Thursday, July 31, 2008

Space Chimps Away

Speaking of Twentieth Century-Fox, their current theatrical film is Space Chimps, written and directed by Kirk (no Star Trek jokes) De Micco. In case you haven't seen anything, here's a look:




A little while ago there was an article in Animation World Magazine about how De Micco came about creating this film (written by Joe Strike). It's interesting for filmmakers about the film's evolution and the creative process, and it'll also give parents a better idea of where the film's coming from and if they want to take their kids to see it. Space Chimps was released on the 18th.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

La Cometa Vuela

I had a really fascinating conversation Monday with a producer from NAO-Kids in Mexico City about the state of public television and children’s television in Mexico. I will surely blog about that as I get up to speed on it, but it got me thinking about Latin American children’s media and children’s lit, and it hence reminded of a notice in the last SCBWI Bulletin (July-August 2008). Within the “News & Notes” column by editor-in-chief Stephen Mooser there’s an announcement of the creation of an online Spanish newsletter for, you guessed it, Spanish-language children’s literature. It’s called La cometa and it’s designed specifically for SCBWI members, though I don’t know if membership is mandatory to receive it. There is staff in both Spain and Mexico, meaning, I assume, equal emphases on Iberia and Latin America, hopefully within a single newsletter, though individual publications would not be bad. It has no website as yet (besides the SCBWI itself) but information can be gained from Sally Cutting at scbwi.spain@gmail.com for Spain or Judy Goldman at rabkey@alestra.net.mx for Mexico.

The journal’s sections include “Mercado,” “Eventos,” y “Convocatorias” (info on contests, etc.), making it primarily a resource for authors, but I think bilingual or Spanish-speaking parents would be interested as well, especially in the “Mercado.” My neighborhood in upper Manhattan is predominantly Dominican and the local library has extensive Spanish holdings in the children’s collections. I’ve never stopped to peruse them in depth, but whenever I walk past it seems like translations of English works, like Harold y el Lapiz de Color Morado or something. I applaud this and am about to post a longer entry about the virtues of translating picture books to make them available across language barriers, but at the same time there’s also something to be said about reading these works in their original language. As a filmmaker I don’t want the poor folks in Mexico or Mongolia or Manchester to have to watch American films all the time, and the same goes for kids’ books as well. What a fantastic resource La cometa will be if in addition to its author-oriented material it keeps parents abreast of the best new Spanish publications for kids.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Will Horton Be a Grinch?

Not if the folks at Twentieth Century-Fox have their way with it. An article in the business section of yesterday's Times informs us that the Fox execs are planning on the largest DVD promotion in history for Horton Hears a Who this holiday season. So if it seems by December 10th that we can't get away from the plucky elephant, it won't be that we're imagining things. The whole campaign is a bit of a test case to evaluate the future viability of the DVD format in the face of emerging technologies--come January we'll have seen if all Fox's money and efforts have paid off.


Monday, July 28, 2008

One Secret of WALL-E's Success

Iain Stasukevich has a delightful article on WALL-E in this month’s American Cinematographer (called “Expert Eyes Enhance WALL-E”). Unfortunately it’s not included in the magazine’s online material, so I’ll try to give it a little summary here, with all credit to Stasukevich of course. Those whose interest is piqued are strongly encouraged to seek out the original article on newsstands before the August issue takes its place (and look in June's issue for a discussion of Prince Caspian).



WALL-E was directed by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. He’s best known for directing Finding Nemo but he has also contributed to nearly every Pixar film, including writing several of their screenplays and codirecting A Bug’s Life. As with all Pixar films, the cinematography credit on WALL-E was shared between two technical directors, Danielle Feinberg over lighting and Jeremy Lasky over camera. Very early in the process Stanton knew he wanted to upgrade the film’s visual look over that of previous productions, to make it “more filmic.” To do so required revamping both departments and rethinking much of the process of how Pixar’s images are created.

The first step was reevaluating the focal parameters of Pixar’s proprietary animation software Marionette. For this a good old-fashioned Panasonic 35mm camera was brought on the premises for a screen test (they shot little cardboard WALL-E cut-outs) to compare visually with Marionette’s CG-equivalent lenses, focal lengths, and camera movements. The result was surprising for the programmers but confirmed Stanton’s suspicion: Pixar’s images did not match traditional film. (“That put a bee in their bonnet,” he said.) Among other problems, the depth of field (amount of material in focus) was consistently too great, at least for the anamorphic look Stanton wanted to replicate. Camera movement was also off, and other minor issues distinguished the CG images from the photographic.



So the programmers revamped all of their codes, getting the Marionette “lenses” to look and act more like actual lenses, including on focus pulls (the above shot is static, obviously, but notice the fuzzy background and even, unless I'm mistaken, WALL-E's left hand going a bit soft as it gets too close to the "camera"). For me one of the most interesting changes they made was in how the lens pans and tilts. Formerly Pixar’s “lenses” had been configured nodally, that is they rotated (tilted, panned) upon the point where they were located, causing a limited shift in perspective. Real cameras aren’t aligned this way, of course, but rotate behind the lens where the camera head is attached to the tripod, jib, or dolly. Adjusting the CG codes to move like a real camera added another layer of filmic authenticity, even if the audience doesn’t know why. “Most people will never notice it,” Lasky said, “but subconsciously, it makes you feel like there’s a camera in the CG space.” Eventually two styles of movement were adopted: a relatively loose “handheld” style for the Earth and a more locked down, track-and-dolly-based approach for onboard the spaceship.




So much for the camera. To make Pixar’s lighting procedures look more like live action Stanton made the logical choice to bring in a live-action cinematographer, Roger Deakins (above, shooting In the Valley of Elah), whose lengthy production credits include, most recently, No Country for Old Men. Deakins analyzed Pixar’s workflow and held a lighting master class for Lasky and Feinberg. One result was greater collaboration throughout the process between the two departments (previously all camera work was blocked out before the images were “lit,” a holdover from the days of 2D storyboards). On the screen, the result was a greater contrast ratio, the range between lightest lights and darkest darks; a lot of area was allowed to wash out into black, something generally eschewed in animation, or at least in Pixar’s films thus far. Particularly on the spaceship, pools of light were allowed to exist in their practical location with the characters moving through them as necessary. Every shot, in other words, wasn’t lit around the characters; the characters were allowed to exist in a lit space.




The result is a film that looks more filmic than Pixar’s previous cartoons. It’s not photorealism per say, although the CGI textures continue to improve, but the feeling that an actual camera was there in this cartoon environment to film events as would be done in any live-action shoot. And that is what Stanton envisioned all along.

(By the way, just googling Stanton turned up some other great material, like this round-table discussion on the Pixar blog and this interview on a film-related website.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Laurie Berkner, Kidz Bop, and Razor & Tie


Dade Hayes (more on his new book soon) wrote an article in yesterday's Variety that started to shed some light for me on the business of children's music. For one thing, while the rest of the music industry is going belly-up in the face of iTunes and online distribution, kids' music is still doing relatively strong. Again, it's a topic about which I don't really know very much yet, but when Loretta saw this picture of Laurie Berkner she got excited and started romping around the room, singing, "We are the dinosaurs marching marching." (Right now she's taking a "grown-up shower" and still going strong.) So there's something right going on there from the label Razor & Tie's perspective. Be sure to check out Laurie Berkner's website as well. 

Friday, July 25, 2008

Charlie and Lola Reach #8

It seems like only yesterday that Charlie was teaching Lola the joys of green dots and moon squirters, but the two crazy kids from Crocodile Street are now set to release their eighth DVD collection.


Charlie and Lola were conceived by British author Lauren Child a few years back, making their debut in the award-winning book I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (moon squirters are a different matter, however) and they quickly got transformed by Tiger Aspect Productions into an amazing animated series. In the UK it airs on CBeebies and in the U.S. on Playhouse Disney. I always tend to be hyperbolic, but this is indeed my favorite television show on the air today. How much do I like them? I dressed up as Charlie for last year's Halloween party, and don’t see why not to this year. When I can get Loretta to stop pretending she’s Linny or Ming-Ming, she affects a British accent and starts calling me Charlie at least once per sentence.


I will rhapsodize on the beauties of the books and show some other time, but for now suffice it to say that the DVD, entitled I Am Collecting a Collection (featuring episodes from the most recent season, or “series” for the Brits) will be released in the U.S. on August 5. In the meantime you can preorder from amazon for a pretty remarkable $8.99 (opposed to the regular price of $14.98), less than five pounds sterling. I don’t know about the marketing in the UK, but for us here in the land of NTSC and Region 1 it’s the best way to tap into our posh British side. Yes, yes, a dollar’s less than 50p, but for my money Charlie and Lola is the best thing going on either side of the pond.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sesame Street Needs You




I don't know much about Sesame Workshop's The Electric Company, but it's a multimedia initiative to improve children's literacy in the United States and it's evidently in need of a little help. American Express has pledged up to $1.5 million dollars in funding if they can detect sufficient support from the general public. So Sesame Workshop has released a petition of sorts through which you can indicate your interest to American Express or pass the information along to others. I can't vouch for the effectiveness of the program, but Sesame obviously has a good track record with early childhood education (understatement), and I for one am in favor of literacy. 

By the way, regular readers (?!) will notice I'm posting more this week. I'm going to try to keep it up, providing a mix of quick news items as I come across them, like this, interpolated with some of the longer reviews and analyses that I was hoping to do when I started out last month. I hope the mix, along with my penchant to swing back and forth between information for parents and for professionals, is of interest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nick Hits Fifty, In a Sense


I subscribed earlier this week to KidScreen’s online newsletter (note the permanent link to the right), and I’m already in love with it. All the industry news for all things children’s media, right there in your in-box! Who could ask for anything more?

One of the first things I learned is that Nickelodeon is rolling out its fiftieth station with a launch today, Wednesday July 23. This is Nick Arabia, a Middle Eastern station that will reach a potential 190 million viewers (I’m not sure if that’s homes or individuals).



The range and cultural adaptations of Sesame Street are fairly well known, but I had no idea Nick was also gaining such a reach. The station will feature original Arabic programming, such as a live-action show for older kids called Jametna (seen above), but also the American standards like SpongeBob and Dora. Thanks to Gary Rusak for writing the brief article about this station; its website can be found here. At first blush it looks exactly like any Nickelodeon site you’d expect in the States, but then I guess most American school kids wouldn’t fair too well on the quiz question ‘What is the capital of the United Arab Emirates?' For that matter I'm not sure we adults would either.... 

(The answer is here.)

At any rate, let's hope the relationship between Nick and the Middle East proves long and fruitful, finding productive and symbiotic ways to mix American and Arab cultures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Losing an Institution



I have three or four favorite places in New York City, where I go to find some quiet and respite away from the general din of the city—the East River waterfront at Carl Schurz Park, the Astor Court in the Metropolitan Museum, the Cloisters and Heather Garden in Ft. Tryon Park, and of course the Children’s Room in the Donnell Library on 53rd Street (across from, but often much better than, the more famed Museum of Modern Art). Since 1971 the Children’s Room has been an oasis of children’s literature; I’ve been going there now and then for the past few years, and in that time it’s been fairly bursting at the seams with fiction, nonfiction, picture books, and myriad other wonderful things. My last visit was occasioned by missing a film at the Tribeca Film Festival, courtesy of Saturday subway construction. Upon arriving I was delighted to learn it was National (or International?) Puppetry Day: the place was packed with adults and youngsters thrilling to Punch, Judy, and a few other scrappy characters I didn’t recognize. Both the crowd and the show made it a little difficult to look for the book I was seeking, but I didn’t mind and I almost missed the next screening I was scheduled to attend. For the moment the joy of live, interactive theater eclipsed anything at the festival.

I was distraught, however, by what—or who—was not there. Truth be told I generally haven’t gone to Donnell for the books—I prefer to request they be sent to my local branch and skip the commute. The reason both for going and for ranking it as one of my favorite New York City spots was the presence of the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls (stuffed animals, soft toys, etc.) from Christopher Robin Milne, donated to the library in 1987.



A. A. Milne bought a teddy bear for his son at Harrod’s in London in 1921. Winnie-the-Pooh became famous through his literary exploits and eventually wound up, like so many other Europeans, in New York City. Along with Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga, and Roo, Pooh has been the chief attraction in the Donnell Children’s Room for years now—the guestbook logs local visitors and pilgrims from far-off places like Norway, Australia, Brazil, and, of course, England. I liked to visit, both before and after having a child, to tap into the aura of Pooh (and perhaps the tao, though I’m not sure), to be reminded that the core of the Pooh mystique is the interaction between a father and a son (not a multimillion-dollar industry of books, animation, and ancillary products), facilitated by this ragged, fading stuffed bear. The jouissance is in the simplicity of the object.

At any rate, Pooh and his friends were gone, evidently victims of a rendition off to the main branch on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. They would, I hoped, return shortly. But I learned in last week’s New Yorker that they will not. The Donnell Branch Library, with its prime location, is set to close next month to make way for, horror of horrors, yet another midtown hotel, this one an eleven-story affair owned by Orient-Express Ltd. This, of course, is ridiculous. As this article on the building’s architecture notes, the Donnell branch exterior consists of muted Indiana limestone; it does not draw attention to itself in the way the MOMA does since its own recent renovation, but it is a quiet and stoic building, one of midtown’s most important cultural institutions. In addition to the Children’s Room and a young adult collection it houses the city library’s main audiovisual collection, including videotapes, DVDs, filmstrips and private viewing facilities for 16 and 35mm. As if this weren’t enough, another floor houses the World Languages collection, the New York Public Library’s flagship foreign language collection. Add to that the recently renovated bays of public computers with Internet access (which helped me land my first New York job) and some of the most convenient and clean restrooms in midtown, and you’ve got one of New York City’s greatest cultural resources.

The MOMA is truly brilliant (we recently took Loretta there for the very kid-friendly Olafur Eliason exhibit), but sadly, the same gentrification that has now made it one of the most expensive museums in the nation ($20 per ticket, effectively putting attendance out of reach for ordinary New Yorkers with the exception of free but crowded Friday nights) has also evidently evicted the block’s other main attraction, again in favor of well-moneyed tourists (the new hotel’s rooms will run from $750 to $2,000 a night). The deal is not a complete wash, however, in that a vastly reduced amount of floor space at ground level and in the basement will be reserved for the library. It seems that the NYPL could have got more than the $59 million dollars they earned (to renovate the library would have cost an estimated $48 million) given the location across from the MOMA and around the corner from the Rockefeller Center, but this retention of floor space may have had something to do with the final selling price. The new space, to open by sometime in 2012, will have 19,000 square feet of public space, down from 42,000, and all of the aforementioned special collections will be moved elsewhere, but NYPL President Paul LeClerc seems hopeful, stating that this renovated facility will be useful and beautiful while the cash influx will assist with badly needed repairs elsewhere. I sympathize with his position, and that of all cash-strapped librarians, but I can’t help but feel a loss with the removal of the old building. (Most of my information here came from the New York Times and LibraryJournal.com.)



Anyway, this rather dreary news was made public last fall but only reached me today at the end of an article in last week’s New Yorker, “The Lion and the Mouse: The Battle That Reshaped Children’s Literature” by Jill Lepore. This article also informed me that all the children’s material, not just our Hundred Acre Wood friends, will be relocating to the main 42nd Street branch. This, it turns out, is where these materials were housed before the construction of the Donnell branch half a century ago. A permanent space in the main branch will be unveiled for that building’s 2011 centennial, and in the meantime the children’s books will be in a temporary facility on the main floor, my guess being the exhibition room to the south of the gift shop. All of the materials will be retained and surely eventually improved; a decade from now it will seem as natural to visit Pooh between the lions as it once was on 53rd Street. I commend LeClerc, the Donnell children’s librarians, and all those who labor with them, struggling to keep the libraries open six days a week and otherwise blessing our lives. For news on where the collections are heading and the final public events at Donnell see here.

The New Yorker article, by the way, is an excellent recounting of the ideological battle between pioneering children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore and author E. B. White over the publication of his first children’s book, Stuart Little, which was evidently incredibly controversial—for some people—at the time. It's a story I was completely unfamiliar with, and it was wonderful to see children's literature treated so respectfully within the covers of one of my favorite journals (if one that obviously figures in White's biography). 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Children's Writing in The Writer

I know I'm a month behind, but the June 2008 issue of The Writer magazine has a special section on writing children’s literature that I enjoyed reading (there's another article in the current issue as well). As is generally the case with The Writer the titles are fairly self-descriptive: “Develop your idea into a finished draft,” “Learn key submission tips from a top editor,” “Discover effective ways to publicize your work,” etc. Such material--part motivational, part extremely practical--is, while very useful, also quite abundant elsewhere. With children's lit it's very similar to the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Children’s Writer newsletter, the SCBWI Bulletin, and a slew of how-to books, blogs, and other sources, besides what can be gleaned from the actual children’s books themselves. If you’ve looked at these resources in any detail—or even read your fair share of bedtime stories—then the advice contained within these articles will sound familiar, though not unwelcome: what to put in a query letter, how to develop your protagonist, how various age groups differ, etc. In general the type of material in The Writer tends to recycle over the years—the editors themselves admit this through their monthly inclusion of an article “From the Archives.” But even if you’re a much older hand than I am, I suspect occasional reminders about technique can only enlarge and refine your abilities. I at least went through the whole special section and found it worth the while.


The most engaging article for me was an interview by Jackie Dishner with Montana-based author Karma Wilson, author of Bear Snores On and over forty other board and picture books. (Wilson actually grew up in Idaho, and this being my wife’s home state I’m always rooting for locals who make good.) Reading this interview when I did was great timing because about a week earlier I serendipitously got a hold of Wilson’s book Uh-Oh, Calico!, which I’d since been reading with my daughter Loretta repeatedly. (Last night she slept with it. She woke up around midnight and when I went in to check on her she said, rather deliberately for a groggy four-year-old, “Daddy, I love sleeping with books. I read them . . . and I sleep with them!” Then she was gone.) Uh-Oh, Calico! is a great book, as is Bear Snores On, which we actually read a few months ago, so it was nice to be able to read a bit of Wilson’s attitudes about reading and writing and how she goes about the process.



Perhaps her most important advice was to ignore editorial guidelines when necessary and write what you’re most passionate about. In her case that meant rhyming stories about talking animals, both extreme taboos according to any current market guides. If you love it and you’re passionate about it, though, do it and don’t worry so much about writing to fit what you think the editor wants to see. Follow the muse that brought you to a subject or style in the first place. One hint about how to do that is to realize that what you like to read will probably be what you like to write. Don’t force yourself to do a genre you wouldn’t pull off the library shelf just because it sells.

I also loved a quote paraphrased from C. S. Lewis stating that any children’s book that is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s book. The adults should be enriched as well. Also, you should write just above the child’s level, in order to push him into expanding his vocabulary and understanding of the world. Help him to feel smart by providing clues about upcoming events, so when he guesses it he feels empowered; though she doesn’t say this, Wilson’s rhyme is incredibly important in this regard. The repetition in Uh-Oh, Calico!, for instance, allowed Loretta to anticipate not only events but actual words before I spoke them. That, for a four-year-old, is a double dose of empowerment. It’s also a principle true of play and good children’s television, by the way. It’s the genius of Teletubbies, where the children are developmentally slightly above the characters and understand the narrator and consequences of the Teletubbies’ actions before they do. It’s also the rationale behind Blue’s Clues’ repetition of broadcasts within a single week—by Friday, the child has mastered, through repetition, the inevitable clues and moved beyond them into other areas of learning. Breaking the pattern, though, also has its merits (principally its comedy, though it could be other things also), as in the wonderful ending of Bear Snores On.




I hope to write up a good analysis of Wilson’s body of work soon, but for the moment keep your eyes peeled for the newest Calico book, Friends for Calico!, and watch this fall for her prose story about a lost penguin named Pip (prose being something relatively new for her). In the meantime I can highly recommend Wilson’s existing work—go to her website to find out more.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Some Upcoming Festival Deadlines

I’ve spent this week finishing up my first long cartoon—which basically means I’ve been scrambling like mad—in order to finish it by yesterday’s deadline for the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. To help others avoid the same sleepless fate I thought I’d put up some upcoming deadlines.

Besides Chicago we actually just passed quite a few by the beginning of this month—Animadrid, Auburn, Carousel, Cinekid—but the good news is that the Columbus International Film and Video Festival apparently had a glitch in its email system and thus postponed its final deadline from July 1 to July 15. That's Tuesday! This is a wide-ranging event featuring all kinds of productions for both adults and children, and it’s definitely worth looking into, fast.

August 1 is the deadline for Buster: The Copenhagen International Children’s Film Festival. Buster is a young but thriving event that has already established itself as the premiere children’s film fest in Scandinavia. The Danish-language website is here but you can find a bit more information in English here. Buster will be held this October 19 to 26.

The deadline for the twenty-sixth Ale Kino! International Young Audience Film Festival is August 15. Ale Kino is held in Poznan, Poland, this year from December 12 to 20. Eastern Europe has been a hotbed of cutting-edge children’s films for decades, so don’t disregard this one because of its location. The English pages on the website are quite complete.

Films for Les Nuits Magique are due on August 31. Also known as the Festival International du Film d’Animation, this fest, now in its eighteenth year, is part of a larger film festival in B├Ęgles, a suburb of Bordeaux, which more or less puts you in the neighborhood of Cannes (!). It’s an animation festival and not strictly a children’s festival, but the two are often consonant and for those with cartoons it’s definitely worth checking out.

Without spending a few more hours doing research, the next festival I’m aware of is the Castellinaria International Youth Film Festival in Italy, with a deadline on October 1. But there are a lot more festivals than I’ve been able to investigate. I’m constantly trying to improve my permanent list of links to kids’ film fest websites, and this week I’ve added one to the film festival page of the International Center of Films for Children and Young People. This NGO serves as an umbrella organization to help sponsor dozens upon dozens of fests, including some I’ve mentioned already; it actually merits a post of its own some day. On the website you can search by name, geographically, or chronologically within an incredibly large list of events—hopefully one will be a perfect fit for your film.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Making Media Work in our Families

Besides the fact that I used to be a child, I first encountered children’s media and literature in an undergraduate class taught by Dean Duncan at Brigham Young University in 2002. It was an excellent course, piquing my interest enough to eventually, years later, bend the direction of my whole career. The class was illuminating for many reasons, but mostly because of the phenomenological stance that Duncan took towards children’s media—the belief that the process of watching films is just as important as what those films contain. This belief places a great deal of responsibility upon media consumers, but it also greatly empowers them; no longer are they passive receptacles but active collaborators in their own media experiences.

What I would like to discuss this week are the main strategies that Duncan has offered for parents to better engage with media and use it in the upbringing of their children. All credit, therefore, goes to him. My primary source in preparing this discussion was a BYU Magazine article from 2001, by Duncan, in which he outlines some primary methods by which to empower parents. For the past several years, however, he has also run a program entitled Children’s Media Review (notice the permanent link to the right), which uses faculty, students, and others to create articles, reviews, and films. The writing here is top-notch and the entire website is a tremendous resource (particularly the article “Media Strategies for the Home” gives additional insight to material I will cover here). Given, therefore, that you can cut me out as the middleman and go straight to the source, I’d still like to ignore that possibility and go ahead and discuss how I think we can better utilize media in our lives. (All quotations are from the BYU Magazine article.)

Like it or not, we live in a world supersaturated with media. More than anything else, media will characterize the world which our children will experience, and we must be prepared to raise them effectively in such an environment.

Though we generally use the term media as a singular, it is actually the plural of “medium,” which denotes “an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished.” Media are not ends unto themselves, but means to an end, which end I believe to be a more meaningful life. For people of faith I believe it to be increased discipleship as families and individuals. It should enhance, not detract from, our familial relationships.

To explain how I believe we can best effect this result, I’d like to begin by having us adjust our attitude towards media. Quite often parents are leery of television and films, focusing on protecting their children and avoiding that which is inappropriate. This is not an unhealthy attitude, as there is indeed a great deal from which we need to shield our children. But, as a means to an end, media in and of itself is neither corrupt nor beneficent, although it can be used for both purposes.

So, accepting that we should avoid the demoralizing components of media and turn our attention to how to best utilize the good, I for one believe that the media is absolutely overflowing with positive, wonderful things, so much so that we could never possibly get to it all. Part of the purpose of life is to search after lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy things, and such a search implies an active, optimistic effort. Merely avoiding the negative influences of media is a bit like avoiding junk food without making up the difference by eating fruits, vegetables, and grains: we’re only getting half the benefit.

As we permit such an optimistic, active attitude to awaken us, our minds will be freed from idleness and we will find exponentially greater joy in our media experiences than before. Even more importantly, we will improve our families and our lives. I have found that perhaps the greatest danger of media, for children or adults, is not sex and violence, but the threat that media—television, specifically—will replace familial interaction. Its greatest possible boon, however, is precisely that it can enhance these interactions and relationships.

I’d like to outline Duncan's seven principles for maximizing our experience. These apply particularly to parents guiding young children, but they also apply to our own mature media experiences, even after the young ones have gone to bed.

1. Fundamentals

It has been said that it is an easy thing to go right if we start right, but if we start wrong it will be a hard thing to get right, and this principle applies to media consumption as well as other areas of our lives. That said, the fact of the matter is that many of us have started wrong, so the easiest thing to do may be to unplug for a while and start over.

Turn off the electronic media and “dust off your library card.” Remember that all media are connected, and a film operates on the same principles as a book—story is the most fundamental element, regardless of medium (momentarily excluding visual art and music from this discussion). Try to discover the connection between written and visual media. Pay attention to nuances of story. Especially read classics that have been popular for generations. Try, as your finances allow, to have such books in the home (at least try to put as much emphasis on buying books as on buying or downloading movies and shows). Particularly revisit children’s literature. Far from being immature, these stories are beautiful and uplifting. If you can do this with your children, there is a double benefit as you grow closer exploring this world together.

When your hectic consumption rate has been slowed enough to arouse your sensitivity, it may be time to plug back in, but not at the expense of the books, which should stay out and frequently open. A continued balanced effort will bring out the best in both visual and written media.

That may seem like an impossible task, but I am living proof that it’s both feasible and beneficial. When we were first married my wife and I had broadcast television, the same networks we had been raised with and seen all our lives (though Fox still somehow seemed new). When we moved to New York in 2002, however, we couldn’t get reception and cable was financially out of the question; when we moved to England one year later we refused to pay the television license fee, and by then we were on a roll. The result was nearly six years without television programming—we relented to the cable bill two months ago so that I could watch more preschool programming—and we unequivocally loved it. There was not a single moment that I wished to able to watch the news, Law and Order, Friends, 24, or anything else. We’ve now rejoined the world in principle, but not much in fact. I’ve vaguely heard of things like House and Bones and Gray’s Anatomy, but I’ve never seen them—and both my wife and I feel that without television our spare time became meaningful and our lives were enriched for not spending every evening living vicariously through sitcoms and soap commercials.

2. Supervision

Upgrade your own habits to set the example for your children, and then make sure they follow suit as much as possible. Again, media contains more subtle dangers than sex and violence: “Materialism, cults of celebrity and popularity, celebrations of impertinence and self-absorption, even plan tackiness—all are rampant in our media, and they are too often presented and received uncritically.”

Allow only things you approve of to be viewed, read, or listened to. As much as possible know what your children are partaking of (take the time to watch, read, or listen to it yourself). Keep televisions, computers, and even those old-fashioned radios in public rooms, not bedrooms, and periodically examine the content of iPods, iTunes, etc., if you allow such things at all. Make media consumption a family activity as much as possible.

3. Active Reading

The quality of our experience is just as dependent on us as on what we consume. In academic terms this philosophy is called phenomenology, but in practical terms it just means not to be a sponge, to recognize the phenomenon of consuming media as much as the content of the media itself. In doing so, you won’t just absorb what is presented to you without scrutiny. Also strive not to dismiss something—for critical reasons—because you initially don’t like it. In his seminal work An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis (we often forget that professionally he was a literary scholar) wrote that there are no good and bad texts, just good and bad readers. An open, active mind can reap a reward almost anywhere.

The problem of passive absorption is greatest with film and television. Reading a page requires active participation by the reader or the text ceases to be read. But with a prerecorded medium, the show continues to pass over the viewer whether he’s engaged or not, and we are therefore much more prone to let a film wash over us. Many people think of films as relaxing precisely because they don’t have to think about them, but this is exactly the wrong position to take.

Read a film or a television show like you would a book. The little extra energy this requires will pay enormous dividends. As a family, respond and discuss, especially concerning the aspects you do not agree with. This does not mean you qualify the movie as either “good” or “bad,” nor should you start to dictate, “Well, they [the filmmakers] should have done this.” Instead, try to determine why the filmmakers did what they did, what they were trying to say, and how you feel about that commentary on life. Instead of asking someone if a show was good, ask what they learned. This requires childlike humility, but we often learn more when we’re aware that we are learning, and we can also more easily reject that which is unwholesome when we are thus made aware of its presence.

4. Moderation

I believe that the amount of what we watch is even more dangerous than the content of what we watch. Mindless hours of innocuous TV or Internet cost us dearly, and we should take to heart our own mothers’ admonition to not be a boob in front of the tube.

If we are to build strong families, strong lives, or a strong society, then our greatest enemy is arguably idleness (or perhaps distraction). When we live our entire lives vicariously through television shows or online entertainments then we are not really living at all, and are rather wasting away the limited days of our lives.

The best way to overcome idleness in our media consumption, besides the unplugging mentioned earlier, is to have a purpose every time we turn on. Avoid surfing. Turn something on to do or see specifically what you want to do or see, and then turn it off when you’re done. There can certainly be times when it is appropriate for family bonding to just “see what’s good on,” but if it is a perpetual personal habit, it can be spiritually and emotionally corrosive. Then our idleness turn into idol worship, and our families and values can be displaced as the center of our homes.

Above all else, don’t let media interfere with family interactions. Again, keep television out of certain areas where more significant interactions should occur, specifically bedrooms (even and especially your own), the kitchen, and the dining room—and then don’t eat all your meals on the couch.

5. Location and Decorum

Of course there are areas in the home where media belongs more than anywhere else in the world. Going out to the movies can be a wonderful experience, but for ideal use of media, especially as a family, we must consume it in the home.

The type of interaction and familial discussion I’ve been describing require that you be in a location that allows you to talk out loud during viewing. I am absolutely convinced that this is the best way to watch a film. It is impossible for your brain to turn off if you talk your way through a movie, even if you are completely alone. Also, your parental voice can be a guide to your children as they seek to navigate often challenging texts.

To quote Duncan:

"TV programs and films should be read aloud, like a picture book. Parents should provide running commentary, discussing story and character, theme and meaning, image and sound; they should rewind and repeat and ask leading questions. This approach makes impossible the open-mouthed, empty-eyed gaping usually associated with TV babysitting. And in modeling such active reading, we insure that our children will become informed and literate."

The makers of DVRs seemed innately aware of this—you can now rewind live television! Take advantage of this as often as appropriate, whether for instruction or comedy. (Most recently Loretta and I did this during an episode of Kipper when all of Kipper’s laundry blows away in a storm: when Tiger falls into a bush, we must have rewound it seven times—the first time we watched it, with more in subsequent viewings—and Loretta has hardly ever laughed so hard.)

6. Variation

The desire to seek after the virtuous and praiseworthy and lovely does not mean we should look in the same place all the time, whatever our favorite place may happen to be. Rather, as with food, a balanced diet will provide us and our children with more insights and edifying experiences than could be available through any single source.

I mentioned that we should read the canon of classical children’s literature. For a while now in academia it’s been popular to reject the canon in favor of texts that are new, postmodern, postcolonial, etc., but I’m still enough of a traditionalist to support it, provided that we then move beyond into less well-known waters. With films and television this means it’s okay to start with Disney, PBS, and Nickelodeon, provided that at some point we start to explore beyond it. As we do so with our children we may be surprised at their capacity for interest and comprehension beyond what we anticipated. Try foreign films, silent films, documentaries, different types of animation, and so forth. Foreign films, for instance, can be rewarding if for no other reason than that they make us assume a new perspective. They can also be more prone to probe deep issues than American fare, and the very fact that you must read subtitles aloud means you are reading the film.

In exploring variety we should move beyond movies, though. Expose yourself and, when appropriate, your children to the magic of live theater. I have wonderful memories of going with my own parents not to movies but to puppet shows, the circus, planetarium shows, and live plays. Listen to different music than you are used to (again, investigate foreign music). In all ways try to open up new doors for yourself and your family. There is no single source of joy or enlightenment, and you will be uplifted by investigating many different sources.

7. Duration and Extension

Media by its very definition is a means to an end, in this case to returning to our lives invigorated and ready to try harder and do better. But most movies, particularly features, are too long for children to properly digest and apply in this way. If we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what we consume, then we should take smaller bites.

Try the principle of extension, which consists of smaller installments and more of them. Just like you would read a long book a chapter a night to your child (I have wonderful memories of Charlotte’s Web and Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back in this regard), consider watching a portion of a show and then extending the experience over time. This allows for increased commentary from you and contemplation for the child. Discuss the program between installments and after its completion. In this way it took Loretta and I about two weeks to get through Mary Poppins last year, but a wonderful two weeks they were.

Also examine other related material and cluster, create activities based on a theme. With Mary Poppins, the most obvious thing was to dance—“Mary Poppins, step in time!”—and dance we did. Play is an obvious activity: we regularly pretend to be the Wonder Pets, for instance, and in the bathtub we have a marvelous time both when she is Ariel and I Flounder escaping from a shark and on different days when her little octopus is Charlie and her alligator Lola, even though they bear no resemblance at all to Lauren Child’s characters. My favorite example, though, is when we taught Loretta the rudiments of baseball after she saw it on Lazytown—teaching kids sports, after all, is exactly why Magnus Scheving created this show in the first place. But play is not all you can do. Draw a picture, tell a story or experience, create your own picture book, “build a model, play a game, write a letter, [or] make a visit.”

Here in New York City there are wonderful opportunities to integrate specific films into our activities. The Empire State Building can serve both for a young boy entranced with King Kong and a teenage daughter who loved Sleepless in Seattle. A wise father could take that same daughter on a morning date to Fifth Avenue to have breakfast at Tiffany’s. Loretta was vaguely interested in her first trip to Coney Island until the Wonder Pets saved a squirrel there, and then it was all she could talk about for weeks before and afterwards. And so on, though it doesn’t have to be so geographically specific. While Little Bill goes to the Bronx Zoo, for instance, the experience is transferable to any city anywhere.

Here’s Duncan:

"…Last fall some of our little ones were reading “The Surprise” from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad All Year. In this lovely story two friends try, with pure intent and little success, to help each other with some seasonal cleanup. After we closed the book, we went outside and raked leaves and talked about service and secret sharing, about plans that go awry, and about the satisfaction of even making an effort."

And then he summarizes:

"It is the combination and accumulation of activities on a theme that make active, informed, edified media consumers. More important, these activity clusters mean that, in part through media, we’re constantly learning together and enjoying one another. Moreover, parents and children become bound by common experience, common principles, common strivings, and mutual accomplishments.”

For my own summary, then, remember that media are tools to build our families and our lives, and should be used only as means to those ends. Human interaction is more important than any medium, show, or song. Even the most worthy book, film, or program, could get in the way of more important experiences. It is perfectly plausible for you to feel prompted to put down even the most important book—the scriptures, for example—in order to go tickle your child or help her with her homework. Remember that these are the experiences that will matter. But if we properly engage media into our lives, such experiences just might be more frequent than before.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wall-E Cleans Up Planet Earth

I was not able to go see Pixar’s new film Wall-E (directed by Andrew Stanton) last weekend, but from the looks of things I’m just about the only person who didn't. For those who are interested--whether you’ve seen it yet or not--I thought I’d throw up some box office information and a few links to reviews.




Pixar, it seems, has done it yet again, essentially maintaining the best batting average for any studio since the inception of the Hollywood system in the 1910s. Among other smashed records, every single one of Pixar’s nine features has opened at number one (scroll down to Wall-E: Pixar Goes Nine for Nine) for their respective weekends, no small feat. This time around, Pixar’s little robot who could brought home at least $62.5 million on 3,992 screens (that figure is from Variety; Box Office Mojo gives it $63.1 million). This opening compares with previous Pixar releases thus (with the worldwide gross thrown in, where Stanton's previous film Finding Nemo tops the chart):

Title Opening weekend Worldwide gross Date
The Incredibles $70.5 million $631.4 million 2004
Finding Nemo $70.2 million $864.6 million 2003
Wall-E $63.1 million 2008
Monsters, Inc. $62.5 million $525.4 million 2001
Cars $60.1 million $462 million 2006
Toy Story 2 $57.4 million $485 million 1999
Ratatouille $47 million $621.4 million 2007
A Bug’s Life $33.3 million $363.4 million 1998
Toy Story $29.1 million $362 million 1995


To hear from some people who did actually see the film, here’s a smattering of reviews:

Todd McCarthy in Variety

A. O. Scott in The New York Times

Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times

Tom O’Neil’s in another LA Times blog (about the connection to Chaplin and Keaton)

David Edelstein’s in New York Magazine

I could go on, but as usual Rotten Tomatoes has a plethora of reviews on Wall-E’s page, some worth more than others but a wonderful resource across the board whether you’ve seen the film or not. From all accounts, though, you should.