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Category: About Filmmaking (page 1 of 6)

Activation Energy

I’ve had a post about Activation Energy mulling in my head for a couple weeks. Then I thought, I wonder if I’ve written about Activation Energy before? And guess what?

I have.

In 2008. Six and a half years ago. It’s something like the 20th post on the site—of more than 1200 at this point. I suppose that means the topic bears revisiting?

Activation Energy is a concept I coopted from Chemistry. Coined by Swiss scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1889, it refers to “the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.” In my usage, it refers to the amount of mental energy required to enter the creative state.

For example, how much must I procrastinate before I am filled with fear that I will not be able to meet my deadline? Or, how long does this idea need to gestate before I can execute it properly? Or, what do I need to clear off my plate before I can adequately focus on the task at hand? Creativity is the reactant. Creative work is the chemical reaction. And these efforts are the energy input.

To extend this metaphor further (and forgive me if botch the chemistry a little—I failed that class), chemical reactions produce either an endothermic reaction or an exothermic reaction. That is, reactions that absorb energy (endothermic) or reactions that release energy (exothermic). In Chemistry this is usually expressed as heat. An endothermic reaction is typically a cold reaction, whereas an exothermic reaction is hot.

Sometimes your activation energy is just right and you explode in a wild torrent of output and things are great and everything is amazing. That’s exothermic. Like an explosion.

Other times, it’s not so great. Anyone who has ever struggled on a creative project knows that you can find yourself in the perfect motivated place to do whatever you need to do, but very little comes out of it. It often feels like a failure. That’s endothermic.

Luckily, more times than not, the energy was not wasted. You just gave yourself a little more time to think about what you need to do. It’s all still there, ready to come out the next time in a different way. Sunlight is absorbed by plants allowing them to grow large, which is an endothermic process. Then, the larger plants catch fire and release all that stored up sunlight in a tremendous wildfire. The same is true of our creativity. The only thing that actually gets in its way is not overcoming the activation energy hump.

In my previous post I wrote about myself as a high activation energy sort of person. I don’t think that is totally true. Sometimes getting myself into that perfect state is like pulling teeth and sometimes my activation energy is so high that I will just never get there. But other days, it comes quick and easy. Im the type of person who keeps trying to be a better one each day and to compromise and explore every new thing, with the korean ginseng I manage to maintain my mind in the perfect state to begin any type of adventure and to overcome this energy activation each time.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the better my mood, the higher my activation energy. If I’m feeling super good and in the black on the anger spectrum (more on this in a later post), you’d have to nuke my brain to give me enough activation energy no matter how much I wanted to work. But if I am fuming pissed and stewing and far into the red, well, then all you have to do is get out of my way and I’m cranking through whatever I need to. Go too far, though, and it’s all lost. It’s a delicate balance.

If I’m well rested, nope. If I am too tired, nope. Somewhere in the balance there is a sweet spot where my brain isn’t bouncing around, fresh and rested, or dull and lethargic with exhaustion. Just tired enough not to be a spazz, but not so tired I can’t think.

If I’ve not been working at all, nope. If I’ve been working too much, nope. Again, balance. If I am not working at all, I fall into an inertia hole and I am dull and uncreative, but if I am working too much, all my creative juju is used up by projects at work with little-to-none left for other things.

The real question is, what is the proper life-work-emotional balance to lower your activation energy to a place where getting the reaction going is relatively easy? That balance is, of course, different for each person and for different types of projects.

With work, I need to procrastinate until that moment when not starting means not finishing in time. Up until that point, I’ll dawdle and distract myself, while feeling progressively more guilty and by extension progressively angrier until the equation tips and I blow through whatever work I have to do.

On personal projects, it helps me to be beholden to a partner. Someone expecting something on a deadline will put me into the creativity cycle I referenced in the previous paragraph. If no one is waiting for anything, then I fall into a procrastination spiral that resembles the cycle above but over a much, much longer period of time.

Take this post for example: I started it on the 21st of May. Today is the 10th of June, nearly 3 weeks later. What have I been doing with all that time? Working, mostly, and a bunch of work social stuff, all of which affect the balance. But today I finally reached the place where my activation energy equation worked to my advantage and I’ve written ~750 additional words so far. Not too bad. I can finally stop thinking about this post lingering my drafts, unfinished, and move on to another post I will start and then finish weeks later.

I’ve always been impressed with people who have seemingly low activation energy, the types who can just sit down, get their focus on, and crank through the work. I am definitely not one of those people, but by knowing what affects me and my creative process I can, and to a lesser extent have, learned to manipulate myself into that low activation energy state. In the end, if to lower the barrier to reaction I must do all this additional work and put myself into the perfect life-work-emotional balance, then maybe I am a high activation energy creative person after all. Maybe I was right back in 2008. Funny.

The Clean Up, a Kickstarter

My dear friend Jesse and I are making another film in a couple of months called The Clean Up. He does his best to explain it in his classic Jesse Allen manner in the video above. Or you can read this handy text copypasta below.

“The Clean Up” chronicles a single night in the life of two Mexican cleaning ladies, Paola and Alejandra, as they clean a tall Manhattan office building.

New to this country, city, and job, Alejandra is lead around by her jaded co-worker, Paola, as they make the rounds of each floor of the building. Paola’s disdain for the office workers, and their complete disregard for her, becomes immediately apparent to Alejandra. Paola’s mood, however, shifts when she runs into Mr. Samuelson, an amiable older businessman. The two seem to have developed a genuine friendship throughout the years.

As they finish their shift later that night, Alejandra notices that her necklace has gone missing. When retracing their steps through the building, however, the two discover the dead body of Mr. Samuelson by his desk. Judging from the content on his screen, the position of his pants, and the belt around his neck, Mr. Samuelson seems to have died via Autoerotic Asphyxiation.

Paola is horrified. The death of her friend, especially his cause of death, are (sic) too much for her. Shifting between denial and panic, she convinces Alejandra to help her stage elaborate fake deaths for Mr. Samuelson that might seem more dignified when he’s eventually found in the morning. As they drag around his dead body, each setup grows even more ridiculous and desperate. Finally, Paola gives up.

Seeing no other option, Alejandra suggests that the two stage Mr. Samuelson’s suicide by throwing his body off the roof of the building. Though not as “dignified” as Paola’s original intention, it’s better than the truth. Tasked with now writing a suicide note for Mr. Samuelson, Paola conjures up her resentment for the other workers in the building (expressed in the beginning of the film) and constructs a cathartic critique of how this building, city, and society function. While she’ll likely be ignored again the following day, she finally has a voice that will be heard. That voice, however, is through the proxy of a dead, white collar worker.

The Clean Up will be our fifth film collaboration, another in a much longer line of creative collaborations between me and Jesse since we’ve been twelve years old. That is a long time. It is nice to have a working relationship with someone you are friends with because it makes telling them their ideas are stupid a lot easier. And, in the end, I think the work truly benefits from having that sort of frank discourse with a creative partner.

And Jesse is just adorable. Who wouldn’t want to work with him?

So go ahead and donate to our Kickstarter. We have 20 days left and are over the 50% mark. I know that Jesse would really appreciate your help, however minor, and I would too. Give us your money and then look forward to seeing the film here, there, and everywhere else.

On secondhand embarrassment.

Last week, Sarah wrote a funny, accurate article about the show Girls (and if you’ve ever wondered what talking to the girl in the dance videos is like, you now have a very good idea). She’s right too: people love to bitch about Girls. It’s the hip thing to bitch about. When the show first came out, I was actually a firm supporter the program. There was a ton of press about how the show was racist because, in the very first episode, there were no black people. Seriously? It’s a show about entitled white girls. Why does there need to be a black person in it? I’m not complaining when some Chinese kung-fu show lacks white people. Get over yourselves. It was only the pilot. Why not let the series develop a little bit before you start smearing it all over the press? Or perhaps the show was shattering a little too much of your own entitled white girl self-delusion, making you uncomfortable by revealing to you just how vapid your life is? Or maybe you are just insanely jealous of how successful Lena Dunham’s been?

Whatever the reason people had, all the negativity toward the show left a really bad taste in my mouth. I was prepared to be a big fan of the show, even though by all rights I am literally terrible at watching TV shows. Perhaps this one would be different! And then I saw an episode.

At about the 15-minute mark in the first episode, I found myself yelling at the TV. Why?

It all comes down to what I call secondhand embarrassment.

secondhand embarrassment (ˈse-kən(d)-ˈhand im-ˈber-ə-smənt)
noun

The unpleasant sensation of feeling shame, self-consciousness, or awkwardness for someone else who is too naïve, stupid, or just plain unaware to recognize that they should be feeling shame, self-consciousness, awkwardness, or some combination of the three.

I am not sure when I started calling this sensation I’d been feeling my whole life “secondhand embarrassment”. I seem to remember my brother Charlie saying it once, but it came up in conversation years later and he didn’t remember hearing it before. Maybe I got it from my older brother Mike. He’s usually pretty sharp with the neologisms. We have friends who call the feeling “the twingles”, which is a cute name, but betrays the true depth of anguish it causes me.

Regardless of its source, secondhand embarrassment is one of my most unpleasant feelings and will quickly ruin any film or television show I am watching. It is not funny when writers rely on putting characters into mortifying situations to generate laughs; it’s mean-spirited and lazy. Instead of making a joke or some clever turn of phrase, they put some hapless character into a situation for the audience to laugh at. I don’t want to laugh at someone too stupid to recognize they should be embarrassed, I want to laugh with someone because they have excellent timing and do something unexpected. It is the comedy equivalent of using an overheard conversation to create dramatic tension. Lazy lazy lazy.

The other night we were watching I Love You, Man and I spent the half of the film we made it through hiding. That movie is the perfect example of the sort of thing that fills me with secondhand embarrassment. Oh, Paul Rudd is a socially inept boob who fucks up every single conversation he has with another man! Hilarious! So clever! Give him the Oscar! Sure, I had a few chuckles, but the film was so unbearable overall that we turned it off. Right in the middle. And I didn’t care. I didn’t once find myself thinking, I wonder what is going to happen to Paul Rudd’s character? Will he make friends? I didn’t care in the slightest. I was so embarrassed for everyone in that film that I would rather die than watch the rest to find out.

Ok, I’m being hyperbolic. I’d rather cut three fingers off my right hand than watch the end to find out.

Another prime example of the sort of schlock that makes me cringe can be found in reality TV. Pretty much all of it. The first episode of this season’s Bachelor was so painful, I spent half the episode pacing around the apartment, busying myself, doing the dishes, tidying up the fridge, because I could not stand to watch the idiot women make fools of themselves in front of the blonde, white bread lead of the show. The woman who came out in a wedding dress?! Or the one who tried to do backflips—BUT COULDN’T?! Oh Christ, deliver me from that sort of hell.

A good non-tv/film example is during any poetry slam. Any poetry slam. Oh my god. Even the phrase “poetry slam” makes me embarrassed for people who take them seriously. Do people still do those fucking things or did we leave them to die in the 90s?

I can sit through just about anything else. Horror movies? No problem. Documentaries about people on death row? Easy! Ken Burns films with soft narration and banjo music? Bring ’em on. But put me in front of something where I feel embarrassed for someone who should be feeling embarrassed but does not and I’ll do anything I can not to sit through it.

Bringing it back to Girls, I spent so much of that one episode being mortified for all the characters that it actually made me angry like a parent getting angry at their child for being a fucking asshole. I shouted at them to correct their behavior. To grow up! Get real! Get a job, you lazy sack of shit! As a reaction, it’s different but ultimately similar enough to secondhand embarrassment that it’s worth lumping together. Indeed, they are close enough that Sarah’s post and a few other recent cinematic experiences got my brain churning on the topic.

Look, I know I’m not the target demographic for The Bachelor or most other reality TV. Maybe I am for I Love You, Man, but that is probably debatable. Those shows and that film are just a couple of example of this offense. I am sure that you, kind reader, have had many moments when you have experienced the shame that someone else should be feeling. The point is putting characters into situations that only serve to allow the audience laugh at them like a bully who has just pushed a smaller kid down on the playground is piss poor comedy and lazy writing. From the moment I was empathetic enough to feel embarrassed for people on the screen, I’ve been unable to sit through this crap and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

The Theme for 2013: The Year of No Pressure

Before I discuss my theme for next year, let’s talk about this year a little bit. Though I built up a little steam toward my 100,000 word goal, I only made it about a quarter of the way through before life got in the way and threw my ability to think about my writing to the wolves. Indeed, The Black Laser wasn’t free from that either. Loyal readers saw the quantity and quality of posts here gradually decline as life got in the way of things. But, you know what? So it goes.

I don’t feel bad about it.

Because the truth is I also did all sorts of interesting things personally and professionally this year; they just didn’t have a lot to do with writing. I made a bunch of dance videos with my now-fiancée. I edited all sorts of commercials for the old boob tube. I edited a death metal concert video and an experiment art narrative short film. I was made officially official at my company. I got freakin’ engaged! Holy crap!

So what if I didn’t write as much as I set out to? Who really cares? I accomplished a lot of things that made me really proud and I fed my brain with a lot of new experiences that can ultimately be writing-fodder. It’s not as if I sat around all year playing video games (though I did do some of that), wasting my time and feeling bad about it. I made things and friends and learned. I am very happy with 2012. I think a lot of that has to do with letting myself be free from my theme about halfway through the year. I remember consciously thinking, “Ok, I can grind out the next 75,000 words and be all stressed about not being on schedule, or I can just go with the flow and see what comes out of the year.” And that is exactly what I did.

In the past I’ve put a lot of emphasis on structure and deadlines, hoping that being beholden to something would keep me motivated. Go Head. Read about it. I’ll be right here.

Ok. All finished? Great.

To a certain extent being beholden to someone does keep me motivated, but I’ve learned that I have to be beholden to someone who is not myself. I just can’t do it. I make too many excuses for myself, and I find that I am always really willing to cut myself slack for those excuses. I am my own worst enemy and my own best advocate. A complicated relationship to be in with yourself.

This year I want to try a different sort of experiment. Though I have a whole lot of things I want to do this year, I am not going to put any pressure on myself to get things done by a deadline. Instead I am going to do things as they come and let my own productivity flow organically. I am under constant deadlines at work, so perhaps being more laissez-faire with my creative goals will allow me the wiggle room at the end of the day to do things as I can, not as I feel I need to. With that, I present the theme for 2013…

The Year of No Pressure

That’s right. No pressure. No pressure to hit a certain word count. No pressure to produce a certain number of stories. No pressure to do anything to a certain amount by a certain date. Just let things happen as they happen. That is not to say I don’t have goals for this year. Quite the contrary; I have a bunch of things, broad and specific, I want to accomplish in 2013. I just don’t intend to put any undue pressure on myself to get them done before they happen naturally.

What are they?

  • Get married – Giant duh on this. I asked her to marry me and now we need to figure out exactly how that is going to work. Apparently, people expect you to know the date you’re going to get married as soon as you are engaged. That’s news to me. Besides, I’ve neither been engaged before nor have I planned a wedding. There is a lot to learn.

    As a bonus for you all, my good friend Matt Toder of Vox Critica fame has asked Sarah and me to write a series of articles about our experience getting married. I’ve already started one on getting engaged, so keep an eye out for that, friends. I promise it will be good reading.

  • Rebuild my finances – 2012 was a very expensive year. During 2013 I would like very much to reign in my spending and rebuild the next egg I worked through this year. Don’t get me wrong; the money was spent for a very good (personal) reason and I would spend it all again in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, it is a priority of mine to keep to a budget and try to dig myself out of a bit of a hole.
  • Pick up the pace of The Black Laser – I feel bad when I don’t update for the 10s of you who read this site. I like to put my thoughts out and share cool things I find and I hope that you like it too. For 2013, I’d like to get this place back on track. This post is the first step toward that goal.
  • Pick up the fiction train – This ties into the previous goal a little as my fiction posts have always been a good source of original content for this site. And I like sharing that stuff with you guys because it scares the hell out of me to put myself out there and that is fun. It is fun to be scared. I have a load of fiction ideas built up, little snippets of ideas, barely formed thoughts, bad ideas, good ideas, stale ideas, fresh ideas. Whatever they are, I have a ton of stuff stewing in my brain that needs to be released. I’m going to release it at you all. Be ready.

I think that’s it right now, but I am not going to stress about adding or removing things from that list as I see fit. That’s just how 2013 is going to be. Stay tuned and get excited for it, friends. It should be a totally smooth, comfortable ride.

Rob Delaney on jerking John Travolta off.

Yup.

Dead Sushi trailer

Because you probably haven’t seen two pieces of sushi have sex today.

Reason #12,563 to love David Attenborough

Sublime. The little turtle’s squeak as he pumps away at the miserable shoe is wonderful.

“Blake’s Lotaburger in Albuquerque and my Meal from There”

They keep coming, people. You think you’ve seen them all and then there are new ones. Every day. I want to buy him a salad.

Cubsrule2040, I wish I could quit you.