Film Marathons

Okay. I’m probably not the only one watching a lot more TV these days.

When all my mental energy is consumed by stress, I enjoy not having to decide what to watch next. So watching TV shows with 10+ seasons is helpful. But with movies, it’s trickier.

I like having movie nights. But I hate the exhausting decision of browsing 5 different streaming services and deciding between dozens of good options. So I’ve been rewatching some film franchises. Lord of the Rings. All the Marvel canon. The Dark Knight movies. Every Star Wars movie in one day.

I’ve seen a lot of posts of similar marathons over the past six months. But there’s one collection of films I have yet to see people binge-watch. There are over a dozen film and television adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. And I happen to have almost all of them on DVD.

In undergrad I developed the curriculum for an entire class on Robin Hood in Cinema during a Pedagogy course. Partly because I love galivanting through forests and I look fantastic in green tights. But also because the legend is surprisingly adaptable, and the manner in which it is retold says a lot about the storytellers.

Over the next month, I’m going to revisit each and every one of these retellings to dive into what Robin Hood can say about cinematic storytelling from 1920-2020. Tally ho!

Day 5: Stop-Motion

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day 5: Stop-Motion

Stop-motion filmmaking: an activity for sitting confined in a small space while closely tracking the incremental changes in a subject over a very long period of time.

This is what you’ve been training for.

And speaking of trains. I’ve recently acquire two tiny lego trains that I thought would be perfect for a stop-motion exercise. For instruction I referenced the LEGO Make Your Own Movie Book. It is not comprehensive, but it came with a LEGO skateboard, so that’s cool.

IMG_8093
A whopping 58 pages of rudimentary instructions

I also downloaded the app Onion Cam2, which allows you to do stop-motion right on your smartphone (for free!) It’s super fun, but I also learned that the lack of storage space on my phone means I’m limited to making very short movies. The constraints of no-budget film.

IMG_8091

I set up a tear-out backdrop from the book, lit with a desk lamp, and clipped my iPhone to a tripod. The app allows you to onion-skin, showing a transparency of the previous frame so you can judge how far to move each subject between frames. It’ll also export anywhere between 12 and 24 frames per second, depending on how much patience (or phone memory) you have.

The trains are great because, well, they don’t have limbs. So there’s very little you have to move between takes. All that to say is, this is not my most exhaustively detailed film.

But I still stand by it.

 

 

14 Skills for 14 Days

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills.

It has come to my attention that many people are suddenly looking for creative options for socially-distanced activities.

Not to brag, but between the ages of 10-15, I was pretty incredible at social distancing.

I had very few friends. I was homeschooled. I participated in solo sports like tumbling, trampolining, and rock climbing. My hobbies included hiking, learning circus skills from books, and reading science-fiction.

DIY skills
A plethora of self-teaching books

And honestly, I got a LOT done. The skills I developed in that window have gotten me a foot in the door for a lot of professional artist gigs. And I’ve never gotten back to that level of self-taught productivity. Sure, I’ve had windows of social downtime that have led to picking up weird skill sets (learning jumpstyle dance in 2012, becoming a freelance audiobook narrator in 2016) but the years of my childhood where I got out of the house the least were the years that I picked up the most special skills.

Now, I’m not going to talk about *WHY* someone might be looking to spend a lot of time practicing new skills at home. That’s not my field of expertise. I’m not trained as a sociologist or epidemiologist. I cannot speak to the state of the world or best practices for personal health.

I’m trained as a writer and entertainer. And if people are looking for ways to stay occupied for 14 (or more) days at home, well BY GOLLY I’m going to give it to them.

For the next 14 days, I’m committing to staying in my house and practicing socially distanced creative skills. During this time, I’d like to share one skill a day that I have successfully taught myself. Some of them I’m good at. Some of them I’m bad at. But most importantly, all of them are fun challenges that YOU TOO CAN TRY FROM THE SAFETY OF YOUR OWN HOME.

The subjects I’ll be covering include:

  1. Monday, March 16th – Baking Bread
  2. Tuesday, March 17th – Juggling
  3. Wednesday, March 18th – Cartooning
  4. Thursday, March 19th – Unicycling
  5. Friday, March 20th – Stop-Motion Video
  6. Saturday, March 21st – Break dancing
  7. Sunday, March 22nd – Self-tape Monologues & Solo theater
  8. Monday, March 23rd – Building a catapult
  9. Tuesday, March 24th – Puppetry
  10. Wednesday, March 25th – Yo-yoing
  11. Thursday, March 26th – Headstands & handstands
  12. Friday, March 27th – Moonwalking
  13. Saturday, March 28th – Audiobook Narration
  14. Sunday, March 29th – Tabletop Theater

If anyone has a range of skills they’d like to spend two weeks sharing from home, I challenge them to create their own iteration of this. Let the games begin!

 

Dinosaur Screen Test

Recently, I’ve been working as a Gallery Attendant at The Andy Warhol Museum.

It’s a lot like working as a Parking Attendant. If the cars were worth millions of dollars. And never moved.

I spend a lot of time staring at Warhol’s art. Enough time staring at art while thinking about my own art, and the influence seeps through. Sometimes pretty directly.

Warhol made hundreds of screen tests. Short film reels of people sitting in front of a camera trying to act naturally. He’d slow the film down, play it back, and call it art. You can do it yourself in the museum, and watch the results online.

I’ve also been spending time doing object puppetry. How much movement does it take to make something seem alive? How many life-like features does an object need before someone can empathize with it?

The connection is simple. Screen tests for inanimate objects. Test how they live and breath on film, see how much a viewer will project onto a simple, silent, black and white clip of the object.

My first attempt, my plastic dinosaur/succulent planter, Susan the Terrible.

A Year of Kicking my Brain in the Face

This is it.  It has been one year since I embarked on my Finding the Framework challenge.  I would say that I had no idea what I was signing up for on Oct 1st, 2015.  But let’s be real.  I knew this would be a comprehensive and exhausting creative challenge.  I’ve pushed myself as hard this year as any year during my undergraduate career, pursuing projects that were well beyond my comfort zone.

While I feel that I could have gone further with many of these projects, I’ve come to terms with the fact that a year is still a finite length of time.  I’ve explored a wide range of avenues of artistic projects, and have ended up with a much clearer picture of where my strengths and interests lie than I had a year ago.

I’ll spend some time in the next few months synthesizing my experiences pursuing different artistic fields, but here at the 1 year mark, I’d like to briefly overview each category, and rate how successful I think each challenge was:

1. Write a novel – 8/10

novel

Last November, I completed a 50,000 word manuscript as part of National Novel Writing Month.  I’ve written similar projects before, and thoroughly enjoy the intensive one month writing project.  However, I know the draft has a number of plot holes and stylistic flaws.  I didn’t invest time in rewrites, and while I know I’ll be writing more prose fiction manuscripts, I don’t anticipate them reaching a professional level any time soon.

2. Write a full-length play – 10/10

playwriting

This is my jam.  Writing roadmaps for living, thinking people to play with and put into action in real time and space is a place where so many of my creative drives overlap.  I wrote a play Baikonur to complete thins challenge, which I’ve submitted to some workshops and am also revising on my own.  Buuut, just for good measure I also wrote the 50 minute show Outside the Lines, and the short plays Road Rage, Unknowingly Agnostic, Waiting for Kyle, Give Me the Chicken and a collection of monologues for both Caution: Not a Step and Find Your Backyard.

3. Perform in a play – 10/10

Acting.jpg

I performed in a 2 week run of Deirdre of the Sorrows at the Dairy Arts Center, for 2 weeks of my solo show Outside the Lines in the Boulder International Fringe Festival, and in short runs of Find Your Backyard, Caution: Not a Step, and Five 5ths of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.  I realized during Outside the Lines, though- I’m really not looking for a career as an actor.  I am capable of acting, and sometimes I enjoy it.  But performing night after night onstage in major roles takes a huge amount of energy from me, and I know it’s not something I could sustain for a routine work schedule.  I will continue to end up on stage, but realizing that stage acting is not going to be my primary artistic pursuit has really helped to hone down my focus for future projects.

4. Perform in a dance showcase – 6/10

dance

If I had world enough and time… This year started off well.  Back when I sat at my desk job, swimming in tens of dollars of expendable income, I could pay for aerial dance classes in my free evenings, and jazz dance classes during my lunch breaks.  And then I began to get more serious about my artistic pursuits.  The expendable income went away as I began sinking money into producing shows.  And the free evenings went away as I began designing costumes and teching shows.  And then the lunch breaks went away as I transitioned to freelance work.  And so the dance went away, and I was left rehearsing my movement pieces alone in apartment with no appropriate dance flooring.

But gosh darn it, I performed my dance piece anyways.  There was music, I moved around in a relatively coordinated manner, and people clapped at the end.  That’s all that matters, right?  Caution: Not a Step was honestly much better received at the Ft. Collins Fringe than I thought it would be, and this was definitely an activity that stretched my boundaries as an artist.

5. Produce a show – 10/10 

Production.JPG

Prior to this challenge, I had only officially produced 2 theatrical events outside of college- one staged reading, and a one-night only dinner theater show.  Now, in the past 6 months alone, I have produced a 30 minute dance theater showcase (Caution: Not a Step), a 50 minute play (Outside the Lines), a 75 minute variety show (Find Your Backyard), and a 10 minute act for a fundraiser (Give Me the Chicken).  Now that I’ve realized that I possess all the tools to make original live entertainment happen, I have a feeling the fun is only just beginning.

6. Produce a music album – 7/10

Album.jpg

To stick to the original challenge, yes, I teamed up with composer Nigel Deane to create a soundtrack for Outside the Lines.  And by that, I mean I threw some ideas and words at Nigel, and he came back with fully formed auditory masterpieces.  But hey, team effort, right?

But, in the world of audio production, this year I realized another major field where my various interests overlap.  Audiobook production.  I took a class on audiobook narration starting the first week of this challenge, and it caught my attention.  One year later, I’m finishing up the editing on my 10th audiobook title.  I had never even thought that it was a plausible freelance gig to pursue, but all it took was a little creative push and some support, and now I have a whole new avenue of creative projects.

7. Create a webcomic – 4/10

Webcomic.jpg

I absolutely love comics.  I now also realize how much time, effort, and creative energy they take to routinely produce.  And patience, big time.  Technically, I did create a webcomic this year- Best Fiends.  However, I have only completed 5 strips, and haven’t developed any routines or patterns for consistent drawing and posting like I had hoped to.  But through my research and attempts, I have a much better understanding of the process of creating webcomics, and certainly have more practice than I did before this year.

8. Create a short film – 5/10

Short film.png

I had really hoped to spend a week out in the sand dunes shooting a short post-apocalyptic comedy with actor friends from around the country.  I had kind of hoped to spend a weekend in an empty office building filming a comedic short about internships.  I had vaguely been interested in drawing strange cartoon hedgehogs on old brown paper packaging and animating them to music.  But then I got sucked into all my other projects and put all my resources into show producing.  So I ended up with some eclectic promotional videos instead, like this one.  and this one.

I hope to put together at least one more project from footage and ideas I got from this year.  But for the time being, you can also have a link to the Five 5ths of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth footage as consolation.

9. Display an artwork at a gallery – 2/10

Gallery.JPG

Yeah… about the whole “gallery” thing.  I’m not going to pretend that I can casually teach myself to be a successful visual artist from a couple of books and youtube videos.  I had kind of planned to just display an artwork in a nearby community arts collective on one of their open studio nights.  And then I stopped by one of their events and realized that a lot of their events were centered around talking through their experiences with mind-altering substances and sharing paintings of flowers resembling genitalia.  Thanks, Boulder.

Ironically, I now actually work part-time in a building with several galleries, and talk through art with paintings and have actually made a couple of sales.  I’m refining plans for a collection of sarcastic art jokes masquerading as a gallery, but I couldn’t rush through it enough to fit it within the official year of the project.  Stay tuned though!

10. Learn to make macarons – 8/10

Macaron.JPG

I am so glad I added this challenge on to the end of the list.  Honestly, I think this was the category that I had the most growth in.  I started at a skill level of absolute zero as far as macarons were concerned, with my first batch ending up as sticky, almond-flavored glop.  Now I have the process down to a relative habit, and can whip up a batch with little effort, complete with a custom maple-brown syrup filling.

On top of these official challenges, I have also ended up fully submerged in all the arts world related activities that falls between the lines of the categories I laid out.  It’s a little ridiculous how much things have changed.  At the start of the challenge, I was an assistant at a small publishing company who did performing arts on the side.  Now, I’m a freelance artist working for a number of the region’s big arts groups for a living.  In the past year, I have been paid to work as a costumer, carpenter, welder, props manager, stage manager, actor, producer, playwright, director, stagehand, lighting technician, sound engineer, projection designer, makeup artist, house manager, and box office manager.  I’ve taken some substantial risks, failed spectacularly a number of times, and racked up a huge pile of rejections.  But letting go and leaping into the unknown has led me to a crazy new life as a fully fledged member of the artistic community.  I still have a long way to go, but I really can say: I found the framework.

Reflections on Mastershots

Mastershots

I first read this book in high school, and it was central to developing how I understood techniques in filmmaking.  I had read books about the styles of films, about screenwriting, and beats, and story arcs.  But here was something different.  Here was a book that directly connected the movement and focus of the camera to the movement and focus of the actor.  It created and explained the visual techniques for camera placement as a powerful element of storytelling.  As soon as I read it, I began incorporating these techniques into my film work, and created some of my best shots.  (I was going to include some of these as an example, but then I rewatched the footage I made at 17.  SO MUCH NOPE.  That’s going to stay buried forever.)

Rereading it now, I still found the approach to be both effective and accessible.  Many theater directors about how they’re not trying to make a play like film, not trying to convey everything in a detail oriented, realist fashion.  This book tries to help the aspiring filmmaker not make films like film.  It coaches tricks and shot set ups and dolly movement to create moments on camera that lead the viewer into the scene.  The camera is more than just a recording device.  It’s a part of the story, a contributing tool for character, storytelling, and emotional impact.

And if nothing else, it also gives you really good insight for seeing what’s happening when you’re watching a movie.  It gives the reader the ability to sit there watching a movie and go “ooh, they’re panning the camera down with the actor to mask the appearance of the antagonist and enhance the surprise.”

At which point all your friends will throw popcorn at you and tell you to shut up and stop ruining the movie.

Filmmaking on the Fringe

I have two shows opening in fringe festivals in the next 6 weeks!  Am I excited?  Yes!  Am I anxious beyond all belief?  You bet!

Last time I produced a show, I did all my marketing from a pretty conventional standpoint- posters, flyers, newspaper ads, Facebook ads…  It was a good learning experience, but it didn’t drum up much of an audience.  So I figured if I’m not guaranteed results from the advertising avenues that I’m not super experienced in (like marketing or graphic design), why not do promos for the show through the avenues I am experienced in (like goofing around in front of a camera or posting things on a blog).

I’m creating strange little multimedia snippets for my shows that I’ll be sharing here and on my social media platforms to give everyone a glimpse of what my shows are like and what will go on in rehearsal.  I have no idea if it will convince anyone to show up, but I’m guessing it’ll at least be more fun for all the people who can’t make it to the show.  (I know, I know- I can post a full video of the show online.  But we all know that’s not the same as being there)

My first digital media project for Outside the Lines just went Live on the Boulder Digital Fringe.  It’s a weird little prequel story featuring found footage from my backpacking trips in Kazakhstan and a snippet of the cool music that Nigel is putting together. Enjoy!

Reflections on “On Directing Film”

On Directing Film

My only exposure to the works of David Mamet before now has been designing the costumes for a production of Glengarry Glen Ross in 24 hours as a favor to some friends.  I have complete respect for his work, but I don’t think my perspective on directing aligns well with his at all.

In his book On Directing Film, Mamet gives some advice on storytelling, framing, selecting shots, and preparing material before shooting.  It is all valid advice, but I don’t feel like it gets at the heart of directing.  Everything is a little too cut-and-dried.

During one of the first plays I directed, my set designer built a set of stairs in the center of the stage, as requested.  It ascended to the back curtain and then stopped, leaving a 10 foot drop off on the other side.  When I saw the set, I turned to him and asked

“How are the actors going to get down from there?”

His response- “Oh, they need to get down?”

You can work an artistic craft from an idealistic perspective as long as you want, but in order to succeed you eventually have to come into contact with the real world.  Directing involves an incredible amount of understanding of people, of yourself, of all the details of a crazy and overwhelming project.  Film students, even at Columbia, are going to need to need to deal with a widespread range of issues if they’re ever going to make it as directors.  If you show up and tell your actors that they can’t make the story, that the dialogue and the props and everyone else’s jobs are secondary because only the framing and the juxtaposition of shots will tell the story, then you’d better film quickly.  You might not have anyone show up on Day 2.

I’m far from qualified to teach a course on directing, but I feel the book needs some supplemental advice for realists interested in directing.  Here are a few lessons from my experiences in film and directing so far:

  • Don’t drink only Red Bull if you’re filming outdoors on a golf course for 10 hours in Texas in the summer.  You will get dehydration and heat stroke and possibly die.
  • Make sure someone double checks that the sound is not muted and that there is a memory card in the camera before you start recording for the day.
  • Don’t move any expensive equipment that isn’t waterproof over bodies of water.
  • Work out any issues with your cast before you start filming.  It is much easier to replace actors before they’ve appeared in scenes.
  • If you ask your cast and crew to stay late at a shoot, make sure they feel appreciated.
  • Be sure that the people doing the shopping understand how important it is to stay on budget.
  • Learn everyone’s favorite dessert.  Food bribes work wonders.
  • You can’t do everything.  Find people on your team that you can rely on to take weight (physically or metaphorically) when you need help.

Imaginary Late Night Talk Shows

In a fluffy imaginary world where I have infinite free time, I would love to make a parody late night show.  Just a camera, a suit, and 5-20 minutes of material each episode, broadcast weekly on youtube.  Naturally, the main concern for finding a pragmatic and realistic way to make this happen is deciding on the name of the show.  Top ideas so far are:

  • A Dark and Stormy Late Night
  • A Hard Day’s Late Night
  • Late Night in the Morning
  • The Weekly Show
  • Insomnia with Daniel Burns
  • The Daily Now
  • Look Who’s Talking
  • The Better Late than Never Show

Preferences?  Suggestions?