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Well, uh, hmm...

Friday, July 27, 2007

On the Debate

Well, many of you, and by that I mean, all one of you, will notice there wasn't a post today on the debate on art. First, I've been very busy because I just bought a nice chunk of hosting for a website. I've been working on that pretty much since I got up this morning. Then I watched Apocalypto with my family. Second, I'm getting tired of debating. I'm not sure what else I can put into this argument, at least in terms of my energy and time. This is something that easily could go on forever, and I just don't feel like it. Think what you want on the subject, folks. I have to work on my voice work and production because I want to get a job so I can raise my bank account above double digit numbers, so that's where my focus has to lie. My apologies to all who enjoyed reading what's been said, and my especial apologies to Ted, whom I made a deal with to keep it going as long as we felt like. I'm tired and I have lots of work to do in other areas, particularly my new website.

On another note, I'm not sure how much I'm going to continue updating this blog now that I have a website proper. If you'd like to keep reading (and I hope you do), then start checking paulstadden.com by next week. I've already begun designing the site, but I still have a lot of work to do.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cartoon Rhythm

After the last post, I started thinking about how voice actors must perform appropriate to the characters as they appear on screen. Then I remembered something from John Kricfalusi's blog about animating to a beat. Here's the quote verbatim:

"All classic cartoons were timed to musical rhythms or tempos. That's why they automatically feel good when you watch them. Most modern animation is timed straight ahead and actions fall haphazardly with no definite or structural relationship to each other. They feel jerky and not as fun as old cartoons.

"A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it.

"Genndy Tartakovsky times his cartoons to tempos and so do I. We are among the last holdouts to this tradition."

That got me thinking about the voice over aspect. Today, voice artists record the dialogue, and then animators fit the visuals overtop. This is unlike the cartoons of the thirties (and almost all Japanese cartoons with the exception of Katsuhiro Otomo's work) where the animation is done first and the voice artists record their dialogue overtop. This meant the animators had almost total freedom regarding the rhythm and flow of the animation because they'd never have to fudge around the vocal tracks. Now, if the voice artist has an idea for how a line must be delivered and that idea is completely different from the rhythm that the animation director had in mind, there's a conflict. If an animation director wants to keep an authentic 1930's "bounce" to his cartoon, he'll have to give very specific directions to the voice actor or accept the performance he gets and animate around it.

I like the idea of the voice talent and the animators working closely because the end product is more complete. Since the characters in cartoons are not actors with mind and voice combined, rather a combination of the ideas of the voice actor and the animator, it only makes sense that the two have similar ideas for the performance of the character. This is especially important if an animator wants to retain the traditional animation "bounce" without making it into a parody.

What do I mean by bounce? Well, as Kricfalusi said, "A real cartoon is like music. It should feel good, no matter what the content or subject matter is about. It should make you bounce to it." The characters bounced to the rhythm of the music. To see what he's talking about, watch Bimbo's Initiation, one of the greatest cartoons ever made and practically the defining work of the medium. The characters bounce and sway to the music, giving the characters life and visual interest.

Now, watch this modern take on the concept, an episode of the fantastic Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat from 1995 entitled, Space-Time Twister. This episode was directed by Lynne Nailor, formerly of Spumco and ex-girlfriend of John Kricfalusi. The Spumco influence is everywhere, from the authentic bounce and rhythm to the surreal yet believable cartooniness. It is an excellent piece of art that somehow slipped past the studio heads. Well, didn't slip past for long because later episodes of the series are far more conservative and much less cartoony, and aren't as fun to watch. Space-Time Twister works because it's much like the human imagination: based on reality, but it bends and twists because it's not wholly bound by earthly physics. The later episodes are more "realistic," in terms of the characters having less stretch and squash and no exclamation points jutting from their heads, but they're less beautiful because they abandon their cartooniness. The jokes are more arbitrary, the colors are more haphazard, and the characters are less flexible. Still, I'm glad we have the first season to cherish.

As much as I love Charlie Adler, I'm afraid The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat went downhill in the last season when Charlie Adler took over the voice of Felix from Thom Adcox-Hernandez. It's not Charlie's fault at all, he was in the weakest season of the show. The cartooniness was gone by that point and there wasn't as much for him to work with. Anyway, I'll bet the directors in the first season worked closely with Adcox-Hernandez and the other voice actors to make sure they got that bounce in their voice to match the bouncy imagery. When watching the episode, Now Playing Felix, I conducted along with some of the dialogue and found that the writers had written the dialogue (and the voice actors performed it) with music in mind. They weren't singing, but the words with emphasis came on downbeats, the sentences were more like operatic recitative. This combined with the animation to make something that was very comfortable and very fun. It's not reality, but a shadow of reality. It's based on how we think and feel.

Now, let's look at something that tries the traditional bounce, but fails because the bounce is intended as parody. Parody of the 1930's style is obvious because the bounce is arbitrary and overdone. The dialogue is also in parody, with the voice actors either calling too much attention to the rhythm and thus make the speech stilted, or by imitating the nasal sounding 1930's radio announcer voice. The best example of this I can think of is an episode of Disney's House of Mouse that featured genuine 1930's Disney cartoons. The episode also featured a Mickey Mouse cartoon that was meant to emulate the 1930's style. It fell flat, especially next to the real cartoons that were in the episode. The reason the cartoon failed was it was parody rather than imitation. Lynne Nailor captured the spirit of the old Felix the Cat cartoons even if they weren't exactly like the Otto Messmer shorts of the 1920's. She respected the old style and added her own touches. Disney, however, thinks that the old ways of animating are antiquated and the only reason anyone could enjoy them is to laugh at how primitive they were. Well, Disney is wrong, I'm afraid. There is far more artistry in Otto Messmer's limited animation Felix the Cat shorts from the 1920's than any of Disney's toons. Messmer appealed to our imaginations, whereas Disney tried to make things "realistic." Instead of making cartoons that related to the audience better, he removed everything that makes cartoons fun. He removed the magic.

I wish I had a link for you to this cartoon, but I don't. I tried to find it on Youtube, but it's not there. I even tried finding the name to the episode, but there are no descriptions to any of the shows on Wikipedia, IMDb, or Disney.com. You'll just have to find it yourself. Sorry.

So, in short, we must have respect for the cartoons of yore and take cues from them when we work on a cartoon. Make your voices appealing. Use rhythm. If the animators aren't going to talk to you, try to infuse the dialogue with good rhythm and flow and force them to animate your characters with that same bounce. Better yet, hook up with an animator that does use rhythm and bounce in his toons. I guarantee that even if your cartoon is cancelled after half a season, those cartoons will live on and inspire the next generation of good artists.

Time To Absorb Some Great Voice Work!

I'm willing to bet you know the name, Mel Blanc. "Hey, that's Bugs Bunny, right?" Yes, yes it is. Now, do you know why you know Mel Blanc's name? "Uh, because he did Bugs Bunny?" Well, yes, that's part of it, but not the whole story. You see, I always took for granted that the name, Mel Blanc, was synonymous for "Voice Actor" just because he was so good and so prolific. I mean, how could the guy who did the majority of the voices for Warner Brothers' cartoons not be famous?

There's a problem with this theory, however. Let's explore that. You've heard of Yogi Bear, right? "Yup!" Well, who did his voice? "...uh, Mel Blanc?" Sorry, incorrect. It was Daws Butler. How about Rocky the Flying Squirrel? "Mel... Blanc...?" Nope, it was June Foray, the most important living voice actress, possibly the most important of all time. Oh, and who did Elmer Fudd? "Ok, now I know that was Mel Blanc!" Well, that's true, Mel Blanc did voice Elmer. "Yes! Got one!" At least, he voiced Elmer in maybe 10% of Elmer's appearances in the classic cartoons. Most of the time it was Arthur Q. Brian, and when he died, Hal Smith. "Oh."

There's a reason Mel is famous beyond his being the best and being prolific; He was a marketing genius. When he was negotiating with Leon Schlesinger for more money from his Warner Brothers cartoons, Leon refused. So, Mel got an idea that would make him far more money than pay raises from Schlesinger; Credit. In the 1940's, nobody but the studio heads got much credit for what they did. If you were a lowly animator or voice actor, you were unknown to the public because "Leon Schlesinger" or "Pat Sullivan" were all the public ever saw on the cartoons. This is why Felix the Cat fans had no idea, for decades, that Otto Messmer was the real genius that drove the animated shorts. Pat Sullivan's name was all they ever saw. But Mel knew getting credit was the future if he wanted more money. So, he asked Schlessinger if they could put "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" in front of all the cartoons, and they did. Even if people like Bea Benaderet, June Foray, Stan Freberg, Arthur Q. Brian, and Kent Rogers starred in the cartoons, too, Mel was the only name they saw.

The fact that the original Warner Brothers shorts were aimed at adults, not kids, didn't hurt, either. While a kid may have seen Daws Butler or Don Messick's name at the beginning of a Hanna Barbera short, he probably wouldn't have remembered unless he were a voice over geek. People in positions to hire voice actors, namely adults, were the ones who were seeing that "Voice Characterizations by Mel Blanc" credit. So, they did hire Mel. Lots of 'em. In fact, Mel would even go to work at Hanna Barbera alongside fellow actors Butler and Messick, his biggest competition, in shows like The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Secret Squirrel. He was also on Jack Benny's TV program and even landed some work in Spike Jones' orchestra, singing in songs like, "Clink, Clink, Another Drink."

While Mel's deal seems a bit self serving, it has aided in raising the level of voice over art in the past eighty years to something beyond, "Hey, let's get somebody to give Felix some cat sounds. Larry, get in here!" Thanks to his stroke of genius, voice actors have realized that what they do is pretty special and deserves recognition. Now, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) have thousands of voice performers signed up.

Let's not forget in all this that Mel was also the best of the best. Yes, in the early days, he did alter tape speed to create new voices. For example: at first, his Daffy Duck voice was just his Sylvester the Cat voice sped up a few cents. He later learned to replicate this speed trick with his voice because of having to do the characters live. But, that aside, his choices for the characters were nothing short of genius. Let's just take Bugs Bunny for a second. I believe he changed the characterization for Bugs slightly depending on who the director was. Listen to the Bob Clampett Bugs and then listen to the Chuck Jones Bugs. The difference is striking, I find. The Clampett Bugs voice matched the visual. While Rod Scribner was making Bugs look like a stretchy, squashy ball of manicness, Mel matched that with his loose, crazed vocalization. When Bugs was under the direction and pen of more conservative animators like Bob McKimson and Chuck Jones, the voice became more serious, more collected, more street smart than wacky. I have to believe that Mel knew the styles of the people who made the cartoons and let that influence his take on the voice.

We, as voice actors, need to understand how our voice will fit the final product, and Mel Blanc is the best example I can think of. If we get to do a cartoon, we need to pour over pictures of our characters, and even test animation if we can. Get to know the animators, understand how they're going to make your character move. Unfortunately, much of the voice over work these days is rather impersonal. Unlike the 1940's, there aren't going to be any "house voice actors" for the major studios anymore. Theatrical shorts with high budgets are a thing of the past, and almost all cartoons are either aimed toward children and are bland "purple and pink" monstrosities, or are ultra vulgar flash based mutations made for Adult Swim. Very cookiecutter. What will most likely happen is that you'll get a gig after nightmarish networking, walk into the studio, get handed a script, and do a reading that's over in as few takes as possible. That doesn't mean you'll never get to work with the animators on a project. John Kricfalusi, for example, makes sure he gets voice actors whom he works with during the recording so they'll deliver the right reading for a given character, and even does voice work himself (Ren in Ren and Stimpy, Citricet in The Ripping Friends). Also, his work is the most artistic and cartoony of all current animation. Doug Lawrence (better known as Mr. Lawrence) does the big three in cartooning; Writing, Directing, acting. He's written, directed, and acted in Rocco's Modern Life, Spongebob Squarepants, and Camp Lazlo (my favorite cartoon on TV right now).

I don't want to get off topic, the genius of Mel Blanc, but I wanted to show you that pockets of the old ways can be found in the modern system. Now, what you need to do is get onto Youtube and Google video to look up the following cartoons:

1. Falling Hare. This is my favorite Bugs cartoon of all time. It was directed by Bob Clampett and animated by Rod Scribner. Mel at his finest, too.
2. Fresh Hare.
3. Southern Fried Rabbit. I warn you though, this cartoon is one of the infamous "Censored 11," a list of cartoons banned from television because of their racist nature. In other words, lots of Blackface and cultural stereotypes. Just watch the cartoon as a cartoon, leave your easily offended sensibilites at the door and watch it for Mel Blanc's brilliant Bugs Bunny. It's also the last Bugs short directed by Tex Avery.
4. Baseball Bugs.
5. Case of the Missing Hare.
6. Wackiki Rabbit.

Once you're done watching these public domain shorts, and your appetite is whetted, go out and buy the DVD's of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Anonymity, Thou Art A Sweet Friend...

The other week, I made a huge change in my career direction. Rather than go the route of teaching for the rest of my life, which would result in me becoming a walking ball of stress and rage, I have decided to go into voice over, and everything that comes with it.

Despite what you may think, voice over is not just talking or doing funny voices (you wouldn't think that, of course, if you've ever read my blog before). No, a "good voice," like Orson Welles' or Gary Owens' is not necessary, or in some cases, even desirable. A good voice actor must convince the audience that he is the character in the copy. All that without the audience even seeing the performer.

In many ways, voice work is the quintessence of how I feel about art in general:

1. Present a shadow of the world without being an exact mirror of the world. Hence the terms "Suspension of Disbelief" and "Escapism." We paint worlds with only our voices. We don't talk how normal people talk, we talk how they think and remember. The way we remember conversations happening is in gross charicature, "He was so angry, steam came out his ears!" That sort of thing. People believe the world in the copy if we appeal to their emotions and perception. If we don't, then we are just reading words on a page.

2. It takes the focus off the performer and puts it on the performance. The person listening isn't wrapped up in, "Hey, that's _______ doing that voice!" When the audience is wrapped up in who is performing rather than whether the actors are any good, then the art has suffered. Voice over artists must "get outside" themselves and portray a character that will reach the audience. Let me give some examples.

Lorenzo Music, the voice actor behind Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda, Pete Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters, and, of course, Garfield the cat, was the distilled essence of what it means to be a voice over performer: invisible. He prided himself on never being seen by his audience, yet his voice was on a cartoon every Saturday morning that featured a fat, orange cat. He got inside the character and made sure that the audience would believe Garfield really sounded like that and said such things.

In Dreamworks' Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Brad Pitt weaved elaborate tapestries of blandness with his voice. I never believed the character, not just because I couldn't get past the fact that the voice was Brad Pitt's, but because he was so bad. While the animated character of Sinbad waved his arms and flitted about, making grandiose gestures, the voice that came out of him sounded like a prepubescant Ben Stein: Flat, directionless, and disconnected from the words he said as well as the character that we saw. A good voice actor makes you forget that he's there. He speaks as the character, from inside the character, rather than "at" the character like Brad Pitt did for Sinbad.

Now, I have by no means "arrived" in my abilities to represent a believable character. I have much training to do. But, natural ability combined with passion, focus, training, and good opportunities will result in someone who can convince an audience that the voice they hear is talking just to them, or that the characters they see on screen are real and exist somewhere.

You'll notice I took my picture off the top of the page. It was unnecessary. Why do you need to know what I look like? When I work on voice over, I want the image in your head to fit with the voice. If you picture me, then what's the point? If I do a character in a cartoon, look at the cartoon, not me. If my voice can't convince you that the "being" you see onscreen is real, then I have failed my job.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Objectivity Or Subjectivity Of Art

Today's post is part of the continuing debate with my good friend, Ted Stoltz, over at Notablogtm.com. You'll notice a change in the title of my post from last week. I realized that the title, "Objective of the Imagination" is not a very debatelike title. Since this is a debate, I want to reflect that.

Now, as per our rules, we have a 1,500 word limit. I usually start out way over and have to pare down. This week, I'm doing something a bit different. I used quotes from Ted's posts and put in responses to specific points. I am not counting the quotes from Ted's post as part of my word count. Cry foul if you must, folks, I had no other way of getting my points in and the responses wouldn't make much sense without Ted's part. Besides, this makes it seem a bit more like a live debate, so it'll flow better. The only problem is, unlike a real debate, Ted can't immediately respond to one of my points, so you'll just have to wait until Monday for his end. Because I am taking this tactic, I won't count against Ted when he uses quotes from my post. He usually comes under the word limit by a bit more, anyway, so it's not as big a deal for him. If you add up the words that I wrote, you'll find they come in under 1,500 words.

Also, I used material from his Wednesday post, I Just Got To Level 20 in Sending Email. There are no rules against this, but I want to play fair, so I'm just letting you know. Ted, if you like, grab anything from any of my other posts.


Ted: I asked about the absolute standards of beauty, not beauty itself. While a working definition of beauty is helpful, it is not where the disagreement lies. Since Paul’s argument is that beauty in art is based on objective standards, we need to know what these objective standards are. Paul attempts to define one of them by saying, “Men find fertile women beautiful because we have a natural instinct to produce offspring.”

Paul: Our sense of what's beautiful arrives to us from the outside world. Instinctually, what we find beautiful is what will do us good. Ugly, what will do us harm. Consistency and comfort we find beautiful, which is why soft pillowy clouds are beautiful. Jaggedness and hardness we find ugly, such as sharp rocks at the bottom of a chasm. In art, we can represent an ugly subject in a beautiful way, using our skill at our craft to make use of symmetry, the golden mean, balance, what have you. We can also represent beautiful things in an ugly way, such as a poor drawing of a large eyed puppy. Just because someone sucks at representing something doesn't mean that thing isn't beautiful. The poor drawing of the puppy may be horrible to us because of its poor lines, jagged edges, and lack of balance. It has become a monster. The technical cannot be separated form the conceptual without both suffering. A person must have the technique to represent his idea accurately, and he must have a good idea to execute.

"Yes, but what about things that can do us harm but we still find beautiful, like an erupting volcano?" Alright, good point. Here we deal with a mixture of several aspects. One, we probably do not find it beautiful, per se, but perhaps "powerful" and "awe inspiring." I would find a 3,000 foot tall pile of rotting corpses really impressive ("How on earth did they do that?"), but I certainly wouldn't find it beautiful. Besides, if we are there to actually witness a volcano erupting, assuming we were from a far away vantage point and wouldn't get hurt, there are aspects we would find beautiful. The roundness and softness of the billowing cloud, the symmetry and balance of the mountain, etc. These aspects by themselves are beautiful, though we would be terrified out of our wits at what they combined into.

Ted: The “normalcy” of humanity is not borne of some objectivity existing either inside or outside the brain. The normalcy in the human condition is nothing more than the hump of the bell curve. We define normal by looking at the traits that most people have. But the standard distribution itself yields extremes—which must also be considered normal. A world which did not have a standard distribution—where everyone is the same—would be the abnormal world. It wouldn’t correspond with our observations. To say that someone’s standards are abnormal because they fall outside the “normal” range (whatever that is) may be true in the semantic sense, but it certainly should not be used as leverage against them. These people will always exist, and the fact that they do exist in a certain percentage is normal. Furthermore, they must be taken into account, and not simply dismissed as abnormal.

Paul: Ok, if you want the word "normal" to mean "mathematical average." I'm using normal to mean "functions well." Sure, everyone being the same would be a strange world. The people in our world have wide ranges of being smart/stupid, tall/short, that sort of thing. Some people have good imaginations, some don't. Life ain't fair. Some people can more easily recognize beauty, some can't. Ed Wood wouldn't know a good film if it bit him in the can. Orson Welles did. What's the difference? Something objective because we're rating them as artists. Anytime we say something is "good," "bad," "right," or "wrong," we are appealing to something from without.

John Williams is a superior guitarist to, say, me. It's not just craft, he makes superior choices to myself when playing a piece of music. He knows that to affect an audience, he must perform a piece with "hills and valleys," in other words, slight changes in tempo, dynamics, and tambre. If I believe that the same piece must be performed flat throughout, I am not just an inferior player, I am an inferior artist. The piece will not affect the audience as well as if it were performed by him. Now, I know that pieces must be performed with such hills and valleys, but that may not be the case for someone else. Is his artistic vision inferior? Sure. Until he learns what it takes to write or perform a piece that will move an audience, he ain't goin' anywhere artistically. He'll play to a small fraction of people who also don't grow and perform pieces very flat. And yes, their experience of the music will be worse, because without those hills and valleys, they won't be carried anywhere by the music.

Ted: Furthermore, this view point could be argued to confirm my initial claim, not refute it. Whether or not you personally agree with other people’s standards is completely beside the point. Paul said, “Sure, we can say we believe everything’s subjective, but we sure don’t function that way.” Disregarding the fact that I made no such claim as “everything” being subjective—who sure doesn’t function that way? Obviously some people do; you just called them a problem! The standards must be subjective, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this “problem”.

Paul: I meant "function well." Sure, insane people function. People who mutilate themselves for fun function. They don't function well.

Ted: Couldn’t two people with subjective opinions of beauty still find some common ground, and thereby not be lonely?

Paul: Yes, but they're appealing to something outside of themselves to do it! They're saying, "Hey, I enjoy this thing, and you enjoy this thing, let's both enjoy it!" It's no longer just in their individual heads (if it ever was), but between them for both of them to look at outside of themselves.

Ted: The utter chaos that happens in games doesn’t really get recognized for what it is because there’s no real risk there. I know the study talks about how games prepare one to be a risk-taker, but let’s be honest. They don’t. There isn’t really a real risk in an online game. There’s a lot of inconvenience, but it never impacts your real-life life. Because of this, the game is hugely tolerant of error. It has to be, not just because there are a lot of stupid people playing, but because it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Nobody would play a game where, when you die, you’re dead and that’s it. That’s no fun, and nobody plays games to have not-fun. So in games today, you can screw around all day—you can have your utter chaos—and still get things accomplished with cursing and an utter lack of organization and only the most rudimentary chain of command because the game is extremely forgiving.

Paul: Are video games art with objective standards for enjoyment? You bet. Someone makes a game where you die once and that's it? I agree with you, that guy's an idiot who made poor art. *PS, this is the one taken from the Wednesday post.

Ted: I don’t understand the claim that we’d be able to literally do anything. (We’d be able to do literally everything? Fly, perhaps? Why should this be true?)

Paul: I meant "literally anything in art." If I take a tree and plant it in my living room, is it my work? Nope, that tree was made by nature, not me. If it's art, it's God's art, not mine.

Ted: Why should you be concerned about what other people’s standards of beauty are?

Paul: Because people with inferior conceptions of what is beautiful try to tell us that the 5,000 years of artists believing in something outside themselves that compels them to make art is resulting from a false philosophy (though that philosophy produced the greatest works of art this world has ever seen) and we need to accept that Fountain and 4'33" are just as good because human thought has really advanced in the last 30 years. Second, these same people are becoming in charge of the art world and are telling people that they can do what they like, as long as it makes them feel good. I'm all for feeling good, but I'm also for growing intellectually and artistically, which ultimately results in my feeling better than if I lived in the narrow conceptions of my own mind.

Sometimes we don't like what's best for us at first, but we learn to like it and eventually like it better than what we liked before. If someone tells me McDonald's hamburgers are better than filet mignons, I don't deny that he feels that they taste better. I also believe that he has an inferior palate and would benefit in the long run from trying out filet mignons. If he still doesn't like them, then I won't use him as my restaurant guide. Nor will I ask him where to take my boss for lunch.

Ted: It doesn’t matter how much you study the masters, or drive for that “objective standard” because there is no objective standard. You can’t make work everyone likes. So you make work for you.

Paul: Calling them "the Masters" means they have something the rest of us don't have. Do they not only have better skill, but better imaginations? Sure. Not only do they represent images better, but they also pick images depending on their beauty (if they use images at all, abstractionists take the parts down to their core: Light, Shade, Texture, but still rely on the standards of beauty). Is a well executed painting of a puppy more beautiful than a well executed painting of a rotting corpse? Sure. The pic of the corpse may be beautiful, but it's not as beautiful, because it has an ugly subject.

I won't be able to make work everyone likes. In fact, there are plenty of people I hope don't like my work. I want my work to appeal to people with high levels of imagination as well as craft. Whether I will achieve that, I don't know. I am certainly not (at least right now) on the level of people like Johann Sebastian Bach, Mel Blanc, or Ernest Hemingway. I may never be, but it is the high level that they attained that pushes me to continue.

Ted: Is there ugliness? Sure. Is it full of amateurish mistakes? Of course. Does some of this ugly, amateur work get picked up and make it big? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean there is a more noble standard to which we should all be striving, but it may mean that you find yourself unable rest until you get recognition for your not-ugly, not-amateur work. If you truly have great work, the ugly stuff shouldn’t bother you. But even if you have the greatest work of all, you will still have people who find your stuff ugly, boring, or trite.

Paul: So there are objective standards in art? If we can say something us ugly, there is an objective standard of beauty to which we aspire. The ugly stuff bothers me because the average person 100 years ago could identify something as good art. In J.S. Bach's time, average people could play an instrument, read sheet music, and compose music, as well. Artists from every field were reaching to the world as fellow artists, something which has been lost. Now, the average musician plays to people who don't know anything about music, and therefore they cannot critique his performance and aid him in improving. If the average artist shows someone a picture, the person says, "I don't know art, but that looks good to me." The average beer drinker thinks Miller Lite is "the good stuff." It drags down the overall quality of what we do, and people can't tell the difference anymore. Art has suffered. I have no problem with certain people finding my art crappy, if they're poor artists. If an artist is good enough, his work will appeal to experts and laymen alike, and aid in restoring the artist's place in reaching out to fellow artists.

Now, when I talk about what art is and what it is not, I refer mostly to the involvement of the "artist," not just the quality of the end product. John Cage did not "write" 4'33'' because any aspects of performance are totally out of his control. The credit for the "performances" should go to the audience shifting in their chairs, and the traffic going by the theater. His prepared piano material, however, is art. It's just bad art. Besides, sometimes the propaganda surrounding a great piece of art is true. We see it and say to ourselves, "Wow, this is beautiful. How could anyone not find this beautiful?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Guitar Lesson #2

Time for your second guitar lesson! Last time we discussed the basics - how to hold the guitar comfortably, how to agress upon the guitar (play the thing), and some rudimentary note identification. Now, we're going to get into sheet music.

Here's a handy diagram that demonstrates how to find the notes in sheet music on the neck of a guitar. Let's define some terms. When I say, "string one," that's the thinnest string, the one closest to the floor. "String six" is the thickest string, the one closest to your head. When I say "up the neck," that means you are getting closer to the body of the guitar. "Down the neck" means you are getting closer to the headstock. When you think "up," think about the notes getting higher in pitch, not necessarily a physical direction.

Now, using the legend you have here, let's learn a simple piece of music.

I have written out the first half of Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony. Let me give some explanation as the difference between lengths of notes. When I write that quarter notes are "one beat," that corresponds to one pulse, or, if you have a metronome handy, one metronome click. If you're counting to yourself (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4...) you would play a note every time you said a number. Half notes last for two beats. So, if I were to write out a line of half notes, you would only strike the strings every other beat. The emphasis would be on beats 1 and 3. Some people play half notes as if they were just two quarter notes back to back, striking the strings on both beats of the half note. If this were the case, wouldn't I just write a pair of quarter notes? We need notes that indicate longer and shorter periods of time. We'll get into longer and shorter notes in another lesson.

As you learn this, do not just "play through" at performance speed until you "get it." I guarantee you will make mistakes the first time you play it, everyone does. If you play the same mistakes over and over, you will just reinforce those mistakes and they will become habit. Unlearning mistakes takes much more energy and work than just learning things right the first time. So, start slow. Very slow. So slow, you have to think about each note as you play it. Compare this to reading a book one word at a time, absorbing and studying each word as you see it. You'll get faster over time, don't just start out at breakneck speed. Yeah, it's boring, but this is where we separate the people who really want to learn from those who think they'll be Eddie Van Halen after a week.

Now, in addition to starting out slow, making sure you have the correct notes from the very start, we're going to learn the piece in a different way from how most people are used to memorizing material. I want you to focus on just the first two measures (measures are the spaces between the vertical bars in the sheet music). Get those perfect in one lesson, then put the guitar down. Don't go any farther. The next day, sit down with your guitar and play what you have learned. If you notice you've made any mistakes, correct them by playing it as you learned it, the wrong way, and then correct it. You must bring mistakes to the surface and understand what you did wrong before you can correct anything. Now, once you're satisfied that you learned yesterday's two measures, learn the next two. Repeat this process until you have the whole piece.

The reason we learn pieces of music like that is that every part must be strong. When the audience goes home, they are going to remember the beginning and end (mostly the end), the rest is glorified filler. If your piece begins and ends strong, the audience will forgive mistakes made in the middle. You can even learn the piece backwards, focusing on the last two mesaures, then working on the previous two, etc. That way, you'll always know where the piece is going, and it will be easier to memorize. That's a trick that my guitar teacher, Jimmy Chandler, taught me, and David Russell reinforced when I saw him at the 2006 GFA Competition.

Practice well, learn the piece, and we'll pick up another day!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Vicarious Manhood 3000

Beer. Cars. Guns. These are things men want, but can't buy because their wives won't let them. Now you can add the new Vicarious Manhood 3000 to that list. According to all modern advertising, men are knuckle dragging simpletons who watch football, drink watery beer, and live in their garages. Whereas women are portrayed as divinely infallible sarcastic goddesses who know they can control their husbands by withholding love, something men think they need 24/7 thanks to a culture that tells them so. So, if you don't want to sleep on the couch tonight, even if you actually bought that Swedish memory foam mattress and have chronic, debilitating back problems that can become permanent thanks to a night on a futon, don't, and we mean don't, buy our product. Just listen to some of our testimonials.

Man 1- I bought a Vicarious Manhood 3000 and my life has been misery and woe ever since.

Man 2- I do not deserve a Vicarious Manhood 3000 because I am a man and men have constant dirty thoughts and I need to start sharing my feelings instead of playing with icky fossil fuel guzzling toys. My wife told me to say that.

Man 3- I tell you what, I would love one. But, I just spent all my money on a Prius. Man, I hate those things.

Why do we advertise something you can't buy? Because we're jerks. We're Men.


*Brought to you by a guy who thinks modern television commercials are indicative of cultural decline.

Yeah, this was a pretty easy one to write. I think I wrote it after watching one of those "dumb dad can't stand up to his own kids so the mom has to take charge" commercials or tv shows. This is getting pretty irritating. Somehow, the idea has wormed its way into the culture that it's ok to make fun of the things men like, but it's sexist and wrong to make fun of anything women like. Boys on tv shows do "dumb boy things" like playing cowboys and indians, building soap box derby racers, and generally being little boys. The girls, however, pursue more intellectual pursuits like brushing their dolls' hair and having tea parties. Aren't these things merely different? Aren't men and women here on earth because they fulfill specific roles? Why put the other sex down for doing stuff that they like? If a woman wants to go buy shoes, I don't say, "Huh, dumb woman off to satiate her need for shopping." No, she wants some dang shoes because, thank goodness, she can afford them and wants them. So why put down men because we like beer, guns, and motorcycles?

Why does it seem safe to make fun of men? Is it because we're generally too polite to say anything? Is this principle the same reason we can get away with shows like Moral Orel, but a Norwegian newspaper runs a comic depicting Mohammed and the middle eastern world is ready to tear people apart? Or is it that people have a knee jerk reaction to perceived patriarchal patronizing from fifty years ago and feel that we must swing the other way just to make things fair? Why don't we stop knee jerking and saying, "let's see how you like it" and just show things the way they are? Commercials, movies, and tv shows would be a lot more relatable.

One of the biggest aggravators for me is the show, Johnny Test. Pretty standard fare; a boy who's a spy owns a talking tog and they go on adventures together. The thing that bothers me is the dad in the show is an effeminate stay at home dad, and the mom is a type A, no nonsense business-woman. No problem with a strong mother, mine is. She's helped me and pushed me when I didn't give my best, also she's the hardest working person I know. In fact, pushover mothers are unpleasant to watch, too. That's why I don't like the comic strip, Zits. But why the effeminate dad in this series? He's emasculated and very hard to look at. He's a freakin' castrati. How on earth does his son respect him? The show also features Johnny Test's twin sisters, who are brilliant scientists. Is anyone else getting tired of the "I can do anything you can do" agenda crammed down our throats? This show features almost every liberal agenda I can think of, though they haven't made Johnny and his dog lovers yet.

What the **** happened to cartoons being funny? Cartoons fill a gap between literature and visual art. They are supposed to be fun to look at and tell a compelling narrative with funny characters. Now, they seem to be conveyances for indoctrinating children. And lest you think I'm being one sided, I'm not too fond of most "Christian" cartoons, either. Most of them are preachy, but contentless. They tell a moral, but the art suffers. I agree with the message, but the message is all there is. It doesn't come across because I'm too wrapped up in the poor animation, poor voice acting, poor dialogue. There are a few exceptions, I like Veggie Tales, for instance. But that series isn't preachy, it exists in a world which presupposes Christian Morals, rather than trying to overtly preach for 22 minutes, hitting the viewer over the head with the blunt end of the premise. Ultimately, though, if I am going to watch something preachy (there seems little choice these days), I'd like to watch something with which I agree.

I think my point is best summed up in the "Star Trash" episode of The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. Felix is on board a ship bearing a strong resemblance to the USS Enterprise, which is dumping garbage on our planet. The captain, in response to Felix complaining about this, says, "Why should you care? You people use it as a dump, anyway." Felix responds, "Oh, no. We're in a cartoon with a moral."

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Some of these are old, some are recent. I have always wanted to work on my drawing ability, but have never had the time. These represent the ones I am willing for others to see. These also represent a non visual artist's attempts at doing visual art. I would love to improve, but that may take more time than I am willing to put in. In any case, here they are, complete with explanations for their origins.

Here's a character I was working on for a story. It's set in an animal world, much like Disney's Robin Hood. Animals allow for character establishment from the moment the character appears on the screen. Take the white rabbit for instance. It symbolizes meekness, a world class introvert. Mine was for a story about a young keyboard virtuoso named Thomas, who is a scrawny, nearsighted (I realize only one of the pictures featurs him with glasses, but they're a big part of the story) white rabbit that had lost part of his right ear as a child. The other character in the story is a priest named James, portrayed as a fox. The fox, of course, insinuates intelligence, even cunning. James had been a child virtuoso as well, but was exploited by his foster parents for personal gain. James left that way of life to become a minister in the Anglican church. The story takes place in 1830's England, around the time the Monarchy was losing power and the Romantic era was beginning in full swing. James represents the old ways, the traditions that he had to fight to uphold in his life. Thomas represents the innocence of youth and the struggle on the part of the older generation to protect the younger from a destructive path.
I also realize that some of my pictures feature a rather adult looking Thomas. Well, that was from when I wanted to carry the story later in his life.

These are characters for a steampunk story I started writing entitled, Harmony and Counterpoint. The title is a nod to Jane Austin's way of titling some of her novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. The story centers around young adventuress Clare Bridewell, part of a secret society charged with protecting cultural artifacts belonging to Britain. She is the Harmony part of the story, harmony being the focus of composers once highly contrapuntal music fell out of favor. The other is Alexander Abott, a young priest (yeah, another priest character, you gotta problem widdat?) who feels useless in his role of living in the church, only existing for helping out with services. He, of course, is the Counterpoint. Imitative Counterpoint was the main way of composing in the late Renaissance and Baroque, but was largely abandoned in the Classical era. Though it's antique, it's also very complex. Like Alex... anyway, this'll take far longer to explain than I feel like.

This was from my time of video game obsession, about 9 years ago. I loved Sonic the Hedgehog, but I also loved guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. So, I combined them. That's about all there is to this.

This started out as the hat. I was getting frustrated with my inability to draw a halfway decent hat, so I went to the Wikipedia section on Fedoras and tried to draw the Fedora pic they had using as much detail as possible. Then, getting annoyed at it being just a hat, I decided to draw a person underneath. I'm pleased with my results considering there was no planning that went into it at all, but there's still a lot that bothers me, such as the question of his arms' existence. Where are they? I'm not sure. Oh, and his tailor had no idea how to make a collar. Oh well.

As a contrast, here's a sketch my Stepfather, John made in a few minutes while he was talking on the phone.

Here's a Christmas card sent to me a few years ago by a friend of the family, Bob Hustead. He died last year at the age of 88. Bob was an art teacher for most of his life, and was the mentor of my Stepfather, John. Great man, he was.

Well, that's it for today, critique to your heart's content, or just glance and move on with life. Whatever you like.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Objective of the Imagination

Today's post is part of an ongoing debate between myself and my friend, Ted Stoltz. We had been debating by email, but its informality led to procrastination (mostly on my part). Ted suggested we take our arguments public so could make ourselves stick to a time table and get some real arguing done. This is better for both of us because you, the reader, get to put in your two cents. The format is that Ted posts on Mondays and I post on Fridays. We respond to particular arguments raised by the other person in 1,500 words or less. We carry on the debate as long as we care to do so. Ted went first on Monday, so this is my first post on the matter. Ted has already gotten more response than for any other post he's done, so this is shaping up to be an exciting and rousing discussion. If you're knowledgeable about art, then I ask you, put in comments. Please, chip in. And remember, this is not just visual art we're debating, but the entire foundation of imagination. So join us, as travelers on the road for truth. That is what any good debate is supposed to be.

My argument is that imagination is objective. I am convinced that we can have good ideas and bad ideas, good concepts of beauty and bad concepts of beauty, and that beauty is a universal we appeal to. I do not mean to limit imagination, only that our minds appeal to what is already good and beautiful and we are only rearranging parts rather than creating that which did not exist.

1. Not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.
2. Being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject.
3. Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

Ted's argument is that imagination is subjective:
1. Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
2. Pertaining to or characteristic of an individual.
3. Placing excessive emphasis on one's own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc.

I understand completely where Ted is coming from. When someone writes a book or makes a movie, we say it is "his vision," or "her creation." It is natural to attach such words to what we do. Our minds are very complex, and we are all unique individuals with our own quirks and idiosyncracies. We can conjure thoughts that seem to appear from nowhere.

That being said, we are all still humans. We have the same hardware and it works the same as the person next to you. This is why we can say someone has a short attention span or a high aptitude for concentration. It is why we can say someone has a chemical imbalance. We know that "normal" is not up to our whims, and we make comparisons against our knowledge of the objective truth for the sake of being able to function. If not for the objective, we'd be quivering masses unable to relate to the world. We couldn't tell what we're supposed to do in any given moment or know whether something is right or wrong. Sure, we can say we believe everything's subjective, but we sure don't function that way. And with no ability to share an experience of beauty with another human, we'd be pretty lonely creatures, too.

Let us define beauty: Beauty is commonly defined as a characteristic present in a person, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning or satisfaction to the mind or to the eyes, arising from sensory manifestations such as a shape, color, personality, sound, design or rhythm. At least, that's how the Wiki explains it.

Men find fertile women beautiful because we have a natural instinct to produce offspring. When we are attracted to that which is incapable of producing offspring, that is a problem, not diversity. If all men were conditioned to find infertile women attractive, that would be disastrous. When we tell ourselves that our instincts for curvaceous shapes are wrong, or at least subjective, our eyes may go to other things and cause us trouble. This situation is bad. We must say that. Do people have the right to be attracted to rotting corpses, animals, and inanimate objects? Sure, they can confuse whatever they like, but it's still a confusion and unhealthy. There are reasons why we find certain things beautiful. When we don't, that may indicate a problem. What we find beautiful has impacts and ramifications in all our life.

You write, "I’m not particularly fond of Albrecht Durer because I think his figures are somewhat stiff and lifeless, but there’s no denying the artfulness of his work." Right here you momentarily agree with me. You are saying that his work adheres to some objective standard of beauty or artfulness. I could say his figures exemplify motion and life, and there'd be no ability for debate between us if things were truly subjective. But Durer's figures are lifeless. If they weren't you'd be beating your fists in the air when you said that, and it would be a meaningless statement. His forms are a bit lifeless, and that detracts from their beauty. That doesn't mean his drawings don't adhere to a high standard of beauty, they do. It's just that there's room for improvement, which is only possible when there are objective standards, existing outside of ourselves.

You also write, "To say that no one’s standard of beauty is better or worse than anyone else’s might be a bit blithe—but to say that your standards of beauty are not the same as other standards of beauty found throughout the world is a fact. They are not the same." I agree. I do believe that art of other cultures, be they Russian, Japanese, or Indian, is very beautiful. But they all exist at the same level of beauty. They are merely different in style. I do say that there are people with poor conceptions of beauty, and I have no problem saying that. I believe Orson Welles had superior conceptions of beauty than Ed Wood, and Johann Sebastian Bach than John Cage. When we start debating the merits of Bach and Mozart, that's something else. I hate Mozart's music, I think it's repetitive. But it is beautiful. He had a genius for harmony and melody, even if his structure was a bit thin. But just because it's beautiful doesn't mean I have to like it. I don't fault people for liking Mozart, likes are subjective. But the fact that both composers elevated what they did to high level of beauty is not subjective, it's very objective. And we must be able to tell that. We must see their flaws, and understand them so we can grow.

Are there intellects as great as Mozart or Bach that existed in other cultures and wrote entirely different styles of music? Yes! But they knew about beauty, too, and knew that there are certain aspects to different types of consonances and dissonances that have particular effects on the listener. The Greeks knew this, and this is spelled out in Plato's The Republic. When listening to Indian sitar music, I find it relaxing. I should. If I found slow tempo sitar music to be the audio equivalent of caffeine, I'd be a messed up individual. I'd hate to think what would happen if I listened to Metallica.

I believe that if a culture does not revel in beauty, but rather ugliness, we are not obliged to say their standards of beauty are just as good as anyone else's. If an entire people says that watching others get tortured is beautiful we would rightly say they are depraved, not entitled to their own opinion. I use an extreme example, but it serves a purpose. If ugly becomes beautiful, and subjectiveness rules, then how can we make good art, or art at all? The dark means the same as the light, the rough as the smooth, the vast as the cramped, and so none give the impression they're supposed to. It is the objective that allows for diversity! When we call ugliness what it is, it can have the proper effect on us. When I say a tritone is ugly, that doesn't mean that it's not useful. It creates tension in a piece of music which heightens the sense of relaxation when it resolves to a consonance. But I do not call a tritone beautiful, though it leads to beauty. If I called it beauty, there would be no tension or resolution and a piece of music would go nowhere. It would not be interesting.

Also, our skill sharpens our sense for what is beautiful. A carpenter may see an untrue angle that I don't. Does that mean when I do see what he sees, the piece of furniture is less beautiful than it was before? No, it means that I am coming to recognize an objective quality that I didn't see. When I train my ears to hear out of tune notes, does that mean that I am removing beauty from what was beautiful? No, I am recognizing an imperfection and an error, and am conforming to an objective standard. Rather than this being constricting, this elevates my senses and I can enjoy things more than I ever have. Because my mind gets acclimated to what is without and external, it gets the "right" ideas.

The point is, all these qualities are imposed upon us from without, and don't emanate from within. If imagination were subjective, we'd be able to do literally anything, and I'd bet no two people would find the same things beautiful. The fact of the matter is, we make judgments, and we share interests. This, to me, points to an objective world of imagination from which we draw, rather than humans being the wellsprings for what is considered beautiful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Psalm 23

The LORD, the Psalmist’s Shepherd.

A Psalm of David.

1 The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The amazing thing is, the greatest book (or rather collection of books) is available online free of charge. It can be found in just about any hotel, and it's outsold every other book ever printed by such a wide margin, best seller lists assume it will be at the top from the get go. The words inside will surprise you, regardless of your preconceptions, I know it did for me. It's the Bible, of course. Pick it up, it will shock you. Start with the gospels, they're pretty radical.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Guitar Lesson 1

It's now time for that guitar lesson I promised. Let's start with the essentials. You will need:
1. Your guitar. For today's lesson, let's assume you have an electric or steel string acoustic. Nylon string classicals are a different metter, and I'll deal with them in a separate lesson.
2. A comfy chair. Find one with a back to it, you'll want to use that back.
3. If you don't own a metronome or a tuner, buy them as soon as you can.

First, let's deal with proper sitting position. Sit with you're butt in the crevace in the back of the chair. Don't waste any seat. Put your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Now, place the guitar on your right leg (left if you're a lefty) with the bend in the middle of the guitar body resting around your thigh. That's important, and needs stating, because I've seen people try to balance their guitar on the large round part near the bottom of the body. Now, place your right bicep on the top of the guitar (again, left for lefties) so the front edge of the guitar is placed in your elbow pit. You should be able to swing your arm freely over the face of the guitar. Now, to hold the pick, make a "thumbs up" sign with your picking hand. Place the pick point out (or side out if you like, but the point of the pick must be aimed down) and secure the pick with your index and middle fingertips. Grip the pick hard enough that it doesn't fly out of your hand, but not so hard that the pick can't move.

As for your fretting hand, let your arm droop by your side and release all muscle tension. Look at your hand, it will appear to be gently grabbing a palm sized ball. Keep your hand like this as you place it on the neck. Put the pad of your thumb on the back of the neck and keep your fingers rounded as they go to press on the strings. Keep your hand looking like this, don't grip the neck like a baseball bat. Your wrist should be straight, if your hand moves from this relaxed position, your wrist will bend more than it should. To play on the strings closest to your head, move your entire arm up the bring your fingers to the string. Then, to reach the strings closest to the floor, float your arm down, keeping your fingers in the same rounded shape. The rule is, keep the arm looking like it's hanging my your side: straight wrist, thumb opposing the fingers, fingers staying round and relaxed. I say "rule," but some peoples' hands do funny things. If you are incabable of having a perfect looking hand, don't sweat it. Lots of people have "improper" hands yet play well.

Now we're ready to play. Practice playing on any given string. Match which string you fret with which string you pick. Fret the string as close behind the fret as possible. This will ensure that you don't get any buzzing. Such placement isn't always possible, but we'll shoot for it as much as we can. Make sure you press on the string with the tip of your finger, and not the pad. Using the flat part of the finger is a differenct technique which we'll discuss later. As for your picking hand, strike the string in a circular fashion. Make a small O with your picking motion. You want to hit one string and not the strings around it. Once you've gotten the hang of that, try alternate picking, where you strike the string with upstrokes and downstrokes. When doing alternate picking, the motion is more like a V. You need to come down on the string like a fighter pilot descending on a target, only to come away once you've struck your goal. Then, do the same thing with your upstroke, and your motion will resemble that V mentioned earlier.

Once you've gotten comfortable with how your hands are moving around on the guitar, it's time to start playing some real music. Take your fretting hand and place it on the neck. Put your first finger (index) on string one (the closest to the floor), fret one (the farthest one from the body, next to the tuners). This is the note, F. Now, put finger 3 (ring) on fret 3 , same string. This note is G. Now, play the open string. That's E. We call it the high E becaues the open 6th string (closest one to your head) is also an E, but is a much lower pitch. Now that you know E, F, and G, you can perform the following little exercise:

Try to keep all the notes on a constant beat, the point is to switch between notes smoothly and in rhythm.

Ok, that's enough for today, next time we'll work a bit on some new strings and find some sheetmusic we can look at, ok? Have a blessed day!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More writing exercises

It's time for another writing exercise! This time, I was planning to write the first paragraph of a story about those triplet aliens I posted about a few days back. As I started to write, I realized that I was running out of words to describe intelligent beings. I was unable to go on, not wanting to rewrite the first two sentences for the sake of one word, when I realized my difficulty over one word could be the story itself. The exercise I made for myself has many goals:
1. Better blocking around the dialogue. Allowing the dialogue to flow naturally without awkward breaks that wouldn't exist in real life. If there is a large section of blocking between dialogue, it must be due to a silence on the part of the characters.
2. Better dialogue.
3. A perfect level of backstory. Not too much, not too little.
4. Leaving just the right amount to imagination of the reader. I don't have to describe every little detail about how the characters act or what their surroundings look like, I just have to hint at them and let the reader's brain take over without giving them any false images.
5. Being subtle about the characters' setting, not coming right out and say it. You should be able to figure out when and where this takes place very easily, maybe a little too easily.
6. Clever description without being heavy handed.
7. Telling a story from the perspective of one character without describing things he would have no way of knowing.
8. Having my facts correct. I hate it when I watch movies that feature easy to check upon mistakes like V8 sounds for a car that has an V6, period films that feature guitars yet to be introduced. Both those mistakes were featured in Back to The Future. To be fair, the added a V8 sound for the Delorean because it sounded way cooler than the pathetic Volvo V6 the car featured. Still, it's a mistake, and they should have explained some sort of engine transplant.
So, without further ado, I give my short story beginning.

The Triplets of Mr. Penfold

The creatures of this universe take for granted that they are what they are. Even when a being of a given species wonders what it would be like to have just a few of the unique qualities of another...

I froze as I typed that last sentence. "Shi..."

"Hold it, unless you want another 10 pence to go in the swear jar." My wife scowled at me from the top basement step.

"I can't find another word for 'species.' Just be quiet a moment and let me think."

My hands hovered above the keyboard, waiting for commands from my brain they weren't receiving. I furrowed my brow and stared at my withered digits as if that would move them into action. My wife had owl's ears and could detect a half swear word from 200 paces. It annoyed me because cursing helped me think. Still, when she poked her head from behind the basement door, she became adept at forcing her gaze through my skull and out the other side like an awl. My desire for profanity was no match. Besides, half my income was going into that blasted swear jar.

My wife stood silent at the door, but continued her piercing stare into my frontal lobe. At last, she became exasperated. "Well, if you can't think of a word, look in the thesaurus," she said as she headed back down the stairs.

"I've looked in the bloody thesaurus, and there are only three words that fit." I threw my hands in the air. "I've already used them and I can't put the same word twice in the first two sentences of a novel. People will flip it shut and save it to use as tissues."

"Then rewrite the thing. You've done twelve books in your life, you should know what to do by now," her voice receded into recesses of the basement, "and that's 10 pence for the swear jar."

"For what? 'Bloody?'"

"20 pence."

I sat back in my creaky chair, the typewriter looking dejected as I failed to think of more words to write with it. My lungs forced out raspy sigh and I reached for another cigar. It was my fourth one since I sat down to write. Under normal circumstances, my fingers whisked over the keys of my friend, the black Oliver No. 15 that rested on my flamed mahogany desk. I would lean into the machine, like a bicyclist racing to the top of a hill, forcing onwards through a mass of thick words, only to fly down a series of simple blocking descriptions or cheap dialogue. Today, however, was different. My cigar clung to my lip as I pulled it away, unlit.

I was writing a story about another world. A planet far beyond our most powerful telescopes. Tales of other worlds teeming with life are no new fad. C.S. Lewis introduced Out of the Silent Planet 19 years ago, and H.G. Wells wrote his War of the Worlds 59 years ago. I wanted something a bit different from those established books, however. The dominant beings on my ficticious planet have a curious difference from ourselves. Every female gives birth to identical triplets. These triplets are all the same sex, and remain together their entire lives. They look no different from you or I, but each of the triplets are limited to specific functions within the unit. One is the breadwinner, it does all the hard work earning for the sake of the household. The next is the procreator, the one responsible for bringing forth more of its kind and rearing the resultant children to adulthood. The final triplet is the one who lives life for the other two; traveling, pursuing hobbies, creating art. When these creatures marry, they marry another set of triplets, ending up with six people per home. Each couple performs their tasks, whichever role they've been assigned by nature, never complaining or thinking it odd.

My story concerns a particular couple who gives birth to a single child. An unprecedented event in my world, to be sure. This sole child has characteristics of all three of the triplets it was supposed to be. It can procreate, perform laborious tasks, and even understand a work of art. My world breaks into a massive upheaval, with many decrying this aberration as an omen for the end of their world, while others see it as a sign of a new beginning. But that's where my idea ends. I don't know how to finish the story. Not that I'm facing that problem at the moment, thanks to the English language running out of suitable words for my first two sentences. I scowled at my old friend, the Oliver typewriter, frustrated beyond what I'd ever felt when writing.

"Bah," I stepped over to the basement door, yanking my coat off the antique rack, "I'm going for a walk."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Remember when cartoons were cool?

I love cartoons. In case you haven't read any of my previous blog entries, I wanted to make sure you knew that. Recently, I've been spending a lot of time over at the blog of animator, John Kricfalusi. I used to be skeptical about a lot of Kricfalusi's claims of what makes animation appealing. I felt, because I tend to focus on writing and verbal gags rather than visual ones, that overly cartoony animation was distracting. After reading Kricfalusi's blog on animation, I've done a reversal. I've tried to look for the concepts he talks about in the cartoons I watch, and it's striking to realize just how right he is about so much. Genuine cartooniness from masters such as Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett enhance the story rather than take away from it. All elements must blend and balance, both the visual and the auditory.

That's not to say I don't still love well written but poorly animated cartoons, it's just that now I'm beginning to recognize the gap that exists when the animation is seen only as a medium for the characters mouths to spout dialogue. Why shouldn't the cartoon be pleasing to look at? Moreover, why shouldn't it reflect the talents, even geniuses, of those who animate the cartoons?

Why not take the concepts that make an acknowledged masterpiece, like Botticelli's The Adoration of the Magi, and place them into a cartoon? The Adoration of the Magi is a wonderful example of balance, geometrical in its design without being blocky and inorganic. The soft triangles that the crowd forms point toward, and exentuate, the baby Christ and the Virgin Mary. The shapes aren't immediately recognized, but are subtle, subconscious arrows pointing toward the focus of the painting. It is breathtaking. Also, the shapes are not perfect and symmetrical. They bend, they flow, like organic structures should. The basic principles of composition structure of this painting could be used in the background of a cartoon. Why not? The shot may only last for three seconds, but an image that draws viewers into the animated world is worth the effort. It's far better than staring at arbitrarily placed objects that have nothing to do with each other.

So, for you animators out there, it may be worth checking out John Kricfalusi's blog. I'm not much of a drawer myself, but I want to be able to recognize good art when I see it. Voice over is my game, but the underlying principles of balance, forethought, and organicness (is that a word?) still apply. I urge you, look at John K's examples, read over his manual on Background Art, listen to his ideas. If you disagree with Kricfalusi, you'll at least find ammo for your arguments. Either way, you'll come out knowing more than you did.

Also, I'm adding the link to his blog on my links page. Easy access! Whee!

By the way, I'm going to start posting bits of guitar lesson type junk on the blog. What's the point of a guitar degree if I'm not going to share what I've learned? That's right, no point at all. Besides, it will force me to practice more. And by more, I mean at all.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The weirdness that is my brain.

Time is precious. Very precious. So precious it is, that we are each given a very small portion of it, yet must work and work to do make some sort of important contribution within the unknown fractional amount we have. I, on the other hand, have decided, apparently, that I will "credit" my time to the future.

Let me explain.

When I feel I have something important to do, I want lots of uninterrupted time in which to do it. I plan on taking this time at some future date, let's call this date "Wednesday," when I have no guitar lessons or meetings that I have to go to. What ends up happening is I get 1/50th of the work done I wanted, get annoyed with myself, and tell myself that I'll work extra hard the next day. In other words, "Thursday." When I wake up Thursday, I take forever to 1. Get out of bed, 2. Shower, 3. Eat breakfast, 4. Read the Bible and have a time of prayer (this is actually one of those things that ends up getting scrunched to the end of the day when I have the consciousness of a narcoleptic Kiwi bird). By the time I'm ready to start on my project, it's time for me to go give a guitar lesson. My students won't show up, yet I will have wasted my time with two 45 minute car trips and nearly an hour of sitting in an office. Upon returning home, I'm tired from doing stuff, but I've accomplished no real work. All the sacrifice without the benefits.

Now, this diatribe is a million miles from where this article was supposed to start, being all ill-formed in my brain and whatnot, so let me get on track.

The other day, I was at Red Lobster with a couple friends of mine. We'll call them "Joey" and "Mike." Which are their real names, so it's convenient. We were having many discussions about rather random topics, such as movies, when we started talking about clones. It was an innocent enough topic, but it started my neurons a firin' (hence the title of the article today).

I started thinking about the strangeness of our universe and the many different creatures that may exist way out in the cosmos. I remembered the movie, Multiplicity, starring Michael Keaton and Andie Macdowell. The movie featured Michael Keaton as himself and his three clones, each representing a different part of his personality. Neat enough concept, taking advantage of the "clones in movies" craze about ten years ago. But I wonder if this concept couldn't be taken further.

Let's say we go to some alien planet far beyond any star we've yet seen. The dominant species on this planet has a peculiar trait. Whenever a female is pregnant, she gives birth to identical triplets, all of the same sex (male or female, no two boys and girl mixes or anything). The triplets stay together all their lives (in terms of proximity, not physical attachment) each performing a different function within the family. One of the triplets would be the worker, whether it means earning money or raising the family. The next would be the reproducer, the one that passes down the genes to the next generation. The last one would be the recreational triplet, going out and experiencing life. When these creatures get married, they would stay together as triplets. In other words, triplet brothers would all marry a set of triplet sisters, and would live in the same house and share the same meals, everything. Perhaps they could share memories somehow, some sort of cord that they would attach to each other to share the experiences.

I would like to see what would happen when a mother would give give birth to a single child that had the traits of a standard set of triplets, three in one. How would his society react to such a person? He would be complete in every way, yet might be more limited because he has to do everything himself. How would he live?

So, you see, the moral of this article is that I spend lots of time thinking about the world and the basic premise of stories, but I never get to the nitty gritty of writing them. Kinda sucks.