As he worked on editing his Star Wars prequels, George Lucas soon had to make some storytelling choices. Ultimately, he felt the main focuses for his new trilogy, were the rise of the Empire, and Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.
This would lead to drastic scene cuts for one particular character: Padmé Amidala. Gone was the chance to learn more about the former Queen of Naboo, as she became little more than Anakin’s love-interest in Episode II, and a fretting mother-to-be in Episode III.
There were many like myself that wondered about her political backstory, and one of them was author E.K. Johnston. Having already written a story about Star Wars character Ahsoka Tano, Johnston was excited to go back in time, and reveal more about one of her favorite characters.
Following her final term as Queen of Naboo, Padmé Amidala is unsure of what she should do next. Upon meeting the newly-elected Queen, she is surprised when the new ruler wishes her to represent their planet in the Galactic Senate.
Padmé accepts, and soon finds herself in the capital city of Coruscant. With a new chapter starting in her life, she attempts to find her way in a new political arena, far outside the scope of her home world.
For much of the story, Amidala is far removed from the main players of the prequel trilogy. While there are some minor asides to R2-D2 and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, she is usually surrounded by several handmaidens, and some Naboo security forces. It is with the former, that Johnston is most concerned with for supporting characters.
The attempts to give little bits of backstory to almost every handmaiden during the first chapters of the book does become a bit much, and it almost feels like Johnston begins to get a little lost in trying to keep some of them relevant to Padmé’s life. Even a chapter that chronicles part of a mission that her most loyal handmaiden named Sabé undertakes, feels like it could have been jettisoned, and simply replaced with her reporting to Padmé instead.
The main focus of the story regarding Padmé, is her attempting to understand how she can fit into the Senate. Who can she trust? How transparent can she be regarding her actions? And probably most important: does she make decisions for just the good of her home world…or does she have to think moreso of other planets and systems with her senatorial powers?
Much like how some saw parallels to certain real-world events during the prequel film’s releases, some may be a bit surprised at how Johnston writes about Padme’s treatment via holonet newsfeeds. Back in 1999, there were some who mocked Lucas’ idea that a teenager could rule an entire planet when Episode I was released. Johnston channels that mockery into the story, as Padmé tries to prove her worth amid reports that someone like her does not belong in the political arena.
It is also in regards to Padmé’s adventures within the Senate, that I found the story to be lacking. I know politics isn’t necessarily exciting for some, but I felt Johnston could have delved deeper into Padmé’s character, by seeing how she would handle a number of different issues brought before the Senate. As it stands, we only see her tackle a small handful.
There are also a number of references that have been inserted for many different Star Wars fans to pick up on. While I was familiar with names like Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, some such as Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri, will probably excite anyone who has watched the Clone Wars television series. We also get a return to some familiar locations, including one I definitely did not expect to visit.
I’ve only read a few books in relation to the Star Wars series over the years, but I was curious as to what Queen’s Shadow could give us regarding Padmé.
E.K. Johnston shows a definite love for her source material, but it feels like she struggles to maintain focus. When the story zeroes in on Padmé herself, that was when I found myself turning pages to find out more. It was half-way through the book that I started to really get pulled in, and it made me a little sad that it took so long for the story to grab my attention.
This isn’t to say I felt Johnston should have jettisoned the handmaidens. Given her wish to hand over some extra character development to them, maybe she could have focused on a collection of short stories regarding the numerous young women who served alongside Padmé during her life.
In conclusion, Queen’s Shadow tells a decent story, but it could have been so much better.
While I am a huge fan of behind-the-scenes material and making-of books, I’m also a big fan of things that are meant to be materials from a series or show (that is, if the items are done right).
With the television series Star vs the Forces of Evil, creator Daron Nefcy and some of her associates, first attempted to give their fans a “tangible” item the year 2017, with Star and Marco’s Guide to Mastering All Dimensions. The book provided some insights by Princess Star Butterfly and her friends, along with some tidbits regarding Star’s Magic Book of Spells.
Introduced in the show’s first season, the book of spells has been handed down through generations of Mewni Princesses and Queens. It was a place where they could put down some of their own thoughts, and provide information about new magic spells they had come up with.
Also contained within the book, is a little blue man named Glossaryck of Terms. One would assume that he would be there almost like a helper, but most of the time, all he seemed to do (according to Marco Diaz), was “spout cryptic remarks and eat pudding.”
Though it is not-to-scale or as thick as the version seen on the show, Daron Nefcy, Dominic Bisignano, Amber Benson, and Devin Taylor have attempted to create a version of the book that reveals more about Mewni’s past…well, as much as is recorded by the women who ruled over the kingdom.
The main focus overall, is on the numerous princesses and queens that have come before Star Butterfly. Up until now, we only had a few names revealed to us from the television show, but this book quickly fills us in on the others we were less privy to.
Like many royal lines lines in our realm, Mewni’s has some interesting rulers, and a few “duds” here and there. Some of the entries are real page-turners, and others made my head droop as I struggled to stay interested. The book also gives information on several spells Star Butterfly has used, and just who in her past lineage, created them.
On the show, it was mentioned that the inside of the book is “a complete disorganized mess.” Of course, when dealing with a book for people to read from cover-to-cover in our dimension, it probably was made clear to Nefcy and her crew that there would need to be some semblance of order. However, the book does stick to it’s television counterpart, by having the table of contents in the center.
For those like me who were intrigued by the strange culture of Mewni, there was one thing I was hoping the book would finally do: blow the lid off of the strange symbols we’ve seen all throughout the kingdon on television.
While the book does not provide us with a Mewni-to-English alphabet, it does give enough information to allow the more astute readers, to decipher the symbols if they look through the book enough (or, just go online and find the people who have already figured it out!).
That ability for the readers to also interact with the book, seems to be something that creator Daron Nefcy prizes greatly. There was a bit of this in the last Star book she did, but here, that reader/book interaction is on display in a number of ways.
Readers are encouraged to cut out a few things here and there. Plus, it is assumed that the reader is now the book’s new owner, and is encouraged to personalize it, along with designing what their magic wand looks like, and creating their own log and spells.
The Book of Spells at over 256 pages, is almost on par with another show-oriented book that Disney Press released several years ago: Journal 3 from the hit television series, Gravity Falls.
Much like that book, Spells manages to take a tome that is well-known to the show’s viewers, and add some things that the die-hard fans are yearning to know about, as well as be an intriguing find, or a gateway to those who may not have heard of the series.
Personally, I was hoping for a bit more information written in the book from the numerous owners. At times, it feels like some sections were truncated due to the page-count.
Even so, I do feel that most fans of Star vs the Forces of Evil will enjoy what Disney Press has put out, and may bring in some new fans, who happen to come across the book.
In 2013, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro released Pacific Rim, his ode to Japanese monster-movies. Five years later, director Steven S DeKnight would continue the film’s story, with Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Taking place ten years after the first film, Uprising showed us a world that has been altered in many ways by the former Kaiju invasions. The once-in-jeopardy Jaeger program has been reborn, upgraded to newer models, and standing by in case of another possible invasion.
However, there is also a threat from the corporate world, as China’s Shao Industries, looks to streamline (and possibly privatize) the Jaeger program.
Over the years, the publisher Insight Editions has handled a number of behind-the-scenes books for Del Toro’s films, and they have continued to provide their services with this book as well.
These days, there are often a lot of things going on in some films, that it’s on-screen characters don’t have time to explain or point out. This has led to publication/tie-ins in the form of prequel comic books or accompanying publications, which to someone like me, can be seen as a bit much (most of the time, I just want to walk in and see the film). However, I am often moreso intrigued about the development and design process, that brings to life the images on-screen.
With this book, author Daniel Wallace manages to not only shed some light on the development process of the film, but provide plenty of additional pieces of information from those who worked on the film as well. We get everything from actors telling about their audition process, to the sound effects crew talking about how they came up with specific audio experiences you will now think twice about.
Reading books like these, I’m often surprised how I come away finding out information about the design process, that I didn’t consider. A good example is that the coloration of the numerous Jaeger models we see, are tied into certain protective units or branches in our society.
A good example is a Jaeger named November Ayjax, whose duty is to patrol along the war-ravaged Los Angeles Coastline. The coloration of the Jaeger is blue, tying into the theme of it being like a Police Officer for the area, “keeping the peace.”
I was also pleased at the over-abundance of different concept and design examples throughout. A prime example is in the design of Gipsy Avenger’s head. There are quite a number of iterations, and it feels like what we see in the book, are only a fraction of them. That ability for the book to provide a great number of visual concepts, made me eager to keep turning pages, let alone going back to review them once I had finished it.
One concept that Insight Editions has used in a number of their books, is the inclusion of a number of removable, extra materials in their books.
For this book, they include everything from a collection of storyboard images, to Newton Geiszler’s (aka Charlie Day) Kaiju tattoo designs. While these are nice little additions to the overall book, I have felt that the company’s inclusion of these items affixed to the various pages gives them a greater chance of being lost. Personally, I feel they could have been included in a large envelope at the end of the book (maybe with a rubber-stamped “Classified Shatterdome Information” title across the front of the envelope!).
What I was most surprised about, was that while the book does give us insight into parts of the film, they also held back on revealing some major plot-points. I’ve often been apprehensive of some making-of books ruining everything about a film, but this one has just enough information to keep the overall story, a mystery. For the record, there are some images that do tie into some of the plot-twists, but they are never called out for the reader.
Earlier this year, I was eager to get my hands on another Insight Editions tome: The Art of Ready Player One. However, while that book gave me plenty of information, I felt it didn’t answer as many of the questions I had regarding it’s visual design/development phase. In contrast, The Art and Making of Pacific Rim: Uprising ended up feeling like a much more satisfying read. For those that enjoyed Pacific Rim: Uprising, this is definitely a fitting companion book, and one of the more well-compiled reads I’ve encountered in awhile that connects to a feature-length film.
Over the last 30 years, writer/director James Cameron has made a number of memorable, and successful films.
While he has delved into themes of espionage (True Lies) and period romance (Titanic), the bulk of his work takes place within the genre known as science fiction. Some of these films include The Terminator, The Abyss, and Avatar.
Recently, Cameron partnered with the television channel AMC, to create the six-part original series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. For the show, Cameron’s goal was to sit down with six of the biggest names in science fiction, and get their perspectives on the importance, and the impact of the genre.
These guests include directors Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.), George Lucas (THX-1138, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who portrayed the Terminator in Cameron’s film series).
Insight Editions’ book reproduces Cameron’s interviews in full, and offers several topical summaries by a number of people familiar with science fiction. These topics include dark futures, artificial intelligence, time-travel, and much more.
When I saw the interview lineup, I did question the inclusion of Schwarzenegger (given that Arnold has never directed a science fiction film). However, Cameron seems to have also included himself, as an unofficial interviewee within the book.
One of his cohorts named Randall Frakes (who has worked with him on a number of projects), acts as the interviewer for Jim’s views on science fiction. Over the years, I’ve often heard the story of how Cameron was inspired by Star Wars, quit his job as a truck driver, and got into film profuction. With the Frakes/Cameron interview, it was definitely an eye-opening look into what makes Cameron tick regarding science fiction, as well as some of the decisions he makes regarding his films.
It should be noted that when Cameron gets around to interviewing his guests, he chooses to mainly discuss the science fiction topics their work tends to focus on. For example, you won’t find Guillermo Del Toro expounding on time-travel, but you will get his views on monsters in science fiction (plus, he talks about the time he and a friend encountered a UFO!).
If you’ve studied any of the directors that Cameron interviews, you’re probably going to find some overlap with the information they provide. I was already well-versed in Spielberg’s handling of the late Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished film A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and most of what he talks about during his interview, I was well aware of.
Of all the interviews, I felt that George Lucas’ discussion with Cameron came across as a bit ‘detached’ at times. One can sense Cameron wanting to possibly steer the conversation a little deeper towards Star Wars, but George doesn’t seem that interested in dissecting something he’s probably already discussed dozens of times before. Of interest to me, was his expounding a bit deeper into his feelings about inter-connectivity and micro-bacteria, which seemed to tie into that most loathed of prequel subjects: midichlorians. George also comes across as more of a realist, than his more optimistic friend, Steven.
While Spielberg and Lucas were two of the guys I was very familiar with, it was the likes of Nolan, Scott, and Del Toro whom I had little knowledge of.
Of the three, it is Ridley Scott who is the ‘old master’ of science fiction here, and one can almost feel Cameron acting like an excited fan, getting to interview a man after his own heart.
In recent years, Scott has made a comeback into science fiction with films like Prometheus and The Martian, which Cameron seems to have been heavily enamored with (he mentions it’s ‘science-fact’ premise to a number of his interviewees). Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, as Scott tells Cameron that Avatar inspired him to consider returning to the realms of science fiction.
The book also gets a teensy bit ‘political’ as it delves into some topics, such as how people perceive science in this day-and-age. I was surprised during one interview where Cameron seemed to ‘hijack’ the conversation, and expound a bit on his own views and research about artificial intelligence. While he didn’t feel that his Terminator films were some form of self-fulfilling prophecy, he does tell about an experience regarding how some people may be looking to misuse A.I., the way people ended up making a mess of things with atomic energy.
Along with a number of visuals from science fiction films (via still-frames and posters), the book is filled with a number of original art pieces created by Cameron. Most people are not aware that he is also an artist, and has been doing science fiction art for many years, whether for his own pleasure, or as concept pieces for films he has done.
Most notable are a number of concept drawings and paintings done for an unmade short called Xenogenesis. It is fascinating to look at these, and see how Cameron utilized them in other films he’s done.
A prime example is this piece on the left. The giant robotic vehicle has elements that would be utilized for the tank-like Hunter-Killers in 1984’s The Terminator, while the female character doing battle with it in her own mechanical vehicle, seems eerily reminiscent of Ripley’s battle with the Alien Queen in his 1986 film sequel, Aliens.
For those expecting Cameron to mostly sit aside and let his guests speak, you may find yourselves disappointed. This isn’t someone from the entertainment section of a news program asking throwaway questions, but someone who is here to ask some very deep questions.
Readers may also grow a little tired, as Cameron tends to monopolize some conversations. This is most notable in his own interview with Frakes. It seems that Jim could go on-and-on with all the information he’s accumulated over the years.
Even so, James Cameron’s The Story of Science Fiction is a book I would highly recommend to those who are fans of Cameron, or any of the guests he speaks with. Even if you may know a lot about a few of those being interviewed, what you glean from reading about the additional guests and the science fiction genre in general, will surely be an eye-opener to many.
Over the years, there have been a number of ‘making-of/art-of’ books that have adorned my shelves. Along with the majority of them that concern animated features, there are several relating to the films of George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. To me, these three men are ‘the holy trinity’ of directors who influenced my childhood, and got me interested in the worlds of film, and visual effects.
Recently, Spielberg has returned to the pop-culture limelight, with his adaptation of Ernie Cline’s bestselling novel, Ready Player One. The story of an economically-bereft world where it’s inhabitants escape into a virtual realm of unlimited possibilities (and pop-culture cameos aplenty!), had me interested in what ‘the bearded one’ could do with Cline’s source material…and once I saw an early screening of the film, I was eager for behind-the-scenes material.
Fortunately, my appetite was (somewhat) satiated, thanks to Insight Editions‘ recent release: The Art of Ready Player One.
While a number of “art of” books are in my collection, I have become a bit of a connoisseur regarding how some are put together. I’ve seen some that miss the chance to provide intriguing commentary on their subject matter (The Art of Inside Out), and some that feel like certain bits of production information were squeezed in at the end as an afterthought (The Art of Big Hero 6).
With The Art of Ready Player One, author Gina McIntyre manages to hit the sweet-spot, with her 156-page tome having a cohesive balance to the material contained within.
The layout of the book gives us some background on the film’s literary beginnings, before delving into it’s characters, and then the world that Spielberg brought to life. The format of the book makes it seem like a companion piece to the film, making me feel reading it should be done after a screening (or two) of the film.
It’s always fun for me to see how certain elements of a film’s story evolved, though in the case of this book, it feel like much of the storyline was already locked-in, with a surprising lack of ‘abandoned concepts’ or ‘alternate story ideas’ mentioned. Even the section regarding character concepts, is rather sparse when it comes to showing the evolution of character designs.
A fun area of conceptual ‘what-if,’ happens in a section devoted to the film’s ‘second challenge.’ This was one of my favorite parts of the film, and seeing several unused concepts and reading commentary by the production designer and effects supervisor, made it a highlight that I think other insightful readers will enjoy.
Of course, some may eagerly pick up the book hoping it’ll spill the beans on all of the pop-culture ‘easter eggs’ in the film. While a few are shown in concept, the book is far from being a ‘cheat sheet’ for the casual viewer.
Even with the book managing to placate my desire for behind-the-scenes information, there were a few things that stuck out for me as “minor nitpicks.”
One of the rather unusual things that the book’s text does, is repeat certain items several times. This struck me after reading the foreword and introduction pieces by Spielberg and Cline, only to find some of their remarks repeated in different interview context a few pages later.
There was also a rather unusual bit of labeling, where when identifying various images, the author almost seems to ‘gush’ about extra details in them. One example is an image of the character of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), relaxing in his personal chair. One would expect a simple explanation, but the description gives the full name of the haptic chair, along with the style of VR visor he’s wearing. I can only assume that the author of the book was trying to have some fun, and add in some extra touches of Gunter-level knowledge for the images on hand (FYI: ‘Gunters’ are the names of the egg-hunters in the Oasis, who are usually avid fans of Oasis creator James Haliday-oh great, now I’m doing it!).
There are definitely some eye-opening bits of art that helped show the scope of the world of the Oasis, with several pages showing a number of conceptual worlds that never made it off the drawing board (like the image of Gothropolis, which I assume is a DC Universe-only playground).
Like a lot of Art of Books, I couldn’t help but imagine The Art of Ready Player One could have made due with another 25-50 pages. We get some prime examples of the haptic technology used to enter the Oasis, but I could also see a section detailing more about thoughts and concepts, regarding the dystopian future world of 2045. When looking over Spielberg’s filmography, the ‘real world’ in this film is a much more bleak future than the ones we’ve seen in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or Minority Report. One can only wonder what Ernie Cline and co-screenwriter Zak Penn thought of this world, let alone how production designer Adam Stockhausen and his team came to their conclusions on bringing it to life.
In this day-and-age, material about the production of feature films has become decidedly small-scale, unlike ‘the days of wine-and-roses’ when laserdiscs and the first DVD’s seemed intent on giving us a glimpse behind the curtain that VHS tapes were incapable of doing. Studios today see more profit in selling films in a digital format, than revealing the tricks-of-the-trade that brought these productions to life through multi-disc boxsets.
The Art of Ready Player One serves as another example of Insight Editions‘ attempts to keep pushing quality-based book releases, that give film fans and cinephiles like myself, something to placate our curiosity. Even with my nitpicks about a few areas, I was still satisfied with the final product, though like a Gunter trying to unlock all of James Haliday’s secrets, I still hunger to learn more about Spielberg’s latest feature.
To many of us, there is a name. A name that can cause a person to respond in a number of ways. From a smile, all the way to an eyeball-rolling groan.
That name, is George Lucas.
Following his 2013 biography on Jim Henson, author Brian Jay Jones has tapped into another name many of us recall from our childhoods, but (probably) never fully comprehended.
George Lucas: A Life seeks to educate the masses, giving us a tome that hits a number of Lucas’ life highlights, from his near-death accident as a teenager, to meeting director Francis Ford Coppola, and much more…but sadly, not as much as I had expected.
Without appendices and the bibliography at the end, Jones’ biography on Lucas clocks in around the same page-count as his Henson bio did. However, upon reading through his latest tome, it feels like Jones was forced to shore up a number of items regarding Lucas’ history.
Unlike his previous book, the doors were not thrown open to Jones, regarding in-depth research on his subject. A few of Lucas’ past acquaintances (such as Randall Kleiser and Gary Kurtz) contribute a few words to the book, but most of their inclusions feel like a small footnote, as the vast majority of information, is culled from other sources.
One habit Jones had in his Henson biography, was a certain ‘geeky giddiness’ when he’d mention Henson working on things in his early days, that he’d accomplish later on in life. Jones manages to tone down some of that geekiness here, but it manifests itself in other ways.
Most notable is in the book’s focus. Overall, it feels like analyzing the Star Wars films is his first priority, and the building of the Lucasfilm ’empire,’ is the second priority.
To many out there, Star Wars is George Lucas’ ‘calling card.’ Most talk about the film series, as if Lucas had known this was what he wanted to do since he was a boy. Of course, those of us who have ‘studied’ Lucas’ career (myself included), know that there’s more to the man than just X-Wing fighters and laser-sword fights.
When it comes to films Lucas worked on that weren’t related to Star Wars, the book’s information in these areas feels so tight, one swears large swaths may have been cut editorially, to fit George’s film career into a neat little package. I was hoping more light would have been shed on some of Lucas’ lesser-known projects like Willow, or 1994’s Radioland Murders (a film he’d been helping develop for over two decades!). Unfortunately, minimal information is provided, as we are whisked on to talk about the effects Star Wars has on Lucas’ life, let alone the constant inquiries in the 80’s, regarding when the public would see more Star Wars.
One of the highlights of the book, is how Jones attempts to allow some visibility to one of the lesser-mentioned persons in Lucas’ early life: his first wife, Marcia.
While Lucas could be soft-spoken and quiet, Marcia was said to balance out that trait, often being rather ‘direct’ with him. Both bonded over their editorial experience (women doing editorial work, was extremely rare in the 60’s and 70’s), and it is surprising to find quotes of Marcia, discussing George and the films she worked on with him.
The book tells how she could be rather blunt about some of his decisions (she tells George how THX-1138 feels like a ‘cold’ film), and also how much she contributed to his work (she was the main editor on the climactic charge on the Death Star in the 1977 Star Wars).
Most biographies have the author attempt to find a through line to define their subject’s life, and in the case of Lucas, Jones seems to zero in on one word: independence.
Lucas is painted as a person who seemed most at ease when doing things (mostly) on his own. It often feels like he would have been comfortable just sitting in the editing room, except for his compulsion to have more control over some projects. Jones mentions such a thing happening on some producing projects, here Lucas seemed to take over the story development of some features.
It is also notable how he often balked at rules or guidelines others would set.
For example: his not including cast/director credits in the opening of Star Wars, was in violation of the Director’s Guild of America. This led to him being fined, and eventually resigning from the DCA.
He also seemed to have little time for unions or trade groups, let alone the Hollywood studio system. Many may be surprised that as much as his name is bandied around Tinseltown, George actually makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In some ways, Lucas seems very much like Walt Disney: a man who was burned by the studio system that sought to control him, prompting him to decide that he would do things his way, and answer only to one person: himself.
However, while Walt Disney’s Kingdom would be easily accessible to many, Lucas’s ‘Empire’ would be largely his own domain to look over. He would choose the film projects, decide where his money went (he didn’t rely on outside investors, or taking out huge loans like the studio system), and keep public access to a minimum (notable is that unlike The Walt Disney Company or Pixar, Lucasfilm never became a publicly-traded corporate entity).
Similarities could also be made regarding their love of pushing technology. Whereas Walt would revolutionize the world of animation, George would do the same in the world of post-production. While many can easily look at his visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, most discount his push to improve picture and sound quality in theaters, let alone find a way to streamline the film-editing process.
Today’s theater system shows the fruits of that push: many theaters now house digital projectors, and often boast the latest sound systems to show first-run feature films. Plus, the majority of all editing these days, is done digitally.
The biography also shows how George could fall in and out with a number of people. Old friends like Gary Kurtz and his ex-wife Marcia, were completely excised from his mind, while his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, would be a decades-long on-again/off-again friendship.
Out of all his friendships, it seems that the one Lucas still holds in high regard, is with director, Steven Spielberg.
There is a brotherly give-and-take mentioned in the chapters telling about the Indiana Jones film productions. Even if Steven and George would not agree on something, they would usually come to a compromise, sooner or later.
Much like Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve jobs, and Jones’ previous biography on Jim Henson, George Lucas: A Life strives to inform people about someone they think they know…but maybe, don’t.
There’s plenty of information for the uninformed, to find out more about one of the most familiar names in popular culture. However, for those of us who were expecting some further revelations about ‘the maker,’ it feels like Jones shuts the door to some minor revelations, that noone ever thinks to consider about Mr Lucas.
In conclusion, George Lucas: A Life is a good read, but probably not as entertaining or informative, as some of my other favorite biographies, such as Steve Jobs, or Jim Henson: The Biography.
Final Grade: B
“Watch out for each other. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart” – Jim Henson
As I’ve mentioned in previous book reviews, biographies regarding creative people, have been hit-or-miss for me on quite a few occasions.
The last decade has brought forth biographies that seemed to delve incredibly deep into several lives moreso than those that I had read when growing up. In the last 9 years, I have managed to read Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.
Of the three, Isaacson’s book was the one I couldn’t stop turning the pages on. His writing method allowed the reader to draw their own conclusions on just who Steve Jobs was.
Gabler and Michaelis’ books on the other hand, had decided to create an archetype around their historical figures. In their hands, Disney and Schulz were made out to be withdrawn geniuses, who seemed to shun the contact of family, and rarely seemed to care for anyone’s opinion beyond their own (these biographies would later be criticized by each family in how these men were portrayed).
These three books were on my mind when I finally picked up Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Jim Henson, a book I had heard about for a few years.
Probably not as high on my inspirational totem pole, Jim Henson is still a name that I could not forget from my youth. My early days were punctuated with viewings of Sesame Street, not to mention a rather tatty-looking Kermit puppet my parents had (see left).
Reruns of The Muppet Show I remember seeing on Nickelodeon, and when our family stayed at The Disneyland Hotel in the Summer of 1990, a complimentary copy of the Disney News magazine was on our bed, featuring both Jim and Kermit on the cover (though Jim had passed away that Spring).
I had always heard little bits and pieces of Jim’s career growing up. In the last 5 years, I was able to view some of his earlier works (courtesy of Youtube uploads), visit a traveling exhibit that brought a number of items of his to town, and even got to meet his son Brian Henson, at a New York performance of Henson Alternative’s over-21 puppet improv show: Stuffed and Unstrung.
Coming from a down-home background in which camaraderie and family were a key ingredient, Jim originally was entranced when television gained popularity in the 50’s (so much so that he bugged his parents to get one of the pricey sets!).
His original intent was to work in the television medium designing sets, but because he had no experience, noone would hire him. It was during a call for puppeteers, that he would get his foot in the door to television (though he had no prior experience at that time regarding puppets, either!).
Jim kept trying to go beyond puppetry, but he always ended up coming back to it. Upon further research, what he thought of more as a side-project, ended up soon entrancing him (along with the potential he saw with it, when he traveled over to Europe!).
He gained notoriety for a number of never-before-used techniques using television and his puppets, and he sought to find a way to extend the art form beyond the American thought that puppets (like animation and comic strips) were “just kids stuff.”
Jones’ book comprises over 495 pages about Jim’s life, and much like Neal Gabler’s book on Walt Disney, its early pages exploring Jim’s family tree had me a little wary that it would drag. However, Jones only goes back a few generations, formulating just where Jim got his artistic and curious traits from.
Jones also draws from previous interviews of Jim Henson, while also conducting new interviews with Jane Henson (Jim’s wife), his children (Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather), along with former Muppeteers like Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and many more.
Also of note, are a number of people in higher places, who would be just as important, given that they believed in (and at times protected) Jim’s vision. They include Bernie Brillstein (Henson’s manager for 30 years), David Lazer (a former IBM executive hired by Henson to be the studio’s main producer), and Lord Lew Grade (a British impresario who took a chance and made The Muppet Show TV series a reality, when all major networks balked at it).
Jones and his interviewees spotlight Jim in a very positive light…so positive, that one might think you’d soon go blind from all the positivity. But from all accounts, it seemed that was Jim’s modus operandi in life.
Many recount him seeming never to tire of work, and some would find him constantly writing, drawing, or plussing various puppetry works.
Jones almost makes this an underlying theme of the book, in that Jim may have been trying to “beat the clock,” in trying to do everything, but never finding enough time to do it all.
Even who Jim was based on his identity, could be tricky to decipher. Though tall in stature, he was often quiet in voice (and it would take some years before he’d even use his voice for some of his characters), and seemed unwilling to dive into conflict (usually preferring to walk away from it).
Though many would claim that Jim seemed to have plenty of wealth (he would refurbish new homes/apartments he purchased, and could often be seen in a fancy car or two), he never liked talking about having a lot of money, and often shirked away when interviews would broach the subject.
Several times, he mentioned that the money he made was usually then put into making other projects…which was a similar philosophy to how Walt Disney made films back in his day (usually the profits from one of Disney’s films, would then be rolled over into production on the next one).
Almost like The Muppets on TV, Henson often thought of the people working for him, as being part of a family, one that soon numbered around 150 employees. In those respects, Jim would often throw elaborate costume parties for his associates, or arrange for special retreats…sometimes, even going above-and-beyond in other ways.
One notable time mentioned in the book, involved Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, and his daughter Christine (who had been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at an early age). Jerry was not given as much work as the other performers (his main role was as The Count on Sesame Street), so he could also be given time to care for his daughter. However, in the late 1970’s, the company’s insurance provider claimed they would no longer be covering Christine’s medical expenses.
Jim’s solution? Instead of telling Jerry his family was out-of-luck, he had his company change insurance providers, to one who would cover the expenses! (sadly, Christine passed away in 1982, but during her final year, Jim gave her and her Dad Jerry a small cameo in The Great Muppet Caper, as seen on the right).
If there may be one thing that may make some readers a little disappointed in reading this biography, it’s how Jones doesn’t really give anything super-juicy, like perusing through the skeletons in Henson’s closet.
Jones also has a habit of bringing his inner-fanboy out a bit too often. In the early chapters, as he describes new concepts and ideas that Jim concocts, we find him adding a few words on the end of some sentences, eagerly assisting the reader to know that it would eventually evolve into finished form some years later.
Notable is the grey area the book covers regarding Jane and Jim’s relationship. Though they were married, it never really seemed that it was anything beyond a ‘business relationship’ (she was there with him at the beginning, as well as at the end). They eventually separated (though never divorced), and it was during this time that some noted how Jim tended to try and woo a few women. Jones never gets too far into this area, except in regards to one woman named Mary Ann Cleary, who shares a few remembrances.
Much like how Jim seemed to believe that optimism could be a very powerful thing, Jones seems to adopt that same feeling here.
I have often felt I teeter right at the apex of optimism and pessimism in life, but in this case, much like how the Muppets would largely look through a prism of positivity in dour times, the book seemed to do the same for me. In fact, it was so intriguing, I ended up finishing it in a week’s time!
The book mentions that Jim was incredibly giving towards his children, and throughout its pages, all five of them share stories about their time with their Dad. A few would go on to work in show business (as well as manage the company after Jim’s passing), but during their years growing up, Jim would guide and learn from them.
A few examples include Jim’s daughter Cheryl, who helped inspire several stories the studio put into production. When Jim was looking for who to play Jareth (the Goblin King) in Labyrinth, his sons Brian and John recommended he cast David Bowie, instead of Sting (who was Jim’s first choice).
Jim Henson – The Biography is definitely a wonderful composition of a man who has inspired and entertained millions in the short time he was with us, but also believed in trying to unite the world through humor, and love. Though he didn’t like to be called “the next Walt Disney,” there are certainly traits of forward-thinking in what he did, let alone his drive to keep pushing technology forward, and find new ways that puppeteering could grow and thrive.
Book Review: Back to the Future – The Ultimate Visual History (by Michael Klastorin, with Randal Atamaniuk)
Throughout the years, my fascination with the making of films and animation, has led me to seek out some large and thorough tomes.
In the summer of 1995, one making-of book that I never knew existed, caught my eye when my family visited Universal Studios Hollywood.
This was the first time we’d been back since Universal had opened Back to the Future: The Ride. Our family rode it 3 times over the course of the trip, I geeked out over the Time Machine displayed next to the ride, and of course, we made a stop at The Time Traveler’s Depot, a short walk away.
I recall products from a miniature diecast toy of the Time Machine, to notebooks with the Gray’s Sports Almanac cover on them…but there was one item that made me take notice.
It was a book, titled Back to the Future: The Official Book of the Complete Movie Trilogy. Though only 80 pages, the book instantly caught my interest, with the myriad behind-the-scenes pictures inside. Once I started reading it, it also provided commentary, and revealed to me information on how the film series got started.
Over the years, larger and more thorough making-of books would catch my eye. They included J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, as well as The Complete Making of Indiana Jones (also by Rinzler).
But I and many fans of Back to the Future wondered, if such a 100+ page book could ever be in our future. Many of us had seen and heard numerous making-of materials on DVD, and seen countless interviews in various media, and knew this information could fill more than just the 80 pages of the official book. It also turns out, someone who worked on the trilogy, thought the same.
That person was Michael Klastorin. Not only was he a unit publicist on Back to the Future Parts II & III, but he had also wrote the included information for the Official Book I had picked up at Universal, in 1995.
Michael’s attempts to have a thorough making-of book didn’t catch much attention when he pitched it around the time of the first film’s 25th anniversary, but as the 30th anniversary approached, the publishing house was intrigued, and told him to go for it!
With help from Randal Atamaniak, and the blessing of the series’ co-creator/co-writer Bob Gale, Michael combed through his collection of information, scoured the Universal archives, and conducted new interviews with many of the cast and crew.
The result, is the 224-page Ultimate Visual History…and it is one of those books that will provide you with Back to the Future trilogy information, the likes of which you never dreamed of!
The shooting schedule for the films? It’s laid out for us to know what went on, and when. Abandoned concept art? We get plenty of that. Summaries of the early drafts of the screenplays? It’s there for you to see how the stories evolved!…and, a whole lot more!
Over the years, one bit of lore regarding the first film, has fascinated many fans: the original casting of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, when Michael J Fox was unavailable. Imagery of Stoltz has often been hard to come by, but here, Klastorin provides plenty of pictures, not to mention information on the first 6 weeks of shooting with Eric on the set.
One of the fun things I like about the book, has been seeing some art and information, that I’ve come to wonder about as the years have gone by.
In one interview on the Blu-Ray release 5 years ago, concept designer Michael Scheffe made mention that he was tasked with coming up with a futuristic, amphibious flying vehicle for Doc Brown in the year 2015. Those words intrigued me, and in Klastorin’s book, Scheffe’s concept (as well as many more for the trilogy), are on display for all to see!
Of course, Michael also goes a little into the future, beyond the three films. The final pages tell about the development of Back to the Future: The Ride, and the Saturday Morning Cartoon, Back to the Future: The Animated Series.
You’ll learn more about what the first iteration of the ride was to be, as well as some strange changes some at CBS wanted to include in the animated series’ second season (fortunately, Bob Gale didn’t take their advice).
But, that’s not all!
Much like hardcover books in recent years that have included goodies and reproductions of props or related material, The Ultimate Visual History provides Back to the Future fans with quite a few items!
A few of these items, include Doc’s drawing of the Flux Capacitor, a lenticular picture that shows Marty and his siblings disappearing (similar to the effect in the first film), and even a fold-out poster for Jaws 19 (pulled from the same art that was used on the posters outside the Holomax theater in Hill Valley, in 2015).
If there’s a downside to the book, it’s that some of these items are glued onto some pages, and may require some extra care to remove. Personally, I think it would have been more interesting to include them in a large envelope at the back (maybe with a note from Doc Brown telling how these valuable items could disrupt the space-time continuum, if they fall into the wrong hands!).
Despite being a popular film, Back to the Future has not garnered as huge a fanbase as the likes of Star Wars or Marvel’s films have. In the 25 years since the trilogy was released, we saw the animated series only last two seasons, and the iconic rides at the Universal theme parks be replaced by other rides (the last one still functioning is in Universal Studios Japan, and word right now, is that it will have its final ride in February of 2016).
Even so, Back to the Future still has a pretty dedicated fanbase, and oftentimes, when something big is coming down the pike, it is usually at the behest of co-writer Bob Gale, to ensure that what is being done, isn’t going to turn the dedicated fanbase upside-down.
In a Q&A at the We’re Going Back fan event during the second-to-last week in October of 2015, Michael Klastorin mentioned how when the Official Book came out almost 25 years ago, he was stuck with a locked-in page count and imagery, and was just allowed to put words to the pictures. With his latest work, Michael gets to create a through line through the timeline of the trilogy, along with a small bit of information about the Ride and Animated Series.
As much as I’d love a book twice as thick as what we have here, Michael Klastorin has fulfilled my wish and that of many other fans of the trilogy, by giving us an educational history lesson, in the evolution of a film that noone in Hollywood wanted to make (other than Steven Spielberg), into a series that is still finding fans almost 30 years later!
As mentioned above, Michael Klastorin attended the We’re Going Back fan event in October of 2015. This event celebrated 30 years of the film trilogy, as well as brought many fans (including myself) out from all around the world. We got to walk on Courthouse Square at Universal, visit actual locations from the films, and even get the chance to meet various people who had worked on the trilogy.
Michael was in attendance with his latest book release, and I knew for sure I’d be going home with a copy of The Ultimate Visual History, to read on the plane home.
When I got the chance to speak to Michael, he thanked me for my kind words regarding the Official Companion book that had intrigued me as a 15-year-old from Iowa.
He did get a chuckle when he found out what my name was (seriously, there seem to be a lot of Michael’s connected around the film Back to the Future, as well as the 1980’s time period!), and added a little note to me in the front of the copy that I purchased from him.
After all is said and done, I can’t help but wonder what-if…what if in 1995, my 15-year-old self had come across the Ultimate Visual History?…if only I had a time machine…
Sometimes, I pine for the olden days of making-of stories in books. It used to be that a couple hundred pages would be devoted to telling us about behind-the-scenes material in some of the hardcover tomes I’d come across.
Sadly, in this day and age, much of that material is truncated to make it seem that everything during the production went smoothly. In place of large quantities of descriptive dialogue and cast/crew quotes, we’re left with little info “nuggets,” and lots of color imagery.
Growing up, I became enamored with behind-the-scenes material, which made me want to move either into the world of special effects, or animation (I chose animation, receiving my BFA in 2003). I often think my interest in these materials, stems from my Dad. He was an engineer, and was also fascinated by how things worked.
Back to the Future was one of those films we often connected over when I was growing up. I recall wondering about the 50’s, and we’d go down to the library, looking through microfiche of old newspapers from that era. My parents had fond memories of those times, when department stores would take up whole city blocks, street cars ran through downtown, and a world where my Dad and his friends would wander for miles without parental concern.
Over the years, those of us who know Back to the Future, have often stored away in our heads, some of the big stories on the making of the film. There have been several documentaries made for the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, and a movie tie-in book released in 1990 (see left) was one of the first items I recall picking up and reading that had additional insight. But to some out there, it felt like there was still more material to be revealed.
That was what Caseen Gaines felt. Though far removed from the the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the English teacher from New Jersey, parlayed his love of popular culture into several books on the topics of Pee-Wee Herman, and the 1983 film, A Christmas Story. Though like myself and thousands more, he harbors an affinity towards one of the 1980’s most-remembered films.
We Don’t Need Roads – The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy could easily have been an 800 page “brick” of a book, but Gaines’ final page count keeps it “light” at 268 pages. There is plenty of rehashed material that could have been thrown in, but much of that is kept to a minimum. Instead, Caseen’s goal was to find information, that hadn’t been brought to light in the 25-30 years of the trilogy’s existence.
Over the course of several years, Gaines was able to interview dozens of people who had worked on the Back to the Future trilogy, including its director Robert Zemeckis, co-creator/writer Bob Gale, and even actors like Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), and Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly).
Much like how I like to structure my blog posts, Caseen has a way of giving you a story that sounds like you’re in the moment he’s describing. One that he focuses on in the first chapters, involves a moment where Robert Zemeckis, and editors Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas, reviewed some of the first footage shot with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. It’s meant to be a pivotal moment in the film’s history, and not one that I’ve heard recounted before now.
Stoltz’s involvement in the first Back to the Future has often been part of its lore. When first-pick Michael J Fox was unavailable (due to his commitment with the TV show Family Ties), Eric was recommended by the head of Universal Pictures to fill Marty’s Nikes. However, after several weeks, it was decided that Eric’s characterization wasn’t working, and the filmmakers were able to get Michael, letting Eric go on his way.
Though the book doesn’t get candid interviews with Stoltz, there’s plenty of material that seems to suggest that his method acting may have been a little too serious for the film. One example is that Eric insisted that everyone call him Marty on set. This type of method acting worked so well, that Christopher Lloyd didn’t know Eric’s real name until word came that he had been dropped from the picture.
This material is one of several stories that Caseen delves into, but he also gives some additional insight into 2 incidents from Part II’s filming that weren’t widely known:
– The story of how Crispin Glover sued Universal for using his likeness in the sequel, as well as the casting of Jeffrey Weissman to “stand-in” for Crispin’s 1955 scenes in Part II.
– Stunt woman Cheryl Weaver’s near-death experience when a stunt went horribly wrong, and her subsequent lawsuit for compensation.
These stories along with Stoltz’s termination, feel like the major tent poles of the book, but he also peppers the book with plenty of material from his interviews, to keep you turning pages.
One that was particularly interesting, was some backstory on Harry Waters, Jr, who played Marvin Berry, the lead crooner of The Enchantment Under The Sea dance’s live band (and cousin to a Mr Chuck Berry, in the film’s universe). Waters explains about his casting process, as well as his surprise when he was asked to actually record/perform the vocal tracks for the big Earth Angel dance number for the film.
My original thought regarding the book when I first heard about it, was that it was only going to cover the first film, but I was surprised to read that It also covers topics from the film’s sequels, let alone provides information beyond 1990, sharing stories of others who took their love of the film,and turned it into something more.
Those who come to the book expecting lots of dirty laundry and mud-slinging, may not be the appropriate readers for Mr Gaines’ book. We Don’t Need Roads reads like a book written by a fan, who knows that there are others out there like him, who always want a little more. As well, it won’t leave newcomers to the Back to the Future behind-the-scenes world in the dust. They’ll be just as entertained by what they find, and it may open them up to explore the myriad other behind-the-scenes materials that many of us fans have known about for years.
As a self-proclaimed Entertainment Nut, I am often incensed and a little sad that most of the cool stuff that I’d love to see, rarely ever makes its way to my neck of the woods. However, I jumped into action when I found out Caseen Gaines would be talking about, and signing his new book at Quimby’s Bookstore nearby.
Caseen had visited here before, and told us that when coming, he liked to bring “toys” to the event. This time, his items included a replica of Marty Jr’s hat from Back to the Future Pt II, as well as a costume-pair of Marty’s 2015 Nike shoes.
Hearing him express his candid thoughts on what he experienced, as well as his recollections about writing his other books, I quickly found myself being put at ease with his stories. I think it helps that Caseen is a theatrical person as well (he also works for a theatre company in New Jersey), and therefore, has a penchant for storytelling to groups of people.
Though it was a small crowd that showed up for his appearance, he definitely kept our attention, and at one point, pulled me out of the audience to help explain something that happened during filming of some scenes (probably helped that I was dressed as Doc Brown, though circa 2015).