Priorities

2015 appears to be the year of focus so far. I’ve shed a lot of the extra “big plans” to zero in on what I hope to do with the second half of my life. These plans included, but were not limited to: VFX/Gaming/Video school for kids, VFX/Gaming intensive training embedded at a Community College, Super-speed tutorial series, a series of funny/gory VFX shots, expanding my coding abilities, fix up some old vintage audio gear, maybe take on some sound editing jobs… the list goes on. Also in there was my plan to write more, read more, and do more stuff with my wife. Sounds ridiculous when it’s all written out like that. And there were more things! Oh, and we’re having our first child in five weeks.

It’s a little embarrassing to list everything out and realize that it’s not a list of priorities or goals, it’s a list of interests. It’s also a list of distractions. Ricky Jay has a great line in The Spanish Prisoner, “It’s one thing when a man’s hobbies get in the way of his work, but when they get in the way of each other, well…” I’ve found that I procrastinate not by laying around, but by cramming my list so full that I can’t get anything done. That way there’s always potential and never failure. It also feels like a list you might get when you ask a 6 year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, “A racecar driver, a fireman, an astronaut, a submarine captain…” You smile and nod and say, “You can be anything you put your mind to.” Little do the kids know I haven’t put my mind to any one thing, either.

Recently my wife suggested I make a list of true priorities, not goals. Naturally, I searched the internet for examples because research is the best and most readily available form of rationalized procrastination. “I can’t write today because I should read more about these authors who made it big.” When I made films, I spent a LOT of time on DVD commentaries and director interviews, but that’s a lifetime ago. Anyway, I compiled a list of 3 priorities and a list of 3 obstacles.

Priorites:
Family: includes wife, parents, sibling, and 1 (and only one) lifelong friend
Creativity: both consuming and generating
Teaching: best said by Buckminster Fuller, “Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

Obstacles:
Research: reading up on the success paths of others is fun, but sucks time
Impatience: changing channels between ideas and interests is counter-productive
Completionism: must finish one thing or series of things before moving on

The obstacles are all forms of procrastination, but they are my primary challenges. When I’m on something that I want to do, I derail it by jumping over to something else I want to do (Impatience), but I also hyper-focus on some things so much that I can’t do anything else whether collecting all the achievements in a video game (Completionism) or reading every interview by the same author (Research) or looking for every issue of a writer’s comic run (Completionism meets Research) or reading up on ways to acquire and refurbish a specific set of vintage Marantz equipment (Research meets Completionism). I could cram a million examples into that one run-on sentence, but you get the idea. My obstacles are accessible, entertaining, and cheap. A steady stream of quick bursts of immediate satisfaction with no long term benefits. Like sugar. Or gambling. Or reddit.com/r/funny.

Even this blog post is a diversion from the book project I have been poking with a stick for the past year. But I can rationalize it by saying that I have a set of official priorities to filter everything I do this year. Instead of setting a goal like “finishing writing a book,” I can say, “Am I engaging in creativity?” Reading a book is good. Researching the author for hours and days on end is bad. Playing a narrative video game (Last of Us) is good. Building the best sword and finishing every side mission (Skyrim) is bad. And instead of marathoning episodes of Chopped on the weekend (not quality time), maybe the wife and I should take a drive to some river town and have lunch (quality time). See what I’m saying?

The filter is engaged. This blog post will count as creative writing and structural thinking. Both good things. Reading it ten times before publishing will be a bad thing, so I’ll try to avoid it and keep moving toward the good things.

Have I Told You This One? Episode 1: Who’s Your Daddy?

There are a lot of stories I tell people over and over. And like my dad, I tell them to the same people over and over. I’m going to start laying them down here and tell people who haven’t heard them to read them. Doubt that will work, but either way, at least I will have a place to keep them in case I forget them myself.

Back in 1999, I was an assistant sound editor on a movie called Titan AE. It was an animated feature not done by Pixar in an era when ONLY Pixar was making solid animated movies CG or otherwise. I liked Titan AE while we were working on it, but sadly it hasn’t stood the test of time.

The sound supervisor on the movie was a guy named Matt Wood. He’s done tons of stuff since including being Bib Fortuna in Phantom Menace and the voice of General Grievous in everything that has General Grievous in it. Matt gave me my shot on sound assisting which I didn’t take full advantage of, but that’s a different story. (Maybe see this post for some related perspective on my frame of mind during that period.) Part of Matt’s job as the supervisor is to attend the temp mixes and the test screenings. The temp mixes are for executives to see what they’re paying for. The test screenings are to see how the various demographic slices respond to the movie. The executives send junior executives to the test screenings to assess and make recommendations.

Here’s a little background on the studio structure. If you’re a junior exec and you’re any good, you get upgraded pretty fast. If you stink, you get fired pretty fast. Most of your success is predicated on your ability to understand your demo(graphic) and market the movie properly. Or cover your ass if you didn’t market the movie properly. If you marketed the movie properly, it should kill the opening weekend. And if you designed it for the demo properly, word of mouth and repeat viewings will keep the movie from hitting the 60% attendance dropoff from the opening week to week 2. Now you know.

Matt Wood attended a series of temp mixes where the main executives at Fox Feature Animation (now defunct) didn’t bother to show up. Then he went to block of test screenings for 7 to 14 yr olds, 15 to 18, and 19 and up. The youngest group pretty much loved the movie. Of course they would pretty much love anything where they get free popcorn and soda on a school day. So my personal thought is the results were skewed. The oldest group was medium on the movie, but it was old school Don Bluth animation and it was rather dated compared next to Toy Story 2 or Bug’s Life. The sweet spot, the 15 to 18 group, the group that will see a movie 10 times if they love it, that’s where everyone had their eyes.

That group is tough to read, though. Painfully self-conscious and awkward, they won’t react in the open even if they like something. So when they really laugh, it means something. Near the end of the film, there’s a Han Solo moment where the heroes are under fire while planting charges to destroy the evil queen and Goon, a character you thought was dead, comes in and shoots the last two baddies so Matt Damon and Bill Pullman can blow it all to Hell. Upon his surprise re-entry into the story, Goon fires and shouts, “Who’s your daddy?! GOON’S your daddy!!” Well the theater just exploded. The high school kids laughed themselves crazy and were writhing in their seats. Good stuff.

Fifteen minutes later when the credits rolled, Matt was standing in the lobby when a 5’5″ shaved-bald white guy in his early 30’s approached him. Matt could tell from the $3000 suit that this person was a junior exec from Fox Feature Animation. A full studio exec would be wearing a $6000 suit and would let some hair grow even if he was balding. There’s a confidence that comes along with being a top movie studio exec that simply must be witnessed to be believed. But that’s another story. This junior guy was giddy beyond belief, probably because he figured his promotion was already on his desk after that screening, but he wanted the movie to have extra punch. He hustled up to Matt like he was going to pee his pants. He pointed to Matt. “Matt Wood! My man!” he said. “The Goon line killed in there! Great work!” (exclamation points necessary). Matt replied, “Um, thanks.” The guy gave Matt a double point in the face. “I heard it was your idea to add that line. Great line, man!” Matt kind of looked around because this guy was straight shouting and pointing in Matt’s face. “Well, it was John Leguizamo’s improv, but yeah, I cut it in there.” Another double stab, “Yes! YES! Are there any other references to his father we can use?!”

Now, I know you’re thinking this is a joke, but it’s true and I’m telling you exactly as Matt told  it to me. It’s a second hand story, but one of my favorites. How could anyone think the reason that line scored because it was about Goon’s father? Also, had he never seen Star Wars? Also… there are too many “also’s” in this scenario. I don’t expect everyone to get the “who’s your daddy?” joke, but seriously? His suggestion is to add more father references. The real threat here is not this guy, there are lots like him out there in every corner of the industry. The thing that sticks in my head is what if it wasn’t Matt this guy was talking to?

Many people working in the film biz just follow orders to the letter regardless of how ridiculous they may be with no questions asked. If Matt was one of those people, he would have pored over the recordings for days looking for more daddy lines, and when there weren’t any, he would have booked Leguizamo at great expense to improv some more lines, all of which would have been forced because even someone as funny as Leguizamo couldn’t just fire off daddy jokes that would work in an animated sci fi movie for kids. Thankfully Matt wasn’t (and isn’t) that sort of person. He came back to work, told us the story every time we asked to hear it, and did absolutely nothing to add “daddy” lines.

I shudder to think how many movies went South because some out-of-touch junior exec made an off-hand comment to a hard-working studio staffer. Not that Matt is a slacker, but he started working at Skywalker when he was 17 and has seen the type come and go. He knew daddy jokes weren’t the problem with the movie and more likely than not, the very guy who asked for the changes would have the lines pulled a week later. Turns out the movie ended up missing the mark with their demographic. They slapped a bunch of weird songs by expensive artists like Seal, Luscious Jackson, and Jamiroquai. I don’t know about you, but none of the 15 year-old boys I have ever met liked Luscious Jackson in their action sci fi. And no amount of daddy lines can save a movie from a Seal track. Needless to say, the movie didn’t do that great and vanished onto the dusty shelves of the video store.

Scene Building via Dialog

Here’s the thing, I set out to write this next project without an outline. My plan was to just blast out the words as they came to me and see where the characters took the story. I’ve heard this works. Not for me (so far, anyway). I kinda need to know what’s going to happen or I can’t come up with the connective tissue. So instead of writing a bullet point outline, I thought I’d build scenes one-by-one, but instead of just writing a sentence for what each scene does or going too far and writing it full out and unattached, I tried splitting the difference. I wrote only the dialog.

It was pretty fun, actually. I basically transcribed important conversations between the main character and others in the book. My main concern was that it might end up completely disjointed and random. Or that these conversations would end up being the negative space and no story would develop. In fact, the opposite happened. The conversations all ended up being pretty intense and took me places I never intended to go. In a good way!

So I’m moving forward with this approach. Dialog scenes with little or no description or internal monologue that build into the story. Naturally, not every scene will make it into the final story, but for now, it’s a great way to get a lot of words down fast and generate building blocks for the narrative.