Feb 12 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #9: Chinese Language

As part of my ankle-deep immersion for his VBS I have been learning Chinese. I am using a number of apps, but mostly I am listening to podcasts from ChineseClass101.com. The podcasts are great for picking up the language and they have lots of notes about the culture, but they will email you incessantly, and you should really be careful about what paid options you are actually paying for and/or what options they will auto-renew your account for without telling you.

Contrary to what I expected, Chinese is pretty easy to learn so far–especially compared to Welsh, in my opinion.

The sentence structure, at least for the simple sentences I have learned is similar to English–subject, verb, object. Declarative statements become interrogative questions with the addition of a particle at the end of the sentence. The greatest thing–no conjugating verbs–verbs have only one form.

I can’t read a single character (besides the one for ‘middle’, but I can hear, identify, and speak several words and make a few simple sentences.

The hardest part? Probably learning the tones. According to the instructors there are only about 400 sound combinations in Chinese. However, there are 4 or 5 tones, and changing the tone changes the word, whereas in English changing the tone gives some auditory cues as to the intended meaning, or maybe whether the word or sentence is meant as a statement of a question.

I’m enjoying it a lot, and maybe eventually (after smatterings of French, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, and Greek) I could attain bilingual status.

Right now, I still just know enough to get me in trouble.

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Jan 27 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #8: Logo


This is a pretty graphic-heavy post.

When I first start working on a logo, I trial several fonts in Linotype FontExplorer, then I try them out  in Illustrator to see which ones I like best, looking for things like readability, tone, and flavor. This lets me see which fonts I might want:

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—as well as ones I absolutely don’t want—specifically fonts that have that cheezy, clichéd ‘rikki tikki’ Chinese feel to them:

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Once I have selected a few possibilities, I make a text box with the title in Adobe Illustrator and then copy it about a dozen times, then apply the different fonts to the text.

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My first logo concept, like almost all first logo concepts, stunk. It looked like a very boring book:

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Going back to the desk I decided on my favorite font: KingThings Conundrum. It looks amazing, just like it was drawn with a Chinese calligraphy brush.

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However, it has a major problem: it’s not very readable. First I converted the font to outlines so that Illustrator sees it as a series of objects instead of type. My next step was to clean it up, getting rid of most of the ornaments:

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And here is the font all cleaned up. Notice something, however: the kerning. My friend Brenton taught me to use Illustrator. Back when I was first learning to use it, one of the first things he taught me was one of those tricks that separates the noobs from the pros–-kerning.

Kerning is the horizontal space between the letters. Notice how the spacing between the letters is uneven and crummy looking. The vertical space between the lines of letters called leading (pronounced LED-ing), is pretty bad too.

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Now you can see the comparison between the cleaned up version and the original unkerned, unleaded, unreadable font.

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I have applied a stroke effect to the letters to look for any problems. Notice on the crook of the L part of the stroke has not applied, meaning I have a break in the shape of the letter.

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When I apply the stroke, I actually group the entire logo, copy it, and then past it behind, then apply the stroke to the behind-most copy. Below you can see how it looks when composited, next you can see the unstroked copy, and then the copy with the stroke applied.

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There are still some tweaks to do. As you can see below, the default corner type looks kind of lame on certain points. You can adjust them to be sharper or more blunt, but in the end I just went with a rounded corner.

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I wanted to go with a gradient for this logo (I usually don’t) to give it more of an action/adventure feel. However, it still looks kind of flat, so I applied a thin, bright stroke to the front-most objects, which really made it pop out more:

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Next I made a  drop shadow behind the logo by making a copy, pasting it behind the original, filling it with black, and shrinking it by ~2%.

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I decided to bring back my kind of Chinese brushstroke mantis from my early design, to give kind kind of an ominous shadow to our heroic logo.

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I also wanted to incorporate some sword iconography, since it’s the story’s MacGuffin.

The mantis and the sword are just lines with a brush effect applied. You can see them below, as well as a box with a few more brush-effect lines added.

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And here is the completed logo with bonus background (OK, so it’s not totally complete–the Chinese inside the green ribbons is just placeholder text):

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Jan 15 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #7: Title

It can be tough picking a good title. You want something that communicates the overall theme of your production, and it needs to be able to reach kids who have only been reading for a year. Plus, while you, as the writer and director, have been steeping yourself in Chinese food, language, culture, and movies, your audience likely has not. You might think the title Enter the Legend of the Savage Iron Monkey Fist is hilarious—and it is—but the kids, their parents, and even your fellow workers aren’t going to get it.

It also needs to communicate the right tone. Enter the Dragon has quite a different tone than Kung Fu Hustle. When I first started on this year’s VBS I liked the title Curse of the Black Mantis. However, the focus was all wrong in what it told the audience. I made a list of words in every kung fu movie title, and tried them out against words and names in my VBS:

Shadow
Saga
Wind
Mantis
Legend
Drunken
Fist
Sword
Fierce
Savage
Death
Dragon
Bamboo
Jade Wind, Black Mantis
Shadow/Legend of the Jade Wind
Wrath/Fury of the Black Mantis
Shadow of the Black Mantis

I eventually settled on Legend of the Jade Wind, which I felt said everything I wanted to about the skit.

Once you have a title, you can proceed to logo design.

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Jan 11 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #5: Music

For the past two years Rahne has composed the theme music. For Law of the West, our wild west VBS, I was looking for music that would fit in with a John Ford / John Wayne / Roy Rogers good guy kind of western—not a spaghetti western. When she was working on it, we listened to a lot of music from classic westerns—both what I wanted and what I didn’t want.

The best example of what I didn’t want for our VBS, despite my love for the music, was the theme from For a Few Dollars More. Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme really conveyed the grit and dirt and decay and moral landscape from the movie perfectly—it just didn’t suit the tone of our Bible school skit.

We listened to a number of good pieces, including Red River and Silverado, but the best example of what we did want was Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven. It wasn’t that I wanted, ‘Hey, can you rip of The Magnificent Seven, without sounding like you ripped off The Magnificent Seven? What I did want was something that, like The Magnificent Seven, conveyed a sense of good, morality, heroism, and triumph.  A wild west where men are men, women are women, and good guys wear white hats and never cheat or shoot anyone in the back.

And I think she nailed it. When she composed her first theme song in 2011 for Adventure on the High Seas, our pirate themed VBS, her music definitely sounded nice and piratey, but the overall composition was fairly rudimentary. Last year’s theme was more of an overture with four distinct movements, with the fourth movement a variation of the first.

Again, we have spent a lot of time listening to music. We have found some decent traditional music, as well as a lot of stuff that sounds more suited for a Chinese restaurant. One shining star however is Tan Dun, composer for Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A couple of weeks ago Rahne, Elsa, and I had kind of a jam session–both of the girls on piano and me on djembe drum and pennywhistle. Last Wednesday Rahne and Amelia got together to go over it some more with Rahne on piano and Amelia on violin.

We aren’t there yet, but the music is getting there. I am looking into buying an erhu, aka Chinese fiddle, so that we can get a more authentic sound once composition is complete.

 

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Jan 9 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #4: Immersion

Whenever I start work on a new VBS, I try to immerse myself in in the theme, especially if I feel I am not sufficiently familiar with it to do it justice. Last year when working on our Wild West themed VBS we watched a lot of westerns. Not just any westerns–since we were going for more of a classic, white hat, western we watched a lot of Roy Rogers and an old John Wayne movie where he and a couple other cowboys wore tall hats and big scarves. One of the cowboys was nicknamed ‘Lullaby.’ No-one got hurt on-screen, but in the course of the story an old man and a little girl got killed in a wagon wreck.

This year in order to get a better flavor for he story we want to communicate I have been immersing myself in Chinese culture: I’ve watched a lot of kung fu / wuxia movies, I’m learning to eat with chopsticks, watching documentaries about China, and looked at hundreds of pictures of clothing, hairstyles, armor, architecture, and the Chinese countryside. I’ve also tried to look up some cultural taboos to watch for.

I don’t have any illusions of becoming Ang Lee before August, but I at least don’t want to make something offensive to Chinese people and/or do a sloppy job for having based a VBS story on what i have learned from American pop culture.

I’m really enjoying it. I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies (Butterfly Swords, World of Drunken Master), discovered a couple of excellent ones (Red Cliff, Little Big Soldier), and seen a couple that were kind of a mixed bag (House of Flying Daggers, Wing Chun).

Anyway, one day I discovered wushu, a Chinese sport derived from martial arts. I was watching a video describing the different styles, and saw an athlete perform a demonstration of Drunken Style Kung Fu, and it gave me an idea. I changed the master tinkerer/archer to a swordsman, gave him a motivation, and came up with a character that I believe will be both interesting and humorous.

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Jan 8 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #3: Refinement

The story and script are constantly refined through every stage of the process. The greatest refinements are earliest in the process, and the finer ones later–providing no glaring story problems are discovered.

When we first plotted this story we had three villains, each with specific attributes. I had an idea for one of the bad guys to be kind of a really intelligent, master tinkerer who had made his own clockwork/steampunk armor/exoskeleton, kind of an ancient China version of a cross between Iron Man and Kroenen from Hellboy (wihout the massive crewpy factor). Then we played around with him being a master archer, armed with a drum-equipped repeating crossbow.

However, the character wasn’t so much a character as he was a gimmick–he had no personality, no motivation, and he wasn’t interesting at all.

Then, immersion made an impact.

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Jan 5 2013

VBS 2013 Development Diary: #2: The Joke

It was Sherry’s idea to do our VBS themes on a five-year rotation, that way we would only have to write five skits, develop five sets, and 5 sets of materials. And since VBS is aimed at 1st through 6th grades, the most you (as a kid) would ever see the same skit would be twice—five years apart. Brilliant!

So last year we were in the middle of set construction and rehearsals for Vacation Bible School 2012, Law of the West, and I was standing around talking to Brock and Jake. Someone brought up what we were going to do for VBS 2013, which would be our fifth year. We had already done some of the great, classic, storytelling themes: pirates,cowboys, knights, and jungle adventurers. We just needed a fifth theme.

Some of us had previously mentioned maybe doing a Sherlock Holmes style mystery. I said we should do a kung-fu movie theme. We cracked a few jokes and had a few laughs and then got back to work.

I was completely kidding, of course. What a dumb idea. A kung fu movie. How would we do it? What possible story would we tell?

But for some reason I never forgot it….

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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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Jun 26 2012

Quotable: Ernest Hemingway

“Write drunk, edit sober.”

I had to learn this one from my daughter. Not that she drinks–that I know of–but the other night while I was up late working on the script for Vacation Bible School, I was typing so fast because my brain was firing ideas faster than I could record them, and I kept slowing down my own writing by trying to correct spelling and other minor details. She leveled Hemingway at me to keep me on task to finish writing.

Alcohol or not, the point is: write while you feel like writing and while you have the ideas coming. You can always go back and edit when you aren’t feeling particularly creative.

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Aug 26 2010

VBS Hangover

A friend of mine coined this term to describe the fatigue experienced by those church members that worked Vacation Bible School and which contributed to their tardiness the following Sunday morning.

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