Friday, Jun 14, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
Sometimes, small budgets and short deadlines can be the best thing to happen to a project. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.
One of my favorite stories is about the development of Star Trek’s most innovative technology: the Transporter. According to legend, the original plan for the show was to have the Enterprise land on each planet to allow the crew to explore.
However, this presented a number of problems. First, they’d have to do some pretty hefty special effects each time the ship landed, and secondly, the Enterprise is supposed to be a huge ship and landing the model they used on the planets would require a lot of suspension of disbelief. (Just where the heck would they park it?) The crew could use the shuttlecraft of course, but even that was too expensive to build for the first few episodes. (Aluminum Model Toys later offered to build a full size version of the shuttlecraft for use on the episodes – at no cost – in exchange for the rights to market the model kids. Smart move!)
In addition, landing either the ship or a shuttlecraft would require a lot of time in each episode, which creator Gene Roddenberry thought would slow down the storytelling. So without any feasible means to get the ship to the planet, creators came up with the Transporter to “beam” people and equipment – or tribbles – from one place to another.
The special effects required for this were pretty simple: turning a Slo-Mo camera upside down and filming shiny grains of aluminum powder. But the results were huge. The transporter revolutionized science fiction and changed the way we think about space travel. In a 2008 Discovery Channel magazine article, physicist Michio Kaku predicted that we might have this technology in 100 years.
Best of all? Transporter technology gave us one of the coolest catch phrases ever (even if Kirk never actually said it).
Friday, Jun 07, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
What do Cudworth-Hooper and Frank and His Friend have in common? Hog oilers.
It can be hard for a comic artist to get started without a name that newspapers recognize or a following to convince a syndicate to take on a strip. Most artists have to take on commercial work to pay the bills until their ship finally sails in.
For Clarence ‘Otis’ Dooley, creator of Frank and His Friend, this meant catalog illustrations. Before getting his big break, Dooley worked for a number of years illustrating hog oilers for Cudworth-Hooper’s successful line of agricultural and industrial equipment. While not exactly a comedy training ground (though “hog oiler” sounds like a pretty hilarious piece of equipment), working for Cudworth-Hooper allowed Dooley to hone his drafting skills and keep working with his drawing tools.
When Frank and His Friend was picked up for syndication in 1976, Dooley promptly quit his day job and never looked back. And while, according to Dooley scholar Melvin Goodge, Cudworth-Hooper products occasionally showed up in his work, Dooley never bought any Cudworth-Hooper appliances for the family home. “Not once I’ve seen how they’re made,” Dooley once said.
Friday, May 31, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
Some classics get a little too mellow with time.
Dennis the Menace started out so good. If you’ve never read the early strips from the 1950s, you’re really missing out. In those early strips, he’s clever, carefree, self-centered and more than a little dangerous. Most of all he’s funny – with a brilliant take on the world. However, somewhere along the way his character changed pretty substantially. He became good-natured but dimwitted – unable to see, for example, that Mr. Wilson’s headache worsened, rather than improved, with a little trumpet playing. He was no longer a “menace” at all, just horribly, horribly annoying.
Frankly, I prefer the original Dennis. As long as you weren’t on the receiving end of one of his pranks, I think you could appreciate his offbeat sense of humor. And his mischievousness was so thought out, you’d have to respect his intellect. At least his parents could be grateful that, while they probably wanted to kill him several times a day, if he made it to adulthood he’d have all the skills he needed to be successful at whatever he put his mind to. In those early strips he was already shown to be resourceful, creative, ambitious, self-confident and a good judge of character. Not bad at all, really. He could almost have been president.
The later Dennis though… I get the sense that, while he might be generally less taxing on your nerves (if only because he does some of those things on accident) his prospects as an adult wouldn’t be all that great. His dimwittedness spreads to include poor logic, poor social skills and shoddy knowledge of the world around him. While we’ve all likely had a boss with all those traits, poor Dennis would probably find himself stuck in a Middle Management cubicle.
What was so great about the early Dennis the Menace strips is that Dennis was actually a menace. He purposely did things against the rules because he waned to do them – splashing naked in a public fountain and taunting the police officer with, “Well, just come and get me!” In fact, police officers, those ultimate symbols of authority, were common victims – like the police officer who knocks on the door to say, “I know this sounds crazy, but I helped your little boy cross the street and now I can’t find my badge anywhere!” Only Dennis would fleece a cop who’s helping him cross the street.
In later strips, Dennis’s parents are exasperated, and who wouldn’t be – having to explain things over and over again. But in the early strips, they fought back, with my favorite strip showing Dennis locked out of the house shouting, “Open up, Mom. You’ve rested long enough!”
Well, those older strips have rested long enough too. If you haven’t read them in a while, give ‘em another read.
Friday, May 17, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
You might be a couple of minutes late to the party, but you haven’t missed any of the action.
One of my favorite things about Frank and His Friend is how open the storylines are. You often get the feeling that you’re just coming in on the middle of the action.
Artist Clarence ‘Otis’ Dooley often drew panels in such a way that the scene or the dialog hinted at what came before, but didn’t provide you with a complete picture. Like a snapshot, rather than a home movie.
Dooley didn’t always explain exactly what Frank and his Friend were up to, because those details just weren’t always important. Why, or how, a kid might have built an enormous pile of rocks was less important than how that task might have made a kid feel: enormously proud. Through these small moments of feeling, Dooley allowed us to fill in our own stories from childhood and remember the joy or exhilaration or even pride from those moments.
And I suppose, it was the feeling rather than the plot that appealed to Dooley most. After all, kids build rock piles for the same reason people climb mountains: because they’re there.
So whether or not you did all the same things as a kid that Frank and his Friend did (I’m disappointed, for example, that I never thought to use a plunger as an arrow with a bow), you can always relate to the feelings. How pleased with yourself would you have been to build an enormous pile of rocks? You’d just have to show someone.
Friday, May 10, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, buddies George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made a friendly bet.
Star Wars is a billion-dollar franchise. When Disney bought the property last year, it sold for another 4 billion dollars, and with new films planned, it’s safe to say that it will continue to bring in billions more.
Of course, expectations originally weren’t so high. Although filmmakers tried to drum up buzz for the film’s release, the studio was still pretty worried about competition, and decided not to release the film on Memorial Day (pretty much the Super Bowl of movie release dates). Instead, 20th Century Fox opted to release the film the Wednesday before Memorial Day to get a jump on the competition. And just what film were the studios so worried about?
Today, it’s hard to see that as tough competition for Star Wars. Even still, only 40 theatres ordered Star Wars, and Fox had to threaten theatres to take it if they wanted the eagerly-anticipated adaptation of The Other Side of Midnight.
This lack of confidence wasn’t limited to studio executives. Even the film’s writer/director George Lucas didn’t have much faith in the film’s chances. He wasn’t worried about Smokey and the Bandit, though. The film he was sure was going to outperform Star Wars at the box office was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by his friend Steven Spielberg. Lucas visited Spielberg on the set of that film and was impressed with the enormous sets and the scale of the film and became even more dismayed. Spielberg saw the potential in Star Wars, however, and thought it would be the bigger film.
He was even willing to bet on it.
So the two decided to trade percentage points in the profits of their respective films to share in the success of whichever film came out on top. Lucas received 2 ½ points of Close Encounters and Spielberg received 2 ½ points of Star Wars.
History has been pretty kind to Close Encounters. The film was very successful: it was responsible for saving Columbia Pictures from bankruptcy, garnered eight Academy Award nominations, and was declared “the greatest science fiction film ever made” by no less than Ray Bradbury. Still, it was no Star Wars.
I’m sure when those checks for his 2 ½ % of the profits come in, Spielberg still sees that sometimes it’s good to hedge your bets.