I have met the hardest motherfucker on earth, and his name is Hu Da.
(wrote this one awhile back, never got around to posting; testing if that’s even possible from China)
Industrial Light and Magic is dead.
Not the digital effects company, but the old ILM – the model shop that did Star Wars. The one that spun off from ILM under the name Kerner Optical. The one that, I think it’s fair to say, for which moviegoers have more sentimentality.
I only got to visit once, in 2004, before the company split in two. The location of the facility was a closely-guarded secret, and the directions were confusing. One wrong turn and you end up at San Quentin Prison (we did). When we got to the address given, we thought we must be in the wrong place. It was a suburban neighborhood, with a street full of large, nondescript buildings.
As we approached, a pair of door-to-door salesmen were exiting one of the buildings, politely escorted by a plainclothes man with a walkie-talkie. As they left, they angrily yelled, in between hurling epithets, “I didn’t even know you were security! I bet your neighbors aren’t such dicks!” – only to realize that in the doorway of the neighboring building now stood another plainclothes man with a walkie talkie. The next building, too. And across the street. Suddenly these two were surrounded on all sides by security. And we realized, as we came to the doorway marked Kerner Optical Company as camouflage, that every building on Kerner Street was ILM.
It was a memorable trip.
I thought about this when sitting in the airport recently, when, amidst the news coverage, the business section began talking about the weekend’s box office receipts. Specifically, what movies had been flops, what wasn’t making money, in short, what was rotten about Hollywood nowadays.
Everyone has an opinion on the Oscars. Nobody has one about the annual chewing gum awards.
Hollywood is an odd place to fail. The industry’s failures are messy, frequent, public, and oddly personal. I wonder sometimes if financial analysts get told they’re forcing diarrhea down the public’s throat – because it’s happened to me. I wonder if BP employees have their opinions completely denigrated and told that they should shut up and go back to their, air-quotes, “job” – because it’s happened to me.
(Hell, I wonder if that happens to people at *Pixar*.)
It gets to me because if it didn’t, I couldn’t do my job. I work long, long hours, on projects for which I often don’t care. But I push. We all push. Because we love our work and even if it isn’t the best movie in the world, it is our job to make it the best movie it can be. We have to make our part shine. So we do. And then?
“Putting lipstick on a pig.”
“Polishing a turd.”
I’ve heard them all. I’ve said them all, in spite of myself. I mean, I drew a picture of one of the main characters from the movie I just worked on – split into pieces, blood and entrails everywhere – and put it easy view of one of the most heavily-visited areas at work. There is an on-going joke about me doing an art show somewhere on campus titled “I am not a team player.” Mea culpa.
It’s easy to be a cynic. It’s easy to poke your nose into someone else’s business and proclaim your opinion. Hell, some people build their entire existence around it. Little Roman emperors, giving gladiators thumbs up or thumbs down. But it’s not sustainable. Just look at the tales of two Conans (one, two). How they took positive stands even when they had every reason not to. Because to do otherwise would destroy them. Would destroy what they love. Would render them incapable of doing their jobs.
It’s harder to create than to consume. It’s harder to wrestle with life’s imperfections than to dismiss the entirety of this sometimes-difficult, often-disappointing world with one queasy “meh.” It’s hard.
So here’s to the old ILM. Thank you for the good times. And to the new ILM, here’s looking forward to more stellar work.
Yesterday, I started taking a storyboarding class with the animation guild. Midway through the lesson, the instructor, a tough old master with decades of hard-earned experience, opined about the primacy of storyboarding. How it tells a story, how it’s the intersection of all arts, all human expression. Writers? They didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of sitting with the material and bringing it to life. Directors? They get to pick and choose. Accountants? Meddle with the end product out of jealousy. Creation, after all, is the most important thing in life.
This Tuesday, I was having dinner with a friend who’s training to be a librarian. During the dinner, my friend, an opinionated, smart girl who is like a real-life incarnation of Daria, talked about the art of archiving, and how important it is. How we are at risk of losing so much of our history, how we simply aren’t good at passing down information. How much we waste our time going off half-cocked, never learning from the lessons of the past. Knowledge, after all, is the most important thing in life.
Some months ago, I was taking a yoga class at a weekend retreat. During the class, the instructor, a nice young woman who’d been teaching yoga for years, talked about the evils of the modern-day junk food world and the importance of yoga. How it heals your body, purifies the toxins, straightens out your mind. How, if you don’t have clarity of purpose and an able body, nothing else will click. Your health, after all, is the most important thing in life.
It feels like I hear some variation of this every day.
I hear it from engineers, from dentists, from financial analysts, from politicians, from programmers, from believers, from atheists, from volunteers, from health nuts, from film nuts, from comic nuts, from people who are just plain nuts.
Everyone wants to be able to sleep at night. To believe one’s doing the best thing one can with one’s life. To believe in one’s own significance. To be able to keep moving as far as one can without the hounds of doubt nipping at one’s heels, burying teeth into calves, and bringing the whole march forward crashing to a messy, bloody halt.
But hey, sometimes they do catch up with you. And you need to take a breather to regroup.
And in unrelated news, I may be going to China for a week fairly soon.
To me, when I next look backwards:
Things start and end in their own ways at their own times.
You do not control this. You do not control other people. You barely have any control over yourself.
You have not done good. You have not done bad. You have simply done what you would do.
No matter what, the universe rolls forward on its own path.
It is not so cruel to deny you a place in it.
Freshman year of college, I had a group assignment. The conceit was that each 5-6 person group had been shipwrecked, and found themselves in shark-infested waters with a small lifeboat – just big enough to support all but one of the group members. The assignment was to figure out who died.
Yes, it was a weird class.
When results time came, most groups talked about their deliberation process. Usually the decision was made either by drawing straws or logistical debates. Not so with my group. We actually had the quickest decision of them all. Because I volunteered to die.
I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic. When the teacher asked me why I volunteered to be the odd man out, I said that I felt I could do so. I’d be content. Obviously wasn’t an optimal state of affairs, but I believed I’d achieved all my goals. If I died, I said, I probably wouldn’t come back as a ghost or anything.
Barely nineteen, and I’m saying this.
In the years following, my friends convinced me that this was due to not having actually experienced life. So I went on adventures. Oh, how I went on adventures. Japan. Europe. Burning Man. And before each journey, my friends would sidle up to me, ear-to-ear grin, and ask, “are you excited?” And I’d say yes. Each time, it was a lie.
It wasn’t that the adventures were bad – it’s that I didn’t want to disappoint my friends. Each time they asked, it felt like they were really asking, “Are you alive now? Do you understand now? Can we relate now?” It seemed like they wanted so badly to have someone experience what they did. To have that connection. But time and time again – I was not transformed by that movie, that book, that festival, that drug, that religious service, that country. I didn’t live what they lived. I didn’t see the same colors they did.
How do you break it to your closest ones that what they hold dear, what they are excited for you to experience, what they love, you don’t? That you won’t be able to connect with them, like they’d hoped? How do you convince them that is how it is, without proclamations that “you didn’t do it right,” or “you have to be open to it,” or “you have to give it time”?
How can you – without coming across as a mopey git – express your doubts when someone says, don’t worry, your answer’s out there somewhere?
Today I am in yet another new place – to be precise, Winnipeg. Here for a wedding. It’s a nice city, and I’ve enjoyed myself here. But if you had asked? No, wasn’t overly excited for the trip.
So it’s the day after the wedding. I wake up and I am not hungry. I google interesting places in Winnipeg and start walking. I pass block after block of shops. Clothes, trinkets, books, movies, food. These are the things to do here. Or there. Or anywhere. Gobble gobble gobble. And I am still not hungry.
Out of habit, I whip out my phone to check my email. Then Facebook. Then the news. Twitter. Reddit. I read the local student paper. I idly scan the billboards.
And I think, didn’t I just say I’m not hungry?
And somehow that thought proves the keystone for my mind’s dam. I pull it out and suddenly there’s hundreds more to go with it. I think about my fractured mind. How I want to write, how I need to focus. How I devour wholesale the works of my favorite creators, as if, by osmosis, it’ll rub off on me. How I am always searching, consuming, feeding, yet never hungry. How here, there, and anywhere it’s what you like, what you buy, more than what you do. How long it’s been since I last sat, alone, quiet in thought. How, for years, I’ve plunged headlong into throngs of people, out every night, surrounded at every hour, when, at my core, I hate crowds. How my picture of God in my mind’s eye is totally blank. How writing is like meditation. How meditation is like prayer. How blank is this paper I stare at. How my answer’s not out there, it’s never been out but in, how, god, I took such a circuitous path. How big is this backlog. How full am I. How I must digest to be hungry.
And so I come back to the hotel. I stare at a blank screen. And I write this.
Off now to get some lunch. I’m famished.
If you haven’t been checking your teacups for storms lately, you may have missed the recent kerfuffle over this Gizmodo article (that has since been modified). For those looking for a summary: girl named Alyssa meets guy online, goes on two dates, she finds that he used to be the Magic: the Gathering World Champion, is immensely turned off from that point forward, writes catty article about it.
As you can imagine, this article didn’t sit well with the internet.
Within hours, Alyssa’s Twitter account had been flooded with scathing messages, and the front pages of many well-trafficked websites (most notably Reddit) were awash with posts insulting her and championing him. The guy, to his credit, has handled the entire thing in a remarkably adult fashion, first remarking on his Twitter that “I just thought she was a nice girl, which I still mostly think. God knows we’ve all made poor decisions in our lives.”
This event struck the “nerd rage” nerve, hard. It’s understandable – while specific nerd communities might be organized around love of a specific piece of media, the nerd community at large is organized around shared experiences. Experiences that this article brings up expertly: feelings of inferiority, rejection, impotence, and rage from marginalization by the world at large. It’s practically a rite of passage.
Not to downplay things: childhood as an outsider is hard. Your emotional defenses are weaker, your peers are crueller, and you have no sense of perspective. You may have a support network outside of school, but internet friends are no help on the playground. The hurt inflicted can last well into one’s later years – as evidenced by the skewering of Alyssa Bereznak.
And some nerds cling to that. Build personalities around that. Scream to anyone who will listen that they are a marginalized minority. Victims.
Well, they’re not. Not anymore. The fact is that nerds have been a driving force in popular culture for awhile now. Look at Hollywood. You’ll see even C-list comic book superheroes like Doctor Strange are getting movies. Look at Apple, the most successful company in the world right now. You’ll see a next-to-death revitalization built on the backs of early adopter nerds. Look at OkCupid – the site on which the two in the Gizmodo article met. You’ll see no shortage of girls saying they’re “total nerds” for liking Harry Potter, or knowing esoteric words, or being diehard football fans.
Nerdy. Football. Fan.
Seriously, what the hell.
It was around the time I saw that, that I realized “nerd” is the new “hipster.” In that it doesn’t mean much of anything anymore.
My initial reaction to the co-opting of nerd culture was to retrench. To reclaim “nerd” – a hard-fought insult-turned-credential. To launch into a series of nerdier-than-thou proclamations. To establish myself as the Alpha Geek. To explain why I deserve that title. To exclaim that I, unlike those others, am a “true nerd.”
It’s not the healthiest reaction to have. It is, however, the common one.
This reaction is understandable: this is a community is defined by being rejected and abused by the mainstream. So when the mainstream co-opts instead of rejects it, many feel anger that their formerly-marginalized interests, the things they’d built their identities around, are no longer truly theirs. Iron Man fans don’t necessarily have that same instant kinship with other fans – one may be into it for the Demon in a Bottle storyline, or Warren Ellis’s Extremis revamp, and another may simply like Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man fans can come from different backgrounds now. That’s new.
The ledge that “true nerds” have stood on has gotten smaller.
Some “true nerds” – I dare say most – take this opportunity to take a step back from the edge. Instead of hating the world, they engage with it. If they don’t feel like the world is out to get them, they may find that they like jogging, or drinking, or, god forbid, pop music. In so doing, they lose some of their “nerd cred.” They lose their attachment to their largely self-appointed outsider label. I know, because that’s what happened to me. It’s healthy.
And yet, other “true nerds” take this opportunity to walk further out onto the ledge. These are the Forever Alone types. The ones whose entire existence is so tied up in their childhood hurt that they can’t stand to let their wounds heal, because they would cease to be themselves.
So instead, they retrench. And get angry, real angry, because their backs are up against the wall and they have no choice. That rage starts co-opting their identity, to where all they are is angry at forces so large and so vague they can’t name or understand them. So you start getting groups like 4chan. Like Anonymous. Like Lulzsec. People who don’t engage with the world. People who don’t care about the world. People who would “meh” as Rome burns.
As to where it goes from here? I don’t know. Although a lot of the hallmarks of the nerd community can be easily identified at any point in history, this does seem notably different than in years past. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen the life of the average outsider transform from a truly difficult and isolated existence to a largely proud, boisterous, and hugely-networked one. And yet, many people hold fast to their picture of life as a lonely, blighted reality. These people cannot or will not give that up. And as their turf is encroached upon, they feel more threatened, and they lash out more. Their own Little Bighorns. Their own Battles of Thermopylae. Their own guerrilla war, for reasons they can’t articulate, against an enemy they cannot even rightly name.
Today her name was Alyssa.
Earlier this week, I finalized my work on Puss in Boots. The work then got un-finalized, but still – I’m right at the end of the show. And it’s been a tough one — I’ve been stressed out for weeks on end, and have barely seen most of my friends. I’ve been very busy.
Not that my busy-ness level is easy, necessarily, to gauge. I’m always on instant messenger. I reply to text messages quickly. I post a lot on Facebook. I can speak informedly on world news. I’ve probably seen that cute cat video before you have. Hell, everyone here has probably caught me at my desk with some completely-non-work-related website up. These are not the actions of a busy man.
To understand this, you have to understand how I work.
To put it briefly, I don’t have direct control over my work. Unlike an animator or a storyboard artist, who has immediate, interactive feedback with what they do (move the pen, get a line), I’m dealing with abstracts. For example, making a splash involves creating and animation millions upon millions of tiny points that represent water particulate. You can’t animate them by hand. You have to cede control to the computer, in the form of simulations.
We don’t know when we start the simulation if it will do what we want. We may have to program in new behaviors or edit existing ones. Increase gravity, decrease friction. Play with the laws of physics. Define some really complex behaviors, all interacting with each other: wind, gravity, buoyancy, viscosity, on and on and on. Write some code. It’s a lot of guesswork, math, and imagination. And then hand it to the computer, let it crunch the numbers, and hope for the best.
What I’m saying here is this: my job is more about time management, cleverness, and ingenuity than artistic ability necessarily. I have to be able to forecast how long something will take, and test within the best of my abilities how it will work, before giving it over to the computer. This means limited, 5-minute simulations to test individual aspects of my effect, before the 6-hour version of the simulation. What can I get done overnight? What can I get done over lunch? What can the computer get done while I work on something else? I need to constantly be feeding the computer tasks, or I’m falling behind. I’m always gathering information. Always keeping the computer going.
This means I come upon many pockets of downtime – sometimes just a minute, sometimes an hour or more. Usually I ping-pong between different effects and different shots, but often I’m waiting. And I’ll check Facebook for a minute. Or the news. Or listen to a podcast. Trying to continue to live life, sneaking it in a minute at a time.
It’s stressful, splitting your attention a hundred ways. Having a life becomes one more task you’re juggling.
Puss in Boots has been stressful.
Here’s the problem: most of these activities don’t require my undivided attention. And I start to have trouble keeping it undivided. I’m experienced enough at my job that many of my tasks are done as a matter of reflex. And when I do need that focus? Those rare scenarios that need real problem-solving? That’s where the real stress starts. That sort of concentration involves a zen-like state of mind that takes time and effort to attain, and is easily shattered by distractions. Like test result notifications. Like emails. Like text messages. Like my entire life.
Some things in life deserve your undivided attention. Being physically incapable of providing it is a horrible feeling.
It’s frustrating and deadening to realize you are not engaged by the majority of your work. To live off of information nuggets instead of substantial works. To be addicted to the flow of the new. To be an info-junkie. So addled with things happening around you that you can’t always think straight.
Which is why I write. Because it requires focus. It demands I unite the disparate parts of my brain, that I sit them down and give them purpose. That I pull myself together and feel whole. Even just for a little bit.
Hail and well met to the sphere of the blogs
Been gone much too long to the world of the cogs.
Pumping out pixels with quiet dull bellows
Which go on unheard by corporate bedfellows.
I’ll lay out my aim: to daily create
A skit, sketch, or screed I don’t quite yet hate.
I’ll most likely fail hard, at least til I succeed
So this post’s more a marker for this one to heed.
I return to my pens once more energetic
Now waxing poetic, not waning pathetic.
Coming soon, $1.50 a pop. Physical or digital. Leave a comment if you want a copy.