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Book Review: George Lucas, A Life (by Brian Jay Jones)

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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.

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A Modesto Bee clipping showing the car crash, that changed (and almost ended) Lucas’ life, in 1962.

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.

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Marcia Lucas, and George Lucas

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.

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Top Image: Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas; Bottom Image: Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

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

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Book Review: Jim Henson -The Biography (by Brian Jay Jones)

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“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

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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.

HensonBio1Probably 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!).

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Jim Henson (left) and Jane Nebel (on right, later to become Jane Henson), perform with puppets from the show “Sam and Friends”

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.

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Christine Nelson (left) and her father Jerry (right) in a cameo from 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper.”

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!

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The Henson Family (from left to right): Cheryl , Jane, Brian, Jim, Heather, John, Lisa.

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.

Michael J Fox, taking a break during filming of Back to the Future Part III

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!

Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, shooting a scene with Christopher Lloyd in the Puente Hils Mall parking lot.

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.

Michael Scheffe’s concept art for Doc Brown’s mobile 2015 RV/Lab

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!

Image of the miniature 2015 Hill Valley model, used in the Ride footage.

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!

You’ll find a copy of this poster inside!

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!

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As mentioned above, Mchael 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…

Book Review: We Don’t Need Roads – The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, by Caseen Gaines

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.

A scene from the first few weeks of Back to the Future’s shoot, with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly (middle), looking at George McFly (Crispin Glover).

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.

Harry Waters, Jr, as Marvin Berry

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.

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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.

Author Caseen Gaines at Quimby’s Bookstore, discusses some of what his latest book uncovers about Back to the Future.

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).

Thanks, Caseen! See you in October at the We’re Going Back event!

Book Review: The Art of Inside Out

Since its first film Toy Story was released in theaters over 20 years ago, PIXAR Animation Studios has almost always had book releases, chronicling the making of their films (the exception was Toy Story 2, given that film’s last-minute reshuffling).

Chronicle Books continues the tradition with the recently-released The Art of Inside Out. However, what is most surprising, is how the book is presented.

Though the dust jacket and main titles page tells of a foreword by Amy Poehler (the voice of the character named Joy), and an introduction by director Pete Doctor, the book contains a first-time change for this particular item…the book, has no author!

Ronnie Del Carmen/Pencil

Ronnie Del Carmen/Pencil

Instead, Pixar has chosen to give us a book in which the pictures and the artwork speak for themselves…well, along with a few choice comments here and there regarding various pieces of art.

This is both fascinating, but a little disappointing. While I am not disappointed in the lack of art, I was personally hoping the book might have gone into the more in-depth behind-the-scenes format I’m used to. With so many emotions, I likened the film’s “casting process” to being almost like Walt Disney and his guys, picking out the 7 Dwarves for Snow White. There are a few designs for a character named Gloom, but other than that, the book sticks squarely to the main five: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger.

Pete Doctor/Ink

As well, there are so many ways the story could have gone, in what the film did and didn’t do. I can only hope that somewhere down the line, maybe we’ll get something a little more in-depth regarding the formulating of the film’s story.

I always welcome the chance to see pen and ink, along with pencil in concept art. In the last 5-8 years, the majority of concept art seemed to be all done in digital (which was a little sad to me when looking through The Art of Toy Story 3 five years ago). With this production, it seemed that all manner of medium was used. As well, the book also showcases some of the first collage concept art I’ve seen done by the studio, since the making of The Incredibles.

Oftentimes, the characters are some of the most important pieces of the puzzle, and here, we see a number of them going through different iterations. Much like Honey Lemon in Disney’s Big Hero 6, PIXAR had a tough time trying to crack the nut in designing one of the characters in this film, and that happened to be Disgust. A 2-page spread shows several dozen different iterations, of which 5 can be seen below. I think it’s safe to say that throughout the entire process, it seems that broccoli was the main inspiration for quite a few.

Various artists/Mixed Media

One interesting use of the art, is in how the artists would ‘plus’ the digital models. In one, small post-its have been placed over portions of the poses for Fear. Oftentimes, computer models can have the problem of needing to be pushed further, to make the character more expressive. The few images below, show that with just the slightest of tweaks, the added changes make the character seem much more expressive, and feel like a proper extension. There’s 3 full-page examples in the book, and seeing what was done here, I almost want to see some more “plussing” on what was done.

Victor Navone & Tony Fucile/Ink, Digital Poses

Though characters do play a big part in the story, the artists also had to figure out how to construct the two worlds of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. On one hand, they had to figure out her exterior surroundings, but the real challenge, was just what the world inside her mind looked like. Numerous pages are filled with concepts, showing just how certain thinking facets could be visualized, let alone the look of the iconic “Headquarters,” where Riley’s emotions live.

Ralph Eggleston/Digital painting

Most notable about the look of these worlds, is how simple a lot of the art pieces are. Several of them reminded me a little of the simplicity of the artwork, of former Disney artist, Mary Blair, who is often cited as an inspiration by many artists.

Probably not since The Art of Big Hero 6, have I been a little let-down regarding what one of these “Art-Of” books has contained.

Though The Art of Inside Out showcases much of the great behind-the-scenes art the studio is known for, I also come to these books, wanting to read some interesting stories about the production.

Tony Fucile/Digital painting

I guess I was spoiled by The Art of Toy Story 3, in which author Charles Solomon got down-and-dirty, in talking about the facets of the story the filmmakers were trying to tell. Then again, Solomon is an animation historian who just pushes my buttons.

The Art of Inside Out’s “show-don’t-tell” approach isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just not what I was expecting, from something that could very well have had plenty of paragraphs,explaining how the filmmakers came to some of their conclusions. When I looked over the book, its format reminded me of the exhibition catalog I bought, for the PIXAR: 25 Years of Animation exhibit that appeared in Oakland, CA, in 2010.

Given the overly-positive vibe many have gotten from the film, I still hope that maybe there’ll be a properly-published work on the exploration and story meetings regarding Inside Out. The concept of bringing emotions and the human mind onto the screen is just too fascinating for me to let go, and I’m sure many other PIXAR and animation fans, will definitely hope something will be released, in which we pick the filmmaker’s brains for more behind-the-scenes material.

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend, by Patton Oswalt

“…This is me…I think it’s apparent that I need to rethink my life a little bit.”

 Those were the first major narrative words that hit my eardrums, as I watched the first teaser trailer for PIXAR’s film Ratatouille, in 2006.  After that teaser, I began to wonder just who uttered those words for the studio’s latest animated lead. The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. It was shortly after that I learned the name, Patton Oswalt.

A few years later, I got to see some of Patton’s genius onstage when I was able to get into a sold-out show (after the cashier took pity on me) at the now-closed Lake Shore Theater near my dwelling. It was the first actual stand-up I had heard/seen Patton do, and I think I came close to choking when he did his sketch on the song Christmas Shoes (which has become an audio-listening Holiday tradition some 5 years and running now!).

To me, Patton almost seems like a pop-culture ambassador. I’ve seen him preside over hosting duties at many a Comic-Con panel. He can also deliver ‘it’s funny because its true’ comedy (the stuff I like), and manages to whirl in enough popular culture without feeling like it’s clogging my arteries. Pretty much anytime tickets go on sale for one of his shows in town, I’m there.

I threw that line from Ratatouille in at the top, because it also seems to tie into Patton’s new book, Siver Screen Fiend. The bulk of the 192 page book chronicles a 4-year period (1995-1999), in which Patton found himself becoming a “sprocket fiend.” What soon started as a way to catch up on some important pieces of celluloid, soon ‘devolved’ into a manic-obsession, that caused him to get a little too deep into film-watching.

Fiend also seeks to illustrate a man looking back on his world many years later. Introspection is given to the folly of being in your 20’s, ready to take the world by the horns, and maybe shake things up in your own way…before the world doesn’t fully cooperate, and you attempt to find a happy medium. In between his manic retreats into the flickering darkness, Patton found time to write for MadTV, appear in Down Periscope, as well as found his groove on how to best hone his particular brand of comedy.

The book’s chapters also play out like one of Patton’s stand-up routines on CD. Some are a few pages, while others go on for quite a bit. But like his comedy albums, there’s several stories that just pop, and I’ve found myself reading several of the chapters over and over again.

One chapter that is rather intriguing (though a little messed up), is when an East Coast comedian Patton knew back in the day, shows up in Los Angeles. This fellow meets Patton with one goal in mind: Have Patton help him get onstage at The Largo Comedy Club, which will immediately net him a TV show. The chapter is like watching a car wreck, but you just can’t look away.

It sounds ridiculous to say ‘he writes the way he talks,’ but in reading Fiend, it’s so easy to hear Patton’s voice. In the chapter regarding his first night at The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco, Patton gives the view of a cocky Eastern comedy transplant ready to blow the doors off California’s comedy scene…only for him to learn a valuable life-lesson, narrated in a breathless page-and-a-half memory-gasm of his self-confidence crashing to the floor (I may have to pick up the audiobook just to hear how Patton narrates this part).

In reading Silver Screen Fiend, one can’t help but feel there’s truth to be gleaned from Oswalt’s latest book. Much like the ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ nature of his stand-up, there’s introspection amid the memories, that we could very well apply to our own daily lives.

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A few weeks ago, I attended a book-signing luncheon at Chicago’s The Standard Club. Following the lunch, the few dozen of us who were there, watched as Patton and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Philips, talked over Patton’s new book, as well as several of the different films he’d been in.

Patton Oswalt (left) has an expressive conversation with film critic Michael Phillips (on-stage, right) at Chicago’s Standard Club luncheon.

Even in these smaller moments, Patton can still be a great storyteller. One tale he told at the lunch, was in regards to a 2007 film he starred in, called Big Fan. A lot of people were impressed with Patton’s role as a sports-obsessed parking attendant, but the distributor of the film didn’t seem at all interested in doing anything more than just releasing the film, and putting it out on the home video market…even going so far as putting a football field on the DVD cover, even though the characters never went to a game. As well, when it seemed people wanted to nominate the film for awards, the distributor saw no joy in it.

Also of interest was a side-note regarding how he came to be involved in Ratatouille. Director Brad Bird actually had heard some of Oswalt’s stand-up routines, and that was what got him considered for the role. As well, to test how the voice synched up with a character, the studio’s animators did an animation of Remy the rat, dubbed to Patton’s sketch about Black Angus Steakhouse (oh, how I wish I could see that test footage!). What also stood out in his talks of working with the studio, was that Patton admitted that while he did the voice, much of the credit for Remy’s performance was to the people at PIXAR, in making the character come to life.

This book is considered a memoir of Patton’s life, along with his previous book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. One has to wonder if one day, after a few more of these books, we’ll be able to stitch them together like Frankenstein’s monster, and have the whole story.

Btw Patton, in regards to your autograph (see above), I did. Thank you very much.

Book Review: The Art of Big Hero 6, by Jessica Julius

Two decades after The Lion King pushed Walt Disney Feature Animation to new heights of popularity, the studio has found itself in a similar state in recent years.

The studio’s last three films have proven to be a wonderful grab bag of choices, that shows the new culture at the studio is not willing to just do the same thing for each film. Wreck-it-Ralph sought to bring us into a world of video games in a way that many would probably never have attempted, and Frozen enveloped a sisterly tale amidst the rosemaling and historical architecture of the Norwegian culture.

With the recent release of Big Hero 6, the studio found itself tackling a new frontier: a futuristic meld of two different cultures, AND a story that straddled the lines between Marvel Comics, and Disney‘s animation heritage.

Paul Felix - Digital

Paul Felix / Digital

Much like The Art of Wreck-it-Ralph, this book reaches into Disney’s production staff to find its author. In this case, it is Jessica Julius, who has worked on several productions as a creative executive, and story production supervisor.

 __________

Every making-of book contains several revelations I didn’t expect, and this one is no exception. Dealing in a world of superheroes and Tokyo-world aesthetics, the filmmakers reached out to both of these worlds, recruiting artists John Romita Jr (a comic artist from Marvel), and Tadahiro Uesugi, an artist from the land of the rising sun.

Scott Watanabe - Digital

Scott Watanabe / Digital

The majority of of the book is taken up with designing the world and environments of the film’s main location: San Fransokyo. It was a given that the studio would send out a fact-finding crew to study both Tokyo and San Francisco. And out of that seemingly non-mixable combination, emerged quite an astonishing amalgamation.

As well, there had to be some form of logic behind why this American city had been so overtaken by another culture. Scott Watanabe, the film’s environmental art director, is quoted as follows:

“Don (Hall, the director) wanted to figure out a logical explanation for how a mash-up city like this could exist. I came up with the idea that, after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Japanese immigrants rebult the place using techniques that allow movement and flexibility in a seismic event.”

 __________

When it comes to character designs in the last few Chronicle Books releases, there are a select few artists that are mainly utilized. For this book, there are three key creative persons Julius focuses on: Jin Kim, Shiyoon Kim (no relation), and Lorelay Bove.

Jin Kim - Graphite

Jin Kim / Graphite

Of the three, it is Jin Kim’s designs that I find myself gravitating towards the most. His line work has such an appealing look to it, that it looks like the character could start moving at any moment. Jin studied at the hand of animator Glen Keane, and it definitely shows in his work!

It is notable to also see the evolution of several different characters as well.

Baymax’s designs are simple and intriguing. Some show him with projected facial features, as well as samurai-influenced armor for his supersuit designs. I did chuckle at one image, in which Tadahiro did an early concept of Baymax, in a design that seemed influenced by the robots in Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky (as seen a few paragraphs below). There’s also a great breakdown image by artist Kevin Nelson, as to Baymax’s inner workings and design.

Left: Shiyoon Kim / Digital; Right: Lorelay Bove / Digital

While several pages are given to each member of the Big Hero 6 team, it was the development of Honey Lemon that is most intriguing. Her character evolution (some examples on the left) put me in mind of the development of Vanellope Von Schweetz: the concept kept going in one direction, but once the designers veered away, they came up with something that worked better. Honey’s early concepts were more of a girly-girl with a love of making things blow up, with everything from chibi-exploding devices, to outfits that one would find in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

The book also includes some abandoned concepts, including several where a giant monster attacks San Fransokyo, and numerous, additional (unused) villains. One that has a nice concept of kooky-uneasiness, is Mr Sparkles, who was based on some of the wackier personalities one sees on Japanese television.

The final 12 pages of the book, are focused on the film’s cinematography, the studio’s new Hyperion Rendering platform, as well as a color script of the film. Color scripts have been a staple of PIXAR’s Art Of books, and they have been added to Disney’s Art Of books ever since The Art of Bolt in 2008. The set included here is rather intriguing, as the first few images, differ greatly from the actual opening of the film, making me wonder if the book may have gone to press while they were working on redoing the film’s opening.

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Tadahiro Uesugi / Digital

Much like my feelings regarding the film Big Hero 6, its Art of book feels like it doesn’t spend as much time on the characters beyond Hiro and Baymax. A couple characters I was hoping for a little more background on, were Aunt Cass (Hiro and Tadashi’s surrogate), and Alistair Krei (the head of tech-firm, Krei Industries). However, Aunt Cass is relegated to just two pages, and Krei is simply included in a small character lineup on page 145. As well, even some extra backstory on Hiro’s friends would have been most welcome.

I think it’s because of Charles Solomon, that I’m a sucker for wanting to read plenty of paragraphs in an Art of book. While Solomon is a professor of animation history (and it shows in his writings), Julius is one who is moreso like a professor living amongst the subjects she is studying. Given the penchant for creativity in her world, she has chosen to let the achievements of the studio’s artists speak for themselves. Also keeping with the theme of the film being based on a comic book, much of the text is cut into small blurbs within exposition boxes.

The Art of Big Hero 6 succeeds in showcasing a number of great art pieces, but the final product feels like it could have been tightened and loosened in certain areas. There feels like an imbalance in the way the three areas of concentration are sectioned off. The Cinematography section feels more like a miscellaneous area, that could definitely have been fleshed out with some more space and information. As well, there’s some valuable image space taken up by final/promotional renders

Shiyoon Kim - Digital

Shiyoon Kim – Digital

Even still, The book manages to carry on a wonderful tradition of giving us behind-the-scenes material and information, and if you’re interested in the concepts that lead to your favorite film(s), it’s definitely another to add to your collection.

“I thought they needed a pet in this movie. So I just kept drawing a cat in my storyboards. Then Shiyoon did some designs. Which went into modeling, and the cat just kept going through the pipeline! Mochi (the cat) became real. – Kendelle Hoyer, Story Artist