Life of a Stick


  • Category Archives Movies
  • Story Lessons from a Hero

    I recently finished watching the TV series Heroes. I’ve always been a fan of superhuman abilities — flying, shapeshifting, super strength. Seeing a world and its stories with these concepts was interesting, especially since it had a “real world” touch on it.

    This blog post is specifically about what I learned about writing and story/character design from the series. Mostly because of the parts I didn’t like, and the parts that were downright painful to watch.

    First, the character’s motivations.

    Often times, the character’s goals and motivations were unclear. From what I can tell, they were trying to make the characters more “human.” The evil was done for good reasons, the good could do bad things. But most of the time it came off to me as characters being indecisive or flip-flopping.

    I previously wrote a blog post about How To Make Goals Work For You. The point of the post was to say that every action people make has a goal or reason behind it, whether the person making the choice is aware of what their goals are or not.

    In the real world, people’s goals flop. Often they don’t have a solid vision on what it is they want at all times. They fall prey to temptation, they change their mind on a whim. Not everyone is like that, but it’s something that happens in real life. It’s not something you see often in movies and stories — unless it’s specifically portrayed as such — because it’s confusing and makes it difficult to understand the person. I had trouble understanding a lot of the characters early on because their motivations weren’t explained and kept changing.

    To reiterate, the lesson here is simple. A character needs clear motivations and goals. We need to know what they’re fighting for. Their goal may even be to find a goal, or to stay with a goal they want. Without that, the story turns bland and lifeless.

    Deliberate missing goals? With secondary characters, the main bad guy, or if you’ve got a dozen main characters? Keeping a few a mystery is fun and interesting. Gives you more to reveal later. But it needs to be a deliberate choice, and it needs to be designed so it works.

    Second, goal depth.

    If someone has a goal they don’t want others to be aware of — they’re trying to hide their goal — they do an action that works with multiple goals in mind. You then need to see multiple actions of theirs in order to cross-reference what their actual goals are.

    Let’s say there are three levels of motivation/goals that a character may have: Surface, Underlying, and Secret.

    A surface goal is exactly what it appears to be — a very obvious goal. Someone is hungry, they go and buy a burger.

    An underlying goal is something that’s not so obvious. Someone is hungry, so they grab some peanuts to snack on. But they’re allergic to peanuts, so their underlying goal could be attention, suicide, or whatever else the writer thinks is interesting enough to write into the story.

    A secret goal is where you end up with twists in the story, as a secret goal is never properly revealed until it’s too late (or just in time, if it’s a happy ending).

    Third, communication and intelligence.

    Many parts of Heroes felt like the writers said, “this event needs to happen,” and then they threw a couple characters together to interact, and made sure they didn’t say just what needed to be said to resolve their conflict, and had them fight or separate on poor terms.

    It was downright painful to watch.

    A single sentence could have solved everything, but the character would say everything but what needed to be said.

    This problem plagues Walking Dead even more than it plagues Heroes. It makes perfect sense in Walking Dead — it’s dripping with emotion, and emotion can cloud logic and result in some bad choices. You’ve also got the aspect of children, or simply low intelligence players. But in Heroes people aren’t trying to survive in a hopeless situation, they’re being heroes. Most of them are educated, skilled adults that are failing to accomplish basic communication.

    That kind of thing may work for other people, but it’s idiocy to me, and ruins my enjoyment. It breaks the fourth wall as the motivations of the writers, rather than the characters, becomes visible.

    Lastly, revealing information to the viewer.

    While not specifically a lesson learned from Heroes, when dealing with characters and their underlying or secret goals, then what parts you show to the viewer, and when you show them, becomes very important in order to tell a good story.

    The writer’s goal, in my opinion, is to entertain two classes of people. Those that appreciate what’s visible immediately on the surface, and those that enjoy digging deeper.

    The surface goals are things you can’t avoid showing. They’re the ones that tell the story. But a pattern of surface goals can point to an underlying goal a character may have. Internal motivations that people can notice. Hints can even be sprinkled about to make it a little more obvious when it needs to be.

    And your friend who shouts, “I knew it!” when the twist happens, but you had no idea anything like that was going to happen? He’s the guy who enjoys solving puzzles. Believe it or not, you were watching two different movies.


  • Movie Reviews

    A while back I laid out my movie rating scale. I’ll paste it here again and then give the reviews of the movies I’ve seen recently.

    1: Don’t bother seeing it
    2: See a friend’s copy
    3: Rent it
    4: See it in theaters
    5: Buy the DVD

    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – 5.0/5.0
    I was taught in film class last year that Indiana Jones was the movie George Lucas made “according to the rules” after he failed to create a successful title (THX 1138) on his own terms.

    The movie is fabulous and has plenty of references to the older movies for die hard fans. They also hint at the possibility of more Indiana Jones movies to come.

    Unlike the first three Stars Wars, Indiana Jones does things “the right way” and does a good job of it. Wonderful adventure movie. I have to give it a 5/5.

    Gone in 60 Seconds – 5.0/5.0
    I watched this movie again recently. While my entire family loves cars, but I grew up as a computer person. I still enjoyed the movie tremendously, though.

    While the movie is about stealing cars, it has wonderful undertones of family and friendship. It’s a perfect case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason. I rate it 5/5. Get your hands on a copy and add it to the collection.

    License to Wed – 4.5/5.0
    Robert Williams! One of the few actors I actually know by name.

    I’m a religious person whose religion puts an emphasis on family, so I was a little worried about what this movie might do. However, the movie was about the 50% divorce rate and what one pastor does to have a 100% success rate in the marriages he preforms.

    Delightful comedy, though I feel it could have had a little more in their relationship problems. Not my perfect type of movie, but still very good. 4.5/5. See a friend’s copy or rent it, and if you like it, grab yourself a copy.

    The Bourne Ultimatum – 4.5/5.0
    I’ve never read the books, so I can’t say how it compares to those. And I was very frightful of this movie after the horrible “shaky cam” adventure of the second one. I mean, when the guy puts a piece of paper on a phone book to stabilize it, the camera should NOT be jumping around! But that’s not this movie.

    This movie does make use of the shaky cam, but it’s dialed back enough to be tolerable.

    Lots of crazy action and twists. Really exciting and plenty of awesome. I feel the series is tainted because you really have to watch all three to get the full story, and the others aren’t as good, but it’s still a great movie in itself. I’ll give it a 4.5/5. Watch it, love it, buy it to complete the series.

    AvP: Requiem – 1.5/5.0
    The one word I can use to describe this movie is “excessive.” I was expecting something like the first AvP, which felt like fanfiction. But it wasn’t BAD fanfiction. Instead, I got some really disgusting stuff that tried to shock you instead of entertain. A horror instead of a horror/action movie.

    Also, my experience with the predalien was from the video games (which rock). They changed the lore considerably, and the predalien’s design a lot, too. I don’t think it does him justice.

    I’d rate this a 1.5/5. If you have to, watch a friend’s copy. Otherwise, stick with the first one.

    Enchanted – 4.6/5.0
    I really didn’t know what to expect when a friend recommended this. The description says it’s a cartoon princess that gets trapped in the real world. I’ve seen displacement movies before, and a lot of them are really bad. Instead of being interesting and excited, they’re just uncomfortable.

    Fortunately, Enchanted is a delightful romantic comedy pitting a Disney princess against a no-nonsense divorce lawyer. The effects from 2D to 3D were fantastic.

    The only complaint I have is that I’d like to have seen more actual animation in the movie.

    I rate it a 4.6/5.

    The Golden Compass – 4.8/5.0
    While the movie was fantastic, the aftertaste of a child actor dilutes it just a little bit. Still, what she did was amazing. There were Bourne Ultimatum moments where the pieces just clicked into place and you have to cheer them on for their brilliance in handling the situation.

    The CG was really beautiful, and while it’s part 1 out of more (it doesn’t have a real ending) it’s still great. 4.8/5.0, definitely a keeper.

    Cloverfield – 4.3/5.0
    I finally got to see it!

    I watched it with a friend and my mom, and neither one liked it, though. So it’s apparently not a movie for everyone.

    If you’re not familiar with it, it’s shot in a “hand-held camera” style. The only shots you see that aren’t from the character with the camera’s perspective is when they film the TV showing the news.

    The “real life” style of the shooting made the movie that much more awesome. I loved how you only got the actual actor’s perspective. That’s a severe limitation that makes for interesting challenges, and I love how they overcame them so well.

    They also made wonderful use of color, which I originally dismissed as “hand held camera” issues, until I realized that the color overlays they were using really fit the moods of the scenes.

    I have a few issues with the movie’s realism/logic. You’ll see them yourself when you watch it. I don’t want to spoil them for you.

    If you like giant monsters (yes) and you like “real life” heroes (yes) and you like new things because everyone’s doing the same-old same-old (yes) then you’ll like this. I give it a 4.3/5.0. I already own it, and if you like it, you should own it, too.

    The Seeker – 4.0/5.0
    A random book-to-movie that I knew nothing about but ended up renting. It’s about a young boy who has to save the world. Imagine that.

    It’s a good movie with good effects and good storytelling. But it didn’t have anything that stood out to me and said “love me!” It was simply a well done movie. 4.0/5.0. I won’t be buying it, but it’s a good one to watch.


  • Movie Reviews

    I watched a lot of movies a while back and wrote down the names, but never got around to reviewing them. I’ll make a short review of each one now, using my movie rating scale.

    In alphabetical order:

    3-Iron – 4.2/5.0
    Originally seen during a film class. This is a foreign film, and as with any foreign film, I recommend viewing it subtitled, not dubbed. I can rant later about how awful the average dubbing is. The movie has a wonderful exposition, where it draws the viewer in, curious about what’s going on. I don’t want to give this movie away, as it’s even cooler when you know nothing about it.

    I’m tempted to buy it, and I recommend you at the very least rent it.

    Anonymous Rex – 3.0/5.0
    I’m not sure what’s wrong with this movie, but it’s got that “why did they make it?” kind of feel going on, even though it’s a decent movie. Worth a rent. It’s a “not rated” movie, and I usually stay away from those because they’re X rated, but it was made by Fox, so I gave it a chance.

    When Andrew Jones (aka Android, co-founder of Concept Art dot org) of Metroid concept art fame visited DigiPen, he gave a critique on some of the student’s works. Someone had created a gorilla, who was a chef, who wore a biohazard suit because he dealt with the ebola virus. Android said that he broke the rules of three and made it confusing. A gorilla and chef, sure. A chef who makes ebola meals, sure. All three just gets too confusing.

    Anonymous Rex either suffers from the “three things is too much” problem, or another problem that I haven’t been able to put a name to yet. It goes something like this: Normally “odd” situations have to be funny to be acceptable. If you take an odd situation, like dragons acting as taxis in New York, then if you don’t make it funny people are going to think it’s stupid. Why? I dunno. It sounds kind of cool to me. And maybe if you built up to it or gave it enough backstory it would be acceptable. But that’s the problem Anonymous Rex suffers from.

    It’s a good movie, worthy of a rent. But if you can’t stand slightly odd things that aren’t trying to be funny, then maybe it’s not for you. I’d rate it higher… but it’s made-for-TV and has a low budget. It would be much more awesome with better CG.

    There’s also a couple books out, where this started from. Might just be best to stick with those.

    Appleseed – 4.5/5.0
    If you’re an anime or animation collector, then you probably already own this. If not, you should go buy it.

    Ghost in the Shell is the “classic” anime movie, as I understand it. While Appleseed isn’t classic, because it’s not old enough, it’s got the same feel as Ghost in the Shell, but with less metaphysical exploration of the psyche and more explosions.

    They did a beautiful thing to separate the figure and background, too. The figures look like bright cell shaded 3D models. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, dark and detailed.

    Again, go subbed so they can explain what they want, instead of what fits the mouth movement at the time.

    AvP – 4.6/5.0
    For those that have seen the Alien and Predator movies, and also know a lot about fan fiction, then you should understand what I mean when I say this movie is Alien and Predator fan fiction. The good part is, it’s GOOD fanfiction, which means it’s an enjoyable story. I think my main problem with it is that it tries to have so many main characters. They should have had a lot more generic speechless people, like the ones that die first.

    Very enjoyable. Enough suspense, fights, and all that to keep me happy. If you like the franchise, be sure to buy it.

    Brother Bear – 3.5/5.0
    This is one of the movies one of my animation professors, Jazno Francoeur, worked on. While it is a children’s movie, it’s deep and entertaining enough that I enjoyed it.

    Also, the moose are great. Rent it some time.

    Entrapment – 4.8/5.0
    Wonderful movie about thieves. This was the second time I saw it, and I didn’t remember the leading lady as being so whiney. It took a bit out of the movie for me. But the action and surprises and the whole “mission impossible” feel of the thievery was awesome.

    Eragon – 2.5/5.0
    If you’re an animator, rent it. You want to see the CG baby dragon, and the last battle. If a friend already bought it, go ahead and see his copy.

    Otherwise, stick to the book.

    Flight of Dragons – 5.0/5.0
    This is as classic as classic can get. I was jaw-dropping stunned when I saw this animated movie. It’s a children’s movie from my childhood that I never saw, but it’s so scientific and the world is so explored and fleshed out, it’s absolutely incredible. Has a very Lord of the Rings feel to it, in a good way. The animation is dated, but I couldn’t help but think how ahead of its time this movie was. If only it had been made today, they probably would have done it live action with CG. And what a movie that would be.

    Hackers – 4.5/5.0
    If you don’t know what a black box is, or the different between pulse and tone dial, or how hacking really works, then this movie is not for you. You’d probably enjoy it, but you wouldn’t get half the references they make. The “hacking” is Hollywood style, so it’s very pretty, and it’s hillariously inaccurate how they present hacking.

    This is a classic tech movie that records a lot of modern underground computer history. Very fun stuff.

    Laputa: Castle in the Sky – 5.0/5.0
    Another anime. This is actually the first foreign animated movie I’d ever seen. I saw it pure, out of someone’s VCR. No subtitles, no closed caption, no translation — just animation, and Japanese audio. And I loved it.

    I’ve seen it about five times since, because I bring it up and find out people haven’t heard about it. It’s really wonderful. Go get it. And watch it SUBTITLED, not dubbed! The kid doesn’t scream “Sheeta” near the same in English, and the movie wouldn’t be the same without him screaming her name all the time.

    League of Extraordinary Gentleman – 4.0/5.0
    What odd is that this movie has that “weird” feel to it, much like Anonymous Rex up there had, but this movie is much more widely accepted as a “good movie.” Probably because it had prettier CG. I found things a little confusing between they mixed half a dozen legends together without explaining any of them, and legends tend to have twisted versions of themselves lying around so I was never sure which version they were using.

    Probably looked a lot more awesome on the big screen, but it’s long out of theaters.

    Madagascar – 3.2/5.0
    A decent movie. Worth renting on a lazy afternoon. It wasn’t as funny as it thought it was, but it was entertaining. Smight told me it’s great once you start watching it like a Looney Tunes cartoon. It does that have ridiculous tune to it, but I never found myself actually laughing at Looney Tunes very often.

    Matchstick Men – 4.9/5.0
    This movie is awesome. I don’t want to give anything anyway, but it’s also one of those movies where watching it more than once doesn’t work so well. Definetly check it out, and if you like it, give it a buy so you can show it to someone who might rate it 2.x/5.0.

    My Super Ex-Girlfriend – 1.1/5.0
    This movie is not my kind of movie. Too many sex scenes.

    If you watch it, the shark scene in the apartment is neat.

    National Treasure – 5.0/5.0
    Exciting, smart, funny, and entertaining. But be careful — you may actually learn something. If you’re paying attention, at least.

    In the movie a man mishandles the clutch on an expensive car. My mom, a car buff, started freaking out like nails on a chalkboard. It was funny.

    Night at the Museum – 4.5/5.0
    A good movie about working together and being a good father. I’ve always hated the scenes where something is supposed to happen and it doesn’t, embarassing the main character. Fortunately, there was a quickly explained fully rational reason for the irrational to not happen.

    Reign of Fire – 4.1/5.0
    The first I heard of this movie was someone saying that people didn’t like it because they were expecting a comedy and the movie took itself seriously. I went into it expecting a serious movie, and got one. The dialog was a bit quiet at times (I hate when they don’t modulate whispers and you have to keep fiddling with the remote) so I didn’t get the whole story, but it was straightforward enough.

    If you like post-apocolyptic movies, and you like dragons, then this is for you. I may buy it some day, but I have others I’d spend money on first. Not enough dragons and action to warrent an expedited purchase.

    Secret of Nymh – 5.0/5.0
    I last saw this animated “children’s” movie when I was a child. I didn’t follow the plot at all, and lost interest before it was over. But I do remember the mouse lady cutting herself and BLEEDING. Talk about tramatic.

    I went back and saw it again recently, and this movie is absolutely wonderful. Some people say that animated movies are targeted for children. And in general, they are. But there are movies like this which don’t really seem targeted towards children at all. Yet somehow they end up in the children’s section at rental places. Go figure.

    This is a classic. Get it, and put it at the top of the shelf with Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Laputa, Fantasia, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Grave of Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, and Flight of Dragons.

    Signs – 4.3/5.0
    A great movie about family, faith, and… well, I guess there’s some aliens, too. But they’re not as important. This movie is a case of bad advertising. People thought it was a monster thriller, but it’s a heartwarming movie about coincidence. And aliens.

    See it. And if you like it, give it a buy. A little calm for my tastes, but still very good.

    The Emperor’s New Groove – 5.0/5.0
    Comedy! Comedy gold! I haven’t not seen a movie this funny in ages.

    I’ll turn him into a flea, a harmless little flea… and then I’ll put that flea in a box and then I’ll put that box inside of another box… and then I’ll mail that box to myself, and when it arrives… I’ll smash it with a hammer! Hahahaha!

    It’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, I tell you! Genius, I say!

    Or, to save on postage, I’ll just poison him with this.

    Get it, watch it, love it.

    The Last Mimzy – 3.1/5.0
    An interesting tale of to small children in the present saving the future. A friend recommended it to me, and I enjoyed it. It’s worth a rent, but lacks that umph that pulls it out of the children’s movie category.

    The Man Who Knew Too Little – 4.2/5.0
    I forgot and organized the “The” movies into the T section. So sad!

    This is a great comedy with lots of action and stuff. The main hero thinks it’s just a show, and everyone thinks he’s a spy. Great stuff. Kind of like the opposite of If Looks Could Kill (4.8/5.0).

    The Road to El Dorado – x.x/5.0
    I was about to rate this, but then I realized that I never saw the ending, and the ending looked like it was very redeeming. DVD was horribly scratched and it was Blockbuster’s last copy. Next.

    TMNT – 2.6/5.0
    These two reviews are gonna get me in trouble with fans. I always loved the happy-go-lucky team of the old turtles. When I heard about all this fanfiction with these angsty, older, disunified turtles that grew bitter and apart over time. The movie followed that fanfiction’s train of thinking, and I didn’t like it. I wanted a happy story of action and adventure, not a story of recovery.

    If you liked the old turtles, it may be worth a rental to see where they’re going since you saw them as a child. Otherwise, catch a friend’s copy if it’s handy.

    Transformers – 4.0/5.0
    It’s worth seeing it in the theater, because everything’s better on the big screen. Just don’t sit too close. Oh wait, too late. Now you have to rent it. Get a big screen first.

    It’s fun with lots of action. It’s also a shame the secret military guy did such a great job acting. It wasn’t until the third time I saw it that the full force of his character stood out. He needed three times as much dialog for him to really shine. Otherwise, he just seemed out of place and should have been pushed into the background more.

    The camera sucked a lot, though. I mean, you’ve got CG where you can control just about everything, and you choose to make things blur and crop so far in and fast that you can’t see what’s going on? And you make the camera SHAKE? Why are all the movies these days using shakey cam? We’ve got so much technology devoted to making a smooth camera for a reason!

    The clearest scene in the movie was when Megatron morphed his arm into a giant canon and these big pistons came out. Megatron was simply designed — you had the copper innards contrasting with the shiny silver armor plates. Very simple, easy to see, and easy to make out. It was one of the only parts that actually read right the first time I saw it. The rest of the Transformers were so complicated that it was difficult to see anything in them. “Select Detail” is one of the seven goals of animation for a reason.

    Anyway, that’s a rant. But the movie got 4.0/5.0, so go ahead and see it. I won’t be buying it, but I did see it three times in the movies. The hype is fun to ride. Hope you did.

    War of the Worlds – 5.0/5.0
    An absolutely wonderful movie. It plays like Apocolypse Now, but keeps the surreal feeling without the nonsense. Tons of action and empathy. The moods in the movie are awesome. Watch it, and feel it play with your emotions.


  • Transformers Review

    So I went and saw Transformers, the movie. I saw a few things done right, and I saw a few things done wrong. At least, in my opinion.

    The biggest thing they did right was capitalize on the 80s. True to Transformers, the movie was about big robots shooting at each other.

    The next thing they did right was play on the whole secrecy thing. Sure, you can have giant robots storming about. But if you’ve got giant robots storming about that no one’s supposed to know about so they try to “hide,” that makes the tension rise, and can play good for comedy.

    One of the things done wrong is a “trend” that Hollywood has decided is awesome. That is: shaky cam. The writer of Faulty Logic said “apparently every action scene was filmed by a geriatric Parkinson’s sufferer who was afraid for his life.” That’s a bit extreme, but that’s comedy. At least it wasn’t as bad as that last Borne movie.

    In their defense, they did have a few “slow motion” scenes where you could really see what was going on. Those were awesome, and I wish they’d done it more.

    A friend on the Booster Logic team said that a lesson can be learned from the video game industry: just let the main character and enemy be in sight at all times, and then you can actually tell what’s going on.

    On a side note, a friend of mine was complaining the other day about the mech fighting games people have made. Supposably, in the future, wars will be fought with giant mechs against giant mechs. If you think about it logically, it would start with one side using them, maybe just a couple thrown in, with standard military fair on its side as well as the enemy side. You wouldn’t get clean mech-on-mech battles for a while, if ever.

    Transformers did a good example of illustrating just how possible that concept is, and how well it can work, too. Even though “movie magic” was in effect and people didn’t even get injured when they probably should have died.

    Using my standard movie rating, I would give this a four point five. Dependant, of course, on if you like action movies and Transformers. See it in the theater if you can (just… don’t sit close to the screen) and buy the DVD if you’d like.


  • Movie Reviews

    I think I’ll create a movie rating scale:
    1: Don’t bother seeing it
    2: See a friend’s copy
    3: Rent it
    4: See it in theaters
    5: Buy the DVD

    So last Friday I got an email from one of my professors at DigiPen. The faculty was skipping school to see a movie, and the students were encouraged to follow.

    The movie was Ratatouille (pronounced “rat-a-tooie”). It’s Pixar’s latest, and is the story of a rat who wants to be a cook. The animation was wonderful, and I loved the story.

    There were a few odd parts. For example, the rat can’t magically talk to the humans, so when he’s interacting only with humans he doesn’t speak. Then we get some narrative overlay of the rat talking, and it’s a bit startling, as you haven’t heard his voice in a while. They also played loose with some time transitions using a narrative overlay to pass time, which felt a little out of place.

    The movie was hilarious, heartwarming, and had great lessons in it. I couldn’t help but parallel the rat’s learning to cook with my learning to draw.

    Raratouille is a definite must-see. I’ll be buying it when it comes out on DVD. I’ll give it a five.

    Then, on Saturday, Mort and Bin from Booster Logic fame invited me over to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I’d heard a couple negative reviews about it, but went and saw it anyway. It wasn’t a waste of my money, as I enjoyed seeing it.

    It wasn’t a meaningful movie like Ratatouille, but it managed to keep itself interesting enough most of the time. My friend Ryan wrote a review that said there wasn’t enough action. I complain that what fighting there was is difficult to follow.

    The movie did the typical “stretch time out way too far” when the horrible things were happening at the end, but I’ve gotten so used to it that it didn’t bother me that much and I was able to enjoy the movie without it doing more than slightly irritating me.

    If you like comics, the Fantastic Four series, or “save the world” movies, then you should see this in theaters. Otherwise, it’s probably worth a rent later. Three point five.



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