Headlines from The Onion again found in real news

P&G To Lay Off 1,600 After Discovering It's Free To Advertise On Facebook

What a great story for The Onion. Instead, it's in Business Insider. The article is actually about the sensible business of P&G trying to keep marketing costs in line with revenues. After getting that out of the way, the article proceeds to fall over itself with the usual breathless paeans to social media and copious references to P&G's exceptionally successful Old Spice campaign, which garnered 1.8 billion free impressions. The operative word there is exceptional. The real onion-worthy writing came when the reporter mocked P&G CEO Robert McDonald for not having a twitter feed.

To paraphrase The Ad Contrarian: Because what consumers really want is to read tweets from the CEO of the global conglomerate that manufactures their underarm deodorant.

One spatial reasoning test I did not fail

I have tremendous respect for CGI. At this point, with enough money and digital artistry, any set of images which can be imagined can be put on screen. I also have deep psychic scars related to sub-par CGI work in projects I've shot.

In any case, I am a dedicated proponent of doing special effects in camera. If a particular shot can be accomplished by either method, I'd rather do it on set. On my most recent commercial, the director was of a similar mindset, only more so. We had several SFX shots and the post schedule was too tight for CGI.

For one shot in particular, I'd normally have expected to hear "We'll do it in CG." or at least as a composite. However, the brief was to do it in camera.

Dry noodles fall at an angle and land nicely in bowls, one after another. 
The director's main concern was creating a "flavor image" that nicely showed the texture and color of the noodles. This is no small task for dry noodles. The staples of food photography, translucence and specular highlights aren't going to be part of that picture. My main concern was how to get three (later four) packets of noodles to land nicely in their bowls on cue. 

Using plexiglass slides to drop the noodles in was suggested. I was concerned that the lighting would be constrained to avoiding reflections and shadows rather than making the noodles look nice. Also, dry noodles are brittle and break easily (in retrospect, cushioning the fall with broth might have been a visually interesting solution - I wish that idea had occurred to me in the preproduction, though to be fair the brief called for looking down into empty bowls).

More importantly, getting a thing to land is a specific way on camera just once is hard enough. We needed this four times in a single shot on a tight shooting schedule.

Which brings me once again to lessons learned from my teacher and mentor Chris Chomyn. He shot a couple films about a chrome sphere that flies around trying to kill people called Phantasm III & Phantasm IV. You can take a look here. All of the sphere effects were created in camera. Chris takes his students through the process he and his team took in achieving those shots. What he covers in that discussion has carried me through all the SFX shots I've encountered thus far.

What I find helpful is that it taught me to think backwards. One example is starting a shot at its end. Film the action in reverse. Or if you're shooting digital, reverse playback in the edit. That was the obvious solution to my noodle challenge.

After that little leap it became conceptually simple and physically achievable. Start with the noodles in place. Take it backwards. Since forward is now reverse in a shot controlled by gravity, up becomes down.

Rough reference frame taken on location. 

We took a double for our kitchen table and set the frame we wanted. We glued the bowls in place. We drilled holes in bottoms of the bowls.  We ran monofilament through to the noodles to hold them in place. Then we turned it all upside down and set a frame. 

Reference frame we took in the studio once we were ready to place camera. 

Since we wanted the noodles to enter frame at a dynamic angle relative to the plane of the table, we hung a plum line and angled the table until we had a vector we liked. At this point the disconnect between what was on the monitor and what we were physically doing started to get surreal. 

I had to match lighting from shots on location. This involved flipping a lighting setup upside down and getting the camera up pretty high. It's one thing to conceptualize and another to execute. Especially for a guy that struggled with those spatial reasoning tests you take in middle school.

I'd love to say that once we were set up, everything went off without a hitch. Unfortunately there were a couple bumps, mostly involving the stands holding up the table. Fortunately, a reset simply involved reeling in some fishing line. In the end we got our shot. 

There is far more to thinking backwards than reverse playback. But it's a good place to start.

If I had this shot to do over again, I'd try to find a method with simpler execution. Or I'd introduce a dynamic dolly move and pose myself a real mind-bender.

The world becomes a better place

It was a singular moment. One night I found myself riding in a 35 year-old US Army Jeep accompanied by several Russians, taking in the Vietnamese countryside. I thought about the soldiers who had ridden in this Jeep so many years ago and how they must have felt as they saw this same countryside. I thought about how this moment could not have been imagined 35 years ago. I felt a connection to history and was filled with the sense that the world indeed becomes a better place.

Then we went tooling around the beach under a full moon. Speeding across the sand. Swerving into the surf. Blasting the horn for sheer exuberance. Stopping occasionally to look at the stars and listen to the waves. The mountains in the moonlight and the ocean at our side. 

An Emotionally Safe Distance

What is a safe distance? Emotionally? Even the sun is only 8 minutes away.

Three years ago my dear friend and collaborator Charlene Sun was killed in an automobile collision. I miss her still. Charlene and I first worked together and got to know each other in a class where we shared cinematography duties. Our partnership went so well that we continued thereafter - I would light when she was shooting and she would light when I was shooting. I was always impressed with her visual acumen and artistic sensibilities. And she was always a joy to work with and to be around.

She was also a true friend. She gave me a lot of support though some of the roughest passages in my life. Her famously bubbly demeanor and cheerful attitude sometimes belied her tremendous intelligence and depth of understanding, and yet this infectious joy suited her well.

Prior to pursuing her dreams as a filmmaker she had been a doctor. You can guess who I called when I went to a hospital in Vietnam with serious eye irritation and passed out after they told me they wanted to stick a needle in my eye to get a speck of something out. I am very sensitive to touch around my eyes and reflexively jerk away from contact. They had a hard time just getting me to be still during the examination. And they were talking about needles. In a hospital that makes my apartment seem sterile. I was terrified. She helped calm me down. And suggested I ask them to try a Q-tip.  Which worked.

At that time she was really excited because one of her favorite film directors had somehow heard about her artwork and hired her to do concept art for a couple films he was working on. I'm glad she was able to spend some years doing the things she loved. She was a fantastic artist, a wonderful person, and the world is a lesser place for her absence.

Artwork by Charlene Sun.

Surviving 13 million hits on YouTube

The other day I noticed that the trailer for the 3-D film I shot had 13 million views on YouTube.  This sort of thing can often be avoided by not using thumbnails like the one above.  However, should this misfortune befall you, my advice: Don't read the comments.

Making Phở

I am told that it's important to have a hobby. They say that if work is your life and the work isn't good then you are in trouble. So I've decided that since cooking is a nice way to relax, I'll call it my hobby.

Being in Vietnam, one will necessarily enjoy Phở, a delicious beef noodle soup. I decided that I would remiss in not learning how to make it so I undertook what turned out to be by far the most challenging dish I've ever attempted. As is my wont, I searched out numerous recipes, chose the one that looked most complicated and time consuming, then incorporated some ideas from other sources.

My first attempts didn't go so well. I had the good fortune to make these attempts in the home of a Vietnamese family, so I had some expert advice and comments. The first comment was incredulity that I was using a recipe.  My first batch was too sweet. My second  attempt was too weak.   They had some ideas about how to fix that.  When I went home for the holidays this year, I succeeded in making it a couple times to my satisfaction. I haven't tried the new approach with the family, so keep in mind that this recipe hasn't been put to the true test just yet.

Recipe after the jump.  Also some interesting information about squid.

Notes from my iPhone

So my beloved iPhone that I bought on the first day of availability had a problem. I banged it on a light or got it wet or something. The bottom portion of the touchscreen didn't respond. It was a pain in the neck. As I wasn't able get it repaired in VN and I got ready to retire the poor thing (the next time I went home, Apple replaced it free under a quality program).  I decided to pay tribute to it by putting up some of the notes I'd written on over a year and a half.

Things I wanted to remember, sayings, moments in life, conversation in places too loud to talk.

• Go 23.2 miles after the bridge on the right. Don't take the left fork. Ask for Baldy.
-- Directions to some ancient cave art in Baja Mexico.

• Laredo pig push. That's what they call a dance down there.

• Cracked Crab in San Quentin.
-- It's delicious.  Ask for One-Thumb Joe. Buy him a drink. Then drive to Mulegé and claim your prize.

• The pilot was a guy called Cocaino.

• Full Circle. I'm right where I started, but I've lost my way. Years are gone and what do I have to show for it?
-- School starts again.

• Look, a quarry adjacent to a graveyard. Take out the rocks and put in the people.
-- Da Lat, Vietnam

• Jo, come with me tonight, pls. celebrate 4 my car. i'm so unlucky with foolish car!
-- SMS from an actress

Anonymized - here's a guy who will use a 2000 year-old vase as an ash tray.
-- Last day of production on my first Vietnamese TV Series

• Hi Joel from Joella
Hope all's well & lots of love.
P.S. I really like your phone.
-- A note from my sister

• I can't have plants - I kill them. I stop watering them because I resent having to take care of them.
-- A quotation. 

• Worked today. A lot like it was before. Nice to see the crew folk again. Going to the studio was a little nostalgic.
-- Back in Vietnam.

• I've made a huge mistake. What was I thinking. Yesterday I'm thinking to myself - I don't want to be here. I want to go home. But I'm committed. I don't know why this seemed like a good idea.
-- A low point

• I'm watching a soccer game played on a rooftop 10m square.

• A shadow in the glass
--The literal translation of Vietnamese for reflection.

• Only in Vietnam: I went shopping for a motorcycle and wound up at the wrong funeral.

• A maternity store named balloon.

To foster and restore one's strength.
To strength the function of liver and kidney.
Build up resistance to inaction and penicillin.
-- Label on a box of medicinal tea

• The tomcat decides this is not his thing.
-- Overheard on the TV during a date to the beauty salon. A show about lions. I had a cucumber mask.

• In Russian 2 words for relax
Relax - take it easy.
Relax - remember you are a human being.

• Flooded lowland. Villagers in the water hitting swimming mice with sticks and collecting them, presumably to eat.

• I would like to teach you Vietnamese traditional song, but you must cut out your tongue in order to sing it.

The Practical Cinematographer's Guide to craigslist

Being the sort of cinematographer that I am, I'm always looking for interesting projects. Even on craigslist. I get RSS feeds of relevant posts from cities around the world. I've been doing this for a couple years now and I've learned to filter them quickly. I have to. I only find about one in a hundred that merit any attention. I figure the occasional reply to a CL ad is a good way to experiment with ways to pitch myself without jeopardizing jobs I'm actually up for. I've had exactly one in-person interview, and regrettably I didn't get the gig, but I really enjoyed the interview. That puts the total number of CL jobs I've done at zero.

So here's my thoughts on craigslist ads. If you're short on time and patience, only look at the jobs section and not the gigs sections. People have to pay to place ads in the jobs section which weeds out most projects.

The ad I for which I took an interview was perfect - Firstly it totally stood out from the dross by advertising a purely technical shoot of visual effects elements and explicitly promised no creativity whatsoever. Technical VFX shoots are a great chance to work under a totally different set of parameters, and if the tech-team is competent you will learn. A lot. Secondly, the poster asked respondents' to give day rates. After availability, this is typically the first question I am asked when I get a call for actual work form credible producers. The producer and director were kind enough to review my reel and grant me an interview, even though I clearly stated that I didn't have the precise experience prerequisites. Ever courteous and professional they said they liked my reel. They let me know I didn't get the job, which I appreciated. I was thrilled to have gotten the meeting.

Their ad had exactly what I look for. A specific description of the job. Promising only what they could deliver. Good indications of a capable and experienced team. The willingness to negotiate salary seriously. Ads like this on craigslist really stand out after a while because they are so rare.

Here's a rundown of the kinds of ads I ignore. 

1. "DP with own camera and/or gear" -  While I have been known to consciously let myself be taken advantage of in the furtherance of my career, I don't think that this is the way for me to do it.

I'm a cinematographer. I am not in the equipment rental business.

I have enough responsibilities on a set and I don't need any more. If I own the equipment and it malfunctions or breaks, that's my responsibility. No thank you. Add the hassles of storage, transportation, insurance, prep, maintenance and on and on and I just don't find that owning my own gear is practical. Better to rent from good partners with whom I can build long-term working relationships.

2. Shooting on Canon DSLR's - don't even get me started on the topic of using stills equipment for live-action motion photography.

3. "unnamed Names" - I'm horrified at what qualifies as a celebrity these days. However, I think it's safe to assume that anyone I would consider a Name is extremely unlikely to be placing themselves before the lens of an unpaid DP found on craigslist.

4. "Award-winning" - Awards are cute. I enjoy bowling with my ten oscars. If it was actually notable, they'd have specified which award.

5. "aimed at Fesitivals" - Festivals are cute. Personally I prefer to work on projects that will be enjoyed by a large audience. Also, I don't care who you know, getting into festivals is not something you can promise.

6. "Future work" - In my experience, this makes me skeptical. When the money comes they go somewhere else because they don't take you seriously.

7. A ridiculously low wage - I operate under the assumption that worthwhile projects have no difficulty attracting talent. Even for free. Copy/credit/meals tells me you should know better. $75/day tells me that you're desperate and your project couldn't attract ants if it were covered in coca-cola syrup and left in the sun at a picnic.

8. "Low-budget horror" - I've got more than enough horrors in my experience already, thank you. I've done many unpleasant jobs (and not just in film) but the only one I would describe as soul-crushing was a couple overnights for some low-budget horror about Ed Gein's mother or something.

9. Web-series, documentary, reality - generally not my cup of tea, though making the occasional exception on these forms has been rewarding, but only by referral.

10. Apologies for the budget - This is distinct from lo/no budget. It describes a project that is attempting to do too much with too little and producers who lack the experience or ability to mount the project with an appropriate budget. Guaranteed nightmare.


You'll notice I don't rule out free work. Working for free can be valuable, though I typically only take it by referral. What I look for are interesting projects that are realistically achievable with the available resources and a focus on putting those resources on screen. I look for experienced knowledgable collaborators from whom I'm going to learn a thing or two. I usually regret taking anything that doesn't meet those criteria, paid or not.

That will tend to eliminate the vast majority of craigslist ads.  Fortunately I'm in position to do that. Though please note that I made a move to Vietnam because that's where I was getting work I wanted to do.

Getting work is hard, so do what works for you. Even if it means shooting an under-resourced web-based-reality-documentary low-budget horror show for $25/day with an award-winning director who has cast a Name actor's stunt double whose going to get the film into all the festivals and introduce you to more work than you can handle shooting with the Canon DSLR camera and lenses that you own. Oddly, I almost took a job of pretty much that description, but it was mutually agreed that my onscreen persona wasn't going to win any awards. That's ok. My place is behind the camera, not in front of it.

Career Survey, part 2

My teacher and mentor Chris Chomyn takes a career survey of former students for the benefit of his current students. He sent one to me and I spent a couple days answering the questions - it was a nice chance to step back and get some perspective on the past, present, and future.  I'll share a couple things that I cut out.

"What is your ultimate objective in the film industry? Are you there yet? How long will it take?"

I think I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. I also haven’t a clue. I typically accomplish my reasonable goals and fail at my unreasonable goals. The trouble is that I often have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Or possibly I fail at my reasonable goals and succeed at my unreasonable goals. I’m not sure. Anyway, when I decide I want to do something in life, I find it helps to form a plan with the following qualities: Specific, measurable, realistic, and achievable on a fixed time-line. Basic business school 101 type stuff I know, but it helps me. Mostly it helps me be happy that I work in film.

I try to remain flexible about my plans. Typically by the time I’ve accomplished something I set out to do in life, the thing has taken double the time I thought it would and the results are something totally unanticipated. This is fine by me. I am quite sure that I found myself working in Vietnam well before I had a plan to do so. That’s okay. My skills are fair at best when it comes to discerning my initial reasons for wanting to do something. Fortunately I am quite adept at inventing them after the fact.

It’s more about the journey than the destination anyway and a plan keeps me moving. And, yes, I have a plan for stopping too. I’ve just got a few things to do first and I also have to figure out a way to bypass or eliminate the heart-attack component.

I have no idea why I wrote all this. Once I know, I'm certain I'll have a good explanation.

The Questions

Suffice to say that if you were to go with me to a restaurant here which I had visited a couple months earlier, there is a fair chance that if you asked the waitstaff my name, age, occupation, nationality and the street I live on, they could probably tell you. And not because I’m in the habit of taking the waitstaff home with me.

Some of the answers you'd hear back might sound like nonsense.  This is because I occasionally tire of answering the same questions, the same way, day after day for every person I meet. Instead, I invent more interesting answers. Or attempt to answer correctly in Vietnamese.

1st question. "What's your name?" I answer Joel which is immediately transliterated to Joe, Joey George or John. The Vietnamese language doesn't employ trailing L's. In fact, the unemployment rate for trailing consonants is very high in Vietnam. People don't hear them in the same manner that I don't hear the tonal cues that differentiate words in Vietnamese.  This of course becomes immediately relevant when I ask the person with whom I'm speaking for their name in turn. Thus we begin by mispronouncing each other's names. I do have a Vietnamese name and I've tried it out a couple times, but I don't actually respond to it, so it isn't much help. Also, I can't pronounce it properly.

2nd question. "Where are you from?" I usually answer Cali. I'm not really from California but I lived there a while and that answer keeps things simple. Vietnamese is monosyllabic and relies on word pairs, so even when I say California people hear Cali. I didn't understand the frequent perplexed looks I got when I used to say Los Angeles until I realized it's just like the look that comes on my face when someone names a place as though I should know it. Saying Tucson, or Arizona usually has no meaning. Only friends and newspapers say I'm from Hollywood and it makes me cringe.

I understood about the whole places one should know thing one day when my landlady was talking to me about a place called Cam Pu Chea. Never heard of it, but I've never heard of lots of places. At least I think she is asking me about this place, though I can't be sure because we're having the conversation in Vietnamese. At any rate, I'm really trying to figure out what this place is because she says it like I should know it while we're looking at pictures I took when I was at Angkor Wat. In Cambodia. Oh.

My Landlady is very patient and has learned to understand my very poor Vietnamese. She has also taught me a fair amount. This has actually made my Vietnamese even more incomprehensible. In Vietnamese, Northern pronunciation is quite distinct from Southern. Many words are different too. My landlady is from Hanoi. I reside in HCMC. So my Vietnamese is a hopeless mish-mash of mispronunciations. Bear in mind we are talking about a language where a simple mispronunciation will mean something quite different. I ordered a newspaper for breakfast once. Then there was the month I was complimenting my crew with one of the most offensive phrases in the Vietnamese language.

3rd question. "How old are you?" The answer is the basis for many protocols of etiquette. Vietnamese has a whole system of pronouns based on one person's age as it relates to another person's age. There is one pronoun for everybody younger than you, unless they are a child. If someone is older than you then it gets gender specific and more complicated. My favorite is the pronoun for a woman who is older than you but younger than your mother. Also the way to calculate your age in Vietnam is different. Everyone is one year old at birth and everyone's birthday is the lunar new year. So I think I turned 33 last January, 32 in September and I'll be 34 in February.

Once everyone has sorted out the relative ages of themselves and their mothers, it's time for the next question. If it isn't "What do you do?" or "How long have you been here?" it is typically "Where do you live?" I wish I knew why people ask me this. I also wish I could pronounce the name of the street I live on, because that would make my life much simpler when trying to tell taxi and xe om drivers how to take me home.

Career Survey, part 1

My teacher and mentor Chris Chomyn takes a career survey of former students for the benefit of his current students. He sent one to me and I spent a couple days answering the questions - it was a nice chance to step back and get some perspective on the past, present, and future.  I'll share a couple things that I cut out.

"What skills do you now know that you need, that you didn’t think were important while you were in school?"

I wish I had learned how to conduct oneself at a major televised awards ceremony in a foreign country. What do you do if you don’t speak the language and most of the people you know are presenting awards, receiving awards or giving interviews to the press?

This happened to me the one night at the Vietnamese Film Festival awards. I tried introducing myself to the guy sitting next to me. Luckily he spoke English but then he won the award for best animation film, went to the stage and back a couple times and became engaged in a press interview. I interrupted his interview to ask where the guy sitting on my other side had gone. Turned out this person hadn’t won an award and decided to go home. I added running off for not having won a prize to the list of things the people might be doing in lieu of telling me what was going on. I also added going to a wedding. I didn’t win any prizes.

Not winning a prize was not a surprise because I don't expect to win any awards. Also, for this ceremony in particular, I didn’t think I had worked on anything in the running. Suddenly I was quite surprised to see a that film that I worked on had been nominated for an award or awards. I think. At least they showed some clips a couple times. I wished I knew what it meant. I'm quite sure it didn't win. I was pleased to learn later that my host won the Silver Lotus and that a film written and directed by an alum of the USC writing program had won the audience award.

At the reception I spent most of the time by myself because the people I knew were busy giving still more interviews and getting their pictures taken. At one point some people I didn’t know asked to take a picture with me. I don’t know why. Perhaps they thought I was famous. After that I mingled a bit and greeted some people I hadn’t seen in a while. For some reason there wasn’t much to talk about. Probably because my Vietnamese is pretty much limited to coffee, food, and lighting equipment. Also, if someone has met me once they already know the answers to The Questions.

At any rate, another thing I didn’t learn in school regarding awards ceremony receptions is what happens when you have been contentedly keeping to yourself and managing to be ignored by everyone in the room for a few minutes and then a couple actresses you know see you and come over to say hi. Suddenly it seems every eye is on you and everyone wants to know who you are. So while I was happy to see a couple friends I hadn't seen in awhile, it became weird and awkward because people began interrupting and introducing themselves. I became nervous and self-conscious. I saw photographers reaching for their cameras and retreated. I am deeply ambivalent about publicity and seeing my picture in the paper. I found my host who was with the director of the film I shot as they were getting ready to leave. On the way out we stopped for a photo that probably went in the paper.

A Practical Cinematographer's Guide to a motorbike-friendly bag of tools

On my 17th birthday I received a tool kit.  I thought it was the worst present ever.  I now spend a significant portion of my disposable income on tools.  It's fun.  I'm occasionally asked how much my kit cost:  About six years experience learning what to carry, what not to carry and what things under-resourced productions often need but don't have on hand.  

Early on, Rocky Rodriguez, a key grip, who taught me a good chunk of what I know about lighting, told me that one should never walk on to a set, in any department, without a flashlight, a utility knife and a retractable sharpie.  That's where it started.  As I've gone along, whenever a production I'm on needs something but doesn't have it, I'll try to go and pick one up before the next job if the item isn't too expensive.  

That discipline has helped me build a reputation for having what's needed. I've built a kit where 98% of the time when I get asked, I've got something in my bags of tricks that'll meet the need.  Moving to Vietnam necessitated culling my carload of toys into a couple boxes, so I was forced to focus on the essentials.  I miss my chainsaw on occasion, but these days I really have to be able to fit my stuff into a taxi, so I tend towards things that can't be easily purchased or rented far from Hollywood.  

This is what I carry on a daily basis, even when I leave the other boxes at home.  I live my life out suitcases and tool boxes, so my idea of interior design is trying to adhere to a color scheme of blue, orange, silver & black.  Since I'm a practical cinematographer, I make the occasional concession to white paper.

CineBags Cinematorgrapher’s Bag

    Setwear Belt
        Sekonic Dualmaster L-558 Light Meter & case
        SetWear 4-in1 pouch
            Leatherman Charge Ti
                Leatherman tool bits
            Innova 5-LED flashlight
            SuperKnife II
            Cardellini Green Laser Pointer
        SetWear Mini-Tool Pouch
            Retractable Sharpie Marker
            Retractable Sharpie Hi-Liter
            Pilot G2 Mini Pens
            Large Dry-Erase Marker w/ Eraser Cap
            iPhone 4 w/ essential apps
         2 – Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiners

    Blue Ring Gaffer’s glass
    SUUNTO MC-2G Global Navigator Compass/Clinometer
    Petzl Headlamp White/Red

    4-in-1 Mini Screwdriver
    Mega-Combo Wrench

    Rosco Lens Tissue
    Pancro Lens Cleaning Solution
    Ground Lifters
    Matte Photoblack Tape

    Skinny-Mini Cardellini Clamp
    Mini 5/8" Spud w/ 1/4-20 Male & Ring
    Matthews Mini-Gobo

    Goldfold Notebook
    Moleskine Notebook
    Business Cards

    Writing Instruments
        Pilot G2 Pens
        Pilot Mechanical Pencil
        Panavision Fine/Broad tip permanent marker
        Retractable Sharpie Hi-Liters
        Silver Sharpie
        Small Dry-Erase Marker w/ Eraser Cap

    17" MacBook Pro (2011)
    iPad 2 – 3g 64gb
    iPad Charger & Cable
    USB Thumb drive


   Not Pictured:

        Small Red Laser Pointer
        Chalk holder
        Fluke Volt Light LVD1 Line Tester
        Small key-chain LED flashlight
        Pelican VB3 2-LED flashlight
        Insert Slate


...to Thanksgiving Dinner at Angkor Wat

From November 26, 2008

I did not wake up that morning with an idea to go to Cambodia. Because we all need to get back to Vietnam and no one knows when the airport will reopen, a plan is hatched. Somebody talks our driver from the post-production house into taking us to the Thai/Cambodian border. We spend the night in a hotel and cross into Cambodia the next day. We take a van to the nearest airport and fly back to Saigon.

We passed by the BKK airport on the way out of town. There wasn’t much to see from the outside. Reportedly there were masses of protestors inside. Coincidentally, every time I find myself in Thailand, some sort of political unrest gets sparked.  Even though I don't believe it has anything to do with me, after the fires of 2010 Bangkok post-production houses started encouraging me to take my color-grading to Hong Kong.

A couple police trucks driving away from the airport were the only indication we saw that anything unusual was afoot.

If you ever find yourself in Aranyapathet, Thailand, I recommend this restaurant. The menu is in Thai, but just point at a few things. Or, if your post-production house has been kind enough to lend you their driver, let him order. This was the best meal I'd had in years.

The next morning we went by Tuk-Tuk to get our visas.

We walked across the border, took a bus to our van, and took the van to our plane.

Gambling is officially illegal in Thailand. Also in Cambodia. However the walk across the border is a little long because there is a narrow strip of land between the two countries that neither one controls. Hence it's packed with casinos. Or so the story goes.

There are not much in the way of paved roads in Cambodia. It is dusty.

So dusty in fact, that it is necessary to stop at a roadside bodega like this every couple hours to wash the dust out of the radiator.

It's just enough time to sit in a hammock and drink a beer.

The Cambodian countryside has a fantastic color palette.

We arrived at the Siam Riep Airport a few hours early for our flight.

So we decided to go to Angkor Wat by Tuk-Tuk.

On the way, my driver stopped at an Angkor gas station. That is, a lady sits by the side of the road with a bunch of gasoline-filled Johnny Walker Red bottles. You give her a dollar. A three-year-old fills the tank while she takes the money.

We stopped for lunch just across the water from Angkor Wat. This was Thanksgiving. Turkey was not on the menu, but mango salad made a fine substitute.

After lunch we crossed the water to Angkor Wat where this sign offered 3 possibilities of visit. Considering how we got there, I'd hate to think what the other two are. However you visit, it's an amazing place. See it before it crumbles.

Angkor Wat is famous for its Bas Relief imagery.

My buddy Vinh demonstrates why some parts of the Bas Relief Devatas are smoother than others.

Well that's about all there is that's fit for telling, Pictured above are the folks whose resourcefulness averted what could really have turned into an adventure. I was fortunate to be along for a nice smooth ride.  We got on the plane, got back to Saigon and I found the job I was so worried about getting back for had delayed for a month.

I wonder if I'll make it to work tomorrow...

I arrived in Bangkok yesterday to do color-grading for a TV commercial. Tonight I walked out of the post facility and heard about the protests closing the airport down. I was floored because everything here seemed so peaceful and normal, except for the elephant I saw walking along the freeway - that was strange.

Then again, I've mostly been shooting in Saigon lately, where the streets (and sidewalks) are a pure chaos of motorbikes - so my perspective may be skewed somewhat. Anyway, my flight was for tomorrow, but it looks like I might be staying a little longer than planned.

At least I won't have to take a bus like I did earlier this week when my flight to Saigon was cancelled because of severe thunderstorms. That was bad. I got off the bus at 4:30am and started work at 5am.

I'm beginning to suspect I'm a magnet for these kinds of things.

The best example was the time in Baja Mexico when a hurricane struck on the second to last day of shooting. Houses were floating down the river. One of the actors caught a fish - while sitting on the toilet in his hotel room. Instead of a wrap party I found myself helping rescue ex-pat retirees from the floodwaters while drinking from a looted bottle of Courvoisier. Actually, that was pretty fun. One of the high points of my life.

I digress. I guess I'll make the best of the situation here. Maybe I'll visit a museum. Maybe I'll take a tour, especially since in my trips to Bangkok so far I've mostly seen the inside of a telecine room and the view out my hotel room window. There have been some taxi rides. But I hate taxis.

Maybe I'll misbehave. I've heard Bangkok offers ample opportunities in this regard. Doh! Did I just put that in writing? In reality, Bangkok is not, as I had been led to believe, a red light district of metropolitan scale. Also I've no need to go looking for trouble, it finds me without difficulty.

People talk about wanting to have adventures. Personally, I don't think that means what they think it means. An adventure is mostly a pain in the neck that makes for a good story after it's over.

Anyway, I'd better go to sleep just in case my flight isn't cancelled and I actually make it to work tomorrow.

Cultural adjustments can cause back pain.

For as long as I can remember I carried the smallest, thinnest wallet I could find. In the US, I carried a driver's license, debit card, AAA card and student ID. Maybe a credit card, maybe some cash, but not if I could avoid it. I like to keep things svelte. That doesn't really fly in Vietnam. I finally gave in to this fact after 8 months.

A singer/actress gave me a wallet as a gift a while back. It's nice, made from supple distressed Italian leather that even matches my cowboy boots. However, It is about 4 times the size (by volume) of my old wallet, so I've never used it. Until today. It turns out that it is perfectly suited to life here. I guess she really knew what I needed. She is very thoughtful. Here's why:

1. Monopoly money.

No matter how hard I try, I can't get over the feeling that Vietnamese currency is play money. It's because the denominations are so outrageous. In my wallet I have notes ranging from 500 to 500,000*. The banks have branded plastic shopping bags for carrying currency - apparently you go to the cashier and then to the bagger, just like a supermarket.

I first saw this at my Vietnamese Godfather's house.

It's a cash economy and I have to carry cash. Not only that, I have to carry small money (500-10,000), medium money (20,000, 50,000 and 100,000), and large money (200,000, 500,000 and good old $100).

The small money is needed for things like parking motorbikes, buying raincoats, and combating taxi drivers. I hate the small money, but I find I life is easier when I keep some on hand.

The medium money is pretty useful anywhere, but try to pay a street vendor for an 8,000 VND coffee with a 100,000 note and it might be hard for them to make change.

The large money, well it's a good idea to have it. I've learned the hard way that I should not walk out the door with less than 500,000 in my pocket.

The trouble is, under a number of circumstances, it is a good idea to conceal how much money you are carrying, whether it is a lot or little. With my old wallet I had a couple giant stacks of currency. And I had to fumble through them to get the right bills. I couldn't take the looks I got from street vendors on the occasions when I dropped one or two 500,000 notes on the ground.

Then there are those times when you just need large money.

Enter the new wallet - two sections for currency (small and medium) and a zippered pocket for the large money. It's wonderful.

2. Name cards

In the States I avoided business cards, or as they say here name cards - I'd take them when I had to, punch the info into my computer and put it in a drawer. I had cards of my own, but I only carried them if I expected to give one to someone. That doesn't really work here. I meet a lot of people. Almost every single person I meet gives me their name card. It's traditional. They offer with two hands, I receive with two hands. It's polite.

Now, I could do the data entry thing with my computer, and I do, but the fact is that I cannot pronounce Vietnamese names. Or remember them. Or type them into my computer. It is terrible. If I have the name card at least I have a cheat sheet.

So I have a large and rapidly expanding collection of name cards. I'm finding that there are not that many given names. It gives me hope that I may be able to pronounce people's names some day. On the other hand, I know half a dozen people with the same name, some men, some women. Having the name card helps me keep track of who is who, where I met them, what they do, and so on.

That is not quite as good as taking a picture with my phone, but I've found that to be a little awkward, especially with the waitresses who are constantly giving me their phone numbers. Why they do this, I don't know. It's not like my limited Vietnamese can possibly be understood over the phone. It's bad enough in person.

Which brings me to the next thing. Addresses. I often travel by taxi. I'm starting to get to know my way around the city, picking up some street names. It doesn't matter. I can barely pronounce the name of the street I live on. Never mind some other street.

It is much easier to give the taxi driver the business card for where I'm going than to try to explain. Besides it's not likely that he knows where he's going either. Sooner or later he is going to have to ask directions.

Addresses in Vietnam are incomprehensible, even to the most experienced taxi drivers. Take my address for instance. 46/10/4A Nguyen Cuu Van, W.17, Binh Thanh Dist. HCMC. The W.17 has a meaning, but no one can tell me what it is. Binh Thanh Dist. starts close to downtown (District 1) and extends eastward all the way to the boonies.

Nguyen Cuu Van could be anywhere. As things turns out, it is an alley-sized, but fairly major, corridor a couple kilometers east of downtown. Okay. I'm told the streets are narrow so planes can't land on them.

Most taxi drivers can find Nguyen Cuu Van. Some street names could be a different street in one of a couple districts. Some streets go all over town, running N/S in some areas, and running E/W in others. Fortunately there is only one Nguyen Cuu Van and it only goes N/S. Except for the branches.

46/10/4A means that when number 46 is on your left, you take a right onto an even smaller street, then take a left, then take a right on a street which is smaller still. All of these streets are named Nguyen Cuu Van, except that my neighbor, and every one to the east, technically live on Dien Bien Phu. Apparently the street name changes after you pass my house. You can tell because there is a street sign over the road. It would have been nice if someone had put some signage on the street corners too. Well there is a sign at the corner. It says Cham Chu, but I think that is a business of some kind.

Anyway, add to this the fact that house numbers do not necessarily ascend/descend sequentially and the house numbers on opposite sides of the street do not necessarily bear any relation to each other. I went to 6D Tu Xuong Street. 6D was on one side of the street and 133 was on the other. 6A was a block away. 6 was half a block away. 8 and 10 were in between 6 and 6A. Basically the only way to know where you are going is to have been there before. You can see the difficulty this presents to taxi drivers.

It's funny however, that they always seem to know the longest plausible route between two points. I'm not going to think about it. I have a large stack of business cards to sort through.

3. Driver's License

I have the Ho Chi Minh Driver's License at least that's whose picture is on it. cf. 1. Monopoly money.

4. Other cards

I'm starting to amass other cards. Frequent diner cards. A taxi card billed to a company I work for sometimes. VIP cards for various nightclubs and stores. A copy of my passport and visa. An emergency evacuation insurance card.

The only cards I don't really need to carry anymore are my driver's license, my AAA card, my student ID and my debit card. Go figure. Clearly it was past time to change wallets.

* Just for reference, 500 VND is worth about $.03, 500,000 VND is worth about $30, and Truc says she wants to marry me when I am worth about $5,000,000.

First Post

On the occasion of my return to Vietnam, I've decided to start a blog.

At present, I do most of my living and working in Vietnam. I've heard people talk about work/life balance. I might try it some time, but not now. I'm fortunate to love what I do and have found a way to do it. By turns humorous, sentimental, practical and altogether too serious, I've decided to write about my experiences.

Some of it will be lies, so don't believe everything you read -- it's probably an understatement.

The writing of Douglas Adams is one of the great inspirations of my life so, I'm going to call this a Guide. Follow along at your own risk. Here goes.

Interests will include, anecdotes, inspirations, tools, cultural curiosities, cooking, apple, musings on the oft misunderstood meaning of the word adventure, advertising, filmmaking and, naturally, practical cinematography.

I'll start with some things I've written along my journey thus far.