Fueling My Words

Sites post 2015At the start of 2016, my fiancée and I started Whole30. It’s a diet that focuses on eating only natural things, such as meat and vegetables, and cuts out grains and added sugar. As a bachelor I had eaten the same thing for… gosh, who knows how many years? It consisted mostly of chicken, rice, bread, apples, cheese, and cookies. But food is fuel for your body, right? While tasty, those six things may not have been the best for me, so I was excited to switch things up.

I had a similar realization last year with the websites I visit. In a post titled “A Change of Intake”, I listed the handful of sites I routinely read and asked the question, “What if I spent my time reading websites that wrote about the things I’m directly involved in?” I am a filmmaker and a writer, and I like to process life through reading and writing, and I wanted to read things that encouraged and fed those areas of my life.

Thus, 2015 went from four tech sites to this list:

  1. Fifty Foot Shadows, thoughts on life and photography
  2. Analog Senses, thoughts on life and photography
  3. Prolost, thoughts on and products for film
  4. The Dissolve, film editorials and reviews—great content here!
  5. Jamie Todd Rubin, the writing life
  6. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, consistently insightful writing advice
  7. Backchannel, a new addition with well-written, in-depth tech articles
  8. Suggestion of Motion, in-depth articles about film, specifically the Panasonic GH4, which I own
  9. Garrett Koepke’s blog—my brother is writing some great stuff about travel, with beautiful photographs
  10. The Music Bed Community—at first just a stock music site, TMB have become so much more

Now that it’s a year later, I wanted to (you guessed it) process through writing how that list has changed and if I’ve noticed anything different in my life.

Retrospect

PROCESSING LIFE

The first thing I’ve noticed is that the list gathered into three categories: processing life, film, and writing. Sites that fit the first category were Backchannel (edited by Steven Levy and hosting several writers), Analog Senses (written by Alvaro Serrano), Fifty Foot Shadows (written by John Carey), and Garrett Koepke’s blog (written by my youngest brother!).

The first two fell off over time: Steven’s articles for Backchannel are incredibly personal and insightful about technology today, but I don’t connect as much with the other writers and I can find out about Steven’s articles by following him on Twitter. Alvaro’s writing and curation for Analog Senses attracted me because of his love for analog film cameras, but it has become more Apple/tech-centered, which is the content I was trying to leave.

That leaves Fifty Foot Shadows and Garrett’s blog. I love their thoughtful way of approaching life and pointing out things that are important to enjoy or cherish in life. Combined with wonderful photography, each post is a pleasure to read visually and intellectually.

I kept my eye out over the year for other sites to read, and the two that caught my attention were Lindsay Crandall and articles by Craig Mod.

Lindsay is a photographer and mom who gives snapshots of how she handles the pressures of being a parent and an artist, and I really appreciated her honesty and insight into her process. Unfortunately she doesn’t write too often (probably that whole parent thing), but I still check her site now and then with the hopes of seeing something. One website she does frequently update is a shared blog with a fellow parent called Hello there, Friend. They write short, daily letters to each other about life and when I have time to read them they are really enjoyable, if not helpful.

Craig is photographer and writer who lives in Japan. I found him on Twitter over the last year and his articles about technology and life are so good. One of my favorites from him this last year was Future Reading, an article about the important place of printed books in our lives. His thoughtful approach is really inspiring to me, not to mention his photographs. Unfortunately he is published more through other sites than his own, so I usually find out about his new writings through Twitter.

FILM

This category ranged from reviews and editorials to technique and gear talk. Prolost (written by Stu Maschwitz), Suggestion of Motion (written by Sol March), The Dissolve (reviews and editorials), and The Music Bed Community (written by various authors and staff at the fantastic stock music site).

For technique sites, Prolost and Suggestion of Motion have been invaluable. Stu at Prolost is a leading filmmaker and not only talks about gear and software but also his approach to creativity and filmmaking. He doesn’t post as often as I would like, but it’s always worth reading when he does. Suggestion of Motion was also a fantastic site about cameras, particular the Pansonic GH4. I was the owner of one when I found Sol’s site and tried to read as much as I could in order to learn how to work with the GH4. Late last fall, though, I purchased a Sony A7s II and haven’t had as much need for Sol’s writing. He did just say he bought the same camera as me, so I’m hoping he’ll start posting articles about that camera as well.

The Music Bed community has shifted over the past year, but it still remains a great place for thoughtful articles about the filmmaking process. They have transitioned a lot of the content into the Film + Music magazine, which has been a fantastic resource.

The only new gear site to make it onto my list was Noam Kroll. Like Stu, he’s a great filmmaker and posts frequently about his gear tests and projects he’s working on. Mixed in with it all is his approach to storytelling, the gear market, and the future of filmmaking.

In the realm of film literature, this year sadly saw the death of two of the best websites I had found about film and pop culture: Grantland and The Dissolve. The reviews and particular the editorials by The Dissolve were a step above anything I had seen online and I was really sad to discover one day that it was ending. I had hoped Grantland, with its witty commentary and exhaustive pop cultural essays, could take it place—only to find shortly after that it was closing too.

Thankfully, over the course of the year I found Decent Films, the website of Steven Greydanus, who is the film critic for the National Catholic Register. Secular film reviews often focus on the story and technique in judging a film but don’t take into account the spiritual or moral aspect, whereas Christian film reviews usually only focus on the spiritual. As a filmmaker who is a Christian I wanted both, and Steven does that splendidly. Not only is he steeped in film history and what makes a great film, but he has a great theological perspective as a Catholic. He has helped me be more of a thoughtful film-goer, and shown me some of the good and helpful perspectives of Catholicism. The only downside is he is just one man, so it takes a while for new reviews to come out. But when they do, you better believe I’m going to read it.

WRITING

The writing category of my list is an interesting beast. On one hand, I want to grow as a writer. But on the other hand, I only have so much time to read online. Consequently, when I do have time I have to decide if I want a thought-provoking article or a technique exercise.

When I felt like the latter, I turned to Jamie Todd Rubin and Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. Jamie inspired and encouraged me to write every day through his blog, and it has been helpful to see his process of writing, revision, and publication of his stories. And I can’t say enough about Janice’s website. If you want to learn anything about writing, read her stuff. Nearly every article is so helpful and about every part of writing.

The new writing websites to make it on the list were from Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance trilogy, and David Farland, author of Runelords. I’ve followed Christopher’s career since I first read his self-published book just out of high school, and it’s been fun to get an inside-look at his process and stories. As for David Farland, I actually just realized he was on the list; guess I forgot about his site! But I do know he is a fantastic writing teacher and I need to check his site more often.

The New List

That was probably all more information than anyone needed to know, but as I said at the beginning I like to process life through reading and writing, so there you go. The big question now is, what have I learned from all of this? Did changing my intake help in any way?

The first thing I noticed is that I like writers who are also photographers. I think that’s because there is something slower and more thoughtful about photography; you have to think about what image you are going to take, which image to use, and how it illustrates your writing. I haven’t been good at doing it, but I would love for the creative exercise of photography to be a bigger part of my life. I’m about to move into a new house when I get married, and I just had the thought that the basement could work for a dark room—hmm….

The second thing that comes to mind is, I feel like I become a more thoughtful person when I take time to read things like this on a regular basis. Doing that helps me formulate what I think about situations or topics or processes, and helps me be a better storyteller and artist.

For me, I really think it’s all about a blank piece of paper and a pen, an empty document and the keyboard before me. Life can be so hectic sometimes, so unorganized, so disorienting. The words I eat are fuel for my own words, and the act of recording them—even just the act of it—helps bring clarity and order to what I’m experiencing.

It’s funny, really. I’m almost 31 and still discovering how I approach life. There are a lot of people and influences that are helping that journey (my aforementioned fiancée above all), and what I realized over last year is that the websites I read can also help.

So the list for 2016 stands as such:

  1. Fifty Foot Shadows
  2. Lindsay Crandall/Hello there, Friend
  3. Garrett Koepke
  4. The Music Bed blog/Film + Music magazine
  5. Decent Films
  6. Noam Kroll
  7. Prolost
  8. Jamie Todd Rubin
  9. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University
  10. David Farland
  11. Christopher Paolini

Before I end, let’s go back to Whole30. It’s halfway through the month and while I haven’t noticed a huge shift in energy I have noticed two big things: I’m always hungry and I’ve lost weight. While that might not be a glowing review for Whole30, I think it still works as an example for the things I read. I shed the weight of putting things in my brain that don’t apply to my life, and it makes me hungry for more good content.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a salad. Or eat a steak. With eggs on it. Lots and lots of eggs.

What kind of sites do you read? If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below!

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Our Worn And Broken Threads

Photo Mar 30, 10 49 52 PM

In the summer of 2008, I sat outside a coffee shop and listened to a friend describe an idea for a short film. I was fresh out film school and quickly said, “Let’s make it!” That simple sentence started a journey that lasted four years, resulting in the short film Flower.

The thing is, it could have been made a lot faster. The co-creator was great to work with and final script was only fifteen pages, but I dragged my feet for three years on the project. It wasn’t until recently that I finally realized why: from the characters to the story to the message, I wanted everything to perfect.

I do this a lot in life. I once prayed a year and a half about whether to ask a girl out or not; I made another short film two years ago that no one has seen because I haven’t found the best way to release it; a short story I’m writing is on its seventh rewrite; and I just debated two weeks on which camera bag to buy. I analyze, critique, rethink, question, and stress over what is the best decision. Because if there’s anything I don’t want to be, it’s flawed.

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There is a place for excellence, but I think the question is, what’s driving it? Is it to present the best thing I can, or to keep others from laughing? Too often I think my motivations fall under the latter. That is not perfectionism, but fear.

And when you think about it, what is more central to the human experience than mistakes? From our first breath we do things imperfectly—yet our parents don’t trade us in for a better model. We all fall, we all come up short, we all make mistakes, and what I’m learning to accept is that it’s okay.

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Three years after starting the script, the co-creator and I decided to finally just make the film. We held auditions for the cast and ended up with two phenomenal lead actors, ages 16 and 18. The film went on to be accepted to two festivals, win second place in one, and be offered a small distribution deal. More importantly, we still hear stories to this day about people who have been impacted by it.

All of this is due in no small part to our cast, and if we had made the film earlier they would have been too young.

It’s to the glory of our Storyteller that he not only allows us to make mistakes and learn, but he then weaves something beautiful from our worn and broken threads. As I toil over a project or anxiously debate about a decision, I hear him say over and over:

“It’ll be okay. I won’t trade you in. Just do your best, and I’ll take it from there.”

A Change of Intake

New Sites

For the past several years my nightly web surfing consisted of visiting the following websites:

  1. Shawnblanc.net, a blog about Apple, tech, and design.
  2. Marco.org, a blog about iOS app development and tech
  3. Loopinsight.com, a blog about Apple, iOS app development, and tech
  4. The Verge, a site about all things tech and pop culture

Here’s the thing: I am involved in a lot of creative environments, film and fiction writing being foremost. But iOS app development has never been one of them. Yet every night I would spend time looking at all these tech sites unrelated to both my job and the projects I did on the side.

I knew these things were outside of my regular sphere, but I shrugged it off as a guilty indulgence. I do find the Apple/tech world intriguing so after a while I just went with it. I would listen to podcasts like Accidental Tech Podcast, which is all about development. I would sketch app ideas and even considered learning how to code apps. But in the end it was just a side hobby. Actually, not really a hobby. More like a vague interest.

At the start of 2015, I decided to change things up. What if I spent my time reading websites that wrote about the things I’m directly involved in? It’s only been a couple months into this experiment and I am loving it.

Here are a few sites I’m trying out:

  1. Fifty Foot Shadows, thoughts on life and photography
  2. Analog Senses, thoughts on life and photography
  3. Prolost, thoughts on and products for film
  4. The Dissolve, film editorials and reviews—great content here!
  5. Jamie Todd Rubin, the writing life
  6. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, consistently insightful writing advice
  7. Backchannel, a new addition with well-written, in-depth tech articles
  8. Suggestion of Motion, in-depth articles about film, specifically the Panasonic GH4, which I own
  9. Garrett Koepke’s blog—my brother is writing some great stuff about travel, with beautiful photographs
  10. The Music Bed Community—at first just a stock music site, TMB have become so much more

This is a longer list than I used to check, but that is offset by the fact that they post less frequently. Instead the pieces are more focused on really thinking about a topic. It’s a slower pace that I’ve come to appreciate. And yes, there is still a tech website on there. That’s because Steven Levy writes some of most insightful, engaging, and well-written articles about tech I’ve found.

After just a couple months of changing the websites I read, I’m already feeling a difference. Reading Fifty Foot Shadows and Analog Senses has inspired me to get a film camera and try my hand at slower paced, more focused photography. The editorials by The Dissolve and Stu’s writing at Prolost is helping me be more thoughtful about my filmmaking—a category to which I’m excited to add The Music Bed.

The point is, I’m reading good writing about the topics I daily interact with. The content is encouraging and inspiring me in the things that I create, and I’m really thankful that I made the change.

The 1st Smartwatch I Might Actually Wear

As Yet Unconquered

Over the past several years, mobile technology has changed and expanded exponentially. The pocketable phone that could make calls and send simple text messages has morphed in shape and grown in use, becoming an indispensable tool. Almost a decade into the smartphone revolution, companies like Apple and Samsung have successfully taken over our palms. The space no one has conquered, however, is our wrists.

Many have tried, certainly. Devices like the Pebble (which ran a lucrative Kickstarter campaign) or Samsung’s recent Galaxy Gear continue to come out, but none seem to catch on despite valiant efforts. The litmus test for success is simple: how many people do you see using them? I have never seen one in real life. In contrast, think back to when the iPod first came out. It didn’t take long before those now-classic white headphones dangled from ears everywhere you looked.

And yet electronics companies plow on, like a love-crazed boy unable to give up pursuit of the girl who continually tells him no.

A Different Approach

Google today kicked up the dust yet again with the announcement of Android Wear, a version of Android specifically designed for “wearables”. (That’s probably not a phrase you’ve ever heard, so let me define it: an electronic device that you can wear, not just carry in a pocket or bag.) But like I do with most smartwatch news, I watched the announcement video with a well-practiced smirk. Who wants to wear a giant square thing on their wrist, no matter how many cool voice commands you can give it?

That, I believe, is the crux of the matter: when I think of a watch, I think of one I want to wear. I use my smartphone, but I wear my watch. A smartwatch could have all of the power of a laptop, but I am very picky about the watch I wear.

TimexHere you can see my current watch, the Timex Easy Reader. It’s thin, with a clean face and wonderful typography on the numbers. The leather band is thick and well made. I look at it countless times a day and am proud to wear it on my wrist.

Would I replace it with something like the thick, square Galaxy Gear? Not a chance. I even tried fitting a picture of the Gear in this post but couldn’t find a good way to format the picture next to the Timex.

And then I saw the Moto 360.

Motorola’s philosophy in designing the watch hooked me right away in their introduction video. Immediately after the video finished, I registered for updates on the website and flipped over to Facebook to post the link. Guess what my comment was going to be?

“This is the first smartwatch I might consider wearing.”

Because you don’t use a watch—you wear it. It looks like Motorola got that part right, and I’m excited to see this thing when it comes out.

Lessons from the Temple of Doom

Recently my friends and I watched what most would agree is the weakest of the Indiana Jones films, The Temple of Doom. Coming off of the thrilling adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is something in the second Indy movie that doesn’t strike the same chord as the first.

The reasons have probably been hashed out more than once since it came out in 1984, but I noticed a few things that for me derail the story.

LEAPS IN LOGIC

1. The OpeningRaiders hit the ground running with its iconic opening. So many things were introduced in the opening sequence: the traps of old ruins, life-threatening danger, double-crossing companions, hunger for ancient treasure, the film’s villain,  and of course the resilience, smarts, and adventurous spirit of Indiana Jones.

In contrast, Temple opens with an extended song and dance number that doesn’t reveal much about the story beyond introducing us to Willie, the main female “character” (we’ll get to her in a minute). Once the musical portion is over, Indy appears in a suit and has a tense conversation with a businessman. Not exactly the rough-cut, live-on-the-edge guy we remember from the first film. Once he is double-crossed (that aspect is still present), there is a fight scene that is purposefully comical: balloons fall, Indy loses the fight against several bad guys, and Willie crawls around on the floor desperately trying to find a large diamond.

Indy finally makes a dramatic escape—and grabs Willie on the way out, leading us to the main problem I have with this film’s story.

2. Why is Willie there? Willie doesn’t know Indy at the start of the film; she sits down because she knows the businessman with whom Indy is talking. So why save her?

But just for fun, let’s give Indy the benefit of the doubt. So they make their escape out the window and into the waiting getaway car. You could say the car’s young Chinese driver, Short Round, appears out of nowhere, but we learned in Raiders that Indy usually has a sidekick (i.e. Sallah, played by John Rhys-Davies), so we can let that slide.
The next problem comes when they finally get to the airfield to board a plane, and Willie goes with them. She had a job! She doesn’t know Indy! Why is she going with him,  and why is he bringing her along?!

This question looms over the rest of the film for me. Willie doesn’t do anything helpful the remainder of the film.

3. Why is Indy looking for the stones? In Raiders, the journey of the film is set into motion by men asking Indy for help in search of the Ark. They know of his skill, the bad guy Nazis are front and center, Indy decides yes, let’s unravel this mystery before the Nazis (cue the ticking clock).

In Temple, everything happens by accident: they happen to get on the bad guy’s plane and the pilots ditch it, causing Indy and co. to crash land in a village that happens to need their help; they end up at the Maharaja’s palace and after making it through one obstacle (which again is played off as comical) they stumble on the evil lair and horrific sacrifices.

All of these things just seem to happen, instead of the way Raiders pulls and propels you into the action.

WHY DIDN’T THIS END INDIANA JONES?

The surprising thing is, throughout all of this Indiana Jones himself is still awesome. He is still as awesome as can be, which I think is a real testimony to the character Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created.

Despite the lack of story around him, Indy is still adventurous, bold when he needs to be, daring, and ready to fight his way out. That’s exactly what we loved about him in Raiders, and thankfully we get that same character in Temple. It’s the power of that image above: a man ready for action, unique tools by his side, a smile on his face.

In addition, the film is saved by an exciting railcar chase and tense fight on a really long rope bridge.

LESSONS TO LEARN

So here are some lessons I want to take into my own writing:

  • Make sure every character is in the story for a purpose and has a believable motivation for being there
  • The plot needs to be a series of questions that propel the audience forward, not things that just happen to occur
  • A good character can carry a weak story

Which of the Indiana Jones films is your favorite? Why do you think it captured your imagination the most?