Ethereality News & Weblog

February 25, 2009

Exploding with ideas–good or bad?

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 5:31 pm

People I have shown the online workshop I’m working on tell me that I should just turn it into a book, since the content is so comprehensive. I don’t know if I want to do that. It’ll be a huge undertaking, as a full-blown book would require a lot more work, and if I’m going to spend that long on a project, I would prefer to be telling stories and work on my screenplays, novels, and multimedia web project. What the hell is a multimedia web project, you ask? It’s an idea I’ve had for years now, where a narrative can take on any form (or hybrid of)–be it prose, graphic novel, animation, animated storyboards, illustrations, music…etc, as long as it is a persistent and continuing narrative, and the presentation does the specific scenes justice in execution. I don’t know if it’s an idea worth investing time and energy in, since I don’t think it’s ever been done before (and perhaps that’s good reason to not do it). I have a story I’ve been developing for many years now that I think will be perfect for that approach.

I work on so many different ideas that it’s real problem, and if I don’t buckle down and concentrate my time and energy on just one or two ideas, I’ll never get anything out there for the public to experience. It’s really both a blessing and a curse. I see so many people in creative forums talking about how they can’t come up with interesting ideas or find inspiration, and I could never relate to that because ever since I was a child, my head has been exploding with ideas left and right. I have boxes full of story ideas, screenplays, novels, short stories, treatments, episode synopses…etc I’ve accumulated since puberty, and I still continue to come up with new ideas all the time. Often an idea will pop into my head in the shower and I’ll hurry and finish up so I can type the idea up, or in the middle of the night when I lay in bed with my mind wandering, an idea will pop into my head and I’d get up to type it out before I fall asleep and forget. The downside is that with so many ideas, which one do you pick to concentrate your time and energy on? This is a problem that’s plagued my life ever since puberty, when I decided to be first and foremost be a storyteller above everything else, and that all other creative endeavors I’m involved in will ultimately serve the storytelling–be it art, photography, novels, music, animation, graphic novels, or film. One thing I have noticed is that some ideas will stand the test of time–even years after I originally wrote them they still excite me, while other ideas I lose interest in with time. I suppose eventually I’ll figure it out–the ones that stood the test of time and haven’t been done by someone else already–those are the keepers to further develop. Commercial potential won’t be the deciding factor, as I’m only interested in ideas that I can spend a lot of time with–likely years–and not get tired of. If the projects get enough attention, then the commercial aspect will come on its own, so I’m not going to worry about it.

The current candidates competing for my attention are:

1) A psychological thriller/drama in the form of a novel (you can read an excerpt from it in the Writings section of the site–it’s the one titled Silent Storm).

2) A post apocalyptic zombie novel written with a literary slant that explores human nature and personal demons (I mentioned this in a past blog entry).

3) An epic sci-fi story (can’t give away any more than that) that could be executed in various forms–from animation, novel, graphic novel, to live-action. Since it’s an idea that’s very versatile, I thinking it should be the one I use for the multimedia web project.

In a way I miss the old days when I wrote and Illustrated Enchanted, my own comic book series (this was back in mid to late 90’s, published by Sirius Entertainment). I worked on it full-time and it was a good feeling to be completely immersed in the universe you have created. I still get fan mail every now and then from old Enchanted readers wondering if I’ll ever continue the series, and the truth is, I toy with the idea now and then. I keep reminding myself to scan in the complete published issues and post them on the site so new readers and get into the series. Maybe I’ll do that first and see where it takes me.

I don’t usually get hooked on browser-based games, but my friend Jason Sereno recently got me hooked on Mafia Wars
on Facebook. I don’t know if I’ll still feel the urge to continue after I finally get that casino though. I probably will since there are many more advanced jobs that are currently locked until you reach the highest levels. The great things about these browser games is that they don’t take up much of your time, and they are free. The last browser-based games I got hooked on were Urban Dead and Vector Tower Defense–both I no longer play since replay value just isn’t there for me. If Urban Dead adopted a more adventure game approach with ongoing narrative, then I would probably still play it.

I’m right in the middle of Dead Space on the Xbox 360 right now (chapter six), and I’m really enjoying myself. It’s one of the most polished and fun games I’ve played in a while, despite the derivative nature of the game (elements taken from System Shock 2, Bioshock, Doom 3, Prey, Half-Life 2, Resident Evil 4…etc). My brother Dennis loves it too, and he’s pretty picky about games like I am. I’m at the part where you finally find Nicole in the flesh and have to fend off the creatures attacking her as she operated the controls. That was pretty intense–my heart was in my throat. Gameplay involving protecting someone you care about always gets me–I’d feel guilty as hell if I couldn’t save the people I care about.

Quickie movie reviews:

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – Bill Murray is always awesome. This is my second Wes Anderson film and I have to get caught up on his small body of works. If you like quirky, wry, dry, and kitchy humor, you’ll like this film.

These Hills Have Eyes 2 – Entertaining enough if you enjoy these slasher horror/action films. Not much of a story–you just watch characters get picked off, then you watch them fight back, and then you watch them escape. All these films are essentially the same

Live From Baghdad – A good film about journalistic integrity, and it’s one of those films where there isn’t anything to complain about, you enjoy yourself, but you’re not blown away. An interesting note is that the score by Steve Jablonsky totally ripped off the score Hans Zimmer composed for Black Hawk Down. One cue was so similar it almost sounds like a remix of the same cue from Black Hawk Down. I wonder what the story behind that is. Maybe the director chose Zimmer’s cue as a temp track, then later requested Jablonsky to just rearrange the piece since he likes the temp track so much?

Friday Night Lights – I watched the first season of the TV series before I watched this film, and the TV series was so much better than the film that I was very surprised. In comparison, the film didn’t really have likable characters or simply characters you empathized or connected with, and the film also wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the TV show. The character of the coach in the film was so underdeveloped that you didn’t know who the hell he was or what he felt, nor do you give a shit about his family. You don’t get to know any of the players on the team very well either, so you don’t give a shit about them, or whether they win or lose. That leaves you with no one to give a damn about, and when you don’t care about any of the characters in a film, it’s time to pop in another DVD–namely the TV series version.

Reservation Road – A good film in general, but I think the film could’ve used a bit more edgy execution–an approach that dives deeper into the psyche of the two lead males. I think my overall feeling is that it’s too safe of a film–I’d be curious to see what someone like Stanley Kubrick, if he was still alive, would’ve done with the same material.

Hot Fuzz – I’m a fan of the Brit TV series Spaced, and then subsequent Shaun of the Dead, so I just had to see this one. Overall I thought it had some good moments, but as a whole I felt it wasn’t as funny as I had hoped, and some of the gags got a bit old after a while.

Alien Raiders – It’s a low budget film, and one that could’ve been a lot better than it is. The pacing is not very good–some parts that shouldn’t have dragged on were trying my and Elena’s patience, and parts that should’ve been very intense were sort of glossed over. The score also wasn’t very good–some spots actually jumped out as being inappropriate or just badly executed. It hurts me to say it since I kind of know the guy who composed the score as he frequents the same composer’s forum I do and I always enjoy his posts. Funny enough, I actually liked the bonus material of the video tapes of the medic and the spotter more than I enjoyed the film.

February 17, 2009

Work and play

I’m still hard at work on the course material for the workshop I’ll be teaching at I keep cramming in more and more valuable knowledge and skills that I want to teach, and at this point I’m afraid if I add any more the students will not be able to absorb it all. But since I’m not just teaching one specific discipline but a wide range of knowledge and techniques that tackles just about every aspect of visual art, it’s hard not to try to fill the course to the brim. I mentioned before that I’m approaching the course as if I could travel back in time and spend eight weeks with my much younger self, trying to teach him everything I was dying to know back then, and also very important things I wasn’t even aware of but discovered later as I matured as an artist. Another way to look at it would be if I only have eight weeks left to live, and I must impart the most important knowledge and skills I have learned as an artist to date to the next generation, what would I fill those eight weeks with? I’m actually not sure if many people would even be interested in such a course, as many novice artists don’t know what it is they should be concentrating on, and they waste their time on things that have the least amount of effect on their growth as artists–such as trying to jump and fly when they haven’t even learned how to crawl, and then they wonder why they keep running in circles in frustration without seeing any significant improvement in their work.

Knowing how to learn and work smart as opposed to just working hard will get someone to the desired destination that much faster, and part of my workshop will cover how to get ahead faster and how to learn and improve in the most efficient manner. The entire course will cover everything from how to come up with ideas that has substance, the elements of composition, narrative approaches, color theory, lighting/values, body language/expressions, design and shapes, stylization and idealization, good learning and working habits, line quality, brushwork, surface polish, efficient workflow, powerful and intuitive editing techniques, troubleshooting an unsatisfactory image, how to survive and excel as a professional artist, and what to reach for as an artist in the grand scheme of your life’s journey…etc.

So, yeah, as you can, it’s a gigantic workshop covering the most important things I’ve ever learned as an artist to date, crammed into a very intense eight weeks.

On the music front, I’ve been planning a collaboration with Ugo (, and I’m pretty excited about it, as we share some similar influences and the collaboration is really based on our mutual admiration and respect for each other as human beings and as creative talents. While we are similar in many ways, we are also quite different in other ways, and I think that makes a good combination in a collaboration. After a lot of discussion, we finally kicked off on the writing of our first song, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. For those of you who have never tried any of Ugo’s wonderful virtual instruments and effects, you really ought to take a look because they are some of the best out there. He’s got both free and commercial products, and the commercial stuff is very reasonably priced.

I’ve been playing Dead Space and Mass Effect on the Xbox 360 during my breaks from working on the course material. I’m a real sucker for space horror stories, and so far I’m really enjoying Dead Space. It’s completely derivative in its story, premise, and gameplay mechanics, but it is very well executed and a very highly quality game. It does have a few original ideas that I really like, such as the lack of a GUI, with the health meter actually on the character, the ammo count on the weapon, and the inventory/map as a projected display about three feet in front of you, which moves with you as you walk around. Sure, the combination of eerie sound effects/music, horrifying creatures jumping out at you suddenly, and flickering lights that tends to black out a lot are established methods of scaring the crap out of people in both films and video games, but you know what, it works and it will go on working because our senses respond to them, just like how our mouths will water when we smell something delicious. Although in the past we’ve seen creators try to do something different by creating a horror atmosphere during well-lit scenes, and while it does work, I firmly believe that the same scenes lit to be dark will be that much scarier.

Mass Effect feels a lot like Knights of the Old Republic (one of my all-time favorite games), but the inventory and the combat doesn’t seem as intuitive or fun as KotOR. I know that the PC version has improved the inventory system a lot but since the buggy PC version is what broke the camel’s back and made me buy an Xbox 360, it’s a moot point. One thing that seems to be missing from Mass Effect is the more personal conversations between you and members of your group. I remember in KotOR, you can have in-depth and personal conversations with all members of your group and they feel more like fully developed personalities–thus you emotionally connect with them more. Mass Effect also seem to be missing a sense of humor. I think even a serious premise can use some humor if you where to sprinkle it without taking away from the overall seriousness of the premise. KotOR was brilliant in that department. I laughed so hard during some parts of that game, and none of the humor detracted from the seriousness of the premise at all.

I’ve also been enjoying Mafia Wars, an addictive little free game on Facebook. I’m not a social butterfly so I only have a few people in my mafia, but I enjoy buying properties and doing the jobs, and I’m curious to see how far I can get without having a large mafia.

Elena got food poisoning and was bed-ridden for a couple of days. She passed her sick time with Season Four of Lost and Season one of Dexter–both I already watched and loved. She’s one of those people who are fearless when it comes to handling unsavory things like insects, dirty bills of money, door handles in public places, and so on. I on the other hand, treat those things like the bacteria-infested nests they are, and I disinfect with a small bottle of hand-sanitizer after touching those nasty things. I don’t overdo it when I’m home, as I know too much disinfecting will lower your body’s ability to deal with bacterias, but in public places, you just don’t know how disgusting strangers can be. I always urge her to be more vigilant about touching bacteria infested things and she never took it to heart. This time, after determining she did not ingest any foul food that could’ve caused the food poisoning as we ate the exact same things before her symptoms broke out, I told her it must be because she went about her usual ways while she was out, and whatever bacteria she got on her hands made their way into her. She’s usually very good about washing her hands before eating or when she gets home, but while she’s out she would touch things and then later rub her nose or something–hell, she’d touch my face after just handing some really disgusting looking paper bills–you know, those that look like they’ve been stepped on, dragged through the mud, and still moist to the touch– and I’d ward her off like a vampire demon until she’s disinfected her hands.

Quickie movie reviews:

Gong Tau – For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “gong tau” is the Chinese pronunciation for oriental black magic popular in South East Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand…etc. It’s basically the eastern equivalent of voodoo, and it’s pretty nasty stuff. I’ve always been fascinated by gong tau as I read a book about it as a kid and it always stayed with me. The film is a “third level” film, which in Hong kong film ratings is equivalent to I guess NC17 rating in the States. It features some really gory scenes such as a head being pulled out of the body with all the organs still attached. For horror fans, it’s a lot of fun–especially if you like black magic premises. The plot is a little reaching, but overall enjoyable.

Body of Lies – I’ll watch anything directed by Ridley Scott, since he’s one of the handful of directors whose career I follow (others include Ang Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar-Wai, James Cameron, Michael Mann, David Lynch, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, and directors no longer with us like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Stanley Kubrick, and Akira Kurosawa). Body of Lies is a good espionage film, and I for one am glad to see Russell Crowe taking on roles that are unlike the type of characters he usually plays. I can’t say the same for DiCaprio though since no matter what role he plays, he always feel like the same character to me–that very intense guy who has a soft and vulnerable side. I want to see DiCaprio take on roles that will make me do a double take, but I’m not holding my breath. As for the story in the film, I’ll just say that any kind of human suffering brought upon by religion or politics makes my blood boil, because they could all be avoided if human beings aren’t so damn pig-headed, selfish, and cruel. As if surviving on this planet isn’t enough to deal with, we have to invent more bullshit to have wars about? How stupid can we be? For a self-proclaimed species of higher intelligence, we don’t actually have all that much wisdom, do we?

February 11, 2009

I finally got an Xbox 360

Filed under: Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 12:40 am

I had mentioned that Mass Effect on the PC was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of killing my desire to continue to be mainly a PC gamer–I just can’t tolerate paying good money for games that I can’t get to run on my up-to-date computer anymore. So, I finally broke down and got an Xbox 360, and guess what game I started with? Yep, I had to buy Mass Effect again for the 360 so I could finally play it. I wish I could get a refund from EA on that buggy piece of shit PC version.

I’m always a late adopter when it comes to consoles because I’m mainly a PC gamer, and also because I like to sit back and observe the progress between competitions and then after everything has already taken shape, I’ll pick the one with the game lineup I prefer and jump in. My typical rule for getting a console is if there are a solid handful of exclusive games for it that I’m just dying to play. I felt that way about the Xbox (it was stolen a couple of years ago), and now I feel that way about the Xbox 360 (the fact I can play some of the original Xbox games on it makes a difference too–it’ll make up for my stolen Xbox). I’ll probably eventually get a PS3 as well, as there are now a solid handful of excellent exclusive games on it. I keep saying I’ll pick up a PS2 too, but after all these years I never did it–in fact I never even got the original Playstation, although that’s more because graphics back then just wasn’t good enough to interest me. My first console was actually the Dreamcast (this does not count the consoles we had as kids, which I didn’t buy and had no real say in), as I felt console graphics had gotten good enough by then. My rule of “at least a handful of exclusives I’m dying to play” started with the Dreamcast, and continues to this day.

Playing FPS on a console is still a torturous experience for me, so once again I’ll be getting a keyboard/mouse adapter (though it’ll require me to get a wired controller too because that’s the only controller it’ll detect), just like I did for the original Xbox. I’ll also be getting the 120 GB hard drive since the DVD ROM is so damn loud and I don’t want to burn it out or get the dreaded Red Ring of Death. Overall, it feels good to catch up with the rest of the gaming world on the console side again. I don’t think I’ll completely stop playing on the PC, but I’ll certainly pick the Xbox 360 version if it’s a cross-platform game (unless it’s the kind of game you absolutely must play on he PC to really enjoy).

When I heard the Christian Bale freak out audio clip of him screaming obscenities at the DP that’s been making the rounds, it reminded me of the time when I got screamed at by a producer when I DP’ed on a small indie feature film. The director was this creatively clueless guy who worked as a engineer during the day (he had never even heard of Stanley Kubrick!). During all of my conversations with him I had not once felt like I was talking to someone who knew anything thing about storytelling or films–just a normal guy who liked watching movies but didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. During this one scene of a mother and daughter having a heart to heart in the kitchen, he wanted a single hard spot light shining directly at them from behind the camera and nothing else. It was just a normal dramatic scene of mother daughter relationship talk (spilling feelings and hugging), so it really needed lighting that looked believable instead of two deers caught in the headlight of a pickup truck. I tried to explain my concern to him and he stood his ground, saying that it’s a dramatic scene and requires dramatic lighting. I debated that the drama of the scene in that particular case should come from the dialogs and the acting, not some big dramatic spot light, especially the scene is a very normal scene and not some strange David Lynch type of surrealism. It boggled my mind that he couldn’t see how wrong he was. I’m one of those people that will not back down when it comes to bad decisions made by others that will come back to bite me in the ass–it’s my name in the credits as the DP, not his. So I thought I could try to appeal to someone who could talk some sense into him, and the producer was the obvious choice. I approached the producer and explained the situation and to my surprise, he proceeded to scream at me–“Just get the fucking shot! I don’t give a shit how wrong the lighting looks–just shoot it and get it over with!”

I quit the film that night. I also vowed to never work people who don’t have a clue ever again.

Quickie movie reviews:

We Own the Night – An enjoyable film, although it just didn’t look right to have Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers–they just don’t connect visually for me.

Bolt – It’s been a long time since I really liked a Disney animated feature, and it took hiring Pixar’s headcheese to make it happen. Now that Lasseter’s in charge of both Pixar and Disney animation, I think the quality of Disney’s animated features will improve significantly, while Pixar will continue to produce the kind of quality they’ve become famous for. It’s impossible to not like Bolt because the dog is just ridiculously cute. The action scenes are over-the-top and thrilling, and the tear-jerking moments worked for this thirty-six year old male. The only thing that could’ve been stronger was the middle of the film–I think the writing’s not as strong as the beginning or the ending–like they were wracking their brains trying to find ways to fill the middle with something entertaining. The scenes where Bolt realizes what he really is should’ve been far more poignant, and what followed should’ve been a lot more emotional as well. Also Bolt’s time in the real world could’ve been far more comedic, as the real world is far more crazy than any fiction on TV. The cat I didn’t particularly care for since she was about as Clich├ęd as they come, except for the lack of claws. The hamster was awesome though–totally surreal character. Overall I liked the movie and if Disney keeps going in that direction, I think we’ll see many excellent animated features from them in the future.

Mirrors – Entertaining enough, but not nearly as scary as it should’ve been. There was so much that could’ve been done with the whole mirrors motif that was unexplored.

Slumdog Millionaire – A very enjoyable film, although it got progressively more mainstream in its tone as the film went on, and I wish it had kept its more arthouse flavor from the first half of the film.

Tales From Earthsea (Ged’s War Chronicles) – What a let down. Convoluted plot, horrible pacing, lackluster direction, lack of drama, lack of of a cohesive theme, and lack of character development. Usually when a film is so under-developed is because it concentrates too much on action, but even on the front the film disappoints–I can’t recall a single scene that had decent action. Not that I expected Hayao Miyazaki’s son to be amazing like his father, but the fact that he wasn’t even equipped to direct that ticks me off. The only reason he even got a chance to do it was because he’s Miyazaki’s son. He wasn’t even a writer or director or animator, or had done a single thing remotely related to animation production. As I understand, he can draw pretty well, but if that was the deciding factor in whether someone should write/direct, then all the people in the world who can draw or paint should be sitting in the director’s chair. No wonder Hayao Miyazaki was strongly against the whole thing and the two have stopped talking to each other as the result. I too would tell my incompetent son that he shouldn’t go and fuck up one of my favorite book series that’s been such a strong influence in my life (Nausicca was heavily influenced by the Earthsea books–in fact if Miyazaki wan’t refused the rights to it back in the early 80’s, he’d have done Tales From Earthsea back then and Nausicca never would’ve existed in the first place).

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