Practical low-budget filmmaking advice from Greg Pak, director of award-winning films including Robot Stories, Fighting Grandpa, Mouse, Asian Pride Porn, and Po Mo Knock Knock.
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The fine folks at Script Frenzy were kind enough to invite me to submit some thoughts about comic book writing to their website, which they posted last month. Here's a repost, in case you missed it. Enjoy!
I came up through independent film as a writer and director, but over the last eight years, I've written somewhere around two hundred comic book scripts for big superhero stories like "Planet Hulk," historical fiction like "Magneto Testament" and "Red Skull Incarnate," supernatural action like "Dead Man's Run" for Aspen and Gale Ann Hurd's Valhalla, and creator owned sci-fi like "Vision Machine." Every day I'm working on becoming a better writer. Here are a few thoughts and principles that have worked for me along the way.
All those good dramatic writing principles apply
They call them graphic novels, and yes, the medium allows for extended prose, should you choose to use it. But I'd argue that the driving engine of comics is dramatic storytelling. So all of that great advice and training you've gotten by reading Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing" and Syd Field's "Four Screenplays" and Robert McKee's "Story" apply. Work those conflicts, tell your story visually, put your characters in motion, know your premise.
Know your ending
I do most of my work in serial comics, meaning I'm writing a 20 page comics script right now that's one chapter in a longer story. I might not write the end of that longer story for six months or even a year. One of the glories of this kind of comics is that there's huge space for things to grow and develop organically -- entire subplots and characters I never dreamed of when I started might develop down the line. I love this kind of writing. But in order to work this way, I always have to know my ending. If I know how the story ends, I know what my character's big arc is and I know what the point of the story is -- in Egri's terms, I know my premise. Knowing the ending thus allows me to take advantage of fun twists and turns along the way -- I can incorporate new ideas and run down intriguing rabbit holes because I can see how they contribute to the big character arc and premise I'm working with.
Massive Greg Pak interview at Newsarama's "Writer's Workshop"
David Pepose has conducted what may be the longest interview ever of filmmaker and comics writer Greg Pak for his "Writer's Workshop" column at Newsarama. Here's an excerpt:
I should say this too, all this stuff I'm saying is stuff that I know, but that I have to struggle everyday to actually implement it, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] It's an ongoing struggle to have the discipline to make these stories work the way they really should. To cut out the stuff that doesn't belong, and to invest the stuff that should be there with real emotional truth rather than manufactured shortcuts, and to find the most dramatically compelling fashion to tell the story rather than just the easiest way to tell the story. These are ongoing challenges that I wrestle with every single day, trying to do the best I can and trying to figure out better ways to do it.
On Saturday I had the great pleasure of receiving the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival's Emerging Artist Award and participating in a "Conversation with Greg Pak" event moderated by Loraine Morrill. The conversation and Q&A session were a blast -- but afterwards I realized I hadn't fully answered one of the attendee's questions, so last night I tried to finish the thoughts on the Twitter.
Read on for the transcript:
Had a fantastic time at the @PAAFF "Conversation with Greg Pak" event last night - thanks to Michael & Joe & Loraine!
But I realized I didn't completely finish answering one person's question. She was asking about inspiration/motivation.
I talked about the constant deadlines as a comic book writer being great for discipline. Can't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. [Comic book writers] have to learn how to make it happen, no matter what, in order to make those deadlines. Which is actually a great thing. Without deadlines, it's far too easy to moon around with a creative project indefinitely.
So what I forgot to mention yesterday was that it's possible to create deadlines for yourself to motivate yourself to finish creative projects. Just a few ways...
Form a group with friends to critique each others' work. Good kick in the pants to at least complete first drafts of projects.
Find contests to enter. Those contests will have deadlines that you can't miss. (But always carefully read competition rules/regs. Don't want to sign away rights without realizing it!)
A couple of nights ago, Twitter user @JohnEton asked me "what advice would you give to a writer just starting out?" Since that's a question that comes up pretty often, I'm re-posting my tweets below for easy reference. Enjoy!
Huge question! Let's see... first, read read and read.
Read everything, not just comics, not just fiction. History, biography, natural science. Everything can feed your storytelling.
Train yourself to listen to the rhythms of language around you, the nuances of dialogue. The way people don't say what they mean.
Make it a habit to write every day. Could be note-taking, recording ideas or scraps of dialogue. Eventually should be stories.
Write and write and rewrite. Get feedback, rewrite some more. It's a long haul - for years, most of us are terrible.
Study the specific genre/format you're interested in. For screenwriting and comics, read books about the art of dramatic writing.
Yes, write about what you know. But also, write about what you care about. Passion for your story will keep you going.
Finally, listen to the little voice inside. If it's telling you something needs work, it needs work. Never stop making it better.
And once you have collaborators/editors, listen to them. No matter how successful you are, you still have huge amounts to learn.
I'm learning/striving to be a better writer every single day, and my editors are incredibly valuable guides.
Greg Pak's "Super Power Blues" is now viewable online
Greg Pak's 2005 short film "Super Power Blues" is now viewable online at the Greg Pak Youtube Channel. The film stars Sakura Sugihara and Brian Nishii in the story of a superheroine who constantly has to save the world when all she really wants to do is sleep with her boyfriend. It premiered in June 2005 on WNET's Reel New York shorts anthology show and played around the country at festivals like Cinequest, the Phoenix Comicon Film Festival, the DC APA Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
"Robot Stories" producer Karin Chien and star Tamlyn Tomita headline SFIAAFF filmmaking panel
By Greg Pak
Two of my favorite people, "Robot Stories" and "Mister Green" producer Karin Chien and "Robot Stories" star Tamlyn Tomita, will be part of a workshop entitled "Up Close and Personal with the Asian American Film Industry" at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Karin and Tamlyn are both incredibly sharp, funny, and totally committed to great independent filmmaking. Sounds like a great program -- highly recommended! Here's more from the SFIAAFF:
Karin Chien, producer of THE EXPLODING GIRL and SANTA MESA, received the Piaget Producers Award at this year's Film Independent Spirit Award!! Here's your chance to come hear her advice on how you could become an award-winning producer/ director of your own! Check out our workshop at SFIAFF this Saturday 1-3pm Get your tickets now, more info below.
Up Close And Personal with the Asian American Film Industry
Special Live Events (90 mins)
SAT 03/13 1:00pm,
VIZ Cinema, $8
As we draw nearer to the premiere of my latest short film "Mister Green" at South By Southwest and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I'll be interviewing a few of the key players for FilmHelp.com. First on the spot is the brilliant Betty Gilpin, who plays Dr. Gloria Holtzer, a scientist with special plans for a jaded government undersecretary for global warming (Tim Kang). Betty was born and raised in New York City and graduated with a theatre degree from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2008.
Greg Pak: You came into the audition and just nailed every little nuance in the script. Tell us a bit about the audition process. How did you prepare? And what makes for a good audition process from your point of view?
Betty Gilpin: I had never auditioned for a short before, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. I guess something as simple as just knowing the lines really well helps me. An acting teacher of mine taught me a trick -- when you're memorizing lines to be careful to recite them monotonously, so you're not married to a specific way to play the line. Then you won't feel thrown if the director wants to change it up, and the lines will feel more natural. A bad habit of mine is to over-plan what I'm going to do in a scene, so that trick helps me. Is that what you mean by good audition process? Or do you mean the actual audition? A good audition to me is when everyone in the room -- actor, director, casting director, etc. -- are all in a good mood and an open, creative place. That's when everyone does their best work.
Just got word that the Slant Film Festival is facing a budget crisis due to arts funding cuts. For the past ten years, Slant has provided audiences in Houston, Texas, their only chance to see many, many Asian American films -- including a few of my own.
2010.01.27 - Asian American International Film Festival early deadline
A FilmHelp posting by Greg Pak
The Asian American International Film Festival in New York was the very first venue to ever screen one of my films and just might have shown more of my films over the years than any other festival on the planet. So I'm very pleased to pass along info about the latest call for entries for the AAIFF's 2010 edition this July. Early deadline is January 27; the late deadline is February 24. Click here for the full scoop on how to submit.
The eMate Hinge Fix: Yeah, I actually did it, and here's what I learned
Another hypertechnical FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
In an article last month singing the praises of the 1997 Apple eMate as an outstanding low-tech writing machine, I noted that one of the big flaws of the eMate is its infamous hinge problem, which can result in a spring popping loose and puncturing the monitor cable.
It's a pretty involved operation, and I highly recommend reading through the instructions and assembling all necessary tools and supplies before starting it. A few pointers:
The hinges are much smaller than the closeup photos in the guides might lead you to believe. I didn't measure them, but if you're planning to do the washer fix, you should have a few very small washers on hand to experiment with. The washer I ended up using was just 7/16 of an inch wide.
Have all the necessary supplies on hand, assuming you'll go all the way through with the hinge fix. I opened up the machine thinking I'd just check the hinges. But when I saw that one of the springs on the hinge near the monitor cable had begun to shorten, I realized I needed to go through with the whole operation. Unfortunately, I didn't have the recommended grease on hand, so I ended up just using a few drops of 3-In-One oil. I'm guessing that's an acceptable substitute at least for the short term, but if the lid seems to stiffen over the next few years, I may have to open the machine up again and grease the hinges properly with the right stuff.
When reassembling the machine, make sure the volume and dimmer tabs from the front case are lined up with the sliders on the motherboard. I forgot about this step and had to reopen the machine (which required another round of soldering).
I freaked myself out a bit when the machine wouldn't start up after the whole operation. But when I pressed the reset button on the back of the unit, it came back to life. I think the blank screen's a reaction to all power being cut off from the machine during the repair process.
It's a good idea to have some strong epoxy ready before undertaking the repair. When I opened up my eMate, one of the small plastic posts on the inside of the machine that serves as the base of one of the battery cover screws cracked. The top of the post fell off and I had to glue it back on during the reassembly. That makes me think it's also a good idea not to over-tighten the screws to the battery compartment to avoid stressing those posts too much.
Make sure you have enough time to complete the project before starting. It'll probably take at least two hours -- and probably longer, if you're taking proper care and it's your first time opening the machine.
Jeffrey Thompson: What attracts you to filmmaking?
Greg Pak: Filmmaking lets me flex every muscle in my body and brain. I grew up drawing, writing stories, doing black and white photography, and performing with school drama groups. All of those interests come together in making movies.
Also, I just plain love movies.
Finally, I love the process of filmmaking -- particularly working with actors, the cinematographer, and the sound designer and composer to find the emotional core of a scene. There's something absolutely beautiful about figuring out what a scene's really about and being able to support that from every angle.
JT: Does a background with comics help with film making?
GP: It actually worked the other way around for me -- I started off in film and then became a professional comics writer. Then again, when I was a kid, I was drawing cartoons long before I ever had the chance to make a movie, so I guess it works that way, too.
So the answer is yes -- going in both directions. Working in film definitely helped me get my sea legs in comics. I'd written dozens of shorts and a few feature films before I ever wrote a comics script. And since the basic principles of dramatic storytelling are the same, I suppose I had a pretty good foundation. Of course, there were a ton of comics-specific quirks and techniques I had to learn (and continue to learn to this day). But all that practice in thinking about how to tell stories visually was incredibly helpful.
And now, moving back into filmmaking with my latest short film, "Mister Green," I'm finding that there are some things I've learned from comics that are helping me with filmmaking. I had a great time working with my cinematographer Sam Chase on the "Mister Green" set largely because the two of us found a really great vibe and in the face of some insane scheduling pressures, we were willing to take some big chances regarding the look of the picture that paid off in a big way. (That's Sam and yours truly to the right there, thinking big thoughts on the set of "Mister Green.")
I think working in comics, where there's always an insane deadline that forces a constant series of nearly instantaneous creative decisions, has helped me become a little more fearless about taking the big creative leaps necessary to find beautiful solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.
Back in 2001 when my main laptop was a 6.1 pound G3 "Pismo" Powerbook with 90 minutes of battery life, I found out about the Alphasmart Dana, a two pound writing machine with a full-sized keyboard that ran on the Palm operating system, could sync with my main computer, and would operate for 25 hours on a single charge. After getting a Dana as a gift, I used it to keep a journal of the "Robot Stories" distribution process and to write some of my early comic book scripts for Marvel while on the road. I loved being able to carry it around in a backpack or satchel without feeling the weight at all. I liked being able to use it on the subway without the same level of anxiety I'd have pulling out a $3000 laptop. I loved the instant on/off nature of the machine. And I dug the way a simple interface combined with incredibly long battery life and supreme portability encouraged me to write whenever I had the chance or inspiration.
I put my Dana on the shelf and forgot about it for a while after I got my first iBook. The lightness of the iBook (and its fresh, long lasting battery) addressed some of the Pismo drawbacks that had pushed me towards the Dana. But while clearing my office of old electronics last month, I pulled the Dana down from the shelf and began using it again.
I had so much fun typing on the Dana that I found myself thinking about how it could be improved. A better screen, a stronger backlight. A different form factor that would make it easier to write while lounging on a couch or in bed. And lo and behold, while poking around various Macintosh websites, I stumbled across the Apple eMate, a four pound portable computer sold to educational markets in 1997 and 1998 that bore some surprising similarities to the Dana.
Both the Dana and the eMate were designed with the educational market in mind. Both are solid state computers with no moving parts and incredibly sturdy plastic bodies. Both run on software originally designed for pocket organizers and feature a stylus rather than a mouse. Both have black and white screens with green backlights. Both use their own barebones but functional word processors that can export and import rtf files. Both turn on instantly and automatically save everything that you type. And both run for days on a full charge.
The main difference is form. The Dana is the more stripped down machine -- with a full sized keyboard and a wide but short, non-adjustable screen. The eMate has a laptop-style screen that shows about twice the number of lines that a Dana does. The eMate's only four pounds, but the Dana's just two.
After staring hungrily at eBay listings for a couple of weeks, I finally pulled the trigger on a used eMate -- paying ten bucks for the machine and another twenty for shipping. And then I picked up a used Alphasmart Neo, an even more stripped down writing machine with a similar form factor to the Dana but without the Palm operating system and the non-writing oriented software.
So here, at long last, is a point-by-point showdown between the eMate, the Dana and the Neo to determine which computer is indeed the perfect writing machine.
FilmHelp: Dead battery in Alphasmart Dana crashes entire unit
Another hypertechnical FilmHelp article from Greg Pak
I recently acquired a used Alphasmart Dana (original AA series, 8 mb memory) that wouldn't start up. Since these machines are all solid state and are built for abuse, I highly suspected that the problem was just a dead battery. But when I plugged the Dana in via USB or via an AC adaptor, the machine still wouldn't start up. The closest I got was the Palm logo briefly flickering across the screen, even when I tried both soft and hard resetting the unit.
Finally I removed the battery and inserted a charged battery from my working Dana. And the new Dana started up immediately! I was able to reset the unit, and from that point on it was able to work with either the AC adapter or with three AA batteries.
But when I reinserted the dead battery (in hopes of charging it), the machine froze again and wouldn't start up -- even when plugged into the wall. It required a hard resetting to function properly again.
My final test was to try the dead battery out on my working Dana. The result was the same -- the Dana froze up and had to be hard reset to function again.
Conclusion? A dead battery can cause an Alphasmart Dana to crash. Recovery may require a hard resetting, which wipes out any added data, returning the machine to its factory presets.
Another hyper-technical FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
I recently replaced the battery on a first generation Macbook Air (1.8 GHz). The Macbook Air battery isn't considered "user replaceable" by Apple -- it's locked inside the enclosure, held in place by nine screws. Apple charges $129 to replace the battery. But I wasn't thrilled about wiping the drive (for security reasons) and giving up the computer to be serviced. Instead, I bought a new replacement battery for $70 on ebay and followed the incredibly helpful instructions at ifixit.com to open the case with a tiny Phillips head screwdriver and replace the battery.
I started the project with some trepidation because I'd generally seen laptop batteries peter out bit by bit -- I'd never had a battery suddenly cease to hold a charge the way this one died. So I had my fingers crossed that this wasn't part of a bigger problem involving the logic board. But since the computer works perfectly post-op, it's pretty clear I just had a dud battery.
Since I couldn't find an exact description of the symptoms I was seeing online, I'm posting what I experienced in hopes that it helps others.
The battery suddenly stopped charging. The computer would work as long as it was plugged in, but the LED on the magsafe charger would stay green rather than turn to the amber charging color and the battery monitor would report that the battery was empty and wasn't charging. This might have been shortly after the battery was totally drained. The battery had 227 cycles on it. I followed the instructions at Apple.com to reset the SMC. And I reset PRAM for good measure. Neither procedure helped.
In OS 10.5.8, under the "Power" tab in the system profiler, the battery showed up but was tagged with "Check Battery." When I restarted using a Snow Leopard (OS 10.6.1) installation on an external USB drive, the battery icon in the menu gave the message "Replace Battery."
If the power cable was disconnected after shutting down, upon restart, the computer would give me an alert that time and date were incorrect. On other computers, that would be an indication that the internal PRAM battery was dead. But now that I have a working battery in the laptop, there's no problem with losing date and time settings. I'm deducing that the Macbook Air has no internal PRAM battery -- so if the laptop battery is totally drained, the settings that the PRAM battery would normally maintain are lost.
Several times after the computer died because the the AC adapter was unplugged, it made a long "bong" sound upon restart. Not the normal startup chime, but a long, more alarm-like bong. That's generally a sound associated with memory failure. But the computer started up normally after making the bong and the System Profile showed all memory intact. I ran the Apple Hardware Test, which also showed no problems with the memory.
Replacing the battery fixed everything.
A completely dead battery in a Macbook Air apparently causes Date & Time settings to be lost -- presumably because the computer has no separate PRAM battery.
A Macbook Air battery might indeed just conk out suddenly rather than gradually lose its ability to recharge over time.
Still no idea where that long "bong" sound came from.
Another hyper-technical FilmHelp computer post from Greg Pak
While undertaking the mind-blowingly nerdy task of updating a 1995-era PowerBook 190 from OS 7.5.2 to 7.5.3, I discovered that my Mac Pro (running OS 10.6.1) would read a Zip disk in an external USB Zip drive -- but it would not write new data to that same disk.
After doing some poking around, I found this helpful post that explained that Snow Leopard has disabled the ability to write to HFS-formatted disks -- which was the standard when this Powerbook was produced.
In practical terms, that means to get files from my Mac Pro onto the PowerBook 190, I had to transfer them to a G4 desktop via a USB drive. Then I transferred them from the G4 to a Zip disk. And then transfer from the Zip disk to the Powerbook 190. Whew!
Creating a burned in time code window in a FCP 7 sequence
Another hyper-technical FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
To deliver a rough cut of my new short film "Mister Green" to the funders at ITVS, I needed to create a file with time code burned into a window along the top or bottom of the screen. There's a nice explanation at thefilmeditor.com about how to manage the trick by:
Creating a nested sequence by hilighting the video clips in the sequence and hitting Sequence > Nest Item(s)
Creating a window with time code for the sequence by hilighting the new single clip representing the nested sequence and hitting Effects > Video Filters > Video > Time Code Generator
But when I'd completed those steps, I saw that the burnt in time code was several minutes off by the end of the program. The problem was that the default setting for the Time Code Generator filter is 29.97 fps, while my footage was 24 fps.
Ordinarily, I'd just double click on the clip and change the effects settings in the source window that pops up. But clicking on a nested sequence opens up a different kind of window that shows the clips within the sequence. I could not find the effects settings that had been applied to the nested sequence that way.
I ended up going to the Effects tab in the browser window. Under Video Filters > Video I found the Timecode Generator effect. Double clicking on that brought up a window that allowed me to adjust the settings. I changed 29.97 fps to 24 fps, then dragged this effect to the nested sequence. And then the numbers synched up properly.
Finally, I exported via Quicktime Compression to m4v for delivery to ITVS. Word to the wise: It's apparently not necessary to render the sequence ahead of time -- the program renders the new file as it exports.
After upgrading to Mac OS 10.6, a.k.a. Snow Leopard, the latest Apple operating system, I've had a series of Finder crash/reboots when opening folders of older material I'd transferred from Firewire backup drives. I eventually realized that every folder that was crashing contained files from Fetch 4.0.2 -- the "Fetch Prefs," "Fetch Cache," and "Fetch Shortcuts" files. I suspect there's something about the way these image files are built that causes the crash (maybe related to the problem cited in this post). I rebooted the computer in 10.5.8 (which has no trouble opening the folders) and moved the Fetch files into subfolders. Since then I've had no problems opening the main folders in 10.6.
I recently bought my first new desktop in eight years and upgraded to Final Cut Pro 7 to edit my new short film "Mister Green." I'll be posting much more about "Mister Green" soon. But for now, here's a painfully detailed report on the trials and travails of transferring a much older film project to the new workstation. Here's hoping it helps someone out there avoid my mistakes.
Transferring the Media
The older project had files scattered across multiple drives on an old blue and white G3 desktop. Unfortunately, out of the box, the G3 and my new 2.66 GHz Pro Mac don't communicate particularly well. The new Mac only has Firewire 800 ports; the old Mac only has Firewire 400 ports. A cheap adapter would let me plug Firewire 400 devices into the new Mac. But my dream of transferring directly from the old computer to the new computer using Target Disk Mode didn't work out -- the blue and white G3s apparently don't work as target computers. Although, strangely enough, two of the drives on the B&W did show up when I connected it via Firewire to the new computer. (Your guess is a good as mine!) But for the bulk of the media, I had to transfer the data onto Firewire drives, then transfer it again from the Firewire drives to the new Mac.
Even that relatively straightforward process became a bit complicated when I discovered that my newest Firewire drives wouldn't open on the old Mac -- they'd been formatted to be bootable with Intel Macs, which means they don't show up on old Macs running less than OS 10.4. So I used some older Firewire drives, which were a bit touchy and crashed once or twice.
Greg Pak asks Katee Sackhoff a BSG-related question!
The fine folks at Wizard have posted a video of "Battlestar Galactica" comic book writer Greg Pak asking "Battlestar Galactica" star Katee Sackhoff a question relating to her acting process. Click here to check it out.
David Libby is a composer who has worked frequently with director Greg Pak on projects such as the Planet Hulk trailer. In collaboration with Tina Marie Casamento, Libby has just launched a new website called BroadwayDemo.com, a demo and website production service for musical theatre actors. Check it out!
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