In Praise of Naps

@wdavisliterary posted this on Twitter a few weeks ago: “The Four Horsemen of Procrastination”

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From @tcviani on Instagram

It’s a solid observation, and it was meant in good fun. I did, however, have one quibble. Naps are part of the writing process. I cheekily said as much in my reply. She responded as well, saying that napping is “totally” procrastination. And To be fair, the act of napping is not the act of writing. But napping IS part of the writing process (the creative process more generally) as are showers, bike rides, long walks, and getting lost on public transit.

I’m not much of a fighter, but this is one battle I’m not going to take lying down.

Things are going to get Biblical

There are a lot of themes in the Bible, but the importance of dreams seems to permeate all 60+ books. There’s Old Testament Joseph and his famous technicolor dreamcoat; Jonah who was fast asleep before being thrown overboard to a whale; Job, whom God scolds for not listening to his dreams; and New Testament Joseph who decides to divorce his miraculously pregnant fiancé before settling down for some zzz’s.  After a good nap (and some meddling angels) he changes his mind.

It’s this last point I want to emphasize. Joseph had a problem he wasn’t sure how to handle. After he thought about it for a while, he took a nap. The Psalms also speak about this magical, problem-solving nap. “…Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “Hear my cry for help… In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:2-3).

The general theme here is that your problem is too big for you to comprehend. Don’t even bother trying to solve it. In fact, you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, the problem will solve itself.

Seriously, though…

Research into creativity has revealed that there is real wisdom in ancient, well, wisdom. Your brain needs time to ruminate on ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as the “slow hunch.” Over time (minutes, days, years?) you slowly, subconsciously consider the same problem as you age, mature, learn, and change. You open yourself up to “serendipity” (another of Johnson’s terms), as your brain forms new, unexpected connections. (It had never occurred to me that when I did a bible study with my wife five years ago, I could use that information for ammunition in a Twitter argument about screenwriting.)

In his work The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas shares this reflection from the prolific German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.

…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.*

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Image via: Wikipedia Clearly von Helmholtz had something going for him other than looks…

Wallas goes on to describe Helmholtz’s three stage process: preparation, where you consider the problem at hand; incubation, where you do not think about the problem at all; and finally, illumination, where the solution simply pops into your head. Sound familiar?

Physical activity is great way to keep your neurons on their toes, but don’t worry if there aren’t any “wooded hills” near your writing desk. Johnson thinks dreams may be just as beneficial as fresh air. In fact, he wonders if that most analytical of dreamers wasn’t on to something.

Sigmund Freud, he says, had it backwards. Dreams aren’t repressed memories trying to come to the surface, but our brains searching for meaning through all of the clutter (sights, smells, conversations, thoughts, obstacles, emotions, etc.). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the sewing machine, the periodic table, and the theory of relativity were all conceived by people sleeping on the job. It’s not just science and technology. Artists dream up crazy stuff all of the time. Famously, The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all started in dreams.

Sometimes a Nap Isn’t Just a Nap

When it comes to creative processes, the best approach is not always head on. Ideas are ephemeral things and you may spook them. Instead, the research seems to suggest that one great approach is, well, napping. Now to be clear, you can’t use this as avoidance (which is what spawned the initial tweet). But what has actually proven to be very effective is gathering all of the pieces in your mind: the inputs and outputs, the technical hurdles, your fears, and in regard to writing, your subject and audience, characters, stories, motivation, and criticisms.

Hold them there. Look at them objectively. Write them down if it helps. Then, forget about them.

Go for a walk. Do some painting. Cook dinner. Take a nap. As long as you’re going to hit your deadline, take a day or two to just let everything simmer. And if you do, you’ll be surprised to see how things miraculously work themselves out.

I hear your protests, but don’t say anything now. Just think it over. Sleep on it. Get back to me in the morning.

 

*Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2009. 236

Smoking Pipes to Smoking Guns: The Deepfake

Two years ago, I wrote a post about some new technologies that were allowing video editors to create realistic videos of things that never happened. Today, we call them “Deepfakes.” I think it’s worth a re-read. In it, I argue that education–particularly arts education–is the most effective way to combat the Deepfake. After all, Deepfakes aren’t really new. We’ve been dealing with “fake news” and propaganda for hundreds of years. How would you have responded to this story from February of 1898? The U.S. went to war.

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Image Source

But it did have me wondering. What do we do with a Deepfake? How should we treat some kind of shocking video or audio revelation? I don’t exactly have a checklist, but I think we need to look at scandalous revelations holistically. What else supports this shocking news? Do the facts add up? Where did the evidence come from?

The problem is (and I acknowledge that Hollywood is largely at fault for perpetuating this myth), we are obsessed with the “smoking gun.” There will be some single, irrefutable piece of evidence that proves our point and wins the day. But as I say repeatedly on this blog, movies aren’t real life. “Smoking gun” evidence rarely exists, and when it does, it’s usually not enough to prove much of anything.

Strangely, Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape offers a perfect case study for Deepfakes. Here we had a presidential candidate caught red handed saying absolutely repugnant things about women, about mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and loved ones. The Democrats thought this was it for his campaign. They finally had hard evidence of what a narcissistic, sexist pig he was. But it didn’t matter.

Everyone already knew all of that. They knew he didn’t respect women. They knew he was vulgar. They knew he was lewd. It didn’t matter. Trump didn’t even try to deny it. He could have decried it as a Deepfake, but he didn’t need to. The smoking gun was just that, all smoke and no fire.

Is it possible for some video of dubious origin to crop up at an inopportune time in efforts to sway the public’s mind? Yes. Should the NSA stay abreast of Deepfake technology? Of course. But I think the situation is overblown. McKinley didn’t need video evidence of the Maine explosion to invade Cuba in 1898. Bush didn’t need video evidence of WMDs to invade Iraq in 2003. The question is less about what kind of evidence we have and more about what kind of sources we gather that evidence from. Keep that in mind as the conversation continues.

The Contemporary Samaritan

This Sunday’s gospel reading comes from Luke, chapter 10, verses 23-37. It’s a very well known story, commonly referred to as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” It contains a powerful, difficult message to help your neighbor, whoever that person may be. Even if you don’t know them. Even if you don’t like them.

Jesus was a storyteller. He could have just said, “Try to be nice to everyone,” but that’s not exactly what came out. Instead he offered a powerful example of how to be nice, what extent you ought to go to, and who frequently falls short. It’s actually an uncomfortable, divisive message. Remember, Jesus was a revolutionary. He wasn’t put to death for telling people to be nice. But somehow I feel that we lost the real power of his message over the millennia.

So on this weekend, when our president is trying to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit Luke’s gospel with a more contemporary interpretation.

The Contemporary Samaritan

“There was once an entrepreneur and veteran who ran a small coffee shop in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Everyone agreed it was a sound business investment and would  really help increase property values while providing jobs for local residents. One night, after working twenty-three hours straight, he momentarily let his guard down while taking out the trash. Robbers jumped him and forced him to empty the safe at gunpoint.  They beat him up so he couldn’t call for help and left him for dead on the sidewalk.

It so happened that a politician was on his way from a fundraising event in a motorcade with several members of the press. They passed the man lying on the street and one of the reporters asked what the country should do about it. The politician said this was exactly why he promoted a tough-on-crime domestic policy, which he would enact right after the next election. He offered his thoughts and prayers to everyone suffering from the lawlessness that had been enabled by the lax policies of his political rivals. Even though there were six dozen people in the motorcade, no one from the press or the politician’s personal staff stopped to see if the man was okay.

A short while later, a red-blooded, God-fearing American came down the street. He had voted for Hillary in the last election. He didn’t really like the Clintons, but he really didn’t like Trump. He didn’t think his vote mattered anyway. That’s why he didn’t vote in the midterms and never bothered to research who was running for county commissioner or D.A. He saw the man on the sidewalk and briefly thought about giving him some money. He looked like he was in bad shape. But the man would probably just use it on drugs, and his cousin (who had a thing for painkillers) already owed him seven hundred bucks. Hadn’t he given enough to people who couldn’t get their shit together? Besides, he wrote a check to the food bank for $100 every year at tax time.

Shortly after passing the badly beaten entrepreneur, the man thought he should probably call the cops, but then it occurred to him that the cops might want him to stay, and he’d had a long day and really needed a beer. So he kept walking.

At last, a Mexican who had overstayed his work visa came upon the man. The Mexican felt bad because he used to be in a gang, and had bloodied a few people up over the years. He was trying to make up for it, so he decided to stop and help. He gave the man first aid and took him to a hospital. At the hospital, he left his contact information in case man or the police needed to get ahold of him, even though the Mexican realized that if they really wanted, the police would be able to track him down and deport him. After that, the Mexican, even though he had a degree in civil engineering and had spent the last ten hours driving for Uber, went to work his second job as a dishwasher.

And Jesus concluded, ‘I really tried to spell this out for you.'”

Screenwriters, do yourselves a favor.

HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries ChernobylWhile nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.

But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.

In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.

Why Are Night Scenes Blue?

You’ve either seen it on one of those posts that point out some of the ridiculous “things we’ve learned from movies” or maybe you’ve even noticed it yourself. But right there along with always finding a parking spot in front of the courthouse and every tank you shoot with a bullet is highly explosive, you’ll discover that everything at night is perfectly visible, but slightly blue. What’s up with that?

Well, the first thing is, it has to be visible. As I mentioned in a previous post, film is a method of preserving light. No light? No movie magic. Blue helps indicate that something different is going on, mainly the passage of time. It’s one of those subtle things that Hollywood hopes you pick up on, but don’t really notice. But why blue?

Color Temperature

If you’ve been shopping for lightbulbs recently, you’ve probably seen this little diagram.

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That’s right. Lights are different colors. Chances are, you’ve never even noticed this before. Your brain has a habit of calibrating to subtle differences. That’s why you don’t go insane with all of the noise in a city and you stop noticing the tint on your rose colored glasses after a while.

A Look At The World Through Rose-colored Glasses.

But if you pay attention, you’ll start to see nauseating scenes like this.

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Image Source

Filmmakers put a lot of effort into making sure this kind of catastrophe never appears on the big screen.

The thing is, you really only notice the different colors on their own. If the entire wall were orange or blue or green, the lights would have that distinct hue, but your brain would tune it out. It’s the comparison that makes it noticeable. What color is the sun? Well, it looks pretty blue when you compare it to a campfire.

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Moonlight, after all, is just reflected sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that night scene is pretty blue looking.

The other major source of light we’ve had as humans has been the incandescent lightbulb, which also glows at a warm orange 3200K*.

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Photo by Vitaly Vlasov on Pexels.com

So why color temperature?

There’s a bit of physics involved here, but the basic idea is that if you heat something to a particular temperature without it bursting into flames, it will start glowing. So an incandescent bulb (which glows because it’s being heating) is, in fact, pretty close to a temperature of 3200K.

Daylight is measured between 5500K and 6500K. The sun’s light is diffused by the atmosphere, so it’s a little bit of a moving target. But the actual surface temperature of the sun? 5778K. Not too shabby.

Fluorescent lights and LEDs  do not use heat to produce light, but are still measured on the same scale.

More Science

Human eyes detect light with two different kinds of cells: rods and cones. Rods simply detect light, not color. Cones are sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and separate out small (blue), medium (green), and long (red). The other colors are made by blending wavelengths. At low light levels, only your rods will activate and the world will be a series of shadows and silhouettes. But as more light is introduced, the small cones may be activated, and you’ll start to see a little bit of blue first.

So don’t feel blue the next time you’re riding off into the moonlight, even if everything may look it.

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*Color temperature is measure in Kelvin (K), named after Lord Kelvin who created the absolute temperature scale. Since 0K is so cold molecules would stop moving, it’s also called absolute zero. (Yes, Andre 3000, that’s cooler than being cool.) Also, Kelvin is just Kelvin, not degrees Kelvin.

The Last Watch. Thankfully.

On Sunday night, HBO suckered Game of Thrones fans in for what was touted as a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, a glimpse into the magic of the making of Game of Thrones. I’ve seen most of the bonus features on the Game of Thrones Blu-rays. They’re well-produced and informative. This sounded like it would be a great retrospective on the series and an emotional farewell tour. Instead, HBO gave us a cloying, aimless, slice-of-life piece that ranks somewhere between a vacation slideshow and college project. 

There are plenty of behind-the-scenes shots in The Last Watch, but they completely lack context or explanation. My wife called it pretentious. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t understand what we do, and we’re not going to explain it to you.'” I agree. Hundreds of people worked on the show, but the documentary only covered a handful of crew members and none of them very well. No one from the camera, grip, electric, props, sound, video, or AD departments were interviewed. There was no story. There was no narrative (ironic for a show whose finale centers on a speech about great stories). There were some heartfelt moments, such as when makeup artist Sarah Gower explained that because both she and her husband worked on the show, neither of them were at home with her daughter. Sad? Yes. A two hour story? No.

In many ways, it felt as though these crew members had drawn short straws and were being saddled with the BTS crew because no one else wanted to talk to them. That may have been the case, but the documentary did have a way out. Andrew McClay, a background actor who played a Stark soldier for multiple seasons, seemed to love the BTS crew. He was the perfect, humanizing connection between an epic fantasy series and the audience at home. Just an average Joe trying to make a living. But the documentary failed in some very basic ways to craft that story. Can we see where Andrew lives? What did he do before GOT? How did GOT change his life? What do his friends and loved ones think of all this? With so many unanswered questions, maybe he’ll get a spinoff series…

The documentary avoided discussing creative decisions in the final season, in depth interviews with major cast members or the show’s creators, or even a broad representation of the cast. Fingers crossed, those things will appear in the Blu-ray. Last night however, we were given a voyeuristic opportunity to fawn over Emilia and Kit (or Keeeet as the Spaniards call him) and a very brief glimpse at the humanity of a very small slice of a very large crew. Not exactly the kind of documentary quality I’ve come to expect from HBO. Did it fill two hours of programming and keep some of Game of Thrones fans tuning in for another week? Yes. But it could have been so much better.

All Men (and Shows) Must Die

The last episode of Game of Thrones will go live in just a two days and the internet is still roiling about last week’s episode. “What have the writer’s done?!” I can’t be certain how D&D plan to resolve this mess, but I can guarantee no matter what happens some people will hate it. Is all of the Sturm und Drang really merited?

I’ll start with a bit of a humble brag. I was a fan of the books. I was ecstatic to hear that HBO would be adapting them into a show. And for the most part, the series stayed true to the books, which is to say, it stayed true to human nature.

The thing that struck me about Game of Thrones was its realism. Sure, you had to get past the dragons and the army of the undead, but in many ways, George R.R. Martin’s world felt more authentic and his characters felt more real than most things you read. Writers – screenwriters in particular – rely heavily on preconceived notions (also called cliches) to keep stories moving forward. When you’re telling the story of Odysseus, you can’t get hung up what oarsman #3 is doing.

Martin didn’t let that bother him. Oarsman #3, the red-headed prostitute, and the kennel master’s daughter were just as likely to have staring roles as the king and the elite assassin. No one was purely good and no one was purely evil. Everyone was just trying to get by in this nasty and brutish world Martin had created. It was enthralling.

It also came at a cost. Descriptions could be burdensome. Do we really care what all eleventeen courses were at the feast? Or whose bannermen wore what sigils? All of the descriptions, details, side quests, and characters made each book in the series a massive tome somewhere in the 1000 page range. And then there was the killing of characters.

I started out rooting for Ned. Here was a man who was going to get things done. It’s not a spoiler at this point to say things didn’t pan out for him. Then I rooted for his son, Robb… and then Jon. But the last time Martin mentions Jon, he’s, well, dead. Then Martin went off and wrote a book on a an entirely different continent with other characters. (As a reader, I was none too happy about it and couldn’t decide if I would finish the series. But I’d like to point out that, despite some angry fan mail, if  anyone is winning the game of thrones, it’s Martin.)

HBO took the same route, shocking audiences each season. There was Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Great Sept. How do you top that? Looking back on it, however, the question isn’t about “topping” the previous season, but treating Westeros with the same reality the books did.

Life is messy. The people who you want to win don’t. The people in charge are often war criminals. The people who should be in charge don’t want the job. Siblings fight and betray trust. Some people redeem themselves. Others don’t. Game of Thrones created a world that was big enough to be treated realistically rather than having to rely on the tropes that govern most stories. Last week’s episode was a case in point.

Was Danaery’s a long con? Did D&D spend nine years building empathy for a character they knew would turn out to be an unhinged megalomaniac? Or maybe like the gods whenever a Targaryen is born, they just flipped a coin in the writer’s room. The point is, even though it frustrated a huge portion of the audience, it felt strangely inspired. It felt real. We don’t get upset when our deadbeat friend does something stupid. We get upset when our heroes and mentors do something stupid. That’s why this episode bothered us so much.

There are many theories about what will happen in the final episode, some of them more disappointing than others. But I can honestly say, I have no idea what will happen. That’s been the shocking fun of Game of Thrones since day one. Let’s be honest, for a show that killed most of its characters off, it would be completely “in character” for them to do something shocking, absurd, and brutal. I’m fully expecting that. The disappointment won’t be how it ends, but that it’s ending.

I’m hopeful though. Game of Thrones took chances with traditional storytelling, creating something new and complex and engaging. HBO adapted it – warts and all – into something we love, and love to hate. I hope that complexity affects television for years to come. In the meantime, I know what I’ll be reading.

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7/14/19

While I stand by my comments regarding Game of Thrones, and my appreciation of George R. R. Martin’s storytelling, I won’t necessarily recommend Fire & Blood. It is a history book. It’s an interesting, well-written history book, but it’s a. history book. I guess I’ll just have to wait for The Winds of Winter.