Archive for category art
It surprised me to know how much active interest there was in my starting a regular blog. “Finally,” one supporter said to me, as just one word in a longer sentence expressing doubt about the venue I was seeming to choose for such a venture. In essence, he said, Rob’s finally going to have a blog, and he’s going to waste it on a flighty start-up blog thing?
Rob’s finally going to have a blog? As in, “Where was this blog years ago, so we could have started following it every day back then?” Why have you waited so long?
I have a very small audience, but I was forced, for the Nth time, to realize that I do, yes, have one. And what is a blog? Some guy’s take on things, posted regularly — daily, one hopes. Whatever that guy comes across that makes him think, let’s have it. Let’s hear his take on that thing. As a reader, I have my own take, or maybe I’ve never heard of it, so maybe I’ll read this guy’s take on it, then investigate it myself.
The important thing is, this guy, and his take on things. I want to read that. I’m interested in that. I’m amused and entertained by that. I’m challenged by that. I’m moved to thoughtfulness by that.
I honestly didn’t realize, until I started making noises about having a blog, that I had an audience who were happy to hear my take on things, in the form of a blog. As of now, I realize that I do.
It is enough to make me want to have and keep up and respect having an actual blog.
This is just the prelim version. The actual version starts and runs for the next year, I think I promised my faux-admin guy, who will help me out, but really wants me to learn to help myself. As if I could learn to fish and feed myself every day, without help. Hah.
I have all sorts of ideas that have no practical application. That is to say, they won’t make any money at all, even if wildly successful. I’d have to develop them on my own dime and then give them away for free.
Tonight’s idea was inspired by the last few minutes of MST3K: The Movie (1996), which happened to be on tonight. The idea was for an app, iphone/ipad/whatever. It’s called: Abacus.
It is an abacus. For anyone who wants to learn how to work an abacus. Abacuses have the same UI as i-devices: sliding your finger. So the animation goes clickety-bead clack, and math is performed. Plus a tutorial mode, so that you can learn how to use one, so that human culture does not forget how to use an abacus — in fact, it re-learns it, right when VHS tapes and digital calculators are going extinct.
Obviously you can’t charge for an abacus app, but I bet you could move a lot of the merchandise, to curious and interested geeky people who like math and always-wanted-to-know how to use an abacus.
Totally impractical, completely worthwhile as a project, but absolutely not worth doing, except that obviously, it is, and there’s a huge (non-paying, free) market for it. It’d be nice to be the guy (and/or team) that does it first, does it right, does it so first and so right, nobody bothers doing it again. Just shipping it out there, to the world culture, to preserve world culture, and to teach maths to everyone again.
That’s the kind of idea I have every day. It’s like a blurse, or a cessing.
“I like it. I’m proud of it,” Anthony said, one late night in 1996, after we’d just recorded the best tape recording of our career/lives. He added:
“Nobody else would’ve done that.”
It was a — how can I describe it? A re-creation of “War of the Worlds”, Orson Wells’s 1938 broadcast. It was an improvised effort, entirely unplanned, among three friends from high school, without the fourth (Grog) that made us a foursome, late into my and our friendship, but in 1996, that was all and enough.
It was the last tape and recording of Anthony, but we still sounded like we were just getting started on a podcast career, all of us. We just finally sounded like we could do it *for real*, but we never did it again, because …
Well, never mind that. “I like it. I’m proud of it. Nobody else would’ve done that.” Makes me laugh, every time, and smile, and know — no, nobody else would’ve done that, nobody else ever DID do that, we were the only ones who would ever *do* that, and we *DID* it, and the recording survives, telling that we did, did, did, do it, did it, done it.
Thanks to God, we were the only ones who would have done that, and we did it, and that we (thank you, Dave) recorded it, and so not only did we, were were, the only ones who did that; but that, people can hear what we done did, that one night, in 1996. So long ago, and such yesterday,
Good morning. This is maybe why I started a blog.
I want to put together an interactive writing conference, in an unlikely place. I have looked into the future, and it is will have been having going to happened, so I know it will shall have worked out, but not yet.
Do you know how I should get the thing started. Does it take some sort of LLC to reserve a venue, or can you just do it with phone calls and emails. Would you be available to show up, a year from now, plus or minus.
Might I invite everyone I can, and who else can be there, and how do you do a conference, in a year?
I’ve seen that it is has was been happened, but it still could not happen. But, it might have been actually did.
New comic, autobiographical style. I suppose I was going for something of a Linklater-film-y feel to the storytelling. And it’s a Magnolia Cafe story, which is good.
Art and Tarantino
Thoughts Above and Around Inglourious Basterds
by J. Robinson Wheeler
It’s kind of weird to watch the Weinstein brothers, who are bound together tightly to Tarantino — Miramax was the house that Pulp Fiction built, as the legend goes, and in order to sustain the complete creative control and freedom every artist desires, Tarantino relies on Bob and Harvey to fund and promote all of his films — be crossing their fingers that Basterds would be a moneymaking hit, one their company desperately needed. Even before seeing this movie, and concluding that Tarantino was an Artist with a capital A, I was saying to myself, “Tarantino makes art films.” Yes, he does think about entertaining audiences, delivering payoffs, and so forth (though he will always make the quirky artistic choice if his muse says he must, which is partly what allows me to define him as an artist), but if you look at all of his movies, they’re quirky art films, not pack-em-in-seats blockbusters. He has this huge reputation, still partly from Pulp Fiction — which was a huge hit in one of those concoctions of timing and public taste where something new was embraced for being new, rather than rejected for being new — for being an exciting filmmaker, someone whose releases are highly anticipated. However, I hang around in a film geek crowd in a city with a thriving film-fan culture, so of course it tends to feel to me like his releases are anticipated. Yet, there’s a huge audience out there that is just people who go to see the latest thing at the mall every week before renting it again a few months later on DVD. They are fine with McMovies. Then here comes chef Tarantino with his five course platter of weird foods.
Tarantino’s movies are weird. His tics and obsessions are on full display. He returns to the same wells over and over again, doing variants on the same ideas. He throws in references that even people who have taken film school classes are likely to miss half the time. The violence in his movies is bloody, huge, and gross. His sense of humor is mischievous and geeky and as apt to unsettle and audience as make it chuckle. By all rights, he shouldn’t be as famous as he is, shouldn’t have the clout he does, shouldn’t have the budget to indulge himself that he’s given. It’s pretty shaky to build a career on catering to a small audience of super film geeks like yourself; the economics just shouldn’t sustain it. But he does. And he’s built his career from the ground up, by following his muse and doing his quirky art. There’s no cheating or short cuts, although there is luck.
I remember seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out. I remember seeing it with a big audience. I remember taking my Dad to see it, and he was blown away by it from the moment Amanda Plummer swung that pistol around on her bony arm and screamed profanities, until the lacerating chords of surf music cut her off and the title came up, big and fat and yellow like a young lion pouncing. It was the kind of moviegoing experience where you’ve never seen anything like it and you wanted to shout, “Hot damn!” It was like a slug of adrenaline right in your chest, just like the one Mrs. Marcellus Wallace got, watching Pulp Fiction when it was brand new. It also had the benefit of Sam Jackson as the anchor man, racing the baton home in the last scene. There’s a lot of lowlifes in Pulp Fiction’s gallery of characters, but there’s two who make moral choices: Butch (Bruce Willis) and Jules (Jackson). So the movie ends on this positive note, on this right moral choice. So after taking this long, bizarre ride, you step out of the theater feeling like maybe it was worthwhile, as bizarre and as long as it was. A year earlier, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time, and we were like, hey, dinosaurs, cool. Never seen dinosaurs not move like clunky claymation creatures before, that’s neat, that’s kind of new. Then here comes Pulp Fiction, and it was a new kind of storytelling altogether. Dialogue like that was new. The disordered chronology was new. Seeing someone get an andrenaline shot in the heart was new. Seeing a wad of bills five inches thick was new. And somehow, the public was ready for all this.
Doing something new can get you drummed out into the street and your career destroyed as it’s getting started. There’s been more of a history of that in the history of art than the reverse. And if you do manage to create a breakout success, then comes the burden of following it. Do you have the goods? Can you keep doing it? Will anyone care when it’s not new any more? That’s destroyed quite a few artists as well.
And now I’m sitting here in this all-night cafe pondering Quentin Tarantino’s career and his status as an artist who has managed to keep the conditions alive for creating the art he wants to create, because I consider myself an artist, too. I’m nearly 40 years old, though, and have yet to find much of any audience for what I do. That doesn’t stop me from doing it, it never has — and my inability to stop creating what I consider to be creative works of art, despite all financial, social, psychological, and practical impediments to doing so is part of why I easily identify myself as such. I am quite simply compelled to.
What I grapple with, of course, is what to spend my time working on, which projects to throw energy and time into completing, which to let lie fallow, which to reject, which to play around with until it seems like it’s going in a better direction. Sometimes, there’s something that I just feel like I have to get done, so I do that. Other times I can dither around with a project for years. I can throw everything I have into something that’s totally not commercial or perhaps so self-indulgent there’s no reasonable way that anybody but myself is going to like it. I can scrap things because I am full of endless anxieties about whether anyone will like them or not, or because my strongest suspicion is that they won’t, so I don’t bother. It is very perplexing, most of the time.
When I was a kid and didn’t have much invested in my own ego, I proved to have a knack for writing stories that had an audience appeal. There were all these little ideas I’d scooped up from various places, from things that had pleased me — from comic books and from Spielberg movies and from young adventure novels and such — that I was able to sort of stick in at the right moments to thrill the little audience of my classmates and my writing teacher. By the time I was finishing college, I was preoccupied with delving into my own private angst and finding some way to express it, and pleasing an audience was pretty low on my list of artistic prioirities. Then I sort of moved out of that into a phase of trying to reclaim those earlier sensibilities, but I was still not the best judge of what projects would find a receptive audience and which wouldn’t. My artistic ambitions were enormous by that point.
It’s all still in flux. I still wonder, of course, whether I’ll ever make a movie again, or if The Krone Experiment was it. I was watching Tarantino expound upon his own oeuvre, as he called it, to Charlie Rose, and about how one watches the development of a unique voice over the course of a career. He said something interesting, which is that being a writer-director, as opposed to a director who is happy to pick up scripts written by other people and develop them, necessarily means you’re not going to make as many movies, partly because you have to start from scratch at the bottom of Mount Everest every time, facing the blank page and scratching something onto it that hopefully will be a movie three years later. I am now aware that I may be lucky to make three movies in my life, and that would be better than making one, but it’s too bad I won’t get to make ten or twenty, because I’d be very interested in seeing what my gimmick is, what my voice sounds like, what my themes are that I go back to over and over again, what is a Rob Wheeler movie (or a J. Robinson Wheeler movie, or a John Robinson Wheeler movie — I’m kind of schizo on the whole naming thing right now, which is a whole other deal), and what isn’t. Back when I was making Krone, I remember saying that it would be great if my partner, Ben Pascoe, ended up making a lot of movies on his own, and so did I, so that later we could look back and see how Krone was, indeed, a collaborative mix of two distinct filmmakers. With just the one movie, it’s a little harder to tease out the difference.
Of course, the other thing is, that unlike Quentin Tarantino, I have never exclusively been a film artist. I have lately been making serious plans to take some movie scripts I’ve written, that I might have to admit I will never be able to produce as movies, and draw them as webcomics (serialized graphic novels, basically) instead. I think this is a great idea and I’m very keen to do it, but it’s turning out that drawing comic pages is an incredibly labor-intensive activity, and one of the things I’m slowest at, just as I’m reaching an age where I can feel myself slowing down. So then it starts looking like it’ll take three years to do each of these comics projects, about the same amount of time it would take to make them into movies. The main advantage is economic, of course.
These days, it can cost nearly nothing to make a movie, unless you really want to rent some equipment, pay actors and crew for their time and talent, and need anything special in the way of costumes, props, or special effects. I have a lot of confidence in my talent as a filmmaker, but I have zero skill and experience at raising money. The main trick of doing Krone was figuring out a way to do it without raising any money at all, and I did, but I don’t think I can or will do that again. What I have to spend on any project is my own time, which is a limited resource, and my own energy, which is renewable but also limited.
Thus it does all come down to trying to choose every day which project to invest in. Every now and then someone will poke me with a request to finish something I started that they wanted to see more of, and they probably wonder why I don’t do so. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to, but when a project cools off, it takes an extra investment of energy to heat it up again, so that, in a way, it’s more expensive than a newer project, which is hot to start with. The energy economics don’t make sense, and there’s no money economics to balance it out.
I’ve drifted far away from Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, I know, but this wasn’t supposed to be a review of that. It was my own situation that was on my mind, but seeing that movie and thinking about Tarantino and his situation brought it into focus.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Directed by McG. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Helena Bonham Carter.
One of the movie critic blurbs for this latest Terminator movie called it “The perfect summer movie!” I suppose that I should consider this a matter of arguable opinion, but I feel more inclined to instigate a lawsuit claiming that it is factually false advertising. Star Trek is currently the one to beat in terms of delivering the summer movie goods, and while pointing out that movie’s minor flaws with friends was another rich vein of entertainment, at least it had a story to pick apart, characters who were fun to root for, and its numerous action scenes all had a reason in the story for existing. (Even the one that seems the most irritatingly arbitrary, the giant bug thing that chases Kirk on the ice world, ultimately serves to move the plot along.)
Whereas, Terminator Salvation cannot reasonably be considered a perfect summer movie because it has no coherent story to tell, is composed of abitrary and ear-crushingly noisy action scenes, spends a lot of time failing to be about interesting characters, and, to borrow a line from Annie Hall, is really superficial, has no ideas, and nothing interesting to say. A perfect summer movie can be superficial, but even audiences who want spectacular escapism like to escape into a story with characters that sustain their interest and do amusing things. A sense of humor or at least occasional comic relief also helps.
There’s one big overall problem with the movie, though; it is an utter creativity failure. Epic fail, as they say these days.
Most people will just think Terminator Salvation is boring, but it’s much more insidious than that for not being obvious in how void it is, for hiding its evil in banality and cliche. It is destroyingly atrocious. It is as if it were created by machines rather than human beings with organic minds. Its conception of salvation is also utterly wretched, as if evil itself, not comprehending what sacrifice and salvation even mean, tries to soullessly depict what it thinks it is.
Before I get into this, I want to take this opportunity to mention something that I meant to blog about back in March but didn’t get around to. It would have been titled “Creativity Fail,” and concerned a certain demo session I attended at the Game Developers Conference. The problem with what I saw and heard didn’t even occur to me until I thought about it later, but then it really bothered me. There was a videogame music competition: to write the background music for a post-apocalypse shooter game, with the following strict restriction: the only audio samples you could use had to be recordings of the human voice.
The four finalists introduced and played their tracks. They were all audio professionals working in the game industry, and very fond of the gear and equipment they had access to. Often their presentations involved them telling the audience, “If you guys aren’t using the [thousand-dollar audio gadget make and model number], you should be, because it’s awesome!” Lots of Langstrom 7-inch Gangley Wrench talk, to put it another way.
Guy #1, last year’s winner, did some reasonable sounding things. Guy #2 had music that sounded the most like a real game, very polished, like it came from Fallout 3 or something. Guy #3 had some shaky sounding things that didn’t have enough polish. Guy #4 was this dude from Australia whose true calling is being a salesman, and probably has the job he has because he sells himself and his work all the time. Practically jumping up and down with enthusiasm, he spoke very quickly and energetically and rousingly. A winner was decided by audience applause, and I think most of the people in the audience weren’t fooled by the charisma of the pitch, and it seemed to me that Guy #2 got the most applause. However, the panel moderator had a favorite, and said, “Sounds like Guy #4 wins!” and so it was.
That’s not the problem, though. What I realized later was that all four of them completely failed creatively, and in exactly the same way. Starting with the “human voice only” premise, all four of these guys immediately broke down the challenge into 1) digitally manipulating samples of voices so that they sounded like drum kits, strings, keyboards, and the other instrument samples they usually use, and then 2) composing the same old stuff they usually do. There was a way in which everyone in the audience, including me, started judging the results as a matter of how closely they managed to get the voice samples to sound like other things. “Wow, that really sounds like a high hat and a kick drum!” That shouldn’t have been the point of the exercise at all.
Starting from the rule that they “use the human voice,” all they could think of to do was make the voice sound like something else, so that they could work rotely and mechanically the way they always do, and make tracks that sound generically just like all videogame music sounds. Now, these were the finalists — I’m sure a lot of the rejects actually used human voices that sounded like human vioces, and these four were chosen because their output sounded like normal videogame music. Something about it seemed so bankrupt in terms of creativity, such an utter disregard for the opportunity to be creative, that I got very upset about it. Something can be slick and professional and polished and yet be completely mediocre, creatively empty, and worthless.
Which finally brings me back to McG and Terminator Salvation.
There are several problems I had with this movie, but they probably all boil down to a sense of creative emptiness. The film has the appearance of being imaginative, largely because it is a derivative work of an artist of genuine imagination. James Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers, and someday I’ll write a book about why that is. For now, though, it is enough to say that my interest in what is now the Terminator franchise ended with Terminator 2.
The Terminator was an imaginative and original science fiction time travel romance — a plot perhaps not completely unfamiliar to serious science fiction fans, but new to general movie audiences. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a marvelous, well-thought-out follow-up story by its original creator, and a better extrapolation on the characters and the central premise than anyone else could have come up with. They were delivered with the confident, fluid skill of a natural cinematician. When I think of film in terms of language, I find that Cameron speaks in long, flowing paragraphs of coherent thought, delivered with the confidence of a native speaker. There are plenty of movies I see that seem to be speaking fractured, pidgin dialects; the formalized stupidity of text messaging and its abbreviations and misspellings; if not complete gibberish.
Terminator 3 I didn’t bother seeing until parts of it rolled across my eyeballs on cable some afternoon. It added nothing to what had been done before, more or less repeating Terminator 2 and all of its gags “only it’s a chick.” It raises into relief Cameron’s great skill at integrating action set pieces into his overall story structure. As thrilling as Cameron’s action work always is, every action scene in the first two Terminator movies:
- moves the plot forward
- deepens the relationship between the characters
- appears at the right time to give the audience a jolt of fun
- escalates the speed, size, and stakes from one to the next
- delivers the goods
It’s clear that the action scenes in Terminator 3 don’t do half of these things, and they all feel like action scenes we’ve seen before; minor variants at best, just like the movie as a whole. The most positive I can be about is: it’s watchable.
So now to Terminator Salvation, which reaches a new level of arbitrariness. Worse than that, though, is this sense that there is no sense. Something can have the surface appearance of being very shiny, fast, loud, cool, and inventive, and yet actually have not a single creative spark driving it. It’s not particularly watchable, in the sense that it doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to come up with a story, doesn’t seem to care very much about telling that story, doesn’t seem to care about its characters, and doesn’t even follow the right ones around for most of the time.
This McG character managed to make the first “Charlie’s Angels” entertaining, but it was largely a sketch comedy movie, and didn’t require storytelling skills. It seems like he could have a wonderful long career directing television ads, where he can play with all his toys and only has to give a shorthand version of cinema, which is what he knows how to do. He doesn’t seem to have any of the chops to be a feature filmmaker, at least not one you’d trust to tell a 90 to 120 minute story. Story just does not seem to be on the man’s mind at all, or he’d make a lot of different choices.
A central point comes back to me over and over again whenever I try to write this review. I know it’s long after the moment to strike on a review of this movie, but now I’m writing about something else — about the difference between genuine creativity and what seems to me not just bad creativity, but void creativity, something that creates a vacuum that leaves less creativity in the world for having been introduced. I guess that’s a fancy way of saying that it sucks, literally.
Which is a rather strong point to make, and was too much of a cannon barrage to inflict on this one poor little movie, which seems like it invites a certain amount of snarky remarks, but not that much annihilation. Thus, I went to see it again, and scrawled notes in real time as the movie unspooled. Fortunately, the Alamo Drafthouse theaters come equipped with a desk and sheets of loose paper, so I was all set.
My first note was about the first printed credits as the movie starts. “[Unknown name #1] and [unknown name #2] present” is what we get, followed on the next card by “A McG Film”. I went to IMDB just now to try to look up those unknown names, and the “Produced by” section of the full credits list has 16 names. So right away, the fact that this movie has 16 producers should tell you something. Mario Kassar, who used to own Carolco (which produced the original movie in 1984), is the only name I recognize.
I pause to make a big deal about this because I have to wonder about the ego of the two guys who put their names even above McG’s, because McG has no shortage of ego on his own. For example, his official “Directed by McG” credit comes a couple of minutes later, alone on a pure white field that fills the screen, stopping the movie in progress to appear. But these two guys with unmemorable names want us to know that they come first. Credits like these aren’t for the benefit of regular moviegoers, clearly, but they must have a lot to do with Hollywood jockeying and politics. Those names are there so that people who read the trade magazines and follow who’s up and who’s in and who’s rising see their names. Maybe it helps them get a table in a certain restaurant in a certain hotel. I don’t know. It bothers me because it’s all about things that have nothing to do with making movies, and everything to do with how Hollywood runs itself. Ah well.
Oh, brother. Look how long this review is and I’m still only 22 seconds into it. Here we go again.
The name “Michael Ironside” came up in the credits and my initial reaction, the first time I saw it, was “Aw yeah, Ironside!” If you use this guy right — I guess most people don’t, they just kind of plug-and-play him in generic villain roles — like in Starship Troopers, he can be a lot of fun in a movie. Alas, he’s mostly shafted to the side and used very generically as an angry obstacle character. He isn’t allowed to make the movie more fun, a wasted opportunity.
Jumping ahead now — to the completely unncessary Christ imagery. This death row prisoner named Marcus is strapped down for the lethal injection, his arms splayed like a cross, as the table is raised vertically for no reason other than to display him as crucified. My note says: “At least one hopes it’s unncessary. Good Lord, what if they meant it?” Which is to say, if McG thought it was necessary imagery to use for this character, then there really are deep problems here. I guess it is called Terminator Salvation for some reason.
Ok, then we get the white-out with the “directed by McG” credit. After the crucifixion comes the blinding white light with the director’s name on it. Oy vey.
Then, after that, we get a long text scroll explaining the plot of the backstory of this world, as once created by James Cameron, and now mulched through this mulching process that produces sequels. So there’s been a nuclear armageddon, launched by SkyNet, and then the machines arose to destroy all humans. We are told by this text summary (and how weak is this, that they feel like they have to write all this text for us to read before we watch the movie, instead of movie-ing the information to us?) that John Connor is thought by some to be a “false prophet.” Apparently Connor hasn’t been quiet about the fact that he’s known since he was a kid how the future would unfold. When the movie starts (laughably, the movie purports to take place in 2018, hardly far enough ahead to be plausible, especially when time travel needs to be invented a couple of years after this), Connor is close to running out of knowledge about how things will go and just living in the present.
Connor is revealed to be not the dynamic single rebel leader uniting humanity and leading the successful war against the machines we, the audience, have heard prophesied in Terminators 1 and 2, but just one more soldier working for some quasi-military organization run by an angry obstacle guy who lives in a submarine. They like to yell at him for disobeying orders and trying to inspire hope in the wasteland masses, when not sending him on dangerous missions.
The first shot in the movie that’s any fun at all to watch is basically a direct borrowing from a shot in The Empire Strikes Back, one of many filmic quotations that start to seem like someone copying from another guy’s test paper rather than knowing the answers himself. We’re looking out a windshield that’s skimming low over a blanched wasteland, rolling up and down over the topology.
And then, bang, boom, one explosion and a dead terminator, first thing. I have another note about this that explains why I call attention to it, but I’ll come back to that when I get to it.
We’re in the beginnings of the movie’s first action set-piece, where Connor and his unit infiltrate some machine outpost, which involves rappelling down into a large underground silo or something. There’s some dialogue here that’s an empty filler of space, comprising cliches and nothing more. “It’s almost too quiet,” for example, followed by, “It’s like they’re waiting for us.” You think? Maybe you could use those bits of dialogue to let us know who the characters are. Except that would mean that the characters were important, and they’re not. Even the writers don’t know who they are, and don’t care. That’s what’s especially lame, the writers don’t even care, and you can tell they don’t.
There’s a nice shot that, hello, I did like. Connor tries to flee this area in a helicopter, and the copter is shot down and crashes. This is handled in a (simulated, using digital effects) single long take, seen from a locked camera position inside the copter behind the pilot’s seat. After the crash landing, we are unaware that the copter has landed upside down until Connor releases his safety belt and falls upwards to the ceiling of the cab. I liked that.
I have a note here: “What was that mushroom cloud?” Apparently some atomic device was detonated, and after two viewings of this movie I have no idea what bomb went off or why, or whether the machines or humans were responsible. The movie itself never bothers to explain. Maybe it just “looked cool” so it went in.
Connor, after the crash landing, has a two-minute fight with a T-600 terminator. Two minutes, and he kills it, its little red eye lights going dark. These things used to take a whole movie to take down.
How can this movie work when the terminators are such a small threat compared to what they used to be? However, James Cameron himself dealt with the same creative challenge when he made Aliens, in which the single monstrous unstoppable threat became multiplied into an entire colony of the things, which had to be destroyed in great numbers at a greater frequency. There is a way to do it, but you have to grapple with it intelligently and find new creative avenues out of the new situation. I’ll get back to the Aliens factor at the end of the movie, too.
Note: “Like McG is still in film school. Can’t believe he used the ‘camera mounted on actor’ thing for Connor.” That was referring to an early scene, when Connor first walks into his home base. It’s that effect where the camera is bolted to the actor, so the background sways around with the slightest body movement but the actor is fixed in the frame, sort of giving a first-person perspective on the character’s delirium or confusion. There’s got to be a real point to using a shot like this, like the character being heavily drugged or having a psychotic episode. Here, as usual, there’s no reason for it, and it’s jarring because it’s wildly different than the rest of the sequence that it’s cut into.
Moving on, leaving Connnor behind, introducing new characters. My note says: “You know all those elaborate spring traps Will Smith had rigged up in that one movie? Kyle Reese has the exact same ones.” I was referring to I Am Legend, and not exaggerating.
A teenaged Kyle Reese (the same character Michael Biehn played in the original Terminator) has a small mousy mute child as a companion. Basically like Newt from Aliens, I guess, speaking of that movie. They meet this guy Marcus, who is the guy we saw getting lethally injected at the beginning of the movie. He’s dazed for some reason, or just stupid, not knowing to get out of the way when a metal endoskeleton starts tromping towards you firing a rotating mini-cannon.
There’s a moment between Kyle Reese and Marcus, where Reese points at the coat Marcus has borrowed from a dead resistance member, and says, “See this red?” What red? I said. The movie has been treated with that blanching process Spielberg liked in the late 90s and early 00s, so that saturated colors like red show up as brown or gray or something. Honestly, I couldn’t tell what red Reese was talking about. I know my color vision is a little tricky, but I can see red, and I couldn’t see red. Was it the whole coat? A band on the coat? A stain on the coat? His shirt? What was supposed to be red?
This is in the first of several scenes where Marcus acts like a total jerk to Kyle and Newt, and comes across as suspicious, villainous, dark, dangerous, crazy, untrustworthy, and vague. In other words, completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. I was okay with this (well, not really, I prefer it when I like all the characters, including the villains) the first time, until I realized that the movie thought that Marcus was the main character. I thought I was watching the adventures of John Connor in the age of the machines, that interesting world just hinted at in a brief flash-forward in the original movie, of a square-jawed, facially-scarred, super-soldier with a righteous bearing, the survivor of many hard-won battles for freedom. A movie about that would be a good place to start, and yet this movie isn’t that, in some sort of crappy bait and switch. It’s yet another indictment of its overall creative failure, I guess, but it’s like they weren’t up to extrapolating a movie out of that scenario and had to make up some whole other thing to fill out their threadbare ideas. And the whole other thing is just composed of bits they’d seen in other places.
At some point, I was moved to wonder: Is there, in fact, one single actual creative idea in this entire movie? Because I think the people making it thought they were being creative, yet I don’t see anything original at all. Creativity in its pure form is a brilliant white spark. I just see dull rocks when I look at this movie closely.
This is turning into that other essay anyway, it seems. Maybe I should take back what I said at the start about this movie not deserving the full treatment I was subjecting it to. It keeps inviting it every time I look at it again.
So after being a dick all night long, Marcus hotwires a jeep and says he’s leaving Los Angeles to head north. Kyle whines, “So you’re just gonna LEAVE US?” And this is after — oh brother. Why in the world would they want to go with him? They’ve got a whole existence they’re eking out just fine without him, and he’s clearly not friendly, and he’s pointed their own guns at them more than once, and he attracts bad machines to them, so — whatever. Where does the movie go if Kyle and Newt don’t go with him? Nowhere. So, okay, they whine about not going with him, even though they know that going towards San Francisco means going into the death nexus of SkyNet central.
Whatever. The writers don’t care, the director didn’t care, so screw it, I don’t care either.
Three more notes:
“Why is everything in San Francisco now?”
“Apparently it only takes 30 seconds to escape Los Angeles heading north from Griffith Observatory.”
“Where the hell is the radiation?”
There’s not the slightest mention of radiation even though they’re living in the ruins of a city that was nuked. You’d have to actually think things through in order to have that pop into your head, so that probably explains why there’s no radiation in this movie.
The next action scene — oh, sorry. There was a perfunctory (my notes said “peremptory” — which maybe is what I meant, in an interesting way) motorcycle chase. Apparently there are terminator motorcycles. No robot, just a motorcycle that drives itself, and has that terminator-eye-view of the world.
The next action scene has more motorcycles, which shoot out of the legs of a giant 35 foot tall Transformer robot terminator.
“If they have 35 foot tall Transformers what is the point of humanoid robots? It’s ‘cool’ or whatever but a total misextrapolation that makes utterly no sense.”
I suppose when kids today (including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s children, I read) say that this movie is more awesome than the original two movies, they might be talking about the fact that there are giant robots in it. No, there’s no multilayered story about fate and characters with complexities, but there are giant robots. Yes, that is true.
Then there’s this truck chase. Marcus and Kyle and Newt get in a truck, and then motorcycles shoot out of the giant robot’s legs to chase the truck.
“Of course a truck chase, since there’s always one,” I wrote. Indeed, Terminators 1 through 3 all had a truck chase scene. It was the big chase at the end of the first movie, which had a small budget. It was merely the first warm-up chase of many in the second movie — oh wait, there was actually one at the end of the movie, too, mirroring the first movie’s climax. And there was one in the third movie, which was just a copy of the second movie, only instead of Robert Patrick there was tits and ass.
Where was I? “Since there’s always one. But why?” Does the truck chase actually add anything or do anything to the movie? Does it propel the story along? Is it interesting or thrilling or fun? Why are there only negative answers to these questions, when I answer them myself?
“And why the hell isn’t it John Connor in the truck chase, the guy we actually care about?”
It does kill me to think of Christian Bale, acting his little cheekbones off, trying to give a good performance in this movie, not having any idea, I don’t think, that McG was making a movie about this character Marcus and didn’t care about John Connor particularly, and had no idea what to do with Connor except grudgingly cut back to him now and then. For long stretches I’m wondering, where the hell is John Connor? The one character I have any chance of actually latching onto and emotionally identifying with.
Someone or another says the line, “They never come this deep — they’re looking for something!” I thought they were looking for Kyle Reese? Or what was that earlier exposition about? Ironside ended that early scene of chewing out Connor by saying that Kyle Reese was being hunted for, or they needed to find him, or — oh bother. Twice I watched this movie and twice I paid no attention to that dialogue. Or couldn’t pay attention to it even though I was trying to.
Moon Bloodgood, the movie’s hot babe (Megan Fox was busy elsewhere), appearing finally, more than a half hour in. Notes: “This jet fighter girl — why didn’t they introduce her earlier, when I would have cared? [She] should have been in scenes with Connor since the start. Dumb.” By this point in the movie, which has so many characters I don’t care about or are too generic to care about, I don’t really want another one, especially one that the movie force-feeds me. It says to me: YOU WILL LIKE HER. SHE IS SPUNKY AND TOUGH FISTED AND TOUGH TALKING AND IS REALLY HOT AND WEARS TIGHT CLOTHES WHICH SHE WILL UNZIP A LITTLE BIT AS A TEASE. YOU LIKE BEING TEASED DON’T YOU. HELL YEAH ME TOO.
“Soldiers in 2018 have access to top tooth whitening technology.” Moon Bloodgood came straight from the dentist to the set, apparently. White teeth are nice looking, yeah, but they can be so white that they’re a distraction, and downright wrong for the time and place the movie’s set. Unless you really don’t care about any of that, of course. Meaning she’s just there to be a hot chick.
Note: “Still don’t understand why people are being imprisoned instead of destroyed.” Yeah, since I thought the whole point of machines in this movie universe is that they want to eradicate all humans. That’s why they (once upon a time) invented terminators, to infiltrate hidden enclaves and destroy every living thing. But in this movie, when that sort of eradication should be at its height in the scheme of things, humans are being stockpiled in cages at SkyNet headquarters instead of killed.
The movie… sort of explains later that there’s an elaborate trap planned for John Connor. But when you think about it, it has little or nothing to do with caging people instead of killing them on sight. So I still think it’s unexplained. Nobody bothered to ask themselves the question when they were making it, I guess; or lacked the intellectual rigor to answer it satisfactorily.
“Still wondering why it’s all about this boring untrustworthy guy with attitude problems [Marcus] instead of John Connor.”
Oh, here’s a cogent note: “The movie presumes I care instead of engendering my caring instincts.” Yeah, that’s a big problem. A very big failure.
Here’s some snark: “The women characters seem to be written by guys who have heard of them, maybe read about them in comic books.” Ouch. Not exaggerating, either.
Someone just said, “We’ve never been this deep before.” Yep, that’s the second time they’ve used this line in the same movie. The first time, it was the machines that were never this deep, and this time the humans are deep…er…ish-ness-ing.
John Connor has Star Wars binoculars of course. You know the ones I mean, with the overlaid — yeah you got it.
Okay here’s a cute thing, and maybe is something original. The resistance uses hobo markings. That hobo pictograph language. Robo hobo signs.
Note: “Don’t get me started on Bryce Dallas Howard.” Seriously, don’t.
The movie says Marcus was born in 1975. So the prologue scene when he’s in jail happened when? Bah, never mind.
John Connor appears again, listening to a tape with a cameo appearance by the voice of his mother. Except what she says is, “When you’re unsure, just follow your heart.” GAG! That’s not a message from the Sarah Connor I know and love.
Heh, I’m not sure what this note was remarking on, but it’s funny: “Looks like someone’s watched Children of Men.”
Then Marcus does the motorcycle leap from The Great Escape, another of its many borrowings. Need an idea? Borrow an idea.
Moments later, there was a quote from Apocalypse Now. “The quotes keep coming,” I note, before wearily writing, “Another helicopter crash scene. How is that any fun? Have another truck chase while you’re at it.” Seriously, how is a second helicopter crash in the same movie going to provide any thrill we’re not numb to?
It occurs to me that I mentioned earlier that Terminator 2 had two truck chases in it. However, I have no complaints about that, but each one is different, and each one advances the story and deepens the character relationships. Characters in a James Cameron movie who are in a chase of some sort are forced by the situation to deepen their trust in each other as they confront the threat together. Good luck finding anything like that happening in this movie.
“Lots of wet floors. Like soaking wet. Star Trek too — what’s with that?” Remember how Nero’s ship, where they were holding Pike, had like 2 inches of water on the floor? This movie has that, too, for some reason.
Ironside and Connor are fighting. They have this dialogue: “No! You stay the course!” “If we stay the course we’re all dead!” Stay the course, stay the course. E-gad. I’m led to wonder whether we could pinpoint the year — wait, perhaps even the month — when these lines were first written into the screenplay, back during the last presidential administration. I think they were hoping to get it in theaters when that was still au courant.
Note: “Earlier this cycle-bot calculated the trajectory of rolling vehicle debris precisely enough to avoid all collision, but it’s somehow dumb enough to fall for the old rope strung taut across the road trick.”
What’s happened at this point in the movie is that Marcus has promised to make a deal with John Connor, to get him inside SkyNet central so he can find Kyle Reese. I’m not sure what Marcus gets out of the deal, except for John Connor not to kill him. Marcus has now been revealed to be kind of like a Terminator robot, except he seems to have a beating human heart in his chest, and human memories (except that he has amnesia). So Connor lets Marcus go to get inside and figure out where Kyle Reese is being held, and then follows him there, which is why Connor wanted a motorcycle. Because, as we know, nobody’s ever been that deep before.
Wait, I just thought of something. The whole reason the rope-across-the-road trick works normally is that it whipsaws the human rider off the bike. That doesn’t work when the motorcycle is being driven by a robotic brain built into itself. You’d have to damage the machine itself so that its brain didn’t work, but would that leave a ridable functioning cycle? Not only that, but if it’s meant to be autonomous and riderless, why is it designed at all to support a human rider? Why would it have anything like handlebars, a seat, pedals, brakes, and other controls that a human would need to commandeer it? Geez, none of this stands up to the merest challenge, the barest application of thought to the process. Any of dozens of designers and effects planners, let alone the writers and the director, should have asked at least one of these questions months before they were even shooting. Maybe they were asked, but I really am at the point of believing they were not.
There’s about a half hour more of stuff that happens, but I shortly stopped bothering to write notes. Part of what an audience presumably is paying for is better ideas than they themselves could think of, and the climax of the movie is where the movie’s total lack of ideas at all becomes most glaringly apparent. Again, not bad ideas, but no ideas. Okay, they had one idea, which was to use a nude body double, and computer trickery on digitized scans of footage from the first (or first two?) movies to make it seem like an Arnold-model T-800 appears on screen for 30 seconds. Then it gets all its skin burned off and it’s the titanium Stan Winston (R.I.P. Stan) skeleton again. Everything else is just a copy of an idea we’ve seen before.
I’ll give you my last two notes then wrap this up with all the complaints I have left, which are numerous. And my ideas about what ideas they might have tried out, instead of not having any.
“Flame factory. Actually a factory for making terminators — and a more wasted opportunity I haven’t seen in this movie. Steal from Aliens as long as you’re at it. Nope, just one more terminator, but we’ve killed a dozen easily already, so not a very big deal or much of a threat, surprise, or thrill.”
They’ve been building up the idea throughout the movie that the Arnold-model terminator, the T-800, is a new piece of technology that SkyNet is about to roll out. The other ones we see stomping around are T-600s. In the original movie, Kyle Reese tries to fill in Sarah Connor by telling her that the first terminators “had rubber skin, we spotted them easy” — but the new ones had actual flesh and blood, making them disastrously good infiltrators.
“And the mastermind plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if you spell it out.”
This movie is not about Marcus being the first of these to successfully infiltrate human enclaves, he’s apparently just some special one-off model with a beating heart and a chip in his still-human brain, someone who was killed by the state and then “resurrected” with a special mission.
The mastermind plot seems to be that Marcus was created to be the one special machine that, by having no idea what he was doing or who he was except for a burning desire to get into SkyNet so he could confront “whoever did this to him” he would meet Kyle Reese by chance, drive him north until Reese was captured, randomly meet a parchutist who lived in the camp with John Connor, get inside the camp, be revealed to be mostly a terminator robot when he steps on a magnetic landmine, so that John Connor would not trust him and want to destroy him, so that the lady with the white teeth that SkyNet could not have predicted would be involved would let Marcus go free, so that Marcus could tell John Connor he could tell him where Kyle Reese was, while promising that he wasn’t out to kill Kyle Reese or John Connor because he would have done so already, when actually he was fulfilling the purpose he was designed for, to get to John Connor, earn his trust, and lure him into a special trap where no other machine could do this that he has now done, as Marcus learns when he gets John Connor into SkyNet and tells him where Kyle Reese is.
Okay, so the most obvious thing in the world for the trap to be, leaving aside the fact that the plan to get John Connor inside SkyNet is complete unreliable random nonsense as far as plans go — is that John Connor shows up looking for Kyle Reese, and surprise, it’s a factory full of the new 800 model terminators, dozens of them, all bearing down on him at once!
Ha ha, yeah, isn’t that obvious? That’s so obvious. Especially since terminators in this movie aren’t that hard to kill, the only way to make the climax big enough is to have a lot of them, just like Cameron did when he extrapolated from the one alien threat in Alien to the colony full of them — and a queen! — in order to beef up the thrills and action of Aliens. As long as the only ideas you have are just lame copies of Cameron’s seminal ideas, steal that one, too, because it’ll get you over the hump even if you can’t plot out an action scene to save, uh, John Connor’s life. Mentioning the idea of a queen alien now makes me think, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have minded a 35-foot tall giant transformer terminator robot if it had been saved as a surprise for the end, a threat one ramp up from having to deal with dozens of regular terminators all bearing down on you. You know, build, build, build. One of the reasons James Cameron is a great artist in the medium of action movies is that he knows how to make every action scene seem huge and fantastic and thrilling and yet deliver another one that tops it, and another one that tops that one, all the way up to the end, where he saves his biggest ideas.
After I came home feeling empty and somewhat poisoned by this movie, I turned on the TV and Cameron’s True Lies was on, and it was a thorough refreshment. It turns out I wrote a thorough review of that movie once upon a time, and it’s worth reading as an antidote to this review, which I know isn’t that much fun.
But none of that. It’s just one more terminator, no more powerful or crafty than any of the other terminators. At one point, John Connor falls into a roomful of terminator skulls, ready to be welded onto terminator bodies, but it’s just this one robot. Which of course they melt with molten metal and freeze with liquid nitrogen, because those are the ideas they saw used before, and use them again.
Oh wait, there is one last hilarious thing. Marcus gets into a fistfight with the terminator, determined to be a free man (he tore the chip out of the back of his head with his bare hands and came to help John Connor). The terminator uses its terminator-o-vision on Marcus and its readout goes “vulnerability sighted” or something, keying on Marcus’s beating heart. So the terminator punches him so hard in the chest that Marcus drops dead. That’s not the funny part.
The funny part is that John Connor crawls over to him a few minutes later and, screaming, “Live! Live!” in a cliche taken from medical dramas, he attempts to resuscitate him. Guess how?
My very last note: “Punching a guy who died by being punched in the chest — in the chest.” He whales on Marcus’s chest, beating it for all he’s worth. I mean, you have to assume there’s some kind of cardiac tissue damage already.
This is even funnier when you realize that John Connor is injured in the escape and is going to need a heart transplant from guess who. Maybe you want to look for a different donor, eh?
You know, I didn’t want to get into the tabloid story that went along with the making of this movie, but I almost wonder now, sympathetically, if Christian Bale’s explosion of temper on the set was in large part due to pent-up frustrations about how shitty the movie they were making was to what he thought he’d signed on to do. It would make sense to me if that were the case.
The obvious plot of this movie, even if you’re not being original, you’re just following the pattern of the other movies in the series.
My goodness, it’s so obvious. Here it is.
The machines attempt to erase John Connor, their greatest enemy threat, by sending a terminator to kill Kyle Reese as a teenager, long before he can ever grow up to become John Connor’s father. John Connor must therefore risk life and limb to find and protect Reese, just like Reese once protected his mother Sarah.
Ta-da, there. That’s the least it should have been. Then you expand that with whatever new inspiration you get that expands on the formula and takes it into fresh places that derive from the environment the characters are trapped in, and all the threats and dangers and sanctuaries and help and obstacles they might find in it.
They’re called ideas. Movie directors and screenwriters are supposed to have them. It’s part of the job.
Or so I used to think.
So I went out to get some lunch today, and I was having trouble deciding what to get. I thought maybe I’d get some enchiladas, but I wasn’t sure. The garden enchiladas sounded good, though — basically spinach filled enchiladas with some onions and red bell peppers and other stuff. I’ve never ordered them because they’re a little pricey for me. So I argued with myself, thinking, gee, the cheese enchiladas are $1.50 cheaper… or I could get a turkey sandwich, that’s even less than the cheese enchiladas…
Then I realized I was just hemming and hawing over price. Okay, I told myself. If you really want the garden enchiladas, get those, but just make sure they’re what you want to eat. But don’t get a sandwich or cheese enchiladas just because they’re cheaper if you don’t want to eat those.
Okay, okay, me, I said to myself. I’ll order the garden enchiladas. Fine.
“Hey dude, whatcha need?” Uh oh, it’s the waiter who always says “hey dude” to me. It always puts me off for some reason even though I go to this place because it is laid back and informal. Maybe he’s a little too informal, I dunno. I order the garden enchiladas and some coffee and he rushes off.
Dissolve to: later in the meal.
I’m partway through eating these spinach enchiladas and something doesn’t seem quite right. I spread one open and realize there’s no spinach in them. I flag the waiter down. “Whatcha need, man?” he says. I say, “Hey, isn’t there supposed to be spinach in these?” He looks at the plate. “Oh, is there spinach in the garden enchiladas?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll have to check.” He leaves my table. I see him grab a menu and look up the garden enchiladas, and I watch as a funny reaction crosses his face as he reads the first words of the description: “Spinach-filled…”
He disappears into the kitchen for half a minute and comes rushing back. “Hey dude,” he says. “Yeah, uh, do you want them re-done, or do you want a side order of steamed spinach, or what do you want?” I was hoping maybe for a discount, but somehow I end up shrugging and saying, “Oh, a side order, I guess. Whatever.” So he nods and rushes off. Another reminder that I need to work on my negotiating skills.
In the interval, a waitress comes by with a coffee pot and we both regard my half-filled coffee mug. “Would you like more coffee?” she asks. “Yes, please!” I say.
A minute later, the waiter is back again with the side order of wet spinach leaves in a little bowl. “Hey man,” he says. “Ah, we’re gonna give you half off the price on the whole order, is that okay?”
“Sure, okay, cool,” I say. Score!
All that debating I did before ordering about whether to order by price or by what I wanted seems to have worked out extra-well after all. I’m not sure there’s any lesson to be learned from this or not. But I chose wisely today, it seems.
Appendix A: The Making of Pages 1-24
First of all, I have to say that writing and drawing this
comic has been the most satisfying creative project of the
year for me. It demanded a lot from me, and that’s partly
why it ended up being somewhat thrilling. Keeping on my
self-imposed schedule (aiming to be done with each page
at 12am each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) was a crazy
high-wire act with a lot of frenzy behind the scenes that
I deliberately didn’t mention was going on most of the time.
I say this because I want people to know that I’m having an
enormous amount of fun making Less Ordinary, so I do
intend to start cranking out pages again soon. Posting this
is not a replacement for that, it’s just extra stuff. And
I have in fact been sketching new pages lately.
Currently, I’m using a Sawtooth model Macintosh G4 minitower
from the mid-90s, at a screaming 400MHz with 768MB of RAM. The
computer cost $100, give me a break. The monitor is a huge monster
I got at a Goodwill computer store, also for $100. I’m using version
3.0 of Photoshop, which I got as an extra with a scanner I bought
in 1997 for an incredible $300. It was like 2 feet long and had
heavy solid glass and weighed 8 pounds, and it broke during a
move and I threw it away. But the Photoshop was a full version,
not that LE business, and I’ve never been able to afford to
upgrade it, so I’m still using it. Fortunately, version 3.0 is
when they standardized the PSD file format that is still in use
today. I do have to run it under OS9-Classic (under OS X 10.3.9),
but it behaves well. One limitation that has a significant
impact: one level of Undo only. If I make one stroke I don’t
like, I can get rid of it. If I make a stroke I don’t like and
then accidentally touch a dot of digital ink somewhere else a
second later, I’m committed. Or I have to go back to an earlier
saved version. Personally I look at this as a heroic and very
manly way to work, without all those effete and foppish 99+
levels of Undo people think they can’t live without.
The drawing tools: Cross ballpoint pen (blue medium),
Strathmore sketchbook, Wacom tablet, chair, desk, mouse, keyboard.
I invented the process of turning out pages of this comic while
doing it, seeking always to make it more efficient. It does end up
being kind of a factory assembly line kind of operation, taking
several weeks to produce the first page, but able to churn out a
page every two days on schedule when it got up to speed.
The basic workflow goes like this:
- Preliminary Page Breakdowns
- Page Layout, Composition and Editing
- Pre-Ink Prep
- Dialogue and Sound Effects
The Pre-Production phase happens on multiple pages at a time, so
that a whole sequence is prepped for production at one time. It is
more efficient that way, and helps for planning ahead in terms of
Production is one page at a time. I start and finish one page
before even thinking about the next, because it’s all I can handle.
Now that you have the broad idea, I’ll take each step at a time
so I can talk about each part and show some art examples. I didn’t always
save copies of the intermediate stages — too busy trying to get the
page done to worry about documenting the process — but every now and
then I remembered to do that.
The stage wherein I draw several pages of “pencils” in my sketchbook,
in a fast and loose style. I’m aiming to get down the next few pages of
ideas all at once, usually in one sitting. It’s almost like I’m just
jotting notes for what I’d like to do, except that I actually use these
drawings as the basis for the final art. Even though these are much rougher
and sketchier than ink-ready pencils usually are, they are not cleaned up.
This is somehow working beautifully for me. For years, my
main sketching/doodling medium has been ballpoint pen
in an artist’s sketchbook (11×14). I get a really fluid
line out of a ballpoint, and it can sometimes feel
effortless. It often looks messy if I can’t quite get
a line in the right place, because I can’t erase, but
a lot of the time I will draw a breezy stroke that
somehow captures something perfectly — a look on
a face, the body language of someone in motion.
I used to have a very hard time with the fact that I
couldn’t use these ballpoint sketches as the basis for
a real piece of finished artwork. I would have to, at
best, laboriously re-draw the sketches in pencil, and
then ink, and I’d lose that ineffable something that I
really thought the fast first sketch had.
I got a Wacom tablet about three years ago,
but after multiple experiments with it I still had never
become comfortable with drawing with it directly — ie,
digitally “pencilling” — or even with inking over scanned
drawings. However, a lot of other artists digitally ink
over scanned pencils, so I figured there had to be a way
to make it work for me. This comic gave me an opportunity
In fact, it started just as a quick and dirty experiment
I was doing purely for research purposes. I had been planning
to do a webcomic of my own for a full year, and by September
2007 I was very busy trying all sorts of experiments with different
real and digital drawing tools, trying to figure out what
would be efficient and reliable for turning out pages on
a regular schedule. Traditional pencil, pen and ink were
looking good but incredibly slow. I knew I’d be lucky to do
more than one page a week like that, and that just wasn’t
good enough. I had to try doing more of the work in the
So when I got the idea for the first 8 pages, based on a
real-life incident, I figured this was a chance to try out
any techniques I wanted. I drew some fast sketches,
took pictures of them with my digital camera, and pulled
them into Photoshop. I lowered the contrast and brightened
the page, making the ballpoint look faint. I chose one of
the drawings from the page, traced over it with the paintbrush
tool with black “ink”, and hey — I liked the result.
Since then, I have continued to do all the pencilling
work as crazy-fast sketches in my sketchbook, making often
very little effort to draw them cleanly or what you might
think of as being a sound basis for finished work. But
it somehow works! Mostly because I’m finally getting to
work from the intuitive strokes that manage to get the
bold ideas down, because I’m drawing in the way I’m
absolutely the most relaxed, comfortable and confident.
Getting the sketches into the computer.
As I said, I started with just a digital camera, because
I was scanner-less. (My old scanner didn’t have a driver for
OS X, and UMAX refused to ever make one, for some reason.)
I’d take one picture per sketched panel, several per
sketchbook page, often ending up with dozens of pictures.
I’d capture them in iPhoto and use that to brighten them up
a bit, because the camera was always making the sketchbook
paper come out as 50% neutral gray instead of white.
It eventually became clear that using the digital camera
and was adding a lot of steps to the process of getting them
assembled as ink-ready pages, and whacking those few steps out
of the process was going to be a big time and energy saver.
Anything to make it faster and easier to turn out new pages
was my guiding principle. So, I bought a new scanner, I think
around the time I was working on page 10.
Because it costs a stupid amount of money to get a scanner
that can take an 11×14 image, I have to scan each sketchbook
page in two overlapping halves. At first, I fell back on my old
habit of scanning at 300dpi, but the scanner was especially
slow at this. I realized that high resolution didn’t matter,
because I was resizing the artwork so much anyway during the
layout and composition phase (see below) that the starting
resolution was largely irrelevant. Once again, speed was better,
so now I scan them at 75 dpi. I take the two scans,
bung them together in Photoshop, collapse them into one image
file and save that.
Preliminary Page Breakdowns
Where the sketches get reorganized into comic pages.
I take all of that newly scanned material and make a
preliminary best-guess at breaking it down into 11×17
comic pages in a rough form.
Industry standard art boards for illustrating comic
pages are now 11 by 17 inches, so I decided it would be
smart to use that size of virtual paper, at 300dpi, for
drawing this comic. My sketchbook pages are 11×14, though,
which means that there is not a complete correspondence of
sketchbook page to comic page.
The extra 3 inches vertically are a little annoying to
deal with, actually, because it’s not enough height to
add another row of panels to the artwork, but pulling
all of the panels apart with more room can leave things
looking a little empty. I approach this problem anew for
each one; it’s the initial challenge that gets me engaged
in the activity of deciding what, in fact, will happen
on this page.
Page Layout, Composition and Editing
In this stage, the sketches are treated as mutable
independent objects that can be rearranged on the page,
with an emphasis on the visual flow of the whole page
and telling the story.
It was when I was working on page 1 that I began to see
the potential of working in the digital medium at this early
stage, before I start inking. I can take a sketch for a panel
and combine it with another panel. I can mirror flip a drawing
if it makes the visual flow of the page work better. I can
stretch a small panel to be really large, and I can shrink
or crop a large panel to be small. I can grab drawings I
assigned to future page breakdowns, and I can throw away drawings
completely, because I’ve figured out how to tell the story
without them, probably by beefing up the role of a different
panel. This phase is where I look hard for what I
can cut, that I don’t need to tell the story on
that page. I think it’s strengthened the visual
impact and the storytelling to have made some
bold choices in this regard along the way.
The first dramatic breakout was on page 6, which
originally was laid out like pages 1-5, with a lot
of little panels and a lot of dialogue balloons.
But by that point, I’d realized that drawing one
small panel takes about the same time as drawing
one big panel. And drawing two big panels to do
a page takes considerably less time than drawing
four to seven panels to do the same work. And so
when I stretched the second panel (see below) to cover everything
and realized that one image told the whole visual
story for that page — Mr. Glasses’s incredulous
reaction to what was happening on the other side
of the table — I knew I had a lot more storytelling
options than I was originally assuming.
Sometimes discarded material is saved
to be used in upcoming pages. Other times, I may decide it
just doesn’t work — there is one sequence of sketches
I did that I liked a lot, but I tried twice to prep it for
inking — spending several hours trying to put the
pieces together — and it never came together as a solid
layout. The layout has to feel firm, because it’s the
foundation level, and something was always too wonky
about this sequence of drawings, and so I had to leave
The dramatic example of this was the “Timequake” sequence,
which started as eleven pages of sketches, was broken down
into eight pages of preliminary page layouts, and then
ended up being slimmed down and reorganized (one page
decided at a time) to just five pages of the final comic.
This gets everything all set for the inking to begin.
After I’ve got the composition and layout pretty much
finalized, the page is massively reduced in contrast and
raised in brightness. You may not have noticed this, but
the background is never true white, it’s always a very
faint off-white, a sort of yellowish gray. (Only the
dialogue balloons are pure white, which makes them pop
out.) The main point of doing the contrast and brightness
alteration is to make the ballpoint sketches turn a very
faint, light purple that can be drawn over and also erased
by a paint bucket fill with a moderately high tolerance (52).
It can look faint in a thumbnail or zoomed out, but zoomed
in it is still highly legible throughout the inking process,
so that I don’t find myself losing track of the underlying
Lastly, the panel borders for the page are set by drawing
with the straight line tool and filling with black ink. I
might still move panels around after this point — some of
a trickier pages require rethinking and tweaking even after
inking has started — but the general rule is that the
artwork and layout are now “locked” and I can move
on to the next task with a clear head and confidence.
This Pre-Production process is, in my mind, highly analogous
to working on a film: sketching is like shooting raw footage, the page
breakdowns and rearranging of panels is like editing the footage
to a rough cut, then down to the final cut. In movies, you then
“lock the picture” (stop changing any of the editing or timing),
and then you go into post-production to sweeten it all up and
polish it (ie, add music and special effects, do the sound mix,
and so forth). Except, for the purposes of doing a comic book, that next
bit is the Production, not the Post-Production.
Next: The Production stage: Inking, Dialogue, and Coloring
I made this up as a doodle, basically (well, for drawing practice, I might better say). Afterward I started to think that the guy’s face looked like Alan Alda, which amused me.
Click for full-resolution image.