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!

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.

Reflections on “Creative Confidence”

Creative Confidence

 

The blurb on the front of Tom and David Kelley’s book Creative Confidence states that it is “the only book about creativity that you’ll ever need”.  One way to interpret that statement is to see this book as holding a synthesis of all the approaches needed to open up creative potential.  So if this were the only book I were reading on creative pursuits this year, that would be helpful.

However, this is not the only one.  It is, by my count, the 24th creativity related non-fiction title I’ve read since I began my year of creative immersion last October.

As such, I didn’t find there to be an incredible amount of material in here that I hadn’t heard recently.  It did contain a lot of sage advice for putting new ideas into practice, serving as a sort of hybrid between Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.  To be fair, reading the powerful And Then, You Act last week set my bar pretty high for creative insight.

Still, I appreciated some of the points they made in the book-

  • They emphasized the importance of failure in any creative process.  This book is more focused on engineering and business design, so they framed the argument in terms of the numbers of iterations of projects and drafts to go through to end up at a final project.  But I can absolutely relate to this in terms of the many audition rejections and manuscript revisions I’ve had during this year.  I still prefer the summation of importance of failure in this Zen Pencils comic.
  • They recommend an eclectic portfolio of short and long term ideas with varying potential for risk and reward.  I haven’t specifically written a lot about the process of ideation, but having lots of different projects on burners is a great way to make sure you never get completely blocked.  They also talk about exercises for always being ready to jot down ideas that occur when your mind wanders.  My favorite quote on this is by Philip Roth (that I discovered while reading Daily Rituals) and it goes-

 

If I wake up at two in the morning–this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens–and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”

  • They delved into the importance of work environments and constraints for creating effective, collaborative, creative atmosphere.  This is something I absolutely agree on.  Working under tight budgets or small amounts of time has led me to things I’m far prouder of than any of my more leisurely projects.  Additionally, having the right room or conditions with a group can really make a difference in the type of work that gets done.  I had one director start off a project by taking the whole team outside onto a giant granite sculpture, sat us in a circle, and told us his inspiration story for the work.  That set energy levels for a cohesive team that lasted through the whole project.

I think I had a hard time with the takeaway of the book though, as it ended with this great call to action of setting up incremental goals and targets for living more creatively for the next month.  Again, if this were the only book like this I’d read, it would be great.  If I had read this book last September, that would have been a helpful call to action.  But as it is, I’ve been kicking my brain in the face with creative projects for over 9 months now.  I’m having to work harder to stop myself from committing to more creative work for the moment than I am to find motivation to keep doing it.  So with that, I think I’ve read enough creative inspiration books for the project, and I’m definitely going to focus the rest of my reading time on the how-to titles needed for completing my last few projects.

Reflections on The Story Factor

I went off list again after finding a title that fit nicely in between books on writing and acting.  Annette Simmon’s The Story Factor examines the art of persuasion through the craft of storytelling.  I had never been to a storytelling-specific event before moving to Colorado, but have encountered a thriving little community of storytellers in Boulder thanks to the Fringe.  Storytellers, along with stand-up comedians and slam poets, make up the core of a creative category that Chicago artists successfully labeled “live lit“.

The Story Factor examines and explains the art of storytelling from a business perspective.  It delves into what types of stories are out there, how they can be used to influence audiences and clients, and demonstrates what the power of  a well told story can be.  One of the things that struck me the most was the comment that “stories mirror the complexity of natural occurrences”.  This comes up often in the book in the context of company policies.  Simmons illustrates that stories can prove more effective management tools than rules, demonstrating the intent behind a company policy rather than forcing employees to adhere to an inflexible rule that might not apply to exceptional cases.

I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing recently, and as I was reading this book I kept noticing that Aaron Sorkin is a firm believer in the use of storytelling for influence.  Almost every episode, one of the White House staffers uses a perfectly timed personal story to give an example of a much broader issue to convince the other characters to take a specific stance.  I knew Sorkin was a master of writing stories, but it struck me as interesting how effective his use of storytelling is within his own story arcs.

Reflections on “And Then, You Act”

Anne Bogart’s And Then, You Act was the best book about theater I’ve read in a while, and it wasn’t even on my Booklist.  My friend Anita (who directed Find Your Backyard) told me about it on Tuesday afternoon, and I have already acquired it, read it, and filled half a dozen pages with notes about it.

Anne Bogart writes about work in theater with such passion and vitality that it is impossible not to be reminded of why artists commit their lives to this madness.  She discusses the craft of acting and directing and producing new works of theater as a multifaceted, reactive process of immense social value.  She demands from those seeking to make art that it be instilled  with”complex, contradictory, even mutually exclusive feelings” for “in the space of opposition, there is room for the audience to dream”.

She describes the process of “tempting” new moments out of work.  Appealing to me and my creative immersion project, she argues that though theater is “more encumbered by it’s multidimensionality than its fellow art forms”, it requires the creators to access both sides of the brain in order to write it.  “Theater artists have the ability and opportunity and, yes, the responsibility to move across the lines between seemingly alien and unrelated professions… We create spaces and opportunities where meetings can occur among people who do not usually interact with one another.”

Finally, she insists that theatrical works treat their audience with intellectual respect, asking them to contemplate something more than the obvious, to participate, to connect the dots and engage with the work in their own imaginations and from their own perspective.

I’m not going to be able to afford an MFA from Columbia or the SITI Conservatory track, but it’s definitely going onto my list to enroll in one of Anne Bogart’s workshops or masterclasses in the next few years.  Her prose and her ideas were equally infectious, leaving me wanting to make bolder theatre.

Reflections on Paddle Your Own Canoe

  

I didn’t read this for my booklist, or for an arts immersive experience, but because I’ve been really busy working and just wanted to read something fun and relaxing.  Apparently, that’s a thing books can be used for.

My main reflection on this book was that Nick Offerman was a scenic carpenter for Steppenwolf in his early days.  I don’t know if that means anything to anyone who reads this, but I thought it was really cool and wanted to geek out about it.  That’s all.

Reflections on The Art of Asking

I’ve been ignoring my booklist for several weeks now, largely because I’ve read most of the items on the list that I own, and the remaining titles are all 700 pages long.  On top of that, I’ve been discovering some truly wonderful books that tie in well with my process of creative immersion that I wasn’t aware of when I started this project.  So I’m going to break my own rules and write about some of the new titles I’ve discovered recently.

The first off-the-list title is The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer.  It was recommended to me by my wonderful creative collaborator Alexis, who runs the site Wild Imaginarium, when I switched from my day job to freelancing.

Amanda Palmer is an indie musician, writer, performer, and all around crazy person that I thoroughly approve of.  Her book digs into her experiences with making a living by creating all kinds of wonderful art.  From working as a street performer to being the first musician to run a seven figure Kickstarter campaign, to becoming one of the major pioneers of Patreon, she has excelled in generating interest in her projects from a wide, supportive fan base.  She openly discusses her successes and struggles with asking for help with her endeavors, examining the exchange of creative work for money and support.  She discusses how this transaction is vastly different from begging, and why it’s difficult for many artists’ egos to accept this fact.

I’ve become more comfortable identifying myself primarily as an artist this year, but I’m still working on accepting the social and economic value of my work.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because creative work is enjoyable, it is personal and extracurricular.  This overlooks that the art fulfills real valuable, human needs, that it is the content that brings people together, and gathers audiences in to websites, to coffee shops, to galleries, stadiums, and bookstores.  The creative process drives industries of every scope and scale, and it takes bold artists to step out, acknowledge their value, and ask for the support from their communities to fund their work.  Supporting art is not a one-way exchange, but a transaction in exchange for an experience, a new product, or a stronger community.

This definitely sounds like I’m building up to the point where I ask for money, or pass the hat around.  But I’m not going to ask for money.  Not yet.  I’m developing a Patreon campaign to fund some larger long-term creative projects, like this site, but I need to be sure that I have the time and momentum to deliver my end of the deal in exchange for support.  In the meanwhile, consider giving back by making your own awesome, creative, independent art and sharing it with your community.

Reflections on The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes has always been a major creative influence for me.  The aesthetics, the humor, and the philosophy of this timeless comic have inspired me since my early childhood.  I can’t even count how many times I’ve read Bill Waterson’s collections.  From this book alone, I can trace many of the important lessons I learned from his comics as a child, including:

  • How much fun it is to tye people’s shoelaces together (or better, tye two people’s shoelaces together)
  • When in doubt, run away to the Yukon
  • Getting out of bed in the morning has all sorts of challenges
  • The best approach for making dinosaur tracks in fresh snow
  • Etiquette for playing Houdini with friends
  • Transmogrifier guns come in handy all the time.

My own webcomic launch has been delayed by my determined persistence to overcommit myself, but as I move forward with developing a cartoon, it’s obvious to me what one of my primary inspirations will be.

For anyone who missed my favorite Calvin and Hobbes inspired creation so far, you can find the post here.

 

Reflections on Les Petits Macarons

Le Petit Macarons

As one of my process writing projects is macaron creation, it’s easy to understand how this book made my list.  Les Petits Macarons, by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride, is a beautiful book about a beautiful pastry.  Allow me to geek out over how well designed this book is.

The hardcover book is a perfect square, loosely bound to fall open easily in your hands and stay in the right place.  Inside, everything about the book leads you to find the right macaron flavors you need.  There are dozens of full-color pictures of macarons in process and of the finished products.  Clear changes in size, typography, and layout indicate the various shifts from one step or one recipe to the next.  On top of that, once the book starts dealing with individual flavors of macarons, even the colors on the page change to match the food.  The recipe for popcorn pastry cream filling has yellow headers printed on a toasted beige page, while the dark brown on light brown colors of the Cinammon Cappuccino filling guide your sight and your taste to the exact same place.

The book informs the reader on the full artistry of macaron creation, covering numerous forms of meringue creation based on preference.  The level of detail in steps, the precision required in the formation of the ideal macaron is elevated to the creation of a spell.  As my friend Michelle commented during the first attempt to bake macarons on this blog, a lot of the process feels like a Harry Potter potions class.  As the book described the proper way to extract flavor from a vanilla bean, I half expected it to recommend that I crush the bean with the flat side of a silver dagger to release the juices better than merely cutting it.

I have now explored the contents of this book, but the process has only begun.  Having figured out the basics of macaron creation, it is now time to stride forward into the more creative elements.  Flavor combinations, ingredient substitutions, and a world of culinary explorations await!

Reflection on A Sense of Direction

A Sense of Direction

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that I am going to disagree with some portion of any book about directing.  Whether it’s due to my background in design and performance, or my penchant for unconventional performances, I believe that a standardized approach to directing does not appeal to me.  Either that, or I just keep reading books by directors whose philosophies I disagree with.

What I agreed with in William Ball’s A Sense of Direction 

  • The idea that restricted budgets encourage creativity.

What I disagreed with:

  • The proposition that a director should read every play, novel, or letter that the playwright ever wrote before staging one of their productions.  No one has time for that.  Also, that’s dramaturgy.  Not directing.
  • Do not make your assistants go grocery shopping for you.  If you are so convinced that every 1st tech run through is going to be so terrible that all you can do is sit in your chair and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put them on your grocery list the week before and get them yourself.
  • The idea that you should only direct plays you absolutely love, and shun everything else.  Artists need to make a living, and you can totally learn as much from a bad show as a good one.
  • The idea that a director should constantly be working as a yes-man to actors.  There’s a reason that directors are put in charge, and it’s important to have one overarching vision than handing final decisions out to the actors.

This book has a few good general notes on staging and action verbs, but for anyone looking for good general directing advice, the best I’ve found so far is Michael Bloom’s Thinking Like a Director.