Sunday, February 3, 2008

We've moved! (Not what you think)

No, we haven't moved to Pennsylvania yet (less than two weeks to go). I've just moved the NeoZAZ blog over to I did this for two reasons (well, three if you count "Lisa said so" as one):
  • If I decide to host the blog on my own site at some point, I can probably install Wordpress software there, so the transition will be easier.
  • Wordpress actually has statistics, so I can tell if anyone is actually reading this. Blogger does not seem to have this functionality.
So, please update all of your bookmarks and RSS readers to point to the new NeoZAZ blog. There's already a post up about my new niece.

I'll try to move the existing posts over in the next few days. If anyone knows of an easy way to do this, let me know.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a Wrap

Three years ago, the startup Anne was working for imploded in a giant mess of mismanagement. As bad as this was for financial and career reasons, the upshot was that we got a few nice pieces of electronics equipment free or cheap. One of those things was a Sony MiniDV video camera.

As soon as I got my hands on that, I started coming up with ideas for movies. Most of them were crap, but one of them had some legs (so to speak): Thaco's Last Stand.

(Those of you who are uber-geeks may recognize "Thaco" as a reference to 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where "THAC0" was an acronym which stood for "To hit armor class 0". Suffice it to say, it was a bass-ackwards way to figure out what you needed to roll to hit your opponent. The rest of you can go ahead and skip the rest of this post, as the gaming nerdery has just begun.)

The idea was this: we film a series of short episodes about a party of half-baked fantasy heroes, but only the parts in-between adventures, which is spent in the local tavern, Thaco's Last Stand.

If anyone ever watched the Tick live-action TV show, this might sound familiar. That show was great because it followed four semi-super-heroes around in their mundane everyday lives: getting a driver's license, having barbecues, hanging out at the diner. Almost never did they show any action. So picture that idea, but with D&D characters, and lots of jokes about the characters knowing the rules of the game.

(Not that it would ever come up, but the back story on Thaco is that he was a hero during the 2nd Edition days, when having a lower armor class was better and when 3rd Edition came around his low armor class made him extremely vulnerable and he got his legs chopped off by a goblin. So he retired from adventuring and opened up a bar.)

With a script written and actors attached, we needed a set. Since we would be filming in my garage, the requirements for the set were that it had to:
  • fit in the garage (7' clearance)
  • collapse neatly for storage
  • be able to stand in for the exterior and the interior of the tavern
  • not look too terribly cheesy
Yarry, Ken and Quint came over one day two and a half years ago to construct the set. While Quint and I designed, built, tested, redesigned and rebuilt the set support structures, Yarry and Ken cut and painted mattress foam to make faux stonework, painted the wall panels, and drank beer.

I'm really happy with the way the set turned out, especially the structure pieces. In fact, I'm going to donate them to the local Santa Cruz filmmakers club, Cinemar, if anyone wants them.

Yarry also painted the tavern sign, which totally rocks. I'm going to hang that up somewhere in the new house.

We had two rehearsals, one before the set was built, and one after. Both were filmed, and I edited them to practice editing and see how I wanted to do the shots. That was all in the summer/fall of 2005.

And then, the production went "on hiatus".

In November 2005, we all got laid off (well, those of us who worked for Nokia, which was most of us), so for the next few months everyone was scrambling around finding new jobs. Then we were settling into our new lifestyles (some people had long commutes over the hill) and we never got back together to do the final shoot.

I admit to much inertia on my part, as director/producer. We still needed to figure out two costumes, and I have no clue about costumes, so I kept dragging my feet. This went on for two and a half years.

Then, Anne and I made the decision to move. Now, all of a sudden we had a deadline - film or no film, we had to get rid of the set pieces before we moved.

Of course, trying to get everyone together to film proved to be challenging, especially with the holidays and all the crap we were doing for the move. But I had to try - not only would the sets go to waste, but people had actually invested money (to help pay for the set construction) and I would have had to pay them back.

Last weekend, we finally did it. It was exhausting: putting up the set outside for the outdoor shot, moving it inside for the indoor shot, moving everything around for the other indoor shot, making sure everyone has costumes and enough alcohol in them to get in front of a camera. But it came together. It took us six hours to shoot an hour's worth of footage, which will be edited into a fifteen-minute skit, which will probably be viewed by a total of seven people.

It's a shame that we won't be reusing the sets like we had planned (I had already come up with a few ideas for subsequent episodes), but hopefully someone else can take advantage of them. Having sat outside for two years, they did acquire a nice patina, lending some authenticity to the fantasy tavern illusion.

Overall, it was a great experience, and I hope to do it again. This was the first time I had written, directed and produced something myself. Usually, I have one or more partners (Matt, Quint) for the writing and producing part (although I usually get to do most of the directing as I try to stay behind the camera), so it was interesting trying to realize my own vision. Not that it was a solo endeavor. Not by a long shot, as the credits will attest. But I was the one driving it.

Lessons Learned
  • I like doing the writing, directing, cinematography, set building and editing, but I really need a production assistant for shoots. Someone who corrals the talent, makes sure everyone has what they need (caffeine, snacks, booze, costume, makeup, props), and is where they need to be. When I'm in the middle of creating my art, the last thing I want to do is manage people. I do that at work.
  • I need to write some stories that take place in the present day. Trying to make six pieces of plywood look like a fantasy tavern really limits your camera angles. On the other hand, the limited set made us be very creative.
  • I will kick the tripod over at least once per shoot. At least this time, I was quick enough to catch the camera.
  • Always - always - do a sound check. This I learned on previous shoots, and it paid off here. Unfortunately, right now my rig does not include a field mixer, so the mic plugs right into the camera, and I don't have a way to monitor the sound. So my sound checks consist of filming some test footage, then rewinding and listening to it.
Anyway, look for the final product on in the coming weeks (depending on how long it takes to get the special effects done). I'll post a link here as soon as it's up.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Keep it Stable, Steady

This an ingenious idea for a cheap, portable camera stabilizer. Even though my 50mm f/1.8 lens takes pretty decent pictures in low light, I'm going to make one of these and stick it in my camera bag.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lead Zeppelin

Once more, with feeling: The past tense of "lead" is "led", not "lead".

You know who you are, so stop it.

I am not a crank.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

T-Minus 22 Days

It is now just over three weeks until we move. The excitement in the Smith household is palpable. Even the cats sense something's up (as they do every time we go on vacation).

Speaking of the cats, we're currently in the middle of a long-term deceptive plan to get them on the plane. Anne got two airline pet carriers, which we leave open in the office so they can get used to them. The plan being that on the big day, we can nonchalantly zip the cats up in them and they won't know until it's too late. It won't happen like that, I'm sure, but at least they won't suspect too much until the first zipper zips.

You may be asking yourself "Two carriers? I thought you had three cats?", and you'd be right. Unfortunately, the airlines only allow two pets in the cabin per flight, so one (un)lucky cat has to go in cargo. Just try to imagine a 5 1/2 hour flight locked in a box with no idea what's going on. Doesn't sound pleasant, especially since the two older cats cry incessantly for the entire fifteen minute drive to the vet's once a year.

We're trying to nail down the logistics of closing on our new house in PA. Of course, we picked a pseudo-holiday (President's Day) to try to close, which means there is no money wiring going on and the banks are all closed. Our agent out here says the money can be wired from our buyers to the builder of our house the previous Friday, so hopefully that will work out and we can just sign the papers Monday morning.

As far as packing goes, we're doing a little bit here and there, and the house is slowly filling up with boxes. As it turns out, the cost of moving a 4-bedroom house across the country is so enormous that paying the movers to pack our stuff is a relatively insignificant part of that, so whatever we don't feel like packing ourselves, we'll leave for them.

We've managed to get rid of 90% of the crap we didn't want (craigslist is a wonderful thing), which is good because we're selling the Subaru and won't be able to make any big dump runs without borrowing somebody's truck.

At three weeks, it's now really starting to feel tangible. Instead of the move being "something that's going to happen in a few months", it's now "Oh shit, I only have three weeks to get all this done?". But I think we've got everything under control - it's just that final few days of paperwork and logistics that's going to keep us awake at night until it's over.

Once we're there, I'll have two weeks off before starting my new job. That two weeks will be filled with: unpacking, registering the cars, getting drivers' licenses, unpacking, finding new doctors/dentists/hairstylists, unpacking, my dad's birthday, more unpacking, my sister's newborn baby, and still more unpacking. All in the dead of winter. Should be fun re-learning how to drive in the snow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Take That, Uri Geller

XKCD has a simple, yet very true graph on supernatural powers.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hit and Run Comic Review: Ant-Man

In this issue, I will attempt to review a single issue of a comic book, assuming that I can get an entire feel for the gestalt of the characters and scenarios by just reading one issue.

For this installment, I review Ant-Man, issue #8, from March of 1973.

Main Character: Dr. Henry Pym/Ant-Man
  • With the aid of a gas he developed, can shrink himself or anyone else to the size of an ant, and then re-biggen himself to normal size with a different gas.
  • Has developed a helmet with which he can communicate telepathically with ants. Seriously.
Love Interest(s):
  • Maria Pym (nee Maria Trovaya) - Wife, killed by Hungarian secret police on honeymoon in Hungary.
  • Janet Van Dyne - Daughter of Dr. Vernon Van Dyne, ditzy brunette with a taste for revenge.
  • The creature from planet Kosmos
  • Reason
  • Realistic dialog
Issue #8 of Ant-Man provides a succinct collection of not only Ant-Man's origin, but the origin of his partner/wife The Wasp (Janet Van Dyne), provided in flashback form by the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I realize that Stan and Jack are the thunderbolt-hurling main gods of the Marvel Pantheon, but the writing and artwork in this issue is reminiscent of nothing more than an episode of Mark Trail in the daily funny pages.

The issue starts off with a framing story line about The Wasp reverting to her wasp-brain and attacking Ant-Man, her husband. While trying to escape, he falls and gets knocked unconscious, which opens the rest of the book to flashback scenes about his and her origins, which had already been recounted in other comics. So basically, this comic is 2.3 pages of new material, a bunch of reprinting of already shown storyline, and another 2/3 of a page of new material. The issue doesn't even conclude the Wasp-attacking-Ant-Man storyline, but leaves it as a cliff-hanger for the next issue.

Since I know none of you have ever read Ant-Man (neither had I until I won this issue by answering a trivia question), I'll now summarize his origin story as short as possible before you get bored and fall asleep: Dr. Henry Pym and his new bride, Maria, honeymoon in Hungary (during the Iron Curtain) because she grew up there and wanted to revisit her homeland. As soon as they step out of the airport, the secret police knock him out and kill her for trying to escape communism. After that, Dr. Pym decides to devote his life to finding a way to shrink himself to the size of an ant and learn how to communicate with ants.

No, really. That's it. I didn't make any of that up. The first thing you're going to ask yourself is: what super powers does he get when shrinking to ant size? The answer is: none, although he retains "much of the strength of a full-grown human". So, he's half an inch tall, but still almost as strong as he was. What's the advantage? He's stronger than the average ant?

Much of the rest of the issue is taken up with the Wasp's origin story, which is even lamer than Ant-Man's. In one of the most stilted-dialog scenes since a Robert Ludlum novel, Dr. Vernon Van Dyne comes calling at Dr. Pym's laboratory, seeking his help on a Gamma ray emitter he's working on.

First of all, Dr. Pym's research all has to do with shrinking and ants. Why Dr. Van Dyne sought his help in trying to send gamma rays to far off planets is beyond me, except that this comic was written in the early 70's, and anything having to do with science was pretty much voodoo to the lay public, so I'll let that slide. But Dr. Pym doesn't. He totally blows Dr. Van Dyne (and his lovely daughter, who looks oh so much like his late wife, Maria) off to get back to his ant research.

As you might expect, it's not too long before Dr. Van Dyne's gamma ray emitter attracts an unnamed alien from the planet Kosmos (calling Carl Sagan, your lawyer is on line 2) who "escaped down the path of your ray" from Kosmos to Earth. This alien was apparently kind of like General Zod and Jabba the Hutt all rolled into one, as he looks like mutant toad, and is out to conquer the Earth. But since he never actually got a name, you figure they'll dispatch him by the end of the issue.

So Janet arrives home to find her father killed by toad boy, and calls Dr. Pym, rather than, oh I don't know, 911? Dr. Pym doesn't believe that her father is dead because, you know, she's a woman, and this is 1973. But then he hears about Dr. Van Dyne's death from the freakin' ants. Given the expert ant testimony, he puts on his Ant-Man suit, shrinks down to ant size, and shoots himself out of a mini-cannon to the Van Dyne's domicile.

That's right. Ant-Man's main form of transportation is shooting himself out of a tabletop cannon he calls a "catapult" even though it's clearly a barrel-shaped object he crawls into and aims at his destination. As far as a safe landing goes, "the ants will be waiting for me to form a soft platform for me to land on!" Until this, I didn't realize there was anyone lamer than Aqua-Man.

Fortunately, Janet has no problem seeing, hearing and even believing an ant-sized super hero. Perhaps it's due to his shouting:

Ant-Man: Hello! I'm Ant-Man! Perhaps you've heard of me! I've come to help you!

Janet: I have heard of you, but ... I thought you were only a myth! My father ... he's dead ... in his laboratory ... There was a strange mist ... I came in and found him ...

(apparently Janet's innate super power is to speak in sentences that never end, just fade into one another)

Ant-Man: He's been murdered ... almost looks like he died of fright! There's something strange ... something eerie here! I can sense it!

Over the next few panels, Ant-Man senses a deep drive for revenge in Janet, and so chooses her to be his partner in microscopy and perhaps in love. He tells her about his secret identity, and shoots her up with enough genetically-modified cells to become The Wasp to help him find and kill her father's murderer.

At this point, I should recap: We have a scientist and his groupie, who have the power to shrink themselves down to insect-size, versus an intergalactic criminal who is made up of formic acid and is bent on taking over the world. How do we know he is made up of formic acid, you may ask? The ants told us, of course! They can sense that type of thing, and have the cognitive ability to relay it to Dr. Pym. Duh! Stupid.

You may wonder what in the fuck Ant-Man could do to stop the Man from Kosmos, and well you might. As it turns out, he's a scientist. And, while I am all for positive science role models in the media, this is just ridiculous (and I say that as a big fan of MacGyver). Dr. Pym devises an antidote for formic acid, loads it into a bunch of shotgun shells, and shoots the hell out of the alien.

But where do his ant-powers come in to play here? Not at all, except as a drawback. You see, after he loads up the shotgun and the shells, he and Janet shrink to insect size, just so it's harder for them to transport and fire the shotgun. He now has to call upon his army of ant friends to carry the shotgun and the box of shells many blocks to Wall Street to defeat the alien. Once there, rather than, say, reverting to human size and picking up the gun, he has the ants form an ant pyramid to aim the gun, while he pulls at the trigger with both arms. I am still not making this up.

After a few shots, the creature fades away into mist, leaving New York safe for the muggers and junkies once more.

If you're wondering where, in any of this, Ant-Man's powers came in to play, join the club. I can't think of a more useless super hero, and they're making a movie out of him.

Worst Part: Ant-Man gave The Wasp wings to be able to fly, yet he still uses his cannon to shoot himself around New York. What?

Best Part: The classic ads you find in comic books of the era, most notably:
  • X-Ray vision glasses: 75 cents.
  • "Boys sell GRIT for CASH PROFITS and FREE PRIZES". 7 cents profit per copy.
  • "Train with us for a HIGH PAY JOB IN DRAFTING!"
  • "I'll make you a master of karate", 99 cents. "Giant life-like karate practice dummy", also 99 cents. "Special money-saving combination offer": $1.98.
  • "Achtung! Reproduction German helmet. Includes liner and swastika decals" This from a company called "Adolf's". No joke.
  • A quick on/off combination mustache, sideburns and van dyke kit. Not for disguise purposes, but just to look good. $6.
  • "Too Skinny? New scientific discovery helps you put on weight". $4.98/100 tablets.
  • And of course the classic Charles Atlas ad on the back page, with the little cartoon of the dork getting sand kicked in his face in front of his girl at the beach. That one never goes out of style. "Oh, Mac! You are a real man after all!"