Tuesday, 26 February 2019

First Drafts Suck, and That's Okay

First drafts suck, and that's okay.

In 2007, scholar Robert Winter gave a talk where he played some of Beethoven's early drafts for the "Ode to Joy" movement in his ninth symphony. And, well... they're not good. At all. You can watch the whole talk here, but this is the relevant part:

It's equalizing, isn't it? Even for a super genius like Beethoven, a piece doesn't just come in a single flash of inspiration. You have to work at it to make it good.

A more recent example: When Pixar was writing their first feature film in the 1990s, they knew they wanted to do something about living toys, as in their Oscar-winning short film Tin Toy. But the story went through major changes.

Here's a quote from Pixar's Andrew Stanton, as interviewed on the podcast now called "The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith":
The original idea of Toy Story was a Rip Van Winkle story, where Tinny [from Tin Toy] was in an old shop, and then boxed up in the attic, and it became this huge chain like Toys R Us. And you cut to twenty, thirty years later, the box is found and he's opened up and suddenly he finds himself in this "city" of different aisles, and trying to find his original owner. And that eventually morphed into a road picture with him and a ventriloquist's dummy. Which then turned into a spaceman toy and a ventriloquist's dummy. And then we thought it should be the opposite of a spaceman, so it became a cowboy.

If someone asked you to describe the plot of Toy Story, you'd probably start with "Well, a spaceman toy and a cowboy doll..." And yet neither of those characters were in the first draft! What did survive through all of these rewrites was the idea of a lost toy trying to get back to his owner, which is really the essence of the story.

One more example. This one has less to do with actual rewriting, and more to do with cutting out unnecessary elements. A few years ago, Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl fame) wrote a blog reviewing the novelization of Back to the Future. The blog is hilarious, mostly because the novel's writer made some very strange choices. But it's also really interesting, because the writer was working from an earlier draft of the script than the one that was actually shot.

I specifically want to draw your attention to this post, about the scene where Doc tests out the time machine by sending his dog, Einstein, one minute into the future. North reprints for us the following dialogue, noting that "what made it to the movie is in bold and the rest is BONUS novelization words:"
DOC: What did I tell you: eighty-eight miles per hour! Just as I figured. The temporal displacement occurred at exactly 1:20 a.m. and zero seconds.

MARTY: Jesus Christ! [Actually in the book he says “Christ Almighty!” but whatever] You disintegrated Einstein!

DOC: No.

MARTY: But the license plate’s all that remains of the car and dog and everything!

DOC: Calm down, Marty. I didn’t disintegrate anything. The molecular structure of both Einstein and the car are completely intact.

MARTY: Then where the hell are they?

DOC: Not where, when.

MARTY: I don’t understand.
North goes on to say: "Notice how nothing was lost when we cut out all the non-bold stuff? THIS IS YOUR CHALLENGE AS WRITERS: to be able to see and cut the non-bold stuff in your writing even when nothing on the page is actually in bold."

Which brings me to my own work -- specifically, my in-progress puppetry skit, "Channels", in which Mumford clicks between various TV shows (with a soundtrack constructed from real TV recordings) and things fly out of the screen and attack him. I completed a first draft of "Channels" back in June, but I know it needs serious work.

I'm not good enough yet to spot what Ryan North calls "the words in bold" all by myself, so I've been performing the skit for some creative friends. I've already performed it for filmmaker Pixie Cram, and I plan to also show it to burlesque dancer and producer Saffron St. James, as well as Gloria Guns from Scary Bear Soundtrack. I've been noting down which parts people laugh at, and also listening to their suggestions about what to keep, what to cut, what to add, and what to reorder. The skit is going to be much, much better for having gone through this process.

So if your first draft is bad, don't despair. This is the natural order of things.

Thursday, 17 January 2019


Back in September I was involved in a music video shoot with Scary Bear Soundtrack -- a band I've collaborated with before -- for their song "Pyongyang". And the video is finally done!

My puppets feature heavily in the video, and I even sneak in there myself.

We shot the whole thing in one long, exhausting, and extremely fun day. The director, Steven Hunt of SDC Video, was really receptive to suggestions from everyone. Puppeteers often have strong opinions about how their puppets should be filmed, and it was cool that I could say things like "I think this should be a series of two-shots" and be really listened to.

What are you still reading this for? Watch the video!

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Super Simple Puppets

For almost a year now, I've been a contributor to the children's website Super Simple. They produce a ton of kids' content for the internet, especially animated YouTube videos. My job has been to create blog posts, mostly about science, with activities that preschoolers can do.

Two of my posts have been about puppets, with templates that kids (with their parents' help) can print out and assemble.

Here's one that went up today: a puppet of Peekaboo Cat, a character from one of their most popular videos. I'm really pleased with this one; I designed the puppet so that it can actually play peekaboo!

And back in June, for Super Simple's dinosaur week, I modified my blackbird puppet once again to make a puppet of the German pterosaur Pterodactylus. It was really important to me that it be accurate, so I actually consulted with some paleontologists and paleoartists to make sure I had all the shapes and proportions right.

(In the picture below, the eyeball is much higher on the head than it's supposed to be. That big bump is actually the pterosaur's soft tissue head crest.)

Super Simple does a lot of great work, and I'm proud to be associated with them! Their video series "Sing Along With Tobee" features the puppetry skills of Trish Leeper, who was the body performer of Ma Gorg on Fraggle Rock.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Blue Light Special

My supporters on Patreon paid for a blue bike light, which I'll be using as a special effect in my puppet show, "Channels".

Here's a little video showing how it will work:

You can see all my video updates for as little as a dollar a month by becoming a patron!

Sunday, 21 January 2018


I've just started a Patreon page for my puppetry projects. If you enjoy my work and want to see me make more of it -- and if you can afford it -- please consider becoming a patron. Thank you!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Live Visuals for Scary Bear Soundtrack

I created the live visuals for Scary Bear Soundtrack's song "My First Northern Lights" at their concert at the Shanghai Restaurant in Ottawa on 20 October 2017. (The video above was edited by me from footage shot by Julie Cruikshank and Mabe Kwan.)

Most live concert visuals are created digitally, but I made mine by pointing a camera at a small-scale puppetry setup, then connecting that camera to a projector. This gave my visuals a unique kind of tangibility.

The bear constellation puppet was inspired by a Paleolithic cave painting from France. It's made of cardboard body parts, covered in material cut from a pair of black tights, then attached to a black glove worn on my right hand. The outline is a piece of string, and the stars are punched out of paper.

The stage is a piece of Plasticore, covered in more black tights and punched-paper stars. It has a hole in the middle to poke the bear through, and it's held up by PVC pipe stuck into the bases I created last year for my shadow puppet stage.

Illumination was provided by a lamp mounted on the camera tripod. I fiddled with the camera's settings to crank up the contrast while at the same time deliberately underexposing. This had the effect of "crushing the blacks" -- making the subtly different shades of black all look the same so that they all blended together.

Doing a performance like this allowed me to combine the best elements of live and filmed puppetry. Since I really was performing it live in front of an audience, I could respond to the music in real time, and the performance had a spontaneity that wouldn't have been there if I were just showing a prerecorded video. But since I was using a camera, with a single, fixed point of view, I could work with the lens to play with depth in a way that wouldn't normally be possible on stage.

The northern lights themselves were created with the device shown above: the two pieces of wire looped around two of the fingers of my left hand, and the green ribbon, held so close to the lens that it was out of focus, formed the aurora.

If you're a musician, and you'd like to hire me to create live visuals for your next concert, send me an email!

Photo by Jim Dooley

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Scary Bear Soundtrack Concert


On October 20, the Abstractions will be performing at a Scary Bear Soundtrack concert at the Shanghai Restaurant on Somerset Street.

Scary Bear Soundtrack is an Ottawa-based indie synth pop band fronted by my friend Gloria.

Several songs will include my puppets as vocalists or musicians. But one song in particular will feature my first foray into live projected visuals, which are becoming a big thing these days. I'll be making use of some ideas developed for the bear play, which now seems to be on permanent hiatus.

Here's a sneak peek preview. If you know the circumpolar constellations, you can guess what's going to go in that empty space in the middle.

The concert will actually be our second collaboration. Way back in 2010, I performed with Gloria at what I believe was Scary Bear's first public performance, back when they were still acoustic (and I still had hair):