Sunday, January 29, 2012

Babylon 5 & Breaking Bad Update!

The film class (which you can follow on Twitter using the hashtag #cccfilmclass) has launched, but the real work on the material doesn't start until tomorrow - it's orientation right now to make sure all the students can navigate around the course and give them time to set up Adobe reader, Flash player, get a Netflix account and so on.  So while I expect to discuss the films and the students' reactions to them, that won't begin for a couple of weeks.

Which gives me time to discuss a couple of other things.

1.  Recently, my husband and I began a re-watch (for him) and a watch (for me) of Straczynski's Babylon 5.  We spend the week apart, due to work/school obligations, so we latched on to the Very Good Idea of picking a series to watch (last year it was Supernatural) so we have something other than work/school obligations to talk about.  So far, we've picked good stuff that caught our interest.  

Now, I'm a science fiction fan, but I'd missed this one.  We're now finished with the first two seasons and I have to say that there's a lot to recommend this series.  The effects are limited by mid-90s CGI technology, but even that can be forgiven, given the show's ambition and charm.  Actions have consequences, characters grow and change and have to live with what they've done.  In addition to all this, Babylon 5 deserves to be remembered for Straczynski's vision - this is the show that brought the "long arc" to television in a setting outside of soap operas.  Broadcast over five full-length seasons, Straczynski had mapped out what he wanted to happen with themes and characters so small bits in Season 1 will come back much, much later.  Like all really good science fiction, it asks the Big Questions, far more so than most so-called "reality television," which mostly consists of people doing snarky things to one another, but not really having consequences of their actions.  Stick with Quality Television and avoid the dreck.

We're living in the midst of a resurgence of Quality Television right now, with television often taking on complex stories and three-dimensional characters with more success than film.  For so very long, TV has been seen as film's slower, less attractive little brother and that is changing.  Don't get me wrong; plenty of TV is dreck (as are many movies, which often fall back on star power, fart jokes, and formulaic plotlines), but try the too-soon gone Firefly or revel in the nigh-Shakespearean language of Deadwood, or just let your jaw drop at the first seven episodes of Breaking Bad.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  

2.  Speaking of Breaking Bad, the project proceeds.  (And the Dude abides, for the Big Lebowski fans out there.)  I've finished working my way through the first season and it truly is incredible how much happens in a "measly" seven episodes and it's downright astonishing how this show hit the ground running.  There is none of the usual "finding its feet" that I expect with any new show (or new art in general - it usually takes time to find your voice).  Aside - I really like the T-shirt my co-author is wearing here and if you say your an author, you have an obligation to meet that deadline!

I think we both have found our "grooves" - remember that we also both have full-time jobs and writing a book is not something you do in your "spare time;" you have to have a schedule and a plan (at least I do).  My co-author is ahead of me in the viewing and adding of notes, but I've reached my January goal of watching and noting the first season and it's a give-and-take.  One week I'll be ahead, one week he'll be ahead.  Just depends on everything else going on at any given time.  Check back in as Wanna Cook? comes into being.  You can check here or at my co-author's blog (click here) or follow us on Twitter with the hashtag #wannacook.

Let me check in on my class - back soon!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

On Your Mark!

The online film class launches on Wednesday and I've been a busy li'l film bee getting ready for it.  One of the major challenges has been figuring out just HOW the class was going to see the films that are the central text of the class, since we don't do "group viewings" in an online class.  (There's also a textbook, but that's used more for vocabulary and extra examples.)  I'm still working the details and I'm pleased with what's coming together - I'm hopeful that all the films will be digitally available through a digital service my college is testing and/or through some additional streaming services of the school (not all the films I intend to use are available through the digital service - copyright and contract issues there).  Still, my advice to my students is to set up an outside account (I'm suggesting Netflix and not the video streaming service, as several of the films are not available in Netflix's streaming catalog, but all of them are available through their DVD service.  Not everything is available through Amazon's instant rental service; I don't know about iTunes.  And Netflix is free for the first month and you can cancel at any time).  I've set up a list of "what films when" on both an embedded Google calendar and a separate Word document so the students can go ahead and get their queues set up.  I'm hopeful that this will make things run smoothly, but in my experience, online classes can be great and they can go frustratingly wrong due to tech issues.  If students don't read carefully (or at all), it gets worse quickly.

To wit:  I've been struggling mightily to get some orientation material set up as short (10 - 15 minutes) videos that I then embed into the Blackboard platform used by my school.  It's a multi-step process - set up the Powerpoints, save.  Narrate over them, save.  Convert to wmv, save.  (This part literally takes hours.  I'm always amazed at how impatient I get at this stage.  The trick is to set it up to run overnight and just go to bed.)  Take the resulting wmv file, import into Camtasia and save as an swf file.  Now embed that into Blackboard and constantly remind your students that they have a free Shockwave download so yes, they can play it.  (Now pray that they have a fast Internet connection and aren't dealing with *yike* dial-up.)

To repeat - Yike.

Hours it takes.  HOURS - and that's if you know what you're doing!  (I'm slowing getting into that camp, but I'm still a little bit in the woods.  I have an appointment on Monday to find out if there's a reliable shortcut to all of this.  But it seems that when tech needs to talk to other tech, sometimes there are limitations and roadblocks.)  In a way, this is good.  I need to know how students feel and I know how I feel when the tech doesn't work as advertised.

Still - I'm determined to make a solid go of it.  But yeah, it'd be so much easier to just show the films in class and do a basic orientation lecture.  Don't be fooled - distance learning works (and it can work very well), but don't confuse that with an online class being less work than a traditional class.  It's not.  Not if you're doing it right.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Update from the Desert!

. . . Otherwise known as how Wanna Cook?  The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad is coming along.

My co-author and I have roughed out a schedule - let's see how that holds up.  I've never written a book by collaboration before.  Either it's been all on my shoulders (such as the Faith & Choice book) or I've been contributing chapters to a project, so I've submitted my work to the editors, who get back to me with notes that I need to consider for the next draft so the entire book flows in terms of style and theme  (the Buffy in the Classroom book is an example of this).  But this involves a nearly daily process of watching, noting, writing up the rough notes and making note of possible "sidebars," such as an aside on just how it is that hydrofluoric acid can eat through a ceramic bathtub, but not a plastic storage tub.  We're using some tech tools to make this sharing of information easier and more efficient - have you tried Dropbox yet?  If not, you should and it's free.  Great Cloud storage, accessible from everywhere with Internet access, so no more flash drives (which I remember thinking were just cool as cool could be only a few years ago).

Just a few notes from the first half of Season 1.  When things go bad at this point (and they quickly do), watch how Walt is so hesitant.  He doesn't belong in this world that he's stepped into, but he's convinced that, so long as he has a plan and everyone else follows it, everything will be fine.  There are problems with both parts of his approach - first, circumstances are such that he hasn't formulated a real plan for dealing with them and second, people, by their very natures, don't much like a newbie ordering them around and demanding that their actions fit a certain profile (or, as Jesse puts it so succinctly, "Well, heil Hitler, bitch!").  Always keep in mind that Walt chooses his actions at this point.

Also, pay attention to the camera work.  Gilligan likes to surprise his viewer by using some unusual, not-at-eye-level camera placement.  When that happens, ask yourself, "What is the camera showing me?"  It'll be important, whether it's the camera focusing on a coin being flipped through the air above two people deciding who's going to do which "unpleasant chore" or focusing up through a floor covered in . . . well, watch the episode ". . . And the Bag's in the River" for that one.

Last, pay attention to locale.  The desert has been called "a place with no memory" and that may or may not be true, but it's a place outside the civilized boundaries of town where the normal rules don't apply.  I think of the city/woods division in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in this aspect of Breaking Bad.  The world of Athens (or ABQ) follows one set of rules and has one set of rulers; the wilds of the woods (or the desert) is ruled by another, completely different, set of rules and people.  Very interesting things happen when these worlds collide, especially in the border spaces.

So much is going on in this show!  I could write here about color in costuming and lighting, or about fear as a motivating force, or about the dialogue that sparkles like an amethyst, but that will all wait.  Follow the progress either here or over on Twitter - use the hashtag #wannacook for best results.

And get that RV out of the driveway!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Breaking Bad Project!

I can officially break the news!  A project that Ensley F. Guffey and I have been working on for some time now is going to happen and we both couldn't be more excited!  Breaking Bad, the AMC show that has been an Emmy darling since it began airing a few years ago, is a show that both of us enjoy watching (well, "enjoy" is probably not quite the right word) and we have both been blown away by the show's quality and willingness to explore some very dark material.  I won't spoil here - much - but Breaking Bad can be summed up this way:  A good man finds himself in desperate straits and is pushed to the edge by his circumstances.  He then discovers that he likes the edge, even without the desperate straits.  It's too simple a summary, but it's a start.

We had been kicking around the idea of co-authoring a project, but hadn't settled on a particular idea until we realized the Breaking Bad was an uncharted country.  It's wildly successful critically and its viewership is both loyal and building.  The show is also, undeniably, a fine example of Quality TV.  So we talked and we wrote and we called and we tweaked (not that way - did I mention the show has meth-making as a central plot point?) and I am proud to report that we are now under contract with ECW Press to deliver the manuscript of Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad.  The fourth season wrapped up a few months ago (short seasons, not the full 22-episode order that's business-as-usual for network TV) and it contained a finale that truly hit the "reset" button.  Air dates for Season 5 (which showrunner Vince Gilligan has indicated will be the final season) aren't set quite yet, but the idea is that we'll submit the manuscript for Seasons 1 - 4 in June and Season 5 late next fall after that season has aired.  Publication will probably happen early next year.  We're going WAY beyond a simple episode recap - you can find those easily without our help.  We'll include information on material as diverse as:

  • What does it mean to "break bad"?
  • Just how does the DEA operate?
  • What exactly is meth and why is it so dangerous to make?
  • Legal ethics
  • Recipes (but not for meth!)

Writing a book is a lengthy project and I anticipate many twists and turns along the way.  You can follow our progress here and over on Ensley's blog, as well as on Twitter - use #wannacook.

See you in the RV!