The Christmas Carol Chronicles Part 3

The Christmas Carol Chronicles

On Becoming Captain Ahab

The editing of Two-Man Performance of  A Christmas Carol was a long journey. . . . and a lonely one.

My earlier plan to send off the hours of video tapes to a production company fell apart when I received the cost estimates. It was nearly equal to a year and a half of rent.

What was I going to do with all the video tapes stored in plastic box containers? For a while I stored them in a closet out of sight. Perhaps in my unconscious mind, I hoped they’d become repressed memories. I realized, however,  I could not escape the responsibility.

Working with the computer was not a task I relished. Formerly, I used the computer as a high tech typewriter banging out copy for company brochures, writing lesson plans, or pecking out shopping lists. But the thought of undertaking post production non-lineal video editing weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Fortunately, I had experienced editing videos when I worked on my first music video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh4kv5BBsnU    I had the rudiments. But when I reviewed the hours of tapes I realized I would need to  delve deeper into techniques if I hoped to capture the complexity of Dickens’ tale.

The learning curves for each of the software I employed were steep and time-consuming. My life in front of the computer became a series of trials and errors during which failures seemed to follow one another like logs cascading down a river. But I refused to leave an editing session until I got at least one small segment completed. I became a man possessed — a Captain Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. Worse, I was turning into a recluse. Turning down invitations to dinner or declining to go out for drinks. Friends who showed up unexpectedly at my front door I treated with the ill-concealed surliness I reserved for door-to-door sales staff. Even my children sent me emails with messages replete with concern. “Haven’t heard from you recently, Dad. You OK?”

No, I was not OK. I kept pounding my head against the brick wall inside my brain in the form of doubts, repressed anger and a stubbornness to find solutions. Why couldn’t I get a particular edit to work? Why should I have to do the editing? Wasn’t there anyone who could help me? Did any of the actors or crew member give a damn whether I succeeded in completing the edit? Why did we refuse to put up more money for the budget?

In life, we pay for our debts in time or in money. In this case, I was paying the price with the only precious commodity in my possession. Time.

There were nights I sat in front of the computer and stared at an incomplete edit. Wondering how to approach it. And if I failed, I refilled my wine glass to the brim. More than once  I drank myself to oblivion and passed out in my desk chair in front of the computer. When I returned to consciousness, I stumbled to my bed and collapsed on the bedcovers.

Overcoming Two Major Obstacles

Attitude: Young people today are more adept at manipulating computers and wireless devices. But me? I remember when computers first made their appearance in the market. I pronounced to my prepubescent children that the computer would soon go the way of the hula hoop. Well, time proved me wrong. I had to coexist with the computer in my work and in my daily life. An uneasy coexistence. My uneasiness intensified whenever I listened to the  ranting of my oldest brother.  He viewed the computer in the same way a customer at a restaurant views a cockroach in his mashed potatoes.

With each new software I bought, I had to remind myself that it would take me one step closer to completion.  Each software meant I had to take baby steps before I could grow into the techniques I needed. I practiced with methodical step-by-step procedures to edit the easier scenes. I managed simple transitions using keyframes and the opacity function. In time and with painstaking effort I soon succeeded in making use of mattes, in correcting colors, and in ‘sweetening’ the audio.

Each editing session became a problem solving episode. On the days I easily solved a problem, I threw my hands up and shouted “Hallelujah!” On the other days, I shouted at the computer monitor and  fired off a volley of inflammable language. But inevitably I calmed down and started again.

My attitude was: Can’t go back. Can only move forward.

Techniques: Learning to edit is similar to learning to cook. Both require a set of recipes to create a particular result. I bought how to books to help me decipher what at first appeared to me as the arcane language of editing. With practice I was able to follow the recipes for J and L cuts and three point edits. Soon I moved on to more complicated editing tasks: masking, secondary color correction,  key framing, and ultimately getting a handle on rotoscoping a scene to eliminate the background.

None of these tasks came easily to me. But like the fledgling chef who mixes the ingredients for a soufflé that falls flat, I kept working on a particular edit skill.  After nearly a year,  I could create special effects that movie pioneers at the turn of the 20th century would have been proud of.  Primitive and sketchy, the resultant effects helped me create the spectral atmosphere  Dickens described in the novella. (I admit I cannot boast of possessing the special effects skills of 21st century editors working for major production companies. But give me another four years.)

The thorniest problem I faced was the scene from Stave Five in which Scrooge leans out the window to talk to the boy on the

Scrooge rotosroped

Scrooge Talking to Boy on Street

street below. To give you an idea of the problem I faced take a look at the video on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/87851890

Examine the background behind  James House who is getting comfortable sitting on the veranda. Notice the postwar Japanese architecture? All of that had to be eliminated. I spent weeks on using the rotor  brush function in After Effects to erase the window and eaves. Talk about inflammable language. I resorted to those words more frequently than in any of time of my life. But finally I got the result I struggled for.

 

Harsh Criticism:

I completed the final editing three months before the scheduled premiere of a Two-Man Performance of  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The next problem I faced was to add Japanese subtitles to the video. I found a company who could produce the subtitles within the tight time frame. The chore of adding the subtitles fell on my shoulders. Another series of inflammable language ensued. But I got the job done.

The premiere went off with a minimum of difficulty. But the criticism the following day was blistering. Most of it was aimed at the subtitles. “Inept. Amateurish. Unprofessional.”

The criticism hurt. For a long while I felt as if no one appreciated the effort I had taken to get the video ready for public viewing. All that work for what? To face a torrent of critical comments? No one mentioned the acting, the flow of the story, the ghostly atmosphere, the seamless editing points.

For nearly a year, I walked around in the doldrums. I stored the completed video and the assets on hard disk drives and stored them in a trunk. Once again with the attitude: out of sight, out of mind.

Shortly before I reached my 70th birthday, a woman friend of mine over drinks in a pizza restaurant asked me about the video.

“I’m so sick of it,” I replied.

“But you put so much time into it.”

I merely shrugged my shoulders. “Add it to the list of other failures in my life.”

Our conversations drifted to changes in the music and film market. “People listen to music on their iPods and iPhones,” she said. “The market on the web is unlimited.”

Her comment planted a seed. I had just bought an iPad and downloaded Apple apps. And I thought why not create an Apple app of a Two-Man Performance (TMPCarol)?

Again I had to learn new skills and devoted another year in learning in how to create a digital publishing product.  Today it is ready for uploading to the Apple gatekeepers.

For those interested, take a look at www.tmpcarol.com for more detailed information.

Upon Reflection

Today, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief. An albatross is being released from around my neck. Soon I will upload the app to the Apple gatekeepers for distribution. This project had formed a large slice of my life for four years.

People have asked me, “What made you spend so much time on the project?”

The answer is complicated. On a superficial level, I felt an obligation to the actors, to the one-man tech crew and to the still photographer. Almost every week they showed up for the shooting. They put their hearts and soul into the work at hand. None of them had the slightest hope of receiving compensation for their time and talents.  In a way, they were as caught up with the adventure as I was. I could not disappoint them.

On a deeper level, like Scrooge I had to cope with the ghosts from my past life. Two failed marriages, one major film disaster in the late 1990s and the countless other minor and major failures as a single parent lay embedded within the layers of my subconscious mind. I was determined to wrestle with the problems until I got the better of them.

Necessity forced me to take on the burden of editing. In the process I learned how to use software I would never have touched otherwise. I learned to cope with disappointments and failures. I learned the value of persistence. The old saying, if you first you don’t succeed, try, try again, became my mantra. Sometimes in the morning after I woke up, I’d say to myself, “Get out of bed, you lazy bastard. Give it another try.”

Would I do it again?  At my age? No. I am running out of years left to me. Instead, I will capitalize on the skills I learned from my experience.

Will the TMPCarol app make a sensation in the global marketplace? Ah, why  of course. Failure is no longer an option in my life.

 

Kiyosato, March 11, 2011

 

Today

Today is March 11, 2014.  A friend of mine and I were eating lunch at a BBQ restaurant in the Bay Quarter near the east exit of Yokohama Station. The topics of our conversations ranged from the weather, Prime Minister Abe, the impending inflation sparked in part by the hike in consumption tax, and my grandchildren. During the lull in the conversation, my friend asked, “Do you know what day it is today?”

“Sure, Tuesday, March 11.”

At first I didn’t know what he was leading up to. Then it hit me. Three years ago on this very day at 2:46 p.m. a magnitude 9 earthquake  shook Japan’s northeastern region. The tremor’s violent force created a monstrous tsunami that swept over the lower levels of the coastal areas destroying everything and anyone caught in its murderous onslaught.

Everyone has a story, I’m sure, about that moment in time. What follows is a revised account of my experience and thoughts I wrote three years ago.

Three Years Ago

Kioyato 2004On March 11, 2011: 2:46 p.m.: I was team teaching with Robert Hamilton in the afternoon session of the Meiji University Intensive English Language Program at the Meiji University Seminar House in Kiyosato. Kiyosato is located in the northwestern part of Yamanshi Prefecture. The location is a two-hour express train ride from Tokyo. In other words, two-hours farther away from the epicenter.

Robert Hamilton represents the finest among the teachers of the younger generation. Down-to-earth, Robert actually was conducting the class. Fortunately for me, for I could disguise my senior moments with a Cheshire cat smile and imperceptible nod of my head. The class was called We-Tube, a patent reference to YouTube. Robert guided students through the process of making a short video – no editing, mind you, something that struck a chord in the recesses of my bruised ego. He instructed and directed them – coached and coaxed – until he was able to get incredibly good short videos from each of the five groups.

At 2:46 p.m. I was taking photos of the drama group. Two girls shouted, “Jisshin! Earthquake!” At first I did not feel the shake. Then I felt the swaying of the building beneath my feet. I was expecting the short, choppy up and down motions of the earthquake. Instead, the floor beneath my feet moved in a slow side-to-side motion, similar to a ship’s motion in calm seas with rolling waves. And the movement increased in intensity. I returned to the classroom where Robert was telling everyone to stay away from the windows and to avoid standing under the doorways.

In my years of living in Japan, I’ve never experienced an earthquake that lasted longer than a few seconds. The swaying movement of this earthquake continued for nearly two minutes. Within one-minute, the electricity at the seminar house snapped off. The emergency lights kicked in and we were able to continue classes under dimmer circumstances.

Michael Maksimuk, the head teacher of the seminar, spoke over the intercom speakers and told teachers and students to remain calm and to continue their afternoon activities until 4:30 p.m. Robert carried on with the class. I sat in a chair and was impressed by his leadership and calm guidance. Students responded by working in the darkened classroom lit by the emergency lights. They became focused on their projects. With Robert’s calming effect on everyone in the classroom, I managed to gain control of my beating heart. “Whoa! Whoa!” I screamed internally, as though I was trying to rein in a wild stallion in a John Wayne film.

The rest of the teaching team included Lyn Noaumi, James House, Merwyn Torikian, Donevan Hooper and Steve Gardner. We had three teacher assistants and four Canadians from York University in Toronto – a professor and three female graduate students who came to get some student teaching under their belts.

That night the cooks worked under the light of flashlights to cook the meals for the 61 students , the teachers, and other members of seminar teaching staff. We showed our appreciation for the hard work of the cooks by calling them out into the cafeteria and giving them a standing ovation.

The earthquake had caused the electrical blackouts that shut down communication links to Tokyo and other cities and towns in the Kanto Plains. Fortunately, Robert Hamilton owned an iPhone and was able to communicate with his wife and with his family in Canada. Thankfully, he offered me his phone to contact my daughter Kim on Facebook by sending a text message. Because the cataract in my right eye obscured my vision, he had to type out the message I dictated.

Michael after conferring with other teachers decided to alter the nightly schedule of activities for two reasons: First, the electrical blackout made it difficult to continue normal routines and second, the earthquake had caused concern among students about the safety of their family members. We decided to gather the students in the seminar house lobby and to provide them with entertainment. Fortunately, among the teachers, we have three talented people – Steve Gardner, an American Roots and Blues singer, Robert Hamilton who played the Uilleann Pipes (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/uilleann_pipes), also known as the Irish Pipes, and Merwyn Torikian who performed magical card tricks.

Steve started off the program with a song that asked the question, Who’s gonna help me? Watch, but keep in mind we shot the emergency lighting in a room filled with echoes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg83A9WClZg). He followed up with other songs and the room echoed with the ebullient sounds of students clapping and singing along with him.

Robert Hamilton followed Steve’s act. Arranging the Uilleann Pipes under his arm and on his lap, he observed the curious expressions on many of students’ faces. Like the good teacher he is, he explained the different parts of the pipes and the sounds they made. Then he played a mournful Irish melody. The pipes aptly conveyed the mood of the suffering of those who lost loved ones in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqA1u_NiApk)

Merwyn Torikian took center stage and performed card tricks to the delight of the students. Unfortunately, the dim lighting prevented me from taking videos of his magical tricks. But the laughter and gleeful response of students remain in my memory as vividly as if photographed under bright lights. Happily, I was able to download a photograph of him posing as the card magician.

Merwyn, the Magician

Merwyn, the Magician

The entertainment ended at 8 p.m. Michael instructed the students they should return to their rooms but they could stay in other parts of the seminar house until 9 p.m. At that time they were to remain in their rooms.

Steve and I, having lived through Hurricane Katrina advised students to fill their trash cans with water. The water had stopped running in the evening. The Japanese baths had been filled ahead of time and so we could scoop water from the tubs. We instructed students how to use the water to flush toilets. Because there was no heat, the seminar house staff provided everyone with blankets to keep warm with during the night. At 9 p.m., the emergency lights were turned off to save electricity for the following day.

The teachers met in the teachers’ dining room to discuss the plans for the remainder of the program. We all agreed we should continue the program until the scheduled final day of March 16. Actually, the decision was readily reached because there were no trains running, nor were the major roads back to Tokyo open. “Let’s go on with the program!”

The following morning at 5.25 a.m. the electricity came back on and the water turned on again. Life at the seminar house returned to normalcy. We continued with the classes, though we were all on edge at the slightest tremor we felt, or imagined we felt.

Steve Gardner summed up our feelings on that night:

When the earthquake hit I was on tour about three hours from Tokyo in an area called Yamanashi, I got back home to Tokyo late last night, four days after the quake hit. We were in the small town of Kiyosato where our only hardship was to be stuck without lights, gas, water, transportation or communication. We were all safe. Shook up but safe. Our biggest worry was our families and friends. We wanted to know about them and to let them know that we were OK. We count ourselves as very, very lucky. It was snowing and cold and if we would have had to spend the night outside in the snow, then we would have been in a very bad way. As it was, everyone pulled together to be their “best selves on one of their worst days”.

We had a show scheduled for that night so we decided to go on with it. …. I play National Reso-phonic guitars which  are pretty loud and I am not too shy to put out the big voice so having no amplification wasn’t a problem for me. We played, sang, and told stories by the soft glow of emergency lights and i-phones- it was a regular 21 century, high tech blues show.

As I played and sang I let my eye wander over the crowd. They were pulling together which seemed to calm all of us down some. The temperature inside dropped to about 0 degrees and the moon was holding water so it was still dark but clear. We all made it through the long, dark night without too much trouble and only a few light tremors. 

Today

 After lunch, my friend and I entered a furniture store to look for bookcases for my apartment. As I was measuring the dimensions of a bookcase,  I noticed two young mothers with babies strapped to their chests. They were standing in the dining room table section. The babies were fast asleep, no doubt to the relief of the mothers. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One mother informed her friend that her husband might be transferred to his company’s office in Shanghai. “It’s so far away from home,” the young mother said.

Her friend sounded an upbeat note: “Ah, but think of the experience of living in a foreign country. You’re fortunate. My husband’s company will never send him overseas.”

Their conversation drifted to the evaluation of the dining table the young mother’s friend was rubbing the top of with her hand. “Do you think it matches the other furniture in my dining room?”

I walked away and for a brief moment I wondered what topics of conversation the residents of the earthquake stricken towns and villages were having.

What does the future hold for them?