A Dreamer Walking

My Hero

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on March 12, 2015

This is my fourth attempt. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really have a good outline. But I know I don’t really believe that. Outlines have never been much use to me. But, most of the teachers in my life didn’t really care to understand how I learned. For most of my teachers, writing always needed to follow a specific process which I was never able to walk out well. Honestly, it is pretty crazy I can write in any kind of legible way, at all.

If I am going to accomplish this unsung hero paper I think I need to throw the rules out the window. I am not going to concentrate on a thesis. I am not going to follow an outline. And, I am not going to give a crap about whether or not I am using proper grammar… wait a second… okay, out of respect to my unsung hero, I will try to use proper grammar. The bottom line is, the only teacher in my life who got through to me about how to write a proper paper and express my ideas in a comprehensible way, was my Mom.

My Mother homeschooled me for the first thirteen years of my life. Sadly after telling people this I have a huge urge to explain exactly what “homeschool” was for me. I get this feeling few people have respect for the concept. Let me explain in the best way I know how. When I eventually entered the public school system my mother taught English at my high school. My older brother and I would have friends come to us and ask how we could possibly survive living at home with the monster we called, “mother”. She was a taskmaster in the classroom and she bled all over the papers her students turned in.

Yes, I know I need to explain, “bled”.

So let’s start with the origin story. One of the great unsung hero’s in my mother’s life when growing up was her Grandmother. Great Grandma Ferguson was not the typical kindhearted grandma who always had fresh baked cookies when you came to visit. She was an independent woman who wanted to do something valuable in the world at a time when society said her job was to stay at home and take care of her house and family. World War II allowed her to break away from traditional roles. She taught English in North Dakota after she was married and had her own children. When she and her family moved to Montana she worked outside the home and opened a woman’s sweater shop. Great Grandma had an expectation for excellence and the determination to contribute to society which she wanted to pass on to those she cared about the most, such as her granddaughters.

My mom told me about the times she used to send letters to her Grandma. Where the typical Grandmother would take the letter and post it on the fridge or tuck it away in a treasured envelope, my Great Grandma would send them back… corrected. She would write all over my mother’s page, pointing out the grammar errors and suggesting ways to make the piece of writing stronger. This instilled a passion in my Mom that she has since passed on to me– the desire to express herself well. Where many would simply give up and stop writing, my mom became bound and determined to become a better writer. It’s no surprise she went on to teach English. She has always claimed she wasn’t the greatest at English, but my Great Grandmother instilled something in my Mother I believe she wanted to share with others.

So now we get back to the blood. When correcting papers my mother uses a red ink pen. She covers each page with notes and corrections and then sometimes has the gall to say, “You did well”. No wonder she became known as a “taskmaster”. I told most of the students who complained to me that the red ink was from the actual blood of her veins. I always felt the red pen was used for dramatic effect and when you first look at her corrections one does feel quite overwhelmed. Most students felt my Mom graded their papers too harshly. Those who were used to getting “A’s” on all their papers began to realize my Mom required more than proper grammar and correct mechanics. I remember her going over dozens of papers and spending forty-five minutes to an hour grading each one. She graded content, dictation, organization, and style. Now, imagine all this dedication going to just four students rather than dozens. That is how homeschool felt for my siblings and me.

Sure there were weak areas where my mother wasn’t the greatest teacher. However, by no means did we get away with being lazy. When homeschooling during my grade school and middle school years my mother concentrated less on English and more on developing a sense of independence in her children. She encouraged us to work in the areas we were strongest. She quickly realized all my siblings learned differently. She knew an hour of physical activity was necessary for my older brother if she wanted him on task when sitting down for math later in the day. She knew some one-on-one time with my little brother would make him more enthusiastic about spelling afterword. She understood I would be much better at understanding material if I verbally talked about it rather than simply read about it in a book. For some reason my Mom gave us extra time during recess when we wanted to continue playing pretend. Little did I know at the time, but playing pretend would do more to get me started on a career path than any class I ever took. Suffice to say, I left home feeling confident in myself, understanding I had many gifts to give the world.

You would think we would be fully ready for public school when it came around. My first year out of the house was 8th grade. I need to admit, my 8th grade year is in hot contention for being the worst year of my life. The problem was I didn’t know how to play by the system’s rules. It didn’t take long for the school system to decide there was something wrong with me. Actually, three out of my mother’s four older children were diagnosed by the school system as dyslexic. Because my siblings and I had a difficult time with reading and spelling we were immediately considered as less then. I was put into a class for the mentally challenged. Every minute felt like a bombardment of patronizing explanations from my teachers. My counselors spoke to me like I was some kind of lazy drug addict who didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other.

My Mother would constantly meet with counselors and teachers to explain exactly what “dyslexia” meant. Unlike the vast majority of the teachers, mom did her homework when her children were diagnosed. She quickly realized dyslexia was NOT a disability. Rather it was simply a different way of thinking. She constantly needed to explain to teachers her kids did not need to be given easier material or be treated as if they were less than. What was needed was an understanding that dyslexics don’t think linguistically as much as they do visually, interpersonally, bodily kinesthetically, verbally, and aurally. When she spoke with my History teacher about my dyslexia and was bluntly told, “I don’t think your son has the capacity to understand my material”, my mom knew she needed to step in.

I was desperate to get out of the system. When I asked if my mother would consider homeschooling me my senior year, she jumped at the opportunity. What she didn’t realize was she was speaking to a kid who went through four years of mental abuse by the school system and wasn’t interested in traditional education. Not only did she need to deal with an insecure kid who questioned everything having to do with formal education, she also needed to deal with a school system and a father who felt she was making a major mistake. In fact, my grandfather told her quite bluntly she would be ruining my life if she chose to homeschool me again.

All this is what makes my Mother the hero I am determined to one day have the world recognize. It’s a moment you usually only see in the movies. The time when everyone else says it can’t be done. When the person who needs to be saved is all but gone. It’s here my mom came into my life and changed it forever. I went from a D grade student who didn’t know how to write a proper sentence to a 3.5 GPA college student who is now blessing you with the masterful piece of writing you see before you. My mom did not teach me by demanding I play by her tune or the school system’s tune. She worked tirelessly to figure out how I thought and what I felt. And, she used my strengths to build upon my weaknesses.

My mother gave me my voice. For this I am eternally grateful. The most unbelievable part is she is willing to do for all her student what she did for me. She devotes her blood, sweat, and tears to helping others learn who they are and how to express themselves. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases all she gets in return are frustrated students who feel she is too tough on grades. I can hardly stand it. But my mom, well, for her it is not about praise. The true hero only has one goal, and that is to help the other. I know of no person who helps others better than my Mom.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

To My Teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 11, 2012

I will be the first to admit I am a Pixar fanatic. I have looked up pretty much every interview, watched or listened to every behind the scenes feature and commentary on Pixar. Few have taught me more about filmmaking and the art of story than Pixar studios. The studio was one of my first and greatest teachers in filmmaking. It is safe to say I have always held them to a higher standard than any other studio in the modern era of film.

I am not the only one who holds Pixar in great regard. There are millions of fans out there who count down the days until the next Pixar premier. Almost anyone who works in animation would consider working at Pixar a dream job. The beauty of creating quality work again and again is: you attract the most ambitious artists. John Lasseter, the president of Pixar Studios, has said several times that he wants people with a passion to tell stories to come to Pixar.

The roots of Pixar are very humble. The majority of its founders were computer programers who the animation industry thought had no business being anywhere close to animation. The rest consisted of artists who were thrown out or rejected from other studios for trying to shake things up or because they were not experts at a particular aspect of animation. When Pixar started making movies they intentionally went against the established mold. They created stories in which the characters didn’t break out in song every ten minutes, nor did they always need a villain. They created original stories that took place in modern day rather then fairytale adaptions that constantly evolved around a princess trying to find prince charming. Their films were conceived and created by the directors. Pixar’s greatest and most unique quality was its stance on being a director driven studio where decisions were made not based on marketing or by a collective but rather because the director of the film had a burning desire to tell the story he or she wanted to tell in his or her unique way.

At the moment Pixar is still extremely successful, at least in the public’s eye. Although Cars 2 came out to mostly critical scrutiny, earning a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%, it was a hit with the public earning a worldwide gross income of $559, 852, 396. It looks like Pixar’s newest film Brave is going to be a similar success publicly, although like Cars 2 it was not received as well critically. I personally have seen a huge difference in the quality of the last two Pixar films compared to their first eleven. I think anyone who studies story could point out the huge flaws in the last two pictures. The greatest flaw being the two movies seem to have no real soul. Yet, most Pixar fans and most of the people working on the two movies have refused to admit publicly any step down in quality within these projects.

Instead of working on the problems that have surfaced in Pixar’s last few films the studio appears to be choosing to avoid them. They still claim to be more then the typical Hollywood studio. They want to be seen as more. Pixar once showed themselves to be different from typical Hollywood by creating films that were conceived and driven by the director and not settling for mediocrity but rather only letting a film out to the public if it felt like it was living up to its potential. Yet, in the last few years Pixar has come out with Cars 2 a movie that was described by most critics and myself as mediocre. With the movie Brave Pixar had a story that could have completely turned the typical princess tale on it’s head, but half way through production they got cold feet and gave the story to a director who relied on stereotypes rather then personal conviction.

Pixar claims to be the studio that breaks rules and brings us original stories. I saw none of that in Brave or Cars 2. They claim to be a director driven studio that thinks outside the box. Yet,  the first director was taken off of Brave for “story problems” she claims  were actually “creative differences”. Could the problems be she was thinking too far out of the box? One of the things Pixar is most proud of is their Brain Trust. The famous Brain Trust is a group of Pixar directors and producers who watch each Pixar film in production every three to four months. They give the directors of the films notes on what they think is working and what they think needs to change. They are also, from what I can tell, the group who make the decision to change directors if they feel a story isn’t working. In the past I have written about the advantages of the Brain Trust. However, might the Brain Trust be the very thing taking the creative control out of the hands of the directors?

It is interesting that the only directors so far to carry their projects all the way through production are a group of five who have known each other since the beginning of Pixar feature film. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Ulrich, and John Lasseter were all key players in the making of Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature film. Brad Bird, the only other Pixar director to carry his film all the way through production, has known John Lasseter, President and co-founder of Pixar, since the 70’s when they went to school together. The rest of the people so far to begin creating a Pixar feature film, Brenda Chapman, Jan Pinkava, Brad Lewis, and Gary Rydstrom, have either been replaced or had their project completely abolished. What this shows me is a lack of trust in anyone new. Yes, it is nice to hear Lasseter talk about how he wants stories that originate from the heart of the director, but he seems very hesitant to give those visions a chance to come to fruition. Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust trusted these people to put their heart and soul into creating a story for the studio, yet gave up on them before they could finish their film. With a movie like Ratatouille we still received a very powerful story, yet in the case of Cars 2 and Brave the stories seem full of compromises and half baked ideas.

I have heard many directors at Pixar rave about visionaries like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. However these two artist did not have a “Brain Trust” who approved their every step. They made their movies the way they wanted to make them and risked the chance of failure with the public. Some of Walt Disney’s greatest masterpieces were not accepted by the public until years after their release. If John Lasseter and the rest of the Brain Trust want to have visionaries like Disney and Miyazaki, they need to risk giving their directors true creative control. To prove they trust other directors they need to not only allow them to come up with and develop new stories they need to continue to  trust them to bring their stories to fruition. Lasseter has said in the past he would not allow a mediocre film out of his studio. Well, it is hard to describe movies like Cars 2 and Brave as anything other than mediocre. Pixar must not be like every other studio and run away from this fact. There will be mediocre stories that come out of every studio. The question is whether or not those in control at Pixar will still hold the trust of their visionaries as sacred or throw them under the bus?

Here is where I come in. I am an ambitious artist who has a burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. John Lasseter himself said that is what he most wants in the people directing films at Pixar. I am not the greatest artist but I am a great storyteller. I can thank Pixar for helping me become a great storyteller. The problem is at the moment I would be afraid to share my stories with the studio. You don’t know how hard and deeply upsetting it is for me to say this. Pixar was my teacher, inspiration, and dream. However, my stories are greater then any amount of gold, fame, or success. They all represent part of who I am and my unique journey. I will only share these stories with people I trust. Right now I can not trust Pixar with my burning desire to tell stories.

Pixar, you might be getting money, fame, and public success, but I fear you are losing out on something far more valuable.

Visiual Education

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 2, 2011

I watched a brilliant ten minute interview of Martin Scorsese talking about the importance of visual literacy. In the video Martin expresses the importance of being literate in the techniques and history of film. I personally agree with Martin Scorsese.

Could it be that film is just as important of a subject to learn as math and English? The more I think about it the more I believe that film should be just as important as any other topic in school. We live in a age where film is a huge part of our lives. Whether it is through a TV set, cell phone, computer, or at a movie theater, the visual medium of film impacts us.

Not only are we exposed to film where ever we go, we also have more access to the tools to create film then we ever had before. The majority of youth already do express themselves through visual means. The internet literally has hundreds of millions of videos created by youth not yet out of high school, some even in middle school.  Seeing how huge film has become for our society it is sad to see how ignorant most of us are on the literacy of the medium. I am not saying we should all be forced to be filmmakers, but I think it is crucial that we know the literacy of film like we know the literacy of reading and writing. Very few seem to know how the camera is used to express an idea or point of view. Because we are so illiterate in the language of film, we often let the medium take advantage of us.

The lenses, the angles, the cutting, and the subtitle types of sound in a film, all impact the audience mostly in subconscious ways. At one point, when we went to movies, many of the theaters would put in one or two frames of a food product they were selling. One or two frames does not give us time to consciously see what is being show to us. However, subconsciously we the audience are effected by those images and many would get up to go buy their product. Luckily that tactic is against the law now, but there are many more ways for film to abuse an audiences mind. Just the difference between a high angle and a low angle in film is extreme. When we look up on someone we see them as a higher power. Looking down on someone is way to belittle the person. Film can distort shapes and color, to get a curtain emotion out of an audience. Sound can be used to get inside someones head. A filmmaker literally can use film as a weapon to abuse us and make us feel and even act a curtain way. World War II is a great example of the power of film. The German film Triumph of the Will is considered one of the most powerful films of all time because of the influence it had on the German people in trusting Hitler and his Nazi party.

There are many films that are made by amateur filmmakers that express violence and abuse in extremely unhealthy ways. There have been numerous films posted on the internet that express many misconceptions  about minority races and people with different sexual orientations. There have been cases of individuals killing themselves because of videos going public that represented them in a negative or unpopular light. Visual media is a powerful tool that is often misused by youth because no one has taught them how to use it or what kind of power it really has.

If we started to teach just as much through visual means as we do through verbal linguistic means, we would see more students succeed in school. As a student in middles school and high school, I often was frustrated at the very lopsided concentration my teachers and councilors gave to verbal linguistic learning. There really was no film classes at my school and the art classes felt like a joke. Grades for art class had nothing to do with the artists skill, just whether or not you completed all the requirements. For subjects like math and science we were graded on what we knew and how well we  could express what we knew on a written test. Thus, in math and science where I did not test well and my “skill” level was not very good, my grade suffered. However, with art I concentrated more on developing my skill then getting all the requirements done, and my grades suffered again.

The image is just as powerful as the letter. It is completely unfair to have one side be judged based on how good you are and the other judged on whether you can complete the bare minimum. It is also ridiculous that our resources are so lob sided. There are still many schools that don’t offer film classes. The reason why so many watch movies is because the visual medium speaks to them. Film is a powerful tool that can influence us in many ways. We can literally see how a professional perfects his craft through film, we can experience history through film, and we can be manipulated and abused through film. Everything depends on how we treat the medium and whether or not we give it the recognition it deserves.