ControllerMate and automatic fingers

geek alertI recently upgraded to a Mac Pro, which I justified to myself thusly:

  1. I’m doing effects for The Movie, and Motion runs much faster on it. (In truth, I only did one effect in the final cut.)
  2. My G5 was actually slower than my laptop.
  3. As a writer, I needed a quieter computer.
  4. I deserve to throw some of my Hollywood money around.

The new computer is great, and almost all of my software works perfectly on it. Unfortunately, I’ve had some hiccups with my input devices.

keyboardAs I’ve blogged about, I have a strange keyboard. It looks impossible to use, but I’m actually much faster typing on it than a traditional keyboard, with the added bonus that my arms don’t go numb in the middle of the night.

The Mac Pro isn’t thrilled with my keyboard, which connects through a serial-to-ADB dongle. On restarts, the computer asks me to confirm the keyboard layout, suspicious that I’ve swapped in a Klingon model. Nevertheless, it produces the correct letters every time.

While my odd keyboard is great for typing, it’s singularly awful for key commands, like Copy, Paste and Undo. While one’s fingers can always find the right keys to form words, there’s something different about multi-key combinations. It just doesn’t happen consistently.

nostromo keypadThat’s why I’ve been using a little gaming keypad, the Nostromo N52 by Belkin. Using the software that came with it, I set up keys for Copy, Paste and all the useful shortcuts one is likely to use. With my right hand on the mouse, and my left on the Nostromo, I’m an editing machine.

But the software for the Nostromo refuses to work with the Mac Pro.

At first, I wondered if I could live without it. I thought my fingers would stop reaching for the non-functioning keypad, but they wouldn’t. Thinking I was copying something, I’d be left with a single lower-case g, which is how the computer decided to interpret the chatter from the orphaned device.

Belkin hasn’t upgraded the drivers in years, so I’m not holding my breath that there will suddenly be a new version for Intel Macs like mine. One guy has taken it upon himself to create his own drivers, but it looks like even he’s given up.

Fortunately, there’s a program called ControllerMate which can handle the Nostromo. For $15, it’s almost as good as free, and can do a lot of things that the Belkin software couldn’t. Like confound the hell out of me.

ControllerMate has an elaborate flow-chart-style programming language which looks great but is almost impenetrable. How do you assign a keystroke to a button? It’s as easy as…

  1. Pick the controller from the list.
  2. Double-click it to open the available controller buttons.
  3. Press the actual button on the device to indicate which virtual button it corresponds to.
  4. Drag the virtual button to the programming area.
  5. But first, you might want to make a new programming page. Or a group. Why? You won’t know until you need it.
  6. Now, pull down the menu to outputs, and select “Keystroke” or “Single Key.” What’s the difference? I couldn’t tell you, except that Single Key seems to work and Keystroke locked up my machine in a beeping loop.
  7. Open the virtual keyboard palette and drag the desired key to the well, then add any modifier keys.
  8. Then drag the whole thing to the programming area, and attach it to the virtual button.
  9. Test to see if it works.

Repeat for all of the other keys. Uggh.

To be fair, there’s a benefit to all this abstraction. You can create some pretty elaborate logic by nesting groups and pages, so that hitting one key while another key is pressed performs a special function. But it’s a lot of work to get to Copy and Paste.

My fingers are just happy to be back on autopilot. Just in the course of writing and posting this blog, they’ll have reached for the Nostromo fifteen times. Which is fifteen times less I’ve had to curse under my breath.

Helicopter day

helicopterToday was the first and only day of aerial photography for The Movie. We rented a helicopter, a Wescam mount, a pilot, an operator, a camera and burned two thousand feet of film. Minute for minute, it was the most expensive part of the entire production.

How was it, you ask?

Pretty effin’ cool.

I’d been in helicopters before — once in Hawaii, once in Estonia. But there’s something amazing about flying over a city you’ve lived in for decade. Look! There’s my old apartment. There’s my agent’s office. There’s Aaron Spelling’s mansion. (It’s the big white W.)

Spelling MansionThese shots are from my Treo. I could kick myself for not bringing my little videocamera along for the ride, but I guess I’ll be seeing the 35mm version soon enough.

The shots we needed for the movie were pretty specific, and took a fair amount of planning to get right. Google Earth was a huge help. We could literally fly through the shots before we did them, showing the pilot what we were going for. (In fact, for the screenings so far, we’ve simply been using footage captured from the screen.)

(Click on the photos to see larger versions. More after the jump.) (more…)

Vampires are the imaginary numbers of modern literature

After a bad beginning, I spent the flight home from Colorado reading Barry Mazur’s Imagining Numbers, which looks at how we might best conceive of imaginary numbers, those uncomfortable gremlins that occur when you start looking for the square root of negative numbers.

The book was only okay. It tried to be history lesson, philosophical study and math review all at once, and in its scattershot approach never quite achieved its stated thesis.

But one benefit of a mediocre book is that one’s mind is free to wander. Over the course of reading Mazur’s book, I decided:

  1. To paint a giant number line on my daughter’s playroom wall. Addition and subtraction make a lot more sense with some geometry behind them, and Mazur’s description of numbers as verbs rather than nouns is revelatory.

  2. The sense of needing “permission” to do something is generally an indication of an unasked question: “What would happen if I did take the square root of a negative number,” or “What if my protagonist could hear the voice-over narration?” (c.f. Stranger Than Fiction)

  3. Vampires are the imaginary numbers of modern literature.

This last point merits further elaboration.

Vampires do not exist. That is, they do not exist in the same way you or I do. You’ve never met an undead blood-sucker, and neither have I. Yet we can both agree on quite a few characteristics of these non-existent beings:

  • They drink blood.
  • They avoid sunlight.
  • They’re strong.
  • They are undead and undying, except by special procedures.

This checklist is by no means complete: different writers may choose to add or subtract abilities. Shape-shifting and hypnosis were once pretty common traits that have all but disappeared from the modern vampire. Likewise, flight and coffin-sleeping seem to be on the wane.

In films, books and television, you can find urban vampires, feral vampires and even white-trash varieties. Yet the sense of “vampire-ness” seems fairly fixed. Here’s a test: grab a random teenager and ask him how to kill a vampire. Then ask him how to change a tire. I suspect the more complete answer will involve a wooden stake.

So how are vampires the imaginary numbers of modern literature?

Neither vampires nor imaginary numbers exist, yet we treat them like they do, simply because it suits our purposes. Imaginary numbers let us posit hypothetical mathematical scenarios; vampires let us imagine hypothetical human scenarios. Want an addiction analogy? Vampires. Epidemic? Vampires. Alienation? Vampires. Need to have your protagonist exist both now and two hundred years in the past? Just make him a vampire.

Modern literature has substituted vampires into every conceivable genre. And I don’t think it’s any accident that our bitey friends have become the go-to supernatural beings. Werewolves are only part-time monsters. Ghosts lack a consistent mythology. Vampires, well, they’re just like us.

But different. They’re imaginary numbers, who can’t be reduced beyond their glamorous other-ness.

I haven’t written a vampire movie yet, but the key word is “yet.” I came close last year, and it’s almost a given that I will at some point. It’s like a screenwriter’s rite of passage. And when I do, I intend to invoke some serious calculus on that shit.

To the guy sitting in 7A

Here’s the thing: When you arrive at the gate two minutes before the plane is supposed take off, you give up your right to complain. I don’t care what it says on your ticket. You take any available open seat.

That’s the deal. Maybe it’s not printed in all of the legalese, but it’s part of the social contract between all flyers: sit down, shut up, and let us push back from the gate.

What’s worse, it wasn’t even your seat. You claimed to have switched with some woman at the back of the plane, yet here you were at row seven, complaining that people weren’t in their assigned seats. J’accuse, my friend, j’accuse.

I wasn’t directly involved in the Great Seating Controversy of Flight 215. I was one row back, biting my tongue and proffering Cheerios to my daughter. Anything I might have said, any way I might have intervened, would have no doubt greater delayed our departure.

So instead, I spent a few minutes memorizing every detail of your face, so that at some point in the future when it won’t inconvenience 200 air travelers I might have the opportunity to let you know: You, sir, are a dick.

Additional photography

filmmingIn Hollywood parlance, “additional photography” is the polite term for what used to be called reshoots. It’s a rare case where the new word is better. Most of the time, you’re not reshooting anything. You’re getting new things you didn’t know you needed the first time around.

Woody Allen is famous for requiring additional days in his schedule (and budget) to allow for a different performance, a new scene, a funnier joke. Given how expensive a day of shooting is, that seems like a luxury, but as screenwriters it really shouldn’t. We’re accustomed to going through multiple drafts, trying things that might be Really Bad Ideas.

The chance to fuck up and fix it can be the difference between a so-so and solid.

I can speak from first-hand experience. For Go, we went back and shot several new scenes, including the resolution of the Simon-Gaines-Claire-Vics plotline. On paper, the new version wasn’t any better — in fact, it made considerably less sense. But as shot, it just worked better, condensing several scenes down to one, and wrapping up the movie faster.

For the first Charlie’s Angels, our additional photography was much more limited, basically just new establishing shots. But having seen the test scores for both the Before and After versions, I can testify to how much difference a few seconds of film can make. In most cases, it’s not that you’re adding something great, but rather that you’re replacing something sucky.

Last week, I was back in the director’s chair for additional photography on The Movie. It was only two days of shooting, but we added two new scenes, and got needed bits for three other sequences.

After seven weeks of editing, the strange thing about going back into production is that, well, it’s production. It means re-opening the production office, and hiring a crew of 45. If you’re lucky, you can hire the same crew who worked on the film the first time around. More likely, however, those people will have moved on to other productions, so you end up hiring a largely new crew. In our case, almost half of the crew who worked on these two days had no idea what The Movie was even about. That’s the remarkable thing about the below-the-line trades in Hollywood: because of how specifically the jobs are defined, they’re largely plug-and-play. The gaffer and key grip may have never met, but together they can light your scene. They don’t need to know why the scene is happening, just where the Chimera is supposed to be.

accebit posterThe bulk of our art department came from Veronica Mars, which has been back in production for over a month. Since the original crew wasn’t available, I got to rock my inner design geek and handle the printed graphics myself, something I haven’t done since college.

The “accebit” poster hangs at a Metro bus stop on Wilshire Blvd. Yes, it means something, so you classics majors can get to work.

This was our first time shooting night exterior, which meant new decisions about how we wanted things to look. Personally, I’m a big fan of very black skies — think high school football movies — so we aimed for that. We also aimed at finishing before 3 a.m. We came close.

Next step? Test screening, picture lock, then sound-a-palooza.

Monovision [update]

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the newly-empowered critters proclaim “four legs good, two legs bad,” only to later betray their entire belief system with the new wisdom that “four legs good, two legs better.”

I can relate. After extolling the virtues of wearing one contact lens (i.e. monovision), I took the bold step of putting the second lens in. Guess what?

One lens good, two lens better.

Sorry, monovision. I am fully committed to binocular vision.

And contact lenses aren’t bad at all. I had tried them a few years ago, and hated them. But the new lenses are comfortable enough that I genuinely forget that I’m wearing them. I’m a person who’s always had bad touching-my-eye squeamishness, but it’s been cake.

So my advice to my glasses-wearing brethren: give contacts a shot, even if you’re convinced you could never handle it.

The only reason I was trying contacts at all was as a trial-run for LASIK monovision. Now I’m just a guy who wears contacts. It’s really good, and doesn’t involve slicing my cornea.