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July 14, 2013

women in animation 2013

by sven at 1:56 pm

While putting films in sequence for this year's NW Animation Fest, I was struck by the scarcity of female characters. Because gender interests me, I decided to throw together some quick statistics to study what's going on.

My data set consists of the 154 films that were selected for screening at our 2013 festival. Here's what I found:

(In the program, who did we list on the film's "created by" line?)
66% Male
19% Female
15% both / name of studio only

66% Male
20% Female
14% none (abstract or unidentifiable)

If we stopped there, you might guess that men exclusively make films about men, and women make films about women. But there's actually a stronger bias at work.

72% Male protagonist
12% Female protagonist
17% abstract, or gender of protagonist is unidentifiable

41% Male protagonist
48% Female protagonist
10% abstract, or gender of protagonist is unidentifiable

(creators of more than one gender listed, or name of studio only)
83% Male protagonist
13% Female protagonist
4% abstract, or gender of protagonist is unidentifiable

What I see here is that when women make a film, they create female protagonists about 1/2 the time. But when men make films, they create male protagonists about 3/4 the time. Group projects feature male protagonists about 4/5 the time.

It seems intuitive that artists would have a bias toward creating protagonists that look like themselves. But this is not really the case. Women seem to have a fairly egalitarian interest in both men and women. Men, in contrast, tend to take a male-identified point of view.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: nw animation festival, writing

May 26, 2013

animation interview with shelby clanton

by sven at 10:18 pm

Students sometimes write, asking me to respond to interview questions for a class assignment. Occasionally I say yes. This interview was for Shelby Clanton at Skagit Valley College in Washington state.

1. What do you think of the current state of animation?

"Animation" is an umbrella term that encompasses several methods of filmmaking whose fates are often at odds with one another.

We are at a moment in history when "traditional" hand-drawn animation is suffering and becoming more rare. Many view animating computer-rendered simulations of 3D objects as a more certain career path — and they're probably right. Hand-drawn animation depends greatly upon individual talent, whereas the ability to endlessly edit CG files appears to give studio management more freedom to swap employees in and out. Note that in recent weeks Disney has (once again) decimated its hand-drawn animation department.

Meanwhile, stop-motion animation is going through a renaissance. Multiple feature-length stop-motion films in a single year would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. The evolution of technology — digital cameras plus framegrabbing software — has made this method much more accessible than it once was. Also, in an age when nearly every image we see in the public sphere has been Photoshopped, there is something refreshing about an art form that uses real physical objects to perform its magic tricks.

Film in general is increasingly indistinguishable from animation. In most live-action films, there's not a single frame that hasn't been digitally retouched and manipulated in some way. However, Hollywood has terribly abused the special effects houses that are responsible for so many of its blockbusters' memorable moments. It was a pivotal moment at the 2013 Academy Awards this year when "The Life of Pi" was taking home the Oscar — while Rhythm & Hues (which did the effects work) was simultaneously filing for bankruptcy.

The most important thing affecting the art form right now, however, transcends animation. In 2012, celluloid film effectively came to an end. As one writer put it, every film print is now an archival print. A hundred years of film history now enters a period of physical decay, and any plans to preserve our cinematic past are haphazard at best. By the same token, films made in the digital era are only as archival as the harddrives they're stored on — which generally aren't expected to last more than 5 years. Whatever independent film you watch in 2013, ask yourself: will this film still exist in any form ten years from now?

2. Where do you think animation is going in the future?

In the realm of CG, mingling motion capture with with frame-by-frame animation is the way forward. Live action and CG characters will continue to become increasingly interchangeable and indistinguishable.

In the realm of stop-motion, LAIKA is doing the most innovative, ground-breaking work using 3D printers to generate precisely modeled objects for replacement animation.

2D animation seems to be moving along a historical path similar to that of painting. It holds a respected position as the archetype of animation — but most industry work is now entirely software-based. Just as the camera is better able than drawing to capture photo-realistic images, so too CG has laid claim to the realm of realism. Most 2D artists distinguish themselves with various forms of expressionism. Doing realistic hand-drawn work is no longer deemed an important goal, but is instead (unfairly) seen as a sort of stunt pulled off by obsessive masochists.

3. What do you think are some animation trends that people will be seeing in upcoming film releases?

Disney. Pixar. Dreamworks. LAIKA. Aardman. When you think about upcoming film releases, are these the companies you're thinking of? In the USA, Disney will continue its princess franchise. Snarky CG animals will continue to come out each summer until a few films in a row are terrible box-office bombs, or the companies collapse financially for other reasons — such as decreased revenue due to competition from Netflix, Hulu, and the like. A few major players will put out stop-motion films, at the very least keeping a foot in the game to avoid ceding complete control of the field.

More interesting, I think, are the inroads that films from other countries are beginning to make into the US. Studio Ghibli releases are now anticipated as major events. A few Polish films have made it into theatrical distribution in the US recently. With the teen-generation phenomena of K-Pop, I'm very curious to see if Korean animation will begin to gain popularity.

Animation certainly exists in the Cineplex — but there is also a whole separate culture of films that live in the festival circuit and art house cinemas. In these independent channels, what's most exciting is to see feature-length films being released without the support of studios. Bill Plympton's "Cheatin'," Christiane Cegavske's "Blood Tea and Red String," and M dot Strange's "We are the Strange" are all recent feature-length films created essentially by a single individual, which nonetheless made it into circulation. Crowd-sourced films are also an exciting new development just emerging on the scene — particularly in the realm of CG, where software is commonly available, and models can be shared via online transfer.

4. What is your favorite style of animation?

Personally, I have a deep love for stop-motion puppet films. Story-wise, I adore an artist who can dip into fantasy, surrealism or magic realism — while simultaneously delving into subtle, carefully observed emotions on the part of the story's characters. "The Eagleman Stag" by Mikey Please and "Belly" by Julia Pott are excellent recent examples. (Both are available on Vimeo.)

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

August 8, 2012

truths about animation

by sven at 4:58 am

  1. Animation is literally magic, breathing life into something inanimate.

  2. Animation is diverse, encompassing many possible methods, media, and technologies.

  3. Animation is a serious art form with enormous potential for creative expression.

  4. It is possible to do things with animation that cannot be done in any other art form.

  5. Animation is often misunderstood, being identified solely with kids, comedy and computers.

  6. Many people enjoy mainstream animation; few have seen much independent animation.

  7. To artists, the appeal of animation is being able to turn any daydream into an external, living, sharable vision.

  8. Trading hours of real life for seconds of life on screen is laborious and isolating.

  9. The amount of labor that animation requires makes it an extremely expensive art form.

  10. To justify the effort, animators need audiences and hope for money.

  11. Indie animation is almost entirely a genre of short films.

  12. As with shorts in general, most films' only chance of getting sold is through compilations.

  13. Festivals excel at compiling films for audiences.

  14. Despite occasional screening fees, distribution deals and prizes, showing at festivals is unlikely to earn a typical animator any significant money.

  15. Festivals provide filmmakers with an audience's human reactions to their work.

  16. The emotional reactions of a crowd are different from those of an individual or small group.

  17. It is easier to watch difficult films when they are interspersed with fun ones.

  18. If audience members don't feel like they had enough fun at a festival, they won't come back.

  19. When people return to a festival annually, it begins to feel like a kind of family reunion.

  20. Though premised on screening films, festivals should emphasize and support the individuals endeavoring to create art.

  21. Animators are more likely to persist and thrive when they feel connected to a supportive community.

  22. Seeing other people's work helps inspire animators to make new films.

  23. Anyone with a desire to animate can learn the basic principles quite quickly.

  24. The main requirements for doing animation are enthusiasm and patience.

  25. Emerging artists benefit from seeing a huge number of short indie films, as a way to become literate.

  26. There is more to be learned from studying flawed films than perfect ones.

  27. Master animators develop by continuing to make more films, experimenting and trying improve upon previous projects.

  28. Animation evolves as an art form through a dialectic of animators making creative responses to one another's work.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: nw animation festival, writing

April 27, 2012

stopmo interview with elizabeth carmona

by sven at 2:40 am

Sven Bonnichsen, interviewee

Elizabeth Carmona, a graphic design student in El Salvador, is doing her graduation thesis research on stop-motion. She found my work via StopMotionAnimation.com and asked for an interview. I have a hard time saying no to pontificating about the subject — particularly if it might help an emerging artist — so here's what came of it...

Eliza: Thanks a lot for your answer and for agreeing to help me!

I'm doing a guide about "How to do stopmotion animation", and I was reading your site and it has such a wonderful information about the technique (I specially find really useful and interesting the essay about pros and contras of cg, and the aesthetics of stopmotion) and the way you've been experimentating with armatures. 

So for the interview I wanted to ask you:

Why did you choose stop-motion?

Sven: Stop-motion is something that I've wanted to do since I was maybe 6 years old. I read books about animation and special effects because I was in love with Star Wars and films like it. But animation seemed impossible then. I just couldn't see myself shooting on film and then having to send it off for developing. In 2002, one of the books I'd read as a child — The Animation Book, by Kit Laybourne — was republished with new material about computers. Suddenly it dawned on me: all you need now to do animation is a computer — and I've already got one of those. So I started doing motion graphics and kinestasis using AfterEffects. But it still felt like something was missing. I enrolled for a hands-on class about shooting Super8, so I could say I'd at least tried using celluloid. In the process of doing that, I finally got my chance to try stop-motion. And when I did, I was hooked. It was like a fever. For at least a year, it seemed like I did nothing but study stop-motion and experiment with puppet-making materials. I could talk about the various things I love about stop-motion — how you're making real, tangible objects come to life (magic!) — but the attraction goes beyond reason. I bonded with stop-motion at a young age, and late in life am unable to shake its gravitational pull.

Explorations in Super8

Who have been your influences?

I fell in love with Star Wars, King Kong, all of Ray Harryhausen's films... There's a lineage there, that goes from Willis O'Brien to Uncle Ray to Phil Tippett. But while the sci fi / fantasy stuff is ingrained in my bones, it's actually the more stylized, artsy puppet animation that I'm interested in making myself. There's another lineage: which goes from Vladislav Starevich's The Cameraman's Revenge to George Pal's Puppetoons to Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas. In the current scene, I'm most inspired by folks like Jeff Riley (Operation: Fish), Neil Burns (The Nose), Nick Hilligoss (L'Animateur), and Barry Purves (Tchaikovsky - an elegy). 

Phil Tippet's AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back

From where do you take inspiration for a new story or character? what comes first for you?

I'm very interested in process. Story and character are important, but pretty much everything I've done so far has begun from wanting to tackle a specific technical challenge: such as lipsync or replacement faces. Time has also often been a consideration — challenging myself to make a film in a set number of days or weeks. I find that by starting with the limitations I want to obey, I'm less likely to get sucked into attempting a project that's too big to be completed in a tolerable amount of time.

a project that started as an experiment in lipsync

While making the puppet, what are the most important things you consider?

A puppet is only as good as its armature. To get really nuanced movement, you want to have a ball and socket armature. So I've spent a lot of time learning how to create professional-level steel armatures using a milling machine and lathe. Armatures are interesting to me as an art form unto themselves, though. Most puppets I've actually animated — and truth-be-told, the majority of puppets in professional studios — have wire armatures. Frankly, the benefit of being able to create a puppet quickly is usually more important than having one that's perfect.

Besides the armature, I also want puppets that have a very sculpted look. With build-up puppets, you can do a lot with hard body parts made from Super Sculpey or epoxy clays (such as Magic Sculpt, Milliput, or Apoxie). Given the look I want, though, I'm naturally drawn to mold-making and casting puppets in foam latex or silicone. I've had some successful experiments, but am still in working on really learning the skills.

armature I built for the Eminem SuperBowl commercial

What materials you prefer to use and why?

Every material has a place in the puppet-maker's toolkit. A puppet's head might be made from polymer clay in order to gain more working time while sculpting — whereas the hands and feet might be made of quick-curing epoxy (much stronger) to avoid being broken, since they're so close to high-stress joints. For humanoid puppets I like to use hard parts whenever possible, so that I don't have to fuss with re-sculpting soft clay mid-shot. But, on the other hand, I also like working with clay on its own terms. I think that animating with clay can be like having a 3-dimensional sketchbook... It allows you to improvise and explore ideas in ways that build-up and cast puppets don't. For any kind of artist, I think it's important to make improvisation a regular practice. Make elegant puppets — but also play with shapeless blobs. Ultimately, I think it's good to avoid getting stuck in one set of materials; you should strive to have all of them at your disposal, and know which is right for a particular job.

still from my clay animation film, Mutate

In your point of view, how does social media and technology influence modern stop-motion animation?

Stop-motion has undergone a technological revolution in the past 15 years. With the advent of frame-grabbing software, animators have the ability to toggle back and forth between frames, making sure that they're getting the shot they want. Before this, animators used tools like surface gages (many still do) — but mostly had to rely on sheer mental focus to keep track of what bits were changing between shots. Subtle stop-motion is still challenging — but far easier now that you can check your work before committing.

The internet and forums such as StopMotionAnimation.com and AnimateClay.com have also played a huge role in stop-motion's renaissance. It used to be extremely difficult to find good information about how to make our specialized puppets. Now there's an active online community where masters and amateurs co-mingle, solving problems and learning from one another. Some of the magic may have been lost in the process of revealing the art form's secrets — but as a result, an art that once seemed on the brink of extinction is prospering again.

I think stop-motion is particularly suited to communal discussion, too. With computer animation, it can be challenging to explain what's going wrong with your software. Stop-motion, by contrast, is all about craft projects. "Show and tell" is much more intuitive when you're working with real, tangible materials like clay and wire and foam.

using a framegrabber to shoot Mutate

The web is a godsend for stop-motion animators as people. It's difficult enough to find in-the-flesh communities of animators. When you do, stopmoes are usually a minority. Being able to Google "stop motion" and find a bunch of people doing the same sort of work breaks the isolation — and then allows friendships to form. My most valued circle of stopmo friends is made up of individuals living in Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Atlanta... While I'm all the way up here in Portland. We keep up with each other via show-and-tell on our blogs, through "hey, have you seen this?" emails, and the background noise of Twitter. We've kept tabs on one another during hurricanes and earthquakes, when there's a medical crisis, or when someone just goes missing for a while. ...But of course, that story of "internet relationships extending into the real world" has been true for many types of online affinity groups, not just our own.

Technologically, the most curious thing to me is seeing stop-motion beginning to become indistinguishable from computer animation. The advent of rapid-prototyping 3D printers means that objects for stop-motion are being created first in the computer, then translated into real sapce. Motion control cameras allow dizzying moves that were the sole purview of CG not long ago. When Coraline came out, the stop-motion community seemed torn about how to feel... On the one hand, the technological accomplishment was unprecedented. On the other, the quirky jerky movement usually associated with our hand-made films seemed to be disappearing.

Since Coraline, rapid prototyping technology has spread rapidly among professional stop-motion studios... And it looks like LAIKA's follow-up to Coraline — titled ParaNorman — will push the limits of technology even further. I have no crystal ball — but it seems like in the near future, most of what CG can do (with the exception of large crowd scenes) will be able to be accomplished in stop-motion with nearly identical results. Then what? ...Frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation has been on the wane for a while — perhaps it will have a resurgence. We crave uniqueness. Just as with stop-motion, what's currently being ignored will soon start to look fresh and new.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: stopmo, writing

March 11, 2011

suffering manager promoted

by gl. at 5:33 pm

sven & i have a writing night in the studio; we take turns bringing prompts. "suffering manager promoted" was the result of 3 slips of paper sven drew from a box, and led to us both writing 10-minute freewriting fictions that cracked us up:

The suffering manager works at a convenience store. A store which, naturally, specializes in suffering. The suffering manager oversees the employees: irritation, melancholy, bowel-quivering horror, and tear-stained pillows. Irritation is the most reliable worker—always on time, always willing to take a shift. Tear-stained pillows is in charge of furniture in general… Beds that one doesn't get out of in the morning, exotic fainting settees. Melancholy comes and goes on her own time, seemingly ignoring time cards, moping on the floor next to the refrigerated beers' glass door with an unlit cigarette. Bowel-quaking horror cleans up the restroom with a 9-year-old mop and dispenses menthols with a wide-eyed, dilated sense of doom. Suffering manager oversees them all, tries to schedule them so that X can have Valentine's Day off with her boyfriend, Y can attend his grandfather's funeral… And come back with bloodshot eyes, stinking of alcohol. Suffering manager deserves better than this… Dreams of a quiet job in the pharmacy, metering out pills that an assistant patiently explains to the customers. His days of dealing with time cards are numbered, he thinks with relief. Promotion promotion promotion! The letter in the mail though—not what he expected. He's been fired from the Convenience Suffering Mart. The thing about it: he's just not sure how to feel.

whoo hoo! i finally got promoted to misery manager! i’ve been waiting for this day for ages, ever since i started as the mild angst receptionist so many years ago. i have big plans to move all the way up to the ceo of hopelessness and despair, but i have to take one step at a time. i am going to go home tonight and find myself some company, drink some champagne and complain about how much i hate my job. it’s great to be paid for something i already love to do. sometimes i imagine what it’s like to work for the happy happy happy corporations, the ones that manufacture smiles and good cheer, the ones that require a song and dance from each employee every morning to prove they still belong there. i get chills thinking about how horrible it must be to be so cheerful and delightful. they have to call in sick when they get sad. i even know someone who was fired when they got overwhelmed with depression, and is now much happier working for us. of course, the one thing both companies agree on is that nobody wants to work for ennui, inc. nothing gets done there. moping and listlessness have a very minor marketplace niche. it works for some, but it will never be a big player in the emotional ecosystem. when i go to work tomorrow as the new misery manager, i’m going to call a big departmental meeting to get feedback about what we should be doing to make the world a more miserable place. for instance, i’m really proud of our legislative action team, which is doing great things in the U.S. political arena. i want to find a way to reward them.

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

February 14, 2010

be my valentine

by gl. at 12:01 am

this valentine's day marks the fifth year of the scarlet star studios blog! happy blogiversary!


sven & i attend a free first friday writing group hosted by ibex studios. this month one of the quick 10-minute prompts was to write a letter to something we loved, so here's a letter i wrote to my beloved ebike, rose:

dearest rose:

you were not my first love and you will not be my last. you are not even my best loved love, but i want you to know that knowing you has changed my life forever. you are beautiful and curvy, strong and swift. many people comment on your grace and beauty, but few suspect what you are capable of and i love sharing this secret between us. even more, i love flying with you beneath blue skies, when the day is free and the world is wide and my heart is open. i love riding with you in the sunlight, the moonlight and even when the snow twinkles in the streetlights. i feel like a better person when i am with you: strong, brave, lighthearted and ready for adventure.


then we wrote a 10-minute story about a date using several words drawn from a bowl:

i escaped to the bathroom of a new orleans strip club, and if there had been a window i probably would have climbed out of it to escape my date, a judge with a very large gavel -- if you know what i mean. though he was sociable and very, very generous, i finally had to flee from the pounding music and flashing lights and ask myself what the heck i was doing here, anyway. the question answered itself in the form of Mary, who was just leaving the bathroom as i pushed the door open. “watch it, hon!” she said, not unkindly. i did. i couldn’t take my eyes off her. i don’t suppose this is the story we’ll tell our grandchildren about how we met.

[words drawn: new orleans strip club, sociable, generous, present, gavel]

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: miscellany, writing

July 30, 2009

essay: stopmo webcomics

by sven at 10:40 pm

What if you created stopmo clips as if you were producing content for a webcomic?

Imagine: an ongoing series of 10-20 second clips that get published once a week… Some are stand-alone gags -- but others are part of large, dramatic story arcs broken into bite-sized episodes. Keeping a strict update schedule is critical, and somewhat stressful… Yet, the pay-off is a loyal audience that builds watching your show into their personal weekly rituals.

For about the past month, I've been really excited about this idea. Here I'm going into "deep thought" mode to flesh out the details.


Amongst stopmoes, there are several popular role models. The Neo-Harryhausians (as I think of them) idolize "Uncle Ray" and yearn for the return of photorealistic stopmo monsters to feature films. Another group takes their inspiration from Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride -- as is often apparent from the Gothic/German Expressionist influences in their character/set designs. Yet another group longs to follow in the footsteps of Will Vinton, fondly recalling the heyday of the California Raisins.

Whether the role model is Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton, or Will Vinton, the career path that most stopmoes fantasize concludes with the publication of a feature-length film. The route to this goal is either a slow accrual of victories in the film festival circuit, ultimately leading to a deal with a big investor -- or the founding of one's own boutique studio, capable of taking on a multi-year project.

Lately, though, I've been looking to a different set of artists for inspiration.

I've become a loyal reader of several webcomics: Jeph Jacques' Questionable Content, Richard Stevens III's Diesel Sweeties, Randall Munroe's XKCD, Rene Ergstrom's Anders Loves Maria, Danielle Corsetto's Girls With Slingshots, to name a few. I've devoured the (live action) webisodes of Felicia Day's The Guild and Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I've eagerly awaited new webtoon episodes of Amy Winfrey's Making Fiends (and now Squid and Frog) and lost afternoons to Mike Chapman and Craig Zobel's flash cartoon Homestar Runner.

What do these artists' webcomics, webisodes, and webtoons have in common? They're all presenting story worlds in an episodic format, using the internet as their primary distribution media… And what's more, they're all independent artists that publish according to their own time-tables, maintain absolute creative control of their content, and earn a living from their publications.

Sounds appealing! So, while I still admire the works of Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton, and Will Vinton, I think it is these others that I want to be studying as I devise my potential career path.


Surveying webcomics, webisodes, and webtoons, I think that the clearest business model has emerged among the folks doing comics…

Actually, there are really two business models among webcomics: "fee-to-see" or "free-to-see." With fee-to-see, there's either a tip jar (honor system) -- or you get a free sample and then pay a subscription to get into the archives. With free-to-see, the archives are all available -- profits come from selling ads and selling merchandise. Among the folks I've been reading, fee-to-see has been roundly rejected (e.g. How to Make Webcomics by Kurtz, Straub, Kellett, & Guigar; Jeph Jacques' post titled comics comics comics)…

So I'm identifying the webcomic business model with publishing high-quality free-to-see content that attracts an audience, then selling ads and selling merch to make a profit.

Contrast this with how people in film culture (hope to) make their money. Feature films in the cineplex or at art house theaters are fee-to-see. You have to fill seats in order to make your investment back -- which necessitates a big promotional campaign of posters, TV ads, etc. If you're aiming at placing your film on TV, then it's essentially the broadcaster who's paying the fee-to-see -- or more properly in their case, fee-to-play.

And if you're not at a point in your career where you can get mass-market distributors to buy your content? Well, you can try to win award money in the festival circuit -- but you're pretty much back to selling merch -- your DVDs… Either setting up a table at the festivals, or by word-of-mouth / internet publicity.

Some filmmakers are thinking about how they can further monetize their pet projects by selling non-DVD merch… T-shirts, toys, and stickers derived from their films. However, I believe they're unlikely to create significant revenue streams through these efforts.

Why? It works for the webcomics, right?

Well, see the problem is that most filmmakers' shows are one-offs. The films may make a big splash the first time an audience sees them… But then the film is forgotten by the next day. An integral part of what makes webcomics' merch business feasible is that they're releasing new content daily, weekly, or monthly -- not just every few years. The frequency of release is what allows brand loyalty to develop, which is what really drives purchases.


Obviously you can't hope to put out feature-length stopmo films on a weekly basis. If you choose to increase the frequency of your releases, then the nature of your creations must also change.

I want to discuss how three interrelated issues will shape the form of your art: (a) release schedule, (b) length, (c) episodic structure.

Webcomics tend to update either daily or on something like a M-W-Fr schedule. Webtoons can get away with updating monthly; some flash cartoons manage to update weekly.

The longer the wait between new releases, the longer the clips you can create. However, the longer the wait for new releases, the more you lose your audience's attention. So, while there's an impulse to cram as much story as possible into each installment, personally I want to push myself to think in the opposite direction: What is the shortest video clip I can produce that still conveys a meaningful unit of comedy / drama?

Personally, I think that you could get away with publishing only 10-15 seconds of footage per week. If you have dialogue, that's just enough time to have Character A speak, Character B respond, and Character A react.

As an experiment, try taking a standard newspaper comic strip, 3-4 panels long, and read it aloud… 10-15 seconds is my best estimate. …The 3-4 panel comic strip is also a good comparison because each of those panels is the equivalent of a storyboard panel -- in which case, it seems you're looking to create episodes that are about 4 storyboard panels in length.

[Of course, if you want to publish on a monthly schedule -- 4 weeks worth of work -- you could probably get through 16 storyboard panels, and shoot about 60 seconds worth of footage.]

Won't working in such tiny segments cripple your ability to tell a story? …Not necessarily.

Once you commit to putting on a once-a-week show, you realize that there are two categories of episode: stand-alones, and serials. For stand-alones, think of "Garfield." When you read one episode of Garfield, you generally don't need to know anything about what came before, and aren't left wondering about what will come after. For serials, think of "Dick Tracy" or the old "Buck Rogers" cartoons. There's a storyline that carries on from week to week, which has continuity.

So here's something I'm interested in experimenting with… Take a graphic novel -- like Maus, Watchmen, or Persepolis -- and try to chop it down into smaller segments. Can you take a long-form script and figure out how to present it in three or four lines of dialogue at a time?

It seems likely that through the process of presenting stories in such short segments, the way in which you communicate will change. But this is nothing new… Look at how storytelling for television adapted to fit the needs of the medium: instead of presenting entertainment for a continuous hour, there are several mini-climaxes to help the audience bridge the commercial breaks. In my opinion, storytelling always adapts itself to the medium.

Stopmoes are familiar with feature-length films and short films… What I'm discussing here would perhaps best be termed "micro" length. "Epic" feature-length films are generally felt to be superior to short films, due to scope and grandeur… But I am of the opinion that a long-running serial of micro-length films could equal the emotional weight of a feature -- and even has some advantages over it, production-wise.

First off, when I think about the stories that I personally love most, they're all serials. Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The X-Files… Frankly, a 13 or 26 hour season of TV shows is able to give me a richer world than a 90-120 minute film -- no matter how big the explosions!

Secondly, from the perspective of being an indie filmmaker, I find the long breaks between having completed films to show extremely demoralizing. The more often I'm able to put out a film, the more legitimate I feel as an artist -- and the less isolated I feel, off in my story universe. The sense of pride in completing small films frequently, and being able to show them to friends, family, and the world -- I find these aspects of micro-length work very attractive.


When you spend years working on a single film, the deadline for completion ceases to matter very much. You want to make the film exactly right, because you take pride in your craftsmanship. The final product of your effort is a DVD, an object, a unit of property to sell.

When you work on a weekly show, I believe the experience is a lot more like doing live theater. You've told everyone that there will be a show Friday night -- so ready or not, when the curtain rises "the show must go on." If you have to cut corners or improvise, you do what you have to do… The fact that you get up on the stage try to be entertaining is more important than whether or not you feel ready. And if you flop? Well, there's always next week.

It seems to me that if you commit to putting on a weekly stopmo show, the following guidelines will be helpful:

  1. Use what you've already got. Fabrication is time-expensive, and time is what you don't have!

  2. If you have a set or a character, re-use it multiple times. There are plenty of story possibilities in those elements -- exhaust them.

  3. Keep a library of sets and puppets. Once you have an asset, don't throw it away!

  4. New sets and puppets will be added to the library piecemeal. You'll be very lucky if you are able to add one new puppet or one new set each week. To do so adds at least a full day's labor.

  5. Plan puppets/sets to be multi-use. Until you have the resources to start off an ongoing show with multiple elements, try to make elements that could be used together in different ways. Scale and aesthetic play into this thought process.

Think about the Muppet Show as an example. Once you have the "Pigs in Space" set and puppets, you can do a skit that uses these assets once every episode. The audience doesn't get bored of such recycling -- rather, it becomes something familiar to look forward to.

I mentioned earlier that there are two types of segment that you can do using the episodic structure: stand-alones and serials. It strikes me that so long as you have a weekly schedule, there's no reason why you have to choose one or the other. You can start off doing stand-alone clips, then sprinkle in installments of larger story arcs as you finish fabricating the necessary sets and puppets. Recycling old puppets and sets in new skits buys you more time to fabricate bigger worlds -- so there's no dead time in the performance schedule while you're preparing something more ambitious.


It seems to me that most stopmoes want to be a part of film culture. By "film culture," I mean that the community of filmmakers and film-lovers meet together annually in gatherings across the country known as film festivals. Often there's not as much interaction between the filmmakers and audience members as we might like -- but often enough there are panel discussions, vendor areas, and good conversations in the lobby. Like Brigadoon, the magic city that appears only for a day once each year, the film culture manifests through such events.

Webcomic artists, on the other hand, have a separate culture. Webcomic and print-comic artists alike gather at comic conventions… The biggest and most famous of which is the San Diego Comic-Con. I ask myself: could a stopmo doing a weekly micro-length show fit in in the vendor areas of such cons? My answer: heck, yeah!

Things that a weekly stopmo show has in common with your typical webcomic: a cast of fictional characters, a primarily visual medium, episodic story structure, geek appeal… While not without some controversy, notice how the San Diego Comic-Con has grown to encompass films and toys as much (or more than) comics. It seems that the con is really about fictional universes… And the characters leap effortlessly between media -- from novels to comicbooks to films to toys.

The only firm difference I find between webcomics and stopmo webtoons is that you can't read a film -- you have to watch it. Technologically, you need a player of some sort. But even so, you could make an academically sound argument that stopmo is just another form of "sequential art" (to use Scott McCloud's term)… You're just viewing animated comics at 24 panels per second!

So: I think that a stopmoe could embrace the identity of "webcomic" or "webtoonist" and fit in just fine in the comic convention culture… But would film culture have them back again if they did?

Micro-length films might be compiled into a longer film to show at festivals… But I have my doubts about how well the compilation would flow. If the film clips weren't made to be shown as a continuous series, translating them for the big screen is likely to be clumsy.

What's more, many of the prestigious film festivals do not accept submissions that have been shown in public previously -- which would automatically disqualify stopmo webcomics/webtoons. Yet, if you were willing to sacrifice the competitive fests, you could still take your works to other fests… Which would then allow you to sell DVDs in the vendor's area, if nothing else.

The stopmoe community has wrestled with the question of how much of one's content should go online. One side in the debate has argued forcefully that it's a mistake to just give your work away online, without any hope of making back your investment. Particularly if you think you can get into film fests, then you should keep your work offline and keep it secret.

Having explored the webcomic model of publishing a fair bit now, I think that there is a way to make a fair profit from putting your films online -- but the nature of the films has to change considerably for the magic to work. What's important is to post your content with maximum frequency… Which in turn necessitates micro-length, and then propels you toward telling stories using episodic structure.

I'm not personally at a point where I'm ready to commit to doing a weekly show -- but I think it's very exciting to identify a viable alternative to the filmmaking role models and business models we're familiar with.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: stopmo, writing

June 26, 2009

wiping the slate clean

by gl. at 6:15 pm

it's been a very long time since i've posted, and it looks to me like if i wait for the perfect time to give each item the post it deserves, i will never post again.

during the holidays, at the masarie curry party, marta said i changed her life: she attended a collage night once and makes one every day now. it's not often you get to hear something so dramatic or sincere!

but it's been hard because a bunch of awkward things happened at once. my focus has shifted to include arts organizations. i've been spending a surprising amount of time & energy supporting medical causes. my own art has re-embraced theatre. a lot of people have died (including lane, my mom & sven's grandfather). my primary art support group collapsed. my photo routine is broken. the economy shook us. in short, things are in flux.

since sven & i are about to go on a long summer trip, i'd like to tie up some loose ends so when i return, i can start with a clean slate: i'm still searching for the next surge of momentum but i can't move forward if i'm still looking back. so here are some things that have happened over the last year i'm not going to write much about but that are worth mentioning & recording:

at the little things show, i picked up a prayer flag by jennifer mercedes because of its title: "a prayer for an inspiring future." yes, please. see you soon.

[gl. as The Lyon in A Midsommer Nights Dreame]

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: administrivia, classes & workshops, exhibits & events, miscellany, other art, printing, trixie, writing

April 20, 2009

parenting your brainchild

by sven at 11:59 pm

When you produce a piece of art, it could be called your "brainchild." I think it's a really rich metaphor… So here is my exploration of the implications.

conception, pregnancy, birth… and beyond

Lots of struggling artists ask "where do you get your ideas?" It's sort of like they're dating… And they think all the hot muses are already taken. But maybe if you just go to the right bar… What kind of pick-up lines work on ancient Greek chicks?

Where do ideas come from? Well, when an artist and a muse love each other very much… Generally you start with juxtaposition (innuendo intended)… And then things grow from there.

After conception, there's frequently a "gestational" period where you walk around with this thing inside you quietly growing…

Until ultimately you're ready, and go into labor. It can be painful and prolonged -- but seeing a newborn brainchild is a miraculous experience. I made this!

And that's generally where the metaphor ends.

But wait! Don't just leave the newborn in the crib and walk away from it! Its life has only begun!

growing, maturity, finding a career

If you just put your brainchild into a drawer, it dies. A work of art lives and grows by finding an ever-expanding audience.

When a brainchild is born, the first thing to do is call your family… That is, your circle of peers who have a shared love of the art form. Let them know that something new has come into the world, let them come over to your house to meet the thing.

At first, you only introduce your brainchild to the people you trust the most. But still, when company comes over, you put some clothes on your offspring: formatting. If it's a film, burn a DVD. If it's a play or a short story, put the text into a zine-style binding. A stack of papers without a cover, or a video that doesn't have a case… Is naked. It's unseemly.

Showing the brainchild to your peers is its infancy. In its childhood, reach out to a wider audience: email friends who you're less close to, make it available for sale on your website, make it available through local stores. Let the art get to meet people outside of your immediate family.

In the project's adolescence, send it to finishing school: use print-on-demand services to create a book that's perfect-bound or a dvd that's professionally printed and available on amazon.com via createspace or through indieflix.

You've done all that you can to introduce your child to the world and make it socially presentable… Now it's time to send it to college: playwriting contests, film festivals, the like. Places where the work will get tested and graded. Why? Not because the grades mean anything in themselves. It really doesn't matter how you do in school -- what's important is getting recommendation letters.

You can show your brainchild to everyone you know, and then do as much promotion as you know how to do… But ultimately what's going to launch your book or film on a successful career is how it gets reviewed. See, most of us don't just randomly pick up a book or go to a film we've never heard of -- we check things out because someone we trust (who's a fanatic for the art form) thinks they've found a real gem. There's so much crap out there -- it's a valuable service they provide!

And so this is the career of your artwork: to be seen by as many people as possible. It wants to be seen -- your job as a supportive parent is to give it as many opportunities as possible.

Maybe your artwork will even find a high profile employer: a distributor that adds your film to their product line, a theater that produces your play, a publishing house buys the rights for your book. If that happens, then congratulations!

But remember: you don't have to be a doctor or lawyer to have a worthwhile career. Your art may have a very humble career, only reaching a dozen or so people… Do what you can to help it go as far as it can, reach its full potential, even so.

To summarize: A brainchild grows as you put the naked work into increasingly pleasing physical formats. It reaches maturity when it finds its maximal audience. Its career is the length of time that it's alive and active in the world, meeting new people.

the decision to be a parent

Few parents -- I mean artists -- really belabor the decision to have brainchildren. It's just in our nature to create/procreate.

But once the brainchild has left your body… [insert image of Athena bursting from Zeus' forehead] …Then the real challenge begins. It is in our artistic DNA to give birth -- but raising a brainchild takes thought, courage, and perseverance.

Let's take a step backward a moment and consider the subconscious reasons why people want to have brainchildren.

I think most artists have some combination of these values in their heads. And I don't mean to say such goals are bad or wrong… Even when taken to extremes. (Personally, I know that my weakness tends to be for the immortality fantasy.)

But here's what I notice about these options… It feels like the brainchild is getting exploited. I want my child to make a million dollars so I'll be rich. I want it to be famous so I'll be famous. I want it to be remembered so I'll be remembered. I'm a bit alienated by the world, and so want the art to stare back at me and say "I understand."

Is that fair to the art?

parent-child boundaries

If we hold on to the metaphor of art piece as child, then these desires all sound like unhealthy relationships. The alternative? Boundaries. To see the art as a separate person. To do what you can to help it grow up strong and true -- but know that ultimately it is its own person.

Translation: Let go of your brainchild and let it leave the nest. It may not be perfect, or an ideal money-maker, or reflect well upon your reputation… But it should have the opportunity to go out into the world and meet people nonetheless.

But why would you let your brainchild leave the house dressed like that? Two reasons: unconditional love, and the fact that we may be poor judges of our own work.

Your art may be lumpy, awkward, misshapen. Even so, don't abuse it (and thus yourself) by calling it names or casting it out. Do everything you can to help it. Take it to the orthodontist and get some braces if you have to. Help it grow by giving it attention and care. And then, when you've done all you can do and have to call it finished… Show it to your peers without apology. Stand behind your work, even if it's an ugly child.

Frankly, it's probably not nearly as ugly as you think, anyway. In general, I think we're fairly poor judges of our own work -- at least in terms of guessing what other people are going to like. The piece you think is awesome doesn't seem to connect with the audience… But the piece you felt ho-hum about turns out to be your smash-hit. It's humbling… So embrace the humbleness.

be fruitful and multiply

One bit of unsolicited advice for potential brainparents: have lots of children. Big families are a good thing.

When you have an only-brainchild -- the masterpiece -- there can be such pressure on it to live up to all your expectations. The brainchild gets lonely… And when you get into fights with it, there's no one else around to help break the tension.

When you birth a couple of children in rapid succession, you learn to mellow out pretty quickly. Whereas you wanted to do everything perfectly with the firstborn, and were a strict parent -- as more come along, you're content just as long as no one breaks a bone. You'll be happier both with yourself and with the kids when you've gotten over that initial "perfect parent" thing.

And, you know what? I suspect that you're more likely to become rich, famous, remembered, and self-loving when you're known for your whole family -- your body of work -- rather than for your one, solitary honor student.

the adoption option

Even if you're able to view your artwork as a separate entity from yourself, there's been an assumption throughout this exploration that what the brainchild is made out of is your own personal Artist DNA. The art is a little piece of your soul that's been pinched off and reshaped into… Adam.

Well, lately I've been exploring what it feels like to instead be a foster parent. That is, rather than looking for the divine spark deep inside of myself, I'm searching the streets looking for orphans who need a good home and some love.

Perhaps the metaphor's become opaque; let me drop pretenses.

What I'm doing lately is using "intuitive collages" as the foundation for image and story generation. I collect huge numbers of images from magazines or online. I select whatever appeals to me in the heat of the moment, without trying to impose meaning. Then I play with juxtapositions until something new starts to appear. When I glimpse some exciting combination, I develop it through writing and then begin work in my final medium (drawing, sculpting, writing fiction, etc.).

The remarkable thing about this process is that even though it doesn't draw directly from my imagination, my imagination is nonetheless engaged and responding. So, while the germinal idea -- the seed for the brainchild -- doesn't come from my own DNA, through the process of developing the material it comes to feel very much my own. Like a child I've adopted.

a finder and a helper

Perhaps artificial insemination is an even better metaphor there? Maybe so.

The thing I like about describing these ideas as fostered or adopted children is that it helps me give up possessive ownership.

I recognize an idea that wants to be born because it has an organic form to it. I love that sense of finding. It's as if the idea has always existed -- it's my job to play midwife for it, then to help it find its way out into the world. But while I may have spotted the idea first, in reality anyone could have discovered it and put their own spin on it. The idea belongs to itself. I'm a finder and a helper.

So, ultimately, this is a way of looking at art that has an altruistic spin to it. No, it's not the audience that you're doing a favor -- it's the idea itself that wants to be born and to have a life. A pleasant anthropomophization.

All those selfish reasons for doing art…? Absolutely, I still get a hit of satisfaction when my work succeeds in those ways. But there's something about this caring detachment that seems to keep me in the right headspace -- dutifully doing the work that needs to get done.

It's joyful.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

April 14, 2009

reading frenzy sells "buried piano"

by sven at 7:00 am

Reading Frenzy

My booklet, "The Buried Piano And Other Plays," is now being sold at Reading Frenzy. It costs $3 and will be available for at least the next 3 months.

Reading Frenzy is located at 921 SW Oak St., Portland OR, 97205. It's open daily from 12-6. The store's mission:

"Reading Frenzy -- An Independent Press Emporium -- is a multifaceted hybrid project: part book, zine and comic shop, part art gallery, part community hub and event space. Founded in 1994, we are devoted to supporting, promoting and disseminating independent and alternative media and culture, with a focus on the arts, politics and current events, d.i.y. culture, comics, girl's stuff, queer notions, and quality smut. We stock thousands of hard to find titles from around the country, host dozens of literary and art events every year, and support local community organizations who share our goals of fostering freedom of speech, information and creative expression."

Last week I offered free copies to our blog readers… That offer still stands -- but you only have until Friday to speak up.

inside the store

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

April 6, 2009

freebie: the buried piano & other plays

by sven at 7:00 am

freebie play booklet

Freebie! For a limited time, I'll send anyone reading this blog a copy of my new booklet, The Buried Piano & Other Plays. All you have to do is email your snail-mail address to sven (AT) scarletstarstudios (DOT) com. (Even if I already have your address, please.)

The booklet is 34 pages long, and contains four plays:

making the booklet

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

April 2, 2009

the appeal of comedy and horror

by sven at 7:00 am

[An essay written to some email friends on 3/27.]

"For some, just to be "offensive" may well be the point, I reckon."

I think there's a strong relationship between horror and comedy.

Both are intentionally visceral experiences. At a horror film, you're supposed to feel anxious, revulsion, and startled in your body. When you go to see a stand-up comic, your body is supposed to convulse in laughter.

Physical experiences while you're sitting in safety? Neat trick! And since it's perfectly safe, it almost doesn't matter what kind of physical experience you're getting… They're all interesting at some level.

Comedy and horror also both deal with taboos. And for that reason, both have a sort of fascination because it feels like they reveal Truths that are denied to us in everyday life. We're not supposed to talk about mortality, or that each of us is a fragile being walking around filled with intestines, blood, and gore. ["Not supposed to" because it's upsetting, and being upset interferes with the necessary agendas of daily living.]

Comedy often talks about sex, race, religion… Things that we have a hard time talking about as a society because there are real political tensions there. But the Shakespearian fool and the Native American clown and the social outcasts brought into the center of town for Carnival are allowed to say outrageous things -- under the guise of entertainment -- but also with this understanding that the role allows taboo observations to get heard. I hear comediennes like Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho being praised for doing comedy in this tradition.

So: horror and comedy -- visceral and truthy.

But also traumatic and addictive.

* * *

There's a story I heard once about the Cambodian killing fields; how someone witnessed a group of teenaged boy-soldiers performing executions by bringing baseball bats down on captives' heads. They were laughing as they did it. From how I understood the story, though, this wasn't pleasurable laughter; it was more like the nervous laughter of trauma.

There's a school of psychology -- Re-Evaluation Counseling -- which has not been rigorously tested, incidentally -- that says laughter is psychological distress leaving the body. I think sometimes this is true, but not always. If you look at chimpanzees, they laugh when they're being tickled; but there is also a laughing, toothy smile that is a sign of fear and aggression -- beware! It seems to me that sometimes laughter trickles out as a coping mechanism when a person is absorbing a painful experience, and there's just no other way to deal.

"Sex and violence" are often called "puerile" interests. People often don't realize that the word "puerile" stems from the Latin, "puer," meaning "boy" -- it's a synonym for "childish." I think sex and violence ARE childish interests… In the sense that children have every reason to be interested in procreation, physical pleasure, the level of violence that human beings are capable of doing, and what sort of personal armor you have to wear in order to be ready to face it.

This is very existential stuff, all about what it means to be alive in the world. You're not born knowing it; you have to learn it. And anyone who stands in the way of your getting this information, prevents you from accessing the most vital information for living your life. …Is there a Santa Claus? Think about it -- the answer to that question is going to have a phenomenal bearing on your sense of reality. …Are there psycho-killers afoot? Same thing.

Violence is a sort of truth. Yes, there are murderers, rapists, child abusers, and war in this world. Truth doesn't always "set you free" -- sometimes it weighs you down. But it's necessary. And so, when people condemn how violence desensitizes you, I think they're only seeing half the picture. It's unfortunate to lose one's emotional sensitivity through seeing violence. That's a part of what trauma does: it deadens your vulnerability. But if in fact you are living in a community where you are not physically safe, then wearing some emotional armor is actually a vital thing. Carefree children who pick flowers for the Easter Bunny cannot exist in a neighborhood torn by gang violence.

A long way of saying: there's value in understanding violence, including through portrayal in fiction -- but the cost is emotional sensitivity. Poetically, it's sort of like how a guitarist builds up calluses. If you want to play in the world, being soft isn't always functional.

* * *

Horror and comedy are visceral experiences… Adrenalin, endorphins, and the like are internally produced drugs. I can understand the appeal of bungee jumping and other "extreme" sports. Once, I took the opportunity to go sky diving along with a large group of friends. At the end of the day, my nerves were singing. Marathon runners, similarly, often talk about the ecstasy of endorphins when they break past the hard part and get into their "zone."

Well, similar positive reinforcement also happens at a less extreme level. Slot machines in Las Vegas are a good example. There's a heightened sense of expectation when you pull the lever; and when you receive a pay-out, that's a positive reward. I'll never forget, as a child, seeing slot-jockies whose fingers had turned silver from handling so many nickels.

So, that's Behaviorism for you: click a button, get a reward, repeat. Horror shocks, laughter, orgasms, slot machine pay-outs, video game kills, and web surfing can all establish patterns that are difficult to moderate through will power alone. It doesn't matter than you really want to get down to work for the day; if you click the mouse again, you'll get the pleasure of seeing another blog. It doesn't matter that the comedy show you're watching is vulgar; if you stick around, the shock value alone can prompt the visceral "reward" of laughter.

I'd like to also point out that Behaviorism effects art producers as well as consumers. If you watch some comedians, such as Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey, it won't be long until you spot a certain desperation in their eyes. They come out on stage and there's a powerful visceral thrill of stepping into the spotlight… But then they're looking for the laugh. It's their hit of heroin. Certain individuals don't perform purely out of altruism or capitalism -- when the audience laughs, that positive attention feeds them in a way that they can't live without.

Stopmoes… Well, one of the reasons I like stop-motion better than CG is because every five minutes, when I snap the camera shutter, I get a little hit of "Ah! Progress!" Snapping frames for an animated film supposedly takes "patience" -- but in another way, we get our pay-offs much more rapidly than the slot jockey.

* * *

So… Horror and comedy: visceral and truthy -- also traumatic and addictive.

The last thing I'd like to comment on is cultural drift.

Over the years, it seems like horror films get more gruesome (compare "Saw" to "Psycho") and comedy gets more vulgar/edgy (compare "Something About Mary" to "The Wacky Professor"). I don't think this should be surprising. Who goes through the trouble of creating horror and comedy? Enthusiasts. People who've seen it all before. Of course there's going to be an urge to go just a little bit farther, to try to do something that hasn't been seen under the sun yet.

Does new comedy/horror lack the subtlety or "restraint" of previous works? Maybe. But perhaps that's unavoidable. Jaded critics of film, stage, literature, art, philosophy -- whatever -- will tell you that there's nothing new under the sun. Maybe it is possible to exhaust the possibilities of creativity. What then? Stop making art? No, you keep trying to do something new and different -- as difficult/impossible as that may be.

As time goes by, there's likely to be specialization, homogenization, and confusion. There used to just be CG animators… Now, to be a professional, you have to specialize in modeling, texturing, character animation, match-moving, and the like. What was once being invented in the garages of eccentrics generalists has now become an institution that insists on specialization…

With institution comes pedagogy. I look at books about how to write movie scripts, and I realize that these authors are all reading the same books. Everyone is responding to the same "big ideas" of the past 10-15 years. It seems that if I want to find new and original concepts, I actually have to go backwards in time… Because some of the geniuses who invented literary theory, cinematography, animation principles etc. -- have been more or less forgotten. Often I find more truth in the flawed writings of people who invented an art form than in the books of contemporaries operating in an echo-chamber.

So, even though at the beginning of the 20th century, we may have the benefit of 100 years of predecessors (in the art forms revolving around cinema), the intent with which people set out to make art often seems quite confused. It's harder to take in "the big picture"… As an artist, I discover something that I like -- and now more than ever it's possible to get stuck in a ghetto with people who like the same things I do… Referencing nothing but what's already been done in this tiny-yet-densely-packed area.

It's the blessing and curse of the Internet Age: maybe there's nothing left but niches.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

March 26, 2009

writing 10-minute plays for stopmo

by sven at 11:27 am

[An essay I wrote to some friends on 3/11.]

Most people agree that the most important aspect of a film is the story. If the story doesn't work, the film doesn't work. So for the past 15 months I've been studying the construction of story.

Before I go any farther… I'd just like to emphasize that dramatic stories are not the only legitimate type of film. For example, some films provide an experience that is primarily aesthetic… If there are characters at all, they're often anonymous, enigmatic, silent; there may be no discernible conflict or climax; but at the end of the film you wind up feeling like you glimpsed something beautiful, nonetheless. Traditional stories with understandable characters, dramatic conflicts, beginnings, middles, and ends, tend to be most popular -- and not without cause… But even though I neglect to discuss other species of filmic experience here, please don't think I'm putting them down!

Back to topic… My research on story has encompassed three art forms: film, literature, and theater. Research tends to start broad; then, as you clarify exactly what it is that you want to know, your scope narrows. So it has been for me…


Film, literature, and theater each have strong internal divisions between long-form and short-form works. In film, there are "feature length" films and "shorts." In literature there are "novels" and "short stories." In theater there are full-length "plays" and there are "one-acts."

The construction of a long-form work in any medium is significantly different from that of a short-form work. Yet, I find it very interesting that how-to books about how to write short films, short stories, and one acts are quite rare. The vast majority of how-to books deal only with long-form works. Some books -- much to my irritation -- even promise to deal with short-form, but then just rehash long-form principles. [E.g. "Writing The Short Story" by Jack M. Bickham.]

At this point in time, I've narrowed my research to focus only on short-form fiction. For literature, I'm reading the monthly magazine, "Fantasy & Science Fiction." For animation, I've been studying Mike Judge & Don Hertzfeldt's The Animation Show anthologies and Acme Filmworks' "The Animation Show of Shows" series (Animation World Network store ). For plays, I've been reading the annual The Best Ten-Minute Plays series, edited by Lawrence Harbison.

A word of caution, though. It seems that the people who care most about the underlying principles of story are those who work in long-form. My sense is that it's just a lot harder to successfully produce long-form work without a strong understanding of structure -- so long-form folks have been forced to develop better theory.

Top picks for long-form how-to books… Screenplays: Story by Robert McKee. Literature: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain -- runner up The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Playwriting: The Playwright's Process by Buzz McLaughlin -- runner up The Dramatist's Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet.

Note: In my experience so far, screenwriters have the weakest understanding of story. It feels to me like the field is infected with a number of gimick-based methodologies that may in fact help you to doctor an existing script -- but that are rotten foundations on which to build your basic understanding of story. Beware!


I've become convinced that the most useful medium for stopmoes to study is theater. Why?

The biggest reason: limited number of sets. With films, you can easily have the story take place in 80-150 locations. It's no big deal, because typically existing locations can be used. You don't have to build everything from scratch, as with plays and with stopmo. Plays tend to have just 1-3 major sets… Or perhaps merely imply their sets by using "black box" technique. Given the time entailed in building miniature props and sets, stopmoes have to be conservative.

Another reason: only concrete actions are allowed. With literature, you can do amazing things with adjectives and metaphors: e.g. "the wounded leaf somersaulted down to the ground like a football player who's just been shot in the ankle." There's no easy way to translate this poetry to the screen.

Similarly, you can get away with a good deal more inner monologue in literature… Granted, with film and theater you can do voice-overs or break the fourth-wall (having actors talk directly to the audience)… But generally it is ill-advised to do so, because you're violating the principle of "show, don't tell."

Now, theater is not a perfect model for stopmoes. There's a heavy emphasis on dialogue in theater… Remember that most audience members are going to be 50+ feet away from the actors and only get to see the action from one vantage point. Stopmoes would be well-advised to exploit our ability to provide cinematic close-ups and different camera angles. We should also try to convey information through purely visual means wherever possible -- both because we're working in a more visual medium, and because of how laborious it is to do lipsync.

Despite these caveats, it seems to me that the beginning assumptions of a playwright are most like those of someone writing for stopmo: don't use too many sets or characters, and tell the story purely through observable actions and dialogue.


There is a genre in theater called the "10-minute play." It's been around since the early 70s. There are a number of national competitions, which have subsequently resulted in several book anthologies. "One acts" can easily run a half-hour long -- so 10-minute plays are generally an even shorter form. For most purposes, one page of dialogue is equated to one minute of stage time (cold reading format, not the format you see published in books). Thus, ten minutes = ten pages.

It seems to me that 10 minutes is about as much as most independent, amateur stopmo filmmakers should shoot for in their projects. Consider the following estimates…

Aardman films expects 4 seconds of finished animation per day from their animators. If you work backwards, you can see that the way they arrived at this benchmark was by allowing animators 5 minutes per shot, shooting at 24fps, over the course of an 8-hour work day. Now, if you shoot at 12fps and are maybe a little looser with your poses, you might be able to get 10 seconds per day -- presuming you can put in 8 hours. Working full-time, then you could accomplish roughly one minute of film per week. Ten minutes of film = ten weeks. Basically a quarter year (13 weeks)… Though mind you, that's not counting puppet and set fabrication, lip sync analysis, and the actual scriptwriting.

Still, a ten-minute film in a quarter year sounds excellent. Can't work full time? If you can do 10 hours each weekend, you can still get the project done by year end. Thus, 10-minute plays are a pretty good match for stopmo animators in terms of scale.


Remember Sturgeon's Law: "ninety percent of everything is crap." I've found this to be very much true even in the annual "The Best Ten-Minute Plays" series.

But actually, this is part of what attracted me to the series. I don't want to read an anthology of the best 10-minute plays ever, with all the crap taken out… I want a sense of who the "competition" is right now. I want to know about the overall quality of contemporary playwrights working in this form -- not be bedazzled by the best of the best, whom I have little hope of ever rivaling. I want to learn from failures and triumphs in roughly equal measure.

The "Best Ten-Minute Plays" series I've been reading is also interesting because for each year (since 2004), two books are put out: one for "2 actors," one for "3 or more actors." In my opinion, the plays with 3+ actors tend to be better. Having 3+ characters seems to set up conflict more easily, and prompts more interesting scenarios. Plays with two random strangers who start spouting observations about one another out of the blue -- well, I find them pretty intolerable.

So, suppose you were to take the best of the 10-minute plays and try to do them in stopmo… Would it work?

I've been worrying about this. Part of the unique charm of stopmo is that you can do things that are unrealistic. You can use fantasy monsters, purple characters with ridiculously proportioned anatomy, cartoony physics, etc. I don't want to completely abandon such stuff.

It's not impossible to write some of these things into stage plays, though. As for character design, think about the absurd costumes that Julie Taymor used in "Fool's Fire" -- or the giant puppets she employed in "The Lion King" or "Grendel." Most 10-minute plays are written with black box sets in mind; brevity means that you're probably not going to make a big investment in sets & props. But just because it's uncommon, doesn't mean there's any reason why the 10-minute format inherently prohibits such things.

The thought experiment that finally resolved this question for me: What if I cast one of the 10-minute plays I've written with characters from "Coraline"? I have a play I've written titled "The Buried Piano." Suppose Coraline played "Gina", Coraline's Dad played "Howard", Coraline's mother played "Ellie", and Ms. Forcible played "Ursula"…

Would it work? YES! It's a particular sort of stopmo film -- one that emphasizes character acting -- but that's an aesthetic that's already been established in the world of stop-motion films.


This is a topic for a much longer essay -- but I want to at least touch on what I've been learning about playwriting through doing assignments for my "Dramatist's Toolbox" class, taught by Matt Zrebski.

Central Spectacle
Like Jose Rivera, "everything that I write comes from some kind of image." (The Art & Craft of Playwriting, by Jeffrey Hatcher, p.196) I seem to start from "spectacle" -- some image that excites my imagination. Maybe it can be shown on stage, or maybe the actors put it into my head via dialogue… The head of Orpheus kept in a box. A taxidermied whale hanging from the ceiling of a dance club. A buried piano. A nuclear bomb that's been painted with murals.

Finding my central spectacle almost needs to be an illogical process. It's a matter of juxtaposing images collage-style until I find something that really leaps out at me with poetic portent. Understanding why the image "sings" comes later.

Character Generation
You need characters for the play. Generating characters has turned out to be much easier than I expected. A very useful exercise: Go to Google Images and surf around collecting head shots of people… Male, female, young, middle-aged, old, various ethnicities. Print the photos out, one per piece of 8.5x11" paper. Pick one out at random and then spend ten minutes on a free write. Focus most on what they value and what they might desire. It took me about 2 hours to gather 40 faces, and about another 2 hours to generate 10 characters.

I'm finding that playwriting is largely a matter of "connect-the-dots." You find a central spectacle that you like… You pick a couple of characters that you're attracted to… Now you play the "what if?" game, brainstorming, trying to find scenarios that bring your elements into play with one another.

For me, a really useful tool has been to look for three different interpretations of the central spectacle. For instance: maybe a buried piano is an archeological artifact to put on display; maybe it's a seed that will grow into a piano tree one day; maybe it's the manifestation of a song that's rotting in the ground.

It doesn't matter to me if the interpretations are literally impossible. I find I'm working more or less in the genre of "magic realism". What's most important to me is that my plays convey a sense of poetry and examine how to transform the ugly or banal into the transcendent. [Kinda sounds like an artist's statement, eh?]

Figure out what your climax is before you leave the pre-work phase and start writing the actual play. The climax probably has a strong relationship with your core spectacle. If you don't have a powerful moment to end on, don't even begin!

Refining Characters
Each of the characters in the play must be substantially different from the others. Each should be at least a little eccentric -- including the main character (oddly the person that writers often characterize last).

Each character has to have a literal function in the story world… But, for me, the play really gels when I discover how each character maps onto a different aspect of the theme. For instance, one character sees the buried piano as something to put in the museum, another wants to play it… And so on.

You can create backstory for your characters ad nauseam. However, in practice, you draw on most of that material only infrequently. Story people tend to boil down to just a few key traits. As an exercise, pick just three adjectives that best describe each character.

Figure out who your main character is. When you're juggling 3 or 4 characters, it's easy to forget about this. You don't necessarily have to shout at the audience "this is my main character!" -- but you absolutely need to pick one person. Why? Because what their core need is will determine the "story question" -- and you're going to have to check yourself to make sure that the ending of the story actually answers the question raised at the beginning.

Discovering the Conflicts
Know what each character wants. This is how you develop conflict. Look for ways to make each character's desires incompatible. It can be useful to identify your main antagonist -- but there's no reason why they have to be a "villain," and you may well wind up having several characters who are at odds with the main character. Ex: the piano can't be played right now because there's a party going on, and the state governor's present.

Conflict need not be about personality. Each of your characters can be a nice person, essentially -- it's just that they have a different vision than the protagonist. Wage conflict over possessions. Who possesses the car? Who's in charge of the party? Who has control of the romantic interest? If your main character starts the play in possession of the thing they want, you've got a problem. Either find a way to put the mcguffin in the possession of another character, or choose someone else from your cast to be the main character.

Story is really only made out of a few elements: the core poetic image/spectacle/theme, characters, conflicting desires, and a good climax. Make sure you have one main character who wants possession of an object/place/tool/person; find reasons why your other characters have a different vision for this mcguffin. Make sure the resolution of the play answers the same question posed at the beginning of the play.

That's about it. Now… Go!

Give me one 10-page script each week for 8-13 weeks. And then pick one of them for your stopmo film. (See where I'm going with all this?)

posted by sven | permalink | categories: stopmo, writing

February 27, 2009

the humanity of monsters

by sven at 11:23 am

[Some email friends are currently discussing drama and monsters. I wrote this little essay in response. It seemed worth sharing with a larger audience.]

"How about creature movies based entirely on conflict of character?"

I think you're onto something.

When I think about the monster stories I like best, they're the ones where the monster is filled with humanity. John Gardner's Grendel: Beowulf told from the monster's point of view. H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness: the final realization is that the monsters are simply scientists clothed in non-human bodies -- and that they were themselves killed by something worse. Rachel Ingalls' Mrs. Caliban: a depressed housewife may or may not be having an affair with an 8-foot-tall frog man.

I think most of the successful monsters of the past 100 years have had humanity at their core. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts, Frankenstein's monster... A werewolf is a person with an explosive temper who transforms physically (much like the Incredible Hulk). A vampire is a person who seems charming, but drains you of your life. [Both vampires and werewolves seem to me to be cautionary tales for young women about men who are a bad husband material.] Zombies embody that feeling on Monday morning when you haven't had coffee yet: am I alive or am I dead? Ghosts are the frightening wish-fulfillment of having a dead loved one come back from beyond the grave. I haven't read it myself, but if I recall correctly, Frankenstein's monster ultimately confronts his creator and asks why he was created; man speaking to God.

Giant monster films tap into the same principles, but simply work on a larger scale. Rather than being the demons of interpersonal relationships or of one's own soul, they are metaphors for a society's demons. Godzilla being a metaphor for atomic energy is the classic example. King Kong, when you try to do a literary reading, is pretty obviously (in my opinion) an allegory about animalistic male libido being brought into conflict with civilization, and the needs of civilization (the city on the macro level, marriage on the micro level) having to win out.

Granted, most giant monster films are just about the rampage, and due to this failing fall short of the best of the monster films. Cloverfield was Godzilla + Sept 11 + Blair Witch Project cinematography... Pretty, but lacking originality or depth. Similarly, in human-scale monster films, there hasn't been a lot that's new and interesting lately: a bevy of psycho-killer films such as Saw... The defining human trait of the monsters in these films is "sadism" -- but because the filmmakers focus on the inhumanity of the crimes rather than the humanity, there's less for us to emotionally latch onto. Remember, with a character like the wolfman, we feel some pity for the man who wants to control his animal side but is unable to. Frankenstein's monster: pity. Kong: pity.

[There's also a hive-mind version of the sadistic psycho-killer... Monsters that act like a pack of wild dogs. Think of the zombies in I Am Legend. Sure, we had a slightly new origin story -- but all you can really say about the essence of the monsters is that they're mean and they don't stop when you protest. Sadism again. Just transposed onto pack animals.]

So, human-scale monsters and giant monsters are two important categories to consider, dramatically-speaking. One more to to look at is monsters as an expression of a hostile environment. Dinosaur films tend to be like this. In King Kong and Planet of the Dinosaurs and the like, the dinosaur-monsters don't tend to have a lot of individual personality -- because the point is just that the place where our explorers have landed is itself a monster. Films like this function much like disaster films do. Think about The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. We put a large cast through a series of minor deadly incidents and see who comes out the other side. Same thing when we first arrive on Skull Island.

Kong in some ways is two movies. A disaster film when we're on Skull Island... Who among the explorers will get out alive? And then when we get to the city, a sort of magic realist expression of Libido vs. Civilization. ...Yet, that's if we focus on Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow as the film's protagonists. An argument could be made that while they are our POV characters, it's actually Kong himself who's the main character of the story...

Peter Jackson amped up this angle a bit by having Ann do cartwheels for Kong on Skull island, and then go sliding on the ice skating pond in New York... But it's there in the original version too... When Kong has Ann in his cave, just before a snake goes after her, Kong is picking a flower to give to her. See, Kong is like the traditional "caveman" male who is valuable when his job is to simply to protect (and possess) his mate -- but this form of brute manhood can no longer be permissible in modern society. Kong is a tragic figure because he can't keep up with the times.

So anyway... Yeah, I think monsters almost always work best when you can find their core of humanity and operate from that. And the enduring monsters always have some sort of metaphorical value, where they embody a demon of the human spirit.

* * *

It's probably also worth pointing out that most monsters have a sort of wish-fulfillment value, too. Wouldn't it be neat to be ten stories tall for a little while? Or if when you were angry, your entire body could transform to truly reflect how you're feeling? There's a commonality here with superheroes. I mentioned the Incredible Hulk earlier. How is he really different from a werewolf? Superman, Invisible Girl, the Human Torch... These sorts of powers are fairly primal in terms of wish-fulfillment... So I guess I'll end this little foray with a rhetorical question: What makes a monster different from a Super Villain?

A Super Villain, the antithesis of a Super Hero, has to have some sort of special power... And so does a creature from a monster film. Is the only difference that monsters are clothed in animal bodies rather than human bodies? Are the classic vampire, werewolf, zombie, creature-from-the-black-lagoon type monsters a sort of half-way point: villains that are half-human, half-animal? [Vampire=bat-man, werewolf=wolf-man, zombie=dead/alive man, creature=fish-man...]

When you get down to it, if you're willing to look at monsters as human souls that merely have (a) an unusual appearance, and (b) a super power of some sort, then what we've arrived at is the cast of the Uncanny X-Men. Whether we're dealing with a heroic mutant or a villainous monster is simply a matter of how the character chooses to act, based on what their personal needs and desires are...

Which brings us full circle back to your original idea: "How about creature movies based entirely on conflict of character?"

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

February 5, 2009

the cauldron of fiction

by sven at 2:51 am

I'm studying how to create fiction. Here are three metaphors I'm finding useful –– each of which has to do with water.

the stream of consciousness

There is the conscious mind, and then there is the unconscious mind. The conscious mind can attempt to work things out by logic... But the true source of thought is the unconscious.

I mean this literally: try putting earplugs in your ears. Curiously, even in a silent room there's a lot of background noise. Remove that, and it's astonishing how much easier it is to hear that little voice inside your mind talking to you.

That little voice, with its never-ending commentary -- it originates from the subconscious. In some ways, the voice is that which is most you. And yet, there is still another part of the mind which can simply sit and listen to the voice, observing it. This is a precept of meditation. It is also a precept of stream-of-consciousness writing, where you sit and simply transcribe what the voice says as you listen to it.

The stream-of-consciousness is the source of energy that will power all your creative endeavors. Learn to tap into it with intention.

the pitcher of thought

I've heard it said that the mind can only hold seven thoughts at a time. Whether or not the number is accurate, it matches my experience that I can only consider a limited number of things simultaneously.

In a very literal way, if I can remove one thing from my mind, I make room for something else. I don't worry about failing to get more ideas -- the stream of consciousness will provide. I imagine this like a magic pitcher of water: as quickly as I can pour water out of the pitcher, it will be replaced with more water.

This line of reasoning leads me to proclaim: do not think inside your head! When I try to figure things out just by thinking, it's generally a slow process of transformation. But when I write, I remove thoughts from my brain and see new ones take their place just as fast as I can move my writing hand across a page of paper.

the cauldron of fiction

notebook as cauldron
Fiction is created through the process of listening to your stream-of-consciousness and writing it down on paper as fast as you can. You're allowed to think in ways that are imaginative or in ways that are analytical. You're allowed to keep your mind narrowly on task or to digress for the sake of getting unrelated distractions out of your head. What really matters is that you engage in this physical act of putting words down on the page as quickly as you can.

Whatever notebook or digital document I apply this process within, I liken it to my "cauldron of fiction."

In my opinion, the essence of thought is questions. In the leap from one thought to another thought, I believe there is always a bridge: a question that popped into your mind. The majority of the time, questions occur to us and are answered so quickly that we don't even notice they happened. Speed makes them invisible. But if you make an exercise of generating questions, you will be astounded at how quickly your thoughts begin progressing to new conclusions.

I like to think of this conscious application of questions as "stirring the cauldron."

Before you can cook something in the cauldron, you have to fill it with raw materials. Creativity is not a matter of pulling ideas out of thin air -- it's about taking raw materials and transforming them. Reading plays, watching movies, looking at paintings, doing research, collecting reference photos... These sorts of activities are what some theories of creativity call the "gathering" phase... Or what Julia Cameron calls "filling the well"...

Or what I might call "filling the cauldron with ingredients."

enriching the broth
When you generate fiction, it's useful to remember what Buzz McLaughlin calls "the iceberg principle": only 5% of the world you create will actually appear onstage or in your novel. Through the writing-as-fast-as-you-can and asking-lots-of-questions method, your imagination will begin to develop a rich story world upon which to draw. Oh, you can start ladling out soup as soon as you want... But it's going to be watery fare if you haven't spent a fair amount of time cooking.

Thicken the stock; thicken your plot.

serving portions
There is a difference between the mythology of a story and the text of a story (to borrow terms from Orson Scott Card). The "mythology" is everything that has ever happened in your story universe: the long line of cause and effect, the interrelated histories of individuals, places, and things. The "text," on the other hand, is merely that which the audience gets to see... A brief window of time, a limited number of events, constrained by the POV of the characters.

The soup that you're constantly developing in the cauldron of your notebooks is the mythology of your story world. As wild explorations coalesce into concepts that feel fairly settled-upon, extract these discoveries from the soup and save them as auxiliary documents. Either summarize or cut'n'paste the reference materials directly from your generative cauldron...

"Auxiliary documents" are what you serve up.

the cauldron vs. the bowl
Ultimately, your final salable fiction is merely another auxiliary document! Yes, you'll put extra time and effort into polishing it up... But really it's the mythology in the cauldron -- the 95% of the iceberg -- which is the real story. What you share with the world is merely a fragment of that living broth.

The cauldron is more valuable than the bowl.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

January 29, 2009

prep for playwriting class

by sven at 12:08 pm

I'm going to be taking an 8-week playwriting class starting Saturday. It sounded like fun -- and I want to put myself in a context that forces me to put what I've been reading about into practice.

Why Playwriting Is Relevant To Stopmoes

I view all creative fiction as related: the novel, the short story, the film script, the stage play. However, I think playwriting may be what is most relevant to creating stopmo scripts. Unlike novels and short stories, scripts for plays prohibit writing internal thought. Everything has to be visible action.

Playwriting also has a focus that I believe will speak to my particular weaknesses as a fantasist. There is an emphasis on the construction of "character" and what creates good "drama" that is not discussed so pointedly in the other realms of writing.

I could also point to the tendency of stage plays to have a limited number of sets and characters -- which is useful to the stopmoe who can't afford to fabricate "a cast of thousands." (Though this actually has more to do with the budgets of modern theaters than inherent limits of the form.)

The Best Stuff I've Learned About Playwriting Lately

In preparation for the class, I've been feverishly reviewing and digesting everything I've learned during the last year about story construction. I'm going to haphazardly throw out a few of the best concepts I've gleaned:

1) The "iceberg" principle
Only 10% of the world that you create is going to appear on stage. Explore the backstory of your characters fully. Then, when you frame a portion of their storyline on stage, it is sure to be rich with subtext and detail. Give yourself permission to generate far more material than you need -- then you can select the best bits to share.

2) The "treatment"
Before you write a story, describe what you're going to write in summary form. Describing what you roughly imagine is going to happen makes the process of writing the real script far easier. Recognize that just as you may do several storyboards at varying levels of polish (thumbnail storyboard, polished storyboard, "storyreel" slideshow, 2D animatic with moving elements), so too you can write several varieties of treatment: an explanation of the key elements that make your story worth telling; a summary of your world's history; a summary of what occurs in the story frame; detailed summaries of what you want to happen in each scene.

3) 1000 question marks
Treatments are a form of summary for material you've already generated. The best way to generate new material is to start writing down questions. Try putting a question mark at the end of every sentence. Even when you propose an answer to one of your questions, frame it as a question, thus encouraging yourself to throw out additional possible answers. The most important thing is to keep typing non-stop -- don't pause! The work goes quickly, and excites the imagination. Use the "search" function on your word processor to look for question marks. If you haven't hit 1000 yet, it's unlikely that you've imagined and explored your story world deeply enough.

4) Auxiliary documents
The primary work of creating a story is accomplished by the "1000 question marks" method. As you create possibilities, you'll naturally begin seeing bits coming out that you like and want to keep. Develop a personal list of documents (in addition to the treatments) that you hope you'll have adequate information for by the end of the generation phase. These might include:

5) Personal vocabulary of images
Most of the work of writing boils down to this: identify all possible options, select your favorites, develop a logic that can successfully connect your best elements. However, this process doesn't address the fundamental issue of where to find ideas that you care about. Just as I advocate working from "rough to polished," there's an argument for working from "illogic to logic." Discover material that excites you not through brute intellect, but by intuitive emotion that is focussed on randomized inspirational materials. There are several ways to accomplish this. Collaging: Go through magazines as fast as you can, tearing out images that you find appealing -- without regard to why you're attracted to them; turn them into a collage -- now do stream-of-consciousness writing about what your juxtaposed images bring to mind; underline the bits of your writing that seem exciting. Memory: Gather a bowl of writing prompts (several books have lists); do stream-of-consciousness writing, proceed as described in the last method. (There are several more similar approaches.)

[Star Wars is held up as the quintessential expression of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" pattern... That's true -- but try looking at it as a collage instead: Lucas stitched together Tarzan, Errol Flynn sword fights, WWII dogfights, Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress." He found key images that spoke to him, which helped give the story its soul.]

6) Proof as you develop
As you develop germs of ideas into fleshed out story worlds, keep a check-list similar to this one at hand... As you work, make certain that all of these necessities are ultimately being satisfied.

  1. Does your story have a conflict?
  2. Does your story have any one focal character?
  3. Who is the focal character of the story?
  4. Is the POV character different from the main character?
  5. Has the main/POV character received deep characterization?
  6. What does your character desperately want/need in life?
  7. What is the main problem/conflict of the story?
  8. Does the problem/conflict confirm the centrality of the main character?
  9. When does the conflict/problem become apparent in your storyline?
  10. Does the start of the story clearly establish what the problem/conflict is?
  11. Does the resolution of the story answer the same problem/conflict established at the beginning?

7) Conflict is over physical objects of symbolic significance
Every scene is structured around a conflict. Characters seldom address conflict openly. Meaning is invested into objects, which the characters battle over. (Every scene has a "mcguffin.") Understand the deep yearnings of your story people -- but then look for how it's expressed in terms of props or even people that they want to possess.

[Try analyzing Star Wars in terms of how each scene is an argument about a mcguffin. (a) Vader to Leia: Where are those plans? (b) C3PO to R2D2: I reject your route (it's much too rocky). (c) Luke to Uncle Owen: I want to go get power converters. (d) Ben to Luke: I want you to come with me to Alderaan... Which is resolved by killing off Owen and Beru. (f) Ben to Han: I want use of your ship. ...etc.]

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

July 27, 2008

#2 exchange sketchbook: mitchel hunt

by sven at 10:10 pm

thousand-legged spider

The sketchbook exchange continues. Whereas the last sketchbook will ultimately return to me, this one is for Mitchel Hunt in Ontario, California.

blue eye

It's going to be a little unnerving to let go of all these pictures. Some of them I like quite a lot. Oh well: training in the ephemeral nature of life.

(And I've got some mega-high-res scans. Heh.)

close my eyes, look in the mirror

For "close my eyes..." I photocopied my face, then re-photocopied that image onto acetate. I distressed the toner using a wire brush. Then I used acrylic gel medium to glue the acetate onto a text-based under-painting.

The surface of this page is as glossy as if I'd poured clear resin over the whole thing. Very apt for something that references a mirror.

crab mab

This one was originally titled "crab man" -- but I liked the typo better.

Wash of blue acrylic. Outline the mab in black acrylic. Fill in the negative space with white (a trick I picked up from Egon Schiele). Scribble shading with a pen.


And a straight painting of a tiny village underneath mile-tall blue fronds.

* * * * *

The first three sketches were loosely inspired by a poem I wrote this morning... So here it is:

the soul

close my eyes
and look in the mirror

the soul dissolves flesh
i am flower bulb
branching tendrils

ageless sexless
profoundly sensual

don’t mistake me for
inner sight and silent tongue

i am the whipping red threads
the bubbling swamp
lit by a watcher’s small candle

to be buried here
when the light goes out
when fragile roots dry brown

suspended in darkness
invisible intangible
open my eyes to a bright world

the other thousand-legged spiders here
clothe themselves in faces and skin
they become what they wear

and i feel so apart from my species
on the outside of a humanity
that lives with eyes wide open
that never seems to blink

July 27, 2008

posted by sven | permalink | categories: sketchbook, writing

June 13, 2008

just make what you like?

by sven at 2:22 pm

[from an email to some artist friends]

"Just make what you like!"

You'd think that's all there is and all there could be to making art... But actually, the more I think about it, that's not what I want to do!

While journaling today, I came up with this thought: I want to explore beyond "what I like," discovering original, unexpected material.

* * * * *

I'm an artist/filmmaker who's very oriented toward process. To an extent, I'm more interested in creating an interesting Process Plan than a perfect Product. When I design a process, I can't guarantee that I'll love what evolves -- but I trust that by the end something unexpected and intriguing will emerge.

You might not immediately know what I'm talking about.... Here's an example of one possible process:

Go on a walk through your neighborhood and write down all the nouns you see. Come home, select your favorite words from the list. Write a poem that makes use of those words. OK, now stand up and move around... Make five full-body gestures that embody the idea of the poem. Got that? OK, now string them together in a sequence (with segues) to make a dance. Next, keeping your dance in mind, take 15 minutes to write a short story that's inspired by the motions you went through. And finally: Make a quick stopmo film of that story using rough-hewn puppets, sets made from painted cardboard "flats," and pop-through animation.

A little crazy... But you can see how repeated transformations are going to lead you somewhere that you never expected to go. And each of the steps in this Process Design is simple enough that you could get through the whole thing in just a couple of days, if you really push.

Go through a process like that ten times, and you'll have a collection of crappy little films that are punctuated with moments of pure genius. NOW you're ready to sift out the gems and assemble something that you could really love!

* * * * *

...Anyway, that's what I'm chewing on today. :P

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

June 6, 2008

book review: a writer's guide to fiction

by sven at 3:12 pm

A Writer's Guide to Fiction: A concise, practical guide for novelists and short-story writers, by Elizabeth Lyon (2004)

I'm afraid I'm going to damn Lyon's book with faint praise. I don't want to be unfair: It's OK... I found a certain usefulness in it... But there's nothing interesting enough about it that I think I'd ever tell someone to go read it. It's competently written -- but nothing more special than that.


Lyon lays out the various elements that go into creating a written story: plot, characterization, character arc, beginning with a hook, ending with a neat conclusion, making prose active and vivid... Topics that I'd expect anyone writing a book on fiction to cover.

The trouble is that I don't see any original thought in this book at all. Based on the copious references that Lyon lists, I'm convinced that she's probably read most of the better contemporary books about writing fiction... And this is the one real usefulness that I find in her book: I feel like without having to read them all myself, I've gotten a snap-shot of what people who think about the writing process currently believe.

Unfortunately, I find myself rather appalled at what "most people" (if that's really the case) believe. Here are a few of the buzzwords that seem to be inescapable:

The Hero's Journey, Archetypes, Character Arc: these are all interesting forms to study, and potentially quite useful to the aspiring writer. What I object to is the implication that all good fiction MUST be based on these principles. No exceptions to the rules are discussed, no alternative options adequately explored. [With the minor exception of the derivative "Heroine's Journey."]

Furthermore, I chafe against such advice coming from authors who are merely pointing to the seminal works of others. Grandiose claims that "all" stories must include a certain structure could be forgivable -- IF you were yourself doing the hard work of producing an original analysis, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon along with a generation of authors who seem to all idolize the same gurus.


So, the title "A Writer's Guide to Fiction" feels about right. I feel like I got on a tour bus and Lyon was my guide, pointing to the major landmarks as we drove through the "land of writers." But I don't feel like we got much of a chance to get out of the bus and go look at scenery up close. Overall, a somewhat bland and safe ride.

There are a few moments when Lyons expresses her own convictions -- which stand out as being more memorable:

"Characterization, not plot, is the core of successful fiction." (p.6)

I don't feel this statement is true -- but it's an interesting position that she asserts. (Personally, I feel that both characterization and plot are important -- but that emotion/feeling is the beating heart of fiction.)

"In fact, in nearly every novel I have edited or critiqued in two decades, the protagonist has been the last character to emerge from the marble." (p.118)

Lyon repeats this idea several times, that authors tend to neglect developing their protagonist's characterization. Good observation, which I'll make a point to remember.

"I believe the synopsis is so important for staying on course that writers should not see the synopsis as optional in their planning." (p.159)

I've read several books which advise writing various sorts of mission statements for your project. Lyon emphasizes coming back the microcosmic rendition of your story repetitively, though, which I found noteworthy.

In general, "A Writer's Guide to Fiction" feels strongest to me where Lyon is covering topics that she has really grappled with personally -- rather than material that she's just teaching from her lesson plan.

She talks about having been in critique groups for many years -- and consequently, her chapter on diagnosing problems in your fiction and correcting them feels concrete and useful.

The book that she wrote prior to this one was titled "The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit: Everything You Need to Know About Queries, Synopses, Marketing, and Breaking In." Consequently, her chapter on marketing your manuscript also felt more succinct and informative than most of the others.


It's not at all a focus of Lyon's book, but what was probably most fascinating to me was when she'd talk about what it takes to produce good fiction and then throw out some actual numbers. This may just be a quirk of my own, having an interest in metrics... But to the extent that I can say something positive about this book and not undermine your interest in it entirely, this seems worth mentioning. Here are some quotes that I latched onto to tickle your interest.

How long does it take to become a pro writer?

"Practice until you get your million words behind you--the number John D. MacDonald claimed were necessary to become a pro--and use your gut." (p.100)
"Donald Maass, an established and respected New York literary agent who is a former president of AAR and also, uniquely, a former published novelist, estimates ten years of diligent writing, study, and marketing as the average time it takes for a writer to reach professional skill. I agree." (p.229)

How long should I take to write a book?

"Phyllis Whitney, the famous writer with more than one hundred novels to her credit, described her ideal timeline and methods for writing a book as these: two months for research, including filling in characterization worksheets and blocking out her plot; two months for writing the first draft, according to a quota-per-day page count; and two months to revise and rewrite. Six months per novel." (p.125)

How many times should you revise a book?

"The successful and prolific writing couple, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, tell writers to revise no more than three times. That advice is not based on the assumption that the writing reaches perfection after the third revision; it is instead based on the probability that the writing is not finished and won't come any closer to perfection or being publishable by more revision. Smith and Rusch maintain that writers need experience in generating words more than anything else to develop publishable skill. Novices need to write many pieces--hundreds of short stories or dozens of novels--rather than limit themselves to what they could learn by revising only one novel or a handful of stories. I've also heard Dean and Kris stir controversy by saying that any revision beyond three robs a piece of its vitality and freshness." (p.235)
"Mainstream literary novelist Jonis Agee combines hot writing with ongoing light revision, and she uses a method of writing that brought a collective gasp from her audience at a revison workshop she led at Pike's Peak Conference in 2002. When she finishes draft #1, she reads it all the way through, and then throws it away. She writes draft #2, finishes it, reads it all the way through, and then throws it away. She told the audience that it is her third draft when she feels like her writing is best, the emotions authentic, and the characters come alive. When asked, she said that at most, she might save twenty to fifty pages of the drafts she throws away." (p.155)

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

June 3, 2008

how to fail

by sven at 12:37 pm

Sometimes I find it useful to write myself reminder lists like this:

10 ways to destroy your mental and physical health as quickly as possible... while still ensuring that you miss your deadline

1. Success
Don't allow failure to be an option. Work yourself as hard as possible, no matter what the cost. Product is all-important; process doesn't matter. You can think about a sustainable lifestyle after the big job is done.

2. Quitting time
Don't have daily quitting times. Give the project everything you've got -- your first waking thought, your last moments before falling sleep... And let it hover in your subconscious with worry even while you sleep.

3. Time Goals
Don't set goals for how much time you're going to invest. Just work as hard as you can. Follow the level of motivation that you feel at the moment -- and if motivation is flagging, then berate yourself. Remember, if there's a set limit on how much time you're going to put in, then you might miss out on putting in a few more hours for your maximum possible output.

4. Calendars
Take one day at a time. Stop looking ahead on the calendar. Lose all sense of context. Let your time horizon narrow down to just this day, just this moment. Nothing matters except how good or bad you feel right now.

5. Other Responsibilities
Let go of all other responsibilities. Do nothing except this one project, day after day until it's done. When it's all over, you can catch up on bills, emails, dishes, relationships.

6. Planning
Don't spend any time planning -- looking at the calendar, collecting to-do lists, figuring out goals and plausible schedules. That takes away time that could be spent working productively.

7. Food
Snack on candy. Give yourself little treats for motivation and get into a cycle of mood crashes.

8. Sleep
Ignore sleep. Get into a habit of staying up late. Or repeatedly cheat sleep by going to bed late AND getting up early... That way you can develop a significant sleep deficit in just 2 or 3 days.

9. Alarm Clocks
Don't use an alarm clock. Just follow your body, going to bed when you're tired, and waking up whenever you do so naturally -- even if that's after noon. (And don't bother to keep notes tracking your sleep patterns.)

10. Exercise
Don't exercise. Stay glued to your chair until you start feeling chest pains. Instead of walking several times a day, wait until health becomes a crisis.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

May 25, 2008

essential makings of a story

by sven at 3:30 pm

I'm trying to integrate both what I've learned from Barnaby King's clown classes and from the book "Techniques of the Selling Writer," by Dwight Swain. I want to understand how to make stories.

I've come across a number of assertions from fiction coaches that I disagree with. Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" and John Truby's "22 steps" both feel like lists of possible plot points to me; that's not the essence of story. Another author I'm reading puts characterization on a pedestal; that also feels off-center.

My conviction (shared by King, Swain, and Disney animator Ollie Johnston) is that emotion is the core of story. For now, I'm going to defer going into that concept in any detail. BUT, going with it as my premise, I've just this morning formulated my own recipe for story-making...

(I don't doubt that I'll recant it soon enough -- but even just beginning to develop my own theory of Story is exciting, so I want to get this down.)


Proposal: To create a story, you just need four things. There are volumes to be written about how to juggle them with other important factors... But I think if you start with these basic ingredients, your recipe will at least produce something edible.

1. Two emotions
Come up with two emotions. One goes at the beginning of the story, the other at the end. In the middle, you crescendo the first emotion until it breaks, and you switch over to the second.

"Happy" and "sad" are too blunt. You have to come up with emotions that are more nuanced. The old truism, "write about what you know," shouldn't preclude writing about dragons and spaceships -- but in the case of emotions, I think you really do need to find something in your own life, which you've actually experienced. The work of capturing the two emotions is ideally a physical process, where you're up and moving around, reliving a particular moment in your life, and re-experiencing/imagining anew sensations in your body.

2. An eccentric
Stories are wish-fulfillment in a sense. At times, all of us wish that one of our personality traits could be taken to an extreme. Let a character come to you that can really indulge in the emotions you've picked; who for one reason or another is extreme in some dimension of their being.

The point of your performance is to connect with the audience: to take an emotion and wear it on your outside, which they can then experience vicariously. Let your character (your mask) come to you intuitively. And if you grow dissatisfied, discard them. You are painting with a palette of emotions -- lots of different characters could embody what it is that you want to present to the audience.

3. A spectacle
There has to be at least one thing that happens during the story that is an amazing sight. A planet-killer that destroys Alderaan. Kong breaking through the gates. A marching band parading through a hospital. One moment that is visually compelling, and will stick in the audience's inner eye.

4. A disaster
Elongated stories have lots of disasters; structurally, they're a basic building block of fiction. For a short, maybe you only have one -- but you have to have at least one. What's the worst thing that you can do to your character? What's their darkest moment? For a movie or a novel, come up with a whole list of ways to torture your characters -- then put them in ascending order of severity. Crash Luke's X-wing on Dagoba. Make it further sink into the swamp. Cut off his hand...


And that's it: four essentials. If you can come up with those four things, then most of the rest of the work of creating a story is just coming up with segues. If you know where you're starting, where you're ending, and a few points you want to hit along the way, then you probably have enough to puzzle out what should go in the gaps.

The test of whether or not this proposal works will be to see whether or not it actually starts me thinking up new story ideas. It's sort of a mad-lib approach to creating fiction...

Once upon a time [emotion A] was felt by [eccentric individual]. In his/her world [disaster] is going to happen... And as the story progresses, there's going to be this event, [spectacle], which is going to amaze you. Following the crescendo of [feeling A], pushed on by [disaster] and [spectacle], the emotion breaks and [eccentric individual], transformed, feels [emotion B].

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

April 27, 2008

poetic license

by gl. at 5:23 pm

it must be national poetry month! i've attended a plethora of wordly events this month:

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: classes & workshops, exhibits & events, writing

March 30, 2008

book review: the anatomy of story

by sven at 1:15 am

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby (2007) is just about 420 pages long. I recommend the first 100... And then to skim the rest.

The core idea of the book is, in my opinion, a good one: In order to create a compelling story, don't simply sit down and start writing... Instead, construct a well-reasoned architecture of story structure -- and then progressively flesh it out.

Frustratingly, though, the book's title is deceptive. The "22 steps" are not steps in your own personal progress toward becoming a storyteller, as one might infer. Rather, the "22 steps" are moments that occur in an archetypal story -- steps that Truby believes your protagonist must go through during the course of their adventure.

And, frankly, these steps are no huge revelation. Here is the grand list:

  1. Self-revelation, need, and desire
  2. Ghost and story world
  3. Weakness and need
  4. Inciting event
  5. Desire
  6. Ally or allies
  7. Opponent and/or mystery
  8. Fake-ally opponent
  9. First revelation and decision: Changed desire and motive
  10. Plan
  11. Opponent's plan and main counterattack
  12. Drive
  13. Attack by ally
  14. Apparent defeat
  15. Second revelation and decision: Obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
  16. Audience revelation
  17. Third revelation and decision
  18. Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
  19. Battle
  20. Self-revelation
  21. Moral decision
  22. New equilibrium

If you understand what each of these steps in the protagonist's journey represents, how is that going to help you? Well, you can use them to inspire you -- the list might suggest scenes that you hadn't thought to write yet... Or it could be used as a check-list, so you can check to see if there's anything important that you might have left out of your outline...

But in general, I feel this list is too formulaic to be of much real use while actually generating a story. It's an editing tool -- and not a particularly sophisticated one, at that.


As I said at the beginning, the first hundred pages of the book are quite worthwhile, though. Here are a few of the insights that I thought were useful:

These ideas all occur in the first four chapters. Chapter 9 had another useful idea, "scene weave" -- an editing method, where you reduce the main action of each scene in your story down to a single sentence and review the sequence. [Throughout the book, Truby seems to be in love with the idea of boiling your various concepts down to single-sentence "mission statements."]

I had high hopes for the rest of the book... Chapters titled "Moral Argument," "Story World," "Symbol Web," and "Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue" all sounded quite promising -- but instead were painfully tedious.

For wide sections of this book, it is quite obvious that Truby had a book outline that he was working from... He dutifully fleshed out each section that was in his outline... But just because you think you ought to include a topic in your book, doesn't necessarily mean that you have anything insightful to say about it! In these areas of the book, there's no sense that even Truby is excited about what he has to say -- he becomes the most boring sort of lecturer.

Mechanically fleshing out an outline is perhaps a forgivable sin. Worse, though, is that Truby analyzes the same films over and over and over again. Instead of illuminating his ideas, it ultimately feels like Truby is padding his book with synopses.

In the penultimate chapter, pretense of analyzing the films seems to disappear entirely, and the discussion degenerates into mere film appreciation... With Truby heaping praise upon:

...And so on.

The author spends no time discussing more modest films, or looking at how to take a particular flawed script and improve it. The book blurb claims that Truby has taught his classes to more than "twenty thousand students worldwide." In my imagination, I see this man watching the same great films year after year, developing ever greater appreciation for them... But never writing an original script himself. How could an original work ever live up to the films he seems to worship?

I'm sure my fantasy of Truby is inaccurate and unfair. But I'll say for myself that at the end of the book I was genuinely mad at the author. He abandoned his task of guiding the writer who must generate new, imperfect material, and indulged in simply praising history's "perfect films."

If I'm going to stick with you for all 420 pages, you'd better make it worth my while!


Based on the form-factor and title of the book, I strongly suspect that the publishers want to create a feeling that "The Anatomy of Story" is the unofficial sequel to Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (1997).

I read McKee's book recently, and while I have minor criticisms about it, I feel that it is overall a fantastically clear book -- the first place I'd send anyone who's interested in constructing stories. It's 480 pages -- but it delivered just what it promised.

From what I gather, McKee's book has become something of a bible in Hollywood... I offer a mote of evidence, by quoting a critic of McKee, Mystery Man on Film:

"When people in the biz talk about character arcs, they are talking about a change to the inner nature as defined by the Grand Poobah of gurus whose obscenely invasive influence all throughout HW spans well over a decade now. Right or wrong, love it or hate it, we have to go by Robert McKee’s definition, unfortunately."

Given McKee's standing, it shouldn't be surprising that there will be other story consultants vying to be the next guru... But, in my opinion, after reading "The Anatomy of Story," I believe McKee's book should still be the primary text for aspiring story makers.

Truby's book is an interesting supplement to McKee. Both books share the same core philosophy, which is that story should begin with constructing a solid structure...

My hopes that Truby could build upon McKee's foundation, translating solid story analysis into a trustworthy method for story generation were largely disappointed, though.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

March 21, 2008

time is money

by sven at 7:00 am

Time-management is a crucial skill for artists as much as anyone else. Here's a metaphor that I find useful to keep in mind.

...Oh, and don't be too put off by the title -- I'm actually trying to reclaim and redefine that nasty old phrase!


1. Time is money.
Your time is a currency that can be used to purchase things you want.

2. Don't impulse buy -- invest your time.
Rather than doing whatever comes to mind next, consider investing blocks of time toward purchasing things that you really want.

3. Spend money (time) on planning your investments.
Don't over-plan... But a reasonable amount of time spent thinking about how you want to use your time is a reasonable expenditure which will increase your returns significantly.

4. How much time do I have?
Look at the schedule for your upcoming week. Block out the known time-commitments so you can estimate how much free time you have to spend on investments.

5. Make a wish-list of tasks
Make a list of every task you'd like to complete. You won't be able to purchase all of these goods -- but it's useful to have them all in front of you to choose from.

6. How much do my desired tasks cost?
Evaluate a wish-list of tasks, making quick estimates of how much each thing costs. Know that your wish-list will always outstrip your means.

7. Some assembly required.
Most goals don't come in a single package -- they have to be assembled from multiple purchases. Pay careful attention to what all sub-tasks are required in order to accomplish your ultimate goal.

8. To-do lists are shopping lists.
A useful shopping list categorizes items by which store you have to go to, and how high a priority each item is (so you can ditch low-priority items if you're running out of time). To-do lists are often dysfunctional because they don't specify where you have to be physically in order to do the tasks, or don't specify all the sub-tasks required to get you to the point of purchasing the main goal.

9. Track your investment portfolio.
Keep a list of the big projects that you're working on (typically 15-30 in progress). These are like purchases that you're making on an installment plan.

10. Diversify your portfolio.
If you only make plans to invest time in one area (e.g. writing a book), then when your personal economy crashes you're more likely to lose control of that project. If you are investing time in several different areas concurrently, you have a better chance of remaining in control of your life.

11. I am not my money.
I am more than my projects. Even if they all fall apart, I am still OK. I am the catalyst that effects things around me, but which is not defined by them.

12. The purpose of money is to buy more life.
Money (actual dollars) is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: getting more life. Similarly, all the things that you can purchase with your time may be valuable -- but actually stopping and getting to feel OK sometimes is most important of all.

Note: I wrote this essay last month (2/21) -- it just took a while to get around to posting it.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

March 8, 2008

the process of development

by sven at 3:38 pm

I've been doing huge amounts of work on story development for "Let Sleeping Gods Lie" lately. It has me thinking about the process of artistic development in more general terms. I wrote this reminder list last Friday (2/29).


1. Make art you love.
Why make art? To sell something? To get it "right"? (By whose standards?) Whatever it is that you're working on, aim at making something that you yourself love. Give yourself the room and resources it takes to make that happen.

2. You will discover your solution by accident... But not your first accident.
The art pieces you'll truly love are things that you haven't even met yet. It's not going to be through pure design that you find something that moves you -- you're going to stumble on it. But it's also not going to be the first thing that you stumble on... You're going to need to make lots and lots of discoveries.

3. Make copious explorations.
Don't wait for inspiration to find you -- go out looking for the "Ah-ha!" moment. If the vision for an art piece you love is a discovery, then go and search everywhere for it.

4. Find your vision using cheap/fast methods.
The fastest tools an artist has tend to be the pen and pencil. If you're making sculptures or paintings, sketch hundreds of thumbnail drawings. If you're an author or filmmaker, write pages of stream-of-consciousness and brainstorming lists. (If you can type, then by all means...)

5. Set goals for quantity of development work.
I hate rush and compromise and flailing about, feeling like I'm making crap because I don't really know what I'm doing. But the opposite of this is not to be leisurely, letting inspiration wander in on its own time. Work hard. Decide to write 50 pages of story development in a week, or draw 24 pages of sketches over three days.

6. You can't know what you're going to get out of the process -- it's a risk.
Quantify success in terms of the number of pages you'll produce or hours you'll put in writing/drawing -- not in terms of whether or not you've found the final answer that you can love. When you commit to investing time in a development process, the point is to stumble upon discoveries. Even after 50 pages, you may well find that you need to apply the exercise again in order to get where you're going.

7. Give yourself freedom to go on digressions.
If you feel like you have to go directly from point A (problem) to point B (solution), you're going to feel stressed out. Allow yourself the freedom to go on digressions, trusting that they will ultimately loop back around to the main cause. Beautiful solutions are almost always surprises... You're most likely to find them off the beaten path -- not on the road you thought you needed to travel.

8. Trust that your solution will come to you.
There's a fear of wasting time. When you decide to employ a development technique like writing or sketching, you can't know whether or not it will actually yield a solution you love... So in committing to the process, you're taking a risk. The way to get rid of that nagging fear is to acknowledge that what you're doing is an experiment that may fail. But it's a worthwhile gamble. Trust that the process is worthwhile, and that if you apply your intelligence and imagination long enough (possibly much longer than you initially anticipate) then you WILL inevitably find possibilities -- interesting possibilities -- that you had not initially conceived of.

9. Every dead end you discover narrows down the options.
You're going to find one unusable idea after another... But these are not worthless ideas -- they are immensely valuable. Every one you find helps narrow down your options.

10. Ultimately only one perfect / possible solution will remain.
Art pieces are solutions to problems. How do I express this emotion? How do I tell this story? How do I convey this thought visually? Finding the art that you truly want to make, a vision that you want to take to your final medium, is a matter of finding as many possible solutions as you can and then selecting the one you like best. ...Execution of the idea in the final medium will have it's own challenges -- but if you love the idea, even a flawed end product will be meaningful.

11. Make bad art too.
There is a reason to make art that you DON'T love, too. Sometimes there is an externally imposed deadline that you want to meet -- a challenge. The job in this case is to make the most impressive, technically advanced, creatively outrageous solution you can, given the time available. In this case, set out with the idea in mind that you are making "bad art"; it'll free you up to live happily with experiments that don't live up to the standard of "art you love." You'll grow through engaging with the challenge -- and that's enough... That's a success.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

February 11, 2008

2008 guiding principles

by sven at 7:00 am

Rather than making New Year's resolutions this year, I've decided to compile a list of principles that I want to keep in mind during the next 12 months. I spent January slowly collecting them, and now finally feel ready to assemble my little manifesto...


1) I want writing to be at the core of what I do.
The stream-of-consciousness is the origin of all intelligence. Tap into it, write it down, and thought will progress from tangled to untangled. Old thoughts will be acknowledged and inescapably replaced by new insights. "Let me write," I tell myself, "and I'll be brilliant."

2) When I don't write, my feelings about work-to-be-done get impacted, preventing me from making progress and from feeling present.
I don't believe laziness or procrastination are a sign of personal weakness. If I find myself avoiding a task, it is almost always because I am lacking some essential piece of information and feel confused. When I know exactly how to proceed, no task seems really hard. Writing is the means to discover my block -- what it is that I don't even realize I don't know.

3) Turn down the volume on outside noise in order to amplify the interior voice.
I mean this very literally. I find it helpful to wear earplugs when I journal. When I want to really throw myself into a project, it can be helpful to stop listening to music, watching movies, and surfing the internet for a few days. Conversely, when I have a huge amount of information to get down on paper, turning on background noise can sometimes help me pace myself and not hit brain fry too soon. Be conscientious about adjusting level of focus.

4) The more stuff I get down onto paper, the more room there'll be in my head for new ideas.
Psychologists say you can only keep seven things in your head at once. One strategy is to let thoughts compost -- insights occur to you like flowers popping out of the mud. For all that I want to accomplish, though, I don't feel like I have time to wait for ideas to just "come to me." I need a strategy that's more active. I find that by shoveling out the mud, I discover seeds waiting for me down there in the dark -- and they seem to grow much faster when I bring them out into the sun and water them every day.

5) Questions are the essence of thought.
When you articulate a question, several possible answers instantaneously suggest themselves. Often the necessary answer is so obvious, you skip right over it to the next question. I believe this is how thought actually works -- it's just that most of time when an insight occurs to us, we're unaware of having first posed a question. The exercise of brainstorming questions is the fastest route I know to progressing any project.

6) Enumerate all possible options, and the correct solution will make itself apparent.
If there is planning and decision-making to be done, don't do the work in your head. Write it all down. It's much easier to make a choice when you've articulated what your options actually are -- than when you're simply trying to pick the right one out of thin air. Note: Laying out paragraphs is better than single sentences, which in turn is better than sentence fragments or single-reminder-word headings.

7) Thoroughness is more important than brevity.
"I'm sorry I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one." I love this quote, variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and others. The ability to write something concisely is the endpoint of exploring your topic in all its facets. Don't skimp on the exploratory phase, and don't feel guilty for being long-winded when writing publicly.

8) Hammer on the story.
In art... All art -- be it painting, novel-writing, cinema, sculpture, or theater... We are presenting the audience with a story. Keep coming back to this: what is the story that you are trying to tell? Your style may be abstract or literal -- but if you are clear about what it is that you're trying to do, and what it is that you want the audience to feel, your art will always be more powerful.

9) Know your subject inside and out.
In fiction, discover every detail about the world you are building. In the technical skills of art-making, discover every possible variation for a particular technique -- and what the pros and cons are for each one. Capture what you are learning in writing, as you're learning it: both as notes and as fleshed-out essays.

10) Health is not optional.
Writing is physically demanding. Sitting for hours on end can weaken circulation and even lead to heart problems. Break it up. Make sure that mental motion is fueled by the physical motion of walking. Lubricate the mental gears by drinking lots of water. Look at every leaf of kale or spinach as another page in your book of writings.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

January 12, 2008

the advantages and drawbacks of cg

by sven at 12:01 am

During the past decade, we've seen an enormous amount of computer animation in feature films.

Among the stopmoes at StopMotionAnimation.com, I hear a lot of frustration about this. We've lost ground. Seeing stopmo in feature films is rare now. Many of the artisans who used to have the skills for doing feature-worthy effects haven't been able to find enough work, and have had to move on. Hard-won craft knowledge is dying off. There are regular rants about the "suits" in Hollywood not understanding what can be accomplished with stopmo, and not putting money behind it.

My strongest love and loyalty is to stopmo. Yet, part of my mind wants to get beyond the rants and understand in depth what's behind the rise of CG. Call it playing the "devil's advocate" -- or just really wanting to know "why?"


Where in feature films do we see computer animation?

It seems to me that there are two areas where CG has come to dominate: monster films, and "cartoon" animation.

For three generations, if you wanted to have full-body monsters on screen, you needed to use stopmo. Willis O'Brien was the progenitor of this heritage, animating the 1933 King Kong. He was followed by his protege Ray Harryhausen, who single-handedly produced the effects for such classics as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "Jason And The Argonauts," and "Clash of the Titans." Ray's mantle as master of the art form was passed on to Phil Tippett, working within the company Industrial Light and Magic. His style came to be known as "Hyper-Harryhausen" -- more photo-realistic monsters, but with the addition of motorized "go-motion" to create blurs (e.g. for the taun-taun in "The Empire Strikes Back," and the dragon in "Dragon Slayer").

"Jurassic Park," (1993) effectively ended the tradition. A few more films used stopmo for monster effects after it came out... But Jurassic Park's success began the swift transition over to CG.

The other area where we see CG films dominating now is in what I'll call -- for lack of a better word -- "cartoon films." Films like "Ice Age," "Finding Nemo," "Over the Hedge," and "Monster House" previously would have been done using hand-drawn cel animation. The landmark film that began the shift to CG was "Toy Story"... The death-knell signaling that cel animation had seriously lost ground: when Disney dissolved its cel animation division.

I hasten to point out that "cartoon" feature films are a genre that stopmo has NEVER dominated in the USA. Stopmo feature films have always been rarities. If I'm not mistaken, the first feature-length clay-animation stopmo film was Will Vinton's "The Adventures of Mark Twain" in 1984. The first feature-length puppetfilm in the USA followed in 1993: "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Since then, we've seen further feature-length puppetfilms and claymation -- but coming from an astonishingly limited number of artists/producers. "James and the Giant Peach" and "Coraline" come from Henry Selick, and "Corpse Bride" comes from Tim Burton -- the same two individuals who produced "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Will Vinton studios has dissolved and reemerged as Laika, which is employing Selick to produce "Coraline." Meanwhile, it seems to me that the spiritual successor to the Vinton Claymation tradition has manifested in the UK in the form of Aardman studios -- whom we have to thank for "Wallace and Gromit."

Thus, when we look at "cartoonish" CG films and wish that Hollywood producers were making them in stopmo instead, we would do well to recall that this is not a genre that we have lost ground -- rather, we are only beginning to make our first inroads.



What are the advantages of using computer animation to create monsters and other similar effects? Here's the list I come up with:

1) Editable.
Whereas a stopmo creature delivers a performance which you cannot go back and tweak, computer animation can be tweaked and edited endlessly. Given the financial risk associated with producing a feature film, this is a huge plus.

2) Crowd shots.
Ray Harryhausen pushed the limits of what can be done with stopmo by having Jason fight seven skeletons simultaneously. Stopmo is best suited to dealing with just a few puppets at one time. With CG, on the other hand, you can produce whole armies of creatures.

3) Less dependence on master animators.
When you have to get a shot right on the first try, you hire a master animator to accomplish it. When you have the freedom to edit, you have a much broader pool of talent to hire from.

4) You only need to build one model of a character.
When "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was being filmed, there had to be a dozen or so copies of Jack Skellington, so different animators could be working at the same time on different sets. When your "puppet" is a data file, you can give duplicate copies to many animators, with no further expenditure of time or money.

5) Simplification of materials.
When you do computer animation, everything is made out of pixels. When you're building stopmo puppets, there are many materials to procure: foam latex, silicone rubber, paints, steel and silver solder... And each of these different materials requires specialized tools: brushes, ovens, spray booths, lathes... This is not to say that CG doesn't require specialized softwares and specialized skillsets (modeling, rigging, animating) -- but things are simplified nonetheless.

6) Less physical storage space needed for props.
After you've made a film, what do you do with all the puppets and sets you constructed? Some might be auctioned off -- but a lot will go into cold storage, which consumes space (which also costs money). Keeping data over the long term is highly problematic -- but in the short-term, it's a huge space-saver.

7) Models don't degrade over time.
Puppets get dirty or break and need to be cleaned or replaced. After a few years, foam latex starts to rot. CG models remain immaculate during the course of filming. (In the long run, "bit rot" is a problem, though.)

8) Lighting.
One of the more tricky parts of compositing a stopmo monster puppet with live action footage is getting the lighting to match -- it's a delicate art. With CG, you can use virtual lights on your subject... Another instance where being able to edit CG sequences inside the computer makes the filmmaker's life easier.

9) Shadows can be accomplished without miniature sets.
In stopmo, if you want a puppet's shadow to fall on something, you can't do that with a green screen -- you have to build a miniature set. With CG, you can create transparent shadows that get composited in over live action footage. You may need to model planes that the shadows fall on, but this is usually a fairly simple matter.

10) Dark shots.
When you shoot against a blue screen or green screen, you need a fairly high level of illumination in order to make sure that the backdrop is a uniform color. You probably can't shoot a monster that's supposed to be in a darkened room and just green screen it into your shot -- you'll probably have to build a miniature version of the set. With CG, shadowed creatures are easy to composit.

11) Key-framing.
Both cel animation and computer animation allow you to pose key-frames and then make "inbetweens" to connect them. This isn't an option in stopmo -- which is one of its special challenges. You can plan an animated sequence in stopmo by shooting a "pop-through" -- but you don't ever get to use those actual photos in the final.

12) Complicated sequences can be animated piecemeal.
In CG, you can animate in passes... First just animating the monster's spine, then going back and doing its limbs, then finessing its claws, and finally working on the facial expressions. In stopmo, you have to pay attention to all of these things all at once.

13) Reusable sequences.
After you've animated a monster in CG, you can re-use that performance many times, looking at it from different camera angles. (For instance, if you have an army of monsters fighting.) With stopmo, because you only get one camera angle, you are almost never able to reuse a performance.

14) Algorithm-based motion.
With CG creatures, certain motions can be accomplished through programming rather than key-framing. A millipede's legs or a robot's walk, for instance, are good candidates for this technique. Obviously, it's not an option for stopmo.

15) Easily combined with other effects.
Because CG already exists in the computer environment, it's relatively easy to combine it with other special effects -- e.g. fire, smoke, water, explosions. Fire and water are notoriously difficult to accomplish with stopmo... It's often easier to use other means to create such illusions -- but then you're left with the difficulty of how to fuse them with the original stopmo performance. (Imagine getting a dragon to realistically breathe fire, for instance.)


What about the inherent drawbacks of using CG? My list is much shorter:

1) Less textural.
Most of the textures we see on CG monsters are simulated. The scales on a dragon generally aren't modeled in virtual 3D space -- they're painted onto flat polygons. See, the more polygons you have, the longer it takes to render out frames. To an extent these painted-on scales can be programmed to catch light and shadow -- but this strategy produces less convincing results than when you do actual 3D modeling. Stopmo, on the other hand, uses real textures -- which have an inherently "real" look to to them.

2) Unrealistic lighting.
CG lighting often has a flatness to it. In real life, shadows are often stark and whites are blown out -- but you hardly ever see this in computer animation. To an extent, it's the result of aesthetic choices. In a "good" image, you don't choose to have blown out whites -- but that's not necessarily the most realistic choice. Rendering lighting conditions such as "radiosity" (ambient, reflected light) and sub-dermal glow (flesh's subtle translucency) require a lot of computation... In terms of the time it takes to create these effects, they're very expensive. Stopmo, on the other hand, by using real light, bypasses many of these problems.

3) "Floaty" animation.
From its earliest days, computer animation has fought against its tendency to look "floaty" -- as if things are moving around without being impacted by gravity or friction. Much has been done to improve this tendency -- and yet, its roots are inherent in allowing the computer to create inbetweens for you. Stopmo is often accused of being "herky-jerky"... But in reality, living animals move with some jerkiness. To an extent, what has been perceived as a flaw of stopmo adds to its feeling of "life."

4) Not hands-on.
There's a computer screen between you and the thing that you're trying to animate. To me at least, it's easier to relate to how a thing is supposed to move when I can actually touch it.


When I spell out all the advantages of using CG for monsters, it seems like a really staggering list to me. I don't find it surprising at all that CG would become the first tool of choice for a filmmaker when confronted with a special effects challenge... And I can understand why, over time, there would be an impulse to just do all of your effects work with CG and forget about the other options.

On the labor-supply end of things, I can also see why CG has become so successful. There's a uniformity of software -- which makes it easier to train potential employees. Learning the art of stopmo has largely remained a master-apprentice process (or perhaps even more often, a matter of being self-taught)... Learning how to use a piece of software like Maya, on the other hand, is easily accomplished in a classroom context. Hollywood needs an army of interchangeable CG modelers, riggers, and animators -- so the institutional schooling system responds by offering relevant majors to students.


Stopmoes should remember that computer animation is not just displacing our own work -- artists who make hand-drawn cel animation are also in jeopardy.

It seems that computer-created cartoons are evolving in two main directions: ones created using 3D modeling software such as Lightwave and Maya -- and ones created using 2D vector-based software, such as Flash. The 3D cartoon look is exemplified by films such as "Cars," "Ratatouille," "Happy Feet," "Veggie Tales," and "Barnyard." The Flash cartoon look is exemplified by TV shows like "Powerpuff Girls" and "Samarai Jack." For this essay, I'll limit discussion to 3D productions.


So: What are the advantages of making something like "Mickey Mouse" or "The Secret of NIMH" using computers rather than pencils and paint?

1) Characters are guaranteed to stay "on model."
When you're hand-drawing characters, it takes a lot of skill to keep mass and shape looking correct. With CG, this is a non-issue.

2) Elimination of the inbetweener's job.
Instead of having to pay people to draw the inbetween pictures, all you need is someone who'll do the key poses (in theory).

3) Ease of editing.
When you want to make a minor edit to a sequence, instead of having to re-draw it you can simply push your digital puppet a bit more this way or that -- and the computer will take care of the rest of the fixes for you.

4) Easier to rotate geometrical shapes.
In hand-drawn animation, it's much easier to rotate objects that are round and squishy... Hard-edged rectangular objects are difficult to rotate accurately. Not so for a computer.

5) Lighting effects are easier.
Want a shadow? Want to change the color palette of a scene from high noon to midnight? No problem.

6) Savings on film stock, cels, paint.
Computers aren't cheap -- but (theoretically) they represent a one-time expense. In place of materials costs you have... Electricity bills.


What about the disadvantages of using CG for cartoon films?

1) Fewer cheats.
You can't just imply a location impressionistically with a few lines and swaths of color -- everything you want on screen has to be modeled.

2) Less life in the inbetweens.
A lot of the exciting character of animation happens in the inbetween poses. If you leave that work to the computer, the product is going to be more boring at a very fundamental level.

3) Less squash and stretch.
Yes, to an extent you can squash and stretch computer models... But if you go too far, the rigging (digital armature) will break. You can rig special models for special effects -- but it takes a conscious effort to create the extremes that a pencil can draw with complete ease.

4) Fewer lively "off model" poses.
There's a school of thought (championed most loudly by John Kricfalusi) that focuses on creating truly unique poses and expressions for animated characters. These are, almost by definition, "off model." It's an approach that is contrary to what computer animation does best: uniformity.

5) Absence of line quality.
A huge amount of expressiveness is conveyed through the hand-drawn lines that an animator makes. These don't exist for CG characters.


When the problem is how to create a monster that interacts with live-action actors, CG and stopmo offer two different solutions -- but there is a common criteria for judgement: do the results look photo-realistic? All other considerations aside, CG will usually win out because it is able to provide images that are on the whole more complicated and better integrated into live-action sequences.

When we compare CG and hand-drawn cartoons, however, the products don't look remotely the same. The shared goal? To tell a story that can't be told with live-action. [I'm tempted to say "a story with talking animals," since that is a frequent commonality -- but it wouldn't include a film like "The Incredibles."]

CG cartoons and hand-drawn cartoons ought to be able to co-exist as two separate and unique forms of animation... And yet, how can we ignore Disney dissolving its cel animation branch?

It seems to me that while CG has not delivered the deathblow to hand-drawn cartoons that it's dealt to stopmo monsters, displacement and domination are apparent. Personally, I would say it's largely due to the entertainment industry's aspirations to be... Well, industrial.

The same art school students who are being trained to do modeling, rigging, and animating using Lightwave and Maya for special effects -- they're easily repurposed for CG cartoon films. Companies like Disney were essentially factories to begin with -- but with the standardization that computers (and computer training) provides, the working parts of the entertainment machine (i.e. animators) become even more interchangable.

For an entertainment corporation, the only purpose that "artistry" has is to win Oscars, which act as a form of advertising for the product. So long as the product is "good enough," selling enough units to turn a profit, artistry is expendable...

At least so long as brand recognition doesn't suffer. If different companies' products don't look different from each other -- then there's a reason to start bringing artistry back into the mix!


The phenomenal success of CG as an animation technique is also its Achilles' Heel. Because all of the big entertainment companies have rushed to embrace it, the old techniques have essentially become new again.

There is room for stopmo to be revived for monster films -- and not just as retro pastiche. However, it can never again be the default. From now on, it has to be used as a conscious choice. A name-recognition director very much has it in their power to go this route.

An example: Wes Anderson. Anderson is known for his unique vision; people go to see his films in part if not largely because he's the author. In "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," he bucked the trend and used stopmo instead of CG for all his underwater creatures. The most important of them all -- the Jaguar Shark -- is essentially a monster. This isn't your typical (read "cliched") monster film -- but it's an example of stopmo being used for realistic monster effects, nonetheless.

With regards to cartoon films, again, because the big studios have all rushed to embrace CG (for fear of being left behind?) there's now a void ripe for a daring entertainment company to exploit.

Enter Laika. See, Pixar's doing CG, Disney's doing CG... If Laika starts pumping out stopmo features like "Coraline," it doesn't have any competition! If it does well with this film, it has a chance to quickly establish market dominance.

So how will the other big players in the USA respond? Well, rumor has it that Disney's agreed to do a stopmo remake of Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie." [There's Tim Burton again, one of three-or-so individuals who's currently getting free reign to make stopmo films when he wants.] It seems to me that Disney has seen their blunder... And rather than letting Laika get the upper hand, it's going to counter with its own stopmo product.

Laika and Disney both putting out stopmo products? Remember, there's only been a handful of feature-length stopmo films made in the USA -- EVER. This is an unprecedented scenario... Which, optimistically, could lead to a new boom for stopmo.


I think the year that "Wallace and Gromit" and "Corpse Bride" were both up for Oscars represents a turning point. "Coraline" will build upon that momentum... And if we're very lucky, we might be looking forward to a decade or more of a stopmo film coming out ever year or two.

This would be an excellent thing because -- (and this is a surprise ending to the essay that I didn't see coming) -- what I think we desperately need is more big name directors who have an affinity for the stopmo artform... Because right now, all we've got is Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Nick Park, and Wes Anderson.

If the big studios commit to producing stopmo product, then some new blood might have a chance to rise to the top ranks... And once the directors have had a chance to taste the process of making stopmo films, how can they not wind up pushing to do even more of them?

posted by sven | permalink | categories: stopmo, writing

December 27, 2007

monster month book for sale!

by sven at 12:47 am

book cover

Monster Month 2007 is now available in book form, for sale at lulu.com!

I'm really proud of how it turned out. It really looks and feels like... a book. Gretchin and I put in some crazy hours during December, secretly slaving away so that we could get copies to people in time for xmas. Now that the recipients have unwrapped their surprises, we're making the book available to anyone who wants it!

stack of books

For the book version of Monster Month, I wrote up a new foreword, assembled 7 gorgeous new maps, and did a new painting for the cover. The book's a bit pricier than I'd like -- but ya gotta understand: everything's in full color!

Here's the promotional text for Scarlet Star Studio's first publication:

Monster Month
by Professor Ichbonnsen

Thirty-one days, thirty-one monsters: Monster Month!

After a lifetime of trekking jungles, climbing mountains, and spelunking caves, the world's foremost cryptozoologist at last reveals a selection of his greatest discoveries. Herein you will find the Adameve, the Dark Strider, the Opium Gore Golem, the Trick Squilligoss, the Zompire Bat... And many more fantastic beasts!

With the keen mind of a scientist and the bold heart of an explorer, Professor Ichbonnsen provides illuminating descriptions of how the creatures live -- and astonishing tales of how he found them.

Both adults and children will marvel at the Professor's adventures... And be left wondering what else remains yet undiscovered in the unexplored corners of our rich planet. Like the map-makers of old, you will understand: "Here be dragons!"

Monster Month is lavishly illustrated with 32 full-color paintings by Sven Bonnichsen, and 7 full-color maps tracing Professor Ichbonnsen's travels.

Again, where can you get it? At lulu.com. Here's the direct link: http://www.lulu.com/content/1744791

Thank you to Gretchin for the fantastic help laying out the book... And thank you to all the readers and supporters of Monster Month!

posted by sven | permalink | categories: bestiary, painting, writing

December 10, 2007

the business of stopmo: a primer and a manifesto

by sven at 11:59 pm

[Reprinted from a thread I started at StopMotionAnimation.com... This is an essay I wrote in response to the "How about it - can we make a little scratch in today's digital media environment?" thread, here.]

PART I - Making Something to Sell

OK, let's get down to basics... Givens: (1) You're a person who loves filmmaking. (2) You want to make money while doing it. ...What we're talking about here is running a business.


So, let's think like we're running a business. First off, you need a product to sell. Your product is your film. But filmmaking isn't like painting, where you would ever sell the original... We're in the business of selling copies. I'm going to assume that means making DVDs.

If you were a world-renowned painter who could sell a single painting for $20,000, maybe you could earn a year's worth of living expenses with one sale. No one's going to buy a DVD for $20,000 though...

So, it looks like you're going to need to sell many DVDs in order to make this endeavor profitable. That means keeping inventory on hand. Suppose for the moment that you want a hundred copies available for sale. Right now I can see three options:

(1) buy a stack of blank DVDs, cases, and labels for about $100 total and deal with production and order-fulfillment yourself;

(2) have a professional service burn the discs and print the labels for you, at a cost of ~$7.50 each, therefore $750 total (different deals will vary);

(3) use a print-on-demand service like lulu.com, which allows you to produce each DVD when it is ordered -- and which will take care of fulfilling orders for you, too -- thus, an out-of-pocket cost of $0.

[Personally, I know which means of production I want to pursue. ;-) ]

Let me point out that most of the folks on SMA don't even get this far in terms of creating their stopmo business model... Which drives me nuts! Here we have a message board full of stopmo enthusiasts -- the people most likely in all the world to buy a stopmo film -- and we don't even make it possible to buy films from each other! I'd love to buy DVDs from Nick, Lio, Strider, Paul, Mysterious Ron, Jriggity, Toggo... I'll stop there -- but you get my drift.

Folks, I WANT to buy your films -- but I can't, because there's no physical product there to buy! PLEASE, pick a means for producing some inventory, even if it's just home-burned DVDs, and make them available to me!


OK, so let's assume that you want to be in the business of creating DVDs to sell. You first got into this art because you love it, not in order to make money -- so to make the transition, you're going to have to change your perspective and start thinking about the budget.

Here's the challenge that every maker of art must face: in order to make a profit, you have to bring in more money than you spent on creating your product. Easy enough -- except for one horrifying glitch: stopmo is astronomically expensive to produce!

How expensive? Let's look at a hypothetical 5-minute film and talk about what your initial investment is.

Tools of the trade, a computer and camera, you probably owned anyway -- so I'm willing to ignore those. Sculpey, aluminum armature wire, plaster, wood... I'll bet you could make a fine looking 5-minute film for under $100 in material costs. Even if you move up to foam latex and silicone, the material costs probably won't kill you...

It's TIME that's the killer. How many hours does it take to make a stopmo film, when you consider both fabrication and animating? Let's say you work at 12fps, and can pose a frame every 2.5 minutes. That's 2 seconds of film produced per hour. A five minute film, then, takes 150 hours to shoot. Fabrication usually takes longer than shooting the film itself -- I usually estimate 3 times as long -- so, we'll say that this 5 minute film takes 600 hours total to make.

If you were paying yourself a bit better than minimum wage, say $10 per hour, that means this hypothetical 5 minute film is going to cost you $6100 to create. That's how much money you're going to have to make back, just to break even!

Oh, I could talk about cutting corners at this point -- using cheaper materials, stories with fewer characters, filming at a lower fps... But who am I kidding? If you don't love the film, you're not going to go through the hell of creating it. Just accept that, yes, stopmo is painfully expensive to create.


Pricing is not guess work. It's math. Deal with it. Embrace it. It's not that damned hard.

If you were making one-of-a-kind paintings, this is the formula you would use to price your products: cost of materials + cost of labor + mark-up to whatever the market is willing to pay.

The accepted price point (what people are willing to pay) for feature-length DVDs is $10-$25. People might be willing to pay less than that, but they're not going to pay more. Your film is only 5 minutes long, so you're going to be doing pretty well if you can get people to spend $10...

But, if you sell just one copy of your film for $10, you've just made negative $6090. ...Which is why you're in the business of selling DVD copies, not the original. (Duh.)

OK, let's set our sights on just breaking even. Let's say that you use an online print-on-demand service, where it costs $7.50 to produce a DVD -- but whatever you charge on top of that is money that goes to you. If you can sell your DVDs for $10 each, that means you're raking in $2.50 each...

Which means it's an easy calculation to figure out how much volume we need to move. To make back your initial investment of $6100, you're going to have to sell 2440 copies.


And to make a modest living of $20,000 per year? That's another 8000 copies that you're going to want to move.



I assume that the people I'm writing this for are artists. We have visions that we want to share on film. However, we also have craft skills that we can sell... Which, sadly, is a much more profitable route to go.

As far as I can see, there are four ways to try to make money while doing stopmo:

(1) make your own film and sell DVD copies;

(2) work as an animator/fabricator at a studio that does stopmo;

(3) start your own stopmo studio, which produces and sells TV commercials and music videos to companies with deep pockets (deep because they're moving huge volumes of their own products);

(4) create a film and sell it to a media company that makes its profits either by distributing a catalog of films, or which broadcasts content and makes its real money off ad revenue.

I've done a little bit of freelance work for a local stopmo studio... If I recall, I was making $15/hour before taxes. Freelance work, kinda by definition, isn't steady... But suppose I wanted to make $20,000 a year doing that. If we assume that taxes are going to take about a third of my pay before it even reaches me, then it's easy to figure out that I'm going to need to work for 2000 hours each year. ...Which translates into fifty weeks of 40 hours each.

Nice work if you can get it... But of course, that's not going to leave a lot of time in your life to make that hypothetical 5-minute film I mentioned earlier, which would take 600 hours to produce (fifteen 40-hour weeks).

Running your own stopmo studio, you can get big money coming in, which hypothetically you can channel into a side project -- possibly making a film even with the help of other animators... But the level of complexity grows too, in terms of getting people their paychecks, dealing with insurance, etc... Well, I don't know enough to go that route.

Plus, if your own studio could make a film, you'd still have to find a media company that will buy it for distribution. At that level, you're not going to risk making a film before finding a buyer -- you're going to court potential buyers with a pitch, and try to sell them on investing in you up front.

Are there media companies interested in buying short films from people who've already created a product? Probably. But I don't personally know anything about them. All I can do is ask: How much is any particular company -- who is primarily interested in their own profit -- likely to pay for 5 minutes worth of content? ...$50? $500? $2000?

Maybe broadcast media are different -- but if the company in question sells DVDs, then they'd be subject to the same math that we talked about earlier: To earn $20,000, they'd have to move 10,440 copies.

Granted, they can probably get volume discounts during production -- but that's still a truly phenomenal number of units to sell when your product only lasts 5 minutes. ...And did I mention that your royalties are going to be skimmed off the top? Probably something like 25 or 50 cents per unit?

PART II - Who's going to buy what you make?

OK, now that we've taken a fairly in-depth look at the options for making things to sell, I want to turn attention to consumers -- the people you're going to try to sell your products to.


Let's start with the big picture.

Markets don't simply exist -- they grow or they shrink. ...And, in my opinion, we have it in our power to help make the size of the stopmo audience go in either direction.

I believe that at the heart of every consumer movement there is a core of die-hard enthusiasts. Be their passion for stamp-collecting or for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, wherever there's a shared passion, you've got the seed for a money tree. For stopmo, that essential core of enthusiasts is us -- the 6000-odd lurkers and contributors at SMA.

Look at science fiction. Back in the 30s it was viewed as badly-written kid stuff, not to be taken seriously. It was printed on pulp paper, the cheapest material available, because both the paper and the content was so disposable. Sci fi films have followed a similar path -- look back at attitudes in the 60s -- before 2001 and Star Wars -- when it was all B-movie stuff, not taken seriously by the general public. Where is sci fi now? It's a huge force in the book publishing industry, and it's raking in billions of dollars world-wide in the sale of films. Why? The enthusiasts were determined and won out.

More recently, look at how anime has taken root in the US. It wasn't very long ago that it was just a handful of enthusiasts who even knew what anime is... Now, go into Best Buy, and there are shelves of the stuff for sale.

Why can't the same thing happen with stopmo? In Eastern Europe, the puppet film tradition (I'm told) has a long heritage and continues to thrive. It's a different culture, with stronger ties to traditional puppetry... But even so, why couldn't it happen here too?


Stopmo certainly can sell. Wallace and Gromit, the Nightmare Before Christmas, Robot Chicken... People are hungry for this stuff.

It seems to me that the real problem that we have in terms of marketing our own home-brewed stopmo films is length. In my opinion, a DVD is generally supposed to provide between 45-minutes and 2-hours worth of entertainment. If I buy a 5-minute stopmo film on DVD for $10, I definitely feel like I'm doing the author a bit of a favor. Mind you, it's a favor that I'm eager to do, because I love the art form.

I want to point out that stopmo is not the only art form that suffers from issues of scale. How about short stories? You can sell a short story in the form of a chapbook -- but generally you're going to have a challenging time selling to anyone besides other short-story enthusiasts.

Even more generally, I'd like to point out that MOST artists are starving artists. Poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, makers of short live-action films... We all have to struggle with the time-invested vs. income-generated equation.

Short stories, though, I think are a particularly good analogy for stopmoes to look at. How do you sell a short story? Put it in an anthology.

A DVD anthology of good looking films, in attractive packaging? That could sell.

Enough units to make back what you spent on making your film? Um, honestly probably not. But I'm willing to bet that a 30 minute DVD that contains six five-minute shorts can at least sell more volume than those six films could if they were packaged independently.


Stopmoes... We love this art form with a crazy intensity. We'll eat up whatever gets produced. And yet we aren't even making our films into physical products and selling them to each other!

The way I see it, we need to stop imagining cinderella stories: starving artist gets swept away by producer prince and lives happily ever after in the castle of film distribution. Instead, we need to take power into our own hands. With home DVD-burners and online print-on-demand services, we now have the means of inexpensively producing the very products that we ourselves want to buy.

Imagine if you will a DVD compilation title "the best of StopMotionAnimation.com"... Pretty sweet, huh?

Then, if we as a community were to continue developing in this direction -- insisting that our projects become actual products, and pressing to make the best single-short DVDs and anthology DVDs we can -- well, then how can we fail to begin attracting a broader audience?


Time to wrap this up. And here's where I step up onto my wooden crate marked "manifesto-brand soaps"...

We who love stop-motion animation and who want to see its influence in the world grow, we must:

(1) Take responsibility for turning our filmmaking projects into more than a just hobby, but rather a business. (Even if it loses money.)

(2) Produce DVD versions of our films, and at the very least make them available for sale to other stopmo enthusiasts.

(3) Gather our short films together into anthologies, which make film-viewers feel like they are getting full-value for their entertainment dollar.

(4) Begin expanding the market for stop-motion animation, first by making our products available to other stopmo enthusiasts, and then by drawing others into the passion.

(5) Keep making films. Because if we don't give the audience products to buy frequently enough, their shopping attention won't stay engaged, and they'll just wander away.

And in my best inspirational seminar voice:

We're all in this together folks, so let's "get down to business" -- and really get to work.

[End of speech. You'll find copies of my book in the lobby. I'll be available for signing after a brief intermission... :-P ]

posted by sven | permalink | categories: stopmo, writing

November 20, 2007

one event may hide another

by gl. at 11:59 pm

on saturday i took a "found poetry" class at the 100th monkey, the title of which is based on the beautiful poem "one train may hide another", inspired by a sign the author saw in kenya.

our first exercise was in the format of a "lost" ad:

lost: free time. last seen summer of 2004. may be in the company of homemade meals and long walks on the springwater corridor trail. if found, please contact gretchin@scarletstarstudios... and i will try to arrange a pickup time in the next few weeks.

afterwards, i thought i might write a companion piece called "free to good home: to-do list." :)

the next exercise was finding a sign at the studio to write about: i'm always intrigued by the "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" signs, but we didn't really write a poem based on it.

then we did an exercise where the facilitator asked us to listen and write down what we heard as he slowly moved his way up the AM dial: we could use those words, and those words only, for the next poem we wrote:

an open field
how long ago was that?
no return
solid state now
we were told
we could only go

he also briefly covered a technique called "widows & orphans," which is similar to the above technique. widows and orphans are typesetting terms for the dangling words left morosely at the bottom and top of book pages: you gather a bunch of those and use only those words to make a poem (but again, we didn't write anything based on that technique).

finally we created "blackout poems" like those found on humument. this could have been a workshop all to itself! we found a page in a book or a magazine, highlighted words that together suggested a poem, blacked out everything else with a marker or sharpie, then created art atop it. i copied a page from a book about constellations and found this poem in it:

the goddess screamed.
vengeance gives names
to dark shapes.
but abandon pain
believe in lilies:
gifts of immortality,
the pathway of souls.

amusingly, one of the women i met at this workshop i saw later that night at the iprc text ball, a story about an event that has yet to be told.

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: classes & workshops, writing

November 9, 2007

artist's way guided intent (november)

by gl. at 10:29 pm

on wednesday night we gathered four strands of possibility in our fingers and wove them together to create poetry. using divination tricks like coins, cards, cookies and cups of darjeeling tea, we poured our hopes and hearts onto the page. this month charles won a new journal to continue writing (and everyone went home with an exotic coin or fortune in their pocket!).

["appreciate the good will of others;" click to see the other prompts]

essentially, we spent the evening writing based on these tangible prompts. at the end, we wrote a poem based on one of the writings we did. we only shared the final poem, not any of the writings.

the first type of possibility is binary: yes or no, heads or tails. so i passed around a little bowl of various foreign coins and we asked a question with a yes or no answer. mine was "will i live to be 100?" and the answer was tails: no. so i wrote about asking the wrong question, because maybe i'll live to be 101, or 1001. 100 is like 2 more lifetimes from now for me, and it's hard to imagine even 10 years in the future. i should have asked "will i have a long, happy life?" -- but what if the answer to -that- was no?

then we picked a tarot card, and i was amazed that i picked "the star," the card i coveted so dearly when sven picked it last time. i love the star! unexpectedly, i started writing about harvesting stars like a fisherman, casting my net into the roaring dark. (i had a physics professor tell me once that if space wasn't a vaccum, we'd hear the roar of the sun all day and the chatter of stars at night). the sound of atoms in the dark, chattering waves of ions & photons riding gravity through space, creating tides & eddies. galaxies like mammoth whales slowly floating across the universe, eating starlight & breathing stardust. i hit a little bump when i wrote: "but where do the stars go after that? we harvest to eat, we harvest to consume, we harvest them for dresses that sparkle, coats so soft and flowing they make people cry as you walk by." the vision of a stardust coat was appealing, but harvesting & killing stars to do it makes me shudder. i don't know if star farms would be a very valid option, either, though stars glowing in barns would be sort of sweet.

this year i actually bought fortune cookies to use instead of using the little bag of fortunes i'm saving for an undetermined art project. cracking open a fortune cookie in an irreplacable kinesthetic experience. my fortune read "appreciate the good will of others." and i do! while writing, as i so often do, i compared it to a scientific principle, in this case e=mc2: an equal exchange of matter & energy. the more goodwill i have for others, the more i will receive in return.

finally, everyone picked a tea cup from the center of the table and i passed around a bowl of loose darjeeling tea. we poured ourselves just enough tea to dip the fortune cookie into and slowly sipped until the pattern was revealed. mine looked like land & sky, with stars or birds hovering in the air. i couldn't decide which they were, which lent itself well to the final part of the night, picking one of the writings to use as the basis of a poem:

the quantum mechanic takes tea

wet and moist with possibility
the tea leaves swell & swarm
leaving land on one side
sky on the other.
there is no tempest in this teapot
only monet or van gogh
each leaf a dab of paint
from an impressionist's paintbrush.

up close, the story is unclear:
swifts chasing a hawk
or stars gently glowing
above a fragrant field?
like a double exposure
each is true but when i choose one
the other will cease to exist.


the next event is collage night, which is already full, but the next guided intent is one of my favorites: blind painting! and then i'll team up with bridget to teach a wordwear workshop: the strong silent type. whee!

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

October 12, 2007

HPLFF drinking game

by sven at 9:00 am

On the last day of the 2007 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, I said to myself: carpe diem!

I've been fantasizing about creating an HPLFF drinking game for two years now... So in the last half hour before heading out to the fest, I assembled my notes into the following document. I made something like 40 copies, and distributed them to the theater-goers.

I'm looking forward to putting together an even better version for next year.


by Sven Bonnichsen, 2007

Lovecraftian cliches. We keep hoping for better films... But even when the films are laughably bad, we love 'em despite ourselves. Here's a game to help get you through some of the more unnameable cinema.

Warning: may cause alcohol poisoning. (In the context of the HPLFF, I recommend replacing shots with pieces of candy or popcorn.)

someone says: Cthulhu
someone says: ftagn!
someone says: R'lyeh
a single tentacle reaches from offscreen
crazy rant mentioning names of 3+ Elder Gods

evil book
someone says: Necronomicon
we see hand-drawn demons inside book
character finds the Necronomicon just lying around in someone's house
character goes insane after reading book
interior of a college library
someone says: Miskatonic

hooded robe
a circle is drawn on the ground
worshipping giant demon idol
bonus: 50+ candles
woman tied up, awaiting human sacrifice
boyfriend/husband murders his girlfriend/wife
bonus: girlfriend/wife murders her boyfriend/husband
the end of the world is represented by stock footage of marching Nazis
the end of the world is represented by stock footage of an atomic bomb
the gateway to the Elder Gods' dimension is an actual door in the wall

padded cell
hypodermic needle
hypodermic needle used as weapon
a shot of blood hitting the wall
blood splatters onto someone's face

woman screams
vomiting in horror
lights turn off menacingly
bonus: the lights in a hospital hallway turn off
a dark silhouette runs past the the camera in the foreground
someone laughs unnaturally long
full moon

creepy little kid stands staring
recurring dream repeats
time loop circles back to beginning of loop

protagonist had a relative purported to practice witchcraft
tunnels under old house

faux scratchy black and white
voice-over for entire film
an actor who is at least 10 years too young for the part
bonus: 20+ years too young
out-of-the-box digital lightning effect
the auteur's name appears 4+ times in the credits
bonus: if the auteur's name appears 4+ times -- and is the only name in the credits
hard rock soundtrack during credits
credits say "copyright" at the end, despite use of infringed music

you see someone from the Church of Satan
have to switch crossed legs because your ass has gone numb
you've forgotten how many years you've been coming
catch a whiff of body odor from someone in the next row
the guy in the row in front of / behind you thinks he's funny
fall asleep during a film
you bump into Cthulhu in the lobby

"What's wrong, Elwood?"

posted by sven | permalink | categories: exhibits & events, writing

October 3, 2007

a beautiful hoax: the lovecraft filmfest acceptance letter

by sven at 10:00 am

[click to enlarge]

I've been meaning to share this for a while: the acceptance letter that the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival sent me for the new Let Sleeping Gods Lie teaser.

I love this!

I think The Hoax is the highest form of fiction. Cinema comes close, creating an immersive fantasy world; but there's always this fourth wall between you and the imaginary place. With The Hoax, however, fantasy breaks out of its cage and invades reality. I suppose it's sort of like guerilla theater in that sense... The artist's dream life can errupt into being anywhere, at any moment.

An elaborate and beautifully crafted Artist's Hoax is different from "viral marketing." It's perpetrated tongue-in-cheek, with a sense of playfulness that invites the audience to play along -- to embellish, even. Viral marketing, on the other hand, is coercive. It's a con job, where shills are planted in the audience purely for the purpose of herding their marks into the slaughterhouse.

[I'm also a big fan of mixing metaphors: the much maligned linguistic mash-up. ...But that's another essay.]

Anyway: Don't forget that the H.P. Lovecraft Filmfest is happening this Friday. Hope to see you there!

posted by sven | permalink | categories: exhibits & events, let sleeping gods lie, writing

October 2, 2007

artist's way: session 2

by gl. at 4:45 pm

i was relieved when the weather decided to be kind enough today so we could do the poetry walk, which is an exercise where i do a simple loop around the neighborhood and we write down all the nouns and verbs of the things around us (or what they make us think of). the trick is that you can't use adjectives or adverbs. afterwards, we had 20 minutes to write a poem, though it didn't have to use those words or be about the walk. i love that even though we've all been influenced by the same walk, we write dramatically different poems.


with each step
we are escaping
from our boxes
of wood and metal
and fences can't keep us
from the fields
lined with grass
and fallen apples.

we are walking together
but writing alone
each rose glowing red
against its own grey sky.


center (safety): calligraphy pens forming a structure in which art can grow, with the stars shining & encouraging from above, about ready to drop in

music: tracy chapman's new beginning

(and now i'm off to england! tally ho!)

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

September 5, 2007


by gl. at 12:34 pm

last sunday the portland society for calligraphy was asked to write numbers on the participants of the first portland triathlon, which meant we had to be there at dark o'clock. many triathletes said they were really grateful to have beautiful numbers to wear for the next few days: the number they wear is like a badge of honor, but usually they get something scrawled with a sharpie. even the athletes who were wearing full-length body suits wanted numbers!

[smiling in the dark: click to see the other pix from this event]

and even more impressive is that lorinda moholt wrote a poem afterwards, while the rest of us had gone back to bed or were drowning in coffee!

Triathlete Numbers

(more fun than vellum)

5:30 am, dark, no coffee
(do they ever eat donuts),
tall, short, thin, almost-thin
hairy and smooth, they stop
for us to write numbers on
strong, tense bodies.

544, 837, 20l, 683, 219;
on thigh below the shorts line,
then upper arm, always the left
side, age on calf. Calm and
cheerful or focused and silent,
they leave our stations with
right sides anonymous.

20-something, 40-plus, 68,
calligraphers in the still
dark morning tell each
competitor "I only write
winning numbers." Some
say thanks, then walk to
the cold Willamette.

as alesia says, vellum "is old-school calligraphy material: goat-, sheep - or calf-skin to write on. AKA unoccupied skin, unlike what we did this morning!"

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: calligraphy, exhibits & events, writing

August 10, 2007

poem: 34

by gl. at 2:35 pm

i read my "birthday poem" series at the muse talk opening reception last month, so it seems fitting i should share the next poem in the series:


this is a season of blackberries,
warm and floral in the sun
unpredictably sour and sweet.
we walk down the hill with
blackberry ink on our hands.

we are on a carousel, up and down
i am the dragon, you are the swan.
i ride glittering bicycles through fairy forests
and hold the hands of women who bleed
and think they are
no matter how many thorns
are on this blackberry wall
no matter how much they scratch
i will keep plucking these dark jewels
and cry at how we must fight
to keep anything worth saving.

::august 04, 2007::

[see also: 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 & 33]

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

June 30, 2007

muse talk art reception review

by gl. at 11:59 pm

the muse talk art reception last week went really well! there were about 50 people there, which i think is pretty respectable for a coffeehouse show. i was especially pleased (and surprised!) to see so many people i knew: special thanks to kristen & todd; jennifer, julie & evan; toni & matt; mary knight & her friend; and seamus & his family. in addition, sven & michaelmas were there, and leeann was visiting from california! i very much appreciated the support! (alas, kim was sick, serena was at the vet, and anna was at a bridal shower. but i appreciated your good thoughts, too.)

[part of the crowd]

one of the great things about this show is that we had an opportunity for perfomances in addition to visual art. so i read the "birthday poetry" series i began when i was 25 and still in colorado. i try to write a poem every year as the first thing i do when i wake up on the morning of my birthday. sometimes the date slips a little, but this ritual turned out to be very important when i was languishing in california, or i wouldn't have written anything at all.

i was afraid it might be too much: 9 poems over 8 years, 3 states and 2 countries: all in 15 minutes! i wrote the transitions out beforehand because i knew i didn't have time to ramble. but i was very pleased (and relieved!) with how well it went: i heard audience responses in all the right places and several people came to talk to me afterwards times to recall similar situations & emotions.

[reading 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 & 33]

and then, as if that wasn't enough, i volunteered to be "water" in the "salmon dance"! who can resist the swirly scarves? i certainly couldn't. a tribute to the lifecycle of the salmon, alisa created the dance a few years ago with a much larger group, so this was a much smaller reprise. still, her handmade salmon sculptures are amazing, and the large windows were great to illuminate them (though they also produced terribly backlit pix, as you may have noticed).

[wandering water]

oh, and i also have a couple of pieces in the visual arts show. :) the art show will remain up until july 24, so stop by to see these two pieces, which are tucked in the back by the big comfy couch. and feel free to buy the work of one of the other artists! *nudge*

["advice" and "a grace it had, devouring"]

this was fat straw's first art show, and throughout the planning process we could tell the owner was pretty dubious and wasn't willing to help or answer many questions. his tune began to change when the newspapers we sent press releases to began to call, and on the day of the show fat straw was very busy serving drinks & snacks. he was very intently watching the performances and afterwards he said he was impressed with the all the arts & the work we did to set up the show. hooray!

[fat straw sign]

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: calligraphy, exhibits & events, other art, writing

June 5, 2007

poem: the deluge

by sven at 6:40 pm

Big act-of-god type rainstorm today. With the kind of thunder that rattles the lunch in your belly. Stood out on the front porch awhile watching.

the deluge

the unmapped craters of raindrops
remind me of the
moon we will never know

molten and newborn
tattooed by falling stones
from grandfather worlds
shattered long before

my eye is cut in two
when the whip of light cracks
and its wave of sound
rolls through my chest
like the beginning of existence

I grieve for the maps
of this moment
and that before
which will never be drawn

this world
is a burning library
of lost miracles

June 5, 2007

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

April 7, 2007

stopmo and storytelling skills

by sven at 11:59 pm

Last night I was thinking about making a new animatic for Let Sleeping Gods Lie. I sat down at the keyboard to capture some of that inspiration -- and the following "essay" (?) tumbled out.

(The tone of it sort of makes me feel like I'm standing on a stage, delivering a commencement speech to myself.)



A puppet is just a special effect.

Its sole purpose is to look good in front of a camera. It doesn't matter how well or poorly constructed it is. Anything that looks good, is good.

The goal is to make stories come to life on screen. Or if not "stories," then at least moving art that can be projected in a movie theater or on a TV.

There is a strong temptation to simply make exquisite dolls -- and dollhouse worlds for them to live in.

There's a strong desire to build perfect miniature versions of your characters, which you'll then -- someday -- breath life into.

It's not an entirely bad impulse... In order to make it through the telling of your story, you want puppets that are sturdy, and puppets that don't fight back when you try to pose them.

But let your imagination and excitement be for the storytelling.

If you work at the craft of making well-built puppets, then that is what you will become good at.

If you work at the craft of telling stories, then you will produce animations that look god-awful -- but you will produce a lot of them.

When your excitement is for making up stories, making up scenes, imagining powerful images -- then you can take that energy and do something that people will find worth watching -- in just an afternoon. It'll lack production values... But that's not the point.

My point is that creating stories is a skill. It is a skill that you can practice and develop.

It's not the same thing as just writing a script. (That's a skill, too.) What I'm thinking of is coming up with a story of some sort, and then getting it on screen -- no matter how rough the production values are.

If that's your passion... Then other skills will still develop (perhaps not as quickly as if they're your focus) -- and they will be appropriately subordinate to the greater cause.

Imagine that you have a collection of sketchbooks. One sketchbook contains the series of armatures that you've made while developing your skills as an armature-maker. One sketchbook contains the series of maquettes that you've made while developing your skills (and style) as a sculptor. And in another sketchbook, are the stories that you've made films of.

You can't learn how to be a painter very well if you spend the first four years of your career making just one painting. You need to make as many paintings as possible -- knowing that your early works won't satisfy you -- but that they are the first links in a long chain that eventually leads to what you want.

So imagine a story, and then get it onto the screen as quickly as possible. In a day. Half a week at most. Use still photographs, or hand puppets, or cut-outs -- whatever you know how to use well enough so that you can get the idea out.

Because in the end, every aspect of film production is about IDEAS.

The story is an idea. Making a better armature -- it's about your ideas surrounding armature-making. Sculpting: if that's what you find yourself working on, then there are ideas there that you're pursuing, too... Or rather, ideas that are pulling you on.

Let go of what your hands are drawn to do... Just long enough to look at all the different kinds of things that you could make. That you could study... Story. Sculpting. Lighting. Armatures. Mold-making and casting. Puppet fab (build-up, painting, costumes). Script-writing.

[Again, making stories and writing out scripts -- they're two different things.]

Be "meta" enough to switch between areas of study. Try to consciously choose what it is that you're going to study next.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: let sleeping gods lie, stopmo, writing

December 18, 2006

poem: i am the arrow

by sven at 11:32 pm

I'm in the midst of actually animating the "quick and dirty" film...

Because I'm hunched over in a cold garage for hours on end, I've established a rule that I have to go for a 10 minute walk up Powell Butte every time I finish a clip (usu. approx. 2 hrs). This poem popped into my head while going "up and around." Sort of a chant; influenced by the rhythm of walking, I suspect.

i am the arrow

i am the arrow
have chosen my target
i wake with one thought
move in straight lines

‘til sleep overtakes me
i cut cross the horizon
shot from coiled meditation
through blackness to light

i am the arrow

December 18, 2006

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

November 25, 2006


by gl. at 8:44 pm

david whyte has a poem i very much like called "everything is waiting for you." but the thanksgiving trip gave me a chance to read the entire eponymous book (thanks, sandy!), and this excerpt from "september 2001" illuminated a part of my heart i feel is oft underappreciated:

You know, I must remember,
until my last breath goes out
to ask. To try, every time, one last time

to confirm the native
human intuition that heaven
is never far away at all,

that it's just a door or a step
or a whole short life to get there.
I must remember

to stop people in the street
as if the most closed,
grey, concrete, commuting life

could be just a skim
on the pool
of communal revelation

and as if, in my continued hurry
I just haven't
given anyone or anything

anywhere, any time
to let me know
what's really about to happen.


I must remember

to knock on other doors,
to call out people's names,
to enquire as if my life

depended on knowing
that something
always lies so close

and to remember that it takes
only one requited request
for the extraordinary

to make a hundred ordinary
up to that moment

more than extraordinary,
rare, numinous,
a harvest

worth having,
no matter how difficult
to sow and reap.

And that the angel always
has to elbow her way
towards us

through a lot of unknowing

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

September 30, 2006

nothing new under the sun

by gl. at 11:40 am

i ran across an interesting quote yesterday while skimming through the winter 1990 issue of Calligraphy Review (now Letter Arts Review). in it, they were lamenting competive practices, something they felt was at odds with most calligraphy traditions:

"When survival depends on originality, that uniqueness becomes something to protect rather than share..."

this probably deserves a longer post, but i've been thinking about artists who are possessive about their work versus those who are generous with what they offer. i have never enjoyed competition. i play collaborative scrabble, for heaven's sake. i've always adopted or adapted best practices & models and have encouraged others to adopt mine. maybe it's because i come from the remix generation, or maybe it's because i worked in higher education for almost 10 years, but i'm generally okay with people embracing bits of creative work to use as epigrams, inspiration, and sometimes even gentle appropriation. (note, for instance, that our creative commons license doesn't mind if you use what we write here, even for profit, as long as you credit us -- and allow the same use of the work you create from it).

even with the same words, we each write different poems. even with the same syllabus, we each teach wildly different classes. i don't think our ideas are so unique that they must be hoarded & guarded; instead, i believe our individual expression & combination of them, like genes, cannot be replicated.

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

September 20, 2006

artist's way: week 2

by gl. at 6:54 pm

last night's activity, motivated in part by the equinox on friday, was a poetry walk. in a poetry walk, you divide your paper into two sides: nouns & verbs. and we walk verrrrryyyy sllloowwwwlllyyy around the block, through the big field, writing down every noun & verb the we see, hear, smell, feel. the trick of it is not to write any adjectives or adverbs, and to write words as quickly as they occur to you. if you haven't written anything in a few seconds, you're thinking too hard. then you return to the studio & write a poem using some of those words:


some people bury the past
abandon it like a basketball in a field
but i open the door
bite the lock in half

i am blooming and dissolving
a lace of lights against the skyline
as the crickets sing
to the fallen apples
in the dusk

...september 19, 2006...


center (safety): a handmade stamped brick surrounded by calligraphy tools, one of which is a supportive and expansive black feather, waiting to catch you.

music: tracy chapman's new beginning

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

September 7, 2006

artist's way guided intent (september)

by gl. at 3:39 pm

cranberry lemonade marked the return of the artist's way guided intent this month, but it was the darjeeling tea leaves that had more of an impact! in addition to other divination aids like pennies, fortune cookies & tarot cards, they formed the basis for short writing prompts that led to poems about possibility.

[tea leaves in my cup: click the photo to see a charming collection of other cups]

for the first prompt, "the most basic possibility is binary," i said, passing around pennies. "yes or no, heads or tails." when i asked the penny if this is what i'm meant to be doing with my life, it came up heads: yes. for some reason that surprised me, and by the end of 5 minutes i had concluded with a sentence about wanting a future without feeling so beholden to others (an odd thing for a facilitator, perhaps, but bear with me).

right on cue, the fortune cookie fortune i picked said, "isolating yourself from others will not prevent you from being hurt." ha! what serendipity! so i wrote for 5 more minutes about how i could achieve balance, how i can maintain both solitude and service to others.

satisfied at the progress i was making, i turned over the random tarot card i picked. the devil? what? after all that? i was angry; i hate it when someone (even a card!)thinks the worst of me because i try so hard to do the right thing. so i spent 5 minutes looking at my flaws and what i do that could cause others to demonize me. i chose to use it as an exercise in looking at my actions through the eyes of others to evoke empathy. i'm not well-acquainted with tarot meanings, so its interpretation as a card of power & desire was lost on me. (sven got the "star" card, btw. i was so envious!)

but the tea leaves were a mystery for me. in order to write about them i had to begin at the most immediate level: a descriptive response, writing simply about the visual characteristics of what i was seeing. other participants described the tea leaves as their favorite inspirational component, so while it didn't do much for me, the intent to provide different stimuli for different people worked.

after the writing prompts we had some time to write a poem based on one or more of the prompts. this is a poem about possibility, even though it doesn't sound like it:

Same time tomorrow

Desire and despair are two sides
of the same coin:
I want to be good
I want to be possessed
but I am a princess in a tower
with DSL.
Keep time from slipping through my fingers
tell me each tea leaf matters
the pattern clumps, then crumbles
a flash of birds across the sky.

september 07, 2006

sharing our works didn't go as smoothly as it does w/ visual responses, in part because when we discuss visual work i have a pretty good structure that reminds people we're not here to "fix" the art of others or judge its aesthetics, but rather our goal is to help the artist find meaning in it. so the responses got a little out of hand at the end, and because i'm still sick i don't have my authority voice (nor do i like to invoke it). we had a couple of writers who were vocally disappointed that they had come to the guided intent that featured a literary exercise when they were looking for more visual stimulus, but i feel strongly about offering a wide range of visual, literary & expressive art offerings, and all i can do is tell people not to come to the ones they think they won't like.

i can hardly believe it, but our next two events are already full! september's open studio has a waiting list, and the next guided intent in october (abundance via blind painting!) filled up the first day it was announced. also, it looks like an artist's way creative cluster will form tuesday evenings. hooray!

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

August 27, 2006

poem: on being a lonely planet

by gl. at 6:16 pm

i've been meaning to write a poem about pluto being reclassified as a "dwarf planet," leaving us with eight "classical" planets. i'm such a science geek. :) of course, it's hardly ever just about the science....

On being a lonely planet

Nobody wants to dance with
a planet with an eccentric orbit
and its lopsided satellite
nobody wants a long-distance relationship with
a rejected planet in the coldest, darkest sky.
You scramble to keep up with the warmer lives
of the elite inner planets from afar
watching their round orbits and their shining faces
but they don't want you asking too many questions
and your quiet deviance is mistaken as dimness.
Neptune's as close as he ever was
but he seems more distant, somehow
your paths still cross
but your conversations are stiff and remote.

You never needed to be the center of the universe
you're not afraid to be alone
but loneliness creeps in, anyway.
Once discovered, you thought you'd always
be included, but now neglected
your only friends are other outcast asteroids.
You're a planet with a good heart, and
your years are long ones,
alternating between sunlight and night.
But don't get your hopes up:
I've seen this happen before
and no amount of pennies or pomegranate seeds
will bring you back into the fold.

...august 27, 2006...
dedicated to the planet formerly known as pluto

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

June 8, 2006

poem: what do your answers mean?

by sven at 11:59 pm

collage: "What do your answers mean?" (two-page spread)

I don't think I've put any poetry up on Scarlet Letters yet... I wrote this one last night, inspired by Gretchin's Artist's Way Guided Intent event.

What do your answers mean?

is the hand that writes
"the end"
at the conclusion of a film

the movie would just go on and on
an endless series of questions
each leading to more questions...)

is the definitive answer that
concludes your quest to know
it is the inky dot that stops a sentence

we all turn to this endpoint
like pilgrims on our way to Mecca
Who are you?
What do you want to be?
open your mouth to reply and it's
a decision to take your own life

oh, there's pleasure and pride
in predestination
in holding the pen
making a mark on the map filled with dragons
and arriving at the place you set out for
the execution of a plan with a grand flourish
for everyone to remember

...But I think that I like
not knowing where I'm going

I want to break from the Eastward road
and run headlong into a dark forest
looking only the next few steps ahead
going in this direction
only because I know it makes me happy

maybe I am no one
just emptiness erasing itself
if I'm without ambition to pick the bronze statue
for my headstone

diving into the thick fog of unknowns
where all I can see is my own feet
full of questions
I have no name, only a direction

it thrills me

to live
to Live
is to embrace the unbeing
of becoming

June 7, 2006

posted by sven | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

April 19, 2006

against keeping your film production secret

by sven at 8:39 pm

[I just wrote a long post over at StopMotionAnimation.com that's worth repeating here. Leevi Lehtinen is working on an excellent stopmo film, and my blog brother Ale suggested that Leevi shouldn't show us any more clips from the work until it's complete. I've been roughing out an essay about why I'm against keeping film projects secret -- Ale's comment just opened the floodgates.]

Keep it up and please don't show so much about the film! I love it, but prefer to see it completed!

Oh! I must respectfully disagree with Ale! PLEASE, don't hesitate to post work-in-progress shots! If a viewer does not want to see the film until it is completed, then it is their own responsibility to not click on those files.

I am of the opinion that getting to see the film as it's being made only enhances the experience. Rather than spending five minutes of attention on your well-crafted work of art, I get to spend months or years enjoying it bit-by-bit. I'm cheering you on -- and when it is completed, I feel that in some small way I was able to help make it possible -- by being a supportive ear / eye.

Telling artists not to show their work until it's done -- this doesn't help them at all! Isolation is a terrible motivator. Look at SMA itself: when we get to share our energy, we are reinvigorated and inspired to do more! Sharing encourages sharing -- and that's where we get our spark.

"Keeping it secret" is NOT a step towards professionalism. Look at Peter Jackson's online "making-of" video diary for King Kong. Look at how Joss Whedon showed rough cuts of Serenity to eager audiences... Sharing the process of creation -- as you're creating -- is an excellent way to build your audience prior to release.

...And after your film is released, showing the "making-of" doesn't somehow spoil the magic. Pick up almost any DVD, and you'll see "making of" documentaries. The viewing public knows movies aren't magic -- we're curious to see how they're made, and only gain respect by learning how well-crafted the film is. The "making-of" is part of the product, just as marketable as the film itself.

The film-viewing public is literate and should get to make their own choices where "spoilers" are concerned. For example, when the new Star Wars movies came out, myself and lots of my friends knew that there would be spoilers -- and we conscientiously avoided them. In the world of blogging, there's an etiquette whereby you warn people that there may be "spoilers" in your post so they can decide for themselves if they want to read on.

The movie itself is only half the story. I want to know about about the people who made it. There are movies that I go to not because I know anything about the film -- but because the film is a Peter Jackson- or George Lucas- or James Cameron- or Steven Spielberg- or Jim Henson- or Joss Whedon- or Martin Scorsese- or Whoever- film. As filmmakers, we shouldn't try make ourselves invisible. Ultimately what we want is for people to be invested in US. Hopefully I'm not going to make just one film. I'm going to make several or many films -- and I want my audience to follow ME as I grow and create.

I don't know what Nick Hilligoss' next film is going to be about -- but it doesn't matter! I already know that I want to see it! Same goes for the the next film by Mike Brent or Alejo Accini or Jeffrey Roche or Shelley Noble or Dave Hettmer or Lio Ivan Orozco or Marc Spess or (forgive me, folks I'm failing to name)... I want to see WHATEVER these people do next, because I've come care about them and what they're doing.

And I want to know about their work as it's in progress, too. So, please -- everyone -- keep sharing your works-in-progress!


posted by sven | permalink | categories: movies, stopmo, writing

March 8, 2006

creata: writing to health

by gl. at 9:59 pm

this is the fifth in a series of posts about workshops sponsored by CREATA during Creative Arts Therapy week. session date mar07.

the most dynamic and interesting presentation so far was from the well arts institute, which talked about a project called "performing wellness," developed from a artists repertory theatre outreach project. essentially, members of a targeted population (e.g., cancer survivors) learn to write plays about their stories, at which point, with the input of the author, they are professionally cast, directed & publically staged, providing an opportunity for catharsis and witnessing.

one of the primary tools they use is something they call "wild child writing," which is very similar to the morning page exercise i just did w/ rob's class). wild-child writing is topic-directed, stream-of-consciousness writing. the goal is to write right past the barriers their internal censors try to erect, to write despite their self-criticism, to learn how to recognize their own voices. at that point, they can begin to work on their plays. there is no critiquing of the work done in this project, nor can a participant use words they may have already written about the event.

during the workshop, we tried the wild-child writing three times: once with the prompt "right now i am feeling," then with the prompt "i am water" and finally with the prompt "i am earth." then we highlighted three words and three phrases in each writing and using only those combined words, created a poem:

i am earth

i make breath and dreams
creatures you have yet to meet
i keep you from the sky and you resent that
but i have no quarrel with the sky
my mountains pin me to her
because she has no hands to hold me.

wait. this quake grows slow, thunderous.
what is this language i speak?
it is the rising and falling of breathing
heaving like birth
the taste of sour and salt.
blood, moon, heart.

one of the things the presenter wanted to make clear was that while "performing wellness" is therapeutic, it is not therapy (have you heard that somewhere before?) and they had a great document i may need to adapt for my own therapy vs therapeutic statement:

the creative process vs therapy
differentiating performing wellness from therapy

as someone with a theatre degree that's just sitting around gathering dust, this presentation made me realize that what i've been waiting for in theatre is a culture of compassion rather than competition. there is something amazingly powerful in acting and telling someone else's story, and egos just get in the way.

in artist's way we do an exercise inspired by playback theatre, and it's always an unexpected delight for the players & the teller to work together. it's a late-stage exercise after participants have developed trust in each other, so there's a fair amount of empathy & benevolence instead of pride & prejudice (ha! please forgive me the pun), which creates a very satisfying experience for all involved.

i was so impressed with this presentation i offered to volunteer for the well arts institute: i gave the presenter my card and she wants me to send her a resume. wish me luck!

(also recommended by one of the very nice people i connected with at the conference (hi, alecia!): what i want my words to do to you, a film about a similar program for women inmates.)

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, classes & workshops, writing

January 13, 2006

poem: lot's wife at the new year

by gl. at 11:59 am

michaelmas thought i should post this. i thought of the first few lines and the title on new year's eve and every few days added a couple of more lines until suddenly it was done. i'm suprised i'm not a pillar of salt already; i'm always looking back.

lot's wife at the new year

lot's wife sings "auld lang syne"
and kisses all the men in gomorrah
while holding a tiny bottle of champagne.
she knows she can't look back, so
she buries the past
keeps moving forward
pretends nothing else matters.
she's giddy, sparkling
in a sequined dress
and laughing like
there's no tomorrow.

midnight is magic
but the dark, dull hours before dawn
are tangled thick with fear and hope.
the men are now sprawled and snoring
on the couches in rumpled tuxedos
and the long hours stretch before her.
which will it be:
a year of salt
or a year of honey?
i think you know the answer.

...january 13, 2006...

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing

January 10, 2006

how to have an opinion about art

by gl. at 4:13 pm

one of the hardest things about being an artist's way facilitator is having an opinion about art. i used to be incredibly critical & cynical, but one of the great things artist's way gave me was kinder eyes towards the art of others. as rob has said, "'bad' art is often a preliminary stage, larval -- even embryonic -- for the good stuff. We can help to guide it along, give it sunlight and water and sing to it, or we can crush it, piss on it, darken hopes and souls." i'm very much of the opinion that artist's way is less about Art and more about living a more creative life, and part of that involves a certain amount of forgiveness and generosity, both for yourself & others. it's like being able to taste the love in a homemade pumpkin pie, even if it has too much dark molasses in it.

when facilitating, i don't have an opinion at all about the art that gets made because artist's way is about the process, not the result. but i also believe there are legitmate uses for criticism, and i was really conflicted about how to legitimately like or dislike a piece of art w/o betraying my neutrality as a facilitator or the tenets of artist's way.

on thursday i think i finally figured it out. i went for an artwalk on first thursday with a group that was initially enthusiastic but became discouraged pretty quickly, rolling their eyes and raising their eyebrows & crossing their arms, moving to a bar to complain about the state of the art world. i have to admit, a lot of art gallery art doesn't usually appeal to me, but it often inspires me to make my own, and i like to immerse myself in all the influences. but the stumbling block for the group was hildur bjarnadóttir's "overlap" and its neighbor, victoria haven's "the lucky ones," both understated, abstract & geometrical, with distinct flavours of portland grunge. the group felt these pieces were lazy and obvious and incomprehensible as Art. i didn't really like them, either, but i didn't as actively dislike them and the strongly negative group reaction disturbed me. i didn't feel like i wanted to have to defend a show i didn't feel strongly about. can you dislike something and still be glad it exists?

later that night i discovered the key is to give yourself a chance to engage with the art before deciding whether you like or dislike it. after you've applied some form of response to it (like, say, the phenomenological/aesthetic/artistic responses i introduce in the creative clusters :), then you can hate it. but to hate it on a purely visual level means you're viewing it as entertainment, not art. we often say a piece doesn't "speak" to us, but often we don't try to talk to it; we just look at it and move on. if you view art as a form of creative self-expression, you have an obligation to try to engage with it, to ask questions, to look for the story. this is where viewer/artist collaboration can happen, and it should be the artist's obligation to help with that process (unfortunately, most artist statements distance the viewer even further). if after attempting to respond to the piece it still doesn't work for you, then fine! but now you have more to base your opinion on than whether your 4-year-old niece could make something better.

the other part of the solution, which came a couple of days later, was finally settling into a workable distinction between creation, craft & art. st. francis of assisi wrote, "he who works with his hands is a laborer. he who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. he who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

aha! so if the mystery ingredient for art is heart, an intention of creative self expression, then i can appreciate pieces that don't move me for their craft, or even dislike them if i find myself unable to find their heart. this is a huge relief: not being able to have an opinion about art has made me feel hypocritical and a little schizophrenic. bless you, father; i shall go forth & sin no more.

(btw, my favorite pieces from first thursday were from james jack's "ink" series, a beautiful exploration of calligraphic forms and sink marbling. these pix don't do it justice.)

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, exhibits & events, writing

January 8, 2006

script: mud & metal

by sven at 9:55 pm

Yesterday I wrote a new script. I'm very excited about it... When it was done, I read the whole thing through... and cried! (Of course, I have the benefit of perfectly heartbreaking mental visuals to go along with it.) I used the new story generating strategy a third time, brainstorming ideas as a numbered series. Read them as a text file.

This is the story of a young robot losing the human that takes care of him, told in three acts. ...I say "acts" -- but it's really a short piece, probably four minutes long -- reading more like haiku than theatre. Still, there are three distinct movements: the first is a "gotcha" gag; the second is straight comedy; the third: tragedy. ...I like how the the third act hits just that much harder because you were laughing only a moment ago.

Anyway, without further ado, here's the script:

January 7, 2006

They're a little unnerving
And we're so dependent on them.
What if they rose up against us?
Some of my best friends are human.

Human: After we're gone, you'll still be here
I tried to make you everything I'm not.

Robot: Why? Are you ashamed?

Human: We are... hungry, unhappy, smelly, confused.
People are made of clay.
But you -- metal is immortal.

Robot: I wish I could fart.

I can't always tell
if you're sleeping.
I wait
and I worry
If you die
who will take care of me?

posted by sven | permalink | categories: movies, stopmo, writing

January 7, 2006

Attention Surplus Disorder (ASD)

by sven at 4:17 am

Thursday I had crazy laser focus and wound up creating a complete stopmo short: all the way from getting the idea to having a compressed movie ready to put online. Biggest one yet by far: 1 minute 20 seconds -- that's one thousand nine hundred thirty eight frames that I shot!

click on image to play movie (4.04 MB)

I didn't start the day with any particular project in mind. I just wanted to keep experimenting. So, using my new story generating strategy, I brainstormed 18 ideas for films that could use blocks as main characters. Read them as a text file.

After 2 hrs 15 min, this is the idea I decided I wanted to run with:

Back to writing words on the backdrop. Maybe as the characters speak, words are added to the backdrop without erasing the previous ones. The dialogue is added increasingly quickly and angrily, until the air is blackened with accusations. If I were easily able to do it with Super8, I'd then have everything go still, and let it all fade away, being replaced by a clear white backdrop again. If I were going for crude, one of the characters would then say: "So, wanna f*ck?" Or, the punch line, after all the furor could be "I love you." Or I could try to steal that beautiful scene between Tara and Willow on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where Tara says "I know we have so much to repair... but could we be kissing now?" (paraphrase). ...In this set up, the cubes hardly move, except maybe to twist and turn a bit while talking. All the action is in what's being written up above them. This is probably not more than a minute-long gag: as the air gets increasingly cluttered with words, you either have to focus on the words or the cubes -- you can only really show the whole conversation written above the cubes and have it remain legible early in the game.

...It's not all hashed out -- but you can see the germ there.

I was working in the livingroom again -- but this time I bothered to set up better lights -- and I put my 2'x2' hardboard "stage" up on the piano bench, so I'd be able to place the camera more easily. I was sloppy with the backdrop, though -- it's a piece of of big newsprint folded over another piece of hardboard, not even taped on. It shifted a little during the shoot -- but I got lucky, and it didn't give me too much trouble.

The real pain this time was when I'd bump the camera. With such small characters, I had to have the camera right at the edge of the set -- forcing me to contort around it to do the animating. Important lesson: I think I'm going to make a point of using larger puppets in the future, so the camera can be farther back, giving me more elbow room. Glad I learned this while working in digital... A Super8 cam is much trickier to focus; bigger puppets will save me a lot of grief.

For folks who are wondering about tech details, here's the scoop. I'm shooting photos with a Canon Powershot G5 digital camera. I'm using the laptop computer to activate the shutter release, using a software application that came with the camera: RemoteCapture. The computer is a Macintosh PowerBook G4. I've been doing research on framegrabber software, but none was used on this project.

...Overall, I'm thrilled with the piece. There are some glaring problems: I bumped the camera several times, there are pauses that last too long, the spinning sequence is too slow, and the blocks' "body language" doesn't always make sense. Even so, it's a complete story -- which counts for a lot. And there are several bits that came out really well -- like when the zig-zags shoot around and you see the action carry over from one shot into another, and when the word "really?" seems to wrap itself around the cube.

It took seven hours, non-stop, to shoot. That's about 11 seconds of footage per hour. My previous experiment with animating blocks averaged out to 10 seconds of footage per hour -- so it looks like I'm pretty consistent (at least with these puppets). I finished the thing at 2:45 in the morning. Exhausted...

But euphoric. :-)

posted by sven | permalink | categories: movies, stopmo, writing

January 5, 2006

story writing experiment

by sven at 2:17 pm

For a couple of months I've been going to "Church of Art" meetings. This is a small group of artists (mostly painters) that meets once a month at World Cup Coffee for a show-and-tell session about what they've been working on. One of the members recently wrote:

"One of my favorite artists, Corita Kent would push her students to come up 50 or 100 ideas for a project. She said that when you scrambled through the first easy ones, then worked harder for the next ones and really had to scrape for the last ones, you found out what you were made of."

I like this idea very much! It's very much in line with my "quality through quantity" ethic.

...Also on my mind, this post from Pjotr Sapegin that I found on the StopMotionAnimation.com "story" forum. (Pjotr's from Norway -- be nice about his spelling.)

When you write a film-script, the dialog comes last in the prosess. You should write a short Sinopsis first, to have your story strate. Then you write a Treatement, where you brake your story in to the sceens, and there might come a little-bit of the dialog. When you are satisfied with it, you write the actuall script, basycaly, felling up your treatement with the dialog.

Storytelling, admittedly, is one of my weak points. I'm a very visual thinker -- more comfortable quickly sketching a storyboard than trying to work out a film idea using just words. This has led to problems with "Let Sleeping Gods Lie": I find myself now trying to rewrite both the beginning and the ending, because what looked good in pictures stopped making sense when I had to actually explain what was going on. I swore that for the Super8 class' final project, I'd try to do better.

So, with the two quotes above in mind, I set out to develop the "moon baby helps a star" story. I set for myself a goal of writing 50 to 100 different concepts, each with a serial number, and only a paragraph long. ...I spent two hours writing and made it only to 25 -- but it was a good experiment, and served its purpose.

I figured out that I could do a pretty good story about a dragon stealing a star, scared away when Moon Baby -- aided by fireflies -- creates a terrible shadow on the wall of the monster's lair. However, this story would take more puppets and more shots than I have time for right now, in the context of the Super8 class. My second-choice story deals with a solitary artist who nightly looks at the stars, paints them and paints them, and ultimately releases a star into the sky from his own chest. This is much more doable...

But at the end of it all, I've been convinced that I should go for something simpler still. I'm holding onto the Moon Baby concept -- possibly for submission to the quarterly StopMoShorts.com competition? In the meantime, I'm looking into what I can do with animating objects, like blocks. "Something is better than nothing" -- being too ambitious could easily prevent me from finishing anything for Super8.

...Want to see those 25 story synopses I wrote? Read the complete text file.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: movies, stopmo, writing

September 23, 2005

poem: balanced

by gl. at 10:28 pm

this is the poem i wrote on the wednesday morning poetry walk:


when the sun shines there is no mystery
every blade of grass clipped and crisp against the lawn
every flower clamouring for attention
the hidden cat spotted among bright dandelions
while sawing and hammering and clattering compete
with the chorus of birds and chanting insects

but even in the brightest day there is shadow
relief from the sun, heavy & hollow
in a field wide with blackberries and soft piles of dried grass
autumn apples rest on the ground, examined by ants
behind me, the leaves rustle cool like water
as the wind passes with its silent secrets

tomorrow is the equinox
balanced between night and light
today i am walking the sliver between seasons
the iron weathervane perfectly still
waiting for what comes next

...september 21, 2005...

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

poem: autumn walk

by gl. at 10:25 pm

this is the poem i wrote on the tuesday night poetry walk:

autumn walk

with every step, we fall further into the night.
the trees glow in the dusk, each leaf
wearing the last rays of sunset like a halo.
cars flash past in roars and whispers.
gleaming houses line the horizon
like white silk in a dark coat.
we pass roses, cosmos
the last of the thistles
peppers in a pot.
the crickets are singing lullabyes to the dogs.
the moon is still sleeping
in her bed behind powell butte
but the stars are just waking
and i follow the scarlet one home
into brightness and warmth.

...september 20, 2005...

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: artist's way, writing

September 22, 2005

Notes on Making Art

by sven at 11:46 am

I've been influenced by Julia Cameron's "Artist's Way" and also Philip Sylvester at the Drawing Studio -- but I feel like I'm really beginning to get a grip of my own on the creative process and wanted to take some quick notes.

  1. Quality through quantity. Don't get hung up on making this one piece good -- make ten and one will certainly be pretty good.

  2. Do NOT mix generating and editing. When you're making a piece, don't stop and get judgmental half-way through. If it's a piece of crap, get that piece of crap out of your system -- don't try to fix it mid-flow. Finish it, move on.

  3. When to judge: After you've completed a piece, look at it and decide what direction you want to go in next. Or if you're selecting pieces for submission to a show, apply your critiquing mind then. Make a piece of art; look at it; make another.

  4. Don't be afraid to re-use elements. If each piece has to be unique, then you're going to get hung-up when you create some bit that you like. But if you can re-use bits, then you can keep moving.

  5. How to have "lots of ideas": permute. Start anywhere. Once a piece is done, try varying some aspect. Think of all the variables that could have permutations.

  6. "Get through your first 50 failures as fast as you can." I don't think that we should be shooting for a place where we no longer make crappy art. A good artist is one who's in motion making lots of art -- you only think they're so much better because they produce so much quantity that their pile of "good art" has also been able to accumulate. For every piece of crap you create, you're one step closer to getting something you really like.

  7. Don't even bother "fixing" pieces. Making art shouldn't be a struggle. You're simply "thinking out loud" onto the page, photo-paper, or canvas. If a product seems confused, leave it confused. Make another piece where you contemplate whatever issues you were wrestling with. Try something different. When clarity arrives, it will come in one living piece -- not be Frankensteined together out of a single infinitely re-worked, mangled corpse.

  8. Work fast. Creativity is exciting. If you're not judging while you're making, then you can just throw things together as fast as your mind can move. You're smart; if you don't like what you've made, you'll know immediately. You might not know what to do about the problem you perceive... Don't "think", standing there cogitating -- try things. If your hands are in motion, you can be generating new permutations. The one that you want to pick will come out on its own time.

  9. Let your level show. Let the world know that despite having years of investment in your art form, you're still a beginner who doesn't know it all. Rather than hide your thought process, let your questions be present in your work. You are a fundamentally more interesting artist if people get to see what it is that you're struggling with, rather than just your final answers. Show your work. Talk about what you still can't understand (unapologetically).

  10. Don't hide your failures. If you are only willing to show those perfect pieces that you are aspiring towards, you're never going to display / publish your work. Show everything, the worst of the crap included, and let your ego be humbled -- and goaded to create more.

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing

May 29, 2005

poem: welcome home

by gl. at 11:35 pm

i wrote a poem yesterday to celebrate maya's birth. i thought of the first three lines as i was weeding the garden:

welcome home

for maya

everything is born in the dark
seedlings underground
heartbeats hidden in eggs and wombs
stars waiting for spark
but nothing will stay there for long
always pushing into the light
knowing dawn when it floods
the room and becomes heat
becomes life becomes

everything that happened
when you were born is true
even the impossible things
you don't have to see the sun
to know how a flower glows
to know a light breeze
will crack the petals
open, light spilling
like an invitation

...may 27, 2005...

posted by gl. | permalink | categories: writing