Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coraline Bendy toys

I just saw Neil Gaiman's blog where he got the most awesomest, coolest Coraline Box of all... an actual Coraline animation puppet with cat!!!:

Ok, turns out this isn't actually one of the Coraline Mystery Boxes.... it's more a special gift for Neil as the author of the book from his friend Henry S. But it made me say $@#$!..... I WANT one of those!!!!

So a quick Google search turned this up:
Photobucket - Coraline Bendy toys

Coraline bendy toys!!! And look at what they're standing on.... makes them look like actual animation puppets. As if they have tie-downs. Hmmmm....

Well, I kind of doubt they really do though. That would just be TOO cool!! More likely these are pre-production pics of actual puppets, intended as a "suggestion" of what the actual toys will look like. I hope they don't suck... but these are made by NECA, known for some of the best toys in the industry. So I have high hopes.

I wonder how many of us big, manly animators are going to have these girly dolls standing around in our basements in January?? Playing dress-up with them? (they come with multiple outfits)

Weird, but they should be pretty animatable. And who knows.... they just MIGHT actually come with tie-downs already in the feet!!!

Ok, just found this -- apparently you actually get 3 different bendy toys, each with a different facial expression and different outfit and accessories. Kind of cool, but not as cool as interchangeable faces (and tie-downs!!).


Ok, Jeremy mentioned prototype bendy toys on Flickr, and here's what turned up:

Prototype Coralaine Bendy toy at ComicCon

This one has a selection of replacement faces -- we can keep our fingers crossed, but somehow I doubt the actual production version will have them. Seems like they would have mentioned it in the advertising on one of the sites I already linked to above.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cross your eyes

Here are the images again, only this time I photoshopped them to reverse the sides. Now you can view them using the (much easier) Crossed Eyes technique. This is something I can do even when the images are on the computer monitor. If you were unable to see the effect in the last post, chances are you can do it now. Here are detailed instructions on how. Also, click on each image to see a larger version.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

3D images from Coraline



These are the 3D images I got in my Coraline Box. They came with a nifty 3D viewer; sort of like an old-world Viewmaster, but you don't need it to see the effect. These are what's called Magic-Eye or Parallel-Viewing images. Take a look at This Site to learn how to do it. It's kind of tricky.... I can do the Crossed Eyes method a lot easier. In fact, I can't actually parallel-view these images here on the computer... I can do it if I hold one of the cards up in front of my face and look at something way past it, then slide the card up into my field of vision quickly. You might want to print these images out and cut them apart - cut each posted image into three separate strips horizontally. Don't want to make them too big... apparently the eye can only handle smallish images in parallel viewing. The cards I was sent are about 6 inches wide or so.

Thanks to Mysterious Ron for letting me know these actually AREN'T made for crossed-eye viewing, as I had originally posted!! Well, they kind-of work that way, but as he said in the comments, they 're reversed - what's supposed to be far away looks close and vise verse. Weird though - the stairwell image actually looks great that way.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coraline Box #9 has surfaced!!!!

I got a freakin' CORALINE box.... do you HEAR me??!!??!?

This is amazing.... it feels like getting a Golden Ticket to get into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory (the original one of course!)

This is by far one of the coolest marketing campaigns I've ever heard of.... and absolutely perfect for a stopmotion film where the props are small enough to easily be mailed. Why not? Instead of just chucking it all in the trash, send bits and pieces to people who will not only appreciate it, but blog about it and spread the viral love!!! Oh man... viral love... not even gonna go there.

So, with no further ado, here are the opening pics.









I love the old-fashioned tin and wood 3d viewer!!! No mirrors or anything, it's essentially the same kind of 3d images I posted on my blog back when I was all excited about 3d technology... you just have to learn to re-focus your eyes to see it. The viewer helps by framing things to block out everything beyond the border, and allowing you to slide the picture card backwards or forwards to get it in better focus and find your optimal viewing length. In a little while, when I'm past this rush of excitement and able to do things more coherently, I'll take some pics of the 3d images they sent... they should work on my blog.

But the most exciting thing for me is the Other Father arms.... I wonder if one is torn open deliberately to show the inner workings? It's wrapped-wire technology! The little tag next to the arms (which is lost in glare in the above pic) says O. Father Pumpkin Hands / Jointed / Wire / Silicon.... which I didn't understand until I looked very closely into that tantalizing tear in the wrist of the left arm. There's a tiny little ball-and-socket joint in there!! I guess that would help eliminate breakage at one of the high-stress areas. I can't believe I'm already thinking about this, but I know Im gonna have to slit that sucker open the rest of the way and take some detailed pics of its inner workings. The other arm is pristine. Heck... I think I'm gonna have to animate one of them too!

What an incredible treat this is!!! I've been all excited for the last few days, when I discovered I would be getting one of these (it's been extremely hard to keep my mouth shut, but it seemed prudent). It's made me into one of Coraline's 50 biggest fans.

Here's the text of the letter I was sent:

Since ancient times, strangers who work on feature films have sent strangers with great websites mysterious gifts in the hope that they can connect over a mutual interest and come to love each other. Some people think that recieving random gifts from strangers in the mail is illicit. Not when the gifts are awesome, right?

Inside this old box is a one-of-a-kind collection we've amassed and catalogued with you and you alone in mind.

Why? We at Laika are nearing completion of Coraline, our first full-length animated film. For the last three years, 351 of the world's oddest and most talented animators, artisans, and puppet fabricators have been hand-making one movie. Led by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, this team has created the first stop-motion feature shot in 3D. Based on the beloved best-selling children's classic by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a fairy-tale nightmare steeped in classic storytelling, craftsmanship, and the old-fashioned art of moviemaking magic. That means everything is handmade. Every leaf, drawer pull, and roast turkey. Even the rusty shower water.

The plain truth of the matter is, we are pretty obsessed with stop-motion. Like you. That's why we admire Darkmatter. It's artistic. It's wise. It's got an unconventional POV and you've got a voice worth hearing. Henry likes to say the magic of stop-motion is, it is a live performance. "You start someplace and know where you want to end but you can't say exactly how you'll get there." Please keep up the super work. We'll be reading.

Coraline is coming out this february. If we have guessed correctly that you are a curious person with access to the internet, perhaps you'll look for more cool things about this film. This is not a secret we hope you won't want to share. And so, we say thank you for your time. Enjoy, and hello.

The Coraline Team

Building movies by hand in Portland, Oregon
(983 miles from Hollywood)


I couldn't stop myself... I cut open the torn arm!!! It's pretty amazing all the technology I found in there... cloth and thread all wrapped tightly around wire, bound together with flexible adhesive, and that incredibly tiny balljoint, plus a tie-down in the hand.... Hey, why not have a look: Dissecting Father's Arm on Flickr.


Wow... this just in from Jeremy's Do Something Constructive blog - there's a new password for the website that unlocks all the previous movies plus a few more! Try OTHERWORLD. Word.

Thursday, December 04, 2008 -- and Do Something Constructive

I just discovered an incredible blog called StoryFanatic.Com, where the author expounds on the differences between a STORY and a TALE. I quote:

A Story is an Argument

There is a significant difference between stories and tales. A tale is merely a statement; a linear progression from one event to the next culminating in one singular outcome. It can be thrown out immediately and disregarded as a one-time occurrence primarily because it has relatively little to stand on. A story, however, offers much more to an audience member.

Apparently his ideas come from a source called Dramatica, which I have yet to investigate. But go to the blog.... see for yourself... he says it much better than I can. Looks like an exciting find for sure!

I've added the link under Blogs (Other) in my sidebar, and also a link to my friend Jeremy Spake's blog Do Something Constructive. Jeremy just came off a stint working on Coraline and now he has plenty of time for blogging, so check it out.


Ok, I looked into it a bit, and I see Dramatica is a sort of cut-and-paste system of creating a story.... decide which type of Character each one is from the official Dramatica list, plug them in alongside your allowed Dramatica themes and plot devices, trace a few lines from box to box, and get your Resolution. Well, not quite that simple, but it definitely sounds like a plug-in system. Could definitely be useful in helping find new ways to break down character and story, but I'd caution against wholeheartedly plunging in (plugging in?) to Dramatica. Though I do like the talk about the difference between a Tale and a Story.... as I have a great interest in Tales like those of Edgar Allen Poe and H P Lovecraft. A Tale is also a thing that can be told in short format, which would be a very challenging showcase for a really sophisticated Story.

I'll be reading this blog quite a bit though. Some really good stuff to be found there, even is Dramatica sounds suspiciously like the storytelling version of Scientology.....

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Where in the world is Melvyn Erville???

The Infallible Specific blog (with its ever-changing name) has disappeared off the face of the bloggosphere. No notice, no reason given.... nothing!!! Perhaps he couldn't take the revelation that in reality he was no more than a voice in my head? Or maybe Freud was right... when you learn the truth about your inner reality the problems start to clear up on their own?

Ok, sorry... that's so wrong!!

Melvyn, YOU'RE NOT JUST A VOICE IN MY HEAD!! You're a real, living, thinking, blogging human being!!! Please report in and let your befuddled and confused readers know what's going on!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Need a fix of StopMoShorts?


Visit one of the most powerful of all websites... the mighty Archive.Org, which periodically crawls the web and takes snapshots of existing websites to archive them for posterity. A tremendous boon for those sites which, like SMS, meet their demise for whatever reason and leave a void where they used to exist.

I clicked through on one of the tutorials just to see if it would really show up, and it did. So I don't know if the site has full functionality or not... sometimes parts of a site are archived but not others. So, some or all of the films might not be functional.

Here's a quick lesson in how to utilize the power of the Wayback Machine.


Type or paste in the name of the website you hope to find in the search window, then from the dropdown menu select Wayback Machine (the top option). Then click GO. If the site has been archived, you'll get a page with dates listed, and links under some of them. These are the "snapshots" of the site. You can click on any of them and see what the site looked like at that point in time. Generally the later ones are the more complete, though sometimes, as I said, only parts of the site might exist in certain versions. If you get an incomplete version of the site, try refreshing the page and give it some time, sometimes the images load slowly. Or just go in at random and try a few different dates.

This is an incredibly powerful site, and the knowledge of how to use it is invaluable. Learn it, and enrich your cyberlife. I've added a direct link to the version of StopMoShorts to my Resources section for your convenience (as well as my own).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Two great artists that taste great together -- or: You got your Alizarine in my Puce


If you've been with me for a while, you may have seen me rave in the past about the work of contemporary artist Kent Williams. Definitely one of my favorites on the scene today. He did one of the images above. Can you guess which one? Hint.... it's not the top one, as much as it looks like his work. I could Almost have been fooled had I not known it was actually the work of his wife, Mari Inukai.

There's a remarkable similarity in their approach, which really messed with my head when I first discovered her work (which actually was through the Totoro Forest website I posted about recently). To see more of her work, check her blog at SEKAISEIFUKU or her website at

They must have really learned and developed alongside each other.

In unrelated news, I must report that I don't expect to have anything accomplished for Monster Month, barring some unforseen burst of creativity. But hey, at least I did spend my month doing something creative.... I made some new friends! Been spending the majority of my free time with Rose and Cliff (yes, their real names.... very evocative and imagistic, no?). So, no monsters, but one monster hangover a while back....

Monday, October 13, 2008


Stephanie Dudley has posted a very interesting response to my recent post about the power of the human voice on her blog at She's also working on what looks to be a great little stopmo flick. Check it out.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wanna see some great art? Oh, and save the forest too...

Photobucket (click the Gallery link)

Ran across this on a blog I found through Melvyn Erville's Infallible Specific blog last night. Each page includes a link to the artist's homepage, you can discover new favorites and see loads more art. Here are some items taken from the official website describing the book and its purpose:

"Anime is one of the most influential forms of contemporary art today. Among Japanese masters of animation, Hayao Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most popular and respected. The storytelling, visual approach and philosophical depth of his films have made a massive impact in the world of filmmaking Today.

Many prominent animation and illustration artists in the world proudly recognize Miyazaki's strong influence and inspiration on their own work.This project gives the opportunity to the artists involved to voice their appreciation for master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and the inspiration he has given them through the years."

"Hayao Miyazaki has been actively supporting the preservation effort of Sayama Forest for more than ten years. This 8750 acre park in the outskirts of Tokyo is also known as Totoro Forest. It's in these woods in fact that the concept for the film "My Neighbor Totoro" was born.

In the past few decades, the forest has been subject to urban development. Only continued support to the Totoro Trust Fund can help preserve this much needed island of green in the midst of Tokyo's urban sprawl. We intend to donate the entire proceeds of the project to this worthy cause.

This event can also be a symbolic gesture, sending a strong message to the world in terms of environmental and social awareness. Imagine artists from all over the world coming together to donate artwork to help conserve a forest they have never seen."

Unfortunately, the book itself is already sold out. Hey, good for the project, but bad for those of us who might want a copy. But there is talk of a second printing on its way, so keep your fingers crossed and keep checking the TFP blog

The book itself may not be available just now, but we can still look at lots of inspirational artwork on the website (and hey, it's very Monster Month friendly stuff too!)

Saturday, October 11, 2008



Here are my thoughts after reading Film as a Subversive Art.

First - I was looking for an overview on Modernism in film and the radical avant-garde. This book fills the bill perfectly.

There's a great danger in reading a book like this that you'll become intoxicated by the ideas and get lost in them and decide that traditional narrative filmmaking is useless and foolish, and that the only appropriate response to the scientific and philosophical issues of the modern world is existentialism, expressed through various modernist tendencies like Absurdism, Nihilism, Minimalism etc. I think these movements are extreme reactions against the traditional approach.

The ideas expressed in the opening chapter of the book are very extreme.... life consists of instability, no security, nothing but horror vacuui - the universe and people are unknowable etc. Ok, I know modern discoveries have upset the old secure concepts about space and time and identity, but come on... it's not THAT bad! The things modern science and philosophy has showcased have always been true and always been part of our world.... it's just that in the past we were able to ignore them officially and only feel them at certain troubled times.

For most of us, stability and security are the norm, only interrupted a few times in a lifespan by the chaos of unemployment or war or some other factors. Some people of course live in a world that's constantly subject to upheaval.... the poor for instance, or those born into a war torn environment or subject to cruel religious or political systems.

I'm part of the safe, secure bourgeois middle class for whom life is mostly stable and continuous. Space, time and identity can be comfortably conceived in the traditional Newtonian/old world ways and expressed in traditional narrative style. And yet, I AM drawn to SOME of the ideas expressed in the book... in particular mixing up the timeline and creating non-realistic worlds. I also like the idea of allowing characters their mystery, but not in presenting them as completely bizarre. So I'm not interested in progressing too far along the line of radicalism... more in just a little scrambling of the simple straightforward timeline and the clear understanding of character and plot. I feel like spelling these things out too explicitly is like talking down to the audience, assuming they don't have the intelligence to understand something a little mysterious... like writing a big-letter book for very young children. And I think the kind of storylines I want to create are decipherable with a little effort.... I suppose I like the idea of a viewer being able to construct (or re-construct) the story in a way that makes sense.... to solve the puzzle. I don't want it to be too hard.... they're only watching a movie after all! This is the Marketa Lazarova approach.

I also have an interest in another type of movie.... basically a dream movie. For films like that I'd go farther along the scale of radical deconstruction of traditional film form. A dream movie can take place in a constantly shifting environment that's far from realistic. But this kind of film isn't something I can write about.... the language-processing part of the brain is lost in this territory.... you can't know how you'll approach a film like this until you do it (conceive it anyway.... which can be done largely visually but not expressed through written or verbal language). But now, thanks to this book, I have more knowledge of how to approach it, how to think about it.

Narrative films provide nice, comfortable entertainment. Especially traditional Hollywood movies.... with happy endings, and where nothing ever has a lasting consequence.... if you're a hero or a villain you can massacre people and never suffer a twinge of guilt or suffer any legal or moral consequences. (Well, depending on when the film was made, and in what genre). Safety and security and fuzzy warm feelings are the stock in trade for Hollywood and its imitators. I think that's precisely why the avant-garde and radical filmmakers do what they do... it's a radical and reactive rebellion against the nice cozy warmth and security.

And yes, life does have its chaotic side, its moments of stark terror and sometimes long periods of suffering or grief. Chaos does exist, and yes, for the most part Hollywood ignores the fact - pays only feeble lip service to it... makes it something that can be fought against and conquered by the end of the movie with no lasting ill effects. But these movies serve a good purpose..... they reinforce an illusion of stability and the idea that love can conquer all, that hard work or heroic action can stave off chaos or push it back into the darkness where we don't need to deal with it. By reinforcing these positive ideals it gives people a sense of security - even people who might live in a state of chaos can enjoy a good movie and, at least for a while, feel better for it. Why make them suffer through difficult, negative movies that refuse to let them forget their pain?

I realize the radical filmmakers aren't interested in providing pleasant entertainment. I guess that's the question I need to answer for myself.... do I want to be an entertainer or an 'important' artist? I know I'd rather make cool little movies that people like than make films that make people feel bad. But as an entertainer, there are great lessons to be learned from what was once radical and revolutionary. So it might be fair to say that my main use for these modern techniques is just to add a little spice to my otherwise pretty traditional, entertaining flicks. And yet, as soon as I wrote that, something in my mind flinched. I don't want to close the door on the possibility of going more radical. I think about Street of Crocodiles and I know it wouldn't be as good if the Quays had only "used modern techniques to add a little spice to their otherwise traditional film". So I'll keep myself open on the issue... why choose a side? I don't really believe in polarized opposites anyway, I think that's a weird oversimplification when in reality there are many positions along a scale, and in fact people's opinions might be different enough that they can't really be measured on a scale. They're ambiguous and mysterious. Hmmm... see, I really do believe in a lot of the modernist ideas. And in this case, as in many others I'm sure, it doesn't mean a retreat from safety and security, but rather a blossoming from polarization and a move toward inclusiveness or at least acceptance. So it's not really as simple as "TRADITIONAL = WARM/FUZZY >>> MODERNIST = CHAOS/TERROR".

Wednesday, October 08, 2008



Just now, as I sat down to type this, I turned off the TV.


Well, I needed to concentrate. To THINK. And it's very hard to do that when the TV is on. Actually, let me back up just a bit....

There's really a hierarchy to it. I find if there's music playing, assuming it's instrumental or nothing too intense (like punk rock or death metal or something) I can concentrate just fine (I have iTunes playing now). But I've noticed (and this becomes eminently clear when you're trying to WRITE) - that when someone starts talking, the concentration goes down a notch or two. I probably would never have noticed, until the COMMERCIALS came on!!! Geeze Louise!!!! ANNOUNCERS WITH CRAZY LOUD VOICES SHOUTING INCESSANTLY TO BUY BUY BUY!!!!!

Stops the pen dead in its tracks.

Which led me to realize that we automatically tune in to the human voice... especially when it's in a language we know, and ESPECIALLY if there's any great urgency or tension in it! Don't believe me? Try it.... open a notebook, or maybe your text edit software, and start writing something. I don't mean "Mary had a little lamb" or anything you know by rote... I mean something that requires THINKING. Try telling the story of the scariest thing that ever happened to you. And do it with the radio on pretty loud. You'll do pretty good I'll bet, until those CRAZY LOUD ANNOUNCERS INVADE YOUR HEAD!!!! I believe it's similar to what I've heard about vision and the human face.... we're all hardwired to scan for familiar faces, even in a huge crowd. Some function that runs in the backchannel, we're not consciously aware of it. Probably a survival mechanism from way back.

So, what does this mean to us as filmmakers?

I think it means that talking in a movie doesn't allow the viewer to THINK. It leads them.... corrals them. I don't believe it completely BRAINWASHES them.... though for some viewers it might. Most are able to pick up on SUBTEXT (that's when people don't say exactly what they mean) - but I suspect that's about it. They either believe what they're being told, or they pick up on the clues and realize they're being lied to (another old survival skill, I have no doubt). And I'll even go one better.... I think as viewers we can solve simple puzzles presented in dialogue or narration too.... put together clues in a detective flick, or whatever. But still, we're being led into what we're supposed to think. These are all levels of varying complexity put there by the writer for us to decode. But I still maintain that, WHILE CHARACTERS OR NARRATORS ARE TALKING, we have no choice but to think about what they're saying. Decide whether we believe it or don't.

Another illustration of the power of the human voice - I remember sleeping once with the radio on - this was in the 70's. Remember those Oxy-10 commercials? They had this voiceover by an actor with a really commanding, authoritarian voice. I was in mid dream when he came on, and suddenly my subconscious was forced to invent a character to match this loud voice that came from nowhere. It did one of the sudden, unmotivated switcheroos - I had been climbing among the rigging over a theater where a performance was going on (with some group of dangerous spies and assassins infiltrated into the audience and the performers, and only I was aware of their presence). Suddenly with a shock I found myself standing in an office, being spoken to very loudly by this administrator-type with (you guessed it) a deep, commanding voice. For some reason he spoke in code... he seemed to be babbling inanities about skin pores and cleansing, but I knew it all had hidden meaning (something along the lines of spy cells and murder), and the very continued existence of life on earth depended on my decoding it. The dream kept going in the way dreams do, sudden jump cuts to scenes already in progress etc, but throughout my head was filled by this booming oration - see, even as I made my escape the secret leader of the spy/assassin group was using his telepathic powers to project his commanding powers of persuasion into my mind.

So, obviously the human voice has a great deal of power over us. This fact might explain why silent movies are harder to watch than 'talkies'. The constant stream of verbiage rivets the viewer's attention, even if there's nothing of any great interest happening in the film. But without it, viewers have to force themselves to continue paying attention.

Draw your own conclusions. The voice is a powerful tool.... much more so than we normally realize (barkers and infomercial hawkers excepted). Use it like an instrument. Orchestrate it.

One of the benchmarks of the more poetic films I like is long periods of silence punctuated by voice, often used as an instrument. And please.... don't be droll enough to say what you mean and mean what you say! So trite.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Of bunnies, blogs and monsters

Once again, I'll let the tireless John K do my blogging for me:

JohnK Archives

Ran across this in a completely unrelated search looking for facts and info on the Ether Bunny after my buddy Prammaven just posted his newly completed film about him. Seemed like a weird coincidence, and I don't know why all these particular posts are lumped together on one page, but there's a lot of good stuff there, much of it about writing and story for cartoons. And of course, you can find more by clicking on the tags at the bottom of any post.

I feel like my quest for Poetic Form is at an end, at least for the time being. I have a handle on what it is... at least the particular strain of poetic form described in Martin Esslin's book Theatre of the Absurd. And the main point of that whole quest was to free myself from the restrictions of Narrative Form that have been hammered into my head all my life by Hollywood. Until discovering the nature of Poetic Form (as described in the About Me box on the right... convenient place for it right here at the top o the old blog, where I'll see it again and again and try to get it hammered in instead) I couldn't imagine any way to make a short stopmotion film other than by telling a story. The funny thing is, I've seen lots of short films that don't follow Narrative Form at all and that work brilliantly! Many of them don't follow what I understand as Poetic Form either.

Of course you have simple short gag films, where the joke is the thing. But somewhere in that long and rambling list of blog posts I linked to above, John K discusses a different approach. He has always maintained that a cartoon is, first and foremost, funny drawings. And that, essentially, all they really have to do is keep the audience entertained. He did a post on structure that I like, which is pretty freeing. If I can absorb that into my head (it seems to take a while for things to really soak in there, but once they do they're in for good) then I should be able to just start making films without worrying too much about structure and form.

Also, he stresses the importance of learning the basics of animation and drawing before trying to create full films. This confirms my long-held belief that the way to learn stopmotion is by making a couple of puppets, and doing a lot of shots with them. Just little single-take episodes, working out how to make them move in interesting ways, how to use space, and incidentals like lighting, staging etc. I think a lot of these will get you most of your basics, even if you don't know the names of the principles you're learning. Then you start linking a series of shots together creating scenes. After that, it's just a matter of figuring out how to start and finish a film.

This is the approach I was using, until I got caught up in the StopMoShorts thing and the emphasis was on making finished films right from the start. And then I got myself into this Radke project, which is a massively huge undertaking in terms of fabrication before I can even start animating. I'm bogged down on it completely, hit the wall, stuck in a rut, uninspired. Burnt out being the technical term. Tooo many puppets, too many bottles, tiny little labels etc. Makes my brain hurt thinking about it!

And suddenly here's Monster Month upon us!!! Jeffrey is launching himself into it, and Sven might be contributing as well. I think it's time to put this bar flick on hold and do something creative and fun for a little while.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Further comparison: Madame Tutli-Putli and Street of Crocodiles - Toward an understanding of poetic form


Some time ago (feb 21st to be exact) I felt compelled to start a thread at the SMA message board comparing and contrasting two great stopmotion films - the classic masterpiece Street of Crocodiles by the inimitable (but so often copied) Brothers Quay, and the fresh masterpiece of the Clyde Henry production company Madame Tutli-Putli. Here's the result if anyone's interested in reading a lengthy mess of a preliminary alnalysis:

"Surrealism versus narrative.... let's brainstorm"

It isn't necessary to read that in order to understand this post though (I hope you didn't just wade through the whole thing!) At that point I was vaguely aware of a certain difference between the two films that interested me. There's a certain similarity as well - otherwise I would never have felt the urge to compare them to understand the differences. But for some reason I felt like it was important for me to try to understand WHY they're different, and why to me Street of Crocodiles seems to work better structurally. There was a lot of misunderstanding on that thread, as there tends to be when I do these analyses. Most people don't seem to understand that an analysis isn't a blanket statement of whether you like a film or not... it's a detailed study of some particular part of it (in this case the structure). Comparison and contrast is a powerful tool to help gain insight into matters that would otherwise remain elusive, and when I say that Street seems to work better overall than MTP, it doesn't mean I"m condemning the film or that it sucks or anything... just that I don't feel the structure is coherent. So I state right here - I absolutely LOVE both films, and in spite of any esoteric problems with the structure of one of them, I have bought it in several forms (the original DVD, only available to Canadians, which was extremely difficult to get ahold of let me tell you, and then the iTunes version to have on my computer) as well as writing about it multiple times and lavishing it with praise - a lot more so than anyone else on the board has done. So please, I don't want to hear any whining here about "Hey you @$$hole... I LIKE that movie!" - please let's take off our emotional hats and put on the student hats for a while, ok? I like it too, but this comparison serves the valuable purpose of helping me to understand the underlying structure of poetic films. You have to tear something apart in order to understand it, and at least for me, this doesn't lessen its value - in fact it deepens it.

Ok, so to business then!!

My entire understanding of poetic film and poetic fiction has changed dramatically since I delved into Theatre of the Absurd. That's because, prior to that study, I knew almost nothing about it... just vague intuitions. Little did I realize how important that particular study would prove to be.... and it's not that I necessarily LIKE Theatre of the Absurd all that much... I don't care for most of the plays I've seen versions of, but I love the ideas behind it and in particular the essential study done by Martin Esslin in his book of the same name. It's this book that gave me the underpinnings of a greater comprehension of what poetic fiction is. Not that I completely understand it now... but I have a much better grasp than I did before. And in light of that greater understanding, I now have a more clear idea of what it is that bugs me about Madame Tutli-Putli's structure, and why I don't have the same reservations about Street of Crocodiles.

One of the major problems with MTP for me is the fact that, while it seems to be an attempt at poetic film, it comes across more as a mess of narrative fragments that don't add up to a whole. Now I know --- I just did a post about what I call Poetic Narrative, but here's the problem --- if you're going to do a narrative (poetic OR straightforward), then you need to address the concerns of narrative - IE wrap up loose ends and make sure everything fits. MTP starts one narrative thread, then just drops it and switches to a different one without resolving anything in the first thread. Characters are introduced elaborately, and when this is done you expect them to figure into the story in some way, but as soon as they're introduced they quite literally just disappear and we enter the second narrative thread. The first thread began with an elaborate shot of MTP's excessive baggage, which seems symbolic (baggage in the emotional sense). Possibly it's meant to be taken in that sense... in fact I'm pretty sure it is, but once that idea is introduced, it like the extraneous characters also just disappears. Whether you're doing straightforward narrative OR poetic film It seems to me if you introduce something (idea, character, theme, whatever) you should follow up on it... it should prove to be some part of the overall concept of the piece. Especially if that introduction is elaborate and drawn out, giving it great import in the eyes of the viewer. When a viewer has been really hit over the head with something it takes on special significance... and they'll keep thinking about it throughout the film trying to understand what part it plays. In my studies of film form, I learned that any image or sound that's repeated is what's known as a motif - and simply because it's repeated it takes on extra significance and becomes a powerful element that viewers feel they should know more about. This is true also of any element that is given particular attention by the filmmakers.

Imagine you're sitting in a bar and the guy next to you begins making elaborate, magicianlike gestures with his hands, pulls some object from his pocket, and says "hey buddy... check THIS out! Ever seen anything like it?" --- then he just puts it back in his pocket and walks out, leaving you wondering what all the fuss was. And it was nothing special... just maybe a rock or a bean or something. Frustrating because he set up powerful expectations and then failed to deliver on them. The Clyde Henrys do this repeatedly in their film.

The second narrative thread also introduces new characters, making them even more important than the more ordinary characters from thread one. We never find out who they are, what they're doing, or what part they play in the story (if there is one) or in the poetic image (if there is one).

So the lesson I've gained is.... it doesn't matter if your narrative is straightforward or poetic, if you use narrative at all in a film you must obey the laws of narrative. You can bend the hell out of them, distort them to no end, but you must obey them. if you introduce an idea... and especially if you favor it with extra significance, then FOLLOW UP ON IT. This applies really even if you're doing a poetic piece with no narrative. You still have to follow up on any ideas you introduce, especially if they're in boldface and flashing neon colors.

Finally, here's one of the major reasons MTP feels like narrative and not poetry --- it's a JOURNEY film. Not only does it take place on a train, but there's a distinct sense of beginning (MTP waiting for the train, boarding) middle (journey itself) and end (literally). Even if otherwise it was handled in a purely poetic fashion, this whole journey device is a staple of narrative. It gives narrative structure. It may be the biggest flaw, though the introduction of then unused characters and ideas comes in a close second.

Street of Crocodiles doesn't suffer from any of these problems because the overall structure is purely poetic. Not only is it not contained within a stereotypical narrative framework like a train journey, the entire thing takes place INSDE a small machine -- going nowhere. It's a frozen tableau, an idee fixe. And even the box, the housing in which the action takes place, is a mere representation of "The Zone", which is a stagnant part of an ancient city.... another sense of "going nowhere"... literally stagnating. There's no exhilarating forward rush of movement to relieve the fixed idea of the poetic image. Also the puppets don't represent real people - and in fact don't really represent people AT ALL except in the loosest most metaphorical sense. It's largely the sheer REALISM of MTP that works against it's being poetic. Another factor.... Street is a film framed within a film. The intro and closing take us to a different work=ld which seems metaphorical/symbolic. MTP is presented as a straight movie.

I don't think it's NECESSARY for a poetic film to take place in a static environment, but honestly I can't think of an Absurdist play set on anything like a moving train, or with a sense of the plot (or anything else) moving forward. Progress by it's very nature is narrative. I COULD see a poetic film set on a train, but in a very different manner.... possibly beginning and ending inside the oppressive train itself, never getting out into the fresh air, not seeing the passengers boarding or disembarking... only trapped inside playing out their static roles. This would be a microcosm -- train interior as small version of the world, representing the world of the character(s). I think the old fashioned notion of forward progress (for humankind and for individuals, evolution etc) has been pretty much obliterated by more modern thinking. And I"m not only referring to stagnancy as a metaphor for a depressing life. I don't think poetic fiction need necessarily be depressing. But it does seem to rely on a still setting. A Poetic Image sounds to me like a still image, or one with limited movement (ha! Imagine assembling an animated GIF!). I see narrative as a forward progression through a storyline, and poetry as the study of items arranged on a table like a still life or the pieces of a puzzle.

Ok, here's the part where I soothe any raw nerves I might have roughed up. In all honesty, I really do love Madame Tutli-Putli. I love many films in spite of any problems they may have and I don't know of any perfect movies. Even Street of Crocodiles, which comes pretty close for me, is incomprehensible and vague, but it does offer fascination that makes up for that. Good points in the favor of MTP -- some of the absolutely FINEST design, fabrication, and animation I've ever beheld bar NONE!!! Character animation like I've never seen before, brought to a completely new level, and not entirely just thanks to the innovative and breathtaking use of composited eyes (which is another fantastic feature of the film). My vast enjoyment of the film is only slightly disturbed by my vague sense of something wrong under the surface, a nagging hint that only revealed its nature under close scrutiny. I know from all my writing about "What's Wrong With Madame Tutli-Putli" it must seem like I hate it, but let me assure you that's the farthest thing from the truth. I only write so much about it in my efforts to understand, because I know it's these vague feelings that will lead me to my own way of filmmaking. It's these soft inner voices we MUST heed over all others... follow wherever they lead.

Ok, I"m done. Wow, is it just me, or did I get REALLY wordy on this one?!??!?! Sorry about that!

Further clarification of Poetic Fiction/Narrative


Ok guys, I know most of my readers would rather see exciting progress pics than read more of my blatherings about poetic fiction, but this is what's happening right now in the Realm of Darkstrider. I get on these obsessive kicks, and for a while my mind cogitates and broods over these concepts, slowly simmering the stew until it's done. And right now, this is what's cooking. I need to get it down before it slips away forever, and I'll share it with anyone who stops by. Hold out your bowl and wooden spoon, and I'll ladle some out.

I've been reading more Gene Wolf. Got 2 books - The Doctor of Death Island and 5th Head of Cerberus. Cerberus is by far the better book IMHO, consisting of 3 novellas that interlink together to tell a single sprawling story, each part being written by a different character. Island is a collection of short stories, of which I only really liked a couple. The ones I like are the ones that deal with his obsessive themes - the nature of humanity (explored through variations of cloning, mutation, artificial beings, robots, and various other false humans) - the elusiveness and kaleidoscopic nature of memory and its often surprising clarity, family drama in the vein of Shakespeare or Homer, and the difficulties and occasional joys of communication between people. I probably missed a few too.

These are the same themes explored by the Absurdist playwrights and by other great writers of the modern era. He also uses a sophisticated and unusual technique for telling his tales that reminds me of a particular strain of modern films... particularly the New Waves (French, German, Italian Neo Realism etc) and their American progeny like The French Connection, The Graduate etc. There's a certain terseness, cutting directly to the important parts and not over-explaining and smoothing things over for the slow students the way Hollywood films tend to do. In the films I mentioned, there are abrupt, almost shocking cuts from a slow silent scene to a noisy, fast moving one. Elision I believe is the word.... compressing elements together and extracting what's unnecessary. Trusting the viewer to be able to fill in the blanks, or better yet to follow the real storyline without needing extraneous details that they've become used to from so many lackluster films made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Personally I enjoy films that are just a bit challenging like this, though hopefully they actually do seem to make sense if you delve into them and don't just end up a hopelessly confused mess. Sometimes Wolfe's writing leaves me behind, but I always get the definite feeling that further work on my part would bring me up to speed. And that's something I also want to discuss here....

Reading more of Wolfe's stories helps to explain things you might have missed. Many of his short stories deal with issues that he later compiled (in different form) into the masterwork Long Sun series. 5th Head of Cerberus in particular, and the story Hero as Werwolf from Doctor of Death Island. The character from the central novella in 5th Head bears a close resemblance to Severian in fact. And the more of his stories I read, the more the mysteries begin to clear up. But not entirely yet, thank god! That mystery is a big part of the appeal of his work.

His fiction is what I call Poetic Narrative. I've spliced the two (normally exclusive) terms together to describe a type of story I'm drawn to. If you look at the block of white text just to the right, where my About Me section is supposed to be, it's Martin Esslin's extremely enlightening description of the way Theater of the Absurd works. Very different from the much more familiar narrative structure we see in 99% of Hollywood movies. Rather than arranging things in an easily comprehensible timeline and following a clear storyline, it presents pieces of the "poetic image", in no particular order, and it's the job of the viewer to put the puzzle together and try to figure it out. But there are stories that do something midway between the two, which I'm referring to as Poetic Narrative. These would include films like Mulholland Drive (and just about anything by Lynch), Paris Texas, and Marketa Lazarova. I could name more, but these are the examples that spring to mind (and the ones I keep using, I know). They use the elision as was done in the New Wave films, but unlike the more hardline Absurdist plays, there's still a narrative to follow. From what I know of Absurdist plays, the idea is to completely mix up the order and the logical flow of ideas, scramble them like puzzle pieces in the box that the viewer must then piece together in order to create the "poetic image". Only then does it make sense.

This kind of gamesmanship is obviously only for the hardcore viewers, who love to be challenged and don't care to be entertained. I don't class myself in that camp, and I want to make appealing films that at least 40% of the normal viewing audience would actually enjoy even if they don't fully "get it". I enjoy Wolfe's books, even though I know there are levels that fly right over my head. The way he writes them, you don't need to fully solve the puzzles to reap enjoyment, though that level is there if it's something you feel compelled to do.

I don't know if I've really said anything new here, I thought I had more. But at least I've clarified some of the ideas that have been whirling through my cranial cavity (and hey, I don't just write these things for you guys you know.... I might need to look in here later to remind myself of something!) I was also going to include my newly improved analysis of the differences between Street of Crocodiles and Madame Tutli-Putli, which has yielded much better results since my studies into Theatre of the Absurd, but that feels like a completely different topic that deserves it's own post, so I'll do it separately and make 2 posts right after each other (well, it might make up for so much down time on my blog lately... a bit of a bonus to my readers for their patience). See ya then! (though you probably read that post before this one, if you didn't completely miss this one thanks to my inconsistent posting habits! ... And if you did, then who am I talking to anyway??!!)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

John K - not a fan of his work, but he's a great teacher


Recently I've been edumacatin' myself about traditional cartooning concerns via John K's Stuff blog:


John K(ricfalusi) is the creator of Ren & Stimpy and other sick & twisted type cartoons. Not my cup of tea, but he's using his blog to educate a new generation of aspiring cartoonists from which he hopes tp recruit a stable of employees - and for that he uses examples from great cartoons of the past, both still and animated. And he reveals a vast wealth of knowledge about it. Pretty smart feller, he is!

The link is for all his posts about composition, which are the ones I've been absorbing. Exciting stuff for sure, and it makes me almost want to give up stopmo and turn to cartooning, which is the purest form of animation. Most of these principles can be applied only loosely to stopmo (unless you were to design a new set for each shot, or work out some way to substitute new elements each time you move the camera). There's a lot more latitude in drawing... you're not bound by reality as much as when you have to make things in 3 dimensions. But just being aware of these design principles can help you lay out your sets and work out a style for everything. It can also help you break out of boring visual styles (or lack of style).

In related news, I have finally managed to get a printer/scanner that actually works with my computer, so work on my film will be able to resume.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Incredible Gene Wolfe interview


Tonight I was trolling around the web, trying to find authors similar to Gene Wolf (huh... RIGHT! As IF!!!) when I suddenly and quite surreptitiously ran across this lengthy and absolutely astonishing interview with the man himself. (The link is also posted at the end of this - um - post!) Let me put this into perspective (if that's possible)....

It's been probably a little over a year since I discovered Wolfe and read the massive Book of the New Sun. I count it as THE highlight of my reading career, and I'm still stunned and amazed by the sheer inventiveness and audacity of that series. The intelligence, the subtle and perceptive grasp of human nature and of the nature of reality and the universe.... in other words, things you seldom find in genre writing (which Wolfe's work most definitively ISN'T, though with their penchant for labeling, bookstores are forced to put him in with the sci-fi and fantasy authors - he fits in with them about as well as Shakespeare fits in with soap opera writers).

And now I feel like I've already found the very best.... there's basically no chance of ever topping his work. Since then I've been WANTING to find authors that exist at that dizzying pinnacle... TRYING to, and despairing of it ever actually happening. I've made a few really excellent finds in the attempt, such as Paulo Bacigalupi, Ted Chaing (who's book Stories About Your Life and Others I just picked up and am enjoying immensely), and David R Palmer, who's story Tracking was serialized in three recent issues of Analog magazine and soon to be printed as a novel, along with the long out-of-print Emergence, to which it's a sequel. But really they don't stand up to the comparison. The only authors I've read extensively who do would be J G Ballard and Angela Carter for their immense ability to create self-contained worlds of pure bravura imaginativeness (if that's even a word).

Incidentally, it occurred to me after making that recent post about what I'm reading that this imaginativeness, this ability to CREATE a thematically-unified world that isn't just a copy of drab reality is the unifying thread that binds together all my favorite authors, including even my earliest such as Andre Norton and Keith Laumer, who I mentioned in that post as writers of (somewhat) standard narrative fictions (as compared to the more poetic writers that post was mainly concerned with).

Wow, sorry, I don't mean to run to such loquaciousness.... let me try to cut to the chase.

In this long interview, Wolfe explains that his fiction is essentially the OPPOSITE of genre science fiction.... that rather than create little worlds where characters can act out simplistic ideas, he weaves a dense tapestry filled with intertwining concepts that cover pretty much the gamut of human thought... with an especial consideration for the more profound, such as language and how it shapes thinking and character, memory (and in particular memories of memories... ) why monsters are really US, and the unreliability (relativity) of narrators for various reasons. He says there's no separating form from subject... they interpenetrate and create each other in a symbiotic relationship.

... And as I was reading, it suddenly occurred to me that his ideas are very similar to those of the Absurdists, who's theories I recently wrote about. But I Must say, I vastly prefer reading his books to watching the plays of Samuel Beckett or the rest of the gang.

Following are a couple of excerpts from the interview to whet the appetite:

Larry McCaffery: Could you discuss what sorts of things have drawn you towards writing SF? Do you find there are certain formal advantages in writing outside the realm of "mainstream" fiction, maybe a freedom that allows you more room for exploring the issues you wish to develop?

Gene Wolfe: It's not so much a matter of "advantages" as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or "science fantasy," which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I'd argue that SF represents literature's real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature's mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.

LM: That's why I began by asking if you weren't attracted to the freedom offered by SF—it's only been since the rise of the novel in the 18th century that writers have more or less tried to limit themselves to describing the ordinary world around them....

Wolfe: It's a matter of whether you're content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you'll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn't have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it's the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

Wolfe: It's the hackneyed notion: "The medium is the message." As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren't reducible to a simple "this or that." "That" and "this" are interacting throughout the story. That's what I meant when I said I'm trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That's realism, that's the way things really are. It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal... Fiction that doesn't acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn't "realistic" in any sense I'd use that term.

... and a link to the entire thing. For anyone who's interested in writing IN ANY FORM I cannot recommend this highly enough!!!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Breathing room.....


At long last, I've finally wrestled my blog out into the wider format I've always wanted for it. 

It always bugged me, that narrow column with all the blank space on both sides... especially when you tend to write in depth like I do (not your typical newsflash/soundbyte blogger). It took some doin, let me tell you! I grappled with it half the night.... mostly just trying to get the post titles and those little time/date stamps centered... it looked really wrong with those pushed all the way over on the left. 

So now my pics are a bit lost in all the space... they're mostly 400 pixels wide in what's now a 640 pixel space. 

And if you look at any of the older pages, they're not centered either.... I have to take care of that on a post-by-post basis. So I just did the front page. But from here on out they'll all be centered, and I'll be able to start posting them BIGGER!!!

Anyway, this is just a heads up... oh, and I'll be making a new blog banner soon to fit as well. I've been wanting to do THAT for some time now too, since not only do the colors no longer match my new black format, but I know a lot more about using the Lumix now too... that one was from when it was brand new. 


I've had some requests to explain how I accomplished this. Well, like I said, there was a lot of wrestling.... I had to keep trying, met with failures, partial successes, and things in between until finally it all added up. As a result I couldn't give a clear, straightforward tutorial of how to do this, but here are the major steps. 

My inspiration came from seeing Rich Johnson's blog.

He has the wider format like I want. So I took a gander at his source. To do that, control click anywhere on the background of a page (not on a link or picture) and select "view source". This shows you the HTML document that creates his blog. I looked at it and compared it to mine. What I noticed is that in the Header section his width was set to 660 pixels, while mine was set to 400. I made that change in my Template (first viewing my own page source and saving a copy of it, in case I screwed up so bad I needed to go back). It did increase the width of the main column, but the sidebar got pushed down under everything. To fix that I had to increase the overall width to 900 pixels... don't remember where I did that, and scanning through my template now I don't see it, but it's there somewhere. 

That was basically it, but then I had to figure out how to center the titles and date/time stamps. That was the tricky part. I finally figured out I needed to add a couple of "text-align:center;" tags into the header and body sections. If you look through my source you should be able to find them. If this is all gibberish to you, then I wouldn't recommend trying it! Definitely learn the basics of HTML code before attempting anything like this... a little googling will turn up endless sites where you can learn it. And when you're making changes in your blog template, make them one at a time so you always have the option to click the "clear edits" button... sometimes you can't remember what you've changed to change it back!!! 

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What I'm reading


I don't often blog about my reading habits aside from my research into animation and filmmaking technique, and I thought it was about time I did just that. Especially since I just got a serious jump-start from a story called Pump 6 by Paulo Bacigalupi (still trying to learn how to spell/pronounce that nomen!)

My favorite has always been the sci-fi/fantasy stuff, starting with the action/adventure type when I was a kid (Kieth Laumer, Andre Norton and Fritz Leiber being my then-favorites) and progressing on to more surreal/literary/poetic stuff like J G Ballard, Angela Carter, and Will Self. One scribe I DID blog about a while back was Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was so exciting to me that it influenced the name of this blog (it was about a mysterious substance known as Dust, AKA Dark Matter). 

In one sense, Pullman fits neatly into the first group of authors I mentioned above, because his writing is fairly straightforward narrative style... no playing with timeline or identity, or messing with the reader's head. Just good, exciting, well-written storytelling stuff. But after my recent delving into poetic film and Theater of the Absurd, I now realize that most of the authors I have taken to in recent years fit into the second category.... a sort of dreamlike approach that dispenses with the conventional Aristotlean approach and instead opts for a much more Modernist approach that fits better into a post- Freud/Einstein/Van Gough world. 


One of my most amazing recent discoveries in this poetic fiction field was John Gardner's Grendel, recommended to me by my old Germanic freund Thomas Heiss. Definitely one of the most amazing reads I've ever experienced.... it's the tale of Beowulf told through the eyes of the monster Grendel. For me --- though it's completely different in form, this stands on a level alongside the Middle Earth books by Tolkein. And not much else does that! 

So, finished with that intense but all-too-short novel, I hungered for more that would satisfy my newly-acquired taste for this kind of work. Something that would stimulate the deeper centers of the brain, not just appeal to the whiz-bang kid in me. Something that, while still definitely fantasy/sci-fi (and hence not DEADLY DULL AND BORING, as social fiction tends to be) still managed to make you think and seemed to touch on deeper levels of reality than a Stallone movie. In fact, movies make a good analogy.... you could say I had developed a taste for books akin to Mulholland Drive or Pulp Fiction rather than -- well --- a Stallone flick. So I decided to turn my formidable websearching skillz to this end, and what I emerged with was a series penned by Gene Wolfe called The Book of the New Sun (click it... it's his Wikipedia page, and it will lead you on a wonderful journey of discovery. Reading about Wolfe online is exceptionally revealing, and contributes a great deal to understanding his work).

Intelligent writing, cheesy covers

It's about a guy named Severin, an executioner in a world that could possibly be Earth in the far distant future... or is it the unimaginable past? Or maybe an alternate universe entirely? There are remnants of past epochs of history transposed alongside elements of the far-flung future. The planet is called Urth, and society exists at a sort of Renaissance level... outposts of barbarism interspersed between vast wealthy city-states overflowing with sumptuousness and decadence. Mountain ranges carved by some unimaginable technology into the likenesses of monarchs... a fleet of grounded spaceships who's very purpose has been long forgotten, now serving as citadels for the Torturer's Guild. And what's really excellent about it is the supreme skill and subtlety with which Wolfe reveals these wonders.... he doesn't explain something when you first encounter it, but just presents it the way the characters see it... as something maybe mysterious to them, but familiar.

So it takes a few chapters before you suddenly realize that the metal citadels Severin stalks through as an apprentice torturer are (possibly) spacecraft, and nobody knows it! This was one of many slow-burn adrenaline rushes I got while immersed in this incredible world. And there are the caste of aristocrats that he occasionally mentions are tall, but it's not until well into the series that he reveals the (apparently well-known, so therefore unimportant) detail that they're all genetically modified, and are in fact all at least 7 feet in height! I love this method of gradual revelation, where in more pedestrian fiction all of this would be explained early in the book, or as soon as it appears in the story --- taking all the mystery and magic out of it.

It's so much more spine-tingling (and FUN) to discover these wonderful things rather than to be told about them by a pedantic narrator. (Hey, look it up if you don't know it.... and a hint... do the same as you read Wolfe's work.... he often uses little-known words from ancient history and learning what they mean brings a much deeper understanding and appreciation to his world).

Um..... where was I.... Wow, sorry, I didn't mean to spend so much time on the Book of the New Sun. But I suppose it's right, because really Wolfe represents a whole new strain of powerful, surreal, and very intelligent (but still exciting) sci-fi fantasy writers.

And the most recent one I've discovered who seems to have absorbed Wolfe's lessons and developed them in his own way is Paulo Bacigalupi (yes, I'm typing it out every time, hoping I remember it right). Ok, I'm running out of steam here.... there's more I'd like to say, but instead Ill just post this link: Paulo has his own site, and on it. along with links to where you can buy his just-released book Pump Six and other stories (only available in hardback at about $15 now, the paperback should be following soon) AND.... for your convenience and edification --- yes, actual STORIES!!! Three of the stories from the book are available for free online reading or download/printing. I normally don't like to read stories online unless they're short (they are) and they really ROCK (they do). So go. Read. Be amazed. Consume product. Live long and perspire.

I also wanted to say that the story Pump Six is printed in this month's issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine... that's where I found it. Available at newsstands and bookstores now. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

goin' wireless!!!


2 months ago I posted about the Eye-fi Home card. Well, it took me a while, but I got it all set up and working like a charm!! Though in addition to the $89 Eye-fi card, I also had to get an Airport Express base station ($99). This is basically an expensive toy.... there's absolutely no need to upload pictures wirelessly to your hard drive. Let me make that clear right from the start... you can save all your pics to your memory card in the camera and then, when you're done shooting, connect to the computer and upload them. But I was intrigued with the possibility of wireless uploading. In fact, when I had a trial version of Dragon stopmotion software, I posted on their message board about the possibilities of the Eye-fi card, and asked if Dragon would be able to monitor the folder the pictures are uploaded to - the most important reason being so you can keep track of how many pictures you've shot, make sure you didn't forget to snap off a big frame to match each framegrabber shot. I got no response from the Caliris - they don't seem interested in cameras other than the top of the line DSLR's with live feed. It probably would work - but since I didn't get an answer to my query I thought about it, and realized Framethief can do the same thing. It doesn't have a box where it shows you hpw many beauty shots you've collected like Dragon does, but (unlike Dragon) it lets you see your desktop in the background, so all you need to do is leave the folder open that you're downloading pics to, and there's a little number at the bottom that tells you how many files are in the folder. Problem solved! I still don't know if it would work with Dragon - but since I discovered this additional bit of functionality in Framethief, once again I don't feel the need to shell out for Dragon.

I had a bit of trouble setting up my Airport Express base station - it seems you're supposed to have a wireless device attached to it for the computer to detect before it can set up your wireless system, and I don't have any such device! It could be a printer (I have one sitting here that doesn't work) or a stereo to play AirTunes over (don't have the right kind of connector). Finally I decided to throw caution to the wind and I just unplugged my cable modem from the computer and plugged it into the base station! That did the trick. Now I apparently have a wireless internet connection (even though rather funnily the base station is sitting about 2 inches from the computer!!). And I also have the ability to let the Eye-fi card automatically and wirelessly transfer each picture to my hard drive as soon as I shoot it. It happens all by itself... as soon as the camera is done processing the shot it goes to the selected folder on your hard drive.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Settin and proppin

Just to prove I've been doing actual physical work, on top of delving into the absurd... Cosmo got a new (make that heavily used) cooler, and a trash can that began life as a plastic chicken tub.

He also ordered (from his 'heavily used bar equipment' catalog) one shelving unit with stainless steel top.

Here's a quick setup just to give the overall feel so far. It all needs detailing of course. Everything will start to come together a lot better when I get a printer and can put labels on some more bottles. Click any pic to see it larger at Flickr (once there click on "all sizes" above the pic). It was easier to shoot these with my crappy auto-everything camera than to set up the Lumix for these shots, and the lighting is awful. Hey, I don't want to spoil you!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Theatre of the Absurd part 2


I want to post a few more quotes from Esslin's book before it completely fades from my short-termInUS MEmory bLanks. But first a little bit writ by me:

I watched a few of Beckett's plays - or parts of them anyway. There's a box set of DVDs called Beckett on Film available through Netflix for anyone interested. I found them for the most part to be unrelievedly dark and morbid (though Esslin says that many directors present the material that way when Beckett meant for it to be presented much more comically). I tried to watch some of Ionesco's plays (or the posted segments) on YouTube, but they all seem to be very amateurish high school productions taped by members of the audience bootleg style. Impossible to understand. I did find a clip on YouTube from a film of The Birthday Party (I forget who wrote it - Pinter perhaps?) that looks quite interesting. The DVD seems to be available only in R2 from overseas. So, from what I've seen thus far, it seems to me that the actual plays themselves are loaded with anguish and pain, obsessed with death and disease and loneliness and stupidity. Difficult stuff to watch for sure!!! But then, it does reflect the angst of the most sensitive artists in the terrible wake of destruction of WW2 - I suppose that's exactly what they were feeling at the time.

But, all that aside, I can take a lot of great ideas from Esslin's book. The darkness and morbidity needn't be included. Also, I realized that Theatre of the Absurd is basically just the extreme type of that certain trend of modern film consisting of French and Czech New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism.... namely the devaluation of plot and character in favor of a looser, less structured form.

Ok, following are some quotes I don't want to lose track of, so I've laboriously typed them out to post here. I particularly like the historical linking of different types of comedy throughout history leading up to TotA.


•It is a significant and somewhat paradoxical fact that the development of the psychological subjectivism that manifested itself in Strindberg's Expressionist dream plays was the direct and logical development of the movement that had led to naturalism. It is the desire to represent reality - all of reality - that at first leads to the ruthlessly truthful description of surfaces, and then on to the realization that objective reality - surfaces - are only part, and a relatively unimportant part, of the real world.

•James Joyce..... tried to capture the surface of the real world, until he decided that he wanted to record an even more total reality in Ulysses.

•Eugene Ionesco:
"I do not write plays to tell a story. The theatre cannot be epic... because it is dramatic. For me, a play does not consist in the description of the development of such a story --- that would be writing a novel or a film. A play is a structure that consists of a series of states of consciousness, or situations, which become intensified, grow more and more dense, then get entangled, either to be disentangled again or end in unbearable inextricability."

•Instead of proceeding logically Pinter's dialogue follows a line of associative thinking in which sound regularly prevails over sense. Yet Pinter denies that he is trying to present a case for man's inability to communicate with his fellows. 'I feel' he once said' that instead of any inability to communicate there is a deliberate evasion of communication. Communication itself between people is so frightening that rather than do that there is continual cross-talk, a continual talking about other things, rather than what is at the root of their relationship. - People talking to fill the empty spaces between them.

•The Theatre of the Absurd is a return to old, even archaic traditions. The line from the Mimus of antiquity, through the clowns and jesters of the middle ages and the Zanni and Arlecchini of the Commedia dell'arte, emerges in the comedians of music hall and vaudeville from which the 20th century derived what will in all probability be regarded as its only great achievement in popular art -- the silent film comedy of the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a host of other immortal performers. The silent film comedy is without doubt one of the decisive influences on the Theatre of the Absurd. It has the dreamlike strangeness of a world seen from outside with the uncomprehending eyes of one cut off from reality. It has the quality of nightmare and displays a world in constant, and wholly purposeless, movement. And it repeatedly demonstrates the deep poetic power of wordless and purposeless action. The great performers of this cinema, Chaplin and Keaton, are the perfect embodiments of the stoicism of man when faced with a world of mechanical devices that have gone out of hand.

•The coming of sound in cinema killed the tempo and fantasy of that heroic age of comedy, but it opened the way for other aspects of the old vaudeville tradition. Laurel and Hardy, W C Fields, and the Marx Brothers also exercised their influence on the Theatre of the Absurd. Ionesco himself told the audience at the American premiere of The Shepherd's Chameleon that the French Surrealists had "nourished" him but that the three biggest influences on his work had been Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx.

•With the speed of their reactions, their skill as musical clowns, Harpo's speechlessness, and the wild surrealism of their dialogue, the Marx Brothers clearly bridge the tradition between the Commedia dell'arte and Vaudeville, on the one hand, and the Theatre of the Absurd on the other.

•The tradition of the commedia dell'arte reappears in a number of other guises. Its characters have survived in the puppet theatre and the Punch and Judy shows, which also, in their own way, have influenced the writers of the Theatre of the Absurd.

•Another descendant of the Mimus of antiquity was the court jester: the long stick he carries was the wooden sword of the comic actor of ancient times. And both clowns and court jesters appear in in the comic characters of Shakespeare's theatre. This is not the place for a detailed study of Shakespearean clowns, fools, and ruffians as forerunners for Theatre of the Absurd. Most of us are too familiar with Shakespeare to notice how rich his plays are in precisely the same type of inverted logical reasoning, false syllogism, free association and the poetry of real or feigned madness that we find in the plays of Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter.

•"Delight in nonsense," says Freud in his study of the sources of the comic,"has its root in the feeling of freedom we enjoy when we are able to abandon the straitjacket of logic." At the time Freud wrote his essay, more than 50 years ago, he hastened to add that this delight "is covered up in serious life almost to the point of disappearance", so that he had to find evidence for it in the child's delight in stringing words together without having to bother about their meaning or logical order, and in the fooling of students in a state of alcoholic intoxication. It is certainly significant that today, when the need to be rational in "serious adult life" has become greater than ever, literature and the theatre are giving room in increasing measure to that liberation through nonsense which the stiff bourgeoise world of Vienna before the First World War would not admit in any guise.

•The literature of verbal nonsense expresses more than mere playfulness. In trying to burst the bounds of logic and language, it batters at the enclosing walls of the human condition itself. It is thus no coincidence that the greatest masters of English nonsense should have been a logician and mathematician; Lewis Carroll, and a naturalist, Edward Lear. These two fascinating writers offer infinite material for aesthetic, philosophical, and psychological inquiry. Both are great inventors of unheard-of creatures that receive their existence from their names."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Theatre of the Absurd

This my friends is a short sweet little play called Play, written by that Irish Absurdist Samuel Beckett. Oh, the title doesn't mean what you probably think it does.... you might have to watch it a couple times to figure it out. If you're like me, you'll watch it a couple of times anyway, out of sheer fascination (and, well, to figure out what the heck is going on!!! Hint - the comments on YouTube will help). Also if you're like me, you'll want to save this little gem to your hard drive (because, as we all know oh so well by now, YouTube videos have a way of disappearing overnight!). I give you the venerable YouTube Downloader. Consider it the gift that keeps on giving! Or the gift that lets you keep on taking...

In my recent report on Poetic Film and the World of Objects, I mentioned a fantastic book called Film as a Subversive Art, written by Amos Vogel. I was so impressed with it that I started ordering some of the books listed in the bibliography. One of the good-uns was The Theatre and it's Double by Antonin Artaud - well, I liked it, but I must say it didn't really relate very well to anything stopmotion - though it was good for tracing the genesis of modernist cinema and examining the ideas that gave birth to it. Then suddenly I found myself face to face with one of the best books I've read in a looong time.... Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin. He's the critic who originally coined the term, and he's been there and watched it take shape and grow from the beginning - not to mention he's a great writer and has a knack for getting ideas across clearly.

This writeup actually dovetails nicely with my last one, because Absurdist theatre is poetic theatre. And thanks to Esslin's very comprehensive book, I have a pretty clear idea now of how to approach poetic cinema - something I was a bit worried about. If you recall, my ongoing question lately has been

"how to create modernist (poetic) films that are as satisfying and feel as complete as a good narrative film?"

I'll quote here some passages from Esslin's book that pointed me in the right direction...

"Instead of being provided with a solution, the spectator is challenged to formulate the questions that he will have to ask if he wants to approach the meaning of the play. The total action of the play, instead of proceeding from point A to point B, as in other dramatic conventions, gradually builds up the complex pattern of the poetic image that the play expresses. The spectator's suspense consists in waiting for the gradual completion of this pattern which will enable him to see the image as a whole. And only when that image is assembled -- after the final curtain -- can he begin to explore, not so much its meaning as its structure, texture and impact."

"The play with a linear plot describes a development in time, (however) in a dramatic form that presents a poetic image the play's extension in time is purely incidental. Expressing an intuition in depth, it should ideally be apprehended in a single moment, and only because it is physically impossible to present so complex an image in an instant does it have to be spread over a period of time. The formal structure of such a play is, therefore, merely a device to express a complex total image by unfolding it in a sequence of interacting elements."

"It is not true that it is infinitely more difficult to construct a rational plot than to summon up the irrational imagery of a play of the Theatre of the Absurd, just as it is quite untrue that any child can draw as well as Klee or Picasso. There is an immense difference between artistically and dramatically valid nonsense and just nonsense. Anyone who has seriously tried to write nonsense verse or to devise a nonsense play will confirm the truth of this assertion. In constructing a realistic plot, as in painting from a model, there is always reality itself and the writer's own observation to fall back on - characters one has known, events one has witnessed. Writing in a medium in which there is complete freedom of invention, on the other hand, requires the ability to create images and situations that have no counterpart in nature while, at the same time, establishing a world of its own, with it's own inherent logic and consistency, which will be instantly acceptable to the audience. Mere combinations of incongruities produce mere banality. Anyone attempting to work in this medium simply by writing down what comes into his mind will find that the supposed flights of spontaneous invention have never left the ground, that they consist of incoherent fragments of reality that have not been transposed into a valid imaginative whole. Unsuccessful examples of the Theatre of the Absurd, like unsuccessful abstract painting, are usually characterized by the transparent way in which they still bear the mark of the fragments of reality from which they are made up. They have not undergone that sea change through which the merely negative quality of lack of logic or verisimilitude is transmuted into the positive quality of a new world that makes imaginative sense in its own right."

Ok, enough for now. If any of this tickles your fancy, here are a couple links to more posted on the net:

... And if you still hunger for more, then my friend, this is your cue to begin your own investigation!!! Do some web searching, buy Esslin's book (or one of his others... apparently he's written several).

I will present a few more links, to videos this time. Consider this your reward for reading this far. Here's my favorite icon of early cinematic surrealism, Buster Keaton, starring in a little film called Film (also written by Beckett):

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

And, as you may have already guessed if you've been paying attention, I suspect the title 'Film' doesn't mean exactly what it seems to at first blush.....