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On The Workbench

Bouncing back and forth between narrative and abstraction seems to be the norm for me. Right now I'm fully invested in my narrative project but sometimes I have to take a break and just get a little weird. Through The Pandemic Fog And Still At A Loss For Words, HD 3:40 will premiere at the 47th Annual Members Show at Hallwalls, opening July 16th and running through August 27th. Below are a few stills from the piece. It's definitely a divergence from my past work but feels oddly good and right too.

So here we go again, another brief exploration of small discoveries while wading through the detritus of the creative process.

I had a second dream of floods ravishing my surroundings, just as real as my last one, but this one quickly faded before I could write it all down. I remember seeing what started as a small trickle flowing by me turning into a roaring wall of fast-moving water higher than my head, but I can no longer recall anything more. I’ve decided to interpret this as a need to move more quickly. Of course, I haven’t been moving quickly, no surprise there, you’re probably expecting this familiar declaration somewhere in my post. My last posting for the project was back in March, the set walls constructed and primed in January left me with the puzzle of a door that must not look like a door while also being closed from the inside. I’m happy to say this problem was solved, but the walls remained white until June. They waited patiently to become something else, to come alive with color and texture to become a character within the film, a re-enforcer of implied truths. That’s likely too much expectation to put on some walls, but not these particular ones. They have a job to do.

I enjoy telling stories that are grounded in a given truth and believability, even if that story is of a fantastical nature, and I have always enjoyed the very physical and hands-on process of world building including the construction of environments where this truth can unfold. My fear (and that is a bit of hyperbole) is that if I don’t get it right then the story I am telling will be hampered by the amateurishness of the production and design. This is a concern to be sure, but its’ not unique to me. It’s a concern of all who create in some fashion, especially those trying something new or exploring unfamiliar ideas. Do I have the skills I need to make my vision a reality? Yes, great then get to work. No, OK what am I going to do about it? Maybe, then the only way to know is to try. That’s the step off the precipice, and sometimes every step on this project feels like a precipice.

The interesting thing is, that gut punch of taking the next step into the unknown, which makes the process scary, can also be what makes it so much fun and rich with opportunities to learn something new. This coming academic year will be my seventeenth year teaching and I see many students wrestle with similar feelings as they begin production on a project or as they enter into the editing phase. This is one of the reasons why I've been posting about my process. That empty timeline waiting for the first shot to be placed can be a difficult thing to look at, like a painter's blank canvas. It can cause acute anxiety for some, especially those who don’t have a lot of experience with the medium, and that’s OK because it provides a learning experience and challenge to face and learn from. Like a painter using a ground to help make that first brushstroke easier, sometimes it helps to simply lay down some footage. I’m not talking about a string-out, all your shots or a set of given shots all laid down in a sequence, this can work to help make that first step but I find putting together a few shots that I know will not be part of the beginning of the film a good way to begin, more like a sketch of an edit, knowing full well that ultimately those edits may not survive, the scene may not even survive but if I can begin to process the images as some semblance of the story I want to tell, then some of that doubt is alleviated and the process can go forward. I did this on Soulmaker. I picked a closeup shot of the Soulmaker’s eyes, the nautilus shell reflected in his glasses. Bob Roberts’ eyes blinked during this one particular take, a quick double flutter of his eyelids. As I watched this take, I grabbed a random audio field recording, something that I assumed would eventually be part of the atmospheric sound design for this scene and placed the sound under the video. By pure coincidence it lined up perfectly. The sound had a quick double percussive beat creating a moment much like when a child’s eyes blink each time a hammer strikes its target. It's a subtle moment that I believe most people do not notice but it is a precious moment for me. I got lucky, but that luck wouldn’t have manifested if I had not been able to simply take that step.

Too many students are paralyzed by taking that step. There are many reasons why they might struggle with this, each dragging their personal history along for the creative adventure, sometimes with amazing results, but for those who internalize those doubts and fears it can be a painful experience. This is why I try to provide that assurance when taking that first step. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it just matters that you do it. Nothing is set in stone, and even things set in stone can be changed, worn down, chiselled away or even simply tossed out. There are plenty of stones to etch our ideas upon. Sometimes the best thing that can happen for a student is that they lose their project entirely. It might become corrupted or they haven’t backed it up properly or more than likely they just haven’t practiced good and proper file organization which is so important to maintaining a working project. At that point they are forced to start over. They often agonize over this, thinking of all the work that they have done and the time that it took, but when they start to rebuild they realize how much easier it is. They start to understand that they’ve been building a collection of decisions and thought processes along the way while also developing their technical skills. They are often emboldened by how quickly they can get back to where they were before they lost everything and the work is often stronger for it.

And that leads me back to my white walls. Finally with some time and my own small leap of faith I started painting the walls. The first coat was an ugly brown. I knew it was just a ground, a base that would be covered but it was still a bit concerning. It was flat, dark and dull, but sometimes you have to make something ugly before it can be beautiful, which of course is in the eye of the beholder. I began tentatively adding texture, testing different weathering techniques and that’s where two things happened, my wife found just the right critical but helpful thing to say to jump start the process and then the lesson of my dream came clear - move quickly. Moving quickly was the best way to make this next step work. Building layers, scrapping layers off, adding textures, scrubbing them off, pushing and pulling the surface. Not worrying about the minutia. Get in, step back, evaluate and press on. The process continues. What is posted here is still very much a work in progress, but it is progress.

A lot of makers, SPFX artists, builders of worlds, model makers, cosplay enthusiasts will tell you that the concept of weathering is their favorite part of their process. It is certainly one of the most exciting parts for me too. Coaxing out of nothing a history, backstory and psychological underpinning of the spaces and objects in a created space is a fantastic experience. Successfully creating a believable truth through illusionary tactics is what the filmmaking process is about, and I have a feeling there will be more to say on verisimilitude in future posts.

I know I have to remind myself this regularly, but the precipice that we are so afraid to step off of is often not really a precipice at all. It's simply a step, and most likely there will be another step to catch you as you fall. It's called a stairway and the cool thing about a stairway is that it typically leads you to where you want to go.

If faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen, then it seems that neither can be had without action on our part, of taking that first leap (or step) of faith. The creative process is all about faith. Have a little and by having a little, do a little who knows where it will take you.

Lately I've been stuck. Stuck on a detail that is no small thing and yet, is certainly less consequential than I probably think it is. How do I close the exit of my set from the inside? I'm trying to box myself in, to seal the set's doorless room from within while making sure that the illusion of a room with no egress is complete, I want no sign of the outside world seeping through possible cracks. This would be easy to accomplish from the outside or at least easier, but I need to be on the set, in the room to make this film.

I think I've figured it out. It seemed like a throwaway concern at the beginning and it would have never been a concern at all if the set was created in a more "normal" or traditional manner but that's now this project is going. I'm happy with my solution in theory and putting that theory to test has revealed something.

Tolerance is an important consideration but exact tolerances can sometimes lead to more harm than good. I've built this portion of the set, the alcove with some fairly tight tolerances. The slotting mechanism I've created to slide and pull the alcove walls into the rest of the set are tight enough to hold the walls firmly but not without struggle and now it seems to the impediment of bringing the parts together and even more so in taking them back out when it is time return to the "normal" world. So now I find myself considering how much is too much, how little it too little. I'm finding that if I had loosened my tolerance just a bit maybe it would have worked more smoothly from the beginning. Now I find myself trying to lessen wall thicknesses without removing too much - too much and it does not stay in place, Too little and it doesn't move easily enough. My walls have a Goldilocks problem. I'm trying to find the just right.

In the real world there isn't much that is just right. Life is more of a pendulum, with the sway from good to bad and easy to difficult. The funny thing is that these swings from one side to another are never evenly balanced. Often it feels like the stretch of momentum that moves towards or away from those negative experiences seems to be moving through a thick morass while those swings in the positive side of the arc seem to be aided by a slipstream moving us at unexpected speeds, and it is only when the pendulum begins to draw towards the middle are we even able to see what lies behind us and before us. Only then does the force of the swing lessen enough for us to truly see and appreciate all sides of the experience.

Lately I've had my share of the morass, we all have, but I've also had my fun in the slipstream as well. The old adage "it was so close I could almost reach out and touch it" comes to mind. I've been close on a lot of goals and desires recently. That joy while short lived always invigorates me. This project is another great example. There are times when I walk through the set everyday only because I have to do so to get to other things that need my attention. It is an in-my-face reminder of what still needs to be done, but there are other days where I'm riding the slipstream, where things are coming together where a skeleton of one-by's becomes an old plaster and lathe wall. Where a floor comes to life in its stillness below my feet. I hardly realize these moments and experiences though until I reach the center of the pendulum swing. It's at that point that I write. With perspective and insight. Much like today.

No pictures of the alcove in this post. No examinations of the too tight tolerances to share, but peace knowing that the pendulum will continue to swing between the extremes, and that where ever we find ourselves on the big arc we're still moving and there's always good that can come from that.

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