Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 266: The Spiral

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It’s been said that there are four stages to any artist’s career:

1. Who’s (insert your name here)?

2. Get me (you again)!

3. Let’s find a young (same guy).

4. Who’s (you know who)?

And while it seems unfair to the individual, our reality is that as one star fades, another inevitably brightens to take its place.

Therefore a necessity in every artist’s career is answering the question, “Is this the beginning of the downward spiral or is this the spiral itself?”.

Because those who read the signs correctly leave at the top of their game or transition into a respected and respectable later life, exiting the stage before their brightness is eclipsed.

For those eclipsed mar both their future and their legacy.

This week, we witnessed the sad exhibition of a truly talented star making a desperate grab for relevance, in the process not only offending a significant portion of his remaining fan base but giving some of the new blood a chance to overshadow him.

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For a long time, Jim Carrey has been the funniest man in Hollywood and as a result a source of pride for Canadians.

By entering the acrimonious American gun debate, I’m sure Jim had the best intentions. But in a country with some of the dumbest gun laws on the planet and neither side willing to give an inch, having an impact would have required him to be at the top of his game, to be as sharp and quick as he’s ever been.

And that’s not how things played out.

What follows is not only the spiral itself but the combined eclipse as those with the edge Jim once had move in for the kill.

Those of us who’ve long enjoyed Carrey’s genius might take comfort in the laughs he’ll score next week with the release of “KickAss 2”. But for many, the image of a gun wielding Colonel Stars and Stripes will be the final hypocritical cherry atop a disastrous PR sundae.

Kick-Ass 2

The Spiral. Avoid it in your own life. And Enjoy Your Sunday…

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 265: Keep Calm and Carry On

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It’s the simplicity that hits you first. Then the obvious truth.

Nobody gets out alive. 

And Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It merely steals today of its joys.

Because Life is what happens while you’re making plans.

Much better to just ignore the noise. Keep your nose to the grindstone –- or notebook –- or keyboard and move forward.

Maybe make a nice cup of tea before you get started.

We all assume the phrase kept British chins up during the dark days of the Blitz. It fits the history.

And it did.

Except it didn’t.

The true story is actually much more interesting.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Replacements

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I spent the first 15 years of my professional life as an actor. It’s a society I’m still proud to have been a part of. And I continue to cherish the experience and insights I gained which inform my work as a writer and producer these days.

Much as those of us who write, produce, direct or apply make-up and pull cable hate to admit, it’s actors who draw the public to what the rest of us do. They are the face and the heart of our industry.

But the seamless facility with which good actors appear to embody a character does not come as easily as it appears. It’s a tough craft at which to become accomplished. Yet, it’s also one that is constantly maligned.

Most people still don’t think it’s a “real job” and even within the industry that depends on them there’s often a palpable irritation with actors.

Actors are always “improving” on a writer’s script, preferring a “different take” than the director, “editing” their performance before it arrives in an edit suit and bending producers and production managers out of shape with “perk” requests.

From my earliest days in the profession, I had the feeling a lot of people would be happy if they could do without us.

And when I was doing voice work on cartoons, I sensed that such a desire might already be in the pipeline.

Back in the day, animator’s drawing tables came with a mirror (like the one pictured above) and you’d walk past the work stations watching animators try out the expressions they then replicated to their characters.

When I saw those animated characters onscreen, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how well people who drew hundreds of pictures a day for a living captured the nuance, timing and emotional insight we thespians worked weeks to perfect.

And I wondered if maybe anybody could do that –- and what would happen once you didn’t even need to know how to draw in order to accomplish it.

Lately, as more and more actors struggle to find enough work to sustain a career, I’ve begun to notice that change in action.

Used to be, animated features were a rarity. Maybe a handful of releases reached the multiplex each year. But as the cost of animation has fallen, there now seems to be three or four released every month.

And where “The Simpsons” was once the only Prime Time animated series, there are now entire nights of them on some networks and many more on specialty networks.

And on shows like “The Family Guy” and “Archer” it’s not the performers that the audience is tuning in to enjoy, but the writers and technicians.

Yeah, there are still jobs on these films and series for actors. But unless the show is a phenomenal success or the actor brings a known name to the table, it pays less than an on camera performance. And animation eliminates the need for a huge number of crew positions as well.

Similarly, the rise of video games has spun off both technologies capable of replicating humans in a more realistic setting and an audience grown more comfortable with gaming visuals as an acceptable entertainment option.

Down at the multiplex and on such televised series as “Spartacus” and “Game of Thrones”, the “Cast of Thousands” has been virtually eliminated. No more armies of extras with their requisite box lunches and truckloads of wardrobe. No more days of planning and multi-camera setups to execute stunts.

Sometimes, characters seen in fleeting shots and one line parts are even “painted in” without the audience ever realizing it’s not a real person.

And now that process has become even more sophisticated thanks to chip maker Invidia and a new software called “Faceworks”.

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Faceworks basically recreates a completely believable human face, allowing an animator to create a performance which an unsuspecting audience will never know isn’t a real person.

You can probably count all the live-action replicant films released without real actors in them without taking off your shoes.

“Tin Tin”, “Beowulf”, etc.

But we may well be on the verge of the release of many more. Or we might just see more films in which the smaller parts, where most actors find their breaks or enough money to pay the rent, are played by a computer generated character.

If you thought green-screen and digital media skewed the economics of film production, wait until a producer doesn’t need half as many cast members nor the wardrobe, make-up crew, transport, casting costs or per diem that goes along with them.

More than once, I’ve run a scene I’m writing through an online animation program like “Goanimate” to see how it plays. And now and then I’ve wished I could put an entire script that isn’t selling through a similar process or just eliminate the nightmares of development and make it myself.

And maybe the way I originally envisioned it.

Perhaps that’s now closer to being a reality. And I’m not sure that’s going to be a good thing for actors.

UPDATE:

Dead actors are already taking some of the commercial work.

h/t: Clint

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 264: The Reality TV Syndrome

March 16, 2013

Speaking to a conservative gathering yesterday, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin surprised many by making a sharply insightful statement…

“So much of what passes for our National Conversations these days is anything but. We don’t have leadership coming out of Washington. We have reality Television. Except it’s really bad reality TV.”

Now this might strike some as somewhat disingenuous since Ms. Palin has, since her failed run for the Vice-Presidency, herself become a star of some pretty bad reality TV. But give her a minute here…

“…more and more it all feels like a put-on. Every event seems calculated to fool us. Every speech feels like a con.”

Ignoring the fact that her own speeches seem cadged from an old volume of “Jokes for Toastmasters”, she then made the cogent point…

“Too many of both parties are focussed on the process of politics and not the purpose –- which is to lead and to serve.”

To that I say, “Youbetcha!”. Perhaps gaining some understanding of why the Mama Grizzly is both so reviled and revered.

I think we’re all aware that the vast majority of those entering politics are sincere, hard-working and dedicated. We may not share their ideology but we respect the fact that they have chosen a path of mostly thankless public advocacy.

But lately, it seems that seeking leadership in order to set society in a better direction or serving the needs of the public has been replaced by a desire to be admired and appreciated more for who you appear to be than what you actually accomplish.

I was honestly disappointed this week when former astronaut Marc Garneau bailed from the Liberal leadership race. I wouldn’t necessarily have voted for him. But I’d’ve loved to see our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition have to lock horns with such a smart and courageous guy.

I mean, he’s literally a rocket scientist. And he’s walked in Space.

But he didn’t stand a chance against a guy with better hair who hasn’t accomplished a whole lot beyond being a member of the lucky sperm club.

Yet that appears to be what matters more these days. A high Klout score and popular Twitter feed continually trumps knowing how to lead and doing what it takes to serve others.

And things seem even worse South of the border, where new political messiahs appear almost daily.

For the last couple of weeks, American media has been obsessed with the possibility that actress Ashley Judd might run for the senate. To most of these people, she was a great choice and an absolute shoo-in.

Now, I don’t know Ms. Judd. Saw her at a race track once, cheering on her now ex-husband’s racing team and she seemed quite sincere about that.

None of the TV talking heads could tell me much more about her nor list any leadership skills or record of public good she’s done.

But they all made a point of noting that she was very pretty, very popular and experienced at the “rough and tumble world of Hollywood” –- after which Washington would be a breeze.

Whatever you might think of Sarah Palin, she’s right. Politics has become just another reality TV format. And maybe that works for the media and the politicians. But it impoverishes the rest of us.

On Friday, one of Ms. Judd’s potential constituents dug a little deeper than the press appears capable of doing.

Please forgive his sarcasm. And whatever you do, don’t miss the part that begins at the 5:00 mark.

Perhaps what will finally defeat reality TV is actual reality.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 263: Passion Is Precious

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“Enthusiasm is the most powerful engine of success. When you do a thing, put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your personality. Be active, be energetic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
                                                                  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anybody who’s ever attended a writers workshop, a directing class or a forum for any creative endeavor has heard the word “passion”.

What’s pounded into you, reinforced ad infinitum and recounted in virtually all anecdotes is that there is a power beyond technique, above talent, more reliable than luck and far more important than who you know.

It’s Passion. Enthusiasm. A desire to make your dreams come true that refuses to be denied, derailed or defeated.

More times than I can recall I’ve had to choose between artists with experience, a name and a good agent and one with passion, somebody you just knew wouldn’t quit and was willing to give their all.

Not once has going with the passion led to disappointment.

passion

At its heart passion is caring. Caring enough to make the final product as good as it can be, not compromising on the vision, making sure that whatever the disappointments and defeats, they are never visible.

A couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the people who present the Oscars, announced that they would be honoring the longest running franchise in motion pictures, the James Bond films.

It was hinted that a show-stopping moment was planned during which 50 years of James Bonds would appear together for the first time on one stage as memorable moments of the 23 Bond films were screened.

Didn’t happen.

It seems Bond #1, Sean Connery, was still pissed at a long dead Bond producer over something or other and refused to appear. Bond #5, Pierce Brosnan, likewise declined, feeling his “license to kill” had been revoked a film or two too soon.

Disappointments and defeats.

Now if there had been a passion to pull this off anyway, we would have been left with something just as memorable. But what we got was a fairly forgettable clip reel sandwiched between a couple of famous Bond themes.

It was okay. But not special. If you missed the broadcast or found the tribute as forgettable as it was, you can find it here.

Yep. Whoever was in charge of the Oscar broadcast still had a show to get on. But they clearly didn’t have a passion for it.

Meanwhile, far away in the Netherlands, a 19 year old film student named Kees van Dijkhuizen Jr. harbored a passion for the Bond franchise –- even though most of the movies were filmed before he (and perhaps even van Dijkhuisen Sr.) had been born.

And this is where passion comes in.

The kid edited his own tribute, one that not only honored these films in a manner they deserved, but showed how much better something can become when somebody –- cares.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Tom Tip-Toes Away

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One long, hot Toronto summer, I lived a couple of houses down from Stompin’ Tom Connors.

I didn’t know who he was. Now and then I’d see him sitting on his front step, having his morning coffee or sipping a beer as the sun went down. He was a balding, raw-boned guy and I figured he was just another of those blue collar types who worked down at the Goodyear plant or on the line making tractors at Massey-Ferguson.

One of the kind of men who worked hard and spent their leisure time watching hockey on TV and drinking in bars where the draft came in 15 cent glasses accompanied by a bag of chips and a pickled egg.

Then somebody told me he played in those bars and was some kind of cowboy-folkie who only played his own songs at a time when that wasn’t really in fashion.

He got his nickname from stamping his boots to keep time and carried a trademark sheet of plywood on stage because saloon keepers got tired of having to fix the floor every time he played a gig for them.

But I eventually heard Tom’s songs and the rest of the country soon became familiar with them too. The first time I saw him live, he was playing Toronto’s storied Massey Hall, famous for its perfect acoustics and legendary live concerts by Canadian icons like Glenn Gould, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot.

The crowd that night was less concerned with the acoustics than singing and stompin’ along to Tom’s string of home-grown hits. “Bud the Spud”, “Big Joe Mufferaw”, “Tillsonburg” and “Sudbury Saturday Night”. Songs about places, people and ways of life little known to most of us, but instantly recognizable by all who heard them.

His affection for his country and its people was infectious. And at a time when much of the country (and certainly Toronto) was determined to convince the rest of the planet just how sophisticated and “world class” we might be, Tom reminded us of who we really were.

Stompin’ Tom passed away today, leaving a final message to his fans which reads:

Hello friends,

I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin' Tom.

It was a long hard bumpy road, but this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit, driving me to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world.

I must now pass the torch, to all of you, to help keep the Maple Leaf flying high, and be the Patriot Canada needs now and in the future.

I humbly thank you all, one last time, for allowing me in your homes, I hope I continue to bring a little bit of cheer into your lives from the work I have done.

Sincerely,
Your Friend always,
Stompin' Tom Connors

For those who never had the pleasure, here’s a taste of what endeared Tom to so many –- concluding with the song that is this country’s unofficial national anthem…

 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Lazy Sunday # 262: The Master of Balance

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Imagine for a moment that you are Jean Pierre Blais, Chairman of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, our federal regulator of all things broadcast.

In the next few weeks you would have to rule on a revised plan for Bell to acquire Astral and become the owner of about half of everything on radio and television in this country while not threatening to put everybody else out of business.

You’d also have to referee a scrap between Astral and Quebecor Media over the latter’s launch of a French Canadian version of Netflix, something Astral’s suitor Bell already promised it would launch if its acquisition bid were successful yet apparently takes umbrage with Quebecor doing the same thing.

Then there will be an application from SunTV, the leaning in a different ideological direction news service to be a required part of basic cable services across the country. A move opposed by tens of thousands of interested members of the public –- and supported by an almost equal number of interveners.

At the same time, you’ll have to decide whether APTN (our aboriginal broadcaster) remains on that same “must-carry” slate while delivering its own Keanu Reeves and Val Kilmer heavy slate of movies featuring actors of aboriginal heritage.

Same decision has to be made about Vision TV, a one time multi-faith broadcaster now offering “Fawlty Towers” and “Columbo” re-runs to an aging Boomer audience between its Evangelicals and Mullahs.

Then there’s “Starlight”, another applicant for “must-carry” status promising a rebirth of Canadian film while offering a schedule chock full of Canadian “Classics” from more than 30 years ago.

I’m particularly looking forward to Starlight’s presentation of the Walt Disney feature “Running Brave” featuring American actor Robbie (whatever happened to him) Benson as US Olympic sprinter Billy Mills.

Starlight’s website lets us know that this film qualifies as “Canadian” because it was financed by Canadian Cree money and was the work of iconic director Don Shebib who removed his name after Disney re-edited the film behind his back.

So, you and/or Mr. Blais will have to decide whether Canadians will be pleased to see their cable bills increase in order to share such Cancon trivia around Tim Horton’s on a Saturday morning.

And maybe either of you might get somebody to explain why a movie with an aboriginal story isn’t on APTN instead of dubious 20 year old American Western series like “The Young Riders”.

But that’s the exasperatingly incomprehensible world of Canadian television and a reflection of the complicated balancing act Jean Pierre and his fellow commissioners have to accomplish.

They almost require this guy’s talents. And even then, it might not be enough.

Enjoy Your Sunday.