Why This Works

Hello, and welcome to an occasional series in which I guess, using nonscientific means, why something works. By occasional, I mean a series that I might forget about until six months down the road. And then I’ll go, “Oh yeah, I started that series. I should do another installment.”

And yes, I’ll reveal the winner of Playing for the Devil’s Fire by Phillippe Diederich also. **CoughJillWeatherholtcough.** See what I did there? 🙂 (Congrats, Jill!)

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In a previous post, I mentioned Miraculous: Tales of LadyBug & Cat Noir, a French animated series released internationally. Okay, I didn’t mention the international release in that previous post. I’m telling you that stuff now. The concept came from Thomas Astruc, an animator aided by Jeremy Zag, the cofounder of Zagtoon, and later by Method Animation, Toei Animation, SAMG Animation, and SK Broadband, to introduce a series starring a female superhero who saves the citizens of Paris. Thomas Astruc also is the writer and director of the show. Thanks also to other financial partners like Bandai, Curlstone, and Disney, people around the world can see this show. In the States, we can see the English dubbed version on Nickelodeon.

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Ladybug is a French teen (Marinette Dupain-Cheng) with a crime fighting partner—Cat Noir (Adrien Agreste), who goes to her school in Paris. Neither knows the alter ego of the other. You’d think identification would be obvious, since Ladybug has the same hairstyle and easily identifiable eyes the color of bluebells as Marinette. And Adrien’s artfully styled blond hair is the same, though his eyes are somewhat changed due to his mask. Sigh. It’s the same principle as superheroes like Superman, where a pair of glasses is all that stands between someone identifying him as Clark Kent. You have to suspend disbelief so hard, you almost get whiplash.

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I’ve seen about fifteen episodes of the show. And I can tell you that in every episode, the same scenario plays out. Someone gets his or her feelings hurt. A villain named Hawk Moth (below) releases an evil butterfly (yep—an evil butterfly) called an akuma to “evilize” the hurt individual. This action completely subjugates that person’s will to Hawk Moth’s control and turns him or her into a villain. What does Hawk Moth want? The tiny creatures called kwami who live in the Miraculous jewelry that empower Marinette and Adrien for a limited amount of time. He also wants total power. So he uses innocent people to wreak havoc. But Ladybug has a special ability to “de-evilize” the person under Hawk Moth’s control. (Next time you do something wrong, you might use the akuma as an excuse. I plan to.)

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Some of the scenes are very repetitive. In every episode you see the same Ladybug/Cat Noir transformation scenes, hear the same dialogue (“Tikki, spots on!”/“Plagg, claws out!”), and see the same scene where Ladybug de-evilizes someone. Also, the characters do not break new ground in general. Marinette is the clumsy teen who longs for hot-guy Adrien. How many times have we seen the clumsy girl in a story? Dozens. A rich diva at school picks on everyone (except Adrien) and has a sycophant friend. Sounds like the storyline of Mean Girls.

So why are the people who watch this show (including myself) obsessed with it? The “incredible graphic design” as Aton Soumache, the CEO of Method Animation, explained in an interview on one of the Miraculous DVDs. And this is all thanks to Thomas Astruc and Nathanaël Bronn, the art director on the show. The show has a manga look with a gorgeous Parisian backdrop. Thus, the characters are attractive and winsome, and the action sequences inventive and entertaining. For example, in each episode, Ladybug gains an object to use to foil Hawk Moth’s plan. She has to figure out how to use what she has to defeat the “evilized” person. Sometimes, the method involves a MacGyver-like bit of ingenuity.

And each episode also has a touch of romance. As I mentioned, Marinette pines over Adrien, who views her as a friend. But Cat Noir pines over Ladybug, who finds him annoying. Most of all, this is a fun show where superheroes save the day while learning something about themselves.

What I love about this production, is that people around the world have banded together to produce and distribute it. They’re committed to the cause. And that is the number one reason why this show works: it has a committed group of people behind it. Wouldn’t we all like that level of commitment behind our creations?

Ladybug and Cat Noir images from fanpop. Hawk Moth from nick.com. Author photo by Selina Roman. Book cover from Goodreads.

See You at the Movies?

Happy belated Father’s Day to all of you dads out there. My family and I went to see Finding Dory the other day as a combination Happy Birthday/Father’s Day celebration for my younger brother. A good time was had by all.

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While we waited for the movie to start, my sister-in-law mentioned that it was the first movie she’d seen at the theater in over a year. Interestingly, Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Dory (and Finding Nemo), had a short clip before the movie began in which he thanked the audience for coming out to watch the movie; thus acknowledging that the movie-going experience is increasingly rare for many.

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When I was a teen and a younger adult, I hit the movies just about every weekend. I didn’t miss a major movie. But for five of the last six years, I can use one hand to count the number of movies I’ve seen at the theater. Last year, I saw more movies at the theater than I’d seen in years. I saw

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See? Not a ton of movies. For others, popping a DVD or blu-ray disk into a player was the extent of my movie-going experience. (Wish I’d seen The Martian at the movie theater. Glad I saw it on blu-ray at least.)

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This year, I’ve seen Captain America: Civil War twice (took my niece the second time), Zootopia, and now Finding Dory. I hope to see several others on my list—like Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Suicide Squad; and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

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A number of factors work against my desire to go to a movie theater: higher prices; films that are all style and no substance; and rude moviegoers. In one movie theater I attended, a group of teens talked loudly and ran around the theater until the manager threw them out—halfway through the movie. So I usually head to the cheap theaters, reserving the first-run experience for the movies I want to see the most. And I tend to see movies I really want to see, rather than take a chance on an unknown the way I used to do. (Same with books, sadly.)

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(By the way, many critics declared that Jurassic World lacked substance. Though the characters were underdeveloped (and some were downright annoying), the movie’s entertainment value made up for the lack of substance—at least for me.)

I miss the days when my good friend who lived next door, my brother, and I would look at each other and say, “Let’s go to the movies.” And then off we’d go without a second thought. Back in the day, Spielberg movies were always a draw for us, along with those of John Carpenter, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and others.

I also miss some of the element of surprise. Nowadays, with incessant internet trailers that give too much away, and people blabbing spoilers on social media, you practically know everything about a movie before you walk in the theater. To maintain at least some of the surprise, I tend to avoid watching more than one trailer for the movies I’m determined to see at the theater.

Still another thing I miss is having a slate of movies to choose from with well-developed plots, dialogue, and pacing. Instead, we might get one good movie and several well-this-is-sort-of-okay-though-it-is-a-dumbed-down-adaptation-of a-well-known-book/inferior-remake/sequel-of-a-better-film. That’s why I love the adage at Pixar: “Story is king.” (They also have the twenty-two rules below.) I wish many studios believed that.

Pixar's 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

How many movies did you see at the theater last year? What do you like or dislike about the movie-going experience? What movie are you excited to see this year?

Brooklyn movie poster from movieposter.com. Jurassic World movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Inside Out movie poster from movieweb.com. Finding Dory movie poster from screenrant.com. Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie poster from inquisitr.com. The Martian movie poster from flickeringmyth.com. Zootopia movie poster from film-book.com. Captain America: Civil War movie poster from shockya.com. Movie theater clip art from clker.com. Pixar rules from gsartfactory.blogspot.com.

Diamond in the Rough

aladdin-4897Remember that scene in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) where evil vizier Jafar was told to look for a “diamond in the rough”? Okay, maybe you don’t think about these things as often as I do, so just nod your head, even if you don’t remember that scene. Anyway, this diamond in the rough—Aladdin—was the key to Jafar’s nefarious scheme to retrieve Genie’s lamp in the Cave of Wonders.

But those of us watching the movie realized early on that Aladdin, the street rat, was a diamond in the rough. Sure, the narrator told us. But we would have figured that out eventually, and not just because Aladdin himself sang about there being “so much more to me,” and had great hair and surprisingly sparkling teeth for someone living on the street.

Ever see a rough diamond? If not, you can if you watch this video. But you might check out a company called Diamond in the Rough, which sells—you guessed it—rough diamonds. Their philosophy:

The cost of cutting and polishing a diamond adds only a tiny fraction to its price. Even if the diamond goes on to become polished, its polished price is still determined by what it was worth in its original, natural rough form.

I find this company fascinating because for them a diamond’s most important quality is its character. If you check out their website, you’ll see the traits that make up a diamond’s character (color, carat, clarity, and shape). If a diamond hadn’t already received full marks in character, they wouldn’t sell it.

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The aspect of a character’s being a “diamond in the rough”—someone worth writing a whole book about—became clear to me, starting in my first semester at VCFA. My advisor told me to write a short story using a character from the novel I was failing miserably to revise. Before I entered the program, I had written and revised the novel, and even sent it around to agents. After multiple rejections, I entered the MFA program and set out to discover how to rework the novel. I decided to start over with it. But every word I wrote felt forced. After three months, my advisor suggested that I take time away from the novel and relax. And relaxing still meant writing—this time a short story.

I chose a character, an elf, a tertiary character with little life beyond the one chapter in which he appeared. He was like a movie extra whose job was to walk through a scene. Well, 45 pages later (for me, that’s a short story), after I became better acquainted with him, I realized I had a diamond in the rough, a character I could polish and allow to sparkle in his own novel.

The same thing happened in my fourth (and last) semester. Consequently, my current work in progress stars yet another character mined from the same novel I had written and tried to rewrite that first semester (and second and third). This character at least had a speaking role in that novel, but little presence beyond a few scenes. Unlike the novel I couldn’t successfully rework over three semesters, the first book of her journey is complete. (Still working on the elf’s book.)

But in my current book, another diamond in the rough showed hidden facets I didn’t see at first, but my advisor and other classmates saw. While this character would have been condemned to just a walk-on role, he is now the companion on the journey my main character takes and has become the main character in the second book of my duology.

These experiences showed me that sometimes something has to die in order for new life to begin. I’m not just saying that because Easter just passed. I’m saying that because an entire novel—hundreds of pages, years of work—had to die in order for these “diamonds in the rough” to live—characters whose stories would never have been told. Did it hurt to bury that novel? Yep. But these characters needed to be pulled out of my overpopulated novel and allowed to roam about the open land, living their own lives like . . . uh . . . free range chickens. (I’ve been dying to mention chickens for weeks. Glad I got that in.)

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Got a diamond in the rough? How did you discover this character? How will you polish him or her?

The lyrics of Aladdin’s song, “One Jump Ahead,” were written by Howard Ashman; music by Alan Menken.