Visual Storytelling in a Nutshell

Yes, it's been a while. Finally settled into the new digs, and with some interesting projects going, few of which I'm at liberty to discuss.

But one of them is developing an online course in Cinematic Storytelling for Kadenze. It got me looking for examples, good and bad, of visual storytelling. And, boy, did I find a couple.

This is purported to be the "funniest scene ever" from Friends. I want you to watch it, but with the sound turned off.

Do you have any idea what the scene was about? What the goals were for any of the characters? What was at stake? Was it even remotely funny?

Now watch this — again, with the sound turned off. And ask yourself the same questions.

It's hard to think of a more clear illustration of the maxim, show, don't tell.

Destination Unknown

Not that you could tell by the frequency of my blog posts, but a lot has been going on. For one, I've moved out of my house so I can sell it. That means no mix theater, no home studio, no reference audio system for a while. I miss it.

I hope to be back up and running in a new house within a few weeks. I don't know yet where I'll be buying because I don't know yet how much money I'll have. Fun times.

But I do have my basic audio editing system up and running here at Temporary HQ in Oakland, and have been involved in a couple of very interesting sound design projects. Unfortunately they're both secret, so I can't tell you about them — yet.

But I can tell you about a fun project I just (finally) finished, namely the edit and mix of the latest Earbud Theater episode, On The Line from Writer/Director/Actor Jared Rivet:

Something has gone rotten with Dawn and Rachel’s friendship.  Sure people change and everyone has secrets – but this time it’s different. On this particular night Dawn seeks Rachel’s company to finally have it out when a seemingly innocent mistake hurtles the two down a highway of terror.  From the demented mind of Jared Rivet, On The Line is a tale that is at once insidious and a high-octane thrill ride.

Turn down the lights, crank up the volume, and enjoy.

Recommended Movies

I'm now teaching Visual Storytelling at CCA in Oakland. As part of that course I maintain a list of recommended movies. I'm going to start keeping that here for various reasons. Expect this blog post to get updated as we go along.

Happy viewing.

Films that are good examples of visual storytelling

 

Lawrence of Arabia — one of the best ever at almost everything. Try to see it on a big screen if you can.

The Apartment — Classic comedy from Billy Wilder

Sunset Boulevard — Another Billy Wilder movie that had a disastrous test screening and went on to be a seminal work. Beautifully structured storytelling, super clear staging and cinematography.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) — Probably the best genre screenplay ever written. One of the scariest scenes is accomplished entirely via blocking and camera operation. A gem. Have a hanky handy for the climax.

Blancanieves (Snow White) — A silent film from Spain that's just beautifully crafted.

Pixar Shorts — Starting around Knickknack we got pretty good at it. Check out the student films Next DoorSomewhere in the Arctic, and Palm Springs.

Better Call Saul (TV Series) — I love the way this show (at least Season 1) was shot. The use of dark areas, slashes of light, and framing are terrific.

The Elephant Man — Possibly David Lynch's best film. It's masterfully shot and staged, and the sound design puts Lynch's touch on it.

The Last Emperor — Stunning evidence of how good an episodic film can be. The cinematography by Vitorio Storaro is masterful, and the use of color to mark where you are in the protagonist's story is wonderful. See it on a big screen if you can. Not for nothing did it win 9 Oscars.

 

Films that are bad examples of visual storytelling

 

You can learn a lot from bad examples. I talk about an overall geographical stage line to keep the viewer oriented. Try watching the 1998 feature film version of Lost in Space. There isn't a single line the movie doesn't cross in confusing ways at least a few times.

 

The Creaky Stairs

Earbud Theater just released The Creaky Stairs, a spooky, classic scare story written by Jared Rivet. This was my second chance to do the sound effects editing and mix on one of their episodes, and I had a blast doing it.

I must say, by way of unsolicited testimonial, that I couldn't have done it without iZotope software. I used RX 4 Advanced to clean up and shape all the dialogue, and seamlessly apply a 1.25 semitone pitch up to the voices of our actresses, making them really sound like young boys. The Alloy 2 and Nectar 2 plugins gave me lots of control over the sound of all the voices, and Alloy's transient shaping let me sculpt the sound of spooky footsteps.

I was also quite pleased with how my Zoom H6 recorder worked out. I grabbed city and playground ambiences, and recorded most of the footstep foley in the episode, and it performed wonderfully.

My thanks to Casey Wolfe and Jared Rivet for the chance to work on a really fun episode. You can listen to it via iTunes or directly from the Earbud Theater site.

Grab your best headphones. Or, if you have a speaker system with good bass extension, turn down the lights and crank up the volume.

Spheres of Influence

Two new spheres have entered my world.

The first sphere is the Kaotica Eyeball.

It's designed to isolate the microphone from room reflections. It's main market is portable voice-over work, but I've installed it in the studio to let me get rid of the cobbled-together tent of blankets I'd been working in. The studio is much roomier now, and I don't have to shuffle chairs in and out of position to go from recording to editing.

It may not be for everybody, but I have to give Kaotica points for customer support. When my first test produced unacceptably muffled audio I emailed them to ask what their return policy was. Less than an hour later I got a phone call from one of their support people in LA, who told me specifically how to set it up for my mic.

The mic pictured above, the Neumann TLM-103, is both the mic they used for developing the product, and the mic I use in my studio. Which was handy. My tests showed, however, that the stylish blue pop screen they supplied rolls off the high end. I don't have it installed in my setup, sticking instead with the idea of speaking just off axis to the mic so I don't puff at the diaphragm.

Still cozy, I know, but a lot less claustrophobic than the old setup. Since it takes at least 60 hours in this room to produce a 10 hour audiobook, it's worth it.

 

The second sphere is the Mid/Side microphone on my Zoom H6 audio recorder. It's a clever little thing with a directional mono mic aiming forward (the top in the picture below), and a figure-8 mic at right angles. What it allows you to do is, by controlling how much "side" signal is present, dial your way from mono all the way to full stereo.

But the signal comes out with mid on the left channel and side on the right. I searched all over the place for a way to deal with that in Pro Tools, and failed. So, once I figured out how to make it work, I had to make a tutorial.

Has anybody tried to study how much YouTube is an educational resource? It's practically the manual for a lot of the software I use, because the actual manuals often leave things out.

Outstanding in my Field

Or, out standing in yours.

I remember when the classic Nagra represented the pinnacle of portable field audio recording. It harkens back to Apocalypse Now, when Mark Berger ducked out of the way of a rocket but kept the mic held high, yielding that sound effect that makes you jump after drifting peacefully down the river for a while. It's Ben Burtt out there recording effects for Star Wars. And it's Randy Thom trying to trip me up in the old Sprocket Systems lobby by having me read a newspaper into his Nagra while monitoring the play head in the headphones. Most people are befuddled by hearing their own voice about a quarter second late, but I was a lonely kid who taught himself how to speak in a normal tone of voice even when wearing cans.

But I digress.

The Nagra, and Ben pounding on guy wires.

The Nagra, and Ben pounding on guy wires.

 

I now have field recording capability thanks to a new Zoom H6. No, it doesn't make me Ben Burtt, but I can record up to 6 channels at once onto a much smaller device – one that comes with its own stereo microphones. And I can do it to high bitrate, high resolution WAV files.

This promotional video from Zoom gives a pretty good idea what it can do.

Now when I help you tell your story, I can make it much easier for your story to be heard, no matter in whose field you stand while telling it.

In the Mix

Today I finished the project of making my facility reconfigurable from recording/editing to mixing/mastering. This is sort of the Millenium Falcon of mix studios: It may not look like much, but it's got it where it counts.

When it's time to get serious about the sound, hand it over to the Sashas.

When it's time to get serious about the sound, hand it over to the Sashas.

My studio monitors and headphones are adequate for many tasks, even finishing up an audiobook. But when mixing and mastering music, movie soundtracks,  or a radio drama it helps to have the right speakers. The Wilson Audio Sashas (mine are Series 1 – you can read about the new Series 2 here) are musical, revealing, and analytical. While they're good for just kicking back and listening (or rocking a movie) critical listening is what they were designed for.

Granted, it doesn't look remotely like Skywalker Sound. But with my "MacGyver" setup I can reconfigure from production to mixing in about 20 minutes, and it was way cheaper than getting a second Mac Pro. Fortunately the Mac Pro is quiet enough to be right in the room, so I didn't have to get fancy with the cabling.

Now I don't have to jog down the hall to listen to the mix and take notes. Creative decisions on level, placement, EQ, reverb – everything – can be made right here.

Under a Vacuum

As I warned, thought this isn't a food blog per se, I do enjoy cooking and will occasionally post about it. Some friends of mine are getting into sous vide (French for "under a vacuum", and pronounced sue VEED) and asked for some tips, so I thought I'd generalize it. You can find many more exhaustive, scientific discussions elsewhere via a web search. These are just some handy things I've learned.

The first sous vide cooking was done with a piece of lab equipment called a Thermal Immersion Circulator. They were crazy expensive devices that could maintain the water temperature to within tenths of a degree. Cooking doesn't need that kind of precision, and now equipment is getting downright affordable, opening up what used to be a secret weapon in gourmet restaurants to the home chef.

How it works

Food is sealed in a plastic bag and held in a water bath at a very precise and consistent temperature. This has three major ramifications. The first is that this is what's known in the food science business as ROP, or Reduced Oxygen Packaging. The rules of pasteurization change in the absence of plentiful oxygen, and it happens on a curve. Beef, for example, can be pasteurized at only 125º F in ROP, but it takes 4-5 hours. That's why it's safe to cook it to a perfect medium rare (132º F) sous vide in spite of what you've always been told about the "danger zone" below 140º F. The second big deal is that many proteins respond to specific temperatures in very specific ways. In short: magic happens. The third is that recipe timing becomes much more flexible. When you cook a steak on a stovetop the difference between perfect and ruined can be measured in seconds. Sous vide, your window of perfection is at least hours and often days.

First thing to try

Fire up your water bath to 147º F. Gently place some eggs in it and set a timer for 1 hour. Then enjoy the most amazing soft-cooked eggs of your life. The whites will be perfect, and the yolk turns into what I call yolk pudding. Later you can try hard-cooking eggs using the same technique, but at 170 (some like 160 – experiment!). Just do it.

Bag it

New sous vide cooks, who can't afford a vacuum chamber sealer, eventually become frustrated with both the price of the fancy, food-safe bags and the inability to include liquid in the bag with the food. You can try the trick of freezing the liquids in an ice cube tray and dumping those in before hitting the vacuum button, but that can add a lot of hassle.

One of the best tips I ever got was to stop using the vacuum sealer. If you aren't working from a Thomas Keller cookbook you probably aren't making dishes that benefit from the hard vacuum anyway. Get yourself some 1 quart and 1 gallon ZipLoc freezer bags. I'm being brand-specific here because the manufacturer has stated that the plastic they use is food safe up to around 170º F, well above where you'll normally be.

So how do you seal them? The Archimedes Method involves simply dunking the filled bag under some water (which, of course, you'll have a big pot of anyway) until just the top of the bag is above the surface. Seal, remove from the water, and you're good to go. I do this pretty much all the time now and only bust out the vacuum sealer when I know I'm going to...

Freeze it

Here's another awesome side-effect of cooking in ROP: Say you've prepared four steaks and then two of your guests cancel. No problem! Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Chill the cooked steaks in it (in the fridge) for an hour or two, then toss them in the freezer. Later, when you want to enjoy them, just thaw them in a 132 ºF bath for about half an hour. They will be every bit as perfect as the ones you had tonight.

Fish

You'll find that fish is just magic prepared sous vide. While it's impossible to overcook anything sous vide, eventually delicate things like fish will turn mushy. But that takes hours. If you get the cooking time "pretty close" you're golden.

Here's my "lazy man" weeknight salmon recipe: Un-bag some frozen Costco salmon filets and drop them in some 1-qt ZipLocs with a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce. Seal them Archimedes style. When your water is up to 140º F, cook them for 30 minutes. They will thaw and cook to perfection. Dump contents of bags onto plate. Done.

Buy cheap beef

Know why you pay such a premium for cuts like Filet Mignon and Porterhouse? It's not for the flavor. It's because it's tender. Tougher cuts actually have more flavor, they just need to be cooked "low and slow". A note about doneness: It is entirely a function of temperature. When beef hits medium, or 140º F, it's as cooked as it's ever going to get. All that happens between there and well-done (170º) is that the proteins contract and squeeze out the juices. Maybe you order medium just to be on the "safe side". Well, forget that. Medium rare is where it tastes best, and now you know that it'll be medium rare all the way through.

My favorite steak is now 2-day Chuck. Sometimes I buy it as a chuck roast and cut it into two 1 1/4-ish pound pieces to cook. One gets the freezer treatment, the other gets cut into two steaks before browning. (More on that later.) At 132º the proteins never contract, but the collagens do melt. So during those 48 hours in the bath the steak gets more and more tender, more and more flavorful. Try 3-day beef ribs some time, just be sure to truss them with string first because the meat will be falling off the bone.

3-day Beef Rib

3-day Beef Rib

Since beef has such an incredibly wide window of perfection you can see why restaurants love this method. Say it's the weekend and you know you want steaks for dinner, but you don't know what time. Now you don't care what time. Bag 'em up and start them cooking some time in the morning. Whenever you feel like dinner they're ready.

Brown it

A critical thing sous vide doesn't do is trigger the Maillard Reaction. That's what's going on when you brown food. Literally hundreds of flavor compounds are produced, which is why toast is so much more flavorful than plain bread. You can brown things like steaks either on a grill (I have a gas one that makes this easy) or in a very hot skillet. (Use a heavy one, like cast iron or stainless steel.) Before you do either, make sure the food is dry. I just use a kitchen side towel, wrapping it around the steaks and patting them dry. If you don't, you'll get steaming instead of browning. It only takes about a minute per side.

Enjoy

Soon after you impress yourself you'll be impressing your friends. Do read the safety instructions that came with your sous vide equipment. But it's actually quite easy. Beef, poultry, fish, and eggs benefit greatly from sous vide. (Just don't push fish more than half an hour extra, or poultry beyond a few hours, or texture suffers.) There are also vegetable and dessert recipes out there. I hope these quick tips make your food-in-a-bag cooking easier and more enjoyable.

Wherein I confess to bribery

The old Cinema in Corte Madera is probably going away, perhaps to be replaced by housing. The economics of movie theatres just don't favor large, single-screen houses anymore. The Coronet movie palace in San Francisco, known affectionately in the local film business as "The Barn", was razed years ago. That's where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third KindAliens, Batman, and a host of event films. That's where we had the company screening of Return of the Jedi with George Lucas, Richard Marquand, plus Carrie Fisher smoking like a chimney in one of the front rows.

The Cinema, though, is where we went one Saturday morning to watch E.T. with Lucas and Spielberg, and is the theatre I mentioned in my Young Sherlock Holmes post. I saw AlienBladerunner, and Top Gun there (both in 35mm and 70mm, which was an interesting day).

I was one of the Pixar gang that waited in line for hours to see Episode I, with famously disastrous results, the day this photo was taken:

Source: Marin Independent Journal

Source: Marin Independent Journal

We so wanted to like that movie. I remember Andrew Stanton pacing up and down in the Cinema's parking lot afterwards, talking to us, or the pavement, or the sky, I can't recall which, and muttering that he didn't want credit, or money, or anything like that, "but please, George, just let me take a look at the next script before you shoot it!"

Anyway, it's true that I sometimes traded LFL shirts for an advance entrance for our group through the side doors when the lines were long. Like for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. When the Mill Valley Film Festival ran the inspired double feature of Tin Toy and The Lair of the White Worm we found those favorite seats cordoned off "for the filmmakers", so we sat one row back. It wasn't until half way through the feature that we realized that we were "the filmmakers" because Ken Russel wasn't coming.

Sigh. I guess it's just as well that I didn't waste any shirts on Episode I.

I'll miss the place. I used to call it "the only decent theatre in Marin". Maybe Marin just won't have a decent cinema anymore. But if you can't give me a truly big screen, I'm better off at home anyway.

As Seen in Fast Company

I was recently interviewed for an article in Fast Company, along with a goodly number of other Pixar alums.

Building the Next Pixar

Building the Next Pixar

Interesting to see what we're all up to, and what the author, Evie Nagy, found in common between people doing everything from running a cookie company, to running a game company, to creating a conversational iPad app, to narrating audiobooks.

(Hint: His initials are EC.)

New Audiobook Released: Hexes

Hexes Cover.jpg

Hexes is Tom Piccirilli's tale of the local boy turned famous playwright who returns to find his town, Summerfell, beset by some grisly murders. It turns out he has some very special talents which will be needed to stop them, and some dark, unfinished business relating to Panecraft, the insane asylum his father founded. Let's just say he has some scars.

The audiobook that I recorded just went on sale at Audible.com, Amazon, and iTunes.

Listen in the dark.

The Maker

I know it's been a while since I've posted. I've been busy recording an audiobook called Hexesthe first title that will be fully recorded in my new home studio. There'll be a blog post soon about some of the many lessons I've learned from that project. I thought I had Hexes pretty well wrapped up, but on playback I realized that chapter 22 really kicked my ass. It's a big, complicated sequence with lots of character voices, and kicks off the third act – so it matters. I was not, to put it delicately, in good form when I recorded it. It's awful.

As painful as it is to throw away most of a day's work, I just can't release something like that.

But that's not what I really wanted to tell you about.

I am so in love with a short film I just found that I am going to promote someone else's work here. No idea how I missed it a couple of years ago. It's everything an animated short should be. It's beautiful and bizarre, looking a bit like a cousin of the Brothers Quay, yet fresh and original. The stop motion animation is flawless and subtle. The story is simple and moving. It's told at exactly the right pace, and for the right amount of time.

And the music. Oh, the music. It's divine. And important.

So get yourself to where you can watch this in high definition, with good sound. Crank it up.

And enjoy The Maker.

The Name Game

Studios put a lot into choosing just the right name for their movies. Starting with the writer naming the script, great effort goes into finding just the right title. It's the tip of the marketing spear after all. Nobody would have run out to see A Long Night At Camp Blood, but Friday the 13th did pretty well. Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night sounds like an unfocused documentary, but Saturday Night Fever sparkled on the poster. Dave Peoples wrote a wonderful screenplay called The Cut Whore Killings. Clint Eastwood suggested renaming it Unforgiven.

In the case of most of the shorts we made at Pixar in the old days the names came easily. Luxo, Jr., Red's Dream, Knickknack, and Tin Toy practically named themselves. Our first feature, about toys that came to life when people were out of the room, named itself too. We called it ToysPerfect, no?

Then we heard that Barry Levinson had sniped the title for a Robin Williams movie. Yes, that Barry Levinson.

Well, we had a movie to make. Surely we'd come up with another title — just as snappy —eventually. Meanwhile, we needed to get to work, so Toy Story was slapped on it as a working title. We all hated it. At least it was temporary.

Eventually the deadline for picking a final title loomed. We were desperate. A list (which I dearly wish I could find) of proposed titles floated around the studio hoping that one would stick. They sucked.

Don't believe me? Here are a few that I do remember: [Update: I'm also adding titles that other Pixareans are remembering and sending to me.]

  • The Cowboy and the Space Man
  • Spurs and Rockets
  • Buzz Off
  • Did Not, Did Too
  • I'm With Stupid
  • Pull-String Heroes

Now you believe me.

I'm half surprised we never got to Buzz, Buzz, Bo-Buzz, Bananafana Fo-Fuzz but I wouldn't bet folding money that it crossed nobody's mind. Eventually the ticking clock put the whole exercise out of its misery.

I remember being at my desk in the old Layout Pod on Cutting Blvd. when a downcast John Lasseter slouched into my cubicle and informed me that we had run out of time: We were stuck with the name Toy Story. We both took a moment to sulk. Oh, well. Who knows how many people were going to see it anyway? I remember hoping right up to the release for it to just not tank. Maybe gross a respectable $85-90 million so we could stay in business and make another movie.

Toy-Story.jpg

It eventually worked out OK, and nobody else seemed particularly bothered by the title. We even got used to it. But during the struggle for a title, just to make us feel better, Joe Ranft shared something that happened while he was at Disney.

In 1986 the studio was finishing production on a "Sherlock Holmes with mice" film that had the delightful title, Basil of Baker Street. At the last minute the decision was made to change it to the stupefyingly lame The Great Mouse Detective. How much that title contributed to its being a box office flop is purely a matter of conjecture. What was sure was that most of the animators and story people agreed it was dreadful.

Out of nowhere a memo appeared, typed on official letterhead and apparently from the office of Peter Schneider, a top production executive at the time. In the days before the internet things went viral via Xerox machines. And boy howdy did this one go viral, appearing soon all over the studio. It became famous, or infamous depending on who you were, all over the animation world. Joe had some copies and shared them with us.

The other day I was going through some old boxes, and look what I found.

Basil of Baker Street Joe Ranft Memo.jpg

Schneider (who is actually a very nice guy) was reportedly furious, and tried for years to uncover who created the memo. Nobody squealed.

The author unmasked himself to us nearly a decade later, at Pixar. You probably guessed already.

I really miss Joe.