Pixar, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Art of Wow

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Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet? Because I have, and I freaking loved it. It had a lot of what I call ‘wow moments’, scenes that are visually eye-popping or especially emotionally captivating. Sure, a lot of movies have big set pieces or stories that strike a chord, but sometimes there are scenes where the only reaction I have is wow. And for my money, there is no place better on earth for those moments than Pixar.

For the visual side of the wow, I find that typically the scenes that do it for me are the ones that visually have a lot going on. The earliest Pixar example I can think of is the Door Chase scene from Monsters, Inc. When Sully and Mike ride the door into that massive cavern, full of hundreds of thousands of brightly colored doors whizzing all around, it’s a dynamic moment.

There’s the scene in Ratatouille, when Remy climbs out of the sewer and first gazes on Paris. Or, when WALL-E hitches a ride to The Axiom, surrounded by the wonders of the Universe. Even the erstwhile Cars franchise that Andrew loves to hate on has one, when Lightning and Sally go for a drive. But my favorite is when Carl first sees Paradise Falls in Up, because it blends the two types of wow moment, visual and emotional.

Some examples of this second type, which Pixar does so well too, are: Anton Ego’s review of Gusteau’s, the ants standing up to Hopper together, and EVE bringing WALL-E back with a ‘kiss.’ All these have something in common: they are emotional pay-off moments. They are the type of scene that the movie had to earn.

Coming back to Guardians (spoilers ahead, btw), there’s one visual wow that stood out to me, the reveal of Knowhere, but the best wow, of course, was Peter reaching out for Gamora’s hand, and remembering his mother. It is a moment that was earned, both through the blunt friendship storyline, and through the more subtle emotional journey that Peter Quill completes. A movie doesn’t need to be Serious Drama or an Oscar contender to have validity, to be meaningful or affecting. But it does need a certain emotional honesty, and must earn the viewer’s investment. That’s what Guardians did for me, and is the reason why I’m a huge fan of that movie.

One last thought on the wow moment concept. It is a thing which I think is harder to pull off via the written word, but can be done. In fact, it is exactly the kind of moments I try to create in my own work, including the book just published, Absent Hero. It’s the emotional journey that is key in the written word, I think, as you can’t control the visual information as well. And with every big piece I write, everything starts and ends with the character’s journey. I hope, when reading of Wendy’s journey in Gone To Wonder, you can find a wow moment or two.


 

cover3The first episode of Gone To WonderAbsent Hero, is available now from Amazon.com. Seventeen-year-old Wendy Danek is a superfan of the revolutionary theme park Finnegan’s Wonder, a place where stories come alive around you. But her world is thrown upside down when the Wonder pulls her into a story she never imagined she could experience. Will she save the Wonder, or end it? Pick up a copy of Absent Hero and be Gone to Wonder!

It’s (a)Live!

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ahkindle

 

I wrote a thing, and now you can read that thing. That’s right, the thing I’ve been jabbering about on the blog and Twitter is available now for your reading pleasure. I posted it Saturday night, and it has been flying off the shelves! Okay, that was a lie, it was never on any shelves.

What’s the book called? It’s called Absent Hero, the first episode in a series called Gone To Wonder. For a brief description, here’s the blurb:

In the middle of Denver lies the most extraordinary building on Earth: Finnegan’s Wonder. Inside, a theme park unlike any other, full of mechanical men, pirates, airplanes, and monsters. It’s a place that seventeen-year-old Wendy and her friends have dedicated their lives to experiencing and documenting. But when the visionary creator of the Wonder, Clayton Ferris, is usurped, the place Wendy loves so much is in jeopardy. It’s up to her and her friends to unravel secrets, brave out-of-control robots, and face down the richest man on the planet to save Finnegan’s Wonder.

Suspenseful, swashbuckling, and dramatic, Gone to Wonder is a journey that chronicles what happens when make-believe becomes real.

Wow! Sounds fun, right? …right?

Well, for a less brief description, I’ll tell you a bit more about the book, and the rest of the series, and it’s origins. Gone To Wonder features a theme park. If you know me well, that should not surprise you. (If you don’t know me, you probably aren’t surprised either, but for different reasons). Theme parks have been important to me for most of my life. Like many kids, my parents took me to various parks when I was young, but unlike most people, they’ve become lodged in my psyche. They are a form of art, blending many disciplines, with the aim to take you out of the normal world and give you an experience. And that experience is a narrative one, whether it is directly or indirectly.

In GtW, the theme park is called Finnegan’s Wonder. It’s an indoor theme park (inside a massive building), of which there aren’t many in the world, but besides that it’s a bit different from parks you might experience in the real world. The Wonder, as it is called for short, is based around a single property, a series of video games and other media, originated by a mysterious, reclusive genius named Clayton Ferris (think Walt Disney meets Howard Hughes). Ferris has taken the narrative form seriously—it’s the core of the Wonder, the thing that he decided to make the park for.

The best way to describe it is it’s as if you were inside a video game, only without the more game-like components. Imagine if you could step into the world of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and not just watch it happen around you, but interact with it, be part of the story, and even be the hero of the story. In this case, every day inside the Wonder, a Hero is selected (and yes, for simplicity’s sake, the masculine is default—more on this in future episodes). That Hero is a normal guest who, because some narrative choices throughout their day, is singled out for having the best story of the day, and

That’s the idea that caught me, that made me want to write this series. In fact, it has so captured my imagination that the core concept, a narrative-based park, a “story park” if you will, has ballooned outward. Gone To Wonder is just the start, and Absent Hero is just the start of that.

What is Absent Hero itself about? It’s about a girl named Wendy, and a single day at the Wonder. Wendy is seventeen, and she is a huge fan of the Wonder. How big? Well, for about a year, she has visited every day. She likes it, obviously, but that’s not the only reason she’s been every day. Wendy is a young woman who never had the best time in social situations, like school, but she’s had an even greater struggle since her mother died.

One night, though, something happens that will change the Wonder forever. Clayton Ferris, the semi-mythic creator of the Finnegan World, is forced out of his own company by his partner, Charles DeWitt. DeWitt, citing flagging attendance and profit, rallies the board of directors against Ferris.

Wendy and her friends struggle with what this means to them and to the place they love. How much say do fans have in these creations? That’s something I’ve pondered myself. On the one hand, the creators of a thing own that thing, in a legal sense. On the other, I do believe that, once a story has become part of the cultural zeitgeist, it should not be changed lightly. Profit motive notwithstanding, narratives are cultural objects, whether they are religious myths or Star Wars.

Over the course of one day, Wendy becomes embroiled in the story like she never has before—like no one has before. Something is happening, beyond the control of the employees, maybe beyond the control of DeWitt. It may even be the work of Clayton Ferris. Wendy and her friends aren’t sure, but what becomes apparent is that Wendy may have the opportunity to change the fate of a story, to take control of the property.

Gone To Wonder, as a whole, is about an evolution of entertainment. If we have the capacity to surround ourselves completely with a story, where does myth end and life begin? There’s an excellent book that came out this year, called Every Guest Is A Hero by former Imagineer Adam Berger, that discusses how Campbellian monomyth structure is applied in a theme park setting. In Gone To Wonder, that’s a theme I aim to explore, and far beyond.

I’ve begun working on Episode Two, but in the meantime, pick up a copy of Episode One, available exclusively on the Kindle store (as well as Kindle Unlimited, which I recently signed up for—my review of that service coming soon). I’d really love to hear what you think. Leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, hit me up on Twitter, or comment on the blog.

Cover Art for Gone To Wonder Episode One

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I shared this on Twitter last week, but dammit I’m so excited about it I wanted to post it here, too. Below, in glorious high definition, is the cover art for the first part of my Gone To Wonder series. It will be out soon. How soon? Maybe this weekend! That’s pretty darn soon, you guys.

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I’ll also be launching a page with more information on the series soon. In the meantime, check out this post for a preview. Stick around for more updates!

Music To Write To: Gone To Wonder Edition

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Culloden

Happy Monday everyone. In lieu of my normal long post, I’ve decided to do a special Music To Write To post today. Of July, I plan to preview my forthcoming series Gone To Wonder, with some behind the scenes posts, tidbits, maybe some art (if I can do an art that I won’t be mortified to post), and some general fun related to GtW.

First up is one of the songs that most strongly inspired me. It is called “Mo Ghile Mear“, an Irish song that translates to “My Gallant Darling”, written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill in the 18th century. “Mo Ghile Mear” is a beautiful song, with or without translation, and has been recorded by many musicians over the years. It is a lament sung by Ireland herself about the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie. The version that I love the most is sung by the University College of Dublin Choral Scholars, and is available on iTunes.

I’ll embed a live version below, but I encourage anyone to download and listen to the mp3, it is a wonderful track (and the rest of the EP is great as well, especially their rendition of “The Parting Glass”).

Why this song? What does it have to do with Gone To Wonder? This song inspired the opening scene of the novel, in which the heroes watch what is called the Hero Ceremony. Every night inside the indoor theme park Finnegan’s Wonder, a person is selected from the visitors present to be the Hero of Ganton. They are chosen based on the story they act out during the day, and the actions they take within the story. The person whose story is the most heroic is selected as the Hero, and the centerpiece of an elaborate show/parade. The highlight of which is the music. The song that is sung? Yep, “Mo Ghile Mear.”

It resonated with me in other ways, too. The song is a lament, and the characters of Finnegan’s Wonder are in lament. They lament their missing hero, Edward the Clanker. And their are other thematic connections, which I’ll leave for the reader to discover as they may.

One of the reasons I’ll be doing this for all my MtWt posts for the next month is to illustrate a bit of my creative process. I’m sort of a mix between the obsessive outliner and the seat-of-my-pants style writing. I’ll plan things out carefully, but then as I’m writing, if inspiration in the moment takes me down a different path, I’ll follow that to see where it goes. But I also actively seek out things that will catch my attention, my interest, and my inspiration. Most of the time, that ends up being music. When I stumbled across the UCD Choral Scholars on Youtube, I was hooked. And when I heard their “Mo Ghile Mear”, I knew the opening scene of the whole Gone To Wonder series. The inspiration snowballed from there.

Come by next week for another music selection that inspired me as I wrote.

(Bonus share: A Scottish rendition of “Mo Ghile Mear.” When I visited Culloden this past September, the song was a perfect companion.)

The Luckiest Writer in the World

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By Jeremy Thompson[CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How amazing is it to be J.K. Rowling?

Well sure, she’s a billionaire and probably the most successful author in history. But she’s got something a bit more than that. She’s got the opportunity to see her creation, the characters and settings and innumerable details, come to life. Literally.

Yeah, there’s eight movies (so far). Yes, millions around the world are devoted fans. But have you seen the pictures of the recent addition to Universal Studios, Diagon Alley? It’ll be a long while before I can get out there myself, but from the pictures, videos, and personal reactions, this sounds like the greatest themed environment in the world.

I’ve heard it said that themed environments are a second-rate experience, that the real thing is always better. But when there is no ‘real thing’ but what you can find in a book or in a movie, places like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter give us a chance to feel like imaginary things are a bit more than imaginary.

I can’t wait to visit.