Monday, August 29, 2011


Mediocre - of only ordinary or moderate quality; barely adequate.
                        -Websters Dictionary

The subject of mediocrity recently rose it's mediocre head while I was driving in L.A. I was noticing all of the late model cars, SUV's, Crossovers etc. etc.  I was daydreaming slightly, wondering what kind of vehicle I would buy if I decided to trade in the old Ford Explorer with over 200,000 miles on it.  I came to a conclusion after a few blocks.

All the cars look the same. All the SUVs look the same. All the cross-overs look the same. 

When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my dad used to play a game with me when we were driving. Since I didn't have an iPod or DVD player, this being the late 50's, I had only my imagination. Our game was simply "what kind of car is that coming up to us?"

The first one to identify an oncoming car was the winner. One of us had to shout out "Ford", or "Chevy" and so on. At this point I'm sure half of you have left my blog to check your apps, but hang around. The thing was that every car had it's own distinctive shape and design and they had bright colors. Look around today, sometimes it seems every car is white, black, gray or silver. 

The point of this in today's language is that you can't really identify most vehicles approaching because they do look the same. My friends ask me when I will let the Explorer go but I plan to keep it. My inspiration is a man from the eastcoast who bought a Volvo in 1961 and has accumulated 2.1 million miles on it and is still driving.

At 201,200 miles I have a way to go.

And that 1968 Fastback Mustang above was my 2nd car.

But mediocrity isn't just about cars. I began to realize it's around us in almost everyway. Apple launches the iPad and within a year every other company capable has an imitation that looks the same. 

Clothing now for twenty-somethings doesn't reflect anything but a lack of imagination for a specific look, rather a collection of mediocrity. The 1920's had a radical change, as did the 1940's, the 1950's and certainly the 1960's. Give a mention to disco days and after that styles seemed to get mixed up with each other.

One of the creators of 100 channel cable and satellite services (now up to 200 channels or so) said that when he and his partners were creating the superchannel lineup at a time when most people had maybe 5 to 20 channels, they felt they were creating a radical new medium.

But after 10 years he realized what they really did create. In his own words; mediocrity.

Music is another example. In the mid 60's a whole new generation came of age (yeah, me too), much of the music was pure, meaning it wasn't really a copy of anything. In the book Laurel Canyon, by Michael Walker he brings up the point that people like Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Steve Stills, Neil Young, John Phillips and many others were singing a completely new style of music. Their own.

Nash says that they would just write songs and release them and some worked, some didn't. Today when one singer has a hit song, the record companies immediately send out scouts to find a dozen other singers who look like, and sing like the one with a hit song.

I still think most of the younger female singers all sound like Maria Carey.

And going back to cable TV, while the creators hoped for exciting and brilliant broadcasting and niche audiences, what resulted was the showing of older TV shows over and over again. At one time you could watch 4 or 4 Seinfelds on the same night.

One could argue that this was going on during the 60's and 70's but with 5 channels in Detroit/Windsor nobody played repeats because they didn't have any. You could see I Love Lucy however, which is still playing.

And of course, getting back to movies, all you have to do is to see the remakes Hollywood has put out, some successful like Rise of the Apes and some flops like the new Conan. With Knocked Up, came another series of copycats, some good, some bad.  And titles seemed derivative or at the best, lame.

So what's the answer? Are we living in mediocrity?

You can take your lead by reading about The Singularity, which relates to quantum physics and the rapid development of computers and, ultimately robots as smart or smarter than us. It's a theory that suggests technology is moving faster and faster and teens today will be left behind by technology by their early 30's and even their kids won't be able to catch up.

Quantum physicists like Miciho Kaku suggests there are three consequences of The Singularity; one is that robots take over like Terminator and destroy us, secondly the world will be a perfect dream place where all is wonderful for humans, and the third is that everything stays the same as now.

So there you go - identifying cars to Terminator. And here's my favorite car, it was a 1968 Ford Mustang that I bought for $1700 in 1969.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What "they" are looking for among other things

There are now at least a dozen websites that can help the aspiring screenwriter write a box-office blockbuster. All that is needed is either Screenwriter or Final Draft softwares. Oh, and the guidance of sure-fire screenwriting gurus to guide you.

For a fee, of course. 

How about this one: 21 Steps to a Powerful Rewrite.

With these steps you can:

1. Triple the quality of your screenplay.
2. Cause you to win contests.
3. Attract producers to your writing.

With promises like that, especially implying that this will happen, who wouldn't attend. And there's no charge* (asterick as written in the ad). But it's limited to only 100 callers. All you pay is long distance fees.

Yes, this is a "tele-seminar".

As you remember, I actually did teach screenwriting for UCLA extension classes for just over 2 years. Eventually I left because it was taking too much of my time for very little money as well as I was burned out from the amount of work I did for the students. I taught an on-line course with people from all over the USA, Canada and even Europe.

The biggest difference between onsite (which I did once) and online, is that the online teacher is always accessible. Day or night. It become more than a part-time job to me as I seriously cared about what I taught and how it was received.

And the one thing I learned from it all was this; I can show you how to write a screenplay but I can't show you how to write a great screenplay. For one good reason.

That part has to come from you. 

And most aspiring writers don't have it. And they likely never will. There is no shortcut to writing, you have to write. And write and write. You wouldn't believe the amount of students I had whose dream was to write one blockbuster then go off to be a dentist or supermarket manager. Really.

Am I bursting someone's dream?

Maybe, but I'm being real. Writers write, simple as that.

I took a week-end course once with Robert McKee, arguably the most noted screenplay guru along with Syd Field. He was very entertaining and had just enough rough edges that made the audience swoon. Everything he said made sense, it seemed so logical. As I left, everyone was buzzing about how brilliant he was and how it all seemed so easy.

But on Monday, all alone in my home office, it all dissolved into two things; me and that damn screen. An empty screen waiting for words to appear. And all the advice from McKee seemed to feel like a great movie you watched and after a few days, made you smile. It wasn't instruction - it was entertainment. And he's brilliant at it.

But it didn't help me write.

I had to resort to the usual thing; feel guilt until I forced myself to write. And since I had been doing this for years, I knew that I would do it even if it was guilt that forced me to write.

I'm sure these gurus can help some people, but it's ironic that almost all of them have never sold a screenplay. Isn't that like someone teaching you to fly who never has flown alone themselves?

One thing I did notice was that when I taught at UCLA, the majority of students signed up for my class because I had a dozen or more credits in features and episodic. And again, if you look at the instructors at UCLA, you will find very few who are still working, someone said you should never put a UCLA extension credit on your resume, it suggests your career is over. My agent even refused to put the credit on my credit list.

And of course, I mean this in the nicest way.

The last time I did a course at UCLA it was for "the Rewrite" and I had 15 students with screenplays anywhere from 70 to 150 pages. Try writing 5-8 pages of notes for that many people in a week!

I did that. And it was soon apparent this was a full-time job. All for $180 wk. And when I and a few other writers suggested the school cut the numbers back they said that was a great idea but not possible. Just remind the students to take the next class next semester.

If you're contemplating one of those screenwriter guru's course, by all means take it. You might learn a few things and you might not. But I'm sure they're all fun, lots of jokes, lots of fundamentalist-type speeches that might even inspire you.

Just keep in  mind that when you write, you won't be in a crowd enjoying some entertainment a little bit of inspiration. If you get that much, it'll be worth it.

And I don't know what a "tele-seminar" is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The digital state of things - what you want or what they want.

I missed my Thursday blog due to the ongoing conflicts between my Mac computer and Final Cut Pro,  an editing software that cost around $1200 and was intended as an upstart "affordable" software to do battle with the gorilla in the room, namely Avid, which has been a standard in digital editing for years.

I started editing on FCP about ten years ago and it took me a good 2 years to really become comfortable with it. You might ask why film editing for a writer and sometimes director and/or producer?

I started out in editing, got a job at a TV station and I cut in 16mm commercials into the late movies for the station. In addition I worked in TV news, first as a soundman and then later as a news cameraman on the streets. I also edited news stories.

Somewhere afterwards I began to write, produce and direct commercials and corporate films and finally filmed, along with my partner Phil Borsos,  a short film called Cooperage, about a barrel factory that won several international awards and was a finalist for the 1976 Academy Awards.

Then came my first feature, Ghostkeeper, followed by my moving to USA in 1990 and a reasonably good list of screenwriting credits.

And then, with digital video, came home editing and this changed my life once again. I didn't care for the amateur systems and since I got comp classes at UCLA while I taught extension classes there, I took several FCP classes with DV (digital video).

What it gave me was a whole new world of creativity, because now I could shoot and edit a complete documentary or short film all by myself. Gone were film costs, lab costs, post production costs.  I could do it all on a Mac. (Incidentally 90% of what I do is on PC). As I write this I am finishing a documentary I shot on Highway 50 in Nevada, dubbed the "loneliest highway in America". In fact the highway image at the top of the blog is a still from my Hwy 50 doc. 

I also shot and edited a 45 minute doc on my home town's 100th anniversary and sold over 200 copies at $20 each.

Then came High Definition.

I held out for years but in the last 3 weeks, I was dragged into the HD world whether I wanted to or not. Which brings me to the title of this blog.

The digital world gives sharp and clear pictures. But getting something finished isn't always easy. It's a world of codecs and formats and conflicts between the edit system and the information found in HD. There are a hell of a lot more 1's & O's than DV and a lot more problems.

Going back to flatbed film edit systems, all that you needed to know was that you flipped a switch ahead or back and the film would go in that direction. The only technical part came if the machines broke down. Which they rarely if ever did.

Not so with digital. I am finishing the "extras" for the Ghostkeeper 1980 re-release and had footage from two places, Calgary and Vancouver, with interviews of one of the actresses and the DP.

The actress footage, about 47 minutes, was done with the Canon 5D slr, in other words a still camera that has suddenly become hot for filmmakers as it's chip is equal to the size of a 35mm film frame. That means a better picture.

However the sound was done on a separate recorder. Which meant that I had to sync up the sound with the picture. In film it was done with the help of a tuning fork in both the film camera and the recording player. Now you would think that would be easy in digital as film is so "analog".

But no, you sync digital video and audio manually with a slate or "Hand Clap". Why digital doesn't have a more sophisticated system is a mystery. Film cameras had it for maybe 50 years or so.

Problems started at the outset, and continued, the colors were wrong, the sync wouldn't sync and on and on. And the other footage wasn't very sharp and had dropouts. Now remember this is all the wonderful digital age system.

Thankfully, I had Shirley. You remember her from Travel Day, the film that Shirley and I attempted to make, and the title of my entire blog. Not only is she a genius at FCP, she also knows codecs and all that stuff.

But another sync problem happened over the wk-end and I'm back, to some point, at the beginning. I spoke to the distributor Friday and he's okay with it but will contact the dvd duplicator later this week.

So I have another 48 hours or so, and I still have to edit the now fixed-up footage of the DP.

This is why I go on mini-vacations.

And yeah, that guy with the hair and the beard is me a million years ago.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Train to Chiang Mai

We were in Bangkok longer than expected because we were trying to figure out t-shirt printing and design while we were in town. When we ordered the shirts, we were ready to move on. Except the trains were sold out because many people were traveling for New Years. It was a big relief when we finally boarded a train for Chiang Mai.

We rode on a sleeper train to Chiang Mai that travels overnight. The train seats unfold into small beds and overhead beds fold out of the ceiling. A curtain pulls around each bed for privacy from the aisle and other travelers. It was quite cozy and comfortable, though I stayed up much of the night reading, working on a cross-stitch, and listening to music in my little cubby. I felt like a kid in a fort.

In the morning, I was one of the last to fold up my bed back into a seat. I hurried to catch some of the lush green view and do some reading before we arrived at our destination. A train ride just isn't a train ride without a book and some gazing out the window. 

The great thing about overnight trains is that the trip flies by. Before we knew it, we were in Chiang Mai, the cultural center of Thailand. We'll share that next.

- Julia

A curtain pulls around each bed (top and bottom) for privacy during the night.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand II

This is our last set of photos from Bangkok. We spent quite a bit of time walking around the Khoa San road area but when we wanted a break we caught an express river boat (yet another way of getting around the city) to the shopping district of Bangkok. This was a completely different area than the rest of Bangkok. There are plenty of fancy multi-level malls, a sky-train, nice restaurants, and modern architectural buildings... and ridiculous traffic.

We did some browsing at some of the fancy malls, got some frozen yogurt and checked out some of their elaborate Christmas decorations. From there we headed to Chatuchak Park, which is a beautiful park with golf-course like grass. We were there right when the sun was setting and the light was beautiful. It was a nice way to spend the evening. 

Bangkok is a beautiful city. There is so much to see and do. The people are incredibly nice, the food is amazing... can't wait to go back.


Next up: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Some of the houses along the river, captured from an express boat.
This is what traffic looks like very day in certain areas.
Never been to a mall with more stories than the ones in Bangkok.