Adobe Premiere Pro is my new friend

I’ve been experimenting with Adobe Premiere Pro and I. Love. It. Here’s the result of my first totally solo excursion into it. Very primitive and definitely not Art. Mostly, I wanted to play with the moving graphics and the basics of the editing. Next time I plan to incorporate some picture-in-picture stuff. I was going to add that to this one, but my computer was having trouble crunching it. I need more RAM!

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Reduce, Re-use, Recycle that Cycle.

About four months back, I created a string of videos to promote the local Addy Awards in Asheville. The spots were a lot of fun and I got to use a lot of fun toys I’ve been keeping around because I don’t really want to grow up. One spot that people really seemed to like featured a toy motorcycle (originally used in Epic Arts’ productions of A Mad, Mad Madrigal) and using a simple perspective trick to make the bike look normal-sized.

A few weeks ago, the same ad club started to plan a raffle. The prize is a new Harley and the idea came up to modify the original motorcycle spot for the raffle. The original fottage was shot with a simple digital still camera with HD video capability and edited on plain old Windows Moviemaker. For the new spot, I worked with David B. at Asheville Video Productions to add some green screen effects and then edited it on Adobe Premiere, my new favorite program.

We still have a tiny bit of work to do, but here’s the preview…

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No Pie For Me

Yesterday was National Pi Day (3-14). Probably not an official holiday, but if it means an excuse for pie, I’m going to embrace it. I spent far too much energy looking for pie yesterday (Charlotte bakeries apparently don’t bake pie) and was lucky enough to finally get a slice of chocolate peanut-butter pie – my fave – near the end of the day. For that, I was grateful.

My luck with pie has not always been good. In 1986, I was in my second year of college near Milwaukee. During the Thanksgiving break, since I didn’t have any family nearby, I asked my childhood friend Thom if I could stay at his efficiency in Madison. I had spent the previous summer there and associated the town with good feelings of drunkenness. There was also a graduate dance student who I had met at a party and wanted to get to know better.

So before I went to Thom’s place, I stopped by the Dancer’s dorm, and she did that thing where she kept about 3 friends close by and watched the Sound of Music, apparently hoping I would get bored and leave. After the first six hours of the movie I got the hint, and I headed to the store, got a frozen turkey dinner and a pumpkin pie and then went to my friend’s place. Thom couldn’t leave me with his keys for some reason, so once he let me into the apartment and left for home, I was basically locked in until he returned three days later. Just like Jesus.

I don’t remember much about those three days, even though I ran out of alcohol halfway through. I remember a David Letterman short film festival with one of the entrants being Michael J Fox who did a funny short film blending hockey and classical music. And I remember the pie.

I didn’t know much about cooking, but I knew that pumpkin pie was an essential part of Thanksgiving. Even if I had no family with me and nothing much to be thankful for, I still had the pie. All Thom had to cook things was a toaster oven. The frozen turkey dinner conveniently had toaster oven instructions, and I cooked it more or less correctly. The pie, I figured could just be cooked at the lowest setting until a reasonable time had passed.

After a while, there was smoke, which I took to mean the pie was done. I looked in the oven and sure enough it was brown and black on top. More done than I usually like my pie, but I could remove the burnt bits.

The toaster oven had a single handle on the door, which was attached to the cooking tray, so you simply grasp the handle and slide out the tray when you want to remove your toast, or in this case, toasted pie. However, the pie was heavy and extremely unstable, due in large part to the fact that it was still completely liquid on the inside. As the pie freed itself from the cooking tray and decorated the floor, I realized that a pre-baked pie would have been a better choice.

So, no luck with the Dancer. Disaster with the toaster oven. No pie for me. At least I had Michael J Fox.

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The Dangers of Comedy

I was complaining (possibly whining) to a fellow writer the other day that I had themed myself into a corner with this blog. By setting it up as being “About the importance of Story” I was creating the pressure on myself to come up with a good story for each post, or at the very least, relate my musings to the principles of storytelling in some way. Raising the bar like this, it’s been easy to talk myself out of posting for the last few months, thinking I had nothing to say.

“Bullshit,” she said. (I’m paraphrasing) “Everything you experience is a story. Us having coffee is a story. Write about that.”

Well, I won’t today (waitaminute, I just did) but yesterday as my wife and I were installing another garden bed in our yard, as I was coiling up the hose, I suddenly had a flashback. Something from my childhood that I’m not sure I’ve ever even told anybody.

My dad was not a terribly handy guy. He must have been at one time, but years of drinking and complacency had made him more like a piece of furniture than a father. This was not a sad thing (to my memory). It meant he was around a lot. He was part of the couch. The lumpy bit on the end of it, next to the stack of beer cans, that could recite the intro to “Days of Our Lives” along with Macdonald Carey. And on the very rare occasions he did attempt to do something useful or handy, it was cause for excitement.

I have a distinct memory of him in the side yard, a screwdriver in one hand and a beer in the other, trying to fix the sprinkler. I was fascinated by his spare, economical movements. He didn’t really seem to be doing anything, yet he was committed to fixing the thing somehow. Then my focus totally shifted. I realized that I was standing right next to the valve. And Dad had the sprinkler pointed right at his face. Suddenly I was no longer in control of my actions. Every goofy sitcom, every boffo comedic movie I’d ever seen in my short life directed me to one irresistible imperative. I had to turn the water on. If this were a movie, that would be an absolute inevitability.

So I did. And he got sprayed. And I laughed, but only for a moment. Then I realized he was running at me faster than I’d ever seen him move.  I ran for my life. And damned if that old drunk didn’t catch me after a mere lap and a half around the yard.

That was one of the few times I got spanked. The pain throbbing over my ass told me that life was not a comedy. I had somehow misjudged appropriate timing and physical humor.

But yesterday as I ran the episode back in my mind, I realized it was damn good comedy. I was laughing. I still am. I suppose what makes comedy funny is our distance from the pain.

Or maybe I just had really good timing.

Ooberbloo Kazoo

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The What vs. the How

I saw the movie Irreversible recently. It’s one of those movies that is REALLY tough to watch, but is a brilliant piece of cinema. What sets it apart is not the story it tells, but how it tells it. It’s a simple plot about an average night out, a horrifying attack and brutal revenge. And the entire story is told in reverse. I will leave it to Roger Ebert to explain in more detail why this is so incredibly effective (see his review). What struck me, besides being simply riveted by this astonishing piece of film, is that it reminds me that the art of storytelling has less to do with the stories you tell and more to do with how you tell them.

Roger Ebert himself ascribes to this philosophy, which may be why he’s my favorite critic. One of his “Laws” for movie criticism is “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.” This is true for any form of storytelling. The same jokes have been making the rounds since the Sumerians discovered irony. The same melodies have been getting rearranged since the Gregorians first started chanting. And we’ve all been watching the same sitcom plot over and over since Gracie Allen first said “Goodnight Gracie.”

This is not bad or surprising news. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, only 12 musical notes, and the human body only bends so many ways. But dance, music and story live on. Because we don’t have to constantly re-invent the wheel. We just have to find a new way to roll it.

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To Kill a Mockingbird Trailer

This could be the best trailer we’ve created to date. It tells a story but doesn’t try to retell the story of the play.

As a side note, it makes me impatient to learn more about editing. I wrote and storyboarded the video, cast it, directed it, shot it and put together the soundtrack (which is an abstract re-working of Hear my Train a’-Comin by Jimi Hendrix), I did everything except the editing. I supervised the editing, but the actual editing was accomplished by Jason Underferth. He’s great at what he does, but we won’t be a team much longer. We work on one more show together and then I head out to parts southeast. So I want (and need) to learn more about the nuts and bolts of editing myself. I’ve started one project and it’s going well, but the program I’ve been using (Windows Live Moviemaker) doesn’t do much, so I’ve gotten a new one. I will post my first project to share my progress!

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Collaboration vs. Committee

I was struck last week by the consistent boost any idea seems to get through collaboration between my Marketing Director, my editor and myself. While the ideas we have individually are good, when we work as a team and collaborate, the results always seem to exceed our individual contributions.

Bear in mind we all work at a theatre, and theatre as a process depends on collaboration. We’re used to it around here, and of course this bleeds into how we operate as a media/marketing team. Also, as a writer, I’ve become quite a fan of collaboration over the years. It seems to elevate any idea and energize the creative process.

It is also widely known and accepted that nothing kills an idea more efficiently than a committee. Finding consensus on a creative idea or process seems the surest way to whitewash it into a bland, beige blob of nothing.  Committee kills.

So what’s the difference between committee and collaboration? They seem so similar, yet the results of these processes are polar opposites.

Collaborators imagine forward. Committees assess and react after the fact.

Successful collaborators have learned to let go. Let go of pride, let go of possession and credit, even let go of their idea if a better one comes along.

Successful collaborators are unified in their goal. They are not beholden to a constituency or an outside department. They are only there for the success of the project, and know that success is the very thing that will benefit all parties.

By instilling collaborative values into the committee culture, creativity not only survives, but thrives. A committee succeeds when it functions as a collaboration.

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Little Shop of Horrors Trailer

My most recent challenge was to come up with a trailer for our production of Little Shop of Horrors. I admit, navigating this new art form has me stuck in a rut sometimes. All my ideas centered around using elements directly from the show – a song, images, the famous plant, but none of these ideas were, well germinating into anything interesting or practical to shoot. I’ve mentioned before, the biggest challenge with a trailer for a play is that most elements (wardrobe, props, PLANTS) aren’t available at the time of shooting. And scenes from a play shot on video are VERY tricky to get right. There’s a kinetic energy inside a theatre that doesn’t translate well to video.

My Marketing Director gave me a brilliant nugget of an idea, completely out of the box (or planter). She was really jazzed about our talking dogs in our last trailer, and wanted to bring that anthropomorphism to this concept. Real talking plants scaring real people. I ran with it, fleshed out a few scenes, and I’m very happy with the result. Her idea gave me just what I needed – a fresh new angle and an opportunity to use contemporary video in its best areas of strength: capturing everyday life with a whimsical twist.

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Resonance and Relevance.

One of the most essential elements of story is connection. How the listener may connect to the story. How is it relevant to them? Does it resonate with them? The difference between engaging someone with a story and talking at them is all about resonance and relevance.

What stories engage your empathy? Connect you to the tale that is spun? What stories make you want to donate money to a cause? Attend an event? Buy a product? Vote for a candidate?

These are the questions I try to untangle when I attempt to turn informative facts into a story.

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Creating a Trailer for a Theatre Production

The next two videos I have to write and produce are a trailer and context video, both for Little Shop of Horrors. A context video is intended to offer enhanced information regarding a play, such as what was happening historically in the world during the action of the play, or some interesting facts about the creation of the script, challenges in producing the piece, or other behind-the-scenes information that might provide a new dimension of appreciation for the play.

An example of our recent context video for Sylvia:

While the four-to-six minute context video might require more research than the 45-second trailer, it is usually the trailer that is the more challenging piece. In fact, I’ve observed that when writing, shorter is always more difficult. The shorter a piece is, the more one must identify exactly what must be said and distill it to its most essential components. Poe and Twain will tell you (if they could) that the short story form can be far more challenging than writing a novel for that very reason.

But aside from its compressed nature, the trailer offers another daunting challenge. You must tell two equally compelling stories: The story of what the play is about, and (more importantly) the story of why the viewer wants to see it.

Both are a challenge, but the latter is the most elusive, especially for a theatre production. Whereas cinematic trailers have been a staple for decades, trailers for theatre productions are a new form, still evolving. One must remember that theatrical audiences are different than movigoers – they are after an intimate person-to-person experience, the very thing that theatre can offer but film can’t. So the theatre trailer mustn’t make the mistake of trying to simply show the action of a play the way a cinematic trailer might. (this is also a practical difficulty – most shows are not rehearsed, costumed, or in some cases even cast, at the time work must begin on the trailer).

So what do we show in a theatre trailer? I’m still learning this myself. Short pieces of dialogue can work, if they are kinetic. Props, lighting, music can all tell the viewer what it might feel like to be in the theatre during the production. Here are two of my trailers that feel the most successful:

So now to my current challenge, the musical Little Shop of Horrors. What is exciting about the show? The music, the campy fun (the show originated as a shlocky black & white Roger Corman film), the choreography, the eccentric characters, the theatricality of the plant puppet.  These are all elements that will engage the audience during the live experience. So how do I hint at these with the trailer? How do I tell this story?

I guess I’ll find out soon. The deadline approacheth!

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