Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

BAN JIN BA LIANG (《半斤八兩》), Magic Dumpling Entertainment’s animated Chinese stone lion buddy comedy and Disney’s first Chinese TV co-production, is now China Central Television’s #1 children’s program, topping the ratings on CCTV14. In reflecting upon the trials, tribulations and ultimate success of the show, I come back to three key factors: people, process and perseverance… (full article on AWN)

Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

Time

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Much has been written on the subject of work / life balance and efficiency, perhaps most famously advocated by Tim Ferriss in THE 4-HOUR WORK WEEK.

My present lifestyle is more like the four-hour work day: not quite to Ferriss’ sparse standard, but a huge quality of life improvement over the corporate grind.

Having oscillated between indie and employee work, I can confirm that working smarter does not mean working harder. We waste more time than we realize on busy work, instead of focusing on The Thing That Really Matters.

A millionaire entrepreneur once blogged that despite his fortune, he sets a self-funded seed financing limit of $5,000 for each new startup, using the tight parameters to enhance his focus and expand his creativity.

I advocate the same strategy with time. Allocate less time per day for work than you think you need, and see how it focuses your attention on what’s really important.

Time is far more precious than money – a fact you understand better at age 50 than at age 30.

Time

CIA debriefing

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A brief interview filmed earlier this year by my alma mater, The Cleveland Institute of Art.

My career in the arts and entertainment has taken me to a number of unexpected places, from The Walt Disney Company to China. In my 25+ years in the business, I’ve worked as an artist, animator, technician, teacher, consultant, entrepreneur, producer and executive. People make various assumptions about my educational background when they meet me, but everyone is uniformly surprised to learn that I graduated with a degree in painting.

The Cleveland Institute of Art’s Painting major taught me to conceptualize, visualize and apply myself in freeform creative situations where I had to rely upon my own instincts and inquiry to move forward. The skills I developed are as quantifiable as those from any design program, and have put me in good stead to handle uncertain situations where I not only need to come up with good solutions but also must determine the real issue. We are increasingly faced with such scenarios in our contemporary, multi-faceted, visually-oriented careers.

CIA debriefing

Chinese Cook-ing

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Prior to the recent announcement of Dick Cook Studios’ $500 million dollar deal with China’s Film Carnival, I had the pleasure of attending the China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit on March 25th in Grand Epoch City (Beijing’s Hebei province neighbor), co-hosted by Dick Cook and showcasing an ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights.

The speakers were welcomed by Beijing Film Academy Vice Dean Sun Lijun during a pre-summit luncheon in the BFA’s “Movie Story” restaurant.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057A/

During lunch, I had the opportunity to catch up with my old friend and mentor, legendary Disney producer Don Hahn (THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), and also to share observations on China with Bruce Hendricks, President of Production at Dick Cook Studios (and fellow Disney veteran).

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Summit keynote speaker Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, is a tireless advocate of opportunity and diversity in the motion picture industry… and very accommodating of her first 360-degree selfie.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057D/

The China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit was attended by a mostly Chinese audience of film industry professionals and students from the Beijing Film Academy, with a few laowai such as myself sprinkled in.  Following are some non-comprehensive notes and photos.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F054D/

Dick Cook was gracious and affable as always, and kept things flowing smoothly.  Before I departed Disney (the first time) in 2007 to pursue my independent ventures, I embarked on a string of informative lunches with an array of Disney producers and executives.  Don Hahn was the first person to let me pick his brain over a meal, and Dick Cook was the last – so it was a kick to see them both in China on the same ticket a decade later.

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Randall Wallace (BRAVEHEART, PEARL HARBOR) offered heartfelt advice during the “Art of Storytelling” panel, noting that his breakthrough came when he thought his career was over and he wrote something that he thought his descendants would want to see (BRAVEHEART).  My favorite comments from Randall were his observation that “a script that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the viewer” and his opinion that “it’s easier to restrain a fanatic than to resurrect the dead”.

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Don Hahn killed it (and earned the only standing ovation of the day) with an inspirational micro master class on the animation creative process.  Characteristic of Don (but unbeknown to most) is the fact that he reformatted his entire presentation the day before, once he got a load of the venue’s panoramic screen.

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Patrick Frater (Asia Bureau Chief, Variety) did his level best to draw his panelists out during the “Cooperation” panel, but William Feng (VP of Asia Pacific, Motion Picture Association) and his fellows weren’t having it.  So, for those who may be wondering, the answer is “yes”:  China’s booming film industry is rife with problems (and opportunities), and foreign parties hoping to engage it must contend with significant (and shifting) hurdles.

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Dick Cook had a chat with his new buddy, Beijing Film Academy Director-General Hou Guangming, during the “Education” panel.

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Zhang Xun, former General Manager of the China Film Co-Production Company, had no advice on the “do’s”, but plenty to say on the “don’ts” of Chinese co-productions (memorably citing “82-year-old U.S. flight attendants” as an example of the profound cultural differences between East and West).

Even if you’re not an American screenwriter hoping to pitch your story of an 82-year-old Chinese flight attendant to Wanda, the viability of Chinese co-productions seems bleak, given only 12 in the last 5 years, with decidedly underwhelming results.  Thorny issues abound, creatively and economically.

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No surprise to anyone, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron was a big draw – especially on the heels of GRAVITY, a big hit in mainland China (due in no small part to Sandra Bullock being saved by a Chinese spacecraft).

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Cuaron was charming and self-deprecating, noting that his primary motivation for making his next film is usually to pay his rent.

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The summit concluded with the “Technology” panel, during which you could feel the disruptive impact that immersive media will have upon the motion picture industry.  Ray Kurzweil’s dictum was prominently cited:  “The greatest change in the history of humanity is the acceleration of change itself.”

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An eye-opener for the foreign speakers was the fact that there are currently over 2,000 location-based virtual reality entertainment zones in mainland China, with a concurrent proliferation of low-cost consumer VR hardware. That most Chinese players are currently obsessed with manufacturing the bottles rather than cultivating the wine indicates an area of opportunity for immersive content creators.

IMAX stands to be hit particularly hard (IMHO), and needs to radically re-examine their business model instead of wishfully clinging to “large screens and lasers”.  What happens when home VR can replicate immersive, communal theatrical experiences – complete with an adjustable level of simulated audience response, from “sedate” to “raucous”?

(If anyone from IMAX is upset by this observation, hold a company retreat, write “IMAX goes under and nobody misses us.  Why?” on a board, use the subsequent discussion as the foundation for a revolutionary strategic plan, and thank me later.)

Chinese Cook-ing

Inception

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Recently, someone who noted the clarity of my presentation decks (thank you!) asked who creates them and what software is used.  Always seeking to kill two birds with one stone, I decided to blog my reply.  🙂

I create my own presentation decks.  I once worked exclusively in PowerPoint from a laptop, and now use Grafio and Keynote apps on my iPad.  I’ll probably be using something else in the future.  The software is irrelevant.  The clean, clear slides are the product of a good eye and a focused mind (thank you art school and years of entrepreneurial struggling).

Presentation software puts powerful (and largely unnecessary) tools in the hands of EVERYONE:  including folks who have no real education or experience in how to make their point.  At the very least, you must consider the purpose of your presentation and then distill your content through the filter of your intended audience.  No amount of templates or whiz-bang features will save you from yourself.

Here are the principles that I recommend and aspire to (admittedly, not always as successfully as I would like):

1) Determine the takeaway of your presentation.  What do you want the viewer to do?  This should be ONE THING ONLY, such as “buy your product” or “fund your project”.  Amazingly, many people (especially those in corporate environments) simply make presentations because they’re required to, without any real consideration of the deck’s purpose.

2) Craft the arc of your presentation, using The Rule of Three.  (Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.  Act 1, Act 2, Act 3.  Setup, Expectation, Comedy.  “A… but then B… therefore C.”)  Some examples:

A) Your teeth are key to your appearance…
B) But hidden plaque can ruin your smile…
C) Therefore, you should use our toothpaste, which kills hidden plaque.

A) Watching movies is fun…
B) But a night out is expensive and returning rentals is a pain…
C) Therefore, you should subscribe to our online movie service.

3) Keep it simple.  Try to make your case in ten slides, or even SIX if you dare:  What?  Why?  Who?  How?  Where?  When?  (6 slides takes more thought than 60.)

For example:

WHAT?  We’re starting an immersive content venture.
WHY?  The boom in VR & AR hardware needs fuel in the form of content.
WHO?  A team of experienced entertainment creatives.
HOW?  In partnership with Studio X.
WHERE?  In China, which will soon be the world’s largest entertainment market.
WHEN?  Now.

4) Outline your presentation on paper.  Get six to ten 3×5 index cards.  With a Sharpie marker, tell the story of your presentation by writing ONE logline on each card (as in the example above).  Stick the index cards on the wall.  The loglines should be brief enough and large enough to read from 6 feet away.  Rearrange, add and discard cards as necessary.  (Added bonus:  you can do this work on the plane during takeoffs and landings.)

5) Put each line in large type at the top of a slide as a “headline”, in your presentation program of choice (it really doesn’t matter which one).  Choose a font that reads easily, and that is in character with your content and your audience.

6) Choose (or better yet, create) one strong, simple image or graphic for each slide.  Let the image dominate the slide as it would in the days of old-timey carousel transparencies.

7) Add supporting text points if you must, but no more than three per slide, and make sure the text reads from across the room when projected.  If you want to be a rock star, delete all text and deliver your presentation with images and graphics only.  I’ve done it many times.  🙂  You’ll give a better presentation (because you won’t be tempted to read your slides to the audience), and you’ll also have the latitude to adjust your content on the fly in response to the tenor of the room.  Here’s a great example from Ian Collins at Note & Point.

8) If you need to provide a “reader” deck as a leave-behind, create this as a separate version, or else put the “eye chart” slides in an appendix (and please don’t inflict them on the viewer during your presentation).  You may also elect to interleave the “newsy” slides with your “headline” slides, as in this deck on the Cannes Film Festival, walking through them if you’re running short, and skipping over them if your running long (which is the more likely scenario).

And there you have it.  This would have been an eight-slide presentation.  🙂

If you follow these principles, you’ll have a fair shot at crafting a deck which will induce your viewer to remember and consider your proposal… and hopefully act on it.  A compelling offering with clear presentation must still encounter an open mind to thrive.

On that note, those of you in conservative business environments should prepare for the possibility that your audience won’t take your presentation seriously if it does not hew to the turgid “eye charts” that your company culture may unconsciously (or consciously) encourage.  In that case, feel free to bend and break these principles as required, to keep your job.  😉

For the rest of you, always remember that your goal with each and every deck is INCEPTION:  the implantation of an idea into your viewer’s mind.

Inception

Great walls

Great Walls

While working at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the late 1990’s, I was chosen as a founding member of WDFA’s Digital Visual Development team. This seemingly distinguished appointment was grounded by my humble office: a converted storage closet in the exterior concourse opposite the passenger elevators. From this unusual vantage point, I was treated to daily comings & goings, most notably those of the late great Joe Grant: legendary Disney character designer and story artist who created the Queen in SNOW WHITE, co-wrote DUMBO and led development of PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA. Joe continued to work at Feature Animation a few days each week, and was in his late 80’s when I first met him as he exited the elevator one morning and walked straight into my closet to introduce himself.

Aside from his friendliness to a relative youngster, two things struck me immediately about Joe: his curiosity and his enthusiasm. The former was evident by Joe’s interest in what I was modeling in 3D on the computer. The latter was demonstrated by the charming color drawing which Joe placed in front of me, his eyes beaming. This was one of Joe’s morning sketches, which he did each day before coming in to work. Joe introduced the drawing and then asked me what I thought of it. He remarked that doing one of these each morning made it impossible to have a bad day afterwards: he had already created something over breakfast.

Years later in 2012, as I embarked upon a stint as VP & Head of Creative for The Walt Disney Company’s China Local Content team in Beijing, I recalled Joe Grant’s words. With my corporate responsibilities growing, I began a series of “Daily Doodles” on my iPad, with no purpose other than my own aesthetic enjoyment. These doodles were artistically scattershot for the first year or so, with an eclectic variety of styles and subject matter. A cohesive “body of work” was the last thing on my mind.

As a foreigner, I think it’s important to stay close to everyday life in China, so I’ve always made it a point to walk as much as possible. I love nothing more than to wander through the back streets of Beijing, getting “lost” and taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Along the way, I’ve passed countless “Great Walls”: prematurely-aging, textured city surfaces scrawled with phone numbers and pasted with advertisements, then haphazardly painted over with mismatched swatches of color (usually a variation on grey). One day, I had a “lightbulb moment” and began photographing these walls with my mobile phone, collecting images over which I doodled on my iPad.

I collected what caught my eye, with no preconceived intentions. Fellow pedestrians, seeing me photograph “blank” walls, would often pause to determine what I was shooting. My wife patiently tolerated my sudden stops during walks together, as I photographed yet another instance of nothing in particular. I suffered more than one bodily collision with folks who were staring at their own mobile phones while I was taking pictures through mine. Once I was shooed away by a store owner who assumed that I was an inspector or reporter documenting the condition of his building.

Beijing is an endless source of such background material, and I quickly found myself with an inexhaustable supply of “great walls”, forming a library of images over which I would work – sometimes on something that I had captured that day, and other times on something that had been stashed in my collection. As I doodled over any given wall photo, I tried to let the content of the background speak to me rather than impose my aesthetic preconceptions.

It used to be said that a disadvantage of computer graphics imagery as compared to other art forms (such as painting, printmaking or ceramics) is that there are no “happy accidents” in CGI. However, in my tablet doodling I have found this to be entirely untrue. Due to an ironic combination of increased software sophistication (drafting apps) and reduced input precision (my fat finger), unexpected results occurred so frequently that I began to actively cultivate them: often scribbling my finger carelessly over the tablet and then working into the result (or repeating the “careless” action until I produced an accidental result that was to my liking). Consequently, my Daily Doodles became a ground for intention, accident, serendipity and playfulness. While I try to avoid overt artistic influences, the whimsical quality of Paul Klee’s work appears to have been in the back of my mind (though I would not claim to have approached his proficiency).

In addition to the simple pleasure that I’ve derived from doodling every day, the “Great Walls” have caused me to look at Beijing more closely and affectionately – something I appreciate given the fact that it’s natural to look less closely and less affectionately at a place the longer you dwell in it. In my walks through the eclectic urban landscape of Beijing, I enjoy encountering “old friends”: walls I have photographed and then worked over (or have yet to work over) – some in a similar state as when I first encountered them, and others having “evolved” into something new.

Kevin Geiger
BEIJING

Kevin’s doodles are posted daily to his website: www.kevingeiger.com

Great walls