Classic on the BS2: The Secret of NIMH

Today, my oldest daughter and I watched The Secret of NIMH since it’s free on Amazon Prime video. It’s a classic movie from my childhood, and one of the last of the great classically animated movies. Even prior to its release in 1982, director Don Bluth felt that computerization was taking over the animation industry and set out to make the film with no automated help.

In an era that gave us Filmation’s He-man & the Masters of the Universe, She-ra: Princess of Power, Blackstar, Bravestarr, and others, this movie was a refreshing change. These animated series stressed quantity over quality. As I’ve been fond of saying regarding the Filmation Masters of the Universe and Princess of Power series, “For every ‘Rainbow Warrior,’ there’s at least a dozen ‘Flowers for Hordak.'” (Seriously. Watch those episodes if you don’t believe me.)

Animation needs approximately 24 frames per second to simulate motion. Filmation typically did 12-15 frames per second. They also tried to use a dozen or more tricks to speed up the process and reduce the amount of drawings they needed, such as drawing characters as part of the background and only animating mouths and eyes, reusing animated sequences on different backgrounds, using the same character colored differently for different people (Celice the Singer, the Queen of Aquatica, and Mira daughter of Kor the Sorcerer were all the same character in the same outfit).

My childhood was equally Filmation as it was Secret of NIMH. It’s unfair, likely, to compare a series with a movie. Budget, scope, and personnel are totally different. I still watch He-man and She-ra. Don’t think I’m slamming Filmation. That isn’t my intent.

But each frame in The Secret of NIMH is hand-drawn and hand-painted. No automation. No computers. And the detail is incredible. IMdB reports that they filmed the main character, Mrs. Brisby, in 46 different lighting situations, each requiring its own color palette for painting. Animators and painters were working 100 hour weeks, unpaid, to finish the film on time.

The result is amazing. Continue reading “Classic on the BS2: The Secret of NIMH”

Fan Fiction: Can it Work for Me?

E.L. James is somewhat of an oddity: she appears to have “made it” as a novelist by writing fan fiction.

I started out by writing fan fiction. When I was in eighth grade, I wrote a sprawling, meandering “novel” (it was something like 50 handwritten loose leaf sheets of paper and it was divided in to four “books”, each shorter than the previous). It was first person, so of course the main character was a self-insert. The “love interest” was the girl I was crushing on at the time, and it was otherwise the plot of the TV series “Captain N: the Game Master.”

That never went anywhere, and I’ve lost the manuscript (thank God; I’m sure I would be mortified that I ever wrote anything like it). I’ve continued to write fan fiction, with my more recent endeavors here. But I’ve never made any money from it.

No one has.

Until E.L. James.

Continue reading “Fan Fiction: Can it Work for Me?”

Hannah Arendt and Nicholas Cage

CAUTION: This blog post contains spoilers for the movie 8MM. If you plan on seeing this movie (and I don’t see why you’d want to put yourself through that, but it’s your life) then you may want to move on.

I have a serious interest in philosophy. I used to be a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and have a few years worth of their excellent academic journal, Philosophia Christi, sitting on my book shelf. I had a chance to meet William Lane Craig once, though (regrettably) I didn’t get to talk with him. I reacted to that the way normal people react to celebrities.

Anyway, I stumbled into a great series of mini-videos from the channel 8-bit Philosophy, where they use classic NES characters and some original creations to explain bits of philosophy on a popular level. The specific one I want to talk about is What is Evil?

Continue reading “Hannah Arendt and Nicholas Cage”

Know the Rules Before You Break Any


I learned the value of Picasso’s advice before I became a serious writer, though I didn’t know it as sound advice.  I just thought it was good sense.

I learned the value of this reading John Gardner’s 007 novels.  As a James Bond 007 fan, I not only go to the movies but I also buy the books.

The third author of the series, John Gardner, wrote 13 original Bond novels.  The first novel, License Renewed, follows Picasso’s advice.

License Renewed is standard Bond fare.  The characters that appear in every Bond movie are here:

  • Villain: Anton Murik, Laird of a Scottish castle and deposed nuclear engineer
  • Sidekick: Caber, a superstrong, ridiculously tough muscle man who is (as a Bond sidekick ought to be) immune to pain and can easily best Bond in any physical confrontation (and in fact does twice before being beaten by Bond)
  • Girl Who Knows Too Much: Mary Jane Mashkin, who reveals key plot points after sex, then dies the next day
  • Bond Girl: Lavender Peacock, rightful heiress of the castle that Murik owns

It also has a plot that could destroy civilization as we know it: Murik has designed a safe nuclear reactor that no one will back.  So he recruits an army of fanatics that will hold 5 nuclear power stations hostage and if his demands for $50 billion dollars are not met within 24 hours, the terrorists will put all 5 power stations into meltdown.  This will kill millions of people and render over 95% of the world uninhabitable.

Liberally throughout the book we find car chases, high-tech gadgets (that Gardner assures us in the prologue actually exist), exotic locations, and narrow escapes.  Naturally, the usual Bad Guy Monologue that enables Bond to stop the proceedings after defeating his nemesis appears just when all hope seems lost.

It’s no different than any James Bond movie prior to Casino Royale.  It’s not quite the pastiche that Die Another Day was, but it still hits the high notes.  Nothing new, nothing too memorable, and nothing original save the characters, their personalities, and the method and motivation for the destruction of modern civilization.

Gardner’s second novel, For Special Services, Bond conventions get played with.  The pimple-faced main villain is really the sidekick, and the girl who knows too much is really the main villain!  And that was seventeen years before the same plot twist debuted on the big screen in The World is Not Enough.

The Bond Girl in For Special Services is the only Bond Girl that 007 doesn’t have sex with — more playing with the standard Bond formula.  Most Bond Girls are standoffish at first, and only jump “undercover” reluctantly.  This one, however, knew Bond’s reputation for sex with his female companions and was looking forward to being the next notch on his bedpost.  But Bond had a really good reason for not hitting the sheets with her, and wanted to stay true even when his reason melted away at the end.

And Gardner experiments further in subsequent books.  His gradual tweaking of the standard Bond formula makes for a fresh perspective on the character in each new outing.

But at the outset, he stuck to the traditional formula that made Bond great.  He didn’t change it up or tweak it the way he did in subsequent books.  He learned the rules before he endeavored to break them.  I’d like to think that Gardner had this quote tacked up somewhere in his writing studio as he began work on License Renewed, even as he had the embryonic ideas for the new ground he’d break in For Special Services and beyond.

How Self-Delusion Lead to an Alien Invasion

I love a good villain.

I remember being disappointed that Loki was going to be the villain in The Avengers.  I was hoping for a more famous villain.  However, that was before I watched Thor and realized that Loki is badass.

In fact, I think that Loki is my new all-time favorite villain.

In How to Write for Comics, Loki’s co-creator Stan Lee noted that all supervillains must have a motive.  It isn’t enough for him to plant a giant bomb under the city “because I’m a supervillain!”  He has to have a reason to destroy the planet or subjugate it.  Loki, Lee recalls, has one of the basest motivations for his grandiose schemes of destruction.

Loki’s plans are on a grand scale.  He aims to destroy his father’s enemies, his true parentage, using the focused energy of the bifrost in Thor.  In The Avengers, he offers the Tesseract to Thanos for rule of the entire earth.  Subjugation and genocide are implied in his rule.

But why does he want to do these things?  Because he wants his father to see him as the superior heir.  That’s right: simple sibling rivalry is the motivation to obliterate a city in The Avengers.  While most brothers destroy treasured toys to sate their sibling rivalry, Loki blows up cities, kills 80 people in two days, and becomes a wanted war criminal — all to impress Odin!

And the worst part?  Odin states that he loves Loki as his own son; no need for the bloodletting and invasion of earth.  Or the genocide of the Frost Giants.  Loki’s murderous scheming is for nothing because Odin already thinks of him as Thor’s equal.

Why does Loki keep killing humans, genociding Frost Giants, and turning powerful superweapons over to death-obsessed demons when he’s been told that his father loves him as the equal he is trying to appear to be? Simple: powerful denial.  And writer Joss Whedon crafts three scenes in The Avengers to show this.

The first scene has Loki speaking to The Other through the scepter.  The Other tells Loki that his “ambition is small, and born of childish need.”  The Other hits pretty close to home here, since sibling rivalry is an extremely childish motive.  But Loki presses on.

The second scene is where Loki forces a crowd of people to kneel before him.  He says that, in the end, humans will always kneel.  A lone man rises, and says, “Not to men like you.”  Loki says there are no men like him.  Then the old man hits Loki with the terrible truth: “There are always men like you.”  As much as Loki thinks he’s unique, there are always despots who crave the subjugation of people.  Loki isn’t special, and this man has the gumption to say so.  Loki decides to kill this man, mainly for speaking the truth Loki denies.

The final scene is with Agent Coulson.  Coulson tells Loki, “You’re going to lose, you know.  It’s in your nature.”  What is Loki’s disadvantage?  “You lack conviction.”  Loki’s only true motive is to look better than Thor.  Beyond that, he doesn’t care.  He has nothing bigger or better to stand up for.  He only seeks to prove himself, but he doesn’t even need to do that.

Three times Loki is told something harshly true of himself and his motivations.  Three times Loki presses forward without accepting it.  Loki lives in a very powerful state of denial about who he is, and it is this denial that fuels his supervillain status.  Were he to accept that truth that he thinks small and has a childish need to prove himself, then deal with this reality, he could be a force for good.  Instead, he ignores the facts and rationalizes the obvious in service of the preconceived notion he must prove to Odin his the superior choice for Asgard’s throne.

How Do I Know Exactly What’s Going to Happen Next? This Movie Opened Yesterday!

There is a horrible truth to be discovered by people who study the underlying structure of their favorite books and movies.  This secret explains why my daughter’s two favorite movies are The Lion King and The Care Bears: Nutcracker.

Let’s break them both down.

In The Lion King, a young prince named Simba tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy.  But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself.  Simba then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king.  Scar has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas.  But Simba overcomes his uncle and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.

In The Care Bears: Nutcracker, a young prince named Simba the Nutcracker tries to lose has lost all memory of himself after a tragedy due to an evil spell.  But then, with help from his friends he remembers himself breaks the spell.  Simba The Nutcracker then returns to the kingdom he left long ago and faces down the false king.  Scar The evil vizier has run the formerly glorious kingdom of Pride Rock Toyland into the ground by forming an unholy alliance with the hyenas rats.  But Simba the Nutcracker overcomes his uncle the evil vizier and is crowned king, restoring the kingdom to its previous prosperity.

Well that was interesting.

The next time you’re at the movies, if you swear you’ve seen a brand-new movie before, the stunning truth is that you probably have.  Various surveys of thousands of novels, short stories, and movies have turned up only 36 possible plots, depending on who you ask.  Some estimate 32, others go as high as 40.  But 34 to 36 plots are the most common results.

Does that hamper creativity?  Nope.  It frees creativity.  Plot isn’t the level that interacts with the audience; characters interact with the audience.  The Nutcracker and Simba are totally different characters — and not just in species.  While the Nutcracker is motivated by wanting to remember himself and is a natural leader, Simba is motivated by forgetting himself, running from his tragic past, and is a poor leader.  The Nutcracker is the perfect choice to restore Toyland to its former glory; Simba is the underdog who has to rise to the occasion when cleaning up Scar’s mess.

The kids and Care Bears are eager to help the Nutcracker.  Only Nala encourages Simba to recapture himself; Timon and Pumbaa want nothing to do with the problems at Pride Rock.  The kids and Care Bears actively encourage Nutcracker to battle the vizier to restore the kingdom, while Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba to forget his problems and wile away the hours relaxing.

On the plot level, the two stories are absolutely identical.  But, when we layer in the characters, tone, and spectacle the stories part ways and wind up light years apart.

So, aspiring authors, if you watch a movie and think “Gee, I could have done that movie so much better,” go ahead and do it.  It’s been done 1000 times before, and will be done 1000 more times before Christ returns.

Horrid Results of Unexplored Consequences

In Screenplay, Syd Field remarked that a typical newbie screenwriter comes to his class with an idea for a screenplay.  Then, Field tries to hash out the idea with the student to turn it into a screenplay.

A lot of these guys have a tragic ending in mind where everyone dies.

Stop!  Isn’t that how it normally happens in real life?  Circumstances pile against people, who proceed anyway.  Circumstances get worse.  They propel forward.  Then, everything blows up and tragedy strikes, and many people never recover from it.

The precise reason why so many memoirs paint the opposite picture is that the opposite is rare, and inspiring.

Let’s face it, in real life, people sometimes die, lose the farm, go bankrupt, or spend the rest of their lives in unfulfilling careers.  That’s the order of things.

So, it’s only natural for a beginning screenwriter, drawing on real life, to want to end a movie tragically.  Because when circumstances such as what we see in movies pile up the way they do in Act II of most movies, tragedy is the near-inevitable result.  That’s what the newbie screenwriter sees, and art (after all) imitates life.

And didn’t Shakespeare write a lot of tragedies?

But, Field always cautions his young screenwriters against tragic endings.  Hollywood doesn’t like the endings where the underdog guy loses the girl to the alpha male she liked better anyway, the main character’s tragic flaw leads to his death, and the star-crossed lovers kill themselves.

Exceptions exist.  Movies like Se7en are rare, though.

Overall, Hollywood loves its happy endings.  Even when the unhappy ending makes a lot more sense, they still find a way to make it happy.

Russel Crowe died at the end of Gladiator.  He was fatally wounded prior to the final combat scene, so that’s pretty much the only possible result.  All he could hope to do was take the treacherous emperor with him (which he does).  But the sadness of his death is minimized by showing him in heaven with his wife.

I’m a theist, and a Christian apologist.  Followers of my other blog know that.  So I’m not theologically convinced that happened (given the fact that, as a Roman, Crowe’s character denied the True God of the universe), but I believe that it could be the outcome of his death.  I’m not debating that.

What I’m saying is that scenes like that make an unhappy ending more palatable.  Rather than explore the pain and suffering his passing causes the characters in the film, the audience gets to see that he’s happy now, and so we (the audience) should leave the theater with a smile.

And fluffy bunnies hop in the sunlit meadow, over grass too green to be real.  Colorful flowers dot the landscape, perfuming the area with their subtle but pleasing aroma.

No, Hollywood, it doesn’t always work out in the end.

But they would like you to think so, to the point that wrote about how major disasters are sometimes overlooked in movies as minor plot points, when they are absolutely anything but.

The episode I saw of Criminal Minds was an example of horrid, unseen consequences left out to make you think that everything worked out in the end.

Three girls — all best friends — were kidnapped and placed in a dungeon with no food.  They lasted five days, so I’m assuming that the perpetrator gave them water.  Anyway, he told them that two of them would live, and one of them would die.  The twist was that they had to choose among themselves the one that would die.

And choose they did.

Then, the perpetrator dropped two hammers into the cell.  The girls had to do the deed.  While the two who had decided to kill the third debated their ability to actually go through with this new twist, the fated girl picked up a hammer and killed one of the other girls — the one that had marked her for death.

She admitted to the police everything that happened, and absolved her surviving friend of having anything to do with the death.

And then, the final scenes depict the FBI agents arresting the perpetrator, who was on a personal crusade against the girls’ families.  Apparently, they all wronged him in the past and he said that he knew those girls were no different than their parents and would show their true colors.  He knew they’d back stab a best friend if it meant surviving.

Chilling.  He’ll probably be tried for kidnapping, false imprisonment, depraved indifference, and facilitating a murder.  It’s doubtful he’ll see sunshine anytime soon.

But what about the girl who killed her friend?

It wasn’t self-defense.  She was in no danger.  She killed her friend before her friend killed her.  Her friend wasn’t armed at the time.  In fact, her two friends were contemplating not killing the other girl.

Hollywood won’t explore this one for one reason: it’s murder, plain and simple, and that girl should go to jail for at least 15 to 30 years — if not life in prison.  Since police procedurals strive to get both the police side of things right, and the legal side of things right, they would be doing truth a disservice if they let the girl off scot-free.  That would never happen in real life.

Though the prosecutor would most likely plead her down to voluntary manslaughter, she absolutely cannot get out of this without seeing the inside of a prison cell for around a decade.

The episode talked about her full-ride scholarship and bright future several times.  Yeah.  That’s all in the toilet right now.

The only legal defense to murder is self-defense, and to argue that you have to be in imminent danger and the force of the weapons must be equal.  If your victim is unarmed, debating whether to pick up a hammer and kill you, that is not going to cut it.

Another example of Hollywood focusing on the little bunnies and obscuring the horrendous consequences.

Importance of Visuals in Film

When writing a novel, the writers can emphasize character traits by internal dialogue.  But in film, that option doesn’t exist.  Traits that define a character must be established visually.  The visuals should help the audience feel what the character feels, the same way well-chosen words in a novel help the reader experience emotions right with the character.

In an emotionally charged episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (“Magnificat”), Doreen Whitlock is trapped in a post-partum depression of her husband’s design.  The only way out (in her mind) is to kill herself and all of her children.  She fails, leaving her and her oldest alive after a car bomb.

The key to understanding her motive is to feel the same pain that she felt.  Namely, we need to see her isolation and desperation.  How did the audience see this?

The teaser sequence was deliberately constructed to show the audience Doreen’s increasingly claustrophobic life.  In nearly every shot, despite the fact that other people are nearby, the camera stays tight on Doreen.  Whenever she interacts with someone, the shot is wide while the other person speaks or acts, but for Doreen’s actions or reactions the camera zooms in tight on her face.  Whenever Doreen does or says anything, other people are deliberately excluded from the shot.

At one point, she stares into space for a long time.  Then, when the shot switches to her POV, we see a perfectly-kept yard save for an upturned chair.  Doreen’s attention seems to focus on that chair, and she becomes obviously emotional.  The effect is compounded because her son has just handed her a clearly sub-par homework assignment.  A previous scene established that her husband is a no-nonsense perfectionist, so we can deduce that he won’t appreciate either the chair or the failed schoolwork.

In another shot, Doreen walks with a vacant stare into the cul-de-sac in which her house is situated.  We are first shown a long, empty street.  Then, the camera circles Doreen and shows us that every other house on the block is empty.  A screen door, weather-beaten from disuse, clatters against a nearby house.  The background noise from her kids is nearly inaudible, and the only other evident sound is the wind and distant birds.

This teaser is a great example of how film can show us visually what novels explain with emotive words.  In the two scenes I outlined, we are shown that Doreen is under the thumb of an oppressive perfectionist and she feels isolated and lonely.  In the overall sequence, the purpose of excluding others from shots with Doreen is to emphasize the isolation, emotion, and desperation she feels.

If filmmakers explain everything in dialogue, the show gets cheesy quickly.  I think a good rule for film is “Never tell the audience what you can show them.”  Could Dick Wolf and company have told us, through dialogue, that Doreen Whitlock was isolated, lonely, and desperately seeking a way out?  Maybe.  But I doubt it would have been as effective as the close-ups excluding other characters and the empty street visual.  These helped us feel Doreen’s loneliness in a way dialogue never could.

Celebrating Manslaughter: Sidney NOT a Hero in Scream 3

At the end of Scream 3, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, Roman Bridger, reveals to Sidney Prescott that he is the illegitimate son of Maureen Prescott and the architect of Sidney’s horrid life.  He first approached Billy Loomis with the idea to kill Maureen and frame Cotton Weary.  Billy recruited Stu Macher, and the two started killing off all of Sidney’s friends, aiming for Sidney herself.  Sidney stopped them.

A few years later, a copycat killer begins killing off students at Windsor College, where Sidney is studying theater, all of whom have the same or similar names to the victims in the Woodsboro killings.  Sidney is the target again, and she discovers that Billy’s mother is seeking revenge because Sidney killed her son.  Assisted by the creepy film student Mickey, Mrs. Loomis confronts Sidney and Sidney, once again, defeats the killers.

Sidney is first on to Roman when Cotton Weary, now a talk show host, is murdered in his home by another man in a Ghostface mask years after the Windsor College murders.  In the film’s climax, Roman explains how it was him who talked to Billy and set this series of events in motion.  And, ultimately, it wasn’t to torture Maureen–she was already dead.  It was to destroy Sidney, who represented everything he wanted but was denied.

That makes sense to psychotic people, by the way.  No, seriously.  Study basic psychology, paying special attention to abnormal psych.  That’s exactly the type of irrationality that would make total sense to someone like Roman Bridger.

This trilogy ended badly because of Ehren Kruger writing Scream 3.  It wasn’t all his fault.  To keep the ending off the Internet, Kruger actually wrote three different scripts, all substantially the same but with different endings.  The movie actually leads up to Angelina and Roman as partners, and if you watch Scream 3 with that in mind you will see exactly what I’m talking about.  However, the powers that be cut the final movie with one of the “fake” endings, an ending which not only doesn’t follow from the clues in Act II of the movie, but also has Sidney commit a serious crime in the resolution. Continue reading “Celebrating Manslaughter: Sidney NOT a Hero in Scream 3”

Voice Actors: the Unsung Heroes of Cartoons

When I first realized that I wanted to write for a living, I started paying closer attention to the creative teams behind the final movie product. I started noticing that many of the movies I loved were directed, written, or produced by the same people.

So I’ve been starting to pay more and more attention to how things function behind the scenes. Voice acting has recently interested me, so I’ve started paying attention to who voices characters that I like.

There are two types of people doing voice over work. The first are celebrities lending their voices to a project, usually to give it some recognition that it would otherwise not have. They are distinguished by the fact that they voice one character and use their normal voice. The original Transformers movie from the 80s had several examples: Judd Nelson voiced Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime, Robert Stack (the Unsolved Mysteries guy) voiced Ultra Magnus, Leonard Nimoy voiced Galvatron, and the inimitable Orson Welles voiced Unicron.

The second type are professional voice over artists. They usually voice a half-dozen or more characters, many with a voice that sounds nothing like their own. The original 80s Filmation He-Man and She-Ra cartoons featured a cast of thousands of characters, yet only five voice-over artists were predominate. John Erwin, Alan Oppenheimer, Linda Gary, and executive producer Lou Schiemer (credited as Erik Gunden) literally voiced all of the characters in the show.

However, those who pay careful attention to voice-over artists may notice something interesting. Occasionally, the voice-over artist resembles the character they portray!

For example, Erika Scheimer voiced the mighty Queen Angela in the She-Ra series. Compare Scheimer with Angela. They look quite a bit alike. They both have blonde hair cut to about the same length, they both have the same body type and face shape.

Personally, I think that Erika Scheimer voiced Queen Angela closest to her own voice, though my wife thinks that Queen Marlena is closer to Erika’s original voice.

Then, there’s the unquestionable resemblance between Woody and Tom Hanks. Both are thin, both have brownish hair, both have similar body language. Makes me wonder if the Pixar folks cast Tom Hanks before they had a clear conception of Woody, and then based Woody’s appearance on Tom Hanks.

Or, if they had a clear conception of Woody but modified the conception to more closely resemble Tom Hanks once the latter was cast. Either is a plausible scenario.

Finally, this literally has nothing to do with voice artists, but isn’t anyone else creeped out by the resemblance of the sitting pope to Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars? I noticed it a while ago but never said anything (save for clipping the pope’s picture out of a newspaper and adding the Force lightning from his fingertips as a joke at work). But seriously. It’s eerie.