It's easy to be great, it's hard to be good

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I recently went to see Penn and Teller at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. I've been a huge fan of them for decades, and saw their show live in Las Vegas about a year ago, so I was excited to check them out locally.

The show was delightful, although they did about 80% of the same tricks that I've seen them on TV/YouTube and in Vegas. Later, I got in the mood to do some more reading on them and happened upon this interview they did awhile back for Reddit. In it, they're asked by a fan whether they ever do any tricks that have taxed them in terms of technical precision.

Penn refers to a section from Steve Martin's book, Born Standing Up:

I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.

For Penn and Teller, this means they can't do anything that's physically taxing or extraordinary, because they do their show five nights a week. They can't be on the "razor's edge" of skill because there can't be a risk that they'll be unable to reproduce their act thousands upon thousands of times. What a profound way to look at things - you don't need to be incredible; just pretty good, all the time.

So they're good, but they're not great. And that's actually the bigger challenge.

"Time" from Hans Zimmer's 'Inception' Score - Looping Cello Version

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Things got unexpectedly emotional for me the other day.

I spent dozens of hours over the summer and fall practicing a looping cello arrangement of "Time" from Hans Zimmer's score for Inception. The arrangement was done by musician/composer extraordinaire Andrew Barkan, but I added a few little flourishes to make it my own. On Thursday afternoon, I pushed my little creation out into the world at /Film.

Subsequently, I was very happy to see this video appear at places such as Reddit Videos, The Dissolve, The Film Stage, and MovieFone. But really, what was incredible were all the positive comments the video got via /Film and Twitter.
It's been about 4 months since I started playing cello again after a 10-year absence. I spent over a thousand dollars to get my cello shipped to me, get it repaired, buy a looping pedal/amp/equipment -- all with just a vague hope that I'd be able to use it to create something unique. There was never any assurances of success, or any reasonable expectation that if I did succeed, the work would ever catch on. To see thousands of people enjoying the video just made my heart very full.

Since I started playing cello againmy new Youtube channel has accumulated over 40K views.  I wouldn't describe it as even close to "going viral," but it's enough encouragement for me to keep on going for a little while longer...

Thoughts on 'Interstellar'

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Here's my video review of Interstellar for /Film. Seeing this movie in one of the 54 IMAX theaters in the world that can project at native IMAX aspect ratio was almost certainly one of the best cinematic experiences I've had this year.

Steve Jobs, on what drove him

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I've been getting into reading books again thanks to my Kindle Paperwhite, and finally finished the massive Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. The ending of that book got pretty emotional, as Jobs started losing his energy and approaching his own passing.

I was struck by one of the closing passages, written in Jobs' own words -- a statement about how our efforts at contributing to the world, while rarely perfect or ingenious, just may be enough:

What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that's been done by others before us. I didn't invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It's about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how -- because we can't write bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That's what's driven me.

Mr. Brightside - Looping Cello Cover

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I recently put together this brief cello cover of The Killers' "Mr. Brightside" and was pleased to see that it was mentioned at both LaughingSquid and Devour this morning.

Each one of these videos takes a lengthy amount of time to practice for, shoot, and then edit, so it's always gratifying to see that people are watching these videos and enjoying them. If you've ever looked/liked/shared, thanks so much! You're giving me the motivation to keep going.

You can find all my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.

Why I Helped Produce 'Layover'

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This year at the Seattle International Film Festival, I saw a movie called Layover, which tells the story of how a young Parisian named Simone gets stuck in LA on an extended layover and ends up learning more about her hopes and dreams than she had anticipated. At the time, I wrote about the film at /Film:

Layover is a film in the tradition of Linklater’s Before series, and I found that it perfectly captured the paradox encountered by many a millennial: feeling trapped, while also realizing that the possibilities for your life are still endless. It’s a beautiful, moving, and wistful film.

Not only was I impressed with the film, I also loved the story of how director Joshua Caldwell made the film for about $6,000. Layover is a testament to what can be accomplished with a solid script, a strong directorial eye, a single Canon 5D Mark II camera, and sheer willpower.

In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that I signed on to become a producer for it. So what exactly does that mean?


In this instance, since Layover was already completed, there were very few conventional production duties that I could help fill. Instead, I helped provide finishing funds for the film and consulted on several elements of their distribution plan and publicity. You can read more about how Caldwell made the film here and here, and also read about his decision to directly distribute the movie. 

You can probably guess: The fact that the film was only made for $6K made it much easier for a person of my limited means to invest in it. A few thousand dollars of my money could go a much longer way on Layover than it would on a production that cost $100K or $500K. But beyond that, I saw several unique opportunities that becoming a producer would present.

Firstly, since I'm directing a film myself this year -- and one that will very likely require self-distribution -- I felt being involved with Layover would give me a front-row seat to all the challenges involved in getting the word out about a movie. Thus far, I have already learned a lot about what platforms to use to distribute, the advantages of each, and what the most effective ways of driving publicity are. Undoubtedly, these learnings will require a whole other blog post to cover.

Secondly, and more importantly, every year thousands of movies like this screen at indie film festivals around the country and are promptly forgotten or never heard from again. They are movies with limited appeal on the mass market - maybe they don't have big stars, or maybe (in the case of Layover) they are shot in a foreign language and presented with English subtitles. I knew there was a risk that Layover would become one of these films, and with the audience I have via /Film and the /Filmcast, I saw an opportunity to bring attention to a film that would otherwise never have received it.

Finally, I saw it as an opportunity to get involved with a promising young filmmaker. I don't know where the careers of writer/director Joshua Caldwell and his producing/writing partner Travis Oberlander will end up. But even if this is the only thing they make that I ever love, I'm very proud to have my name on it.

You can buy Layover right now for $6 with promo code "filmcast", DRM-free. If you'd like to support an exciting new filmmaker, the concept of indie distribution, or my work in general, I would be grateful if you could check it out. Thanks!

Observations on 'Gone Girl'

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I had a great time watching Gone Girl this afternoon at Seattle's Sundance Theaters in the U-District. A few stray observations, in advance of the our /Filmcast review (which I'll update this post with when it goes live in a few days):

  • Overall, I really enjoyed the film, but it's definitely one that I'm still considering and turning over in my head. It is so perfect in its depiction of the media being gripped by missing white woman syndrome that it doesn't even feel like satire (which might have been the intention). 
  • My friend/colleague Peter Sciretta points out (and I agree) that this film is primarily about media and public perception. Society is engineered to expect people to behave in certain ways when they are in the spotlight. Any deviation from that expectation is met with righteous, irrational anger. Why do we engage in these behaviors? For us, cable news has made real-life into a television show. We invest emotionally in these character arcs just like we would for The Sopranos, forgetting that actual lives are at stake and that these people will exist long after the spotlight has departed them. Gone Girl holds up a mirror to us and asks: Is this kind of thing productive? Is it fair? 
  • The film complicates the concept of modern marriage in America. Sure, marriage can be fun and meaningful, but if you think about it, it's also kind of insane: you join in a bond and partnership that you will only break in the event of one of your death, no matter how much the other person changes, or no matter how horrible they become/behave. And you become so emotionally invested in this person that you are willing to do unthinkable things for them. You may be willing to kill for them. That is kind of nuts, and I like how Gone Girl explores that dynamic.
  • This movie twists and turns in ways that I did not expect. It's not an exaggeration to say it becomes several different types of movies during its 150-minute runtime.
  • On that note, it was refreshing to me how Fincher chose to end the film. That's all I can say without spoiling anything.
  • Fincher remains a master craftsman and his attention to detail is on full display here. I'm particularly impressed by the work of Set Decorator Douglas Mowat and Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who are able to create some a pretty intense, effective juxtapositions of quaint suburban life and its seedy underbelly.
  • There are several sequences make great use of the close-up. Sometimes the close-ups come so fast and furious that you barely can register what is being shown before we're off to the next thing. Love the details that the filmmakers are able to bring out of each scene and location. 
  • This film probably has the shortest opening credits sequences out of any David Fincher film, but the way it's done feels very purposeful. Can't say any more than that for now. 
  • This is far from my favorite Fincher film (that's probably still Se7en), but there were definitely several moments in it when many elements of the film lock into place and create an exhilarating thrill of discovery. Nice work by Fincher and Editor Kirk Baxter in crafting these. 
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do scoring duties again and acquit themselves well. The score is really understated this time, but still quite effective. 
  • Tyler Perry is great in this movie. Great. Seriously. Probably my favorite character in the film.

Megan and Alex's Wedding

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I had the opportunity to film my friend's lovely wedding last weekend at Lakedale Resort in Friday Harbor, WA. It was an unconventional shoot; since I was recovering from a recent surgery, I wasn't even sure I could attend the wedding until a few days before the event, let alone film it.

As a result, I didn't have a chance to film any of the preparations, first look, or any of the other conventional stuff that a videographer capturing the day would usually get. Instead, I just stole whatever shots I could during the ceremony and afterwards at the reception. What really saved me is that I was able to hook up a wireless lavalier microphone onto the officiant (Jason, a local friend) to capture the ceremony. All the audio in the video is from that single microphone, and it really gave the video a solid backbone.


This video was filmed with a Panasonic GH4, mostly at 24fps and occasionally at 72fps conformed to 24fps. The ceremony was lovely, although the lighting conditions were punishing from a photography standpoint - because the ceremony was outside and in direct sunlight, a lot of the colors were washed out by default and saturation had to be added back in in post. The microphone was plugged into a Zoom H4N (my poor Zoom H4N is slowly dying after many years of good service - pretty sure i will need an H5 soon to replace it). I used my standard cheap-o Polaroid rig to stabilize the camera, plus used a stabilization filter in post.

Technical elements aside, it was an emotional, joyous day. I hope the video is able to capture that.


Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, Live at the Paramount Theatre

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As long as I can remember, one of my favorite shows on public radio has been "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me" (the NPR News Quiz). I recently attended one of their live shows at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle and had a lovely time. But I also learned many things about what goes into making this wildly popular radio show. Some recollections from the evening:

- Our guests were Luke Burbank, Paula Poundstone, and Maz Jobrani. Each of them had some great moments throughout the evening.

- The regular show is edited into a tightly paced, 51-minute program, but the live show goes on for over 2 hours. That's because Peter often riffs with the panelists for a long time on a single question, then take the best sections and edit the result down to what you hear in the final show. In fact, their riff off the very first question, "fill in the blank," went on for about 10 minutes, when its final form will probably end up being about 1-2 minutes at most. The same goes for the "Not my job" interview, which is way longer in person than it is on the final show.

As a result, the show is much slower paced than I was used to. At times, it was actually kind of a slog. But what felt really amazing was at the end when we finally finished the last segment, it really felt like we'd all accomplished something together. We'd collectively made an episode of a program that would be listened to be millions of people (or at least, we'd made the raw materials for said program). That felt pretty awesome, and unlike most of the other live shows that I go to. 

- The most fascinating part of the show for me was when they recorded a segment about Scottish Independence, and then went back and RE-recorded the same segment but with a different outcome. See, the show was recorded during the Scottish vote, and while all signs pointed to a "No to Independence" vote, they wanted to cover their bases, so they recorded a slightly modified segment in which Scotland actually voted "Yes." Different news outcome, somewhat similar riffs. I suppose the NPR audience is unforgiving when it comes to uncertainty about something like this, especially since "Wait Wait" takes a few days to be released after it is recorded.

- In addition to the hosts and panelists, there was a team of producers(?) behind them, sitting in relative darkness. At the end of the show, Peter had to go back and re-record a bunch of different intros and outros that he had flubbed the first time. From my perspective, it looked like the producers were taking copious notes throughout the show and then beaming him text to his iPad that they wanted him to repeat. The whole process took only 3-4 minutes and as Peter explained, they have it pretty much down to a science at this point. It struck me as ruthlessly, and impressively, efficient.

- After the show, they brought up the house lights and did a Q&A. Super fun and very nice of them, although a lot of the questions asked by my audience were pretty silly, unfortunately.

Is this an experience I'd recommend? I'd say only if you're a die-hard fan of the show, as I am. Plus, I'm a public radio junkie, so I love seeing the "behind-the-scenes" stuff like this. But it is a pricey ticket for someone who isn't a huge fan to see how the show is made, and what you see is not at all like the snappy program that we hear each week on the radio. As long as your expectations are set correctly, you'll enjoy it greatly.

Getting Through Film Festival Season

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Applying to film festivals is sometimes a confusing and strange experience. I wrote about my first time doing so with The Primary Instinct over at /Film. Check it out.