What exactly is a blog?

GonzoThere was some discussion on Twitter the other day, about how a blog differed from a journal; that many blogs were in fact mere journals, filled with the personal thoughts and observations, and that there should be a different nomenclature for them.

You know what though, the differentiation is at best paper-thin. Unless you’re writing a commercial listicle for salary, ad revenue or exposure, a blogpost is no different from a journal entry. At the end of the day, it’s gonzo self-published article, and that’s a good thing.

Gonzo journalism, popularised by Hunter S. Thompson, puts paid to the fallacy that any writing can be purely objective. There will always be an element of subjectivity, to a greater or lesser extent. One might pretend otherwise, claim the writing is devoid of such trappings, but unless it’s the driest recount of facts, that’s nigh-impossible. Gonzo takes that idea to it’s logical opposite: if you can’t remove the writer from the writing, why not embrace that entirely?

Blogposts frequently instinctually blur this divide, as per the original observation, where a factual post is heavily tinged with the personality and prejudices of the writer. And why not? The blog is after all a personal domain. It may not be a safe space, it is public after all, but it is the digital yard of the writer. Those interested can visit, but none are compelled to stay.

So why not embrace this attitude, this gonzo sensibility? Why not accept that facts and guidance are useful, but do we really need another article telling us, for example, which rules of writing we should or should not follow? More interesting is what the topic means to an individual, what their perspective is, how it makes them feel. That’s where the individuality comes in: Everyone’s tastes and perspectives will be like nobody else’s. What’s interesting is when those tastes and perspectives appeal to the reader, making them think or empathise or just enjoy the ride while it’s happening.

So, embrace the gonzo, I say. Don’t try to write a dry recitation in a failed attempt at objectivity. Even if nobody ever partakes of your creations, find the joy of the writer in the written word, regardless of what you end up calling the result.

Review: Tea For Two

Title

We’ve encountered the work of Pork Chop Pictures before, with their charming short film Soul Matrix. This time, they’ve partnered with Mini Productions, and after a successful crowdfunding campaign, they’ve released Tea For Two.

Writer/Director Mark Brennan and producers April Kelley and Sara Huxley put together quite the cast for this 15 minute short: John Challis (Only Fools and Horses) and Amanda Barrie (Coronation Street) are joined by William Postlethwaite and Abigail Parmenter for this charming tale of tea, time and love.

Alice & Jim

Centred around a tea shop, the narrative is carried by Challis, in top grouchy form, and Barrie who is endearingly funny throughout. The narrative can’t be detailed explicitly, as there’s a surprising element to it, but it flows well, unveiling the narrative smoothly. While some didn’t catch the implications of the ending, I found it nicely subtle, where it could have veered into heavy-handed exposition.

Tea For Two is beautifully coloured and the music and sound are spot on. Overall Tea For Two is a great success for the team, and we hope it does well when it hits the festival circuit.

Outlining And The Inner Five-Year-Old

Two days in an empty house, one of which spent beating my head against the wall of exhaustion masking as writer’s block, four colours of Sharpie, 107 index cards and a pot of goulash. That’s what it took to completely re-outline Underworld Calling, my supernatural thriller, from scratch. Into that rewrite went notes from members of the London Writers’ Circle, friends on Twitter and excellent paid feedback from Drew Hilton, the Screenplay Mechanic.

As much as I loved the ideas and characters, and the last draft and story as a whole, I knew it had major issues: Dangling plotlines, insufficient visual and commercial appeal, redundant characters and poor structure. Most of it was due to not outlining from the get-go, then re-tinkering with it over and over, rather than just biting the bullet and outlining it all over again. My key tool to ensure the story was nice and tight this time around was to enquire of my inner five-year old. Every index card was greeted with a plaintive ‘But whyyyy?!’. And if I couldn’t answer it simply on the index card, it got shuffled off until I had either an answer or a better plot point. And by that method, many darlings were murdered, sometimes literally, always brutally.

I’m a long way from done, of course. There are currently oodles of index cards on the floor, in columns by sequence. I’ve taken photos, but I need to write them up, and then turn them into a treatment. And when all that’s done, then starts the actual writing wherein there’s a decent chance the plot and characters and outline will shift a little. But I have a solid starting point, an outline that has managed to survive my most brutal self-criticism, and the relentless enquiries of said inner five-year old. And that’s no bad thing at all.

Scripped, Online Screenwriting and Backups

Some screenwriters, whether for reasons of cost or convenience, prefer online software solutions for their script work, whether Adobe Story, Celtx, or newcomer WriterDuet. However, last week the risk of those primarily online services came to public attention with the dramatic implosion of Scripped.

Scripped was an online-only screenwriting and script storage solution, a web-based alternative to using Final Draft or Fade In. The ScreenCraft owned community was languishing somewhat, apparently on the verge of rejuvenation when a total database calamity occurred. All scripts, including all backups, were irrevocably wiped with no hope of restoring them. Due to the diminishing nature of the community, the damage wasn’t as widespread as might have been feared, but for those people still deeply embedded in the ecosystem, it was catastrophic. Those who had not maintained offline backups had lost potentially years of work.

Now, the idea of not taking backups sends shivers of fear up my spine. It’s this kind of terror, combined with poor or non-existent offline solutions, that has kept me from web-based screenwriting software. I know that Adobe Story and WriterDuet have both an offline solution and backup options, but then so did Scripped. Adobe may have more resilient infrastructure than Scripped owners Screencraft, but nothing can really protect you totally from that kind of disaster.

Personally, I write using offline tools, I use Dropbox for day-to-day synching, TimeMachine for frequent backups, and also store timestamped archives of my writing folder on an FTP site. I considered myself slightly over-paranoid in this regard until I started speaking to other people. Additional options included saving timestamped archives onto DVDs, and printing and filing all drafts of all scripts. Those might be going a bit far for me, especially physical copies. Paper is anathema to me, and if I fall out of love with a script, the temptation to shred it might just be too great.

So, what can we learn from the Scripped fiasco? By all means use online solutions, especially if budgets are a concern. But make sure they have decent internal backup solutions, and also store editable copies of all your scripts elsewhere, with as many additional storage iterations as your paranoia demands. Because it’s only paranoia until the unthinkable happens.

Addendum

Craig Mazin and John August go into some detail about the Scripped aftermath in their Scriptnotes podcast.

Also, if you need to recover scripts from PDF backups, this can be done with most files directly in Fade In, but also in Highland.

Filmmaking 101: Droning on and on

The problem with doing anything for the first time is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You can read books, listen to interviews and watch instructional YouTube videos all you like, but it’s never going to compare with actually getting out there and doing it. To that end I decided last year to write and film my first short film; a simple eight-minute, two-location piece about food poverty. With drones.
Horsell Common

And so, in an attempt to test out a few ideas, I headed to Woking’s Horsell Common with two friends, two SLRs, two tiny drones and nowhere near enough batteries for more than a couple of hours of flight time. A standard battery will give a drone perhaps 10 minutes of flight time while recording HD video, but take over an hour to charge. Lesson 1: Make sure you have enough power for everything!

Our drones were the Hubsan X4; no stabilisers, no direct video feed to the handset, but quite cheap, small enough to keep in a Tupperware box and sporting an on-board 2MP HD camera. The lack of stabilisation meant that the drone pilots needed a lot of practise; the script calls for a chase amongst trees, so this meant I have a lot of POV footage of drones crashing into said trees. Lesson 2: Bring tools and spare parts for everything that’s likely to get broken.
Footage Review

The fact that there was no direct feed from the drone meant when the drone ran out of battery, it was time to download the footage, store it, review it and consider corrections. An obvious correction might be don’t crash into the trees, but considering the size of the little things, it was a matter of judging how close to each other the drones needed to get in order to be in shot and look large enough to be menacing. The reviewing of footage would have been easier with more SD cards and perhaps some assistance with the download for review. Lesson 3: Establish an efficient digital workflow to maximise shooting time.

The chase scenes themselves were a little haphazard, not just due to the difficulty in maneuvering the drones, but also I didn’t establish routes. This was especially problematic when, to supplement footage, the chase was re-enacted with two cameramen running after their prey with SLRs. Because the route wasn’t clear, in an attempt to make it look frenetic, there were too many occasions where the harassed cameramen were in each other’s shots, making that snippet of footage useless. Lesson 4: Use route markers and make a practice run.

When editing the footage together from the SLRs and the drones, another factor emerged: One SLR was set to record at 24fps, one at 25fps and the drones at 30fps. As one of the cameras was also set to Warm colours instead of Default it also meant that the footage was much harder to stitch together convincingly, and required grading and far too many hours in Premiere Pro to make it at least feel somewhat seamless. Lesson 5: Make sure all camera equipment is using the same settings.
Editing

So, after three hours of shooting and three hours of editing, most of which was spent cursing, we have 30 seconds of stitched together, not altogether terrible footage. It’s not amazing, but considering this was our first test run, it’s not bad at all. I ended up using more incidental, accidental and otherwise apparently unusable footage than I thought I would, even if it did mean trawling through countless clips. Lesson 6: Keep all footage and review it all, you never know what you might be able to use.

There was one final lesson: the drones record no sound, so the chase sequence feels uncomfortable and odd. That might be a stylistic choice, but should be intentional, not accidental. Lesson 7: Even if it’s a test shoot, bring a digital recorder to record some ambience. 

And that’s it for the first test shoot. We’ve decided we need another test weekend, bringing the flight experience and lessons to bear on the task. But all were filled with some confidence that this project was indeed achievable.