Sunday, December 26, 2010

LOYALTY

In Paris, I once went, with two girlfriends, to a lecture by wonderful French director, Claude Chabrol.  It was a meaty, exuberant, sensual talk about all the little extra observations that go into making a film, enriching the screenplay, the mise en scene, the cinematography. 
    At the time, I was working as an assistant film director and my two friends both wanted to be actors.  Surprising how many actor friends one has when one is an assistant director, n’est-ce pas?  Bubbles (not her real name) had studied mime and thought she might become a mime or maybe an actress, she wasn’t sure.  Supported by her rich family, she was a bit of a lost soul and didn’t have the drive or need to pursue her dream. Her parents, both doctors, were tough, manipulative people, more interested in themselves than their daughter’s struggles. Some years later, I had occasion to save her life, after which, she flew into a rage and never spoke to me again. 
     The other friend, Candy (also not her real name), was a teacher in Paris, had also studied mime and definitely wanted to be an actress. She struggled mightily because she had a pronounced American accent in French, so the roles she could play were limited. I subsequently introduced her to a director who gave her a part playing an American in a French TV show. But that was the only work she got. In despair, she returned to New York to be comforted by her family, study acting and marry the son of a mediocre TV actor. Too grand for me, she never spoke to me again. She never did become an actress.
     But, back to the lecture in Paris. As we strolled out of the hall after Chabrol’s talk, a young French man rushed up to us. He asked me if I’d come with him because Chabrol wanted me to be in his next film. My jaw dropped. My friends’ jaws clenched. This was the sort of thing that only happened in movies or fairy tales.  t was also very unfair. My friends wanted to be actresses, not me. I was embarrassed and told the assistant to pick one of my friends as I wasn’t interested in acting. Irritably, he replied that Chabrol didn’t want them, he wanted me and I didn’t have to know how to act. A revealing statement.
     This was very awkward. I felt it would be disloyal to my friends if I dumped them to go and talk to a famous director. Besides, what would be the point of going to Monsieur Chabrol just to tell him I didn’t want to be in his film? And anyway it didn't sound like an acting job to me. Part of me also resented being summoned like a peon. Okay, he was a famous director, but that didn’t entitle him to drag in anyone from the street whenever he felt like it. So I told the assistant no, I wouldn't go with him, thank you anyway. 
     Looking back, this was a monumentally stupid thing for me to have done, missing such an opportunity to talk to a talented director I admired. Neither of my friends would have hesitated for a second to dump me and rush off to meet him.
    I would have loved to meet Claude Chabrol, but, at the time, I was too intimidated, rebellious and ignorant to have been able to make the most of it.  But, unlike my friends, M. Chabrol has always continued to speak to me through his films.
*

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CREATING WITH TWITTER

A while ago I aranged to meet a friend I hadn’t seen for eight years for coffee. Since we’d last spoken Daisy (not her real name) had made some major changes in her life: selling her house, packing up her cats and, with her spouse, moving to big sky cowboy country to begin a new life as a sculptor. 

Daisy, looking as pretty as ever, just a little stressed around the edges, was early. We soon got settled at a table, ordered and picked up our conversation where we’d left off eight years previously.  She grumbled about how hard it was to make a name for herself and get her work known and sold.

    “Have you tried Twitter?  It’s good for that.”
    Her face contorted with contempt.
    “Oh please. What a monumental waste of time.”
    “No, really, it works. You can connect with like-minded sculptors who could give you advice and tips and contacts.”
    “No, I don’t think so. I hate email.”
    “It’s not email.”

    “Well, I hate any internet thing that demands my attention.”
    “It doesn’t demand anything. You just put it in the corner of the screen and look at it when you want to and respond to Tweets if you want to.”
    “Tweets?”

    It’s practically impossible to explain Twitter without sounding like a lunatic: It's like the world talking to its self, it's like friends reading different bits of the Sunday paper together.
    “You have to try it to figure out how it will work for you.”
    “No, I don’t think so. It sounds ridiculous.”

    "Just small effort for a big pay off."
    “No. I know that if I work hard enough and I’m brave and tenacious enough, I will succeed,” she concluded fiercely. 
 

But life isn’t that equitable. Life doesn’t give toss about hard work or bravery or good intentions. Luck and rich relatives are more useful to artists than virtues. Not that Daisy doesn’t deserve to succeed, she definitely does, she has the talent and the tenacity. But, understanding that life is sometimes ugly and cruel can prevent a lot of disappointment. 

I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to persuade her to try Twitter, such a terrific resource for what she wanted to do. You can lead a sculptor to stone but you can’t make her chip. I wished we’d had the time to talk about the joy of creating,  and how we always have that even if our art is appreciated only by a few connoisseurs.
*
SCULPTURE, ART, TWITTER,  CREATING

Sunday, December 12, 2010

COMEDY IS NO LAUGHING MATTER

It’s a commonly held belief/snobbery/stupidity, that those who amuse and entertain are less intelligent and important than those who teach and cure and govern. Comedians are considered foolish because they make us smile.
Good grief, where’s the logic in that?
Why is laughter considered frivolous and unimportant when it has been scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones, muscle tension, support the immune system and increase energy?

Comedians and entertainers’ opinions on matters other than jokes and frivolity are not solicited or taken seriously. Why is that?

Like the court jester, the king’s fool, who had a certain power and told the truth wrapped in jokes, Jon Stewart is America's court jester. Witty and smart, selected to interview Barack Obama in an unsuccessful effort to seduce voters in 2010, he got away with calling the POTUS, “Dude”, in true court jester style. The comedian actually came off looking more resolute, decisive and insightful than his interviewee. But we don’t see him interviewed on Face the Nation or Meet the Press. Why is that?
When a comedian gives a serious opinion on anything, people tend to start laughing before he’s finished speaking, even though what he’s saying isn't funny.

Not only are comedians considered foolish but they're expected to be light-hearted and happy at all times.  Comedians are multi-faceted human beings with highs and lows just like everybody else, in fact they may even have a few more lows than most of us. Jim Carrey
was once thought not to have a brain in his head because he made faces and did funny walks. Now we can see his more thoughtful work and interviews that shot down that theory.

Comedy is never taken seriously. 
There’s no Nobel Prize for humour.
Not even an Oscar.

Why is this?

It’s usually  the tragedies that get the acclaim and the prizes.
But, without cartoons and comedy there would be no philosophers, rocket scientists
, doctors, presidents or Nobel Prize winners. They would all have exploded from excess mental exertion and stress.

You may think it’s a waste of time to unwind with
The Simpsons,
P.G. Wodehouse,
Charlie Hebdo,
Ricky Gervais
Weird Al Yankovic
Eddie Izzard
Fran Lebowitz
Monsieur Hulot.

Try not doing it for a year and see how you feel.
Chances are you’ll be wearing a straightjacket, your co-workers will hate you and your spouse will be planning to kill you.


What is a PARADOX? A couple of physicians.
And what is the meaning of ILLEGAL? A sick bird. 


LAUGHTER CAN COMFORT AND TRANSPORT YOU,
SO WHEN NEXT YOU FEEL LIKE 

PATRONISING A COMEDIAN,
 PLAY THIS

AND RESPECT THE POWER
*
LAUGHTER, COMEDY, WRITING,  JIM CARREY, JON STEWART

Sunday, December 5, 2010

NEW AND IMPROVED HUMANS

There are some parts of human anatomy that are  poorly engineered and could be replaced by better bits of other life-forms:

1) 
Sharks’ teeth (polyphydont dentition), whereby old, damaged teeth are constantly replaced with new ones.  This would eliminate dentists, who are expensive and weird.
2) 
Ferns and moss instead of hair. This way we could have photosynthesis and not our current convoluted digestive system with the toxic end-product.  We’d have sap and nice green complexions. 
3)  Kangaroo pouches would eliminate the need for baby-sitting and handbags.
4)  Gazelle hooves would make shoes unnecessary, especially high heels. Little cat feet are also a good alternative. The claws could be useful and the furry toes would permit greater sneaking ability.
5)  Eucalyptus bark for skin. Smooth and grey/green and when it gets old and dry, it just splits, peels off and you have new smooth bark. A bit like human skin of course, but more dramatic.
6)  I'd also rather like having pangolin scales. So elegant, we could look like living artichokes and roll up in a defensive ball. That long tongue also looks like fun.
7)  Of course the dazzling good-looks of feline fur would beat clothes anytime. I don’t fancy all that licking, though. Since tigers swim, do they still have to lick?

8)  And definitely, a TAIL. We humans are always falling over because we were designed to walk on all fours rather than upright on two legs. A tail would stabilise us and we could wag it to show others that we were pleased or pissed off. A prehensile tail would be handy for strap-hanging and driving while putting on makeup. I do also quite fancy a peacock tail.  Useless, but spectacular. I’d be so impressed if a guy walked up to me and did this:
 Photo: Lassi Kurijarvi 2009
Thanks to Rhiannon Paine and Dale Evans 
for their participation in this fantasy.
*

Sunday, November 28, 2010

PLEASING THE READER

"Throes of Creation" by Leonid Pasternak

Do you blog about whatever interests you, do you write from the gut? Or do you write about what you think will appeal to the most readers?
I’ve tried both and most satisfying, of course, is the writing from the gut that appeals to lots of readers. 

 
The best part about writing from rage, despair or joy, is that you don’t have to do any research. And you don’t care what anyone else thinks about it or whether they click or comment on it. You just vent raw, voluptuous spleen. It may not be great literature and it may not please everybody, it may please nobody, but it makes you feel purged and liberated.
 

I can’t figure out what triggers interest or indifference. I’ve tried to reproduce  a popular post in a similar style but without success. I’ve also written what I thought was fresh, gutsy stuff that really pleased me but seemed to please nobody else. Sometimes I write something I feel is so limp and lifeless I’m afraid to post it but I do and it gets surprisingly enthusiastic reactions.
 

I just don’t know what readers will like, so I write what I like. Better writing from me would probably please more readers than my writing on popular topics. This said, blog-writing has been an enormous help with my book. It’s exercised my writing chops, my thinking and my writing discipline. 

I think if I’d aimed to please readers, or branded myself on a single subject, I would never have got the writing experience I have. The interest of readers and their thoughtful comments are a bonus, rather than a goal. 
*  
WRITING, BLOGGING, BOOKS, BRANDING

Sunday, October 31, 2010

VIRTUAL CLOTHES

In pencil animation we just draw clothes on a character, then animate them.  But in CGI, costumes for the characters are more challenging.  Because the clothes, like the characters, will be seen in the round, they have to be designed like real clothes, cut from patterns and “sewn”, all in the computer.
And, like real clothes, it can start with a thread. 
A scientist builds a model of a thread in a computer.
Then s/he weaves the thread, with weft and woof, into a digital cloth, with the distinctive weave of the fabric desired: cotton (the most common thread), twill, satin, silk or wool, or whatever.  Finally, the cloth is lit in the computer to show off the texture.  You can see all the details here (click on the IM06.pdf file)  Thanks to Ian Hopkinson for this link.
These woven digital threads are used mainly in the fabric and textile industry.   If they were to be used in animation, strobing or a flickering visual effect might occur.  You can see this in Figures 12 through 14, in the above article.  This fabric in motion may strobe and flicker even more.


In CG animation, cloth simulation is used.  Here you can play with Andrew Hoyer’s simulated cloth and read his “little explanation” of how cloth is simulated: “…a collection of constraints and point masses in a never ending struggle.”
And here you can see how animator Jessica Hurst uses cloth simulation, including costumes for Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.
  (Thanks to Eloi Champagne for these and the Syflex links).

In the CGI animated feature "Stuart Little 2," very realistic costumes were required, even though Stuart Little didn't really have a good body being very short, with no neck and a belly.   
Costume Designer Mona May made actual tiny patterns for Stuart Little’s simple wardrobe of jeans and sweaters.  Everyday fabrics like denim and thermal knit were simulated, with dirt marks where Stuart wiped his paws. The patterns were scanned and "sewn" together in the computer so the fabric would exhibit surface tension. Stuart Little was "fitted" in the computer, as well.  And, like an actual fitting, adjustments had to be made, to accommodate Stuart's tail and the thickness of his fur.

Another challenge for virtual clothing, is animating it.
Virtual clothes naturally have to move with the character, so cloth software needs to calculate collisions between the cloth and itself as well as other objects, notably, the body wearing it.  Syflex is a widely used cloth simulator plug-in that can run inside most major 3D apps (Maya, Softimage, Houdini).  But most of these CGI (3D) apps are now also shipped with their own cloth simulation solver.


As amazing as these cloth simulators are, I still notice that the cloth doesn’t always move intelligently, i.e. heavy cloth like velvet should move more heavily, more slowly than lighter cloth like muslin.  But, in some simulations, the cloth seems to move like velvet in some places and in others, it bounces and flies around like muslin. 
Weight is always a problem in CGI animation              
*

Sunday, October 24, 2010

READING CHUCK PALAHNIUK

Chuck Palahniuk has a scholarly look but beefy arms and a muscular body which may explain FIGHT CLUB. Unafraid to plunge into sordid reality with subversive and perverse ideas he uses very little description and there's not a cliché in sight. He’s funny too, in a dark, anarchic way.  He can also horrify you, break your heart and make you think. No matter how weird, bizarre or disturbing a setting he creates, the reader is there in it, feeling the textures, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds: the dank, rotting house in FIGHT CLUB, the dusty wine cellar in TELL-ALL, the asylum in CHOKE.

His "Minimalist transgressional fiction" is refreshingly different.
I hate violence so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed FIGHT CLUB.  The protagonist is a tortured, conflicted soul, insecure and desperate, his violent and non-violent sides fighting each other. Maybe that’s what made the physical fighting tolerable. A thinking man’s violence? Plus, I learned how to make soap out of lipo-sucked fat. The FIGHT CLUB film was remarkably faithful to the book and I think director David Fincher owes a lot of his reputation to Chuck Palahniuk.

There’s a sturdy plot with lots of subversion and anarchy in the books I've read and I couldn’t help liking the characters, identifying with them. They struggle so mightily. I felt for them, I was them. And I was sorry to let them go at the end.

CHOKE is full of original  ideas and themes.
See this extract:
“A blind chicken with half a head and no wings, shit smeared all over it, stumbles up against my boot , and when I reach down to pet it, the thing’s shivering inside its feathers.  It makes a soft clucking, cooing sound that’s almost a purr. It’s nice to see something more pathetic than I feel right now.”
Jonathan Franzen could never write that.
Palahniuk manages not to bore the pants off us with esoteric terms, inside knowledge and research on how the plastic I.D. bracelets worn in an insane asylum work, what it’s like to be a costumed character in a 1737 colonial village, a sex-addict, or Jesus.

I’ve only read three of his books so far and, even though RANT (which I haven’t yet read) didn't get rave reviews and I found TELL-ALL irritating, I still want to read the rest of the Palahniuk oeuvre:
SURVIVOR,  INVISIBLE MONSTERS,  LULLABY,  DIARY,
HAUNTED,  RANT,  SNUFF,  PYGMY  and  DAMNED
     and to see future films based on Palahniuk books:
•    Invisible Monsters (2010)
•    Haunted (2010)
•    Survivor (2011)
•    Rant, optioned property
•    Diary, optioned property
•    Lullaby, optioned property
•    Snuff, rights bought by a French company
*
PALAHNIUK, WRITING, BOOKS

Sunday, October 10, 2010

WRITING ABOUT ANIMATION

I love writing about the art of animation.
Traditional, pencil animation, that is.
It’s a very sensual thing, holding a pencil in your fingers, the wooden angles against your knuckle,
feeling the texture of the paper, hearing the hiss of graphite, inhaling the papery smells
.
It’s intellectually stimulating to write about
discovering the history and literature of the period you’ll be drawing and animating, researching period costumes to match the story, finding the best shoes and hairstyles to match your character.
It’s an adventure to write about drawing a character,
starting tentatively with blue pencil, lightly sketching the first ideas, the construction lines, then changing to graphite and pressing harder and harder until you’re carving your character into the paper.
It’s a bit of a chore to make model sheets
for all the artists on the crew to follow so the character looks as though she’s been drawn by only one artist.
It's a challenge to write about how to measure the character in heads,
i.e. how many heads tall is she?  One and a half is she's very cartoony, five and a half or six if she's a cartoonified human.  And how big is she compared to other characters?  Describe a size comparison chart. Give detailed instructions on how to draw special features, such as eyes, hands, feet and how she should be animated.
It’s weirdly satisfying to describe spiteful studio gossip and the damage it does, artists working hellishly long hours, being fed dinner by the studio so you’ll stay at your desk longer, getting so tired that you get to work by muscle memory and have no recollection of how you got there.
But, best of all, it’s thrilling to explain how a character is animated, comes alive, how he's made to move across the page, in the costume and shoes and hairdo that you’ve chosen for him. How he squashes and stretches and bounces and arcs and overlaps and talks, sometimes with the words you’ve written.
Finally, how breathtaking it is to sit in the dark and see him all painted
on the screen, with music and effects and backgrounds.
And sometimes, to hear applause.
It's very exciting to write about all this.
*



Sunday, October 3, 2010

TWIBULATIONS

This morning, a big, soft mist settled over Los Angeles and finally broke the heat with its little cat feet.  As the heat-induced tensions lifted, I realised just how oppressive the heat had been and to what extent it had curtailed mental and physical activities.  Could this be why most of the great civilisations have evolved in the colder North, rather than the tropics?
During the past week of horrible heat (113º, a record even for summer in LA!), when most of our activities were focused on staying cool (cool drinks, cool meals, cool ice, cool air conditioning), several really big, nasty problems sneaked into my life.  Most arrived in innocent-looking emails that were really landmines and time-bombs, requiring instant action when I was least equipped to deal with such things.  Don’t bother me now, I’m making more ice, I felt like telling them.
      The majority of folks I follow on Twitter spare each other the real tribulations of their life, keeping their Tweets bright and witty (or dark and witty) but definitely on the airy side.  Or maybe they just have carefree, comfortable lives with fairies and flunkies to take care of difficulties.  Occasionally, though, I discover in a DM that horrible things are happening to them and I’ll be amazed that they can Tweet so cheerfully.  Now and then there are Tweets about catastrophes, like the editor whose apartment burned down with all her worldly possessions (she had no insurance) so a PayPal account was set up and money and help poured in from Twitter and that was wonderful.
But Twitter is best for sniveling and whining about life’s little irritations and annoyances and our small triumphs over minor adversity, not Tweeting about tragedy and horrible diseases.
Blogs are a different matter.  Lots of dramatic, heart-breaking stuff goes into blogs.  I understand the need to unload misery, but I don't agree with burdening the reader with it.
The nasty ghastliness of life and the terrible things that befall us are best dealt with in private--then woven into the pages of a best-selling novel or exposed in a prize-winning misery memoir later.
Misery should be made to pay for itself! 
*

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ANIMATION AT VERSAILLES

I decided to make my first animated film in Paris.
The fact that I didn’t yet know how to animate did not deter me.
First, I had to get money to produce the film. I approached the money men, two Canadians. They said they were very busy, but that they’d listen to my pitch if I took them to Versailles and showed them around. Sigh. 

Animation gets no respect.
Pitching a film is hard enough at the best of times but to do it at in the palace of Versailles is truly terrifying.  Versailles is vast, huge and very, very grand. An extravaganza of mirrors, parquet, gilded statues, painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers. Symbols of power and wealth everywhere. 

The opposite of the minimalist film I had in mind.
In such a setting, I just couldn’t pitch my ten-minute, stylised, hand-drawn film. 

I waited until we went outside to the vast parks, gigantic urns, stunning statues, extravagant fountains and French gardens with swirling patterns of tight little hedges and flowers. More symbols of power, but I felt I could do my pitch where the grandeur was less oppressive and there was air and sunlight.
I kept it simple and quick.
And, on the way home, they said they would give me the money.
The catch was the film had to be ready in two months to be released with their live-action feature film.
Two months to write, design, direct, produce, animate, paint backgrounds edit and do titles for a ten-minute hand-drawn film is close to impossible.
Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t accept such a deadline.
But I did and, despite many pitfalls, some catastrophic events and thanks to superhuman efforts, the film was finished on time.
It opened with the feature film on the Champs Elysées. 
The audience, there to see the live-action feature, spontaneously applauded my short film.
I burst into tears.
It may have looked like a little animated film, but making it was a glorious, epic adventure, a life-transforming drama, a creative inspiration, born in the palace of Versailles.

*
ANIMATION, ART, VERSAILLES, FRANCE, HANDDRAWN

Sunday, September 19, 2010

PROPOSING MARRIAGE

Like many of our social rituals, the marriage proposal has been defined and distorted by television.  We’ve seen so many sit-com actors sinking to one knee, making an unbearably pompous speech bursting with painfully self-aware truisms and clichés, that it seems we're somehow obliged to emulate this theatrical behavior.  If it’s on TV, it must be the proper thing to do, right?
    What could be less romantic than inappropriate actions and words in an inappropriate setting?  Being nervous about proposing a lifetime of commitment is understandable, so why add pressure by doing it in a football stadium, a crowded restaurant, a public park, with brass bands, acrobats, dancing monkeys and the ring hidden in the pork chops or the fruit salad?
    This is all so painfully contrived and cringe-worthy that I wonder that anyone’s proposal is accepted and that more proposers are not shot on the spot for criminally embarrassing their prospective mate.
    Not that intimate proposals can’t be equally embarrassing.  A former boyfriend once invited me to a beautiful hotel near Honfleur for the weekend.  We’d been there before and enjoyed it but this time there was tension in the air.  It was cold and rainy and when we arrived, we ordered tea which came in lovely porcelain cups with hot water in them to keep them warm.  But, instead of  enjoying the warmth and the tea, Joyboy kept staring insistently at me, prodding and grabbing.  Astonishingly, he then suggested a walk in the cold, muddy woods.  I declined and the weekend went from bad to worse, communication came to a standstill.  On the drive back to Paris he sullenly muttered as he stared at the road ahead: “Do you want to marry me?”
    Well, no actually.  Couldn’t you tell by the shrinking back and the lack of enthusiasm for all your suggestions?
    At least he didn’t go down on one knee while driving.
    Of course, if you want to marry someone, it doesn't really matter how they ask you, but looking you in the eye with due solemnity will make a proposal more memorable and acceptable than any gratuitous hoopla with balloons and skywriting.
*

Sunday, August 8, 2010

SMARTENING UP

Enough dumbing down. 
Time to smarten up instead.
Time to clobber little kids with Latin and Greek, French and Mandarin and English and to stop saying that any old grammar and spelling is acceptable.  Let’s set demanding tasks and draconian curricula at an early age and let’s encourage excellence instead of rewarding mediocrity.
How about expecting people to make an effort to keep up, instead of talking down to them?
In fact, people like a challenge.  We rise to it, it stimulates and requires us use different parts of our brain.  We feel good when we’ve mastered something difficult.  We’ve proved that we’re better than we thought.  
What's the point of condescending and assuming people are dumber than they are?  Supposedly, it’s so the slower ones can understand.  But it’s been shown often enough that those of whom little or nothing is expected, deliver.  Likewise, when a lot is expected of the same people, they also deliver.  Like the inner city kids dealing with hard lives who can manage calculus, ballet, opera, chess, violins when that is expected of them. 
Dumbing down does nobody any favours.
Lack of expectations is crippling.
Better to assume that people are smart and expect them to understand than to expect little or nothing and so discourage them from improving, exploring and growing.  If it were assumed that we're all more intelligent than we think we are, we’d try harder, learn more, get better jobs and our quality of life would improve.  A bit utopic but why not aim high?
People want to conform, so why not set a high standard to conform to rather than a lower one?  Smarts are not the purview of the rich, neither is stupidity confined to the poor.  There are many rich, educated people who aren't intelligent, many poor people with so-called street smarts.  Smarts are smarts whether they're street or academic.
Let’s stop calling smart people nerds and dweebs and dorks and geeks and picturing them as insecure weaklings in glasses.
Smart people are confident and strong and sexy.
Have you noticed that stupid people consider others stupider than themselves? 
And intelligent people consider others at least as smart as they are, if not smarter?
Stupid people are dangerous.
Stupid people dumb down.
Fight stupidity by smartening up.
*

Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE PENCIL

Although both are forms of communication, art is emotional, abstract and open to interpretation, whereas writing is more direct, precise and explicit.  You can say exactly what you mean with words, but with art you can only suggest.
Making art is also much easier than writing.  It’s soothing and relaxing and you can think about other things while you’re doing it.  It’s much quicker too.
You know what they say about a picture.
When you see something beautiful or interesting, you get out your pencil and paints and capture it in a few minutes, hours or days.  But when you have an interesting idea for a book or a story, it takes weeks, months or years of thinking and word-wrangling to capture it.
     I was once hired to do calligraphy (a combination of art and writing) on wedding invitations.  When my employer saw how quickly I did them, he was outraged.  He thought it took hours to produce a card.  The fact that years of experience allowed me to work fast did not occur to him.  Whether it takes minutes or hours, the result is the same.  But time and effort are often valued more highly than expertise and experience in most forms of art.
     Art also provides a lovely tactile experience that writing doesn't: the feel of a pencil,  the smell of graphite, the tooth and fragrance of the paper, the wet mobility of a brush, the glistening thickness of oil paint plumped up with linseed oil that looks so delicious you want to lick it. 
     All you have in writing is the touch of the keys and the sight of the letters and words on the screen.



    But writing is more powerful than art.  Art can sock you in the eye when you first see it, but once out of sight, it’s out of mind.  Whereas writing can inspire, encourage, educate and amuse you, also change your life.  Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures.
     Although art is my livelihood, books saved my life.
When things were at their blackest, books gave me insight and hope for better days.  If I hadn’t had books, I wouldn't have known there were better things in the world.  I wouldn't have known there was art.
I discovered Picasso, Matisse, Michelangelo and Boticelli in books.
     Where art is soothing and easy and quick, writing is painful and hard and slow and can make writers sweat and cry.  Writing makes people think and wonder and question much more than art does.  Writers have to dredge up old hurts and passions, remember and analyze them so we can use them in our characters.  This is a
nasty, painful process, but it makes for good reading.  Of course we can also recall past joys and triumphs for your reading pleasure, but doing that is just as difficult and mind-rending.
     There are rare delights, like the exact word you need coming immediately to your fingertips, or a whole phrase jumping on to the screen, full of energy and life and profound meaning.  But mostly that doesn't happen.  Words require vast amounts of winkling, prying, chiseling and thinking.
     And once we’ve actually got an idea, there’s the difficulty of formulating and clarifying it; we know what we mean but will readers?  Searching brain and Google for the right word and rhythm, keeping up the passion and maintaining the same voice for months requires a lot of staring into space, mental gymnastics and disciplined thought.
     Words are far more exhausting than colours.  And worse yet, after all those exertions, we then have to go back and murder our darlings, ruthlessly delete and pare until we have the purest essence of our story.  Imagine finishing a painting, then having to go back and scrape half the paint off.  Fortunately art isn’t improved by pruning.
     But, in the end, art complements writing and vice versa.

*

Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE POWER OF WRITING

I love the power of writing fiction.
Making up a story, then doing my darnedest to make you believe it’s true. It's a writhing, never-ending series of inventions. And isn’t invention another word for lies?
Fiction is all lies, after all.
And lying involves a lot of effort.
First, I have to choose a voice to lie, er, write in. The most intoxicating part of a writer's power is the choice of voice.
What a wonderful thing to be able to choose to be tough or timid, male or female, old or young, smart or dumb. To be an object, an insect, a mineral or an animal.
Very exciting.
Absolute power.
In animation and film production, unless I'm directing, I have no power; it’s all about following orders and directions and ghastly teamwork.
Even in screenplays I’d be restricted to writing:
HOUSE – INTERIOR – DAY.
Whereas, in a book, I’m gloriously free to create the house, decorate and light it as well as pick the
furniture, the weather and the season.
On the page, I get to be writer, producer, director, cinematographer and God. 
I can dictate who’s who, what’s what and who does what to whom and when.
I am the writing dictator.

Woof! 
 
I also get to cast the actors, choose their makeup, their props their age and their wardrobe.
I can dress them and undress them,
make them witty or thick, ugly or lovely.
Sometimes I torture them, sometimes I pamper them.
I decide whether my protagonist evolves in the first, third or, if I’m insane, the second person.
And whether she’s good or evil or a little of both.
I can kill her off or make her blossom, put words in her mouth, thoughts in her head, clothes on her back.
Make her purr or suffer.
I rule her world.
But, once the choice of basic ingredients has been made, the more muscular part of writerly power begins. Wrangling those choices into literary reality, making a believable world with warm, living characters is the part of writing that makes us all sweat. If the “rules” of technique are followed too closely, I can end up at best, with a clever book and stone dead characters. David Mitchell and Martin Amis write very cleverly but their characters don’t live. Not for me, anyway. On the other hand, if I flout all the rules, I risk an incoherent plot and dead characters.
A delicate balance of solid construction, believable invention, charm, humor, suspense, living breathing characters and the unexpected is what I’m after.  

Piece of cake.
And, at
some point, that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency, has to be respected. Dialogue and actions must match the choice of voice, gender, wardrobe, plot, climate etc. Making sure that the petite, magenta-haired beauty on page one doesn’t comb her blond hair and admire her long legs on page one hundred, is every bit as challenging as the power of choice.
Finally, I have the power life and death over my characters and plot.
I delete cherished bits of writing that no longer fit, remove whole episodes and people from the story if they don’t contribute anything, swap one character’s dialogue for another’s because it’s more dramatic that way.
I actually love this power and never miss the darlings I’ve murdered.
I always prefer the leaner, sleeker story.
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WRITING, TECHNIQUE, FICTION, CHARACTERS, 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

BETTER BLOG DESIGN

As a writer, I read a lot of blogs. And, as a designer and artist, I often find myself subconsciously re-arranging the layouts, fonts and colors of the blogs I read.   
I cant help it, it's déformation professionnelle.  
When I find a beautiful, well-designed blog, I clap my hands and Tweet it. 
I’m not just confessing my personal preferences here, there actually are official rules of design and here are some that could be used to get the best results for your blog:  

Use DARK type on a WHITE or very pale background.  It's  clear and easy to read.  We blog readers are an impatient lot, so make it easy and pleasant for us to read your content fast. 

*  Light type on a dark background  may look dramatic, but in fact it's hard to read and gives readers a headache.   Even worse, is dark type on a dark background, practically illegible, how can you expect anyone to read this?  Light type on dark can work for a headline but not for reading a long piece.  Besides, a black page is depressing.  When I see a blog with a black background and a light font, I usually click off right away.  So do other readers.  This is a shame if you have good stuff for us to read.

*  Blogs with too many confusing elements, like lots of pictures, columns, clashing colours or flashing ads are also hard to read and are often skipped.
 
Type shouldn’t be too small or ornate to read comfortably or too BIG and SHOUTY.  A sans serif font like Verdana or Arial is more legible than Times or Georgia.
 
Spacing is also important: great slabs of text are off-putting.  A lack of margins is suffocating.  And too much space between paragraphs can cause readers to lose the thread and drift away.  


A peaceful-looking page with plenty of space, wide margins, a clear, easy-to-read header and maybe an interesting picture that tempts us into the generously paragraphed text, will make us more likely to enjoy your content and come back for more.

If you think it's the value of the words in your blog that counts and its appearance  doesn't matter, think again.  People can be turned off before they even get to your valuable prose.  We do judge books by their covers.
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

HOW TO BE A FOREIGNER

First, get into a vehicle of some sort and drive, fly or sail across a border.
Get out of the vehicle and bang, you’re a foreigner.
Easy.
The funny thing is, nothing has changed about you.
You’re exactly the same person.
But now people are suspicious of you.
Because you’re different from them.
You feel they're different, but majority rules.

If you're on vacation you'll go home in a few weeks and no longer be a foreigner.
But if you stay, your understanding of "foreignness" starts to evolve.
You begin to adapt to the new culture.
You dress differently, you eat differently, you speak differently.
Sometimes you have to learn to speak a new language.
Learning a new language is a wonderful thing even though you
feel like an idiot for not being able to say the simplest things for a few weeks.
Locals will also think you’re an idiot for not being able to say the simplest things in their language, forgetting that you can say them perfectly well in your language which they probably don't speak.

And you have an accent, the trademark of the foreigner.
In a couple of months, you find that you can speak with ease.
And you’ve learned more than just words.
New customs have been absorbed and you perceive the world differently.
You’re enriched, expanded, grown.
And now, when you go home, you’ll be treated like a foreigner.
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Because I’ve lived in so many places, I’m a universal foreigner.
There’s nowhere I can go without hearing:
“You have an accent.  Where’re you from?”
On one hand, I’ve been massively enriched by other cultures 
and experienced thrilling things.
On the other hand I don’t belong anywhere.
In a patriotic, flag-waving way.
And this isn’t a bad thing.
The world could do with less jingoism and xenophobia.
There’s no reason to be defined by our birthplace, something over which we have no control, for heaven’s sake.
I’m a citizen of the world and I wave whatever flag I fancy.
I’ve chosen the country I call home and it’s not the place I’m “from”.
On July 4th, US independence day will be celebrated with fireworks and gusto.
On June 26th I celebrate with champagne and quiet satisfaction, my personal independence day, the day I left my birth country for the country I consider home. 
The day I became a foreigner.
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Sunday, June 27, 2010

ADVICE FOR WRITERS

When I first started writing, I enthusiastically read every how-to book, blog and website, I could find. 
But soon they began to be repetitive
and not useful. I felt I had wasted a lot of time.
This is the most useful advice for writers I’ve found:

1)    Read widely and well so you know how to write.
2)    Live wildly so you have something to write about.
3)    There is no advice for writers, you have to figure     it out for yourself. John Steinbeck realised this and he turned out all right.
 
At some point, a writer must assume responsibility for her writing and express her own thoughts, in her own way. Some writers don’t ever have the courage to do this, they hide behind popular themes and formats and write unsatisfying books where style and formula are more visible than the characters or the plot.
    So-called “creative writing” courses are another form of advice-for-writers. I took a few courses and felt frustrated and irritated by most. We were asked to go out and sit in a café, observe and return to class to write a story. Another teacher played a piece of music and asked us to write about what it evoked. We were also told not to write what we knew but to make it all up (deliberate sabotage?). Another teacher mocked a student who tried to talk about Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. “Who?” he asked with an ignorant curl of the lip. Only the course where the teacher assigned reading and gave us plentiful reaction to our writing was valuable. The fact that this teacher loved my writing and laughed out loud at the funny bits naturally made it my favorite. 
    I don’t think good writing can be taught, anyway. It has to be lived, observed from real life, ripped from the gut. Somehow, I don’t think FLAUBERT, NABOKOV, SHAKESEARE, MORRISON or PINTER based their writing on advice. 
    The practical stuff like formatting a manuscript and how to write a query letter can be figured out in a day or two, no need to follow self-appointed advice-givers for years or, worse yet, pay them.
    Too many new writers follow advice too humbly for too long. If you don’t trust your own writing, nobody else will either. Stick your neck out, jump in, take a chance. Refuse to make a career out of reading how-to books and advice blogs.
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Sunday, June 20, 2010

MY FATHER

I never gave my father a tie.
I gave him books and crossword puzzles.
He was a tall, slender, beautiful Viking of a man with a terrific sense of humour, very creative and intelligent. 

He and I enjoyed the same things, laughed at the same jokes, we both loved crossword puzzles and books. We were very much alike but never really close. When I was little, he made me a tricycle, a tree house, later, he grew peach trees, strawberries and grapes in our garden and worked very hard to give us a nice home and a good education. He made exploding wine from the grapes, raised chinchillas, built his own workshop where he polished gemstones (tawny topaz and milky jade).
As a child I would go to the end of the drive and wait for him to come home from work. We’d drive back to the house in companionable silence.
But he never took me to an art gallery, a museum, never taught me to drive or write a cheque, never came to any school events.
He was always working.

Sometimes he took us fishing.
I hated fishing.
Yet I think he loved me in a strange, unstated way.
Do we really need the words to know we're loved?
I knew by the look in his eyes when I told him about things that were important to me, when we shared a moment on the backyard steps eating yogurt which my mother and brother didn’t like, when we watched cricket together, which my mother and brother also didn’t like.
When I left home to go to college and work, he never came to visit me.  But he was always thrilled to see me when I went home for a visit.
I think he was terribly shy.
And lonely.
His was a pale, ethereal type of love.  Very distant.  

Not demonstrative.  Barely perceptible, really.
Nowhere near enough, but it was there.
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FATHER'S DAY,  FATHERS, DAD, PARENT, WHO'S YOUR DADDY?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

ARE WE IN A RECOVERY OR A BATHTUB?

Have you noticed that your groceries still cost twice as much as they did last year, that people are still moving out of your neighborhood in droves, that you still can’t get a loan at your bank, that many of your friends are still unemployed, that whole countries are now going bankrupt?                     
     So why do news sources and business commentators keep talking about “green shoots”, “signs of recovery”, "we’ve hit bottom” and “the worst is behind us”?   And why do others optimistically suggest that the recovery is reassuringly near and mention “U” shaped, “V” shaped and “W” shaped recoveries?  They’ve been doing this for two years already. 

     Politicians and economists have made no definite statements about a recovery, they talk ever so delicately about the "recession" as though this were just another business cycle, caused by a widespread drop in spending.  Hogwash.  It’s a big fat global crisis created by greedy crooks on Wall Street that continues to cause worldwide suffering.   
  • Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says: "Even after a recovery gets under way, the rate of growth of real economic activity is likely to remain below its longer-run potential for a while ... businesses are likely to be cautious about hiring, implying that the unemployment rate could remain high for a time, even after economic growth resumes."       

  • “It’s going to be a slog,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. “What we have been through is an abyss.”   

  • “Housing is the most affordable it has been in 40 years because of the decline in prices and low mortgage rates”, says Richard DeKaser in Washington, who is an expert on house prices. “The stringency of credit will diminish as lenders become more confident they are not at risk of losing their equity.”           

    You don’t say.  And when exactly will we be able to borrow money from the banks who’ve used our taxpayer’s bailout money to make profits and give fat bonuses to themselves, but who still won’t lend us money to buy a house or a car?    
    More honest prognosticators are talking about a "Bathtub Recovery", where the rapid economic descent is followed by a long, flat period scraping along the bottom before an eventual upturn.  But even this is just another way of saying there are more bad times ahead.
    Is all this pussyfooting around to lull us into a false sense of security?  For fear that we will rise up and riot in the streets, like the Greeks did recently and rightly so?  Do governments think we haven’t noticed the signs all around us that economies are still in trouble?  How long can you keep mentioning “green shoots” without any sign of them?  We recognize a dead cat bounce in a bathtub when we see one.   
    And when I think that Wall Street quants and greedy banksters still have the vast sums of money they made from their global-financial-crisis-causing instruments, while we still struggle with the consequences of what they did, I do want to go and riot in the street.  Why isn’t their bonus money being used to bail out the banks and giant corporations instead of ours?
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Sunday, May 23, 2010

MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY

There must be something in the water in Spain, birthplace of at least two famous chefs who practice food physics: José Andrés, who has eight restaurants in the US and Ferran Adrià who, of course, has El Bulli.  Considered the best restaurant in the world in 2007, 2008, 2009, El Bulli, became famous for Adria’s so-called molecular gastronomy, his use of tools such as precision scales, liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and chemicals to create dishes that taste as unusual as they look:  solid-looking raisins are really spherified drops of sweet sherry, a thin membrane having been chemically created around the liquid.  Seemingly-solid olives are really deconstructed, emulsified and spherified olives.  There are unexpected temperatures (little balls of frozen egg yolk) and interesting flavours and textures like monkfish livers with sake-infused grapes, vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes, tartare of marrow and green tea, a raspberry butterfly on yoghurt covered in liquorice powder, beetroot-yoghurt meringues, black sesame sponge cake with the texture of crumbling lace, violets with nectar and tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice.
    Lest you want to rush over to Spain to try some of the above, be aware that El Bulli will close on July 30, 2011 and will re-open in 2014 as a "gastronomic think tank" exploring further experimental gastronomy.
   Both Adrià and Andrés have lectured at Harvard University. In December 2008, Adrià demonstrated "caviar" of melon droplets and "pasta" made of ham. While there, he signed a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to collaborate on gastronomic science with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
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                                                      ^ Art: Guiseppe Arcimboldo>
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    Meanwhile, in America, José Andrés, has bravely introduced the "small plate" dining concept and opened a chain of restaurants, including Minibar, Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo, and Zatinya.  It's possible that this concept won’t catch on with American diners, who tend to prefer the "large platter" dining concept.  Andrés does the same sort of things Adrià does: culinary foams and gels, odd temperatures, strange flavour and texture combinations.
    Then there is Heston Blumenthal's THE FAT DUCK in Bray, Berkshire, which serves sardine-on-toast sorbet, snail porridge, various froths and foams and bacon-and-egg ice cream.  
   Even though some of them are just plain silly, I like some aspects of molecular gastronomy enabled by new technology (candied cilantro, frozen honey), take a look at this.  But why all this taste deception and culinary disguise?  I’m not against adventures in taste or texture, I'd try these taste-pranks for fun, but I object to fooling my palate and torturing food like this on a regular basis.  Are food cocktails better than savouring flavours individually?  I don't think so.  I don't really want my palate to be surprised or bewildered by food that’s been foamed, frozen, gelled, frothed, emulsified, acidified, artificially colored, or chemically enhanced.  And besides, wine can’t be matched to this motley molecular cuisine.  Eating fine food with fine wine is one of life’s great pleasures and shouldn’t be messed with.  The novelty of eating something hot that you expected to be cold, something sweet you expected to be savoury and vice versa quickly wears off, whereas the  euphoria created by a lusty meal of ordinary food and wine lasts for days.
    And if we’re considering culinary adventures, why not explore all the less familiar foods that we rarely get to taste?  Like goat eyes, octopus beak, snail eggs, cock combs, hedgehog, kangaroo tail, crocodile or snake?  
    But, whatever the cuisine, food exploration is something we should start in school.  Nobody should grow up thinking fast food is all there is.  Our palate and throat need educating too and we should learn that food and wine can be so much more than mere fuel.  Teachers at Pembroke College, Cambridge dine well but is should be the students who do.  It's not such a wild idea though, food could be used to teach chemistry and physics and, along the way, an appreciation for gastronomy.  After all, this chemical cuisine was started by scientist Hervé This in France, where he has served as adviser to the French Minister of Education and has been invited to join the lab of Nobel Prize-winning molecular chemist Jean-Marie Lehn.
    On a more natural culinary note, Copenhagen’s NOMA was named best restaurant in the world in 2010 and it certainly sounds a lot more sensual and food-friendly.  Chief cook and owner, René Redzepi has worked at El Bulli, but seems much more respectful of natural food than the molecular gastronomists.  No chemicals and foams here, Nordic freshness and purity is predominant: horse mussels, deep-sea crabs and langoustines from the Faeroe Islands, which are alive until the moment they are served, seaweed and curds from Iceland, musk ox, smoked marrow, dried scallops and watercress, vintage potato and whey, pickled pear and verbena, sea-buckthorn, herbs and frozen milk, berries and the purest drinking water from Greenland.  They also have a very serious wine list which you can actually match to the food.
    Now that sounds like something worthy of the detour and the bill.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

PITY THE CARICATURISTS


Barack Obama is a good-looking President and a caricaturist’s dream: stick-out ears, big teeth, big grin, you couldn't ask for more:

David Miliband is also a handsome man and just look what a good caricaturist can do to him:
But, even though Nick Clegg is just as handsome as the others, he’s a caricaturist’s nightmare.  He has tiny, close-fitting ears, his features are terrifyingly regular, his teeth and nose are boringly straight.  Absolutely nothing to exaggerate.  Except a long neck and tall forehead.  Which leads to these:
He's impossible to draw, let alone caricature.  I fear he’ll have to be represented by a symbol:
Will Nick be the only un-caricaturable politician in history?

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