Thursday, May 23, 2013

Do Not Passport "GO!", Do Not Collect Any New Experiences

Greetings, Red-Tape Wranglers!

Since I'm not making a ton of money right now (read: any) I've cut back on acquiring a lot of superfluous crap.  I no longer buy movies, books, music and games indiscriminately.  I don't eat out five times a week like I used to.  I make my coffee at home, but since I've always got a bag of freshly-ground Fogburner and a french press, this really isn't a big sacrifice.

About the only luxury I can't quit is traveling.  Honestly, I can't wrap my head around Karl Pilkington types who say that they hate to travel and would rather stay home where everything is familiar. You might as well come out and say that you're completely ant totally opposed to the concepts of "new", "different" and "exciting".

Now although I didn't care to much for my last job I absolutely loved the gig that proceeded it.  I haven't talked much about this mysterious enterprise but it was actually pretty rad.  In fact, for a while there, I actually felt as if I had something vaguely resembling a career.

One of the many cool perks with this job were the annual sales conferences.  Up until that point, the most far-flung place I'd ever been to was Toronto or Montreal.  Imagine my surprise when I was told that I'd be going to freakin' Miami just a few short months after getting the gig.

As a "small boy from a small town", I knew this trip would be a transformative experience for me.  But I had to get there first and current events weren't making that easy.  Keep in mind, this was back in 2003, just two short years after 9/11.  U.S. Homeland Security was cracking down on us shifty, subversive Canadian types who were trying to enter their country without sufficient I.D.  If I was going to go on this trip, I needed to get a passport.

I didn't have one at the time but, then again, why would I?  Travel was certainly something I wanted to do in the future but money had been kinda tight up to that point.  But now, with this sales conference looming, I finally had a reason to procure this precious document.  Unfortunately I had very little time to do it.  Given the fact that I only had a few short weeks to get it rushed out to me, my boss gave all of us Friday afternoon off so we could expedite the application process.

Unfortunately, back then, upstanding, hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying folks who'd known you for most of your life (I.E. your friends) weren't considered trustworthy enough to vouch for your identify.  In fact, only "pillars of the community" like accountants, doctors, lawyers, dentists or priests could be relied upon to verify who you really were.  S'funny, because, to me, this kinda looks like a roll-call for society's worst charlatans and crooks.  

I didn't know it at the time, but that afternoon would soon degenerate into a desperate, existential bid to prove my mere existence.  The first person I went to see was my dentist, in the time in since my last check up, he'd left the practice and vanished off the face of the earth.  This immediately led me to assume that dentists couldn't vouch for themselves.   There ya go, strike one.

I then went to see my family physician, Dr. Pinhead, er...Pinsky.  Granted, I wasn't in the habit of doing annual physicals back then, but I'd consulted with him before and I was pretty sure that he'd vouch for me.  Yeah, I was wrong.

"Sorry, but I'm just not comfortable signing this," he told me flat-out.

"What?  Why?!?"

"Well, you've only been here one time before and that was four years ago.  For all I know you could be a member of Al-Qaeda."


I had only one option left and I wasn't feeling encouraged.  Even though my optometrist, Dr. Gaetan Lang, had successfully cured my of my irrational fear of eye exams, I'd only seen him a few times in the past.  Would he pull a Pinsky and shut me down?

The sad state of my appearance certainly wouldn't help my case.  Since I wasn't expecting a Mission: Impossible-style assignment that day I'd gone to work looking decidedly scruffy.  And now, with my options quickly drying up, we were getting uncomfortably close to the passport office's closing time.  It wasn't just my own application hanging in the balance, my co-workers were relying on me to seal the deal as well.

Without any pretense to civility I bombed into the optometry office, madly raving like a crazed transient whacked out on crystal meth.  Fortunately, Dr. Lang was just finishing up with a patient and stopped to listen to my disjointed request.  Taking note of my disheveled appearance and palpable panic, the good doctor was kind enough to take pity on me.

"Sure, I can sign that for you," he said, gesturing for me to hand over the application.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..." I wheezed. 

"So, where are you going?" he asked cordially while he filled out the document.

"Mi..Miami..." I panted, giving a thumbs up to my co-workers standing just outside the glass doors.  Helpfully they were standing there, swapping wisecracks and laughing their asses off at me.

"Oh, very nice," he said, handing the completed form back to me.  "That's a great place to be this time of year.  Enjoy!"

I can't quite remember but I'm pretty sure that I hugged him.  With only an hour left before the passport office closed shop for the weekend we all ran to the car and made a beeline downtown.  It was gonna be tight.  Even if we got down there in time, the chances of us finding a parking space was pretty slim.  Mercifully, our chauffeur that day had a legitimate driver disability window sign, which pretty much allowed us to park in the building's lobby.  We all rushed inside, commandeered an elevator, found the office, grabbed a number and began to wait.  And wait.  And wait.   

With only fifteen or twenty minutes to spare, someone finally called my number.  Now that I had all of my administrative ducks in a row, I confidently strode up to the wicket and cast my paperwork down like a gauntlet of challenge.

"I should like to apply for a passport, kind sirrah!"

The clerk started to look everything over.  Suddenly his brow furrowed.

"Do you have a photo?"

My heart skipped a beat but then I remembered something my co-workers had said earlier.

"I was told that I could get one done here.  I know it's a bit more expensive but I really didn't get a chance to..."

"Sure, sure," the clerk muttered, his eyes flicking towards the clock on the wall.  

"I just need to see your birth certificate."

I pulled out my wallet, located the card and dropped it on the counter.  Suddenly, the clerk recoiled as if I'd just thrown a dead rat in front of him.

"Oh," he said, reflexively pushing the card away from him.  "I'm sorry, but I can't help you."

If I recall correctly, this was the very first time that I ever felt my eyeball twitch.  Instantly I found myself fighting the urge to launch myself over the counter and strangle him with a metal pen-chain.  Instead I took a deep breath and tried to form a coherent sentence.

"And why is that?" I managed to say.

"Your birth certificate.  It's not valid."


"It's laminated," winced the clerk.

"Wha...who cares if it's laminated?  The information is still accurate!"  

"I'm sorry, but it's not," the clerk babbled, perhaps expecting an errant fist to come his way.  "Record- keeping rules changed significantly in Quebec back in 1994 so any laminated birth certificates issued prior to that are invalid." 

Stunned and dejected I gurgled my thanks and then pushed myself away from the wicket.  A passport wasn't the only thing out of my reach; the only piece of identification I had was about as useful as a peanut-butter-smeared playing card.  The only good thing that happened that day was the money I saved on my passport photo.  Unfortunately, it was taken under considerable duress and I ended up looking like a cross between Raj Binder and John Baird.   

The following Monday I marched into my boss's office to report the bad news.

"That's it!"  I ranted in frustration.  "It's over!  I can't go!"

"Oh, you're going," he said in his own inimitable manner which I still kinda miss.

"IT'S...NOT...POSSIBLE!" I shouted back.  "I have no valid identification!  At all!  From what I've heard, those customs guys really don't need any extra incentive to bust out a cavity search!"

"Let me tell you something," he replied, matter-of-factly.  "You're going to this.  You see this email here?  It's got seven names on it including yours.  It doesn't say 'maybe David Pretty should come if he can possibly make it'.  This is a work-related event and your attendance is mandatory.  Yeah, you might end up detained in some holding cell  in JFK airport somewhere, but you're gonna try!  So if I was you I'd be gettin' a valid birth certificate pretty damned quick."     

This might sound harsh, Gentle Readers, but it was actually just the kick in the pants I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and get things done.  Suddenly the glass seemed half-full.  Thanks to my boss and my helpful co-workers, I managed to expedite an application for a valid birth certificate.  In fact, it arrived in the mail just days prior to our departure.

Our flight was at 6:35 AM and I was too excited to sleep.  My boss picked us all up in style around 4:30 AM in a stretch limousine and en route I sipped away at a lethal home-made concoction of rum and coke.  By the time we got to the airport my bladder was the size of a novelty football.  Ah, back when I was young even more stupid then I am now.

Now, I'm not a big fan of wearing logo-tainted clothing but I made an exception on that particular occasion.  En route to the airport, my fellow employees dressed me up in every single company-related garment they could find: hat, jacket, t-shirt, trackpants, g-string: the whole magilla.  By the time we landed in Newark I looked like a corporate-sponsored Heaven's Gate cult member. 

In spite of my thorough disguise, my anxiety shot through the roof as we approached the immigration desk.   

"Stick close to us," my boss whispered.

"Just answer their questions and don't say anything else!" another warned.

"Whatever you do, don't look like you've got something to hide!" a third wailed.

"Shut up!"  I yelled back.  "Jesus, I'm nervous enough as it is!"

As our group fractured and wandered off towards the next available agent my terror level went into the red.  Hoping that I would still blend in as part of the group, I tried to linger behind my boss who was clad in similar apparel.  While everyone else cleared customs without a hitch and then coalesced on the "landed immigrant" side of the queue, I felt a sudden stab of panic when another officer motioned me for me to approach.  With my knees now threatening to buckle, I weaved my way over to him and practically crammed my papers into his downturned face.

"Hello!" I warbled, my voice sounding far too chipper in my own ear.

"Destination?" grunted the agent as he sifted through the sweat-stained documents.   

"Miami," I gulped.

"Purpose of your visit?"

"Business.  Sales conference," I replied.  Was it my imagination or did my voice just break as if I'd suddenly hit puberty?

The agent stopped jabbing his computer keyboard and started giving me the once over.  He finally seemed to notice that I was dressed up like a human NASCAR.

"How's business?" he asked.

My mouth worked silently for a moment.

"I...I'm sorry?"

"Business, how's business?" he demanded, a slight edge creeping into his voice.

"Oh, good, good!"  I babbled.  "I set up small to medium sized businesses with corporate accounts and then hand them over to account managers.  I've been averaging around eleven new registrations every month so things are going pretty good at the moment.  How about you?"

'Shut up, shut up, shut up,' my brain began to chide.

The immigration officer smiled tersely, turned back to his monitor, and clattered a few more keys.  Suddenly I was mired in some sort of weird time nexus, suspended in a prolonged moment of abject chronological purgatory.

Then, all of a sudden, the agent whipped out a stamp, hammered my declaration form, gathered my papers back together and handed it all back to me in a neat bundle.  Despite my initial flinch at the sound of the stamper, I shakily retrieved my documents, mumbled a quick 'Thanks' and then meandered away.

Just as we were all clear of the CHAMBER OF FEAR I was immediately swarmed by my jubilant peers.  For some odd reason, it was one of the happiest and most triumphant moments of my entire life.  I probably would have been even more elated if I knew what was to come.

But that's a story for another time...  

EPICALLY FUNNY In Karl's defense, Ricky Gervais is a bit of a sadist.  

EXISTENTIAL FAIL  Ever feel as if your grasp on existence is tenuous at best? 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Don't Worry, You'll Fix It In Post

Salutations, Subsequent Scribes!

True story, Star Wars almost killed its creator.

Due to a constant onslaught of one crisis after another, George Lucas nearly had a coronary while filming A New Hope.  While shooting on location in Tunisia, none of the robots would work.  A freak rainstorm destroyed half the sets.  Anthony Daniels, who played C-3PO, nearly died of heat prostration and had his own foot impaled by the costume.

Even after the production moved into the domesticated environs of Elstree Studios in London, Lucas's woes didn't end.  The seasoned British crew often looked down their nose upon the film's "kiddie" subject matter as well as its young, upstart American director.  Sometimes, after spending hours on a complicated set-up, George would be left apoplectic with rage when the entire crew suddenly decided to drop everything and have tea.  

Just when things couldn't get any worse, they did.  Lucas's startup special effects house Industrial Light and Magic hadn't lensed a single useable effects shot, despite having blown a million dollars well into production.  At the same time, Lucas was fighting a daily battle on set with veteran cinematographer Gil Taylor over the use of soft-focus lenses.  George wanted a dreamy, fairy-tale look for the film, but the prickly Taylor chafed under such specific orders.

Even the actors were overtly willful and contentious.  Kenny Baker, the little due inside R2-D2, fully expected the film to be a complete and utter disaster.  Harrison Ford was particularly critical of Lucas's dialogue, famously telling him "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it!"  As a result, Lucas became even more depressed, withdrawn and uncommunicative.  Most of the time, his primary direction to the actors consisted of repeating "Faster, more intense!" over and over again.          

As the film started to go over budget and over schedule, another layer of pressure was introduced.  The bean counters at 20'th Century Fox gave the young director a terrifying ultimatum: either finish shooting the film within a week or the production would be shut down.  By splitting the crew into three separate shooting units, Lucas managed to finish principal photography just days before the plug was pulled.

During this particularly trying time, Lucas began to experience severe chest pains and shortness of breath.  Assuming that it was heart failure, George was rushed to the hospital where doctors diagnosed him with exhaustion and severe hypertension.  He was ordered to reduce his stress level and get some rest; two luxuries that he simply did not have.

To get the movie finished under such brutal time constraints, Lucas was often heard to say: "We gotta keep moving.  Don't worry, we'll fix it in post."  Sometimes I wonder if the young film-maker actually believed his own advice, especially after seeing the film's initial rough cut.  By all accounts, John Jympson's first edit of the film came as a crushing blow to Lucas.  It made the movie look like deleted footage from a cheap 70's T.V. cop show.

But slowly, inexorably, things did start to get fixed in post, just like he'd predicted.  ILM began delivering some groundbreaking special effects shots.  John William's grandiose score elevated the sometimes-cheesy material into the realm of myth.  And, most importantly, the masterful editing work by Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and George's rarely-lauded ex-wife Marcia transformed the listless, boring footage into dynamic and exciting motion picture.  In fact, the trio would go on to win an Oscar for their efforts.

So what's the point of this extended title crawl?  Only this: the lesson contained herein is vital to every single writer.

Many a day I've dragged ass on a piece of writing because I'm totally convinced that what I'm writing is garbage.  But then, when I run it through two or three editorial passes, something magical happens.  First it becomes presentable, then it becomes palatable and then it become something pretty durned good.

For what it's worth: here's my current work flow:
  1. Getting an Idea That's Worth The Trouble    Some may argue, with considerable evidence, that I'm not discriminating enough in this regard.  To this, I offer the eloquent rebuttal: cram it with walnuts, poncho.  Hey, at least I never have to deal with writers block, which, frankly, is the kiss of death for any writer as far as I'm concerned.  
  2. Filtering Ideas Through A Pen Is Like Pumping Oil Through A Straw  As long as I've got  a stout cup of dark roast coffee in front of me I usually don't have any problem getting my ideas down on paper.  But the process is hideously inefficient and often results in wastage.  I think that's why most people despise the process of writing.  By the time they're done scratching up a journal or mashing their keyboard the Übermensch concepts frolicking around in their head come out looking like something in a David Lynch movie.
  3. From Analog To Digital  I often subject myself to this additional step which I admittedly have  a love/hate relationship with.  Although I'm currently typing this directly onto Blogger's blank-white compositional face, I often do a first draft on looseleaf.  I usually do this with my "work-related" movie reviews but sometimes I just wanna write in a coffee shop and I don't want to drag my laptop along with me.  Sorry, but feverishly scribbling something onto filler paper always makes me feel like a kid again.  Even better, people look at me as if I'm going math problems with an abacus.  Despite this seemingly archaic method, I can usually expunge my ideas a lot quicker via these frenetic chicken scratchings then with the old hunt n' peck keyboard method.  To be perfectly candid, I actually hate typing stuff into a computer.  In fact, I despise it with all the fire of a million suns.         
  4. Three Words: Fine Tooth Comb  Seriously, folks, this is where the magic happens.  To all the prospective writers out there: don't be discouraged if your first draft looks irredeemably stillborn and twisted.  You'll be surprised what three editorial passes will do for any nebulous chunk of poetry or prose.  On the first read-though, you'll wipe away the embryonic fluid and gently gather your fragile creation into your arms.  With the second bash, your ideas will shakily come to their feet like Bambi on ice, anxious to impress.  On the third and final brush-up, your brainchild will now be standing erect, hands on hips, with bright eyes beaming in a silent challenge to be appraised and appreciated.  
So, please, don't become despondent when you sit down to write something and it comes out all wonky.  Just tell yourself "Don't worry, I'll fix it in post."  It certainly worked out for Star Wars, didn't it?

Note to self RE: the Star Wars prequels: consider writing blog entry about the importance of collaborating with people more talented then yourself.  

EPIC EDIT  See, judicious trimming makes everything better!

EXCISE FAIL  Although her ample contributions to Star Wars have been excised from history like a member of the Politburo, fans really owe a debt of gratitude to Marcia Lucas.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Wizard

Howdy, All You Fantasy Fans!

In 1933 a wide-eyed thirteen year old kid named Raymond Frederick Harryhausen saw the movie King Kong in theaters for the first of many times.  Above and beyond the film's breakneck pace and wild sense of adventure, Ray was completely be-spelled by the cinematic sorcery used to bring the giant ape to life.  This set the young movie-goer on a life-long quest to glean the secrets of this incredible illusion.  

He soon discovered that special effects maestro Willis O'Brien had used a technique called stop-motion animation to realize the mighty Kong.  This involved the creation of a super-realistic, fully-articulated model which could then be moved and photographed one frame at a time.  The work was beyond painstaking.  If the animator lost track of the character's actions, knocked over a part of the miniature set or experienced a lighting malfunction, he could very well lose hours or even days worth of work.

After decoding this arcane knowledge, Ray set about making his own short films.  Eventually he was introduced to his mentor, Willis O'Brien, who suggested that the young animator take anatomy courses to improve his model designs.  After heeding his advice, Ray eventually went to work for O'Brien as an assistant animator on his new giant ape picture Mighty Joe Young.  He was only twenty-seven years old at the time.

Over the course of the next forty years Ray Harryhausen was the primary creative force behind some of the most imaginative movies in cinema history, including:

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

It Came from Beneath the Sea

 Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

 20 Million Miles To Earth

The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad

Jason and the Argonauts

One Million Years B.C.

The Valley of Gwangi

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Clash of the Titans

These films cast a creative spell upon generations of imaginative kids.  Upon first glance of Ray's indelible familiars, people like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Joe Johnston, John Landis, George Lucas, Dennis Muren, Sam Raimi, Ivan Reitman, Steven Spielberg and Stan Winston were immediately entranced.  When these pop-culture pebbles were dropped into the ocean of collective unconsciousness, those childhood ripples of wonder resulted in a veritable tsunami of adult creative genius.    

I count myself amongst this hallowed company.  When I was only about four years old, I distinctly remember watching this clip from Jason and the Argonauts on T.V.:

I won't lie to you, Gentle Readers: it scared the ever-lovin' crap outta me.  Not because it was Green Slime scary but because I had no idea what I was watching.  I literally thought that this was some sort of  documentary film about some sort of giant living bronze colossus.  Like every other kid who witnesses something like this at an impressionable age, it resulted in a life-long love for all things fantasy.  Instantly I wanted to know how it was done and I needed to see everything related.

Unfortunately I grew up in a day and age when Ray's films had long-since left the marquee.  To make matters worse, VCR's were still in their infancy and the movies sitting on the shelf of my small-town video store were boringly pedestrian.  I had to content myself with pouring over stills of his creatures in Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland or reading about them in movie books.

Which is why the release of Clash of the Titans was such a monumental event to me as a kid.  Finally, this was my chance to see Ray's mythical creations come to life on the big screen.  I certainly wasn't disappointed.  Calibos, the giant Vulture, Pegasus, Dioskilos, Medusa and the Kraken both thrilled and amazed me.  Inspired, I found a book about stop-motion animation in my school library, built some clay models and tried to make my own flick.  Unfortunately Super 8 film back then was w-a-a-a-a-y too expensive so I quickly had to set aside my cinematic aspirations.

As CGI began to develop it eventually usurped stop-motion animation as the primary method of monster creation.  Although digital technology can certainly be well-applied, it often feels about as cold and inconsequential as watching a video game cut-scene.  For example, after catching a few snippets of the recent Clash of the Titans remake I came away feeling distinctly sad.  Unlike Ray's menagerie of memorable monsters, the creatures populating this cynical cash-grab had only a fraction of the tangibility, charm, magic and personality.  

Every time critics accuse tech-obsessed directors like James Cameron and George Lucas of overusing CGI they often get the same response, as if saying it out loud over and over again will somehow make it true.  "Nothing in movies is real!" they always protest, "That building in the background is nothing but a big, flat, cardboard stand-up.  Walk behind it and you'll see a key grip eating a sandwich back there!"

That might make sense in their tech-addled brains, but it sounds downright idiotic to me when you think about it.  Back in 2010, hordes of lucky film fans who attended the "Myths And Legends Exhibition" got a chance to see Ray's stop-motion puppets first-hand.  Sorry, but at the end of the day, the giant scorpions in the Clash of the Titans remake are nothing but a bunch of pretty-looking ones and zeroes.  

Ray wasn't just a special effects wizard, he was the special effects wizard.  Check out the credits for all of these movies; he was literally the only person billed for the special effects.  In fact, he didn't even have an assistant until 1981.  For comparison's sake, stick around for the end credits of Iron Man 3 to see how many people it takes to do this same job now.

I'm sure Ray did what he did because he was entranced by his mentor's movie magic.  But, hopefully, he also knew how impactful his own creations were.  While spending countless hours in a Hollywood basement sweating under hot studio lights and moving rubber monsters around one millimeter at a time, I hope that he just how inspirational he was to countless other like-minded souls.   

Thank you, Ray.  Your creations charmed us, inspired us and kept our inner children alive and well.

Frankly, I can't think of a more apt definition of a master magician.     

 Raymond Frederick Harryhausen  

EPIC TRAILER  If this blog entry comes as a revelation, you may want to take that as a personal detriment and address it right away.  I don't know how many plaudits Ray received when he was alive but I'm pretty sure it wasn't enough.  Hopefully high-profile tributes like this will rectify that deficit...

EPIC MINI-DOC  "If you make fantasy too real, you make it more mundane..."


NOT-SO-SPECIAL EFFECTS FAIL  Derp, derp, derp...