A Quality Color Laser Printer + Great Customer Service = Dell C1760nw

Entrepreneurship, Media

for blog - color printer review

Ah, researching office equipment–one of my favorite pastimes.  (Not!)  I took my time with this one, going back and forth with my decision tree (for instance, shifting my budget from $200 to $600, and back again).  I ultimately ordered from Staples.com, so I could return any lemon locally.  That’s a sign of me bracing against all the ways a purchase like this can go wrong.

I’m happy to report my good fortune:  not only do I have my new color printer up and running, but I found Dell customer support highly competent and remarkably responsive.

After setting up the printer, my initial test run appeared problematic:  underscore was showing more like strike-through.  Contacting Dell tech support through live-chat was instantaneous:  Niegel, the support analyst, came online the very moment I opened the chat dialogue.  Niegel was great.  His troubleshooting helped me isolate the problem to a specific application; the underscore issue only appeared when printing from Evernote.  Yay!  I wouldn’t have to return the printer, after all.

After closing the live chat module, I received an email from Niegel offering his direct contact info in case I had further questions.  He even included the contact info of his supervisor.  Now that’s transparency!  To top it off, the following day, Niegel followed up with another email, offering further assistance if I had come up with other questions.

The photo above shows the excellent quality of the printer’s text output.  Oddly, two separate PC Magazine reviews of this printer clashed in their assessments of the printer’s text quality.  Review A praised the “unusually good graphics quality” and called its text output “outstandingly sharp.”  But Review B was lukewarm, calling it “a touch below par,” further specifying the text output to be fine for “general business use, though not for uses requiring very small fonts.”  As you can see in my photo, text looks great in even 7-pt. font size.

Good show, Dell!

How to Create Pre-Press PDF Files on a Budget

Entrepreneurship, Media
bus-card Adler GRACoL 2006

Need to order a commercial print job from an online printer, but don’t have Adobe Illustrator ($560)?  That’s my situation.  I’ve laid out a nice business card in PowerPoint (above), including the logo I also designed in PowerPoint.  But Powerpoint does not produce vector graphics.   Printers need vector graphics.  They also recommend submitting PDFs that have been “pre-flighted” using certain Adobe Acrobat presets, such as PDF/X-1a.

Huh?

That’s what I said.  What a bear it was to research this.  And for an additional challenge, I wanted to see if I could accomplish all this on a budget.  I assumed I could find some vector-graphics freeware with which to reproduce my designs.  But the question remained:  how to  save the graphics file in the “pre-flighted” PDF  format that online printers specify?

(In case you’re considering skipping the preflighting step, know that preflighting helps avoid printing glitches such as font substitutions and color alterations.)

Turns out, the key to all this is Adobe Acrobat.

Some of this terminology rang a bell, as I used to  own the Adobe Creative Suite (ACS; back then, $1500) when I ran my photo equipment rentals business.  ACS includes all the programs that produce file formats press printers require, such as .ID (InDesign), .EPS (Photoshop), .AI (Illustrator), and of course .PDF (Acrobat).  I needed all four of them to design marketing materials for that business.  But that was four years ago.  For the past four years I’ve been running my healthcare business, with no need for ACS, at all.  Now that I’m starting up my freelance commercial writing business, I’ve been crossing my fingers that I won’t need to spend $1000+ on design software.

The bottom line is, yes, one can create vector graphics using freeware/shareware (I used Inkscape to recreate my PowerPoint designs).  But for press printing, you need to create properly preflighted PDF’s.  For that, you must have Adobe Acrobat (price varies depending on version and how purchased, $100 – $429).

I verified this by downloading the free trial of Acrobat 11.  With Acrobat installed, the Acrobat Virtual Printer will appear in your list of devices and printers.  (This is in Windows, obviously.)  You simply design your graphics in your vector software, then follow these steps to preflight your PDF:

1) “Print” your file (That’s right, “print” not “save”!)
2) In the print dialog, select Adobe PDF as the “printer.”
3) Click preferences (or printer properties).
4) In Preferences, the “Default Settings” area offers a drop-down menu of PDF format presets.  For business card printing, Moo.com specifies the preset PDF/X-1a:2001.  For printing a brochure, Vistaprint.com requires PDF/a-1b:2005 (CMYK).
5) Click okay to get out of preferences.
6) Click print.  You’re done.

Now you have your vector-based,  properly pre-flighted  PDF to upload to your online printer.

My Rental Studio Business: Big Multiday Photo Shoots

Entrepreneurship, Media
Magazine cover shot in my rental studio business

Magazine cover shot in my rental studio business

My Rental Studio Business:  Big Multiday Photo Shoots

Weddings in Houston, the city’s premier wedding vendor resource, shot many of its covers at my photography rental studio, Silver Street Studio.  Editor and publisher Radhika Day put together a crew that fired on all cylinders over the three-day shoot.  Crack stylist Summar Salah plied her stagecraft on three different glittery sets and twelve wedding gown wardrobes.  Hair and makeup by The Perfect Face transformed the models into showstopping brides.  And photographer Larry Fagala captured all the drama with technical expertise.

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One of three sets during the three-day shoot

The Moment Buffy Hits Her Stride

Media, Writing

Buffy with stake 2

I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan.  But as much as I admire the series, re-watching Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m struck by the wildly disparate quality from episode to episode.  As a whole, the twelve installments are certainly lovable, yet marred by spans of such forgettable mediocrity, I feel lucky I started with the series during its syndication run, watching Seasons 5, 6 and 7 first.  Otherwise, I might never have survived Season 1.

That said, what’s neat is to witness the series molting from erratic, adolescent amateur to self-assured and cultured pro.  That transformation takes place during Season 1, ep. 12, the season finale.  Specifically, the intro segment of the episode contains the moment when the series hits it’s stride.  Buffy is attacked in the cemetery by the latest vampire.  The camera point of view is traditional monster-horror pic, with a closeup of the vampire’s sadistic grin:  he enjoys Buffy’s fear as he moves in for the kill.  But the rhythm of the editing is all camp.  As the camera pans behind her, Buffy produces a sharp wooden stake she had concealed beneath her jacket.  It’s an iconic image of table-turning reversal, a la the poster art for I Spit on Your Grave (compare screen cap of Buffy, above).

Thusly, Buffy flips the helpless-bimbo trope on its ear.  The narrative mood shifts radically from comedic-camp to slasher-horror, a la Friday the 13th.  Only it’s Buffy in the role of Jason.  Next image, a closeup of the vampire’s sadistic glee replaced by the frowning fear of mortality.  As Buffy sets upon the vampire, the action is filmed in a thrilling, Bourne-identity style, close-in combat realism.  Buffy charges, overwhelming the vampire’s strength with three massively powerful strokes.  She dusts the vamp in a rhythmic, athletic grace.  And one feels the series has turned the corner.

Even this show’s biggest fans would have to admit that, up to this point, Season 1 comes off as uneven at best.  Whedon’s biggest and most legitimate excuse?  He signed on to the WB lineup with Buffy as a mid-season replacement series; this meant he had to produce Season 1 in its entirety, without the benefit of audience feedback.  In other words, Whedon and company had to work in the dark, as it were, not airing episodes as they were completed, not knowing what worked and what didn’t, unable to recalibrate between episodes.

Episode 12 pulls the season together on the strength of Whedon’s story-telling chops.  He writes and directs this one, getting the narrative engine firing on all cylinders.  He amps up the driving force of the drama, centering it on an infallible prophecy:  that if Buffy fights The Master, she will die; if she doesn’t, human civilization will end.  Whedon stiffens the clout of the prophecy via the show’s two authorities on the dark arts–Giles and Angel.  Giles so recognizes the certainty of the prophecy, he determines to face The Master himself, in Buffy’s place, a mission of certain suicide, thwarted only by Buffy knocking Giles unconscious.  Angel, never one to shun a fight, steers clear of this one, knowing there’s no way to help the girl he loves and wanting not to witness her slaughter.  News of the prophecy reduces Buffy herself to a state of denial.  She begs her mother to take her on a weekend trip out of town.  Denial gives way to despair, and Buffy hands herself over to die.

The episode works beautifully as a season finale, with long-running plot pots brought to a boil.  Xander finally works up the courage to ask Buffy out on a date.  When she turns him down, he invites Willow, instead, who turns him down, too, fed up with being his second choice.  Miss Calendar emerges from the casting cocoon as an adult associate and potential love interest to Giles, defusing what potential creepy awkwardness there had gone before as Giles survived alone in a universe of teen hotties.  Cordelia gets in on the season finale action, saving Willow’s life in a suspenseful sequence by wielding an anti-vampire weapon available even to a newbie:  her car.  In all of these, the acting feels noticeably more human, the editing more on-task.  And the resulting air-tight thematics push the notion of being “the chosen one” to the realms of inexorable tragedy.

Favorite Clients from My First Small Business

Entrepreneurship, Media

Image

While running my rental studio, Silver Street Studio in Houston, it was exciting to work with photographers and agencies of international renown, like Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Seliger, Art Department and Greenhouse Reps.  But it was a special pleasure to work with those photographers and crews that were at bottom simply great human beings.

TONY D’ORIO PHOTOGRAPHY

I think immediately of Tony D’Orio, of Altoids fame.  (Note:  Tony’s photo used in the ad above was not shot in my studio).  How refreshing that, in a profession so rife with jealously guarded tricks of the trade, Tony instead offered a broad openness and generousness of spirit.  Over the course of a two-day shoot for McDonalds, he showed me a couple of studio equipment hacks that made my job easier and that would be enjoyed by other photographers in my studio for years to come.  For instance, he showed me how to switch out the hand-crank machine clamp of an Elinchrom Octabank–which have infamously weak grip—with the more robust clamp from a Matthews C-stand.

http://www.tonydorio.com/

FULTON DAVENPORT, PWL STUDIO

Image

Lucky for me I like photographer Fulton Davenport as much as I do since he was perhaps our biggest repeat client over the years.  With his busy creative firm, PWL Studio, Fulton was shooting in our space practically every other week for years.  One of his specialties is product photography, which was also a specialty of ours.  Take a look at the photo above, of Fulton at work for a high-end antique shop client.  The tabletop set is comprised of expendables and hardware we kept in stock and offered at no extra charge.  Even more to the point of product photography was our studio’s unsurpassed natural light.  Heres Fulton on shooting day light in our space:

“I love the highly technical work, like photographing objects with intense detail, a la Irving Penn shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue.  You’d normally need (or have to build) a light tent.   But here, you’ve got such huge windows on north and south, the light is perfect.  Tents are used just to simulate this.”

http://www.pwlstudio.com/

JUSTIN CALHOUN PHOTOGRAPHY

Imageastronaut mailer sofa guy

One of my favorite people, photographers or not, is Justin Calhoun.  Justin brought us a big job one summer, and one could tell how much the crew liked working for him.  The makeup department, the photo assistants, even the kraft service people were obviously inspired to work hard for Justin, with smiles all around.  What you see here in the two photos above is a Polaroid test shot (the client wanted Justin to shoot film, not digital) and one of the direct mail pieces ultimately produced from the images.

http://www.justincalhoun.com/

FELIX SANCHEZ PHOTOGRAPHY

Image

Another of our busy-busy clients was Felix Sanchez.  Felix was one of the first to shoot in our studio in the early days, and he continued to bring interesting jobs into our space over the next seven years.  (He has his own beautiful new studio now.)  Before becoming a photographer Felix played in a touring Tejano band, so naturally he’s photographed many musicians throughout his career.  Early on with us, Felix was kind enough to help me assimilate the vast expanse that is studio equipment.  He’d report on all of his new experiences experimenting with lighting equipment.  I based many of my equipment acquisitions on Felix’s information.  The job in the photo above was for Walmart, for which Felix transformed our cold, empty space into a warm and cozy living room.  Go check out his handsome new website.

http://www.felixsanchez.com/

Prepaid Wireless: How to Save $800 This Year

Entrepreneurship, Media

phablet

Entrepreneurs are always looking for ways to economize.  I’ve recently found prepaid wireless to be a great source of savings.

A few months ago I left Verizon for Virgin Mobile, and I couldn’t be happier.  I was lucky a friend had persuaded me to give it a try.  Before then, prepaid mobile service wasn’t on my radar, at all.  Why is that?

For one thing, there’s the stigma.  I’d always thought of the prepaid market as being for the credit-challenged among us.  This understanding was accurate at one point.  Prepaid cell service began as a way for someone with bad credit or no credit to essentially put down a “deposit” (hence, pre-paying for service).  By contrast, if you were middle class and credit worthy, the major carriers trusted you enough to give you service and take your payment at month’s end (aka, “post-paid”), even gave you a free phone.  It’s a little-recognized symbol of socioeconomic status.  Even more to the point of stigma:  prepaid phone cards and disposable “burner” phones purchased in convenience stores were associated with drug dealers who needed untraceable hardware for illicit communications.

There is admittedly a somewhat sketchy feel to using prepaid service.  My experience is with Virgin Mobile (VM), but I imagine this applies to most of the prepaid sector.  VM clearly insulates itself behind the Internet, encouraging all customer contact to happen through their website.  And even on the website, there is no traditional “bill”– no “statement”, no calls log, and most importantly, no account number.  If you’re able to figure out how to get an actual human being on the phone at Virgin Mobile, you’ll find them seriously cagey upon you requesting your account number.  Ask them for your account number, and they ask you why you want it.  I guess most customers seek their account number when they’re jumping ship to another carrier (you need it to port your number to another carrier).  For my part, I wanted my account number to set up VM as a “payee” at my bank to schedule automatic monthly payments.  Guess what?  Virgin Mobile doesn’t deal with banks.  They only accept credit / debit cards or “Top Up” cards purchased at drugstores and big-box retailers.  They do not accept paper checks.  Nor can you register a bank account with them for electronic payments.  (Not that I would ever do that, but since when does a company not want your bank account info?)

So what convinced me to try them?

How about saving $70 every month?  Yep, my Verizon bill was $107 each month.  I’m now paying only $37 a month to Virgin Mobile.  Sure, this is for only 300 minutes.  But $107 only got me 450 minutes from Verizon.  And with VM I get unlimited texting and data.  My $107 with Verizon only gave me 4 gigs of data.

The unlimited data has been a big plus.  I now get to watch Netflix on my phone anytime I want, without worrying about my data plan.  With Verizon, that 4 gigs of data was good for only about eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.”  One caveat for heavy data users:   there have been reports of data “throttling”.  I have yet to experience this, but I’m actually not that heavy of a data user.

How do I manage with only 300 minutes on my plan?  The same way I managed with only 450 minutes on my Verizon plan:  I make most of my calls via the Internet.  I use an inexpensive ($5 one-time purchase) VoIP app called GrooveIP.  GrooveIP uses Google Voice to make and receive free calls over the Internet.  It works best over Wi-Fi and 4G, and it does work well enough over 3G, as well.  VoIP setup is somewhat complicated, but here’s how:  http://www.addictivetips.com/mobile/make-free-wi-fi-voip-voice-calls-with-android-guide/

I’ve definitely encountered some drawbacks.  Make special note of this one — although there are a number of BYOD (bring your own device) prepaid carriers, Virgin Mobile isn’t one of them.  You have to buy a Virgin Mobile phone, whose offerings are somewhat limited.  Better than in the past (they carry iPhones, now).  But still limited.  There’s no contract, so there’s no discount on any of the phones.  So I limited myself to a $200 phone budget.  I chose the Samsung Galaxy Reverb.

The Reverb was VM’s top-of-the-line smart phone a year ago (now $130).  It sports a great feature set; by comparison, my Verizon phone was the vaunted Motorola Razr, and the Reverb has every feature I ever used on my Razr.  But, like so many of the lower-cost Android phones, the Reverb has only 2 gigs of RAM memory, and this is the source of my one regret:  with such limited RAM, my Reverb slowed to a crawl once I loaded it up with apps.  Why not install the apps on the external SD card?  Current versions of android (all versions since Froyo 2.2) have allowed users to move apps from internal memory to the external SD card.  The only problem here is, in order for this work, the developer of the app must enable the app to run from the external SD card.  Most app developers have not taken the time to do this.

But, wait, there’s a solution.  It takes some doing.  And customer service certainly doesn’t endorse this since it is essentially a hack.  But here’s how to move almost any app to your external SD card:  http://www.bongizmo.com/blog/moving-all-android-apps-to-sdcard-apps2sd-froyo/  It’s worked great for me.  Now my phone has regained its zip and pizzazz.

So despite some drawbacks, if you’re pretty handy with cell phone configuration, and you don’t rely much on mobile carrier customer service, then going prepaid is not only doable.  It’s great.  What’s not great about saving $840 every year?

(PS:  What does the photo above have to do with prepaid wireless?  Not a thing.  I just think it’s hilarious to see people talking on phablets.)

THE WRITER vs. THE AUDIENCE: THOUGHTS ON NANA (anime)

Media, Writing

ImageSorry its been a while since my last post.  Ive been busy working on a short story.  I thought I might post some of it here, but I’m lucky I didn’t:  I’ve just learned that doing so would disqualify the story from being published in any journal that asks for first-publication rights, which is pretty much all of them.

THE WRITER vs. THE AUDIENCE:  THOUGHTS ON NANA (anime)

What am I, a child?

I’m watching the addictive anime series NANA, and I’m totally shocked with the turn the story has taken in ep. 16.  The episode begins with Nana’s/Hachi’s breakup with Shoji, which ought to have been the saddest, heaviest weight on the series, good for at least one or two whole episodes of delicious self-pity and navel-gazing.  But before the episode ends, we see the writers have dumped it instead for the intrigue and potential reunion of Nana and Ren.

I’m totally impressed with the provocation and propulsion of this unexpected, whiplash plot shift.  What’s even more impressive, though, is that the writers have gone against the grain here.  What I, and I suspect most of the audience, really wanted was more time for Hachi to grieve her breakup with Shoji.  But the writers decision to defuse the explosion of the breakup was the right choice, even though it goes against the audience’s wishes.

How could that be?  Aren’t writers bound by the pop-cultural imperative to “give the people what they want”?  How have they gone against this maxim without alienating the audience?

They’ve done it with character.  To move the plot in the direction of Nana + Ren, i.e., away from Hachi’s troubles, is a character-based move.  First of all, it’s a distraction, or a move of self-preservation.  Hachi’s situation is grave:  Shoji was her entire reason for moving to the big city, and he has dumped her.  Without Shoji, there’s nothing keeping her tethered.  She hates her job (which is as menial and dead-end as jobs get) and is on the verge of being fired from it.  She has also nearly estranged Nana, the only solid thing she has left.  In short, she’s on the verge of having to leave Tokyo, her dream of being a big-city girl in ruins.

Rather than facing down her troubles, she lets herself be distracted.  We know she’s a match-making schemer, so naturally she becomes obsessed with reuniting Nana and Ren.  She’s also a sucker for two birds, one stone opportunities.  Bird 1:  recouping her image in the eyes of Nana.  Bird 2:  forgetting how close to loneliness and financial desolation she has come.  In other words, it is a character-based move for the plot to take this turn.  It’s built into Hachi’s DNA.

(Side note:  even when it seems all the focus is on Nana, more than ever it is Hachi that’s steering this ship.)

At first I was disappointed with this plot twist.  I felt cheated.  I wanted more time to wallow in the gloom and self-loathing of Hachi finding Shoji with another woman.  It’s only in all this meta talk that I’m able to appreciate what the writers have achieved.  What they’ve given us is better than what I wanted.  Far better.  To wallow in the basest of emotions–it’s not unlike giving over to feelings of bigotry or directionless rage.  I thank the series writers for rescuing me from a downward spiral of weepy, woe-is-me bitterness.

But who could blame us for wanting self-indulgence?   It makes sense that people are addicted to melodrama.   On the one hand, it’s what a child would choose.  But on the other hand, we were all once children.  Picture me at six years old, walking home one morning after a sleepover, carrying a paper plate of cookies I’d helped bake the night before.  The plate folds and the cookies fall to the street.  Rather than pick up the several unbroken ones (i.e., counting losses and moving on), I weep bitterly for my loss and stamp them into the pavement.  I run the rest of the way home shrieking bloody murder.  At home in the kitchen with my parents, I’m inconsolable.  I say, I’ll never bake cookies again, never.  

It’s not about the lost cookies.   It’s about the caretaking I evoked by coming home a blubbery mess.  It felt good to have my parents cooing at me and petting my hair.  And I knew by instinct the melodrama I’d brought home would elicit that response from them.

Children are drama queens.  So are adults, when not on guard against it.  And when you’re watching a riveting dramatic series, you’re not on guard against anything.

What the audience would have chosen is vastly inferior to what the writers gave us.  Choosing self-pity — that would’ve been choosing the irrational, choosing stasis over progress.

In other words, it wouldn’t advance the story.  And if there’s one maxim that trumps giving the people what they want it is this:  The story must advance.  Anyone who has watched a great TV drama knows why this is.  There’s just too much story to tell.  The writers have no time to waste.

The writer knows this.  Good thing it’s the writer in charge of the script, not the audience.

In Defense of Miyazaki: Thoughts on WHISPER OF THE HEART

Media, Writing

Image

I used to pooh-pooh the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Back then I’d acknowledge them as technically brilliant, or that they were true achievements of cinematic vision.  But I used to feel they were soft, over-optimistic, naive, or lacking the grit and edge of realism.  By contrast, my touchstone for anime has always been Mamoru Oshii, of Ghost in the Shell fame.  Oshii says of Miyazaki, “His worlds have become just too nostalgic”, and, “[I]t is joyful, it’s eye candy and it is a pleasure to watch his movies, of course.  But . . . people don’t die [in his scenes of military battle, for example], so they are nice to watch but there is no realism”.

I’m usually right there chiming in with the naysayers about Miyazaki films (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa…), that Miyazaki is the Disney of anime (or at least the Steven Spielberg, with all the predictably happy endings).  To begin with, I’m much more partial to anime stories of psychoanalytic self-loathing.  Filling out my Top 10 list are the self-hating anti-heroes of Neon Genesis Evangalion, Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell II:  Innocence, and Barefoot Gen.

But all the while there have been exceptions to my rule.  I’ve fallen in love with anime that most Oshii fans would call sappy or sentimental, mushy or maudlin:  Fruits Basket, FLCL, Castle of Cagliostro, Please Save My Earth, Macross (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross),  Escaflowne, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Some of these can be explained as “not inconsistent” by way of them being mad-cap, slapstick comedy, like Castle of Cagliostro, FLCL, and perhaps Macross.   But how do I explain all the dew-eyed idealism?

Am I going soft?  No, that can’t be it, not with apocalypse and earth-under-attack plots figuring so largely in all of them.  And it’s absolutely not the case that I’m merely lowering my standards of intellectual and conceptual challenge; I value these works so highly that I no longer talk about my “Top 10”, I now always name my Top 15 when discussing my favorites of all time.  So how does an otherwise orthodox Oshii fan like myself remain consistent and still keep The Girl Who Leapt Through Time on his Top List?

Although the film Whisper of the Heart does not make my Top 15, briefly discussing it here could go far in answering these questions.  Written by Miyazaki and produced at his Studio Ghibli, Whisper of the Heart (WOTH) features all the schmaltz of a Miyazaki film:  child protagonists and first love, idealism and nostalgia.  (The film recasts the musical juggernaut of nostalgia “Country Roads” into Japanese, changing the title phrase to “Concrete Roads” for the setting of suburban Tokyo.)  But unlike Miyazaki’s more famous films, WOTH is not a romanticized coming-of-age fantasy in which the protagonist must save the world.  Its hero is merely an adolescent suburban girl trying to find herself, while reacting to the attentions of her first suitor.

What might seem fantastic is the uber-traditional nature of her search for identity–especially in a time (1995) of white-hot digital media and ever more sophisticated sci-fi visions coming out of Tokyo near the end of the millennium.  Our girl hero is seemingly transported back to a more traditional time not by a time machine, but by her love of reading fiction (in actual books!) and by falling in love with a boy rooted in tradition by his folk music family and his craftsman aspirations.  (He’s apprenticing to be a violin maker.)  In other words, our hero’s search for identity takes place in the realm of the arts.

Sure, the film ends with the boy declaring his love for the girl.  But what really matters–the more important conflict–is the girl’s decision to become a writer.  It’s true that, in the closing sequence, our hero’s love interest takes her to see his secret Tokyo sunrise and not only declares his love for her from the proverbial mountaintop, but he also proposes marriage.

Sappy enough?  Yes, but only for a moment.  In the next instant you realize two critical things:  a) that these kids are only fourteen years old, and, b) that the boy is shipping off to Italy for ten years that very afternoon.  The marriage proposal in the final sequence has a stuck-on feel.  It seems to come from out of the blue.  And one realizes this is pointedly artificial.  While romantic stories commonly end in marriage, this one ends with a marriage proposal, only.  It’s sweet and optimistic.  But it’s not marriage.  What’s next (off-stage) is that the boy will immediately leave for Italy, to stay for ten years.  So one has to wonder about this premature engagement;  a lot will happen in ten years.  And this is the point:  while love and marriage may still be fantasies for this particular hero, what her heart is whispering to her is a realism common to all the anime in my Top 15.  This is not the story of the birth of young love, but, rather, another story entirely:  the birth of the artist.

How Breaking Bad Teaches Us to Watch Great Drama

Media, Writing

breaking badI come to the party a bit late, having been busy re-watching a string of other brutally intelligent series:  Dollhouse, Deadwood, Madmen, Ghost in the Shell S.A.C. 2nd GIG.  But I’m finally digging into Breaking Bad, and it’s plain to see what all the fuss is about.

As any good storyteller does, Breaking Bad teaches you how to watch.  For instance (spoiler alert!) in the intro to Episode 6, Season 1, Walt gives a speech to his partner in crime in which he agrees to continue manufacturing methamphetamine but only according to a set of limits and boundaries, chief of which is the declaration that there be “no more bloodshed”, a reference to the two rival drug dealers they’d killed in Episodes 1 through 5.  Interspersed throughout this speech are edits that cut away in piecemeal fashion to some other scene, a scene of some kind of street violence involving an exploding building and someone leaving the scene of the explosion with what appears to be a severed head in a bloody canvas sack.  You ultimately realize the cutaway scene is from the end of the episode and that Walt has blown up the building and has likely killed a man.  And this time, by the look on Walt’s face, it appears the murder has been committed with malice, perhaps a revenge killing.

This totally works in the show’s favor.  The sequence follows the conceit of the series structural design that was set up in the intro to Episode 1.   In the intro to Episode 1, in medias res, we’re given the show’s hero speaking hastily into a handy cam, as police sirens approach in the distance.  Speaking into the camcorder Walt is addressing his wife and son, asking their forgiveness for unstated crimes which he has committed in the name of providing a future for his family, while in the background we can see an RV containing the dead bodies of two rival drug dealers.  In other words, each episode’s intro gives us a teaser:  a peek ahead to Act III of the episode’s classic three-act structure.  This creates narrative drive:  the audience is then driven to watch Acts I and II to find out how the hero has landed himself in such deep trouble.

In three-act structure, according to Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, “[I]n the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”  Breaking Bad’s innovation is to give us a peek at Act III in the intro to each episode.

After the opening credits, Act I of nearly every episode show us mild-mannered Walt White, high school chemistry teacher, whose admirable middle-class values and underdog status make him an anti-hero the audience can identify with.  Act 1 of each episode starts with Walt behaving or speaking sanely, the emotional floor steady and level beneath the audience.  In Episode 1 specifically, this is pre-cancer Walt.  As his health (including his mental health) is destroyed by cancer, his middle-class world view is also wrecked, annihilated, even.  Into the moral vacuum rushes the alternate Walt, who, upon learning the cancer will soon kill him, decides to become a drug dealer.  In other words Act I ends by answering the why–why Walt turns to a life of crime.

Act II answers the how–how it comes about that Walt not only manufactures crystal meth, but in the process also kills people.  In Act II Walt not surprisingly is confronted by a savage harvest of physical threats, moral dilemmas, and golden opportunities born of his choices and of the exigencies of the street.  Even more to the point, though, Act II amps up Walt’s underdog resentment of the broken world.  His public-school teacher salary being what it is, Walt is forced to take a part-time job once his wife becomes too pregnant to work.  After school he hustles to a nearby car wash and works as its cashier, where his mild manner is abused by an unreasonable manager who orders Walt outside to wipe down wet cars when a line employee calls in sick.  One of the cars is the gleaming new Corvette of a rich kid who earlier in the episode is seen disrespecting Walt in the classroom.  The rich kid humiliates Walt by photographing him stooping over with a dirty rag and texting the photo to others.

Such telling detail instructs the audience in how to read the show’s themes, while also pumping up the tension by fully earning each episode’s extremes of character development and drama.  Why does Walt do what he does?  I’ll tell you why! the screenwriters say.  In grad school, one of my MFA professors called this the GRAB principle:  Give the Reader a Break–never leave the audience confused as to why protagonists do what they do.

In Episode 6, we see Walt in the classroom lecturing about chemical reactions.  He says at one point, “Chemical reactions that happen slowly change very little, so little we hardly even notice the change, like rust forming on the underside of a car.”  Walt pauses mid-sentence, frowning at what he’s just said, and of course we are put in mind of Walt’s cancer.  He continues his lecture.  “…But, if a reaction happens quickly, otherwise harmless substances can . . . generate enormous bursts of energy . . . as in explosions, [and] the faster they undergo change, the more violent the explosion.”  We think of the whiplash pace with which Walt has shed his middle-class skin and become a local methamphetamine kingpin on the DEA’s most-wanted list.

This also hints at the violent reaction taking place in the hearts of the audience.  Like seeing one’s reflection in the glass pane of a disturbing framed work of art, we viewers are implicated in Walt’s man-slaughtering ways by virtue of sympathizing with him.  Isn’t it common, after watching an episode, to later in the day walk around with the guarding sensations of dread and suspicion?