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Latest Words
May 2013
> MAY 31: Road Runners
> MAY 30: The Ascent
> MAY 29: Practical vs. CG
> MAY 28: Crafting an Antique
> MAY 27: The Profitable General Audience
> MAY 24: Colour & Reliability
> MAY 23: Short Film Cult
> MAY 22: Young readers are the best audience
> MAY 21: Advertising vs. Press Coverage
> MAY 17: Psychomachia
> MAY 16: Technical Assist
> MAY 15: Guilty of Revision
> MAY 14: The Perfect Round next steps

MAY 31 2013: Road Runners

When people say they like Road Runner cartoons, they really mean they like Wile E. Coyote, because he is the true hero of the films. Wile E. is the archetype for never giving up. Even though he never wins, we love him for trying. All the same, he is a pathetic loser, because he brings invention down to an absurd level of entertaining creativity. The Road Runner, on the other hand, is just an impossible moving target.

The team of Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones took their cartoons far beyond the limitations of reality by exploring the ultimate, unharnessed potential of animation. What they do with a tunnel entrance painted on the face of a cliff has to be one of the greatest gags of all time.

Someone compared my character "Kele" to the Road Runner, but I have to disagree. While he is not particularly sympathetic and maybe not even heroic, he is certainly neither an impossible target nor hilarious loser. He gets dropped into a world where he doesn't belong. He does possess abilities that are inappropriate to the situation. So he is more like John Carter (Edgar Rice Burroughs) or Superman (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster).

Analogies are endless. Among the many differences in comparison to cartoon and comic characters, Kele does not have a secret identity. He is also not edible. He has more in common with WALL-E, except for the fact he has no romantic inclination - unlike vampires and various undead monsters from vintage horror films. No, Kele, is more of a standalone kind of guy. He is almost perfect like the creature from Alien. Wait, no, he doesn't kill anyone either. Maybe he has more in common with a smartphone or a Blu-ray player. Come to think of it, he actually is kind of like the Road Runner . . . perfect and impossible to catch.

MAY 30 2013: The Ascent

There are now over 3,000 people who have ascended the summit of Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it on May 29, 1953. Even an 80-year-old has done it now (Yuichiro Miura), but although there may be a long queue of climbers standing around waiting for their chance to stand on the absolute top of the world, it is NOT a picnic.

In response, however, there are those who make fun of it being more like a tourist attraction, but no matter how many people make it up there, it will never be easy. There are plenty of other pursuits that require extreme effort, discipline and expense too, but you don't die in the endeavor.

The Tibetan name for the mountain is Chomolungma, but it is also known as Sagarmatha, Qomolangma and Zhengmu Feng. Translations include Saint Mother, Holy Mother and Earth Mother as well as others. You can see where this is going. It is the prime, almost divine peak of all. The name "Everest" really has no meaning in reference to Nepal, Tibet or the Himalayas (it's actually the name of a British Surveyor).

My spin on this topic is the fact that there are now a lot of people who are capable of making it to the top of Chomolungma, while up until 1953 there were none. Sir Edmund was the first. There have been many firsts including Moll Flanders by by Daniel Defoe (published 1722) considered to be the first novel of the English Language. Then there's Van Eyck's pigment paint, the phone, the radio, the movie camera and the eBook. There are firsts in every category of human activity, but in the 21st Century there are now hundreds or maybe thousands of people who are capable of equalling and improving upon that first whatever it may be. There are so many excellent artists, writers, musicians and creative people working in the arts, one tends to forget how difficult each one of these pursuits can be and what an accomplishment it is to complete an ascent.

To those who have done it, please accept a pat on the back. To those who diminish the accomplishment, the rewards for shallow judgements are hardly worth having.

MAY 29 2013: Practical vs. CG

It's absolutely amazing to watch a film and later realize the production crew was not shooting "practical" (which means the images are animated / rendered computer images instead of props or sets). More virtual cars can be destroyed spinning wildly in flames while flying and exploding through the air in CG. Stunt drivers can comfortably advise at a safe distance.

Over the last 20 years CG has come a long way. Does everyone remember the first version of Castle Wolfenstein by id Software? Their programming innovations (John Carmack and John Romero) broke down video game technical boundaries with their high speed, radically efficient game engine/rendering breakthroughs. Meanwhile, in the same year id Software was founded, one of the biggest technical breakthroughs in film was Terminator 2 (1991). The film integrated 3D modeleed and rendered images into practical shots so well they appeared almost seamless. Of course, today, we see some flaws and some shots look more obvious than others, but at the time T2 was state of the art.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) dipped into the "uncanny valley" where animated characters and robots can became creepy and "repulsive," because they look too realistic and the audience can tell they're not real. See Masahiro Mori: There are a bunch of articles here.

2010's Tron Legacy revisited the valley with its rendered version of a younger Flynn/Clu - based on the actual Jeff Bridges who played the older version of himself. Meanwhile, animated films such as Tintin and Ratatouille look photo realistic, but with an obvious cartoon distortion.  Transformers, Avatar, The Hobbit and Life of Pi go head to head with CG vs. practical.

My little book doesn't really use computer modelling, lighting or shading, however. Although it was pretty well completely created on computers, it retains a hand-drawn quality. It could be animated with a similar look and feel. I'm looking into assembling a production team <grin>.

MAY 28 2013: Crafting an Antique

Writing is like creating an antique. You begin with an idea as simple and primitive as a silver goblet. You shape it and craft it and develop it until it arrives at the precise dimensions you think it should be. It's your decision. You hope it will please others to see it. At first, it may be uneven or rough or unpolished, but you keep working at it until you get to the point where it's as good as it can be or where you are willing to abandon it.

Perfect, of course is unattainable. Even in science and math, when it comes right down to absolutes, perfection is a vanishing point that can never be reached. Try reading Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter for an excellent analysis of cognitive science within the constructs of math, art and music.

Assembling words and making them understandable to any audience is an unusual combination of skill and tradition. There are so many formal rules involved in language congregations that need to be blended with the art of informing or persuading while walking the balance beam of unforgiving familiarity. That's why it takes so long to get it right. Aristotle and Demosthenes called it the art of discourse (rhetoric).

Like the writer, the silversmith needs time to craft the cup. When it's done and it is worthy, it is very, very good. After hundreds of years it becomes great. It takes its place in history. It belongs there provided an audience reaches its silent, mutual agreement. On the other hand, the hole-in-one (in golf) is always available if rarely attained - not exactly a goblet, but it is a cup. Cheers!

MAY 27 2013: The Profitable General Audience

Although "G" may stand for General Audience, it really means there is no tobacco, firearms, explosives, drugs, sex, nudity, bad language, violence or gambling portrayed in a G-rated entertainment. There's probably more categories of offensive behaviour, but you get the point. At the other end of the rating scale, creative entertainers seem to be trying to "outdo" each other in coming up with escalating crazy high speed violent thrills (no need to mention any titles here). Although I still go to the show and watch some of those films, I am selective about what I see or pay for and support.

When it comes to my own work, I prefer appealing to the "G" audience. After all, they're actually the largest audience out there. Pixar figured that one out decades ago and it has made them one of the most successful film production companies of all time. My own CD-ROM games were all intended for general audiences too, although the new descriptive phrase is "family safe." The Perfect Round maintains that preference and attitude. As I have said before, my intended audience is the next generation of tech savvy kids who need fresh new stories. We don't want to see remake after remake of the same old stories with an added layer of "mature" action, gore and violence. That's not working.

So here's to raising a glass of pure, virtual fruit juice to innovative, family safe entertainment!

MAY 24 2013: Colour & Reliability

Although I still draw with pencils and pens and brushes, when it comes to final versions of artwork going to print, I have to go to the computer, because today it is more reliable when it comes to the integrity of colour. Last Century we used inks, watercolours and an array of emulsion techniques to create artwork that had to be scanned and separated into plates for the printing press. Today, our files can generate process colour separations automatically. It's built in! The only trouble is the display (monitor) may not be showing the colour the way it will come off the press. That's where the notion of "reliability" comes in.

After years spent in the traditional printing business, I see colours as percentages of CMYK. So when it comes to my illustrations, I still use colour mixes based on press proofs I saw 20 and 30 years ago. That's because even though the technology of the press has changed in terms of plates and inks, the notion of getting colour on paper is still the same. No one has legitimized alchemy or time travel for that matter . . . yet. Colour mixes have not changed. It's not as if you can put yellow and cyan together and get red. That's like putting gin and tonic together and expecting rum and coke.

Beginning an illustration starts with a few big shapeless blobs in a vector-based, page description language such as Postscript (that would be an application program such as Adobe Illustrator). A green, subtle gradient becomes the grass. A pale cyan gradient will be the sky. Keep them on separate layers so you can turn them on and off when necessary. Believe me. It will become necessary (some of my drawings can go into hundreds of hours). When the topographical detail of a landscape starts taking shape, I adjust the gradients for contrast.

I try to keep it looking clean and simple, but some of the small stuff is labour intensive. Tiny details are where the fun is. Even though they are not always caught by the glancing eye, their influence is still processed by the graphic part of the mind. The result is it still becomes broad strokes vs. small strokes. All of a sudden, we're back in the art world again with old school, traditional painting. The brush may have changed and the colour has gotten less toxic and doesn't leave a mark on the floor anymore, but light, shadow and midtone are all still there - just as reliable as the sun and the moon.

MAY 23 2013: Short Film Cult

Short films are most definitely a cult. The main reason is because they are just so darn difficult to see. A couple of years ago mainstream exhibitors tried screening the Academy Award nominees for Live and Animated (Cineplex here in Toronto). I attended a screening and really enjoyed it. It was such a novelty - and yes, the films were great!

Short films are such extraordinary, concentrated little pieces of cinema. They're like having real espresso from one of those gigantic commercial espresso machines at specialty coffee shops (as opposed to a "double double" at Timmy's).

Over the past few years I've also downloaded AA winners from iTunes. Short "movies" are usually only $2.99 and undervalued at that. I'd pay ten times that amount for these gorgeous little works of art. Among my favourites are Logorama, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, Paperman and Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing. After I saw Mr. Tan's film, I went looking for the book (upon which it is based) and found it easily. BTW you can watch it on YouTube if you just want to get a quick look at it.

The trouble with short films, however, is they tend to made by people who love their work more than money - because it sure is tough to make a living doing it. If you want to read a good overview of the topic, check out Ivan Kander's article here.

All the same, I guess I have to count myself among those crazy people who would still want to make a short film purely for the love of producing it. My intention was always to make The Perfect Round as a short film right from the very beginning. As it turned out, I could write it, illustrate it, and publish it all by myself (even though it took six years). If I wanted to make the film by myself, though, at this rate I would need at least another lifetime. Maybe I can hook up with some other crazy short film people . . .

MAY 22 2013: Young readers are the best audience

While mature readers may look at the language of The Perfect Round and tell me it's a bit technical, the young readers don't even notice. They just get it. They know it's simply a story that takes place in the near future and they are looking out at the world through the eyes of an intelligent, sythetic humanoid. Kids know how computers think. There's no confusion, becuase they have no pre-existing technical predispositions or propensities to confuse them. Adults, on the other hand, are loaded with those. As a Sys Admin and project manager over the years, I have waged war with users who insist on using the computer the way they want to instead of yielding to the developer's interface design and anticipated interaction with their application programs.

Mature users stare at screens, because they can't see the "Download" button or can't find the hypertext link leading to a story that is staring them in the face. Kids just zoom in on exactly where they need to go and know what they need to do. We've all heard the routine where old folks advise each other, "if you can't run the remote, just go out on the street and stop the first kid you see and ask for technical support."

The kids who read The Perfect Round just take it in stride and really enjoy the book for what it is. The language is not a barrier or a veil or a mask concealing the story. The language is one of the ingredients of the recipe. The significance of the story and the reason why it exists is a lot deeper and should be left to the analytical folks who enjoy classical rhetorical analysis and literary deconstruction. That's a whole other crowd of readers. 

MAY 21 2013: Advertising vs. Press Coverage

Advertising is such a strange and bizarre environment with all kinds of unexpected results. Today's world is infested with paid messages posted on every surface with words and images competing to get our attention. Social networking is just another weird new technique in the arsenal of traditional techniques and media, but they're not fooling anyone. We're all too jaded to be captured easily. We tend to skim by ads online, on buses, in magazines and on TV. Apparently, our brain filters advertising out as if it it's not even there - unless of course something really unusual surprises us and breaks through.

That explains why some of the TV and print ads are getting so darn weird lately. They are not just innovative or humorous - but more like bizarre and whacko. That's what makes the distinction between paid advertising and press coverage even more distinct. They're almost at polarities now. Naturally, the review or word-of-mouth endorsement scores far heavier on the effective side of penetrating our quotient for desire.

Getting through to popular media coverage, however, has become increasingly more difficult. Individuals are overwhelmed by requests for coverage, which is why they can continue exercising their power of arbitrary selection. It's funny, because when you think about it, an incredibly inflential and wealthy celebrity, is still at the mercy of an underpaid media spokesperson. It feels like our ship has sailed and we've gone overboard and we're searching for a scrap of waterlogged wood on an endless sea to buoy us up. Then there's the fish nibbling at our toes and making us smile, but they're just a distraction. Chances are, if we could see what they really are, they're just mini robots promoting some sort of frozen, mock seafood snack. 

MAY 17 2013: Psychomachia

I'm wrestling with the decision to print a paperback edition of The Perfect Round overseas. Unfortunately, it is a very emotional rollercoaster, because we all want to support our own local production people and services. Last December (2012) I printed a very short run hardcover, glossy laminated, casewrap binding, Smyth sewn edition with printed endsheets (inside cover lining). They are beautiful, but cost approx. $70 each. You can see them here. Unless I sign each one and personally hand deliver it, no one would ever buy one at that price.

The only way to get the cost down is to commit to vast quantity (a print run of thousands) and send it to a traditional printing and binding operation. That would probably cut the cost in half here in Canada, but if I went to a printer in the far east, maybe I could cut that in half again. It's not as if I am predisposed against outsourcing. Although there are many people who are, they may not appreciate the opportunity outsourcing provides. By cutting costs in one area, such as manufacturing, other areas such as creative or marketing or research or even pure experimentation become available. Sometimes bottom line expenses such as manufacturing or production take funds away from those other very important concerns.

A full colour illustrated book is such a huge committment for everyone involved. No wonder it is such a difficult party to crash. The big publishers have an army of people involved in printing, distribution, retail and marketing. Rolling out an illustrated book is like rolling out a big budget blockbuster movie . . . it better fly or everybody burns. Meanwhile, if you're a rebel all by yourself standing on the battlefield, you feel like the Charge of the Light Brigade without the brigade. Or maybe it's more like Psychomachia by Prudentius - an allegory for my struggle between the vices and virtues of money and art.

MAY 16 2013: Technical Assist

We are so immersed in technology today it is now surprising to look at what is now possible and impossible. So many of us take service and products incorporating technical assistance for granted. From bank ATMs to everyday transactions for gas, groceries and restaurants, tech makes everything easier. Of course it does and so it should, but does anyone think about what is going on underneath or where the "assist" comes from. Someone had to write all the crazy programming to make this stuff work and then there's years of research and development that goes into the hardware manufacturing and interface design.

Just in general, though, I have to say the Apple stores blow me away. I'm also impressed with wireless, remote credit card processing machines in restaurants and service centres. I can't help wondering how dependable such devices are. When personal money is involved, the banks and credit companies make sure it all works perfectly and flawlessy . . . well, most of the time . . . what is the percentage tolerance? 2%? 3%? 5%? more? I don't know. Still, if only a few bitter people get messed with and don't cause too much of a stink, while the majority don't notice, then that ought to be acceptable, right?

I have to laugh when I watch some of the old CSI TV shows where they can read a license plate from across the street reflected in the sunglasses of someone captured by a bank machine video camera . . . or when someone looks at a photograph of your recent renovation and asks if you can rotate the image so they can see it from the other side of the room . . . or maybe remove the doors and body of your car so they can see the interior or the electrical wiring and or braking subsystems. Well, hey, good luck with that. One of my favourite lines I have used over the last couple of decades is, "In the future everything will work." It always gets a big laugh.

MAY 15 2013: Guilty of Revision

Posting old artwork is surprisingly interesting for a number of reasons. The old analog material provides a context to the new work's digital quality of line and colour. I'm not really saying one is better than the other, but the opportunity to revise in each environment is extraordinarily different. In the old days, you'd prepare rough sketches with pencils, pens and brushes and do multiple versions on different kinds of paper from sketchbooks to tracing paper to fine quality testured surfaces. You worked your way up to a finished piece on a board and then committed ink to it. If you wanted to revise it, you either just re-did it totally or added a little patch piece (Note: if you were printing on a press, you could alter the film in a number of ways).

In the digital age, however, you can keep revising endlessly and then import it and reformat it in other application programs. The sequence is essentially bottomless. At some point you do have to let it go, though. I know I've done pieces where the details are so small, they don't actually print - so no one ever got to see them in the final product. Still, I wouldn't have been happy if I hadn't finished the piece the way I wanted to. It's not the artwork, it's me.

So when I post old pieces - and it could be years or even decades old - I still can't resist going in and touching up small details that look wrong, even though no one has noticed since they were finished way back when they were new. I guess I can now understand why George Lucas dipped back into the Star Wars universe and altered his original films - which many of us thought were already perfect. OK, George, I get it now. I am just as guilty as you!

MAY 14 2013: The Perfect Round next steps . . .

Since the book went public and I joined up on Twitter, it's been amazing re-connecting with old friends, new people and all the other authors out there. The world of promotion is pretty well overwhelming, but you just roll up your sleeves and move into each day like you're shovelling a two-car driveway after a snowstorm.

There is so much to do and so many options. I am sitting in limbo at the moment, because Google AdWords is so huge and complicated - it's like it has added an exponent to an irrational number. I feel like if I click on a button they will come back in 30 seconds and tell me I owe them $85,000 and my credit card has just been declined. It's up to you to select either 700 countries or just the people in your local neighbourhood.

I was hoping to do a simple little graphic ad (the size of a postage stamp) instead of just some simple hypertext, but this is technically more challenging than writing custom Javascript for a time portal inside a recursive boolean. Meanwhile, you also get the feeling someone is watching you while you are struggling with the interface. All of a sudden, you get an email from a "google help" person saying, "we noticed you are having trouble. Can we help?" That really freaked me out. It's like shopping for something embarrassing like underwear or toilet paper or ointment you don't want anyone to know you use . . . and then a salesperson comes over and wants to advise you on completing your transaction. You tend to want to run out of the store and never go back.



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