Jan 1 2015

Coming Soon: the MadCast

Happy New Year! I have now been blogging for 6 years, though I haven’t been really that active this last year. Anyhoo, coming to MadMania starting this month will be a new feature, a monthly / biweekly podcast about design and storytelling, and maybe some other stuff.

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Apr 23 2014

Quotable: Dan Harmon on storytelling

“sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”

via St. Eutychus

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Apr 19 2013

VBS Development Diary #11: Act 3

This week marked 4 months since we started working on this year’s VBS. Typically at the 4 month mark we are getting ready to perform, but we haven’t even created any props, sets, or costumes, and haven’t rehearsed a line. In fact, the performers don’t even have the script yet.

The reason is this: despite a good plot and a good first draft, the script wasn’t really that great. It didn’t stink–but when I finished the story, even as the writer, I felt kind of let down. Not quite end-of-a-Michael-Crichton-novel kind of let down (I’m looking at you, Sphere), but definitely underwhelmed.

So by mid February I knew the final act needed some work. The problem is, the last night has a lot of action, and I kind of stink at writing action scenes–I’m more of a story-and-dialogue guy. The funny thing is I’ve been listening to a podcast about screenwriting, and both screenwriters on the show mentioned that they hate writing action scenes as well. So I knew it was going to take some focused time and attention, which is always hard to come by.

Then the last two weeks of February blizzards hit mid-Missouri and I got three free snow days from work. Now, how to do this? Thankfully, I still have about a bazillion action figures–some I’ve had since I was a kid. Allison and I busted out the WWE wrestling ring playset, assorted G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Total Justice, and Lord of the Rings figures, as well as a tub of Jenga blocks.

We set up the Jenga blocks to roughly simulate the set for the last night’s action scenes, then placed the figures roughly where they would start. Then we basically played with action figures until we worked out the placement of the actors and how they would interact, then performed the scene while describing what was going on and filmed it with the iPhone. Within probably 90 minutes we had solved our last night’s plot problems and worked out all of the action scenes.

It was a good thing we filmed them, too. When I finally sat down last week to transcribe the voice notes from those video storyboards, I realized that I had forgotten almost everything we had recorded–I guess my brain didn’t feel the need to remember since we had filmed them. I wrote the first of three action scenes the other day.

The reason I am spending all of this time when I already had a finished script in hand is that there is no fix for a bad script. You’ve probably seen movies that tried to compensate for a bad script with special effects, sex, or explosions, and in the end, it was just a sexed-up, impressive-looking, explosion-filled bad story.

There’s no fix for bad writing other than good writing. Hopefully the extra effort will in fact prove to be an improvement.

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Mar 7 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #10: Gospel vs. Blues

Both gospel and blues are musical traditions rooted in the American South, both are based in tragedy, pain, and misery. But the difference between gospel and blues is that the gospel offers hope. The very nature of the blues is that there is no hope. Your heart is broke, you’re probably going to die from it–and then things will get worse. Don’t matter whether it’s deserved or not, the point is that it stinks–and there’s nothing you can do about it.

It is completely true–I totally borrowed a plot element from a major motion picture for my VBS. The key difference is that the motion picture is a blues song. The character in the movie never changes–she begins selfish, everything she does is selfish, and the very last thing she does–committing suicide–is still selfish. There is no hope. To quote an oft-forwarded email, “The Blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch; ain’t no way out.”

In my story there is hope–and change. Our protagonist does change–certainly beginning selfish, but becoming different. The funny thing is that for years I wanted to write an Iron Man kind of story–a selfish jerk goes through some really bad things and comes out on the other side different–better different–than he was before. But I never could seem to get it right; the scripts ended up morphing into something else. But this year I have inadvertently written that story.

From a storytelling perspective you want to see that change. If the character is the same in the first act as he is in the third act, then what was the point of this story? If Tony Stark is the same after becoming Iron Man as he was before he became Iron Man, the movie would be a failure (I’m looking at you, Jumper).

From a teaching standpoint you want to communicate that there is hope. If I fail to communicate that, then why did I write this VBS? If my only success is as a storyteller, then I have failed, because I missed the point of telling the story.

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Feb 26 2013

Mustache Twirler

The villain in a story who is evil for no other reason than that he is a villain.

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Jan 4 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #1

Every year since 2004* I either write or co-write the script for the skits that we use in our church’s vacation Bible school, as well as acting, directing / co-directing, designing the logo, and creating and/or supervising the production of the sets, props, and costumes.

It can be massively rewarding, and a ton of fun. However, while it is rewarding, it is also a lot of work—about six to eight hours of organized work on set building and rehearsal per week for six weeks, then  a couple of Saturday practices, besides what I do at home writing, editing and designing. When you get through you are completely exhausted: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

And so I was thinking about bowing out this year. I thought about bowing out for VBS 2013 before VBS 2012 was even over.

December 2 the girls and I watched Hoodwinked with the writer and director commentary. I’d seen the movie a dozen times, and listened to the commentary once before, and it was still awesome hearing it again. After the movie we were sitting there discussing the commentary, the movie, and the nature of good movies and good storytelling in general.

“Lemme bounce an idea off of ya,” I told them. I kind of gave them an idea of what had been rolling around in my head. I hate to even call it an idea it was so vague; more like one of those ‘headaches with pictures,’ as Fry would say.

Less than an hour later the three of us had developed and recorded the entire plot for VBS 2013.

 

* We didn’t do a VBS 2007-2008

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Feb 11 2012

Quotable: Brad Bird

In the February 2007 Spline Cast, Spline Doctors Andrew Gordon and Adam Bergen interviewed Brad Bird, where they posed this question:

SD: On that kind of same path, what is it that separates good CG animation from absolutely amazing CG animation, in your opinion?

BB: Well, you know, are we staying purely on the topic of animation, or are we talkin’ about films?

SD: Um, you know, like, where mostly I think animation students are going to listening to this.

BB: Okay, so I won’t say the top five things, which is story, story, story, story, and storytelling. There’s also storytelling. And story. And storytelling. And story. And telling the story well. And story.

 

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