rather do battle with – a mortal without any conscience or a computer that is sentient?

A: I think that a mortal villain would be easier and more predictable. We are creatures of habit and if your villain has no conscience they can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. This makes them emotional, vulnerable to manipulation and thus defeat. Additionally physical strength and mental agility would play a part and I would take my chances on both counts. An AI on the other hand would not be susceptible to tricks or manipulation and physical strength doesn’t apply. An AI would only ever examine the data and take the most advantageous course of action regardless, making it almost impossible to beat in terms of mental agility. All in all I think I’d rather take on the mortal.

Q: How do you find ideas for out-of-this-world Sci-Fi plots? Hasn’t everything already been done?

A: We will never be all done with telling stories! Whatever idea you can think of can always be told in more than one way with more than one outcome. As most writers will tell you, ideas are all around us; you just have to start looking for them and you’ll be amazed at how often you’re turning them away rather than struggling to find them. I use news channels online or RSS feeds to track the types of stories that I’m interested in and then file them away with a clipping tool to re-use later. I also read a lot, watch documentaries and find new people to chat with – all of these are fuel for story ideas. Once I have my basic ideas I use several of the techniques that I outline in the book to flesh those out into outlines and eventually complete stories. I’m never short of ideas!

Q: In your view, would it be harder for a Sci-Fi time-traveler to go back in time or to go forward?

A: I think forward. Projecting yourself back in time means you are placing yourself into a physical space that did exist so you know the size, shape, conditions etc. and your biggest issue would be not displacing any of that and changing anything. Going forward in time means trying to predict the shape, size, condition and location of the physical space and hoping you get it right. Like trying to fire a bullet at a moving target while blindfolded and with no idea what direction the target is, how far away it is or how big.

Q: What’s the best Sci-Fi film you’ve ever seen?

A: Couldn’t possibly say, I like so many. There are perennial favourites, films I’ll watch whenever they’re on but even then it depends on my mood and whether or not I want action, adventure and derring-do or quiet, introspective contemplation. I’m probably far more likely to reach for something new to watch though than go back to something I’ve seen.

Q: And the absolute worst?

A: There are many, many candidates, and I’m not that cruel…

Q: What films do you recommend aspiring Sci-Fi filmmakers watch in order to understand the craft?

A: I would start by watching the AFI’s top 50 science-fiction films, first to see what you’re up against and to learn the themes and tropes that crop up time and again. But I’d also watch the top films of the type you want to write be it thriller, action, drama, comedy, romance etc. because as I said before, if you start by writing a terrific thriller and then work on the SF aspects, you’ll get a better thriller than if you build a Sci-Fi world and then try to shoehorn a thriller into it.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have two feature scripts I’m working on currently and I’m just about to start on a very exciting web series with a Director/Producer team here in the UK.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you?

A: I’m a big fan of cake.

Alfred Hitchcock’s MovieMaking Master Class

Hitchcock

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock may have left the building over 30 years ago but author Tony Lee Moral puts the legendary director/producer’s expertise at every reader’s fingertips in his new book, Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class. Moral’s admiration for his subject matter is no secret; this is, after all, the third book he has penned about the iconic Master of Suspense.

The amount of detailed research he has done is well evidenced and covers a career that spanned an enviable six decades. (Even though the book doesn’t come with a soundtrack, I’ve been unable to shake the TV show’s theme music out of my head ever since I finished reading it; during the late 50’s, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was one of the few shows I was allowed to stay up late and watch.)

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When did the writing bug first bite you?

A: From a very early age, I’ve been writing ever since I started reading. I loved adventure stories as a child, particularly the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, such as The Three Investigators, and the Willard Price books. As a teenager, I wrote many short stories, and by the age of 16, had written my first novel (unpublished). Since then, I’ve written three non-fiction books and four novels. 

Q: How about the desire to become a producer/director?

A: Along with my interest in writing, I’ve always been interested in film, and first discovered Alfred Hitchcock at the age of 10 when I saw I Confess. I loved the moral dilemma faced by Montgomery Clift in the lead role and even at that age could recognize Hitchcock’s craftsmanship in storytelling. At college, I really immersed myself in Hitchcock’s Films. My first job after college was working for the BBC where I spent many years working myself up to being a Producer/Director. I’ve now been working in television for half my life and all my professional life.

Q: In addition to Hitchcock (obviously), who were some of the filmmakers that you would say had the most influence on the development of your own vision and style?

A: I would say Ingmar Bergman, Anthony Minghella, Yasujuri Ozu and Quentin Tarantino have been inspirational to me after Hitchcock. Some of my favourite films are Persona, The English Patient, Tokyo Story and Pulp Fiction.

Q: Inquiring minds want to know: What inspired you to write not just one but three books about Alfred Hitchcock?

A: Hitchcock’s films span the history of cinema, so for me, Hitchcock is cinema. After I wrote my first book on the making of Marnie, it seemed natural to follow it up with a book on the making of The Birds for the 50th anniversary this year. The Masterclass book came as an idea from MWP to encompass all of Hitchcock’s films and it’s very timely because the last year really has been the year of Hitchcock with all the biopics and Vertigo being voted number 1.

Q: What do you feel distinguishes Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class from other books on the market that have been written about him?

A: It’s like a manual or text book on how to make a movie in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, using his principles of suspense, mystery, counterpoint, contrast and putting the audience through it. It’s not a biography – though you learn a lot about Hitchcock the director along the way – and it’s not an academic book – but I think it’s insightful because it’s told through the voice of Hitchcock and his many collaborators, with some great anecdotes.

Q: What was your favorite chapter to write?

A: Interviewing the actors who worked with Hitchcock for Chapter 4, as I was able to interview screen legendaries such as Kim Novak, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint and Norman Lloyd. All wonderful and gracious human beings.

Q: Conversely, what was the most challenging section for you to pen?

A: I would say the first two chapters because it’s essential to hook and engage the reader so they want to keep on reading. I spent more time and effort on the opening chapters and rewrote them continually.

Q: Who were your favorite people to interview in the course of doing research?

A: I went to interview Norman Lloyd twice at his home in LA. He’s 98 years old, but very sharp and quick witted with an amazing memory. He truly is a classic and classy gentleman and as well as being an actor in Saboteur and Spellbound, he was a producer on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series for 10 years.

Q: Hollywood has a propensity for cranking out prequels, sequels and remakes of successful films, and Hitchcock’s impressive body of work is no exception, In your opinion, what were the best and worst remakes of his most popular films? Which one has yet to be remade and who would comprise the dream cast to make it a success?

A: The worst remake was Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, because it’s foolhardy to replicate a classic even in the form of a homage, and the original cast is irreplaceable. I don’t think there is a best remake, but I’ll say Rear Window because of Christopher Reeves’ bravery to continue in film after his accident. I’d remake Strangers on a Train with Zachary Quinto and Henry Cavill in the lead roles.

Q: You’ve indicated that your appreciation of Hitchcock’s talent deepens every time you watch one of his films. What’s the latest thing you’ve discovered?

A: I recently interviewed the Assistant Director on Torn Curtain, one of Hitchcock’s lesser movies, who said that Hitchcock took great care to get realism in the reflection in the ship’s dining room window. I’ve never noticed that before which shows that even when working under less than full steam, Hitchcock paid attention to the smallest details.

Q: What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?

A: I would say the definitive Hitchcock movie is North by Northwest because it has everything that you expect from his films, wit, polish, humour, panache, the wrongfully accused man, and Cary Grant’s star charisma and athleticism. My personal favourites are Vertigo and Marnie because of the psychology of the characters and what those films meant to Hitchcock.

Q: What’s your take on the way he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins?

A: I enjoyed Hitchcock the movie, I thought it was a humorous and affectionate portrayal and I didn’t feel that the movie was mean spirited. Obviously there were dramatic licenses taken by the film, and Hitchcock is an enormously complicated character to define, but Hopkins brought sympathy and comedy to the role.

Q: If you could sit down for lunch with the late Master of Suspense, what question would you most like to ask him that could not have be answered by anyone who ever knew him?

A: I’m curious to why he was never able to repeat the success after Psycho. It seems that with that film’s monstrous success with the public and also financially, Hitchcock reached his creative peak and I’d like to know why he wasn’t able to top that.

Q: What’s your best advice to the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers?

A: Know what the studios are looking for, watch a lot of films, develop your own voice, listen to people, work on distinctive dialogue. Nurture relationships as well as your talent. The best stories are out there and it’s all about finding them.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My fourth (and probably final) Hitchcock book on his reputation and how he is perceived over 30 years since his death. This is going to be very interesting and revealing and I’ve already gathered many interviews from people who haven’t spoken out before.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: My steps to a Hitchcock education are watch The 39 Steps, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

 ***

Tony Lee Moral is a writer and award winning documentary film maker who has written three books on Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. He has produced and directed over a 100 hours of television for major broadcasters in the US and the UK, including behind the scenes documentaries on films and television.

Onward & Upward: Reflections of a Joyful Life

Onward and Upward

Okay, by a show of hands, who thinks they have the craziest answer to the question, “Where did you spend your 21st birthday and why?”

A guy toward the back who looks like a tall, introspective Dustin Hoffman responds to the challenge.

“And your name, sir?”

“Michael. Michael Wiese. I just wrote a book called Onward & Upward that I’d like to talk about.”

“Do you have any special credentials for being here?”

“I make meaningful films, I publish the works of talented writers, and I live on the Cornwall Coast.”

“Anything else?”

(beat) “Well, I know The Great Ken Lee. I mention that on page 164.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I don’t make this stuff up.”

“Now about that 21st birthday story…”

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: At age 12, you had every expectation of the secret of life being revealed to you on Confirmation Day. If as the adult Michael you could travel back in time and whisper in the ear of your younger self, what would you say?

A: There is no death.  The Earth is your paradise.  Look within.

Q: One of your childhood aspirations was to grow up and be an ice cream man. Would you have sold cones straight off a truck and had little kids cheer your arrival on their street or had your own soda parlor and invited ice cream lovers of all ages to sit and linger? (and what do you think your choice reveals about your personality?)

A: Selling ice cream from a bicycle.  I like the element of surprise – showing up unexpectedly with a treat.

Q: You spent your 21st birthday in an unexpected venue and for a reason that could cause many people to raise an eyebrow. What was it, did you ever do it again, and what did the experience teach you?

A: I was in court standing before a judge with my film crew after being arrested shooting a nude scene of a dancing couple in a field.  Did I ever do it again?  Yes.  What did I learn?  To be more careful and never shoot in fields that Girl Scout troops walk through again. (laughs)

Q: Music is a recurring theme throughout the chapters of Onward and Upward. If you were involved in the music scene today, what would you be performing/producing?

A:  Indian tabla, of course.

Q: What was your inspiration to become a publisher and launch Michael Wiese Productions?

A:  Necessity!  Twelve publishers rejected my first book, I had to do it myself.  It sold 50,000 copies and I started publishing other writers as well as my own books.

Q: With so many screenwriting and filmmaking books out there on today’s market, what do you feel keeps MWP sustainable? In other words, do you ever worry about running out of topics to cover?

A:  We provide information that has – until now – been closely held film industry secrets.  We kicked open the doors with our books.  Like Mother Nature, we will never run out of ways to express ourselves creatively.  There are many facets on a diamond.

Q: You recently launched a new imprint, Divine Arts. Tell us about it and the correlation to your own spiritual journey.

A:  We are in service to provide a conduit for sacred knowledge, both ancient and emerging.  Divine Arts books demonstrate how one can bring mindfulness to daily life and reconnect with the sacred nature within.

Q: Having spent so much time behind a camera, which is the greater challenge for you – to direct the energies and skill sets of other people to deliver your vision for a documentary or to exercise the solo discipline of putting your thoughts on paper every day and writing a book as deeply introspective – and humorous – as Onward and Upward?

A:  Having Parkinson’s has made me refocus and reduce my energies toward a one-man band kind of filmmaking.  I no longer have the stamina for crews and 14 hour days.  I may hire assistants to carry the gear or an editor to help put the film together, but my challenge nowadays is to make small, personal, sacred journey films on a micro-budget.  Books or films all require a disciplined and committed approach.

Q: Documentaries that seek to introduce the world to little-known cultures often do so at the price of foisting “civilization” on tribes that were perfectly happy being ignorant of modern trappings and technology. What is your advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers insofar as doing no harm in their quest to bring home a compelling story?

A:  Walk softly.  Don’t leave a footprint.  Be very respectful.  Bring as little equipment as possible.  Leave the ‘video circus’ at home.

Q: How does the Balinese connection to the divine that you observed and experienced in your 20s help you to stay focused and positive in dealing with your recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s?

A:  I focus on the daily miracles of what I can do:  Seeing and smelling the flowers in my garden.  Hearing the ocean and birds singing. Feeling the breeze and warmth of the sun.  Like the Balinese with their constant offerings, I give gratitude daily.

Q: For you, what are the distinctions between being religious and being spiritual?

A:  Religions ask you to believe.  Believing what someone tells you to believe is not very useful.  Having an experience of the divine makes the spiritual real for you.

Q: The chapters of Onward and Upward are replete with anecdotes of famous people with whom you have crossed paths and drawn inspiration. Is there anyone you wish you could have met and if so, what question would you most like to have asked him or her?

A:  I’d like to ask Robert Johnson if he really sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads?  Of Einstein I’d ask how many dimensions are there and who lives there?  And I’d ask Carl Jung why he didn’t publish The Red Book when he was alive?

Q: When you learned that you were going to be a father at age 45, what was your first thought?

A:  Forty-five is the new thirty-five!

Q: Had you met your beloved soul-mate Geraldine 20 years earlier, what would your approach to parenting have been?

A: No difference.  Babies didn’t come with an Operating Manual then either.

Q: Parents often tell their children, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Has Julia shown signs of emulating the wild and crazy days of your own youth? If so, what’s your response going to be?

A:  You bet she has!  It’s natural and healthy to experiment and test the world.

Q: What’s the most recent movie you saw and what did you most love/hate about it?

A: “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”.  A wonderful Mongolian film about a nomadic family.

Q: What inspires you the most about living on the Cornwall coast?

A:  It’s elemental magnificence.  It’s like Big Sur on steroids.

Q: What would most people be surprised to learn about you?

A: Just about everything I write about in Onward and Upward.  I’ve been many people and had many lives.  Most people who know me see only one face.  The book reveals all!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  An esoteric quest in Sicily. An interactive e-book.  The first screening in London of my latest film, “Living with Spirits: 10 Days in the Jungle with Ayahuasca”.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I thank you for your challenging and insightful questions.  Sorry to ramble on so. 😉

Onward and Upward is available now through www.mwp.com or Amazon.

 

Animation Unleashed

animation-unleashed-ellen-besen_medium

To this day, I still recall the longest line I ever stood in for a movie. It was a cold evening in Seattle in 1961 and the line snaked completely around the block for the opening of 101 Dalmatians. What especially stood out to me that night were the weary looks on the faces of the parents – my own included – who probably wished they were doing anything but spending money on a full-length cartoon.

Who could have predicted that by the 21st century the combined sophistication and entertainment value of animated movies, TV shows and video games would win legions of adult fans not only seeking to recapture memories of childhood but to escape the workaday world’s stress through a fantasy portal requiring little concentration. Bringing this form of artistic expression to “life”, however, is much harder than it looks, says author Ellen Besen, author Animation Unleashed

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Let’s start with a little background about your professional journey.

A: When I was young, I was dedicated to a career in theatre. That all changed as I started college at Sheridan Institute (just outside Toronto) and signed up for their Classical Animation Program. While the program was in its infancy when I enrolled, it’s now recognized as a world leader in digital media programs and its School of Animation, Arts and Design is the largest postsecondary arts school in Canada. I taught there on and off for 16 years and prior to that was a director/filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Today, I teach at various international film festivals, write books on animation and continue to produce and develop animated short films. In 2008, Animation Unleashed was published by Michael Wiese Productions and today I’m working on another MWP book, this time on storytelling/filmmaking techniques for animated and hybrid films.

My film credit highlights include Sea Dream (Director/Filmmaker- NFB; festival award winner; featured regularly in MOMA’s family film programs); Slow Dance World (Director/Filmmaker together with partner L. Baumholtz – Independent; multiple award winner); Illuminated Lives (Director/Filmmaker- NFB); and Stroke (Director/Filmmaker- commissioned; currently working its way around the festival circuit).

Q: What attracted you to the medium of animation and how did you first break in?

A: I always liked animation – particularly Warner Bros cartoons and NFB films – so when I stumbled upon Sheridan’s animation program, I thought it might be interesting and put it on my application as a second choice. I quickly discovered, though, that it was a good fit. I came into the program with a background in art, music, dance and a lot of background in theatre. None of it quite added up to anything that motivated me. But animation became like a prism that took all these divergent skills and focused them into one creative force. Once you actually see the movement you created from nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll be hooked, and I was!

Breaking in was relatively easy in the 1970’s both in television and with government contracts. By the time I was 23, I landed a freelance contract with NFB and began work on Sea Dream. In school, we were taught the mechanics of animating and some very basic use of rhythm and that was about all. Over the years, I’ve had my own revelations about this art, especially in the precise use of literal analogy and around the capacity of animation to work outward from a core analogy to focus every visual and aural aspect towards extremely multilayered yet highly accurate communication. I’m very fortunate to be able to apply these lessons learned not only in my own creative projects but with my students and at festivals and conferences.

Q: Tell us about Animation Unleashed.

A: Animation Unleashed touches on the mechanics of the craft and but really focuses on how animation should communicate through every stage of production from core idea to end credits. I’ve been teaching the principles of animation filmmaking for many years and found over time that only a handful of factors generally tended to predict both the ease of production and the degree of audience impact. Key factors which promote success include the incorporation of animation’s inherent properties into the deepest fabric of content and the use of vivid and very accurate analogy as a foundation for communication.

I wrote the book to help make these factors better understood. It’s primarily a book of applied theory intended as a problem-solver for every stage of production. At the same time, it’s also of interest to animation lovers who would like to deepen their understanding of the medium.

Q: How do you view animation’s relationship to other graphic forms of storytelling such as editorial cartoons, comic strips and graphic novels?

A: All these forms are graphic which means they share certain key properties. They’re all highly visual which places responsibility on creators to make the visual elements vital. They also all have  potential for an aural element (though only animation’s is literal) and they naturally inhabit created, rather than recorded, worlds with all the creative responsibilities that characteristic implies. Animation, however, is real-time based which adds the complications of movement and literal rhythm/ pacing while completely altering the nature of “performance”. It means that the delivery of material is controlled more fully by the creator than by the audience in terms of performance detail, sounds, where the eye lingers and for how long.

At its core, the distinction is between storyboard versus the comic book/strip panel format. Because these two elements resemble each other, it’s easy to assume they’re the same thing, therefore pointing to a key bridge between these art forms. Leaping over this particular gap is trickier than it seems for students. For the animator, the storyboard is only a blueprint for a film in which the images laid out on a page will actually replace one another on the screen, linked by movement, rhythm, etc. Thus, when animators create or read a storyboard, they have to keep this in mind to translate the information in the board into film terms in order to understand it properly and to think in terms of action from the very beginning of project conception.

On the other hand, for the comic artist, that page of panels is the end product. The relationship of one panel to the other and of each panel to the whole can be created by and refer to a number of complex factors, but all the info required is already there on the page for a reader to take in.

Q: Which would you say is more challenging – to adapt a cartoon or comic strip (i.e., Dick Tracy, Spider-Man, Dennis the Menace) to a live-action feature or to take a popular film franchise such as Star Wars and turn it into an animated weekly series?

A: In general, I’d say that the first one is trickier. This is because animation can successfully mimic the most essential elements of live action more easily than the other way around. Individual cases depend, however, on the nature of the source material. Dennis the Menace translates easily from strip to live-action film because the source material exists in an essentially realistic world. The surreal Popeye with its exaggerated design and other worldly storylines is more problematic. If you try to bring it closer to reality, the essence of the source material disappears. Try to emulate the surreal aspects in live-action and the results are grotesque, and not in a good way.

The live-action to animated series transition faces its own special challenges. Animation can’t easily handle the nuanced performance of live actors. That being said, since the films franchised this way are more typically big action-based, such as Star Wars, this is usually not an insurmountable issue. Animation can readily recreate the unreal aspects of such films (in simplified form) and adequately mimic the real elements.

Q: For study purposes, provide us with some examples of animation projects adapted from a different medium that have done particularly well. Conversely, what are some that have failed?

A: Many of Disney’s earlier features were adaptations from traditional fairy tales or books. Each of those stories had a specific use of fantasy and a strong central theme which translated well into visual, action-based symbolism. The translation process managed to keep the thematic foundations intact or to convert them to ones that fit as well in their own way.

More recent Disney adaptations haven’t been as successful. The Princess and the Frog demonstrates how a failure to grasp – by analysis or intuition – the deeper emotional themes of a story combined with the absolute freedom of the medium lead to a wildly overdeveloped, overly complicated and ultimately less satisfying end product. Highly filigreed plotting which keeps adding elements deep into the second and even third acts is one of the surest signs a film lacks a firm foundation.

An interesting comparison can be found in Disney’s two versions of 101 Dalmatians: the early 1960’s animated classic and the mid 1990’s hybrid. Because key changes were made in the structure of the world inhabited by the story, the hybrid doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the classic. One change in particular completely changed the real trajectory of the hybrid adaptation and that involved how the dogs and animals in general were treated. In the animated version, animals can talk to each other (even cross species) and to the audience. This allows the dogs to bring us into their world, allows them to function as the story’s true leads and places the POV of the story entirely in their paws. This opens the door to fantasy, originality, full development of the animals as characters and audience empathy with their plight in the face of human fallibility.

In the hybrid, the animals can’t talk which reduces them to little more than props. Unable with this combination of elements to develop the second act into a narrative following the animals’ clandestine rescue mission, the creators press supporting characters into action – two bumbling henchmen who spend most of the movie being dropped off cliffs into piles of manure.

Q: What story would you most like to see developed for animation?

Animated features haven’t fully made the leap into personal, adult content that comic books and graphic novels achieved in the last 30 years. We’re getting closer but in many ways are still waiting for the powerful individual voices to emerge. In that vein, it might be interesting to see Maus translated to the screen, in part because it takes elements strongly associated with cartoon animation in their traditional roles (sympathetic, underdog mice and evil cats) and uses them for a much darker, infinitely more personal approach to storytelling.

Q: Let’s talk about animation’s transition from a minor art form to a major player including its changing relationship with reality.

A: The animation breakthrough to prime-time TV in the late 1980’s, combined with the advent of specialty TV channels, were critical factors. It took a new generation not only of animators but of producers and administrators to allow a show like The Simpsons the chance to prove the old maxim wrong. In the wake of its success, many other prime-time animated series followed. Two other factors are the production of more sophisticated family features such as Toy Story that the whole family can enjoy and blending animation seamlessly with live-action footage.

Q: What are some of the factors that go into the decision of making animated characters look like actual humans versus caricatures?

A: So far, 3D is creating excitement and mood enhancement but nothing really intrinsic. In 2D film, the general POV is shared with the whole audience – distorted perhaps by where in the theatre you’re sitting but essentially a shared experience. In 3D, the vantage point is individual and each member of the audience experiences it this way. This is a significant difference with all kinds of story potential, barely tapped to date. If this potential is harnessed, 3D could settle in as a serious tech advance, at least until a new technology emerges.

Hybrids are nothing new – they go back to King Kong and the groundbreaking work of Harryhausen. But the flexibility of the new tech for mixing the two elements and the seamlessness of the end result is opening up the field for hybrids. The main issue I have with many hybrid films is that the creators don’t understand how to set up alternative worlds that support story. A film such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button showcased lovely effects creating some magical screen moments but completely missed the boat on the story implications of its main effect. On the other hand, Amelie – whose director came from a background in animation – handled the hybrid approach with grace and accuracy.

If you’re going to take viewers to a new universe, every detail has to be considered and nuanced for its thematic implications. When nothing is a given, then everything is up for grabs. Every detail has to be chosen with care since every detail has potential intended or unintended symbolic meaning. It’s best to make these meanings intentional. It’s an extra load of responsibility that falls on the creators that can’t be avoided once the break from reality has been made.

Q: Given the amount of technology available today to entertain children (and a lot of adults!), how has the proliferation of cartoons, anime and video games impacted their ability to identify and interpret embedded themes in stories? 

A: While audiences are inherently more sophisticated in their level of media literacy, I don’t think the vast proliferation of media and tech has bolstered their ability to “read” the hidden elements in stories more clearly than in the past. All audiences get the underlying messages if they’re effectively communicated, but that gut reaction only happens if the media pieces strike a real chord with the audience. The awareness of that process is not only not growing – it may, in fact, be going backwards. Much of the material being thrown at audiences encourages only the narrowest, most stereotypical thinking. Getting pros to move beyond their clichéd thinking when it comes to their own work is one of the most challenging tasks for a mentor, so it’s not surprising that much of the work created by amateurs succumbs to the same tired thoughts they’re being sold over and over again.

Q: How can screenwriters that want to use animation as a vehicle for their plots make it a more active – versus passive – experience for their target market?

A: When the animated elements serve only as window-dressing, the entire project is weakened. Take, for example, the talking animal sidekick in an otherwise realistic story or the endless talking headshots accompanied by wall-to-wall dialogue. The first weakens the narrative fabric by undermining the foundation logic of the story and short-changing creative possibilities, usually leading to more generic, predictable storytelling; the second is merely animated radio. In both cases, the creators have failed to harness animation’s inherent power. Dialogue and animation which each play distinctive yet related roles require audiences to listen and watch with full attention in order to understand what’s going on…and I think most would agree that a fully engaged audience is what we all want! In other words, rediscover and develop action-based storytelling beyond more car chases.

Q: It was Hitchcock who’s credited with saying that the elements of a compelling film could still be followed if the sound were turned off. Does this same suggestion apply to animated works that seem to rely heavily on explanatory dialogue and music?

A: Even more for animation than for live action because of its graphic nature. Check out One Froggy Evening for virtually wordless communication of a complex story- brilliant!

Q: What genres and themes do you think lend themselves best to an animated world and why?

A: There really is no genre or theme which couldn’t be handled by animation. The key lies more in how the material is handled: (1) in the awareness that a new world that properly contains and supports the content has be successfully conceived, built and maintained; and (2) in the acute awareness that this is animation and not drawn reality. This remains true even when the story is apparently reality-based.

Q: What do you see as the future of animation?

A: In about 15 years, animation will have totally escaped its old reputation as a minor, limited form suitable mostly for children. It will have grown up with the young adult audience which discovered it (quietly) in the late 1960’s and this changed attitude will have trickled down through the following generations. Consequently, we’ll have educated audiences of all ages who are open to the full potential of this medium. Interestingly, digital technology which is a significant factor in the rise of hybrid filmmaking allows all film to be manipulated at the frame level. In other words, in a digital world, all film becomes animation, at least to some degree

We can hope that the outcome of all the above will be an explosion of creativity including many more well crafted small animated features. But it will also, most certainly, be harnessed for its economical advantages as well.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about the craft of animation? 

A: I think it’s now imperative that every film and video student (and professional preferably) should study animation as part of their training. Too many live action folks (filmmakers and stars) still look at animation as they do children’s books. Because of its graphic nature, it looks much easier to master than it really is. They would do themselves and the media-consuming public a favor by gaining some understanding of how animation really works!