[THREE CENTS] Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels, Oh My

ReBoot (1994)
Looks familiar

People like to criticize Hollywood for a lack of creativity, but Reboots, Remakes, and Sequels have been around as long as stories themselves.

Hell, even the ancient Romans remade Aphrodite as Venus.

So to suggest that they’re inherently bad is painting with too broad of a brush.

After all, West Side Story, winner of ten Academy Awards, is a reboot of Romeo and Juliet. The beloved Clueless is an update of Jane Austen‘s Emma.

The Godfather Part II is both a sequel and a prequel and still won Best Picture. Star Wars follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, is widely considered the best of the entire franchise.

That being said, they aren’t generally the model of originality, and are mostly motivated by capitalizing on the financial success of an earlier movie. Which is not unreasonable. Studios are big businesses, after all, and originality is inherently risky.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Movie Poster
Part Two or Five, depending how you look at it

Familiar actors, familiar franchises, and even just familiar concepts are safer bets for returning on investments. It’s good business. And most of these companies still fund and produce original ideas as well. One could argue that the profit from “retreads” is what allows companies to take more risks on new ideas. Maybe on a smaller scale, but still.

From an audience standpoint, sequels allow us to see characters we’ve come to know and love in new stories, new settings, and new adventures.

Certainly right now, with all the new streaming services cropping up like weeds, familiar names making a comeback seem to be an essential ingredient for attempts at success. It’s possible we’ve passed the saturation point.

So, what’s the difference between them all? Here’s my personal take on a Field Guide

REBOOTS

According to Wikipedia – the source of all potentially true information – a Reboot is a new start to an established fictional universe.

This would apply to successive generations of James Bond, Robin Hood, and nearly every superhero franchise.

While researching some information for this post, I learned that the 1994 computer animated series ReBoot, was actually rebooted in 2018 as ReBoot: The Guardian Code, for maximum meta magic.

SEQUELS AND PREQUELS

These pretty much speak for themselves. Another chapter in an ongoing franchise. They primarily take place after the events of the preceding chapter, but they can also take place before.

In some cases, prequels can be seen as soft reboots, depending on how far back they go. If the new time period requires an entirely different cast, I’d personally lean toward calling that a reboot.

Although… If they remain true to the events and history in the source movie, I might still be willing to label that a prequel. X-Men: First Class sort of follows that line of thinking by including Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine, while 2009’s Star Trek does the same by incorporating Leonard Nimoy‘s Spock.

REMAKES

The Longest Yard (1974)
Do you prefer football

These are more one-off stories, rather than franchises that have widespread developed universes.

Frequently they’re a country’s version of a foreign film. Point of No Return from La Femme Nikita, The Upside from The Intouchables.

Other times, it’s an update of a classic, like You’ve Got Mail was for The Shop Around the Corner.

Some Remakes like to change things up, sliding into “Reimagining” territory. In the original Overboard, the spoiled rich lead was Goldie Hawn. The genders were swapped in the 2018 update, however, casting Eugenio Derbez as the upper class jerk.

Mean Machine (2001)
…or football?

Then there’s The Longest Yard, the movie that sort of does it all. Burt Reynolds‘ 1974 original was remade as Adam Sandler‘s 2005 version, but also reimagined a few years earlier with the British Mean Machine, where soccer took the place of football.

Talk about a Hollywood hyphenate!

SPINOFFS

Although these are more commonly associated with television series, movie also like to spread the wealth when they can. Bruce Almighty generated a spinoff when Steve Carrell‘s star rose to the point that his supporting character could take center stage for Evan Almighty.

The Rock got his first lead role in The Mummy spinoff, The Scorpion King (also a prequel of sorts). Nearly twenty years later, he did it again, when The Fast and Furious juggernaut spun off the equally lucrative Hobbs and Shaw.

___________________________________

Obviously, I’m generally pro all these iterations. I typically lean toward more commercial fare as both a writer and viewer, and reboots, remakes, and sequels are most definitely that.

Given a choice, I would mostly take a sequel over a reboot. Even if the sequel has none of the previous actors (or characters), I can still appreciate it if the new version acknowledges those character as canon.

Ghostbusters (2016) Cast
This cast deserved a much better script

That was my issue with the Melissa McCarthy Ghostbusters. It didn’t matter that the leads were women. What I didn’t like was that it was an entirely new origin story.

I would’ve enjoyed it much more if they just existed in the same universe as Venkman, Spengler, Stanz and Zeddemore.

Oh, and if it was funny, that would’ve helped too.

To each, their own, of course. A lot of audiences are attached to the version they discovered originally. It’s the risk you take when you veer onto a different path.

What are your thoughts on these things? Are you pro? Anti? Does it even cross your mind? Pass the popcorn and let me know in the comments.

________________________________________________________

Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Noted

If you hope to work professionally as a screenwriter, you’re going to become very familiar with notes. I was very familiar very early on and I was not a fan.

As we went through the notes process for the first scripts on Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, fellow writer/creators, Tim Bogart, Guy Toubes, and I, would drive across town to the Fox Kids offices for feedback and discussion.

Jeffrey Jones in "Amadeus" (1984) complaining about the amount of notes.
Simply too many notes.

Back then, I had an unhealthy attachment to what had already been written, and bristled at requested changes. Especially when those changes seemed arbitrary or recklessly tore at the foundation we had so carefully built on throughout the episode.

And for what?

Some writers have a sneaking suspicion that executives feel they’re required to give notes, otherwise, why do they even have a job? The result is that even great scripts are bombarded with needless changes, suggestions, and opinions.

Perhaps that’s just paranoia. Perhaps not. But it can make you second guess how much effort you should put into making everything perfect in the first place, when it’s inevitably going to be ripped apart.

Back to the story

I didn’t get along well with one of the Fox executives. I didn’t like them, and they didn’t seem too fond of me either. One time, Tim, Guy, and I arrived for a notes meeting and that executive had us sit in the waiting room for around a half hour beyond the meeting time.

My theory is that it was because they hadn’t read the script beforehand, and instead did so while we stood by. Unconfirmed, but you can see where I was coming from, right?

Movie Poster for "The Green Hornet" (2011).
This is what happens when you shoot a first draft

Regardless, when the actual notes meetings inevitably went on, I didn’t have the best poker face and would silently, but clearly, reveal what I thought about the feedback. Understandably, my collaborators were less than thrilled that I was cultivating a hostile relationship with the studio that was financing our show.

For obvious reasons, there was much rejoicing later on when schedules required doing notes via conference call instead. I was able to gesticulate as much as I wanted and we were still able to keep our jobs.

So, is it possible that notes are always superfluous and pointless?

If you’ve seen Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet, you realize that not only can script notes be good and helpful, every so often… not enough are given.

IN A PROFESSIONAL SETTING

Despite the preceding story, I don’t think notes are the enemy. Even if it feels like they are a lot of the time.

And even when it comes to notes I don’t agree with, I’ve managed to mellow over the years to a more productive recipient.

Here’s my core advice: Do the notes and do them well. That script you wrote isn’t just yours anymore. It’s part of a production now and even people whose opinions you might not share, are still trying to facilitate a great result.

Not that that means they necessarily convey them well. Some people are great at giving notes, while others are – for lack of a better word – a**holes.

I find for the most part, that notes from story editors (who are also writers) tend to have an understanding tone of what it took to get where you got. And also an understanding of what it will take to incorporate that note. When they’re passing along executive notes, they also acknowledge when something doesn’t make sense. You feel like you’re in this together.

Notes meeting from the series "Episodes" (2011-2017).
The whole inciting incident of “Episodes” is basically notes gone wrong.

The second category gives notes (even thoughtful ones) like an attack. Similar to the stereotype, they talk down to the writer with derision or disgust about anything they don’t like.

The thing is, even if a script is lacking, development executives should be trying to get it to where it shines. They don’t have to walk on eggshells, but insulting the person they want to follow their notes isn’t especially productive or collaborative.

That being said, you still have to do the insulting notes. You can vent to your writing partner if you have one, your life partner if you have one, or even a friend (I’ll assume you have one). But once the venting’s done, it’s time to get to work.

When you’re in that next draft, be conscious of how that change affects the pages that led up to it and the pages that follow. As mentioned earlier, a lot of note-givers don’t consider the collateral damage, so it’s up to you to properly execute. Don’t just shoehorn that change in. Seamlessly integrate it like it was part of the story’s DNA all along.

And for those writers who talk about standing their ground and not making changes? That will more than likely cost you your next job, if not the one you’ve already got. No producer or studio or network wants to work with a “difficult” writer. And nobody wants to work with a writer who can’t or won’t execute notes.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. Sometimes deciphering a note that doesn’t seem to make sense might take a little analysis and follow-up. This might lead to an understanding that the problem they thought was in one place, actually needs to be fixed somewhere else.

IN A CASUAL SETTING

Notes that come from a fellow writer or maybe a writing group are handled a little different.

Several piles of screenplay drafts.
Why write one draft when – with notes – you can write eighteen?

Here, everything is voluntary. And how you respond to those notes is entirely up to you.

To start with, though, you should listen with an open mind. Do the notes make sense to you? Do you agree with them? Will addressing them make your script better, or just different?

Sometimes people give notes to steer the script toward the movie or show they’d like to see, but possibly not the one you’re trying to write. Don’t let feedback make you lose track of the story you want to tell.

Even if you don’t like or agree with a specific note, though, if you find yourself getting that same one multiple times from multiple people, you might want to take a closer look. Something’s probably not working somewhere and needs your attention.

_______

Obviously the writer I was early on needed to learn how to play well with others. It’s always good advice. As I’m sure you’ve heard a million times before, this business is primarily a collaborative one.

Work as a team and the results will be something you can all be proud of.

________________________________________________________

Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[SPOTLIGHT] Blowback, a Debut Graphic Novel

Back cover illustration of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.
A team through time

On the otherwise uneventful January 6th, Rhonda Smiley and I released our first graphic novel, Blowback.

While this isn’t technically my first published comic, it is the first one available worldwide. And the first one that’s professional grade.

It’s a big deal for Rhonda and me, and the culmination of a very, very long journey.

The book first started life as a screenplay. Of the big-budget blockbuster variety.

Although it did win an award for best Sci Fi screenplay under its previous title, Revolution Redux, and garner some industry interest, it didn’t result in a sale.

200 million dollar budgets might be a bit of a deterrent for buyers when it comes to lesser-known scribes.

So, for the chance to see this story come to life, Rhonda and I turned to a different medium. A medium where we’d be the ones with creative control. Where studio executives wouldn’t be sending over notes upon notes upon notes. Where the writers, not the director, would be crafting the final cut.

That last one’s a bit of a mixed metaphor, since we were sort of the directors and writers of Blowback. But I think you get the gist.

Front cover of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.
A cover that’s good enough to judge the book by

Becoming familiar with both the format and style of comics was a big first step.

Although we’d periodically read some of the more iconic books that came out over the years, it had been a long time since either of us were regular consumers. But we wanted to do this right.

Adapting wasn’t simple. Scenes had to be reimagined to take advantage of layout and page turns. Dialogue had to be streamlined to not overwhelm the art. I even felt compelled to do rough sketches of panels just to see if the action we wrote could clearly play out on the page.

But bit by bit, it started coming together.

Once we finally had a draft we liked, we set out to find an artist to bring aboard.

Through a friend who worked both in animation and comics, we were able to connect with Kev Hopgood, an artist who’s style we felt was perfect for the project.

Kev had worked on quite a few titles, but was most well known for co-creating War Machine and the Hulkbuster Armor during his run on Iron Man.

Once Kev had signed on, he recommended colorist, Charlie Kirchoff, who also had an impressive list of credits to his name. From there, the two of them got to work, converting our black and white words to full color images. Giving them life and depth and magic.

A screenplay isn’t really a finished project. It’s essentially a blueprint for a potential film or show.

On the other hand, this graphic novel – any graphic novel – is audience-ready entertainment. I’m thrilled to finally have a direct line between my words and a reader’s eyes, emotions, and imagination.

In Blowback, a present-day U.S. Marine and his unit disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, only to find themselves in the year 1776. There, they battle to maintain the course of history as they face off against a stranded World War Two era Destroyer turned ruthless pirate ship.

To find out more, you can click on over to comiXology or Amazon and check it out for yourself.

I’m not saying that you have to buy a copy, but if you do, it will make you smarter, younger, and better looking*.

Interior panel of graphic novel, Blowback, by James Hereth, Rhonda Smiley, Kev Hopgood, and Charlie Kirchoff.

*Not really. Well, probably not. Who knows?

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Adapt or Die

No, not that.

During an email discussion a few weeks ago, regarding some form of chaos or another, my mom remarked about her and my dad that, “We adapt.”

In a year where nothing is the same as it was before, this ability feels like both a necessity and a badge of courage.

Truth is, everything’s always changing, pandemic or not. Sometimes slowly, sometimes overnight. Although I may have instinctual reluctance, I nevertheless know it’s best to be aware and try to adapt to change.

As much as this is true in the real world, it’s also true in the business of writing.

The industry can be hyper conscious of what’s in and what’s out. Do your best to make sure you don’t ever appear out of touch or – god forbid – old.

I’ve talked before about making sure advances in technology don’t undermine your old specs. But your new ones shouldn’t show their age either.

Satellite radio is great for throwing back to the music you were listening to when you were growing up. But you don’t want to put references to Whitesnake or Limp Bizkit in your contemporary stories.

That’s not it, either

Make a point of listening to new music every once in a while, if you don’t already (they keep making it all the time). Then, if you need to mention an artist or song in your work, you’ll have an easier time coming up with one who isn’t in the AARP.

The same goes for shows, movies, and even actors.

If you happen to get a meeting – virtual or otherwise – a producer or agent might ask who you visualize playing the lead in your project. Be aware of who’s out there making movies and shows today that are either well-reviewed, well-attended, or at least part of the cultural zeitgeist.

You should know that Brad Pitt won’t get cast as your 20-something rebel. Dakota Fanning is no longer viable as an edgy teen. Check the trades regularly. Watch new shows, or at least read about them. Don’t fall behind.

Even screenplay formatting can reveal if you’re out-of-touch. Ten years ago (and all the years before that), you put two spaces after a period. Now it’s one. I’m not a fan, but I don’t make the rules. Still, I do try to follow them.

There are websites out there that regularly make recent screenplays available for download. Find some and see how the formatting looks. You might be surprised.

Obviously, you want to make sure your story is what’s drawing the reader’s attention – the twists and turns of the plot, the crackle of the dialogue, not the distracting formatting or outdated pop culture references.

You know what? Never mind.

Stay current.

For aspiring television writers, the rule used to be that you had to write a spec of an existing show, that was similar to the one you were trying to get staffed on, but was definitely not a script for that show itself (while simultaneously hoping the series you wrote the episode of didn’t get cancelled before you had a chance to circulate it).

Now, original pilots are all the rage for writing samples.

At least they were. You should check and see if that’s changed as well. Maybe they’re just looking for interpretive TikTok dance videos these days.

I think you’ve probably picked up on the theme by now. If you want to stay viable, you have to adapt and surrender to change.

The calendar is willing, able, and about to do the same. Follow suit.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] False Endings

Christian Bale in "Empire of the Sun," the poster child of False Endings.
Wrap it up, kid.

False endings come in many shapes and sizes.

They’re in songs, like Helter Skelter, All by Myself, and Sabotage.

They’re in movies – mostly horror – often to elicit a last-minute jump scare.

Although they can provide a bit of a dramatic punch, they can also come off as gimmicky.

Whether it was intentional or not, when I saw Empire of the Sun back at college, it felt like it ended at least three times. And that was two times more than I would’ve preferred.

The false endings I’m thinking about aren’t quite as literal, though. They’re the multiple times you “finish” a creative project.

There’s that saying that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. To me, even the projects that aren’t abandoned seem to never finish finishing. In fact, if they weren’t forced to deliver their work for deadlines, a lot of artists would keep tweaking them forever.

George Lucas might be the poster boy for this kind of false ending, as he perpetually modifies, expands, and “upgrades” the original Star Wars trilogy.

The point is, doing creative work is a long process. And finishing is something you do again and again while you navigate that path.

A screenplay is a good example.

You may type “The End” on your first draft. But you’re going to have to do it again for the rewrite. And the ten rewrites after that. And those are just the versions you write for yourself.

If you’re writing for a series, you’re usually contracted for a first draft, a second draft and a polish. And – as above- you’ve already done multiple versions on your own before the story editor ever gets sent that “initial” pass.

Finish line. One of many for creative endeavors.
Relish it while you can. Another one’s coming.

Fellow writer, Rhonda Smiley, has recently been dealing with the multiple endings faced by novelists.

There, you finish your internal drafts, then finish addressing an editor’s notes. And then maybe more new drafts after beta readers’ comments or a proofreader’s notes.

And this is just to prepare for querying book agents, never mind what it takes to reach the consumer.

Currently, I’m struggling with my own false endings, as I format the pages of our graphic novel, Blowback, for the millionth time. They were originally created by our artist, Kev Hopgood, at the aspect ratio we anticipated delivering.

However, the company who offered to publish the book printed at a different aspect ratio. After we had already started reformatting for them, we determined that this particular publisher wasn’t a good fit. Which then led to a plan to self-publish at a print-on-demand company with yet another aspect ratio.

But when our proof came back for that, it was faded and washed out. So now we’re onto a different POD company that will finally bring our reformatting to an end.

I hope.

While perseverance is clearly the key to a successful creative life, appreciating every single one of those endings is also vital. There should be satisfaction. Pride. Accomplishment.

Let the next pass come when the next pass comes. If you don’t let yourself enjoy these victorious endings – modest as they might be – you’ll never survive.

Or at least never be happy about it.

In a more chronological sense of finish lines, we’re mere moments away from December. And if ever a year needed to come to a close, it’s this one. Thankfully, I don’t think 2020 will have any false endings.

Metaphorically speaking, the sun will soon rise again, and we’ll all benefit from its warm metaphorical rays.

Hang in there, everybody. I think we’re gonna make it.

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[THE MAKING OF] The Premiere of Premiere Magazine

Debut Issue of Premiere Magazine in July/August of 1987, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks in "Dragnet."
The one that started it all

Today, there are a million and one, maybe a million and two, ways to learn about the entertainment industry. From websites to blogs, to podcasts and social media, a day doesn’t go by without an announcement or spoiler, or peek behind the scenes.

But back when I went to NYU, there was none of that. Good god, only a small percentage of students even had computers.

As if living among the dinosaurs wasn’t hard enough.

Then, in the summer of ’87, the life of a film student changed. That was when the very first Premiere Magazine came out in the United States.

It was unlike anything my friends and I had ever seen before – an oversized, glossy magazine exclusively devoted to movies and moviemakers. Our paperback vision board.

In addition to the stories on upcoming films, directors, actors and producers, there were a bunch of cool recurring features to look forward to every month.

Premiere Magazine Movie Cards - Issued in 1987 and 1988.
Not a T206 Honus Wagner, but still pretty cool

One of the oddest, and therefore awesomest bits were the baseball card-esque Movie Cards.

In a page-sized, glued-in cardboard insert, were four perforated cards with movie poster images on the front and production info on the back.

Granted, this particular feature didn’t last past 1988, but while it was around, it was pretty special.

There was also the beloved Flavor of the Month. Despite the negative ephemeral connotations, it focused on an up-and-coming player in the business.

I think every film school student identified with the notion of a big break, and dreamed of finding themselves in one of those articles one day.

I suppose some of us even did.

If a Flavor of the Month had some staying power, they might land on an upcoming year’s The Power List, which ranked the industry movers and shakers. Industry trades like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety were a bit dry for most undergraduates, so this was a cool way of getting a lay of the land we were preparing to journey into.

Premiere Magazine July, 1991 "Flavor of the Month" Robert Simonds.
Onetime Flavor of the Month Robert Simonds has accumulated 71 Producing credits and founded STX Entertainment.

While The Power List itself seemed a bit out of reach while at school, I still almost kinda found my way onto other pages by proxy.

Friend and fellow student, Tim Bogart, pitched the magazine a story idea about the trials and tribulations of making a student film. The people at Premiere were interested.

I was a producer on the student film in question, so I was petty stoked about the chance for a mention or photo. It seemed like something amazing was about to happen before I even graduated.

Tragically, it was not to be.

While I can’t quite remember the specifics, melodrama ensued. I think a fellow NYU student was interning at the magazine and somehow sabotaged the story.

A disappointment to say the least.

Oddly enough, while researching this post, I actually discovered that a guy I played softball with out here for a decade was writing for Premiere just a few years after I finished school.

If I could go back in time, maybe we could get this all sorted out with my “inside man” from softball and have that student film article published after all. I’ll have to start saving up for a DeLorean.

Premiere’s dominance in the marketplace started to get challenged by the time 1990 rolled around, when a new kid in town called Entertainment Weekly showed up.

While it was pretty cool too – and four times more frequent – it also covered television, music, and books, preventing it from somehow holding the same mystique. It was also smaller.

Premiere Magazine Special Power Issue - May 1992.
Sadly, I missed my window

After I moved to Los Angeles, I actually scraped together enough cash to get myself a Premiere subscription. I didn’t have to go out and get it anymore, now it came right to me.

For a Halloween party in 1993, a group of us dressed up as the Three Musketeers. While taking pictures to capture the moment, we made sure to mimic the Premiere cover of the same. We were virtually identical. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Come January of 1999, a friend from NYU made it onto the pages at last, as Mike Thompson and his writing partner were featured for having made some crazy ten million dollar spec screenplay deal. Which I wasn’t jealous about at all. AT ALL. Very happy for them. SO HAPPY.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Premiere.

As you may have heard, all good things must come to an end (not really, of course, but certainly in this case). Print media had been dying for years, and Premiere was not immune.

In April 2007, the last print edition was released in the states, as Premiere moved to an online-only edition.

Final print edition of Premiere Magazine in April 0f 2007, featuring Will Ferrell from "Blades of Glory."
End of the line in 2007

By 2010, it was gone completely.

I guess my point here is that it’s important to find your own metaphorical Premiere magazine.

The hard work, the networking, the learning, is all absolutely essential to making it in this business.

But so is pursuing something magical and a bit unreal. Maybe even silly. A goal like making it into the pages of your favorite magazine.

Today, maybe it’s a podcast, maybe it’s a industry website, maybe it’s a guest spot on some influencer’s streaming show.

But find that something and add it to those motivations that keep you pushing when the days are the darkest and the dreams seem out of reach.

It’s tough out there. We can use everything we can get.

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[ETCETERA] Please Stand By

Blowback graphic novel panel
Marines, Pirates, Time Travel… What more do you want?!

Well, there comes a time when you have to temporarily put aside your responsibilities and focus on a little self-care instead.

In this case, I’m talking about writing a blog this month. Or, rather, not writing one.

I’ve taken the time I would normally spend here and instead put it toward some of the last steps in self-publishing Rhonda Smiley and my first graphic novel, Blowback.

Right now, we’re in the final formatting stage and it is not easy. For me, anyway.

For anyone who’s curious what that’s like, at some point down the line, I intend to go into exhaustive detail about this entire journey. Likely over several blog posts.

Until then, I’ll just leave you with a little taste of some of our gorgeous panels, with art by Kev Hopgood and color by Charlie Kirchoff. Enjoy.

Blowback graphic novel panels
Pictures AND words. We didn’t cut any corners.

Oh, and for goddsakes, please vote. For Biden/Harris, of course. That other guy is a cancer on humanity. Seriously, the absolute worst.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] What’s in a Name?

Glendale, California's Alex Theater marquee. Original photo via The New York Times.
A little uncreative, perhaps, but to the point

What’s in a name? A whole lot, it turns out. Maybe even too much.

From the front cover of a spec script to a marquee on a movie theater, the title has been, and always will be, a critical task for a screenwriter to tackle.

But it’s tricky.

Ideally, you want your title to do a million different things at the same time – express an idea of what the story’s about, convey a tone, be catchy, look sharp on the poster… basically be perfect.

While you’re doing all that, you also have to avoid choosing one that’s already been used. Especially if it was recent or relatively popular. Although you can’t copyright a title, using one that’s already in play is still a recipe for confusing a potential audience, or looking like a rube to a studio reader.

Title for the animated sci-fi movie Race (2007)
Need I say more? Oh crap, I probably should.

A few years back, a company I’m a partner in produced an indie movie called Race. That title had multiple meanings – the story revolved around a science fiction racing circuit, but also a battle between alien races that considered each other inferior.

Although that made it a great title on several levels, it turned out to fall short on several others.

To start with, “race” is obviously a common word. Without including other keywords in a search, a potential viewer is just as likely to find out about the latest NASCAR and Formula One news as they are to find our movie. Probably more so.

On top of that, there was also another movie called Race that came out about the same time as ours. It’s an Indian movie about horse and car racing that still seems to mistakenly attract its fans to our Facebook page. Not sure how they’re confusing a live-action movie in Hindi with our animated sci-fi film, but people are weird.

The lesson here is it’s usually better to be more distinct.

That being said, you also want to avoid erring too far in the opposite direction. I’m looking at you, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Perhaps the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

When it comes to titles for television series, circumstances are a little different. The series itself is primarily what draws the audience, which lets writers be a little more weird or fun with the episode names.

Friends was known for having every title start the same phrase: “The One With/Where [plus plot].” That led to episodes like, “The One With the Prom Video,” “The One Where Everybody Finds Out,” and “The One With All the Thanksgivings.”

In episode titles for series, I’ve personally always leaned towards wordplay in general. Puns, in specific. The lowest form or humor? Perhaps. The best titling machine? For sure.

Here’s a few prime examples…

Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book

“Circus Breaker”

“Rashomowgli”

“Outback and Back Out”

The Adventures of Chuck and Friends

“Beach Blanket Uh-Oh”

Kuu Kuu Harajuku

“Angel’s Flight”

“Snowbound for Greatness”

“Must the Show Go On?”

I think you get the idea.

On occasion, you can’t think of anything you like and have to give your script a temp title. If you’re not careful, that temp can become perm.

On the series, Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return!, I remember Rhonda and I struggling to find a good title for an episode, and settling on a working title of “Diverted,” which was just on-the-nose and clearly devoid of panache. Eventually, we’d come up with something good to replace it. And yet…

Animated series, "Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return" (2008-2010) title graphic.
Animated series, "Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return" episode title, "Diverted" (2010).
Sigh. Don’t let this happen to you.

And to think, our previous episode was called “Diamonds are an Evil Lord’s Best Friend.” So far to fall…

I feel like this had to be what happened with The Karate Kid. When I first learned about that title, I thought it was the most ludicrous thing I’d ever heard. It was supposed to be a drama, but it sounded like a cartoon.

In the end, though, the movie was so great that the title sounds perfectly reasonable in retrospect. But in my opinion, the movie itself had to rise above it.

Don’t do that to your scripts. The bar is high enough as it is.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The Day Job and DreamWorks “Wizards”

DreamWorks Wizards: Tales of Arcadia Poster
Big Finish

Like a lot of screenwriters, my freelance gigs have infrequently provided enough income to make a living.

To be able to do fun things like eat and pay health insurance, requires one to have an additional source of income…

aka – The Day Job.

Lucky for me, I took a few editing classes at NYU and got my hands on an early generation Avid at one of my first jobs.

This provided what some might call, “marketable skills.”

As a result, I’ve gone back and forth between writing and editing gigs throughout my career – often doing both simultaneously.

A few years ago, a friend at DreamWorks Animation reached out to tell me they were looking for an Assistant Editor that could work an evening shift.

Despite not having worked specifically as an AE, I had edited on enough low budget series – where you did everything from start to finish – to be pretty well qualified.

The unusual shift also seemed ideal, as it gave me time to write and take meetings in the morning, and then get to DreamWorks around lunchtime. All with a fifteen minute commute? Let’s do this thing.

The merry band of AEs I joined were working on the Dragons: Race to the Edge series, as well as a new show from Guillermo del Toro called Trollhunters. Eventually, Dragons wrapped and Trollhunters grew into the Tales of Arcadia trilogy with 3Below and the upcoming Wizards.

DreamWorks 3Below: Tales of Arcadia Crew. Guillermo Del Toro. Marc Guggenheim.
It takes a village to make an animated TV show. Or at least this many people to make 3Below

So what exactly does an Assistant Editor do? Well, that kind of depends on the project, of course, but in the feature-esque GDT series pipeline, we had a hand in almost everything that happened between script and streaming.

Moving Pictures

Once the episode script is written, it gets broken into sequences and storyboarded by one of several Storyboard Artists under the guidance of the episode Director.

Those boards are divided into three acts and then imported into the editing system (in our case, an Avid network, where multiple Editors and Assistant Editors can access the project simultaneously). These hundreds of still images are then used to build what’s called an Animatic.

An Animatic serves as a sort of workshop for the episode, utilizing storyboard drawings, dialogue, sound effects, and music, to shape and hone it before it moves to the animation stage.

Step one of the build is to time those boards to the scratch dialogue and action.

Fleeting Words

DreamWorks Animation Scratch Record. James Hereth.
My scratch performance making coordinator Rebecca laugh. Or vomit. Not entirely clear.

At the Animatic stage, the final voice cast has rarely recorded (and occasionally has yet to even be cast).

As a result, scratch is used instead. Scratch is basically temporary line reads performed by people on the crew and recorded by an Assistant Editor.

This could be anyone in the area who’s willing, available, and a more-or-less a passable actor.

We had a Compositing Supervisor who always played Jim, an Editor for Toby, Production Supervisor for AAARRRGGHH!!!, and I had the honor of being the go-to Steve Palchuk.

And Douxie. And Lanceleot. Also Galahad. Being in the office next to where most of the scratch was recorded really played to my advantage. Being a classically-trained ham sealed the deal.

Once the episode Editor was happy with the board timing and scratch selection, they would split up the acts with the AEs and we would get to work cutting in temporary sound effects.

That, in turn, would be followed with a temp score (sourced from a huge library of existing soundtracks) to really give the creatives and executives a good idea of how the finished product would play.

If you’d like to see a version of this process, you can click on over to a YouTube video called What Does an Animatic Editor Do? by R. Chett Hoffman and Stephen Leonard. While the tasks aren’t distributed quite the same as they are for the Tales of Arcadia, the general process is almost identical for this stage of the series.

Revisions. Followed by Revisions

James Hereth and Tales of Arcadia's Steve Palchuk. Art by Betsy Bauer.
Me and Steve Palchuk as drawn by the talented Betsy Bauer.

Once a version was complete, the Animatic would then run the gauntlet of Directors, Showrunners, Producers, and Executives.

Sometimes things that read well on the page didn’t play as well on the screen. Other times, watching a cut would inspire new and improved ideas (or at least different ones).

Either way, notes would follow, and then changes would follow that.

New storyboards would be drawn by a Storyboard Revisionist. New scratch would be recorded to match the new picture. Then it would all get put back together until everyone was satisfied and we had ourselves a locked Animatic.

Dimensionality

The next step for the show in general – and the Assistant Editors in particular – was something called The Publish.

Now the publish is a long and convoluted process. It would take an entire blog post just to explain how it works. But nobody wants to read that. I’m not even sure it’s able to be expressed in a language humans can comprehend.

Suffice to say it’s a way to get the locked Animatic divvied up multiple ways and into multiple pieces, put into a bin one AE refers to as the “Publish Burrito,” and ultimately sent to the overseas animation studio.

There, they use some sort of black magic to turn two dimensional pictures into three dimensional computer images using a program called Maya or possibly Rudolph (clearly this isn’t my area of expertise).

At the same time that’s going on, Production Dialogue starts getting delivered to the Assistant Editors.

DreamWorks Animation Campus. Glendale, California.
Where the magic happens. Also, Firecracker Chicken.

Production Dialogue is the name for the final audio performed by the professional voice cast and recorded by an engineer on a recording stage.

Sometimes that’s done at DreamWorks in Glendale, sometimes it’s done offsite in places like London or Mexico City.

Regardless of the place, a voice director is giving notes on the spot and helping give context to the performers to match the animation that’s being created.

We receive all those files and “process” them in the Avid by marking each take and creating subclips of the director’s favorites, known as Circled Takes.

Some actors read the lines almost exactly as written. Other riff to the point where you don’t know whether they’re improvising, or just having a conversation with the crew in the booth. Maybe ordering lunch.

This can lead to performance magic, but it gets tricky for the AEs who have figure out where each take starts and ends as they transcribe it into the system.

Building Blocks

The first stage of shots that get delivered from the overseas studio are called Layout, and are a simplified version of the computer generated characters moving through the virtual sets.

Once Production Dialogue is incorporated and timing adjusted, those rough clips go through a second publish, which eventually return shots with full action and lipsync. These we call Animation.

Tweaks are done to perfect the blocking and movement and make sure everything plays smoothly and clearly and hooks up from shot to shot to shot.

When all the creatives sign off, Animation is considered locked. This is when we send off the cut to the Composer to time their score, while the final shots are created overseas.

Runway Ready

Autumn Aargh from Trollhunters
Autumn Aargh (2016)

The final versions of shots are called Lighting and are the completed, textured, fully-rendered images that will make up the finished show.

As each shot is delivered from the overseas studios, AEs import them into the Avid project and align them over the animated versions of those same shots (which – in turn – are lined up over the storyboard versions).

Towards the end of this process, the final stereo and 5.1 surround mixes are sent back from the audio studio and we start to bring it all home.

At long last, a color correction pass is done and the whole thing goes through several quality control passes to check for errors like missing pixels, out of range color, and audio problems like off-sync dialogue or SFX.

Before you know it, your show is streaming on Netflix.

Simple, right?

But Wait, There’s More

Waka Chak a Lantern
Waka Chak a Lantern (2017)

In addition to being able to pay bills, working for a studio like DreamWorks comes with a lot of perks.

On the job side, you get to spend time with a ton of talented and creative people.

As a writer, it’s great to get a peek into the processes of Story Editors like Kevin & Dan Hageman (Trollhunters), Ashley Bradley (3Below) and Aaron Waltke & Chad Quandt (Wizards).

True, it hasn’t led to a script assignment yet. But there’s always next week.

There’s also the occasional visit by talent, like Diego Luna taking a tour through the production offices, or Stephanie Beatriz sticking her head into the Assistant Editor bay to say hello. Did I mention Guillermo del Toro and Marc Guggenheim dropping by with frequency?

And of course, I need to mention the legendary free breakfast and lunch and an annual pumpkin carving contest at Halloween. As it happens, I’ve been an award winner for four years running. There’s a hyphenate most people don’t expect.

Happy Ha-Luug-ween from 3Below
Happy Ha-Luug-ween (2018)

That being said, it’s not all fun and games. It’s a good job, but it’s still hard work. Crews put in long hours, deal with relentless deadlines, and push hard to outdo themselves season after season.

So check out the fruits of our labor as Wizards drops on Netflix this Friday, August 7th. It’s kind of awesomesauce.

In the meantime, you still have a few days to get yourself up to speed and in the zone, starting with 52 episodes of Trollhunters, and 26 of 3Below.

Get cracking!

Don’t think. Become… a fan of Wizards: Tales of Arcadia

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[THREE CENTS] Sounds Like… A Different Band Entirely

Alex Turner and Niall Horan

Different Bands Entirely
Not the same guy

A few months ago I was listening to the radio and heard a new song I was sure was by the Arctic Monkeys, or at the very least a solo tune by the lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys.

Turns out, I had no idea what I was talking about.

It also turns out that I had no idea who the lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys is (it’s Alex Turner) or most of One Direction (we won’t list them here, but for sure you can Google it if you’ve got the time).

The song in question was Nice to Meet Ya by Niall Horan (of One Direction, apparently). It’s catchy. I like it. Nevertheless, I propose it should become part of the repertoire of the aforementioned Monkeys instead.

I mean, right?

I suspect I’m not alone here. In the broader, conceptual way at least.

It’s a pretty common experience to attribute songs to the wrong band. You hear something on the radio, or maybe in the mall, and you’ll swear it’s by artist A. Only it’s not. It’s by Artist K. Sometimes P. Who knew?

I think it’s time for radical action.

To clear up any confusion in the future, and – more importantly – have the world make a little more sense, I recommend these soundalike songs be annexed by the groups they sound like.

Please write your local representatives.

Check out the examples below. Of course, seeing the videos kind of undermines the mistaking notion, but I think the idea still stands.

Maybe close your eyes and just listen…

How can you hear Stuck in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel and not think you’re listening to Bob Dylan?

Dylan Doppelganger

How is it possible that Sister Hazel‘s Hard to Say isn’t really by Blues Traveler?

The low rez video really ups the confusion level

And most of all, tell me that The HolliesLong Cool Woman in a Black Dress isn’t actually a Creedence Clearwater Revival Song?

(turns out this is actually kind of by design)

Creedence Clearwater Redundant

Come to think of it, former Creedence lead singer, John Fogerty, actually got sued because his solo song The Old Man Down the Road sounded too much like his CCR song, Run Through the Jungle. That lawsuit was like an Escher drawing.

Did I mention The Great Commandment by Camouflage should be by Depeche Mode? It’s true.

Just can’t get enough? Here’s more of the same, but different

Speaking of the 80s, there was a song by Regina called Baby Love that for all intents and purposes was Madonna. I don’t even think Regina would fight me on that.

A Madonna by any other name

And just the other night, I realized Love is Like Oxygen by Sweet should actually belong to ELO. At least the chorus…

I’ve got nothing pithy to say here. I just love this song.

Sometimes these are happenstance, and sometimes there’s intention.

There’s a bit of a fine line between homage and plagiarism. Some might say Blurred Lines. If you’re trying to literally sound like an existing song, you’re risking a lawsuit or worse. On the other hand, just sounding like an existing band might keep you out of trouble. It might even get you a hit single.

Some musicians manage to successfully thread the needle.

Billy Joel‘s whole An Innocent Man album was designed to pay homage to various artists. The vast majority of Lenny Kravitz‘s career is an homage to the 1970s.

Conversely, Lady Gaga‘s Born This Way might’ve cut a little too close to the way her inspiration chose to express herself.

It’s all in the ear of the beholder. And possibly their attorneys.

Any songs you were sure were by another artist and feel that second artist should just absorb it into their catalog? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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