A Dreamer Walking

The Business of Creativity

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on January 6, 2015

While talking to Kim Masters, the host of The Business, director Alejandro González Iñárritu explained how hard it was to find funding for his latest project Birdman. The film revolves around a washed up actor who needs to get over his ultra-ego that takes the form of the superhero Birdman- the character who he became famous playing- in order to find new meaning in life. The movie was hard to finance because it was an original piece and gave a strong critique about our idolization of the “superhero”. Talking to Masters it was clear Iñárritu’s greatest beef about Hollywood was with the superhero movie. He stated many of the superhero movies Hollywood is creating have no soul and are without meaning. Iñárritu compared today’s common “epic” to fast-food; it may make you feel good now but in fifteen minutes you will be vomiting. His main point was we are so addicted to gore, violence, and explosions we have lost the patience to observe human nature. Iñárritu said even his kids are uninterested in the kind of films that taught him about humanity. The very thing that attracted someone like Iñárritu to filmmaking in the first place seems to be all but irrelevant in the world we now live in.

I personally think Iñárritu’s views are a little more cynical then mine. This would make sense since Iñárritu’s in his 50’s now and has made a career out of fighting the Hollywood system to get his films made, and I am a young naive film student just venturing out into the abyss some like to call “the film business”. But none-the-less Iñárritu’s comments are worth considering.

Where Iñárritu often goes the cynical rout, with movies like Biutiful and Babel, I am more drawn to an optimistic look on life and consider optimistic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, and Frank Capra to be some of my greatest role-models. These filmmakers made a living by telling stories that resonated with a wide audience. The problem Iñárritu has with most movies which resonate with a vast audience is the way these blockbusters generate their appeal. When talking about the common epic Iñárritu said, “It’s a very black and white world where there is no interest in anybody’s gray-zone or complexity”. Iñárritu has a point. The common “good vs. evil” plot we see in most wide released films has a huge impact on the way we see the world. Iñárritu believes these exaggerated extremes in movies are responsible for the “you are either for or against us” mentality most of the modern world has. We don’t see humans as real people anymore. Rather they become good or evil. There is no middle ground. You can see this black and white mindset displayed in almost every political issue out there. You are either right or left, pro-war or pacifist, for immigration or against it. And depending on where you stand on any of these issues you are either an ally or the enemy. And we all know we can’t submit an inch to “the enemy”. NO WONDER NOTHING GETS DONE AROUND HERE! However, I digress.

In order to explore humanity we need to be able to see the “gray-zone”. What frustrates me about so many of the Superhero movies coming out of late is there is never a question about the hero’s morality. Let’s take a lovable character like Wolverine for instance. The guy is a killing machine. Those bad-ass claws inevitably end up cutting into numerous people in each movie we see. I remember watching X-Men 2, one of my favorite superhero films by the way, and seeing the clawed beast back stab two soldiers, armed with tranquilizers, and leave them lifeless on the floor. There was absolutely no reference back to the incident. The bottom line is killing people is way cooler if you don’t really think about the consequences. But X-Men 2 was way back in 2003.  Studios have gone on to destroy whole cities with hardly any lip service given to the consequences after the fact.

Any kind of drama outside of the action scenes seems to be put there for the sole purpose of walking out the plot. The heroes morality is never really questioned to any extreme because the producers need to make sure the viewers’ butts are in the seats for the sequel (or should I say sequels). Iñárritu explained in his interview he was,  “fascinated by the human complexity”. The problem is “complexity” is not a bankable concept in Hollywood. The deeper we go into a characters psyche the more chance we have of pissing someone off. Though I have already stated Frank Capra is one of my favorite filmmakers, I just read an interesting article slating him for creating characters who were “larger then life”- who speak with a greater eloquence, confidence, and rhythm then anyone we would see in real life. I, along with other Capra supporters, would say Capra gave us an ideal to strive for with his characters. However, I do think the point made by his critics – that his movie over simplify the problems and over idolize the heroes- is an accurate one. Though I am willing to give those tendencies a bit of slack for the 1930’s I am truly dismayed when I look at our tendencies today and see we haven’t gotten much better. In some ways we have gotten worse. At least it felt like Capra actually believed in the ideals he expressed in his movies. Today the “ideals” and “character growth” in big blockbuster films seem like an afterthought. Iñárritu said his kids forget what most of the movies they go to were just a week or two after watching them.

The bottom line is Hollywood wants to make it’s audience happy. They want us to be entertained. It makes for good business for the client to be satisfied. The only problem is the businessman by himself can’t satisfy. The product is what the audience wants. And in the medium of film the product has become stale. We know the difference between an original and recycled product. Film is a creative medium but most of the decision makers in the “film-business” don’t come from creative backgrounds. So all their decisions end up being made on the defensive. It takes creativity to be on the offensive. The stories end up being recycled both in name (the remake of the remake) and in themes (“Oh, look at that. Another happy ending.”).

I believe the greatest point Iñárritu’s made was about the school system and how many film-schools are teaching their students how to satisfy big companies rather then teaching them how to discover who they are and how to express themselves on screen. Cinema will truly be dead when the filmmaker’s main objective is to satisfy the moneymakers rather then one’s personal vision. I am not saying filmmakers don’t need to be financially responsible with making films. Filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative medium. It can literally involve thousands of people, all of whom need to make a living. But if we begin to try to make films that satisfy everyone we will end up satisfying no one. The audience will begin to grow tired with the simplicity that comes with black and white storytelling. To be honest they already have. Theater attendance is lower then it has been for two decades. What cinema needs, what our world needs, is storytelling that explores all the shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow.

Free Film School!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 4, 2014

I am sad to announce I am taking a blog break. I know it probably looks like I already took a blog break. I mean come on! I was on such a role for a while posting a paper every week or less for several months. But then summer came. The time I was supposed to be the least busy I ended up doing a bunch of things. Only half of the stuff I ended up doing was really productive, but the bottom line is I have really let down the few followers I have for this blog and I do apologize for that.

So I will be taking the rest of the month off and then try to maintain a post a week from the beginning of September to the foreseeable future. I thought I would leave you guys however with a bunch of links to really productive information and study material for those interested in the foundations of film and storytelling.

Filmmaking:

  • Cinephilia and Beyond: This might be the most valuable resource out there for all things film. Cinephilia is on a unstoppable mission to find as many interviews, articles, and documentaries on filmmaking around the internet. If you have a particular filmmaker in mind just do a search on Cinephilia’s site and you will most likely find a huge archive of information. P.S. you should also follow Cinephilia on Twitter!
  • DP/30: My advice is for you go get a pen and paper and start taking notes on interviews. David Poland has been able to accumulate hundreds of hours worth of interviews of some of the biggest names out there. His subjects range from actors, writers, directors, and sometimes a popular Cinematographer or Editor. Because of the length of his interviews (majority of them going 30 min or longer) Poland is able to go into much more depth then an average interview has time for. Poland studied filmmaking in collage and has a deep knowledge of it’s history which only helps raise his interviews to another level.
  • The Treatment: Elvis Mitchell is yet another great interviewer who is determined to go beyond the common insights a writer or director gives in most of their interviews. You can also find Elvis’ more recent interviews free on iTunes.
  • 35 MM: Here is a Vimeo group that collects tones of Vimeo videos dealing with film. These are a little more hit-or-miss but there are certainly some gems worth looking into.
  • Steven Benedict Podcast: How this guy isn’t known by every cinephile out there is beyond me. Though considerably short compared to other material I linked to, Benedict is a true student of film and gives deep insights on each one of the movies he goes into. My suggestion is you download his podcasts on iTunes and listen to them while on your way to work or something.
  • [micro] TUTORIALS: Here you can find a vast archive of film production tutorials. [micro] is determined to provide you with a wealthy amount of free information to get started in digital filmmaking. Their subject matter ranges from pre-production through post-production and will give the beginning film student many hours worth of material to study in order to make his or her first film.

Animation:

  • Deja View: This is the sight of the famous animator Andreas Deja. His knowledge of animation history (especially Disney’s history) is superb. As the lead animator for classic characters like Jafar from Aladdin, Scare from The Lion King, and Lilo from Lilo and Stitch its obvious he has a vast understanding of the principles of animation and with everyone of his posts he goes into more and more detail about those principles and the animators responsible for creating them.
  • Temple of The Seven Golden Camels: The author of this blog, Mark Kennedy, is a storyboard artist for Disney Animation. Unlike most animator blogs I visit, Kennedy is determined to go into detail about the nuances of telling good stories. His focus usually is storyboarding which basically means he goes into all kinds of different principles of animation- staging, costuming, action, design, etc… Though sometimes long winded it’s obvious Kennedy knows his subject matter and he provides valuable insight in each one of his posts.
  • Splog: Sadly this blog hasn’t been updated since February. However, I am sure you will find enough in the archives to keep you busy for several months. Michael Sporn and his artists give a much more well rounded example of the history of Animation and many of the blog’s posts go into great detail about well known and long lost pieces of animation through out it’s rich history.
  • Podcasts: Rather then pick one of these I thought I would just link to several of them. Here are several valuable podcasts on animation I have listened to through out the years. Each one features interviews of people working in the field of animation and are quite valuable for anyone interested in going into the field themselves. I will post the links to their sites but the majority of the podcasts can be found also on iTunes. 1. The Animation Podcast 2. Spline Doctors 3. Speaking of Animation 4. iAnimate.

Writing:

  • Writing Excuses: Each fifteen minute podcast carries a wealth of information about writing and story structure. The podcast is also extremely entertaining and quite humerus. The four hosts are all well known authors and have a great chemistry with each other. They are usually able to cover a lot of ground with the little time they have. The podcast has also been around since 2008 and thus has a huge archive. I suggest you subscribe to their iTunes page; they post a podcast consistently every week.
  • The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Here you will find interviews all kinds of writers across the medium of film. Jeff Goldsmith is a wonderful interviewer with a great upbeat attitude. Best of all is he knows story and the questions he asks are always informative and allow us deeper into the creation process. His lengthy archive can be found on iTunes as well.
  • Scriptnotes: John August and Craig Mazin are two established screenwriters in Hollywood and every week come out with a full hour long podcast covering all things writing. The two personalities work wonderfully with each other and they also at times have guests who share their personal insights on how to be a screenwriter in the daunting world of Hollywood. Not only do these guys have good screenwriting advice they go into the politics of working in Hollywood. Here is the link to their iTunes page.

Film Criticism:

  • The /Filmcast: This is one of the most enjoyable podcasts I listen to weekly. The hosts, David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Jeff Cannata are all bonafide film geeks who love talking movies. David Chen is one of the best hosts out there; someone who can just be himself while keeping a strong grasp on the conversation so it doesn’t get out of hand. I listen to these guys more for entertainment, but occasionally they can provide some fantastic insight on the film premiering that week. And due to their “What have you been watching?” segment I occasionally hear about a really interesting film I would never have discovered on my own. The best way to listen to these guys is via iTunes.
  • Filmspotting: This is the modern day version of Siskel and Ebert. Though maybe not quite as oppositional and competitive the two hosts, Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, do a wonderful job expressing their thoughts on the latest movie of the week. Rather then go with the typical blockbuster Adam and Josh usually concentrate on more Independent films. A common visitor of the podcast is the famous critic Michael Phillips who was also a common visitor on Roger Ebert’s Ebert Presents show. The show is now known for ending with their top 5 list which allows the audience in on just how vast these critics knowledge of filmmaking is. This is by far the podcast with the largest archive, just recently celebrating it’s 500th episode. This is also a great podcast to listen to on iTunes.

Well there you have it. These links have turned out to be invaluable in my pursuit to becoming a great storyteller. It’s just a small example of how much you can learn for free outside the realm of a collage. I hope you enjoy and feel free to leave a comment if you have links to more valuable filmmaking resources!

Pixar Was My Dream

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2014

As soon as I heard John Lasseter, creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, speak these words, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”, I knew he was talking directly to me. I spent countless hours learning from the heads of Pixar. I took notes on all the Pixar movie commentaries and looked up countless interviews online. I bought books on Pixar and have religiously gone to every one of their movies. The studio sounded like a dream land where artists could ride around on scooters, play volley ball and ping pong, and were given a free breakfast with every brand of cereal imaginable. I had created an image of a studio without flaws. A studio who treated everyone fairly and would do anything for the sake of creating a great story.

Then the ideal image I had of Pixar began to crumble. It’s what every child goes through when they create an idol out of  flawed human beings. Little by little I began to realize the studio I came to love was not the great haven I had dreamed of. In 2006 Pixar was bought by Disney, a company who had shown numerous times they cared about profit more then anything else. The studio who had always claimed to be “director driven” began to replace more and more of their directors. The people who had birthed ideas such as “A rat who wants to cooks” or “A young girl who isn’t interested in conforming to the typical princess mold” were taken off of their projects and replaced with other artists. The main reason given for making these changes was because Pixar was not willing to settle for the mediocre. But then they produced Cars 2 which I and almost every critic out there believed was a full buffet of mediocrity. Key artists began to leave Pixar. Jan Pinkava, Brenda Champman, and Doug Sweetland are a few of the big name artists to go other places with their award winning talents.

Lasseter’s quote keeps flashing in my head, “I want someone who has this burning desire to tell a story that they want to tell”. See, I have a burning desire to tell stories. They are my most valuable possessions. With this quote Lasseter is saying he wants me to share my greatest desires with him. However, in order for me to share these desires with Lasseter, Pixar’s president Ed Catmull, and the rest of the leadership at Pixar I must first trust them.

I know Lasseter understands the power of trust. See, Pixar would not be Pixar if it weren’t for a group of rebellious artists who were willing to go all in with each other. For the first ten years of owning Pixar Steve Jobs lost money, yet he trusted Lasseter and his storytelling abilities to consistently write checks to him so he could continue to make animated shorts, which eventually lead to Lasseter directing Pixar’s first full length feature, Toy Story. John Lasseter trusted two artists with no directing experience, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, to helm the first Pixar movies not directed by him, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. And at the pinnacle of their success the heads of Pixar trusted a director who had just come off of a box office flop, Brad Bird, to completely shake up the studio’s routine and make the first Pixar movie to star humans and earn a PG rating, The Incredibles. Yet, in recent years trust seems to be hard thing for Lasseter to find. The last three Pixar movies had different directors at the beginning of their production. The movies ended up keeping their usual quality look but suffering from unoriginal storytelling.

Though Lasseter and the other creative heads are struggling to trust their artists it’s clear they still want their artists to trust them. The two main leaders of Pixar, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, have continued to claim the most important thing about their studio is the artists. However, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Pixar is words are cheap. In his most recent book, Creative Inc., Ed Catmull talked about the illusion of value that comes with curtain sayings. When Pixar began to create numerous successes one of their greatest sayings was, “Story is king”. However, Catmull found Pixar was not the only one saying story was the most important thing. Everyone was saying it. Catmull realized words were cheap when it came to talking about what creates success. What would separate Pixar was the walking out of the things they said.

A few weeks ago a story by the site PandoDaily came out detailing Ed Catmull’s involvement in the illegal activity of trying to fix employees’ wages. People whose net worth are in the hundreds of millions, such as Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Steve Jobs, were working to make deals with other studios in order to keep their employees’ wages at a minimum while assuring artists would not jump ship in pursuit of better deals. In a more recent development PandoDaily showed how Ed Catmull was actually a ring leader for this illegal wage-fixing activity. This evidence shown in the article spits in the face of Catmull’s claims to be a studio for the artists. Instead of paying his artists what they were worth he adamantly tried to get as many studios in the region to agree to not pursue each others employees. And when Sony Animation refused to follow the guidelines Catmull was enraged. As soon as Sony began going through a hard time and was selling part of their special effects division Catmull advocated for “aggressively going after Sony people”.

The studio has officially fallen from the great pedestal on which it once comfortably sat. The artist seems to only be as useful as his ideas. The quote that once inspired me, “I want someone who has a burning desire to tell a story they want to tell”, now feels more sinister then encouraging. In the last two weeks there has been no response from Pixar to the PondoDaily articles. All the fan sites who claim to be news sources for the Pixar Studio, such as Pixar Times, Upcoming Pixar, and Pixar Post, have neglected to even mention the controversy; most likely out of fear of repercussions from the company. The truth is this story probably will just go away. The majority of the world will never know about Pixar management’s involvement in these illegal wage-fixing activities.

I am writing this post however to tell Pixar I know. And I am ashamed of you. You were my teachers. You gave me a passion to tell stories and created the foundations of my views on filmmaking. My dream was to tell my stories at Pixar. I didn’t want to tell these stories for the sake of fame, acclaim, or money. What drove me and what drives me still is the same thing that drove Ed Catmull to want to make the first full length computer animated feature 20 years before anyone else thought it was possible. It’s the same thing that drove Lasseter to stay at work and sleep under his desk in order to finish animation for the first full length animated short The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It’s the same thing that drove the artists working at the studio to create an unbelievable streak of eleven box office and critically acclaimed films in a row. What drives me is this burning desire to tell the stories I want to tell. And I will tell them with or without Pixar. Everything depends on if the studio can regain the thing that drives creative collaboration the most, our trust.