Sunday, August 26, 2012

Angels Flight

Just got in from L.A. after spending 10 fabulous days with my Uncle Joe and Aunt Sara.

I'm exhausted, hungry, and ready for another vacation, but I guess I'd better show up for work tomorrow morning.

I had such a blast this time out. We spend three days in San Diego, which I had never seen before, and I managed to see not one, but two dolphins swimming in the water as I did my morning walk.

That may be no big deal for the locals, but for a guy from Brooklyn it was something to see.

I surely did love those morning walks in San Diego. I could hear sea lions off in the distance and watch the pelicans swoop in low over the water for the breakfast. And I enjoyed walking straight toward the beautiful morning sun--I could feel the rays of light shining right through me.

On they way down to San Diego, we stopped at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, which I was so-so about--until I actually saw the place. It's such a beautiful location and I got a chance to meet the rector and have a very nice chat with him.

We went to the San Diego Zoo, which was fabulous. Of course we had to take the Sky-Fari, a cable car ride that goes over the entire facility. Sara tool a picture of me riding this thing--the Scare-Fari, I like to call it, but I declined to take a look at it.

After the zoo, we want to Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban cultural park in San Diego, that is home to, among other things, a model train museum. We had a great time there, I can assure you.

Once back in L.A., I went on a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Griffith Observatory, a place of learning, but also a location where scenes from "Rebel Without a Cause" and "The Terminator" were filmed.

I took a tour of the Queen Mary, which was impressive as hell, especially when you think of all the famous people who once walked her decks and sailed across the ocean aboard her--people like Frank Sinatra, Buster Keaton, Liberace, and Winston Churchill to name a few.

During World War II, the Queen Mary was transformed into a troop ship and two of my uncles rode aboard her on their way to fight in Europe.

And speaking of film, I finally saw the famous Bradbury Building, a beautiful old building where so many films and TV shows were shot, including "Blade Runner" with Harrison Ford, which I believe was the first time I actually saw the place. It was a thrill finally seeing this building, which was built in 1893, live and it person.

I thought I'd be the only nut wanting to make a pilgrimage to the Bradbury, but tourists were buzzing in and out of the place like it was Grand Central Station.

Naturally I had to take another hell ride in the form of Angels Flight in Bunker Hill, an incredibly steep cable car, which is billed as the "Shortest Railway in the World," but you could never prove that me by.

There was the usual terror of plane flight, where I promise God I'll go forth and never sin and again and then swallow a handful to Xanax so I can slip into a coma.

So now I'm back. I've got the usual trepidation about returning to work, I'm bummed that summer is almost over, and I kind of wish I lived in L.A. But I want to use this experience to work toward my goals.

The vacation is only the beginning.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Now Playing

At some point while screening my scenes at the final film directing class on Wednesday night, I heard a tremendous boom coming from the outside world.

Oh, great, I thought as I sat in the dark with my classmates, that’s God telling me how much He hates my movie!

Naturally, it was thunder making all that racket, but I have tendency to overreact.

After 8 weeks we finally got to show our work at the School of Visual Arts. I can’t believe how fast the time went by. I met a bunch of great, talented people, had a lot of fun, and I learned so much about filmmaking. I’d say I got a great return on my investment.

Wednesday was rather hectic and to top it off, it was my mother’s birthday, which happens to be Assumption Day, when the Virgin Mary was taken up to Heaven. My mother’s middle name was “Assumpta.”

I thought of my mom a lot during the day and, as I wrote on my Facebook page, my mother gave us her heart and soul, but the toughest thing she ever asked us to do was to go on living without her.

I made sure to go to mass at Trinity and receive Communion. Rev. Emily—yes, all you Catholics out there, Rev. Emily—gave a lovely sermon and when I told her it was my mother’s birthday, she said she’d pray for her.

I was tempted not to show my footage at the film class because I was so unhappy with my editing, but my mother didn’t raise me to be a quitter. I handed over my flash drive to my instructor and shared my work.

And…it wasn’t so bad. Except for a couple of rough cuts and some shaky camerawork, it came out pretty well.

Todd, our teacher, warned us that he is very critical when it comes to editing.

“How bad do you want it?” he asked me.

“Bring it on,” I said. “I’m Catholic. I can take anything.”

Todd told me my first scene was too ping-pongy. I shifted from one actor to the other
after every line.

Visually, it was a bit boring.

Point taken. I could’ve been a little more creative with that clip. However, he liked the second one a lot better, which is interesting because the actual shoot was a nightmare. But then I've heard that many great meals have come out of kitchen disasters.

My fellow students were all very supportive and they showed some fine work as well. It’s incredible: you put some much time and effort into shooting a scene and the finished product is only a few minutes long.

Todd encouraged us to stick with filmmaking, to keep shooting short films so we get used to doing it.

I’m going to take some time and figure out my next move. Meanwhile I want to thank Todd and all those great people in the class for such a wonderful experience.

Oh, and that big boom I heard during my screening? I’ve decided that wasn’t God giving me a thumbs down. That was my mom up in Heaven cheering me on.

(I’m going to be taking a little break from blogging, so if you don’t hear from me for a while, not to worry. I’ll be back online as soon as I can.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cut and Run

One of the best lessons my father ever taught me was to take care of tough jobs as soon as possible.

“Better behind you than in front of you,” he used to say.

Just eight simple words but they can often mean the difference between joy and all sorts of procrastinated misery.

I haven’t always followed my Dad’s advice, but I recently applied this golden rule and I was very glad I did.

I gave up my Friday night to edit the two scenes I shot in my film director’s class. It was quite challenging, since editing—like directing—is new to me.

But the editing is an important part of the class. Todd, our instructor, told us that when you look at the raw footage, you’ll see what you have, and, more importantly, what you don’t have.

Now I have to say that the finished work will never be mistaken for a Hollywood production, but at least I got the job done and I have something to show in class. And I was able to enjoy the rest of my weekend.

We had all downloaded our scenes on to flash drives so we could edit them. My only problem was that after I got the video into my computer, I had no idea what to do next.

This is particularly irritating as I’m sure there are grade schoolers who can shoot and edit video while listening to their iPods, surfing the Web, and texting all their friends at the same time.

A classmate suggested downloading Final Cut Pro for the 30-day free trial and I thought this was a great idea. I went online, pressed a few buttons and in no time at all I had this fantastic editing software in my computer. There was only one problem.

I couldn’t figure out how to use it to save my life.

Don’t get me wrong—Final Cut is a tremendous tool for filmmakers and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. This is definitely an "it's not you, it's me" situation.

Splice of Life

I see now that Final Cut is not something you can learn overnight, especially if you’re a natural born technophobe like me. I felt like I was sitting behind one of the consuls at NASA’s Mission Control Center.

I couldn’t get the footage in the right sequence. I’d press a few buttons and suddenly the middle of the scene was now the beginning—and I couldn’t undo it. My classmate told me she printed out the Final Cut manual, which runs more a mere 400-plus pages.

I knew I would never get the footage edited in time for the class screening. I was getting all twisted and I thought I’d have to skip the class entirely. The whole business was eating away at me all week long.

But then I tried thinking instead of worrying. My computer comes equipped with the iMovie program and I had taken a few how-to classes at the Apple Store last year.

I didn’t remember much about it, but I recall it was pretty simple, and that’s just what I needed. I set up the footage, blocked off a chunk of time on Friday evening and went to work.

I felt like Dr. Frankenstein building his monster as I stitched the scenes together. Each time I added another few frames of video, I watched the scene grow longer and longer. After several hours and a few calls to tech support, I finally had my two scenes edited.

I wanted to scream out "It's alive! It's alive!" But I controlled myself.

The cuts are jumpy, some of the shots don’t match up as well as I would like, and I see things I would’ve done differently on set. But I did get the job behind me. And I have to say it was very exciting listening to the actors as they said the lines I had written.

So it looks like I’ll be ready for the screening. I’m sure my younger, more computer-savvy classmates will be displaying far more polished work, but at least I won’t show up empty-handed.

Thanks, Dad.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Higher and Higher

On Friday afternoon I joined the congregation at Trinity Church to sing about realms beyond the clouds and a few hours later I was climbing into one.

The hymn, “Lamp of Our Feet Whereby We Trace,” was a fitting preface for my trip in and around Cloud City, a structure by Argentine artist Tomas Saraceno currently on view at--or on--the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop garden.

The garden is one of my favorite New York locations, even though I haven’t been there in a few years.

There are great views of Central Park and the New York City skyline. You feel like you’re far away from the city, even though you’re right in the middle of it.

The Met describes Cloud City as “a constellation of large, interconnected modules constructed with transparent and reflective materials” and I’m certainly not going to argue, though the phrase “giant Plexiglass tarantula” did run through my mind upon first viewing.

This…thing is cool, especially since you can actually climb inside of it. There’s no charge, but you do have to get a ticket and go at the appointed time.

When I heard I had to get on yet another line—something I seem to do all the time in New York—I initially said “screw that, I’ll just do my viewing from the outside.”

But I reconsidered. What’s the sense of coming this far and then stopping short at the front door? There are ton of rules to follow before you can enter Cloud City—including no drinking before climbing aboard (ouch!)— but I wasn’t going to let them slow me down.

As I reached the first level, I thought, “Wow, I’m so glad I’m doing this. What a great idea!”

Come Into My Parlor

And then I went to the second level, where I could look straight down through the clear plastic floors and see just how high up I was, not a good thing for a man who has a problem with heights.

“Wow,” I thought. “I wish I hadn’t done this. What a terrible idea!”

This was freaky. I felt like I was being taken aboard the mother ship in “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” and I really wished the Met would reconsider that drinking ban.

The structure supposedly rises only up to 20 feet above the roof garden, but it felt like a hell of a lot more than that to yours truly.

I thought of the cat I saw months ago walking over the skylight of my doctor’s office that inspired my haiku, but the big difference between me and that high climbing kitty was that I was scared out of my mind. Cloud City was definitely not my kind of town.

I forced myself to keep going higher, to the last module. A guide said that only two people are allowed in there at a time and my mind started ricocheting all over the clear plastic walls.

Why is that? My brain shrieked. Because this goddamn thing can’t hold the weight, that’s why. This tarantula is going to come crashing down any second and you’re going to be squashed like a bug.

It’s amazing what my mind can conjure up when it shifts into the panic zone.

I could actually “hear” the metal chords snapping and the giant framework groaning out its last breaths before it collapsed in a heap of transparent and reflective materials—with me at the bottom of it. It’s like having a disaster movie playing in my head.

I got to that last module, did a quick scan and then headed down the ladder to terra firma as I am a strong believer that more firma means less terror.

I was ready for that drink—big time. But the wait at the rooftop bar was so long that by the time I got to the head of the line all I wanted was a Diet Snapple and some roasted nuts.

I thought I had earned an “I Survived Cloud City” t-shirt, but I didn’t get any offers.

Now I am glad I did something different and overcame—more or less—my fears long enough to take in this sculpture/structure.

I do wish I hadn’t gotten so crazy in the first place, since there was nothing to fear, but that’s going to take a little more work on my part.

When that day comes I’ll definitely want a t-shirt. And maybe a Diet Snapple.