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The Order of Oddfish

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Episode 7 of The Secrets of Story Podcast: OODA Loops, Expectations, Mission: Impossible and the Screwtape Letters!

October 29, 2018

It’s been nearly a year since Matt Bird and I released an episode of our podcast, The Secrets of Story, in which we try to figure out what makes good stories work. Matt and I had actually recorded an episode right after we’d both seen The Last Jedi—a movie I adored and Matt hated. In that episode (which I guess Matt will never release) we argued about that movie. Maybe I Eberted too hard, or maybe Matt didn’t Siskel quite enough. In any case, Matt found it unreleasable. And then the podcast went dormant for a while.

Now it’s back! I think it’s a good episode. I’ve had a few half-formed ideas lately about managing the audience’s expectations. I’ve been mulling some other ideas about how specific expectations bear on how a character behaves in a story. These ideas and others all finally crystallized when I heard about a concept invented by some 1970s military person called “OODA Loops,” a scheme which tries to clarify how people adjust to their environment and make decisions and act.

It sounds obvious when it’s spelled out—basically, we’re all always going through a cycle of Observing the situation around us, Orienting ourselves to it, Deciding what to do, and Acting on that decision. But once it’s made explicit like this, it’s easier to conceive of how your adversary is also going through the same OODA cycle at the same time. And so what you try to do is to complete your cycle faster than your adversary does—that’s what’s called “getting inside their OODA loop”—so that you can decide and act more quickly and with more agility than them. That way, they’re constantly adjusting to the new situations you’re creating. They’re stuck in the “Observe” and “Orient” parts of the loop, which they can never complete because you keep knocking them back with new things for them to observe and orient themselves to. The alternative is letting them get used to the situation and figuring it out so they can “Decide” and “Act” to their advantage . . . or even worse, letting them overwhelm you with new situations of their own creation. Getting inside the adversary’s OODA Loop is a way of deliberately introducing chaos into a situation for your benefit. I saw some merit in the ideas from a storytelling point of view. So I flesh out that theory with Matt on the podcast.

I talk about how storytellers can use the OODA Loop for more interesting storytelling; I also talk about how characters often “get inside” each other’s OODA Loops. One of the scenes that I reference in the podcast is this one from the third Mission Impossible movie, in which Tom Cruise’s hero is interrogating Philip Seymor Hoffman’s villain. At first it seems that the hero holds all the cards, but by the end of the scene the villain is dominant, and that’s because he’s gotten inside the hero’s OODA Loop:

I don’t have the time to explain it all again here; just listen to my mellifluous tones on the podcast!

At the end of each episode of the podcast, Matt and I have this tradition of “giving away” ideas for TV shows and movies, and I had an idea about a limited TV series adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters that I think is actually pretty workable. It’s worth listening to this one all the way to the end.

Our podcast is back in the saddle, baby! Indeed, we recorded this episode and another episode back-to-back that night. So there will be another episode going up in a few weeks. It never rains but it pours!

Lucy Momo’s Summer 2018 Movies

September 30, 2018

This summer my nine-year-old daughter Lucy, with the help of her little sister Ingrid and their neighborhood friends, made a lot of original videos. It was so much fun, and they all took to it like naturals! I taught Lucy how to use a camera and how to edit on iMovie, and then she was off and running on her own as though she’d been doing it all her life. These movies are seriously good. They all have a lot to be proud of!

For the first few videos, I helped Lucy with green screen effects and some editing tips. But after a while she was running the whole show herself: planning the stories, marshaling her friends, shooting and directing the videos, and then editing them. We decided to do them mostly as “silent” movies, and for background music we used the Kevin MacLeod’s royalty-free music available at Incompetech.com (which is also a great resource for those of you who are interested in making movies for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival).

Here’s the first movie Lucy made, with friends and next-door neighbors Aedan and Ella. It’s called “The Box.” A mysterious note thrown through the window leads two bored friends out to seek treasure in the nearby park. But what they find is perhaps more than they bargained for!

The acting is great in this one, especially Ella’s decisive manner and Aedan’s idiosyncratic expressions of worry and confusion—they do a lot of great silent-movie acting here! The random kids in the park were a nice touch as well. Lucy really shot this with style and edited it together very crisply. (I helped with the green-screen touch at the end, inside the box.)

Lucy’s next project featured her sister Ingrid, Aedan’s sister Rosie, and their friend Clara as a royal procession in “The Coins.” Lucy herself also makes a cameo as their opponent—I had to hold the camera for those scenes. What happens when a wandering princess, her tough-girl guard, and her ukulele-strumming bard happen upon a mysterious trail of magical coins?

That were a couple of great swordfights in there! I loved how Rosie the guard grew in her swordsmanship over the course of the story, how Clara the bard enthusiastically wielded her ukulele as a kind of weapon, and how Ingrid the princess’s dramatic expressions and actions drove the story! Lucy managed to make the music synch up with the action very well in the edit, and she did great double duty as the maniacal “Keeper of the Coins.” Epic!

Lucy’s next movie, “Spoiled Milk,” might have the most elaborate post-production work, although in a way it’s the simplest story. Aedan and Ella are thirsty for milk, but there’s none in the house. The easy, straightforward solution: walk to the corner store and buy some more milk. But it doesn’t turn out to easy or straightforward . . .

Who knew a trip to the corner store could be so perilous? Once again Aedan and Ella boost the production’s quality with their inimitable acting styles. We got super-lucky with a few of the shots, especially when that bicycle zoomed by at precisely the correct comic moment. I helped only with some of the green-screen effects and a few of the later shots. But in total, this movie was mostly conceived, shot, and edited by Lucy. Don’t worry, we didn’t waste any milk at the end! We emptied out that milk carton and used water mixed with white watercolor paint for that ironic final shot.

After “Spoiled Milk,” Lucy began to make the movies entirely without my input. She’d disappear with her camera and her friends for a while, and I’d really only see the final product after she was done editing. Here’s her first 100% solo movie, “The Water.” It’s about a boy (again played by Aedan) who is trying to drink from his water bottle . . . but the water bottle has the odd habit of magically teleporting around the park. Will Aedan catch his water bottle? And once he does, will he manage to drink water from it?

I especially liked that fun twist ending! Once again Aedan does some great acting, especially since the movie has no dialogue and he has no partner to interact with. Lucy gets right in there with tightly-framed shots and brisk editing. And I like the way she shot it so that the leaping water glistens in the sunlight at the end!

Here’s another movie Lucy made with only one actor. This time it’s Ella and the movie is called “Crazy Wind.” When Ella is playing in the backyard in a big cardboard box, a massive gale blows the box away, with Ella in it. But to where? And how can Ella get back home?

My favorite parts in this are the Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style movement across the map, and the clever matching cut between Ella flying off the swing, and her landing back in her own yard. The part where the whole box “takes off” into the air was resourcefully done too!

Lucy shot most of these movies in our neighborhood in Chicago, but she shot this next one in Michigan. It features Ingrid again, along with Ezra and Zella, our friends who used to live in our neighborhood but have since moved a bit north. It’s a tale of a young boy and girl who find each other on a beautiful beach . . . but their relationship is threatened by a maniacal seaside witch. What will happen, O viewers at home, on “Terror Beach”?

Great choice of music, beautiful shots of the water, and another exciting fight scene! Everyone did a great job acting, and Lucy shot it at just the right time of day when the sunlight makes everything look magical. I especially love Ezra’s ludicrous dance at the end, and Ingrid’s reaction to it!

Here’s Lucy’s final movie of the summer . . . or actually, this one was shot in the fall, but I wanted to include it in this post anyway. Lucy shot this movie with her familiar actor-partners Aedan and Ella and Ingrid, plus newcomers Lucy D and her sister Joy. In “Who Farted?”, it’s a difficult case for the Inspector as a rogue fart disturbs the party. Is the skunk at fault? Or is it one of the partygoers?

The mysterious black-and-white filter was a nice touch. Everyone did a great job here, and I laughed out loud when the “Fart Inspector” burst into the scene, intent on solving the case. And another great match of music to movie!

What a hilarious, impressive, fun batch of movies! I’m eager to see what else Lucy and Ingrid and their friends create this fall . . . and winter . . . and beyond!

Highlights of the 2018 90-Second Newbery… and inspiration for 2019!

August 20, 2018

The 7th annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival this year was a blast—the most screenings in our history (fourteen cities!), the highest attendance yet, the most movie submissions, and the best overall quality of movies thus far.

If I do say so myself, our opening skit was pretty snappy, too—check out me and co-host Keir Graff above as we caper through the opening of the Chicago screening. Our screenings always open with a song-and-dance number, and this year we confronted weird video games based on Newbery winners, which turned into a celebration of the strangest 90-Second Newbery movies we’ve received over the years, sung to the the tune of “Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan. Thanks to Keir and all the other fearless co-hosts who shared the stage with me in 2018: M.T. Anderson, Pete Hautman, Michael Northrop, Dale Basye, Aaron Zenz, Katherine Catmull, Marcus Ewert, Matt Krueger, and Doug Mackey!

Let’s look back at the 2018 season and highlight some of the best movies we received. I hope you’ll be inspired to make your own movie for the 2019 90-Second Newbery in time for the deadline of January 11, 2019.

Are you a young filmmaker who’d like to enter the 2019 90-Second Newbery Film Festival—or a teacher/parent/librarian who wants to help their class, club, or group make a movie to submit? On the Resources page of the 90-Second Newbery website you can find tips, tricks, and guidance on how to do it, even if you’ve never made a movie before. It features links to great resources like royalty-free music, green screen tutorials, screenwriting advice, editing and cinematography tips, and even a step-by-step “How To Make a 90-Second Newbery” series of posts. Check it out here!

Now, let’s look at some of those movies!

I’ve found that the best 90-Second Newberys aren’t just basic retellings of the story. The most loved movies are always the ones that put a crazy, unique twist on the material—whether it’s switching up the genre (like remaking E.B. White’s 1953 Honor Book Charlotte’s Web in the style of a horror movie) or adapting the movie in a cool medium (like Mary and Conrad Buff’s 1952 Newbery Honor Book The Apple and the Arrow recreated in elaborate Claymation). This year, we got a lot of fascinating genre-crossing and weird-medium movies. One of the best was Ava Levine’s adaptation of Charlotte’s Web—in the style of a Michael Bay action movie:

You can read our judges’ full rave review here, but suffice it to say that reimagining Charlotte’s Web as a thrillingly cheesy exercise in Bayhem was a stroke of genius that jolted the gentle talking-animal story with new life. I showed this one all over the country and folks loved it at every screening.

The Leland Street Players (I happen to be acquainted with one or two of the actors) did this ambitious adaptation of Ruth S. Gannett’s 1949 Newbery Honor Book My Father’s Dragon:

Great performances! You can find complete info about it on the 90-Second Newbery website here. This one pushes the time limit by being five minutes long, which would usually be disqualifying, but I wanted to spotlight it here to demonstrate how using compelling outdoors locations (no boring classroom interiors or school hallways here), elaborate costumes and facepaint, and fun soundtrack music can really pull a movie together and make it entertaining. Do the extra work and make something special. Props, costumes, locations, soundtrack, and editing all matter!

I always love movies that tell the story through music. Rap is particularly suited for a 90-Second Newbery because it’s perfect for condensing a lot of information into a small amount of time. Here, Ashton T., Adrien H., Celina S., Dylan T., Keene H., and Owais A. of Lincoln Hall Middle School in Lincolnwood, IL adapt Kwame Alexander’s 2015 Newbery Medal Winner The Crossover:

You can find the judges’ glowing praise of this movie here. Notice how every line he raps moves the story forward, makes us feel a specific emotion, or fills in information we need to know. And it’s all done stylishly, with crisp delivery and confident visuals.

Here’s another fun idea: make a 90-Second Newbery that tells the story of the Newbery-winning book in the style of a well-known movie or TV show. We’ve seen this technique in submissions from the past (Sid Fleischmann’s 1987 Medal winner The Whipping Boy remade in the style of Star Wars, or Beverly Cleary’s 1978 Honor Book Ramona and Her Father done as a James Bond movie).

This move works best if both stories have certain similarities. For instance, Natalie Babbitt’s 1971 Newbery Honor Book Knee-Knock Rise is about seemingly supernatural happenings in a small rural town, investigated by a newcomer to that town . . . which is broadly the plot of David Lynch’s early-nineties TV show Twin Peaks! So here, Domingo and Amalia of Chicago adapt Knee-Knock Rise in the style of Twin Peaks:

The full review on the 90-Second Newbery website is here. The most important takeaway: If you’re going to make your movie in the style of some other movie or TV show, make sure you fulfill the promise of the premise in every scene. That is, if you intend to adapt your book in the Star Wars style, then your movie had better include light saber fights, spaceship battles, an opening crawl, and John Williams music throughout. If you’re going to adapt your book in the style of James Bond, then your movie needs a suave Bond with an English accent, a cool suit, gunfights, the silly double entendres, franchise characters like Blofeld and Q showing up, and of course the familiar theme music.

Same thing here! When making this movie in the style of Twin Peaks, Domingo and Amalia referenced its recognizable signifiers: the weirdly-talking dancing dwarf in the Red Room, the Log Lady, and the iconic Angelo Badalamenti music. They even recreated certain scenes (like when Cooper is introduced talking to his recorder, or when he bashes his face into the bathroom mirror) but changed them to portray scenes from the book. The lesson: Pick a specific style, commit to it one hundred percent in every scene, and you can’t go wrong!

Here’s another example of making your movie in the style of a popular TV show—here, Mr. Johnson’s 5th Grade at Grant Center for the Expressive Arts in Tacoma adapted Marion Dane Bauer’s 1987 Newbery Honor Book On My Honor in the style of Netflix’s creepy-fun 1980s pastiche Stranger Things:

You can read the judges’ full rapturous review here. Notice how the movie cleverly uses the show’s distinctive title style to split the movie into distinct chapters, how “Eleven” is dressed just as she is in the show (and with a similar tough glare), and how the book’s hero has the “Dustin” hair from the show. The ending of this movie also cleverly reverses the ending of the book. That’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see . . . a movie adaptation that doesn’t just retell the story of the book, but transforms it in a witty way.

Mr. Johnson’s class also adapted Patricia Lauber’s 1987 Newbery Honor Book Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens:

You can read the judges’ delighted review here. I think this is a masterpiece of adaptation because it chooses very carefully what to omit from the book . . . and also what to add in order to make a fun, watchable movie. By giving the volcano a personality, and by making the eruption “motivated” by a squirrel messing with its Rubik’s cube, the movie comes alive in wonderful and unexpected ways. And this movie includes only the most necessary informational points of the book, never getting bogged down. It’s quick, it’s funny, it puts its own unique spin on the material—and it manages to be accurate to the broad outlines of the book! (Resourceful use of green-screen, too. Green screen is your friend!)

Sometimes it’s instructive to see two different adaptations of the same book. Here’s another take on Patricia Lauber’s Volcano book, this time by Ezra R. of Master Shot Film Club at the American Library in Paris, France. Here, instead of adapting the story into a different genre, Ezra adapts the book into a distinctive medium—stop-motion Legos:

You can read the judges’ rave review here. Again, I love how this movie not only abbreviates the book, but also adds stuff: the volcano’s eruption is here blamed on careless fire demons, and the wildlife “party” at the end is the perfect way to wrap this one up. Don’t be afraid to goof around with the book . . . as long as it’s still broadly congruent with the book’s story, you should be fine.

Here’s another example of doing your movie in a distinctive way: the students of Robert L. Vale Middle School in San Antonio adapted Neil Gaiman’s 2009 Newbery Medal winner The Graveyard Book with shadow puppets, and the plot is sung along to the “Scooby-Doo” theme song:

You can read the judges’ appreciative review here. Again, we see that using a song in your 90-Second Newbery immediately makes it much more compelling and fun to watch. And the visual storytelling with the shadow puppets is adroit and effective, with every shot conveying story information. This one’s a gem.

There are many other videos from this year’s 90-Second Newbery I’d like to highlight, but I have to stop this post somewhere. But if you’re inclined, you should do yourself a favor and watch this adaptation of Gary Paulsen’s 1988 Newbery Honor Book Hatchet in the style of a YouTuber celebrity’s video (with added animations and model work!), and Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1939 Honor Book Mr. Popper’s Penguins in the style of a hard-edged action movie trailer, and Mary Hays Weik’s 1967 Newbery Honor Book The Jazz Man sung in the style of the opening number from La La Land, and E.L. Konigsburg’s 1968 Newbery Medal Winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler done in a combination of rap, singing, and spoken-word poetry, and Wanda Gag’s 1929 Honor Book Millions of Cats reimagined in a stop-motion snowscape with cute polar bears . . . I could go on and on . . .

And I suppose I already have! But that’s not even scratching the surface of all the worthy and wonderful movies we received this year. I can’t wait to see what everyone cooks up for 2019!

Remember, the deadline is January 11, 2019. You can find complete details (rules, instructions for submitting, etc.) at the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival website. We even have a page that highlights some of the best 90-Second Newberys we’ve received, so you can get a better idea of what kind of videos do well in the film festival.

Don’t forget, we have a wealth of moviemaking resources available on the 90-Second Newbery website—even including a step-by-step guide on how to make your own movie! Don’t be afraid if this is the first movie you’ve ever made. The point is to have fun, not to be perfect. Some of my favorite movies have been made by first-timers. Go for it!

Do you want the 90-Second Newbery to continue next year? Please make a tax-deductible donation here to keep us going. Every little bit helps! We’re under the nonprofit fiscal sponsorship of Fractured Atlas.

To wrap up, here are some fun pictures from the various screenings:

Getting choked by National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson after the Boston show.

A happy audience at the Tacoma screening.

Author Dale Basye and I hang out with honored filmmakers after the Portland show.

Bestselling author Michael Northrop and I singing the opening number in New York City.

Hanging out with young filmmakers after the New York City show.

Some movie stills and an after-show picture at the San Francisco show.

Hanging out with some young filmmakers on the rise in Chicago—my daughters and their friends!

Thanks to the generosity Bibliotech and H.E.B. Grocery, our San Antonio screening chooses winners and gives prizes to schools. Here are this year’s grand prize winners (for the Graveyard Book movie mentioned above).

A great video made of the San Antonio screening.

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