Puppet update

Last November, I put out the call that I was looking for an experienced puppet designer for a new project. I got dozens of emails and recommendations, and had several great conversations with designers and directors suggesting techniques and pitfalls.

In March, I met with a great LA puppet shop to begin serious discussions about working together on it. They suggested a terrific illustrator to help create designs for the main character, a non-human creature with very unusual attributes. After a few sessions, we arrived something we loved…

…but it was un-puppetable.

That’s not entirely true, of course. With modern technology — green-screens, motion control, clever robotics — there’s almost nothing that can’t be done with a puppet. But when we looked at all the post-production that would be required to make the character feel like it was interacting with real-world environments and actors, it became clear that a fully-CG character would be a much better fit for this project.

The biggest issue ended up being the character’s walk cycle, which would have been a monstrous challenge for puppeteers. I had nightmare visions of needing to paint out six guys in the background of every shot.

Once I accepted that this character would be virtual, I questioned why I was so insistent on human actors and physical sets. After all, what was special about the project was this main character, who would be drawn in after the fact.

If we’re animating him, why not animate everything?

So that’s what we’re doing now. We’re creating the rough animatic and figuring out next steps. It’s absolutely the right choice for this project, even if it wasn’t the original intention.

But I still love puppets. The process of meeting with puppet-folk has left me eager to find the right project for them. It will likely be something in which their puppet-ness is innate to the concept — of course that’s a puppet; they couldn’t be anything else.

Of the many people I spoke with during this project’s puppet incarnation, one of the most helpful was director Toben Seymour. His video for Herman Dune is a great example of why puppets continue to be awesome.

Internationalizing Bronson

Bronson Watermarker PDF, our app for watermarking and password-protecting screenplays and other documents, has an update in the App Store that adds native support for German, Russian and Chinese.

It looks so cool in Chinese:


This was our first effort at internationalizing an app. We chose Bronson because it’s the simplest overall: one window, a few menus. We’ll be taking what we learned and applying it to Highland and Weekend Read down the road.

We hired Applingua to do our translations, and I’d happily use them again. The process is pretty straightforward: export all the text strings in your app and ship the file. The company translates each string in order, so they’ll fit back into the proper slots when you drop the translated file in the app bundle.

Why these three languages? Based on our download numbers, these were the regions that were already buying our apps the most.1 Translating the app into these languages helps the most existing customers, and (hopefully) attracts new ones. We’ll be keeping an eye on download numbers to see if it was worth it.

These were also good test languages for us, because they forced us to reconsider what our interface would look like if some of the text labels became vastly longer or shorter than they were in English. We found that we needed to reposition some elements to make sure strings never got truncated.

Internationalizing Bronson took about a week. The process was fairly smooth, but there were things we hadn’t considered at the start:

  • “Watermark” is an odd term that doesn’t necessarily have a matching word in other languages. We relied on the translators to figure out what made sense.
  • In English, the button at the bottom might read, “Save 1 Watermarked PDF” or “Save 3 Watermarked PDFs.” We insert the numeral into the string and pluralize as necessary. But in other languages, the word order and pluralization can be very different. We ultimately decided to keep the English usage of PDF(s), with the assumption that these file types are so ubiquitous that users are unlikely to be confused.
  • We asked Applingua to translate our Mac App Store product description, but then realized that we also needed them to translate our screenshots, which have text on them.
  • Even keywords need to be localized so that when a German user searches for Wasserzeichen in the Mac App Store, Bronson shows up.

If you want to test out what an app looks like in different languages, here’s how to do it:

  1. Open System Preferences and choose Language & Region.
  2. Click the + below the list box and choose a new language.
  3. Drag that language to the top of the list.

The next time you launch the app, it will use the localized language bundle if it exists.

With this new build, we’ve lowered the price to $19.99. We sold remarkably well when we launched at $14.99, but the full $29.99 price seemed to be higher than the market would bear.

We’re also offering site licenses for companies. One of our favorite animation studios was our first site license, and it was great to be able to provide them a custom version. If you’re interested, drop us a note through the Bronson support page.

If you haven’t checked out Bronson yet, look for it on the App Store. And if you already have Bronson, we could really use some reviews. Each new version pushes old reviews off the landing page.

  1. Because you’ll ask, here are our top 20 countries, in order: US, UK, Canada, Russia, Germany, China, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, India, Turkey, Singapore, France, Spain, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chile, Italy, Columbia, Peru.

Audio illusions, and the importance of set-up

Your brain is smarter than you think. Here’s an example from Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute:

In this audio illusion, something that seems incomprehensible makes sense once your brain is conditioned for it. Prior information shapes our understanding of the present.

In screenwriting — or any form of storytelling — we call this set-up. A reader’s understanding of a given moment is hugely dependent on what you’ve already established. That’s why the first few pages of a script are so important: you’re teaching the reader what to look for, and ultimately how to read your script.

From WHHY The Pulse.

Adapting The Wizard of Oz

Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, takes a look at screenwriter Noel Langley’s early draft of the script for The Wizard of Oz:

The differences between this version and the final shooting script? Hardly a page escapes without crossed-out speeches and handwritten substitutions. Plot points abound that are later abandoned (the Wicked Witch of the West has a son named Bulbo?). Only a couple of scenes refer to singing, and none of the famous lyrics appear. What would become “Over the Rainbow,” which I call America’s unofficial national anthem, is referred to as “the Kansas song.”

What this draft achieves is the compression of choice elements from a best-selling, although rambling, children’s book. In the original novel, the Wicked Witch of the West dies on Page 155, but Dorothy doesn’t leave Oz until 100 pages on. If Langley stuffs in extraneous characters for ballast (a Kansas farmhand and his sweetheart among them), he also abbreviates the trajectory of the story so that the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West kick-starts Dorothy’s return to Kansas.

Adapting a book to film means figuring out which elements of the source material really belong on the big screen. It many cases, you end up dropping things not because they’re “un-cinematic,” but rather because they don’t help you tell the two-hour version of the story.

Sometimes, the choices you make feel better than the original:

The American author-illustrator Maurice Sendak believed that The Wizard of Oz film was a rare example of a movie that improves on the original book. I agree with him. Langley consolidates two good witches into one. He eliminates distracting sequences involving populations Dorothy encounters after the Wizard has left in his balloon —the china people (porcelain figures) and the Hammer-Heads (a hard-noggined race).

You’d have a harder time taking these liberties with a popular novel now. The Harry Potter films were faithful and tremendously successful, as was Twilight and The Hunger Games. Studios see this and take note.

Over the last ten years when I’ve been approached to adapt current best-sellers, one of the first concerns has been not angering authors and fans. That may be the smart choice financially, but it doesn’t always result in the best movie.

Had Langely been given this directive when adapting The Wizard of Oz, I doubt we’d remember the movie at all.

Why did Weekend Read spike?

This past Friday, download numbers for Weekend Read shot through the roof for no apparent reason.


To give some sense of scale, those ordinary days on the left range from 50 to 75 downloads per day. The spike is 3,591. 1

Weekend Read is a free app, so it’s certainly possible that an online mention convinced a lot of people to download it.2

Or perhaps it was featured on a section of the App Store.

Was it related to Rian Johnson and his Star Wars news? The scripts for Rian’s first three movies are available inside the app. Maybe someone linked to that in a Star Wars forum.

Or perhaps it really just was a fluke — a flurry of downloads that pushed it up higher and higher in the charts, creating a virtuous cycle. (We peaked at 162 in Productivity.)

Weekend Read sends our server a ping when it’s first installed, but we can’t track the source of download unless it comes from a specially-crafted URL such as this one.

We may never know exactly what happened. Apple currently gives developers no way of tracking where traffic is coming from. Better analytics are coming in a future version of iTunes Connect, but for now all we get are mysterious numbers. It’s our own little Wow! signal.

  1. The graphic comes from the iOS version of App Viz, which I love. The trend line is certainly misleading in this case.
  2. In-app purchases of Weekend Read Unlocked, which gives users an unlimited library, were not up proportionately to downloads.

Secrets and Lies

Scriptnotes: Ep. 151

John and Craig discuss why most characters are liars, and how that’s actually a good thing. John offers seven suggestions for picking character names that will help your readers. Then we look at a three page challenge that’s been filmed to see what worked on the page versus on screen.

In follow-up, we discuss the Aereo decision and our mutual love of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

Finally, we answer a reader question about the proper protocol for checking in after a meeting.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 7-3-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.