Homage or Theft?

24 08 2009

“He who is most creative conceals his sources the best.” – Anonymous

As I continue to write for Transylvania Television I’ve run into the problem of homage. The whole underlying twist of the show is that these monsters can reanimate dead TV shows and movies. Hell, the whole show is an homage to other great shows like News Radio, WKRP, and SCTV (and to a lesser extend The Muppet Show and Mystery Science Theater 3000).

The show is spoof. It’s parody. It’s homage.

But at what point is a writer just plain stealing from someone else?

I don’t mean line-by-line plagerism, of course, but if I was to parody The Deadliest Warrior, for instance (which is tits, by the way) and turn it into The Deadliest Monster, how do I keep it homage.

It’s all parody, I think, on a technical level. Search for Deadliest Warrior on YouTube and you’ll see a lot of riffs on it. People like these guys.

I suppose some would say it’s a parody if it’s funny, but I don’t think that’s always the case. First of all, funny is subjective. And second, sometimes parodies are so straight-faced and in character, just by playing it right down the middle, you get parody gold. This is sort of the Andy Kauffman approach to parody. Be one thing–something that’s not in and of itself funny–but do it so balls-out that it just magically becomes parody to people who realize (or at least believe) that it’s a parody. It’s strange, but I wonder if you could take someone who didn’t know who the president was, and you played them one of Obama’s speeches, or Bush’s speeches, with all their mannerisms and quirks, and you told them it was a parody, would they think it was hilarious?

I tend to think they would. Things become funny when people expect them to be funny. It’s a state of mind.

That’s all well and good, but getting back to the topic, does one ever cross the line into theft. Or, if not theft, creative laziness? I think there is a line, and it’s a good writer’s job to know when he’s crossed it.

Some of it is about frequency. How often are you leaning on other people’s humor as oppossed to your own?

Some of it is about motive. Are you doing this because it makes you laugh, or because you think it will be entertaining?

There’s a certain purity that comes with comedy, and is why it can’t be written by people without a sense of humor. Of course, there are other reasons that people without a sense of humor can’t write comedy. Mostly, it’s because they’re not funny.


Exo-Squad: The Best in Storytelling

26 05 2009

I think calling Exo-Squad “the American Anime” is a little silly, because I think Anime’s reputation for crack storytelling is a little overblown. A lot of anime’s are just a bit silly, but they get the reputation by not shirking the tough plots.

Exo-Squad, a ’90s after school cartoon epic, share’s this trait with anime, and thankfully doesn’t share the animation style. Not that American animation is particularly innovative, but I digress.

If you’ve never seen Ex0-Squad, it’s about a military unit fighting a war in a future in which Earth, Venus, and Mars have been attacked and dominated by neosapiens, man-made creatures created to serve. It’s your basic Battlestar Galactica plot, but if you didn’t like the strange turns B.G. made into the grandiose theology and philosophy realms, then you’ll dig this show, because it’s just straight up war fought by a whole bunch of exo-frames (think Riply at the end of Aliens).

I’m not going to go into too much analysis of the plot, because it’s been so long and my memories of childhood wonderment have proven, upon reexamination, to be mostly in my head. However I’m watching them all again, and with 5 episodes down, the show is still as good as it ever was in my memory.

The things they are brave enough to explore in this series, from resistance to collaborators, warfare, media culpability, peace-at-any-cost types, and genocide are pretty brave, and the best part is, kids handled it just fine. It was a shame it only played for two seasons, but the best part is, they completed the story in those two seasons, without rushing it.

The very last episode was meant to start a new epic arc, crossing the world over with the Robotech ‘verse, I think, but that never went anywhere, and honestly, I think that’s fine.

I’m bringing this up now because even though Season 1 of Exo-Squad has been available on Hulu.com for years, Season 2 was just recently put up as well, so now every amazing episode is online for free viewing.

Watch it with me? You won’t regret it.


The 10 Commandments of the prophet, Chuck Dixon

7 05 2009

I used to work a bit in comics, and was a big comic book fan. I never considered that I knew very much about the business of writing comics until someone wanting to get into the graphic novel scene asked me for advice at a wedding rehersal dinner recently, and I talked about it for over a half hour to a captivated audience. It’s amazing what you discover you know when you’re pressed to talk about it. That’s one of the reason I’m doing this blog.

The best piece of writing advice for comics, however, doesn’t come from me, it comes from longtime comic book writer, Chuck Dixon, who has written, and gives panels on the Ten Commandments of Comic Book Writing.

Get your story off and running.
Just the talking you need to put the point across.
They can be mixed major or minor action but there has to be something visual and in motion in your story.
Take pity on the penciller. Don’t make him draw something difficult over and over again.
Even Dr. Doom has his good points.
Even Batman can be aggravating or Robin self-centered.
If your character’s on a motorcycle crossing a bridge there’s no reason to state this in writing.
Keep your storytelling simple, basic, and easy to follow.
Something exciting or mysterious in that final panel. “It’s YOU!
Folks don’t pay good money for you to show off your college degrees. They want a good, fast paced story. Tell that story and get out of the way!

These are rules that should be tattooed onto the inner eyelids of every wannabe and professional comic book writer out there. In fact, you’d be surprised at the number of reasonably successful comic book writers out there who ignore some of these rules. Those writers, it goes without saying, are overpaid and overrated.

The best part about this is these rules, with only a little modification, are rules that every writer should follow in every genre. Even Commandment 4. Remember, the reader may not have to draw what you write, but they will have to imagine it, and overly complex scenery and machinations dull the effect. I’m a big fan of Age of Sail books, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve skipped over over-detailed, over-elaborate action description (or even details on the working of ships rigging) to get back to the story and the characters.

In fact, I really wish more book and movie writers would take a turn writing for the funny books. There’s no better lesson in pacing and visual storytelling available.

Thoughts on Suspense

5 05 2009

My Dad once told me two stories that both had a large effect on my outlook as it comes to passing on your knowledge. One story involved my godfather, who is a respected magician (my father is also a magician). My godfather was once giving a lecture on performance and got a question about how one deals with heckling. He gave his opinion on exactly how he handles hecklers. I asked my dad about it and he pointed out something very important. My godfather doesn’t usually perform in front of crowds, he’s a trick designer. So he never deals with hecklers.

Don’t give advice on something you don’t know about. It’s tacky.

Suspense is not something I usually write. Sure, there’s suspense in just about any story; that’s about good pacing and wit. But hardcore mystery/suspense isn’t something I’ve had much practice in, so I’m not going to give you tips or lectures or anything.

But I can give my thoughts, and share some interesting things I’ve found.

Suspense, to me, is when you let the audience fill in the blanks themselves. There’s an axiom in writing: show, don’t tell. It’s a good one. That is very important to pacing. But in that same context, suspense can be summed up as: don’t show or tell; imply. There will never be a special effect or movie scene that can come close to anything the human imagination can concoct. All you have to do as a creator is when you do show, when the pay off does come, to not let it be a let down.

Here’s J.J. Abrams talking about this much better than I ever could, in a TED lecture, The Mystery Box.

Suspense, to me, is when the audience is presented with possibilities. Yesterday I was watching an episode of South Park from season 12 in which Wendy challenges Cartman to a fight after school. South Park isn’t the go-to show when one thinks about suspense, but I was actually on the edge of my seat for a bit, because South Park is known for twists and being unpredictable. Reputation is important in suspense. Take M. Night Shaymalan. People consider his movies suspenseful, many of them are, but The Sixth Sense isn’t really that suspenseful because the unpredictability of it comes at the end. The Sixth Sense is what made Unbreakable so suspenseful.

Anyway, in South Park I wasn’t sure how this fight was going to end. The odds were that Wendy would beat up Cartman. But maybe Cartman beat up Wendy. After all, he’s got, like, 100lbs on her. Or maybe Stan would jump in there (they put out the possibility) and fight Cartman. Hell, Stan might fight Wendy. Double hell, aliens might land. I mean, it’s South Park. Who knows?

The point is, because of the story, and in part, because of the reputation, I was presented with multiple, different results, each viable. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, except I didn’t get to choose, of course. I was in suspense because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and because of that, I had to watch until I found out.

Suspense, to me, is when something in me wants to know what something is for. In my senior year of school, in Advanced Writing Class, we did presentations. Alison McGhee, the instructor, gave us each the option of doing a verbal report on an author or a literary element. Everyone in class (for years, I think) did an author, I did a literary element. I wasn’t trying to be impressive, I just don’t care about most authors, and when I learn about the ones I do like, I’m generally disappointed.

I did my presentation on Chekov’s Gun and the art of introducing things in literature. Chekov’s Gun literally refers to something Chekov said which sums up as if there’s a gun placed on the mantle in Act 1, it had better be fired in Act 3.

More broadly, don’t introduce an item, a character, or even an idea into a story unless you intend to use that later. There has to be a pay off. You can’t leave loose threads hanging around.

It’s not just out of good form, it’s about people’s expectations. They expect you to use that item later. This works to your advantage, because the introduction of that item becomes foreshadowing.

In the future I’ll have to remember to write a post about Harry Potter and the Proper Placement of Chekov’s Guns

So that’s what I do know, at least, and I’m passing it on.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second story my dad told me which affected my outlook.

…I don’t have a second story. I lied. It was just a lame attempt at creating suspense. You can do that too, if you’re lazy.

Transylvania Television and Going For the Dead Baby Gags

4 05 2009

My work on Transylvania Television continues. As of January I became head writer for the show, and as such everything filters through me before it gets to the showrunners. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. Creatively, it’s been going really well (getting hard to dedicated the time, though, but I will press on!), and the script output has increased a lot. We’ve lost some writers, but the team we have now is very talented, and I love their work. it’s a pleasure to do rewrites on it. I’ll have to make a post soon about rewriting a colleague’s work. For now, though, I’d like to revisit an older topic: being offensive.

The toughest thing about writing for TVTV is this edict that we have to be edgy. It was said in the first meeting that we wanted to be an adult show in the vein of South Park. In the year that followed, that didn’t really play out. At least not with me. Edgy is about pushing the envelope on what’s comfortable. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s supposed to “make you think” but it is supposed to make you pause. And being edgy is equal parts of testing people’s sensibilities, and digging on their preconceived notions.

It’s hard to write.

It’s easy to mess up.

Shock is not the same as edgy. Artists make this mistake all the time. They want their audience to feel something, and if they go balls out offensive and illicit shock, then they think they’ve made them feel something. There are two problems with this, however.

One – Shock is the only emotion they ever illicit. They ignore joy, sadness, peace, anger, envy, etc, which are all much better emotions, because those are the ones which have been so dulled with the information age.

Two – Uhh… shock isn’t an emotion, losers. Shock is the lack of emotion. Your brain sees something, overloads, and switches off. Worse yet, is switches the amygdala back to the lizard brain, which turns the viewer into an emotional “fight or flight” personality. I mean, do you get this? Shock actually de-evolves the mind.

I haven’t been writing anything particularly edgy since we’ve started. Oh, I’ll throw in a butt rape reference here or there because it makes me laugh, and that’s fine, but for the most part it’s been all I can do to keep the show from becoming a parody of a sitcom, complete with sitcom cliches.

The reason is because I’m pretty out of practice writing edgy things. Luckily, however, that stuff comes back with practice.

Half the point of a writers meeting is to try to make the other people laugh, even if you’re not scripting, just screwing around. You can tell all the crass and offensive jokes you want around a writers’ table. The easiest way to know if you’re pitching something shocking or something edgy is to gage the reactions. If the immediate gut reaction is uncontrolled laughing, it’s edgy. Put it in a script. If the reaction is nothing, or pensive in some way, shitcan the idea, because you’re not doing any favors.

The main thing, I think, is to explore humor and ideas, and let the filtering be done, by you or someone else, later, because sometimes even edgy isn’t exactly smart.

And, of course, some things aren’t even exactly edgy, they’re just flippin’ funny, like the occasional dead baby gag.

Context is important, though. Dead baby jokes on Friends doesn’t work. Dead baby jokes on South Park are fine. 5/8ths of context is audience expectation.

Understanding and respecting source material

1 05 2009

There’s a Solomon Kane movie being made. Solomon Kane is one of my all time favorite characters, and it goes without saying that Hollywood isn’t interested in source material as much as it is im marketability. That’s fine and it’s something that writers have to understand. In fact, it’s why we should keep marketability in mind when writing. However, one can make changes to the source material all they want, as long as they stay true to the characters and concept. There is no sin in this. The new Star Trek movie is a perfect example. It changes a lot, but Kirk is still Kirk, etc. When you stray from the premise, and when you don’t understand the source characters, not only will your project fail, but it may as well be considered theft.

There is no similarity between Howard’s Solomon Kane, and this movie’s Solomon Kane, save for the name and the funny hat. In effect, someone stole the name and the funny hat for their own, entirely different character, and that’s sad.

Here is the summary of the new Solomon Kane:

Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. CAPTAIN SOLOMON KANE is a brutally efficient 16th Century killing machine. Armed with his signature pistols, cutlass and rapier, he and his men unleash their bloodlust as they fight for England in war after war on all continents. As the story opens, Kane and his men are carving a bloody path through hordes of defenders of a city in northern Africa. But when Kane decides to attack a mysterious nearby castle to plunder its rumored riches, things start to get strange. It turns out that the castle is inhabited by evil demons but Kane and his men push on deeper into the keep, hell-bent for of treasure. His men are picked off one by one and eventually Kane is left alone facing down a ten-foot beast … THE REAPER. The demon tells Kane that he’s come from Hell specifically to get him. Though Kane manages to escape the demon, he knows that he must redeem himself by renouncing violence and living a life of peace and purity. It isn’t long before his newfound spirituality is tested when he journeys across an England ravaged by diabolical human raiders who fight under the command of a terrifying, masked Overlord. When he fails to stop the slaughter of a family that has befriended him, Kane vows to free their daughter, who has been enslaved—even if it means putting his own soul in peril by renouncing his vow of peace. His search brings him face to face with the brother he thought dead and the evil sorcerer who has manipulated him for his own ends. In the process of saving the girl and defeating the magician, Kane learns that he has been saved from the Reaper in order to fulfil a new destiny—to defend the innocent and fight evil wherever it may occur.

This is an origin story explaining how Solomon Kane became who he was. It is utterly unnecessary to the viewer, just as it was unnecessary to the reader. Solomon Kane is a puritan and holy warrior. He’s cut from the Oliver Cromwell cloth. He’s not about God’s love, he’s about God’s wrath. He’s a killer, but he’s a just killer. Nothing is mentioned about why he’s the way he is, and if I had to guess, I’d say he didn’t suffer any major tragedy. He’s not crazy. He was never crazy. He’s simply a believer. A very zealous believer.

In fact, it does Kane a disservice to explore his emotions and motives, because questioning the nature of reality, and his world view is the cornerstone of some of the best Solomon Kane stories. For instance, he stumbles upon an African village where witchdoctors are able to possess other people and reanimate the dead. This so completely blows Kane away that he actually travels with a fetish staff, something demonic in his opinion, to remind himself that he doesn’t fully understand the world, no matter what his experiences are. That’s powerful.

There’s this pathetic fashion in todays entertainment that we either have to know (and justify) precisely why someone kills, and we so limit the acceptable excuses. He can kill because he’s because he’s greedy, because he’s crazy, or because he’s in some kind of emotional pain that excuses (if not justifies) his actions. That’s about it.

Take the punisher. There have been two recent Punisher movies, with two different takes on why the punisher kills bad guys. The first was because he was in emotional pain. His family was killed, and he wanted revenge, and to avenge their deaths. This movie was a failure, and this is not why The Punisher kills bad guys.

The second movie I didn’t see. I heard it was fun, but not a good movie, and the Punisher came across cartoonish and, well, basically crazy. There are two possibilities here. One, that the makers did intend for him to come across as crazy, which is not the reason the Punisher kills. The other possibility is they nailed the reason the Punisher kills, and the elitist, sensitive, pansy movie critics couldn’t fathom the reason, so they just assumed he was crazy. I really hope it’s the latter.

The Punisher kills because… wait for it… he’s punishing killers. Duh. The world is better off without the bad guys in it, so he kills them. He’s not motivated by revenge, or grief. What happened to his family should never happen to anyone else, and he does his part to make that dream come true. That’s it. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s visceral. And it’s completely over the heads of most creative writers today. They think the concept is overly-simplistic, black and while, immature, whatever. No, it’s not. It’s just something they don’t understand.

Solomon Kane is the same way. He kills bad guys because they deserve it. That’s it. Understand it. Respect it. And then write about what that’s so intersting, because it really, really is interesting.

Real quick update

27 02 2009

One big problem with trying to update something regularly is that if you miss and update, the next update needs to be bigger to accomodate all the information, but that leaves it a more daunting task. Keep putting it off and then the task becomes crushing. So lets skip that and sum up for now.

Episodes 3-5 of LeShoc Goes Online is up, as well as a brand new YouTube channel and I’ m really happy with the progress.

I’ve also taken on two pretty cool jobs at TVTV. One, I’m in charge of the social media aspect, getting people on YouTube and Twitter and the like, which is really interesting and deserves many blog posts all on their own.

The second thing is I’m been promoted to head writer, which is also amazingly cool and needs a post all on its own.

That’s it for now. All is well. More soon.