Devising Narrative Structures, Day 5

I’m fast, I know. I managed to turn these puppies around in…a month. Wow. So anyhow, the fifth and final day of Paul Wells’ course was mostly spent working on our projects, which were to be about 4 characters who had an effect on each other (after the animation ‘Four’ we’d seen previously). We worked in pairs, and Christopher Huizar and I collaborated. There were also some mini-lectures on the basics of storyboarding and event analysis.

From a Ren and Stimpy storyboard, courtesey of

From a Ren and Stimpy storyboard, courtesey of

Each storyboard panel should depict a dominant story point. Each panel should also have plenty of space around it to indicate actions within the frame, actions outside the frame, dialogue, and notes, such as points from event analysis, the color script, etc. Since we were working in a super sped-up way on stories we’d come up with really fast, during a prior 10-minute exercise, I personally found it difficult to integrate these layers of analysis and meaning onto our storyboard, while also trying to figure out what the dominant story points were for said storyboard. Now collaboration is a great thing, and some of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on have been collaborations. But collaboration never shortens the amount of time it takes to do a project. In fact the opposite it true: always lengthens it. So Christopher and I went round and round trying to figure out what our actual story was, which was time not spent on setting it into storyboard panels and layering the other information around them.

Paul went over the definitions of ‘blocking’ and ‘performance point’. When a director says to an actor, “Enter the room. Sit on the chair. Show nervousness,” the blocking is the “Enter the room. Sit on the chair” part, and the performance point is “show nervousness.” The same blocking could have a different performance point, e.g. “show confidence.” This is theater 101, I’m sure, but having never studied theater, it was news to me, and a handy way of looking at action.

Once you have some potential scenes, you address them through these core questions:
1. Description of the scene. What happens? Which characters are involved? (The psychology of the character is revealed only out of what happens.)
2. External event. What happens that is the definitive development of the plot? What moves the story forward?
3. Internal event. What happens in the scene that is a definitive movement of each of the characters in the scene?
4. What the action means for the screenwriter. This is a ‘stepping back’ question. What is happening in the story? What emotional response are you looking to evoke? If you can’t answer this satisfactorily, then go back to Qs 1, 2, and 3.
5. What the event means for the audience. (meaning viewer or reader) What does it mean for them in terms of information, understanding, and emotional response?

Kitchen fight scene from The Incredibles

Kitchen fight scene from The Incredibles

We then looked at a scene from The Incredibles in light of these questions. Every scene needs a hinge that turns it and moves the plot forward. The scene we watched depicted family dinner table chaos in which most of the action was taken up by the mother trying hard (and failing) to enforce a “no superpowers” policy amongst her fighting children. The hinge was a quieter moment when the father opens the paper and finds an article that piques his interest, and causes him to lie to the family when he leaves with a friend.

Next there was a mini-lecture on THE ANIMATION EVENT
Paul kept coming back to the question of what can animation do, that can’t be done in live action? It’s fine to take from live-action theory, but in what ways is animation different, and in what ways does the theory need to be expanded or adjusted to accommodate this?

Examples are:
- A phase of imagined motion for it’s own sake. It may take on narrative purchase, but it can be for its own sake.
- A sequence of choreographed emotive images, e.g. a contrast of fantasy and reality.
- A dramatized scene that contains something not possible in live action, e.g. a mythic character.

One problem that Christopher and I had with the story we were trying to develop into a storyboard was that it could easily be shot as a live action film. We had to search for ways to give it attributes that could only happen in animation.

(I have to admit my notes start to not make much sense at this point. My brain was full. So I will transcribe them verbatim.)

Q1. What happens in the phase/images/scene under observation? How might its intrinsic action be described and how does it specifically relate to the methodology of process and visualization in general?

Q2. What is the key narrative development in the phase/images/scene? Animation trusts color, line, form, etc. How can the sequence progress?

Q3. What is the core punctum (from Barthes) of the sequence, and how does it advance its presence and effect? Barthes’ punctum refers to the key point of attraction in the image, and in this context might be a character, a form, a pictorial event, a visual gag, etc.

Q4. Asks the same kind of questions [as what, I'm not sure]. How far are you using the language of animation? I.e. metamorphosis, condensation, symbols, associative relations, sound, etc.”

Q5. Who is your principal audience?

As Christopher and I progressed (or failed to progress) with our story, Paul reminded us to differentiate the central story motivation from the core story event. The central story motivation is what motivates the four  characters in the story to come together. In our case it was an outdoor tuba concert. I won’t go into why a cyclist, an indie music blogger, a truck driver, and a tubist had to be there, but we spend the better part of our work time getting those details sorted out. The core story event, on the other hand, is the crash between the truck driver and the cyclist. This causes 1. the cyclist to die, 2 the driver to be devastated 3. The tubist to play the saddest tuba music in the world, and 4. the indie music blogger to write a heartfelt, instead of cynical piece. So the central story motivation gets them to the scene, and the core story event changes each one of them in a different way.

Looking back, perhaps I should change my opinion of how the last day went. We actually progressed quite far with our story, we just didn’t get it down into a nice storyboard in time for the presentation to the class at the end of the day. I think if we’d slept on it, and come back to the storyboard refreshed the next day, we would have popped one out. However, we still struggled to nail down how to work in the language of animation. Our story could have been shot in live action. Our ideas for how to work in the language of animation were mostly fine, but seemed to add in merely a decorative element, (e.g. a dreamy surreal sequence of visuals during the playing of the saddest tuba music) and as such could become contrived. I wished there was something central to our story that could only have been done via animation.

I also struggled with meaning. The story we were proposing was not going to re realized. We were pulling ideas out of thin air with no thought as to how we’d pull them off technically, or to budget, time, etc. As such it remained an academic exercise, and that keep tripping me up. Not that anything could be done about that in a course of such short duration, but it did give me pause. We’d have an idea, and I’d think, “wait, no, that’s too hard to do.” Then I’d think, “Hang on, that doesn’t matter. We’re not going to actually do it.” Then I’d think, “Well then why should I try and find the perfect solution?”

Perhaps I’ve been a web designer for too long. Too many years in charge of projects from start to finish, with budgets, subcontractors, client expectations, and ongoing technical developments to keep in mind at all times! It was certainly hard to let go and just make up a project that had no real-world constraints. My brain is indeed full. I need to rinse it out.

Devising Narrative Structures, Day 4

Yes, it’s been more than three weeks since the course finished, but, it is what it is.

Day 4 began with a brief overview of Bruce Block’s model of visual storytelling. Now Bruce Block is a narrative designer/film producer/creative consultant who teaches at USC’s school of Cinematic Arts. He’s the author of  The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media. I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Block last year, hosted by Cascade Siggraph, and I was excited to revisit the material again. (And I just came across this interview with him.)

From Visual Storytelling, by Bruce Block

From Visual Storytelling, by Bruce Block

Block’s model of visual stortytelling is based on live action. Paul Wells has adapted it for animation. The following is from my notes:

Much building of narrative is about associative relations, literal and abstract. There are six areas of visual communication that you can work with to build a story, without relying on text or dialogue. They are embedded in our thinking. The key is to use the consciously. Be aware of visual tropes and reconsider them with intention.

Within animation, the six areas of visual communication are:
- space
- line & shape
- tone (what I call value: lightness or darkness)
- color
- movement
- rhythm

Deep: offers compositional opportunities. background and foreground issues.
Limited: we saw a short film in which there were 27 loops of behavior happening in a small, kitchen-like space. I think it was called ‘Tango’.
Ambiguous: Paul Driessen’s films use this. E.g. ‘The boy who saw the iceberg’.
Flat: used in a lot of 2D animation, e.g. SouthPark, and Stacey Steers.

Paul talked in general about line and shape’s relationship to space, objects, and surface. E.g. Felix the Cat is a cat and a changeable graphic mark. The code of conventions set up around him allows the creator to manipulate him via his line and shape in ways you can’t do with live action. (See previous examples, e.g. Felix morphs his tail into other objects.) The animator sets up the logic of the world within the animation. Populist forms often played with deconstructing the frame space. Tex Avery (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc.) liked to play with this, e.g. draw a character running past the edges of the film holes, as if they could move in or out of the frame within which they existed. Also, anime has conventions around how line and form carry symbolic representations. Then there are the animators who use line for its own aesthetic pleasure, and draw directly onto film. E.g. Rose Bond‘s early work.

In animation, we draw a huge amount of information from visual tropes. Minimal iconographic information can do a lot. E.g. a triangle head with ears on top signals ‘cat’, even if the creature has two arms and two legs and may be walking upright.

Jessica Rabbit

Jessica Rabbit

But iconic shortcuts can be problematic, e.g. the way beautiful women a drawn extra-curvy. (Recall Jessica Rabbit’s “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” in Who framed Roger Rabbit.)

One of the chief converors of mood, tone (value) can be very persuasive on a narrative level. The play of light and dark can signal environment, relationships, and responses.

Subdivided into Hue, Saturation, Brightness (I would call this value again. I.e. degree of darkness or lightness).
Color Interaction – how the tension between colors can help with the construction of mening within the image.
Color Symbolism – e.g. ethereal blues for dream sequences. Hitchcock’s use of color symbolism in Vertigo came up.Then there is also use of color and form for its own sake, to express the dynamics of feeling abstractly.

From Waltz with Bashir

From Waltz with Bashir

Yuri Norstein’s  Tale of Tales, which draws from Rembrandt, is an example of a fine art model being used for lighting and color. Also, Waltz with Bashir is a great example of the use of color (and tone) for narrative effect.

The color script is a sequential map of the colors used during the main events of a script. When I googled the phrase, I kept getting a color map of Pixar’s ‘Up’, which seems to be simply a collage of frames from the film. But the example Paul showed us was much more interesting, if not as–colorful. It was from Halas and Batchelor’s 1954 film Animal Farm, and it listed the main events across the top, then down the side were tension, mood, music, color, time of day, time of year, and maybe other variables. A graph was plotted showing the relative rise and fall of these variables, as they changed from event to event. This kind of graph was used in Bruce Block’s work, too, so I’m guessing it’s an industry standard. However, I’m having trouble locating an example online. Perhaps I’m using the wrong phrase when I search.

Movement carries a lot of narrative weight. Movement happens in and through the frame. We looked at fire in Fantasia, and the fighting-with-skeletons sequence in Jason and the Argonauts. Virile Games, by Jan Svankmeyer is an example of movement for narrative and symbolic effect. Football is represented lyrically, like ballet, but embeds violence and brutality in play and spectatorship.

There was an interesting digression about cultural norms/expectations. A lot of anime apparently ignores historical chronology, and this comes out of the different approach Japanese animators have. American animators usually work on story, then characters, then design. Japanese animators tend to work of design first, then characters, then story. It makes a difference in that when you’re working on the design idioms, you’re not necessarily designing for a purpose. Anime prefers to come up with a design that it then populates. Does any type of animation begin with character? Apparently children’s animation does. (I found this particularly interesting after studying creative writing for a few years, in which character, not plot, is considered the critical, central element of literary fiction. “You only need enough plot to hang your characters on” is an oft-repeated adage. Which takes me straight to something a Dutch friend said once about American fiction: “A lot of it’s very well written, but what is it about?” — a digression I won’t get into further here…)

beep beep!

beep beep!

This can be visual, auditory, or felt. In terms of pacing, you can use different rhythmic models. E.g. the typical model of alternation used during a chase scene can be freshened by changing the oppositional variation. Beavis and Butthead uses repetition a lot.  Some animators use speed, temp and timing to effect. Contrast Text Avery, in whose work which speed is key, with Bill Plympton’s 25 ways to quit smoking, in which pauses and delay serve to intensify the gags.

While this was discussed under ‘rhythm’, it seems to be important enough for it’s own headline. Cause and effect is a traditional narrative device. Fine-art animation often undermines cause and effect, and keeps it fragmentary. Films that combine traditional (continuous) and non-traditional (fragmented) cause and effect are interesting. Miazaki‘s anime films apparently do this.

Contrast and affinity need not be only related to light and color. You can also contrast (or affine (new word?)) concepts, space, value, subject, movement, and so on. In fact (and this is something I came away from Bruce Block’s lecture last fall) it is the increase of contrast in some or all areas of the visual elements that works to convey the narrative as it hits  points of intensity. E.g. in a film you might use a lot of neutral hues at the beginning, but during emotional moments you can introduce a bright color or two, then during the final climax you can go all out with clashing colors. Maybe a a bit of a heavy-handed example, but you get the point. And it’s these changes of contrast that get plotted on script maps.
Waltz with Bashir uses tonal contrast with huge success. I have only seen the trailers online, but watching how he causes shadows to pass over people is quite wonderful.

My notes from this one are sketchy. Something to do with “middle eastern” composition used in Azur and Asmar, AKA The Price’s Quest. Plus the quote from Michele Ocelot, “What is important is that our work makes the audience intelligent”. Which is not to suggest the audience starts out unintelligent, but that the work stimulates them.
Also we learned that the famous Beatles film Yellow Submarine was very hard to animate. It was based on the graphic style of a famous designer who wasn’t an animator. Hence, it was never influential in animation.

Devising Narrative Structure – Day 3

felix-2-inkToday we looked at examples of two more from the list of ‘dominant models of narrative’. Firstly, Multiple perspectives on a single incident was represented by the Slovenian film ‘Four’. (Which I can’t find of the web). There’s a core incident – the climax, and we see developments towards this climax four times, each through the point of view of a different character. The characters are related to each other in some way, and to the climax. Variations on this structure can be seen in live action films such as Beautiful People, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.

We then paired off (me with Christopher Huizar) to devise a narrative based on 1 core event, with three characters for whom the event is meaningful. While also considering what animation could bring to the story the live action filming could not. Christopher and I got going with a truck/bicycle crash. Trick driver, cyclist, and witness who inadvertently causes the distraction that causes the crash.

picture-5We also looked at the narrative model of the list-led set of relationships to a core topic. For example, Portland animator Bill Plympton’s 25 Ways To Quit Smoking. We also watched a great piece by Nikki Braine called Procrastinating Gus. Our paired-up response to this one was ‘How to Fake Technical Proficiency’. But early on we concluded that the list we were coming up with was more about language, and would be challenging to express with images. Unlike Plympton’s ‘Smoking’, which is one sight gag after another. So when were were given the choice of which of the two exercises to pursue over the final two days, Christopher and I decided to go with the 1-story 3-POV one.

Then we talked at length about moral dilemmas. Starting with the chestnut example in which one imagines various numbers and types (friends, strangers, drunks, surgeons) of people lying on train tracks, and the train is coming and you can not stop it but you can flip the switch to run over the folks on track A or track B…you know the kind of thing. Comes up in ethics 101 and other places. Anyhow, characters’ agency is the key point, and that you can build a story on a moral dilemma, and have it play out based on the characters and their levels of agency. So the next exercise was to construct a set-up of a situation that presents a moral dilemma, then develop two tracks of problematizing from the one dilemma. I.e. answering ‘yes’ leads you down one track, which gets progressively more complex to answer ‘yes’ to, and same with answering ‘no’. Bag of money found at a bus stop was our starting point. It got more interesting when we gave the money-finder some significant backstory. Anyhow, moving on…

One interesting point that came out, as we were discussing ambivalent reactions (e.g. “I’d keep some of the money but hand the rest back…”) is that drama is driven by specific responses. You go one way or another, when faced with a dramatic choice. So muddying the response is not a great way to create drama. Comedic drives, however, often hinge on complications. If you were creating a dark comedy around the finding of cash by a sympathetic protagonist, introducing ambivalent responses would work. A lot of contemporary storytelling plays with ambivalence.

Then we looked at some major themes, such as desire for justice, fear of the unknown, self-discovery, etc. And tomorrow we continue our work on our multiple-perspective stories.

The late afternoon session was a lecture by Larry Sherman, a neuroscientist at OHSU. How the Brain Sees Motion: From the Static to the Animated Image.

Dr. Sherman did a good job of presenting the material to us lay people in a way that removed the jargon but presented the fascinating aspects of the latest findings in neuroscience. There was a compeling list of agnosias, the specificity of which point to neuroanatomical specificity is handling different type of information. A person with Drawing Agnosia, for instance, can recognize objects just fine, but cannot recognize the same object in a drawing. Achromatopsia robs a person of the ability to distinguish hues, even thought they can see perfectly well otherwise. There are distinct areas in the brain the light up in fMRI studies when the subject views or thinks about faces. And another area for bodies. And another area for houses, would you believe! There is a ‘house’ slot in the brain.

Dr. Sherman also talked about the limbic system, and in detail about how visual perception works, and how much data is processed in the eye before is gets to the occipital lobe, and the what goes on with it once it’s there.

The area of the brain that processes motion is called hMT+ . It’s very small. Damage to this area prevents you from seeing things in motion. Kind of the opposite to those reptiles that can only see something if it’s moving. The speaker cited a case where a woman woke up one day (presumably after a stroke) and found she could not see the coffee pot in her hand. She could feel it, but because it was in motion it was invisible to her. Then she was pouring coffee on herself and she couldn’t see it. She’d see a car in the distance, then step out onto the road, and suddenly the car was right there. So moving things she saw as still objects, a few seconds apart, with no ‘frames’ in between. I can’t imagine how you’d adapt to this. You wouldn’t be able to see your own body unless you kept still.

Then Dr. Sherman showed us some MEAs, motion after effects. Like how you stare at a red spot for 30 seconds, then at a white wall and you see a green ghostly shape, but this was with motion. He showed us a spiralling black and white animation, after which we looked at the back of our hand. The flesh was crawling of its own accord. Visually, of course – not really, but the effect was stong enough to creep me out and make me hind may hand. A motion after effect.

Today the workshop started to feel harder. Paul Wells, such an entertaining and buoyant (one of his favorite words) teacher, is speaking less now, and getting us to work more. Plus it’s an intense course: 8 hours a day for 5 days. For the record, The faculty at the Animation Institute are Rose Bond, Suzanne Buchan, Paul Vester, and Paul Wells.

More tomorrow…

Devising Narrative Structures: Day 2

imagesAnother great session with Paul and the class today. We began by finishing off yesterday’s exercise in storytelling without dialogue or text. Most stories are driven by language, but what if you drive the process through visuals? Based on the Aristotelian structure, the project was to come up with a story told visually in 6 frames. This following would make more sense with visual examples, which I don’t have. But I can outline one of the examples that was given us.

1.    Set the scene containing a character, with maximum suggestion using minimum of imagery. (Drawing skills were not important: stick figures would do.)
Sad man sits alone in empty room with tiny scrawny Christmas Tree.

2.    Second character enters and establishes a relationship with the first character. The second character must have what Paul Wells calls ‘animation quality’ – i.e. it must have or do something that could not be achieved if you were shooting this story as live action.
Santa Clause flies in through the door. The sad man is startled out of his chair.

3.    Something happens between the two characters. An exchange takes place that develops the narrative.
Santa gives the sad man a wrapped gift.

4.    One or both characters has an emotional reaction to what just happened.
As Santa leaves, the sad man is so happy and grateful he is kneeling on the floor, praying, with tears of gratitude.

5.    Preparation for the conclusion. Something happens that looks back on the foreshadowing that occurred earlier. This frame may be used for suspense/postponement. Or it may extend the nature of the exchange or emotional reaction.
Formerly sad, but now excited man starts unwrapping the gift.

6.    Conclusion of the implied relationship that was set up through the exchange. Revelation of that which was foreshadowed.
Sad man is in back in his chair, and back to being sad. He holds a badminton racquet in his hand. He’s assembled the gift: A badminton set with racquets, net, shuttlecock. But he has no one to play with.

Sounds simple, right? IT IS NOT SIMPLE. It was amazingly hard to come up with a story in 6 frames, using no dialogue, based on an exchange between two characters, in which what happens at the end is set up and foreshadowed earlier. And that isn’t just plain stupid. After 9 attempts I came up with a story that involved a confident seed, and a malevolent mower.

Some other points from yesterday:
Philip Parker’s Creative Matrix of a screenplay contains 6 free-floating components:
theme, story, form, genre, style, and plot
At any time any two can be linked for emphasis. E.g. genre (western) gets redetermined by style (comedy) in Blazing Saddles. And gets redetermined by theme (gay love) in Brokeback Mountain.

But Paul Wells thinks the matrix of an animation is different, because the mechanisms are different, because the whole economy of a film is embedded in early choices. Unlike live action filming, with animation you can’t make a whole bunch of material and edit it down. It’s just too labor intensive. You have to plan major choices ahead. The choice of technique, to begin with, will have a huge effect on subsequent choices. 2D stop motion using collage? Claymation? Flash?

Animation’s inherent ability to pass on metaphor and symbol invites people in. We are more inclined to watch a short piece about an anthropomorphized lamp playing with a ball, than we are to watch a similar piece involving a child playing with a ball. The audience immediately asks questions in a way that makes the work accessible.

The language of animation includes:
-  MetamorphosisThe ability to facilitate the change from one form to the next without edit. This generates a different model of storytelling.

-  Condensationthe maximum degree of suggestion with the minimum of imagery. E.g. focused gestures suggest particular things, and drive narrative precision.

-  Anthropomorphism - the imposition of human traits on animals, objects, and environments. Such characters often take on dominant traits. E.g Goofy is the empathetic amateur at sports. This gives a very direct way of understanding human behavior, by abstracting it into the non-human.

-  Fabrication – the physical and material creation of imagery, figures, and spaces. Built worlds create their own limits and currencies. These limits make for a clarity of impact of the story.

-  Penetration (term from John Hallis in the 1940s) – the visualization of psychological, physical, and technical ‘interiors’. E.g. animation can clarify something extremely complicated and mysterious, such as the workings of the human body. It can also easily represent dream, memory, and imagination. Can represent primal dynamics.

-  Symbolic association – the use of abstract visual signs and their related meanings. E.g. Felix the Cat pulls off his tail and it becomes a banjo that he plays. Or he pulls down two castle turrets, scoops up clods in them, and gives on to a lady he is wooing.

-  Soundthe illusionist stimulus and catalyst. Unlike film, where sound is driven by the primacy of dialogue and/or music, with animation you start with no diagetic sound. Whatever choices you make about sound will support the telling of the story.

Okay, we also talked about sources (prompts) modes of association, and the ’6 panel theater’ exercise was begun. But if I write all that out it will take me all night.

TODAY we talked about satisfaction. And about the 3-act structure (related to the 6-frame theater). Also Jacques Rancière‘s “ideaism” and “matterism”. “Regimes of visibility” and “Planes of intelligibility”. But that was only briefly, and pretty soon we were back on the ground in Paul Wells’ more straightforward analysis or what’s what. Then we discussed the 5 dominant models of narrative and looked at examples of a couple of them.
1. multiple perspectives of a single incident
2. list-led related events to a core topic
3. transitional narratives based on metamorphoses and associations
4. Single Scenario (e.g. John and Karen by Matthew Walker)
5. Character-led vignettes (e.g. Harvie Krumpet by Adam Elliot)

(John and Karen was wonderful. The clip on Walker’s site is not the whole piece, unfortunately. Harvie Krumpet was overambitious and required more empathy than it delivered. Was it’s Oscar win a pity vote, because it’s about marginalized people?)

Scene from John and Karen, by Matthew Walker

Scene from John and Karen, by Matthew Walker

THEN in a separate session, we discussed the very term animation, what it meant, what it includes. And that it is used to describe such a huge range of cultural production that maybe it has become meaningless. We also discussed its relationship to the term ‘cartoon’. And its relationship with art. I knew there was some contention in these areas, but I had no idea how much.

I suggested we revisit the root of the word, ‘anima’ – the soul, suggesting that to be animated is to be ‘ensouled’. Live action figures move under their own volition. Sure they’re following a script, but they are propelling themselves. They have cognition, sentience, and so on. When a figure (whether human or not) is animated, it is given qualities that make it seem to come alive. But it is not moving under its own volition. So animation is creating the illusion of aliveness, of ensoulment (Not meant in the Catholic sense, of course).

And we discussed that cartoons are not opposed to animation, as some fine-art animators think. Cartoons are rather a subset of animation. What defines that subset, though? The jury is still out on that. We got to a point where we were considering whether animation as an umbrella term could even include live action. Huh. Interesting idea.

Also, at what point does one draw the line? Is a CGI’d explosion in a live-action film animation? Do we still want to make a distinction between hand-crafted animation and that done digitally? And if my definition is correct, that animation is the illusion of ‘ensouling’ something to make it move and seem alive, then should I include the life-size animatronic Santa Clause I saw outside a thrift store on my way home? He was heavily dressed in the brilliant evening sun, waving his stiff mechanical arm back and forth. Next to him was a female mannequin sprawled in a pose that was probably supposed to be sexy. Together they were a splash of red velvet and white fake fur, doing their repetitive unseasonal dance for passers by. The mannequin stared at me through the bus window, and for a creepy moment they seemed to be really alive.

In retrospect


Sunset over east coast USA, 11/04/04

Sunset over east coast USA, 11/04/04

Four years ago today I flew over this county. Bush had won again. I looked down on the land passing below me in bitter shock. For some dumb reason I thought reason would prevail in the 2004 election. I thought Americans would look at all the things that had gone wrong, all the impeachables, all the destruction, and go nope, you can’t fool us again. The sun set during my flight, and I watched the darkening land and wondered where the hell I was living. In a bubble, apparently. The liberal, educated bubble of Portland, Oregon. (Or, as dubbed by Bush senior after a particularly unwelcome visit, ‘Little Beirut‘.)

Fall 2004 was one of the busiest times of my life. I was teaching at PNCA, while also trying to work out a way to live life differently from the highly-stressed and underpaid existence of a 4/5ths-time college professor. I was on my way to Baltimore, to present a paper on the Efficacy of Political Art at a conference at MICA. My head was full of those clever anti-Bush videos, ironic Photoshop collages, and witty propaganda posters that were flying round the Internet at the time. We’ll never be able to measure their effect, of course, whether they contributed in some way to a shift in attitude — or maybe they reflected a change in attitude that was waiting in the wings. But they did keep some of us from going insane during those dark days.

Four years later I am looking back on the second anniversary of launching into full self-employment, the first anniversary of running a successful web design studio with collaborator Jimmy Thomas, and a likely Obama landslide. (Which, with my new status as an American, I helped along a little.)  I am now a business owner during a shaky economy.  Blue Mouse Monkey had grown exponentially the year before, and this year with the slowing economy and word of layoffs all around, I am grateful our work remains steady.

Hey, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s going to be better.

The Yes Men

Early September means TBA-time, and this year my subversive theater heroes The Yes Men came town.  The Yes Men impersonate the World Trade Organization through their satirical website — so effectively that on several occasions they’ve been invited to international trade meetings, where they say outlandish things and yet often get taken seriously.  A movie about the Yes Men’s exploits came out in 2003, and they’re working on another one.  This dull photo of their workshop at PNCA doesn’t do justice to these creative tricksters.  But it was very cool to meet them!

The Yes Men Workshop at PNCA

The Yes Men Workshop at PNCA