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How Comics Got Respect

Wonder Woman 1940s

Comics in my youth

comics now - Batwoman by JH Williams III, 2014

comics now – Batwoman by JH Williams III, 2014

 

How did comics get from here to there?

 

 

 

 

IDW Star Trek Ongoing #1

IDW Star Trek Ongoing #1

Sure, I read comics as a kid. And while munching pizza in college. A few since. The ones based on the new Star Trek movies got me re-dedicated.  I could get my Star Trek “fix” between movies, especially my Spock fix.  Minor characters in the Star Trek 2009 movie,  “Cupcake” and Keenser, had their own issues, giving them more depth.  That was cool. But even more cool was that the next movie had “easter eggs” from stories in the comics!!  The screen writers and comic writers apparently talked to each other. Maybe not just Star Trek folks – these days a whole lot of the movies and tv shows are based on comics, way beyond Superman and Batman. What’s that all about?

I asked Bram Meehan, a graphic designer, comic author and aficionado who teaches classes on the visual language of comics. Bram laughed, “The producers and writers themselves grew up on comics. Loving comics. Now they’ve gotten into the positions that they can get funding for what they love.”  Aha.  That might also explain why everybody and his brother signs up for even small parts in movies like the Avengers.  Granted, it’s a job. But they seem to be having so much fun!

 

watchmen-face-rorshack

Watchmen by Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins was acknowledged as literature.

Poking around Big Adventure Comics, my local comic store, showed me that the genre has changed.  When I admitted my ignorance of the visual and story changes, they kindly took me in hand and directed me to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. OMG! I see why they now call them “graphic novels”.  Complex plots and brilliantly complex art! A lot more blood, yes.  Also symbols like that little smiley face that clued linkages.  Shifting points of view. Multiple subplots & time settings intermingled, but I could follow because each had their own graphic style. Graphics in the comics of my youth pretty much showed people doing static stuff while saying words. Here the graphics carried the story even more than the words. Some such as Moore’s Promethea illustrated sophisticated metaphysical concepts.  Plus there are now “trades”, collections of related issues in a single volume – a real book, ideal for people like me who get impatient at the cliffhanger serialization of individual issues.

Bram Meehan in the flesh

Bram Meehan in the flesh

 

Bram Meehan, cartoon style, by Chris Askham

Bram Meehan, cartoon style, by Chris Askham

I asked Bram: How did all this happen? The sophistication, and also the proliferation of comic inspired movies & shows. Bram answered that not only have comic lovers moved into positions of influence but also the technology became available to realize their visions. As I mentioned, Bram teaches the visual language of comics. He got me looking at how comics have developed over the years.

 

 

Those in my long ago youth were not very different from the first full page comic in the early 1900’s.

Little Nemo, 1907

Little Nemo, 1907 by Windor McKay

 

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930's

1930s:Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster create Superman

 

I read Donald Duck, but it was  Superman and Batman who had my heart. The superheroes I grew up with developed from Superman’s first appearance in the 1930’s and became their own genre. Even these days, many people associate comics with superheroes.

I had crushes on The Challengers of the Unknown. Bram pointed out that while the Challengers were a team of four, there were none of the interpersonal dynamics that came later with teams like The Fantastic Four.

 

 

Jack Kirby helped shape the visual language of modern comics

Jack Kirby added many heroes that became The Avengers & helped shape the visual language of modern comics

The hunger for superheroes comics prompted Jack Kirby, co-creator of my beloved Challengers,  to create more heroes, from Captain America (1940s) to all the guys and gals we now see as The Avengers, appearing on your movie and TV screens!  In his early years, Kirby also developed romance comics, which in the 1950’s seriously warped most of my dating life.  Kirby and Stan Lee co-created many of the Marvel comics, each bringing their own skills.  Stan Lee boosted sales by giving superheroes issues and challenges. Aha! That must have been when I switched my affections to Spiderman and Daredevil!  Kirby’s visual motifs influenced young artists to produce to the Marvel style and more efficiently meet the horrendous deadlines. Writers and artists had to produce 22 pages every month/per issues, some working on multiple issues. Any conventions that helped them be more efficient were readily adopted!  Bram pointed out that Kirby moved comics to more abstract visuals, where “the nature of the art reflected the excitement of the story”. That set the bar for the whole superhero genre.

 

Mad Magazine started as a satirical comic by Bill Gaines

Mad Magazine started as a satirical comic by Bill Gaines

Gaines started a trend in letting his creative team develop their own style & be credited for it

The 50’s, when I was cuddling up to superheroes, also saw the birth of Mad, which later became a guilty pleasure for many of my college mates. Gaines started a trend in letting his creative team develop their own styles. And he credited them for it.

Creative rights are still a big issue for comic creators.

 

 

 

underground comix scene, later 1960's

underground comix scene, later 1960’s

 

Censors ruled the 50’s – which of course led to an underground movement in comics as well as everything else.

 

 

Will Eisner's 1970s "comics" were considered "graphic novels"

Will Eisner’s “comics” were considered “graphic novels”-Late 1970’s

 

 

 

 

Comics had other subjects as well. Will Eisner’s Joe Dope was used as a training tool in the military. Eisner wrote training comics into the 70’s and also expanded to short story cycles about Jewish characters in a tenement in New York City, stories about their struggles and disillusionment. The comics with these self-contained stories started being known as “graphic novels”.

 

 

 

Maus coverMaus sampleThe 1980’s were a hotbed of innovation for comics.  Maus won Art Speigelman a Pulitizer Prize.  It was political commentary based on his father’s experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.  People were depicted as animals. (Hmm, remember Orwell’s Animal Farm?)
Bram said Speigelman “.. raised the profile of comics with a book that really rattled the public perception of what comics are. ”

 

 

Most comics by Image Comics are creator-owned.

Most comics by Image Comics are creator-owned. Partner studio TMP produces Spawn.

Bram continued, “The comics creators that eventually formed Image Comics in the ’90s, despite their business problems, started the rise of the value of the creator (in their case, generally the artist) in the mainstream. Fans formed around the characters, but now also around the people that made them.” I’m not familiar with Image Comics, so I went to Wikipedia:

” In the early 1990s, several freelance illustrators doing popular work for Marvel Comics grew frustrated …that the artwork and new characters they created were being merchandised heavily, with the artists receiving only standard page rates for their work and modest royalties on sales of the comics... In December 1991, a group of these illustrators approached Marvel president Terry Stewart and demanded that the company give them ownership and creative control over their work. … Marvel did not meet their demands.

“In response, eight creators announced the founding of Image Comics….This development was nicknamed the “X-odus”, because several of the creators involved …were famous for their work on the X-Men franchise. Marvel’s stock fell $3.25/share when the news became public.” According to Image Comics,  “The majority of the comics and graphic novels published by Image are creator-owned.”

Marvel and DC still dominate monthly comics, but Bram points out that “.. a revolution in the printing and production technologies … led to more powerful tools being put in the hands of more content creators, with more cost-effective ways of distribution to smaller audiences, both print and digital.”   Going to some Comic Cons and walking down crowded aisles in the comics section certainly showed me the truth of that!

Breathtaking visuals

Breathtaking visuals

My favorite comic con find has been Mouse GuardThe glorious images grabbed me as I wandered past. No surprise that it won an Eisner Award!  Creator David Petersen was sitting there with a stack of books, under the banner for Archaia Entertainment. Archaia started as a small independent publisher which has since merged with another publisher. I’ve since found that it’s published several graphic novels I follow: Lucid and Mr. Murder is Dead.

 

 

ReadingOrder

Reading order is important! from Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Drawing Words & Writing

Some of the comics I saw puzzled me. I couldn’t read them! Words & images swirled all over the page in a baffling manner. Heavens, am I that out of sync? Bram grinned. Apparently I’m not alone.  The proliferation of independent producers means that some don’t know what’s needed to guide the reader through the story.  There are rules. Not all comic creators know them. Bram sent me to an article by Eddie Campbell in The Comics Journal: http://www.tcj.com/campbells-rules-of-comprehension/. Campbell’s rules address context, completeness, sequence and timing. Ahhh, the comics that baffled me violated those rules!

New developments give independent artists ways to create their own comics.

New developments give independent artists ways to create their own comics.

Bram recommends that those interested in creating a comic dive in.  That’s what he and his wife Monica did. When they started, they realized that they may not have specific training in making comics, but knew how to complete a visual project. “With the changes in technology and our training in it, it wasn’t necessary to follow the traditional method of making comics (the writer/penciler/inker/colorist/letterer system), and so we set out to do our own — and learn what goes into making a comic.” Their comic is Raised By Squirrels (http://www.raisedbysquirrels.com/).”

Whew! This is a whole complex area of art!  If you want to know more,  take one of Bram’s classes:  http://www.brammeehan.com/

 

 

 

Trek Inspired Actor

Joe doubling as Walter White in "Breaking Bad"
Joseph Griffenberg doubled as Walter White in “Breaking Bad”. He can look scary!

 When I took a voice class last summer, I found that one of my classmates was a trekkie – a dedicated trekkie, with a huge collection of trekkie memorabilia! As we chatted I found that Joe has been an extra on a lot of movies & TV shows – and was a double for Bryan Cranston, the star of the acclaimed “Breaking Bad”.  Wow! I know folks who dream of getting on a set in any capacity!  How’d he get there? So I asked him.

 

Joe played Kirk

Young Joe played scenes with friends

When the original Star Trek aired, young Joseph Griffenberg stayed up late to watch.  He’d stage Star Trek scenes using a local cemetery as exotic set locations, with him playing Capt. Kirk (of course).  He’d use lines he remembered from the series, already showing a love for acting.

 

red-dawn

        Joe was an extra!

After a tour in the Navy, he returned to his family in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  American Playhouse’s “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” was shooting nearby and Joe got work as an extra.  That led to work on the original Red Dawn, with then unknowns Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen.  Meanwhile Joe had gotten a camera and went around filming everything – even a praying mantis eating its mate! Yuck! He found he wanted more control of a film than he’d have as an actor.  Actors play out the role of the writer/director’s story. Joe wanted to be telling his own stories, so he enrolled in the University of New Mexico, focusing his Fine Arts degree on television production.

Joe's Star Trek collection

Some of Joe’s Star Trek collection

Joe was still a trekkie, starting in the ’80’s a notable collection of action figures and Star Trek ornaments.  Star Trek Next Generation came along. Like me, Joe resisted but got hooked. He’s also followed each of the Trek shows since – Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise. And included them in his collection, filling a whole room! Thankfully, his wife colludes in this “hobby”.

How To Get Picked as an Extra

I asked Joe what advice he’d give to someone who wants to get picked as an extra.

“Persistence! I put in a picture for every call.”  Joe said he follows social media, joining facebook groups that pass the word about calls coming up.  He reminded me that in New Mexico the film industry has a website where casting calls are posted: http://www.nmfilm.com/Casting_Calls.aspx. Joe points out that extras don’t need any special qualifications.  The casting director is simply looking for “a look”.  When Joe hears of a production coming up, he finds who the casting director is and checks out their website. Most will say what look they need.

Look for local announcements of casting calls, e.g. Backstage.com

Look for announcements of local casting calls, e.g. Backstage.com

Joe also recommends building your own network of contacts and your own experience by volunteering to work with school groups and with small indie efforts. “You meet more people that way – and they remember you.” Joe says that half the things he’s done have been through word of mouth.

Joe's imdb pgJoe also maintains a page on IMDb, a site where people in the movie and tv business post their resumes and contact information.  Joe includes on his page pictures showing that he can adapt to several different looks. With all his experience and training, Joe’s page is very impressive!  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2445713/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1   “I’ve been on set 50 times. Every time I learn something new.” For example, he watches the actors and how they adapt to different directors.  “Some directors let actors do what they want, allow them to improvise. Others control everything, like Alfred Hitchcock did. Like James Cameron does.” Joe also continues to take classes, on the different aspects of film making.  “Even if you know you want to direct, it will help you to know how to act.”

Do you need to have professional headshots?  No! Joe points out that local film oriented organizations usually have a yearly general casting call. Also there will be open casting calls for each show or film, advertised on the local news or local film website. At a casting call, you stand in line, an hour or more. When you get to the front, they have you fill in a card with your name, contact number, type of vehicle (if you’re willing to have it used), your sizes. They’ll take a picture that will go into a file.  They keep it forever!  When a shoot comes up that needs extras, the casting director will scan the file for people who match the need.  Aha! I did this once – and got called a couple of years later! Unfortunately at a time when I couldn’t go.

During our chat, Joe has mentioned several terms: background, stand-ins, doubles. I ask him what each means.

The people in the background are "extras" or "background"

The people in the background are “extras” or “background”

Background is another word for extras. They are part of the background of shots – people walking by on the street, people in shops or restaurants, the crowd.  They don’t speak and don’t need any qualifications other than fitting in with the scene. Let’s say you’re shooting a scene set in Manhattan.  You need people who have the typical clean-cut look to be in the background, just as there are always people around on the street there.  If you’re shooting a scene set in Eqypt, your background people need the darker skin tone you’d see there. If the people have particular clothing, casting will look for extras who can fit the costumes they have.”

So what is a “stand-in“? “A stand-in substitutes for a leading actor for setting up lights and camera angles.  A stand-in doesn’t have to look like the actor, but needs to have the same height and build.  The director or actor may first demonstrate the action needed – ‘walk from there to here”.  Then the stand-in mimics that action over and over while the crew arranges the lights and angles.”

Cranston & Griffenberg as Walter White in "Breaking Bad"

Cranston & Griffenberg as Walter White in “Breaking Bad”

“A double has to look like the actor – same height, weight, hair style, general face type. A double is used in place of the actor for distance shots for shots from behind.”  Joe ran in a Walter White look-alike contest Bryan Cranston held in Albuquerque, adapting his appearance even to shaving his head.  He looked enough like Cranston’s Walter White that he was hired as his photo double.  Having a double is a great relief to an actor since a 20 second scene may take 4 hours to shoot! Makeup and costume tried their effects on Joe first to get them finalized before replicating them on Cranston. So Joe got to hang out with Cranston a lot more than an extra or stand-in would.

Can you be an extra and still hold down a regular job? How much notice do you get? “The amount of notice depends on the situation.  One casting agent called me for the next day. I couldn’t work it out that quickly with my day job. For ‘Night Shift’ I got several days notice.  When they contact you, they’ll tell you when to be there and how many days they’ll need you. Maybe if you turn them down a few times, they’ll stop calling – I just make sure to send in my picture again.”

Make-up may want you dirty!

Make-up may want you dirty!

What’s It like as an Extra On Set?

Let’s say someone has done what you suggested and has gotten a call to be an extra on a picture.  What’s it like on location? Joe laughed, “It’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’.  You might arrive at 5am and sit for 13 hours without ever being called. At least you still get paid. Bring a book and your cell phone – just don’t take them on the set!”  The tone of the location varies. Joe’s experience was that on Night Shift they were pleasant, knew his name. Others may treat extras like cattle.  I ask about makeup. Joe says that usually background people need to come “hair and make-up ready” – looking acceptably generic. If it’s a western, someone from make-up may make you look dirtier.

Joe emphasizes that observing good location etiquette is key to getting more work. “How well you get along is more important that how good an actor you are. Make sure never to burn your bridges.”  The rules of set etiquette include:

Worse than this will happen if you disrupt a set!

Worse than this will happen if you disrupt a set! (Pugh appears courtesy of the Daily Mail)

  •    Whenever you hear “Camera rolling!”, shut up. Don’t wait for the “Action call”.
  •    Never go up to the star and talk to them. Never ask for an autograph or photo. Some stars will chat with the crew,  but let them initiate it. Not you!
  •    Listen and follow directions.  For example, when you arrive you have to fill out paper work – W2 info, proof of residency. They’ll write on the form when you arrived. At the end of the day, you have to return the form or you won’t get paid.  If you get props or a costume, they will take the form until you bring them back.
  •    Never look at the camera when on set!  If the scene shows someone making eye contact with the camera, they’ll have to cut the whole scene.  Be careful you don’t introduce any unplanned elements into the set – no whispering, even when you’re to look like you’re chatting in the background; no smoking; no ringtones!
  • Don’t touch anything on set unless directed to. Don’t move anything. It’s probably a carefully placed prop.

 

So are you ready to go out and fulfill your dream of being an extra, just as Joe did?  If you are, let me know how it goes – and where to look for a glimpse of you in the background! And if you hear of any Star Trek shoots in New Mexico, let Joseph Griffenberg know. He’s ready!Joe BeABorgPhotoApp

Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes of Directing a Movie

The ChairIf you’re interested in Behind-the-Scenes movie making, tune into “The Chair” on Starz, starting Sept. 6.  Two novice directors compete with each other in creating a movie.  The directors are Shane Dawson, a prolific YouTube personality, and Anna Martemucci, writer/actress in “Breakup at a Wedding” and other vids by Periods Films.  Both were given a starting script and a budget to go forth and create.  Their process was captured – that’s what the Starz series shows – their actions and anxieties as well as the coaching they get from the more experienced producers.  Their resulting films will be judged by the audience.

Chris Moore, Shane Dawson, Anna Martemucci, Zachary Quinto

Chris Moore, Shane Dawson, Anna Martemucci, Zachary Quinto

Both had available high-class coaching.  Chris Moore (“Goodwill Hunting“, “Project Greenlight“, etc) brings his experience of a lot of hits under his belt.  In contrast, the Before The Door coaches are newer to the scene, yet have already created two Oscar nominations – “Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”!   Before The Door is the production company of  Star Trek’s Spock, Zachary Quinto, and  his business partners Neal Dodson,  Corey Moosa, and Sean Akers.  I’m as interested in their coaching as I am in the directors’ processes.

Martemucci & Dawson

The competing directors

I attended a panel for “The Chair” at the San Diego Comic Con 2014, where we compared how the directors addressed the same scene.  Zachary Quinto and an actress read the scene as originally written by Dan Schoffer. Then Chris Moore showed Dawson’s  and Martemucci’s versions of the same scene. I was amazed at how different they were!  For example, Dawson’s focused more on him – he played the character and most of the camera was on him. Martemucci’s focused more on the story, on getting across the situation and relationships. My guess is that Dawson will only be able to “do his own thing”, which is probably just fine to his many followers. Martemucci is my bet for a more versatile future as a director. She appears to have the discipline to be able to give form to someone else’s idea. We’ll see, eh?

You can see the entire SDCC panel here.  There’s an interesting review of the series here.

Tune in – and let me know your impressions!

Holodecks Are Coming!

early virtual reality

1990’s virtual reality images

 

Oh my!  I’ve been fascinated by virtual reality since seeing demos in the early days. It was crude. Very crude.  Not enough computer space for any but the most basic block images.  I had to wear a heavy helmet and stand in one spot. But still. I could fly!!

 

Pirates_396

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen I found Disney Quest and could fight pirates (I kept getting sunk) and ride Aladdin’s magic carpet.

 

 

 

Now a step closer to a real Star Trek holodeck is happening!  Still crude by Next Generation standards, but a step that would have been unbelievable a few years ago!

“The closest thing to Star Trek’s ‘Holodeck’ – a large scale tracking lab with VR headsets used to develop everything from redirected walking to quadcopter control algorithms.”

I’m not even sure what all those words mean, but check it out!  Thanks to Sara for alerting me to this YouTube vid:   http://youtu.be/7ZPs7knvs7M

San Diego Comic-Con 2014

Zennie

Zennie

UPDATE: At SDCC2014, I found out there really was a man inside of the 10 foot high robot!  I hadn’t though so, but at a demo of another big active model, I met Zennie Abraham, who had watched the robot setup last year. Zennie is a prolific blogger and did a great interview with the man behind the robot. It shows how the man & machine come together:  http://youtu.be/ScNIWqiOv5Q

Check out Zennie’s blog at http://www.zennie62blog.com.

JULY 2014:

I’m off to Comic-Con! I have tickets for only 2 days but just seeing what is going on outside the convention center is worth the trip. Here’s clip of something I wandered into last year – a “rehearsal” of a 10 foot high robot!!  Robot

During the demo, they unhooked the robot from its support, making sure it could balance itself.  Then they tested how well it walked. What fascinated me about the robot was how sophisticated its balance was. It didn’t stand like a statue; it stood like a human, with all the little motions and adjustments we do automatically.

You can see a little of that here: Robot

Once they’d tested the basic movements, they rehearsed a brief scene – an interaction with a person.  The robot’s motion and voice were controlled remotely. If you’re a total robot geek like me, you can see all 16 minutes here:  http://youtu.be/LAl5tj0lP84

I have to admit I kept thinking of all the movies in which a robot being tested started attacking the crowd. In this case, me!

 

 

On Filmmaking by Filmmakers

Listening to filmmakers talking about their work gives fascinating insider tidbits. Here are two such talks.

The Business of Filmmaking: Navigating Today’s Entertainment Industry

copa_makingthechair_685On Feb 3 2014, Chris Moore (“Good Will Hunting,” “American Pie” series and “Adjustment Bureau”)  and Corey Moosa (“All is Lost,” “Breakup at a Wedding”,“Margin Call” and “The Banshee Chapter”) discussed the very practical side of making films.

Chris Moore is well established with a number of successes under his belt. In contrast Corey’s company, Before the Door, is a relative “new kid on the block” – and as such can relate to the issues in getting started.

Corey is one of the founders of Before The Door with Zachary Quinto (the young Spock) and Neal Dodson. He heads up their graphic novel side – Lucid and Mr. Murder is Dead so far, both of which got accolades. Corey also was the onsite producer for the horror movie “The Banshee Chapter”. Before the Door has been listed as one of Hollywood’s “new mavericks”, picking projects that push the boundaries of the art in some way. They also choose to work with new directors – such as JC Chandor who got an Oscar nod for his first effort, the brilliant “Margin Call”. Before the Door also likes working with their Carnegie-Mellon classmates and fellow Pittsburgh folk, so their collaboration with Park Point University on “The Chair” is a natural!  For this talk Corey filled in for Zachary Quinto who was scheduled to talk but couldn’t be there (this time! – see below).

For Park Point’s article on the talk – as well as a link to the talk itself, click here.  For just the talk itself, click here .

The Creative Side of Filmmaking: Building a Lasting Career

Corey, Zachary & Neal at the Indie Spirit Awards 2012

Corey, Zachary & Neal at the Indie Spirit Awards 2012

The talk on Feb 17, 2014 was the second part of the series.  Zachary Quinto showed up unexpectedly with another Before The Door founder, Neal Dodson.  Neal is producer for “All is Lost“,  an amazing movie with only Robert Redford – and no dialogue! – and “A Most Violent Year“, both written and directed by JC Chandor. While this talk is titled “Creative Side”, I found they had quite a few business tips as well. Zachary is delightfully articulate about his art and viewpoint. I enjoy hearing him talk from his right-brain & collaborative view about aspects I know from a more left-brain, task view.

For Park Point University’s article on the talk, click here.  For just the talk, click here.

Crowd Funding Is Growing!

Nerd HQ badge

If you’re looking at this blog, you probably have heard of the San Diego Comic Con. And maybe about Nerd HQ – a happening parallel to SDCC that has panels & demos & parties galore! Nerd is a fun alternative for those without an SDCC ticket for a day or for those seeking refuge from the convention hall lines.  Many stars show up at Nerd panels, which are reasonably sized events, the ~$20 ticket proceeds going to a charity.

Nerd HQ however costs money. Money which founder Zach Levy has been fronting. But he needs help. He put together an Indiegogo campaign asking for support – and got enough that there will be a Nerd HQ at SDCC2014!  Here’s the link to find out more: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/i-want-my-nerd-hq-2014/x/641260

I was impressed with Nerd at SDCC 2013 – lots of gaming computers, neat robots & virtual reality demos – and a darn good party!  I’m also fascinated to see how crowd funding is growing in popularity and in the amount of $ it can raise.  Look at the Kickstarter-funded movie “Laura Mars” which quickly reached its goal and went on to raise over $5 million!

Personally I prefer to back Kickstarter projects –   if the organizers can’t get it together enough to reach their goal, I get my money back.  Producers and directors I’ve talked to prefer Indiegogo – they don’t have to reach the goal in order to get whatever dollars are contributed.

Secrets of Crowdfunding

Useful guide to getting projects funded – the new way!

If you or anyone you know is considering a crowd-funding effort, I strongly recommend reading The Secrets of Crowdfunding by Sean Akers.  It is packed full of useful information about what to consider when seeking funding – and some very good project management tips. Sound weighty?  Delightfully it is an easy book to read – an hour, maybe? – a plus in the entertainment world where many confess to low attention spans!  You can find this on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B00AF3LBDC

Animation Tidbits from Oscar Nominee

Jonathan LeadersWandering around Reddit uncovered some interesting snippets from Jonathan Leaders, who has worked on many animated 3D films and who’s recent film “The Croods” just got nominated for an Oscar [at the time of this Reddit event]:

“I must say, it’s not actually the oscar nomination that interests me. It’s the environment that surrounds it. The people. It’s absolutely inspiring to be part of a group that is banding together to make something big that will echo throughout almost every country in the world. But this group of people doesn’t really focus on the distribution (the fame of it- for that is all fame is, distribution). They focus on the perfection of their individual craft. And how they use their time and efforts to help others outside of work. And what sorts of large projects can also be contributed to.

“I’ve never met a group of people with so wide a reach, that you can see the culture and shape of the world changing as they move. And I don’t mean just that I have seen girls tattoo Megamind on their bodies (which I have). I mean this: The tech groups volunteer with NASA after work to mentor kids in robotics at local high schools. Or we have a toastmasters on campus where we face our fears of public speaking so we can reach out to more people. Or when we have great mentors from competing company’s, such as Pixar’s Pete Doctor who come and share their story and freely give advice. To us! their competitor! It’s that kind of open attitude and collaboration in the larger things that makes me inspired and my world gets just that much bigger. I wrote an article on more of the details of inspiring innovation for a magazine (I don’t have the link since I’m on my phone but see jonathanleaders.com for a link to the article of you’re interested in innovation-creating from the campus.)

Oscar Nominee

Oscar Nominee

– from the business side animated films are hard because their cost is so high. $30 million isn’t a bad budget for a non SFX based film. But 3D animated films now are in the $160,000,000 range. That means we have to nail it. Also there’s a lot of mid-to-high level math involved in programming the 3D world. It’s emulating real world physics and how light bounces and that is based on the real math behind their respective sciences. Plus the tech changes every film! Contrast that to traditional media, where it still changes but slower.

Q What do you think of online script writing competitions? Are they legit?

-The best competitions in general are the ones showcasing the whole process. In other words, your local film festival. Find or build a team and work your way through the circuit to sundance! There’s a few steps between here and there, but just take one step. Then the next.

– Script writing in general is difficult because remember that scripts are, in effect, business plans. They should get a return on a $20m to $120m investment. (That’s not including marketing/distribution) I did not write the script but I have friends who have done script writing. What I suggest is that new script writers go to live events where they can perform short monologues and get recorded and noticed that way. Also to try to publish books and get a following because that has a lower barrier to entry. I have not heard of online competitions getting noticed out here but, again this is not my exact specialty :)”

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1vfvyr/my_film_just_got_nominated_for_an_oscar_ama/

You can follow Jonathan Leaders on twitter: @JonathanLeaders.

Harsh Realities of VFX Business

Spock into volcanoWe all know that our favorite Vulcan wasn’t really lowered into a volcano in Star Trek Into Darkness. We know it was a visual special effect – VFX.  If you’ve seen a movie in the last 20 years, you know that VFX have played an increasing role in movies.  What you may not know is that the business model in VFX and in studios has driven an appalling number of VFX companies out of business.

 

VFX Life of PiOne of the most bizarre examples is the brilliant company Rhythm & Hues,  creator of VFX since 1987, including such beloved movies as Babe and Life of Pi.  As Life of Pi was winning an Oscar, Rhythm & Hues was entering bankruptcy.  How could this happen??

This video, Life After Pi, talks about what happened: http://youtu.be/9lcB9u-9mVE

If you’ve ever run a business, you know that being held to a fixed price while the scope grows will give you nightmares. Early in my training career, I made my mark as a project manager by refusing to expand scope without more pay.  Too often people feel they can’t do that, especially if their client is the “only game in town” or can blackball them.

timeline

Typical Movie Timeline

Adding to the problem is that in spite of the long time it takes to develop VFX, directors hesitate to define what they need until the last minute. If some new effect captures the public’s attention, they want to be able to include it in their movie.

As the video mentioned, no longer do directors do the detailed planning up front that used to be required. I’ve found that many people in the business recoil in horror if I suggest project planning – “Oh my god, it would stifle our creativity!!” Hmm, research scientists in weapons and pharmaceutical organizations have said the same thing when their unlimited expenditures were curtailed.  Instead they got more creative AND learned to plan their work.  But right now we have enormous amounts being spent on studio tentpoles – and their suppliers being forced out of business. Hmm.

ContractWhile we’re on the subject of strange business practices, I asked a Hollywood contact about accountability – wouldn’t the studio be held accountable if they used deceptive business practices on a movie? No!! Each movie is done as its own corporation – which is disbanded at the end of the movie project.  Sure you could sue, but by the time anything happens in the judicial system, the work is done and that company no longer exists. Good luck on getting any judgment that has teeth, no matter how flagrant the violation!

Seems change is overdue and inevitable.