Timing is Everything

I have a confession to make. I don’t really like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, I enjoyed the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp version more, other than those horrible songs.

I know. Crazy, right?

Before you pull out the tar and feathers, hear me out. I didn’t grow up with the Gene Wilder movie. In the days of VCRs and lousy cable television, that was one movie my family never got around to watching. So it wasn’t until AFTER watching the Johnny Depp version and my wife telling me how it paled in comparison to the Gene Wilder version that I finally watched it.

Let me just say that I was underwhelmed. In fact, I wasn’t even close to being whelmed. From “Cheer up Charlie” to the obvious sound-stage look to the factory, it just didn’t do anything for me. And as creepy as Johnny Depp was, Gene Wilder was much stranger/creepier to me.

I mean, look at this guy:

That part was in the movie, right? My point is that the movie was just strange and didn’t do anything for me on an emotional level. But if nothing else, it’s responsible for the Condescending Wonka meme, which is actually quite enjoyable.

I might be alone in my Wonka feelings, but how about this? You go up to a couple of your friends who are laughing about something. They tell you why, and maybe you give a courtesy laugh because it’s really not funny. But to them it’s hilarious. And one of them says something along the lines of “guess you had to be there.”

The point is that just like events in our lives, the stories we consume are often rooted to the time we watched/read/listened. Is Alf a good show? Probably not. But I grew up with it, and even if it doesn’t hold up, you can bet I still have fond memories of it.

I’m 34 years old. I’m married and have kids. I even have a 401k, as ridiculous as that may be. If I picked up Jack Kerouac’s On The Road for the first time today, I might think it was interesting, but I guarantee it wouldn’t connect with me the way it did when I was 21. It’s one of my favorite books not only because of what’s inside it, but also because the first time I read it I felt like Sal Paradise was talking to me. It made me want to take on the open road. And I did.

The same goes for something like Harry Potter. While it definitely holds up, there was just something special about reading those as they came out. I will always remember the anticipation and excitement of picking up a copy of Deathly Hallows at midnight and reading if straight through. My 8 year old son is reading the Harry Potter series right now, and although he’s loving it, I don’t think he’ll have quite the visceral connection to it that I do. But it’s all right. He’s going to have his own Harry Potter. He’s going to listen to music that makes me do this:

And that okay. That’s just how life works. I just hope my kids find books and movies and music that truly speak to them, so that when they’re ancient like me they can look back fondly and draw from those experiences. Because the right stories at the right time can change your life.


Stories and Treks

My older brother and I shared a room growing up, and for many years we had this poster of the USS Enterprise hanging on our wall.

Neither of us were huge Trekkies, (or Trekkers) although I seem to remember my brother watching a fair share of TNG as he got older. But before that, we were little boys and it was a cool spaceship with a ton of really neat detail. That’s all that really mattered. After watching a few of the Star Trek films and finding out who Kirk and Spock and the rest of the crew were, I found even more enjoyment staring at the poster. Not only that, I was inspired by it.

And that’s what great stories and characters can do. That’s why there are millions of Trekkies and Star Wars and Batman fans. Millions of Dr. Who and Firefly and Sherlock fans. It’s because these mythologies have characters that we love and hate, characters we’re able to lose ourselves and our normal lives in, characters that change our lives.

And that’s why we see these characters popping up again and again. That’s why there have been 500 James Bond films. It’s why we’re getting a new Superman movie next month. These characters resonate.

So think about it as you’re crafting your story and characters. Are your characters worth caring about? Would anyone cry if they died? Does it break your heart when something horrible happens to them? Are you elated and inspired when they overcome their hardships and obstacles?

If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, chances are your characters aren’t quite where they need to be. I don’t have a silver bullet answer for what to do or how to fix them if they’re falling short. But the best characters not only have pieces of us in them, they allow us to project our hopes and dreams and fears onto them. It’s not easy to create a Katniss Everdeen or James Tiberius Kirk or Luke Skywalker, but it’s possible.

This past weekend I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, (which was fantastic) and got this cool Star Trek poster by Mark Englert. (it even glows in the dark)

As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to do with it. My two boys share a bedroom, and I hung it where they both can see if from their beds, next to the Batman and Star Wars pictures. They’re a little young for Star Trek, but they’re not too young to be inspired. And as they read Harry Potter and watch The Avengers I want them to have favorite characters and go through the love and hurt and joy and pain those characters go through.

If you ask me, that’s why we read and watch stories.

And why we tell them too.

Happy New(ish) Year!

2013 already? Almost February already? Holy cow. Well, happy new year everyone! I’m sorry for this being my first appearance here in a while. Work and writing and life have been pretty busy lately. We have about seven weeks to finish up the movie Epic, which is what I’m currently working on. I’m really excited about it, and you can check out the trailer here.

As far as writing is concerned, I’m just finishing up a pretty major revision on my MG fantasy book. It feels like I’ve been revising this book forever and I’m pretty sick of the process, but I have to admit it keeps getting better. So I’m definitely glad I did it, it just wasn’t tons of fun. But that’s the life, right? So hopefully this will be the version my agent feels is ready to go out into the world. Fingers crossed!

At the beginning of the year, you know, exactly four weeks ago, I did a quick check to see how I did on my 2012 revisions. Overall I did all right. Still didn’t hit some things I really wanted to, but if felt like I put up a pretty good fight.

So I’m sitting at the (almost) beginning of another year, and I’m trying to come up with new goals for this year. I don’t know if it’s a copout or not, but I’m thinking about just keeping the goals I didn’t hit from last year.

Honestly, right now I’m pretty happy with life. I have an amazing family, great job, and I’m able to write and do side projects. There’s always room for growth and progress, and I want to keep striving for those. But right now I really just want to enjoy life, enjoy each day for what it is. I want to enjoy the little moments and not always be hoping and wishing and waiting for things.

Because hey, I’m alive for another day, and that’s pretty cool. All the best to you and yours this coming year!

My Stupid Book

Writing a book is a little bit like having a child.

I can’t really comment on whether or not it’s like actually giving birth, since I’m not equipped to make that comparison. And as hard as writing a book is, after watching my wife go through four pregnancies and c-sections, I’d say writing a book is, in fact, very tame. (p.s. My wife is amazing)

But, being a father, I think I’m qualified to make the case of books as children. You spend hours agonizing over decisions and choices and tiny little things that might have huge repercussions. You stay up late with them, you clean up their messes, you strive to make them the best they can be.

Sometimes they reward you for it and you experience emotional highs like never before.

Sometimes they throw up on you at two in the morning.

But at the end of the day, they’re your creation, and you love them.

Your parents and family and friends will adore them too. They’ll see past whatever flaws they might have and praise the good. At least they should. You need to have that support system, both as a parent and an author. But then things get trickier, because at some point, you send them out into the world, hoping that you’ve prepared them as well as you can for what’s to come.

And here’s the hard part. Your kids and your book are going to be judged.

They’re going to be judged on how well they perform, how well they can exist in the outside world, and so on and so forth. And those judgements are going to be a reflection of you, of your skills, of your abilities, of how well you did your job.

I’ve heard authors say they never read reviews. While it might be noble to refrain from reading them, it’s not really for me. When a movie I’ve worked on comes out, I religiously check Rotten Tomatoes to find out what people think. I don’t read all the reviews, but enough to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t. The same with my book.

Criticism is good, to a certain degree. Not only does it keep you humble and grounded, it can help reveal problems with what you’ve created that can be avoided in the future. No one has ever written a perfect book, or raised a perfect child, and having the flaws pointed out can help in your next endeavor.

When my book came out, the reviews were generally pretty good. Like I said, family and friends were very supportive. And people I didn’t even know seemed to respond well to it also.

Then one day, I got my first one star review on Goodreads. Since it’s short, I’ll quote it here:

“Probably the stupidest book I have ever read. Just stupid.”

I went through a lot of different emotions when I got that review. I was mad, annoyed, frustrated, hurt, and many other adjectives. I considered responding to the review, then figured it would be a bad idea. After I’d cooled off a bit, I decided to just write a short note saying something along the lines of “Thanks for reading. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” But when I clicked to make a comment, Goodreads showed this warning:

“Goodreads has found that it is not in an author’s best interest to engage with someone over a negative review. Please think twice before commenting on this review.”

Fair enough. I decided to simply hit the “like” button on the review and leave it at that.

As time has passed and I’ve thought about it more, I’m glad I didn’t say anything to the reviewer. I’m also glad I “liked” the review. For those reasons listed above, I’m actually thankful for the criticism. Not only does it compel me to work harder on my next book, it serves as a reminder that not everyone is going to love my work, no matter how good I think it is. And really, that’s fine. It’s just a book, and I’m glad the person took the time to read it.

That’s all we as authors and parents can really ask for. Give our creations a chance. Let them show you what they can do. Hopefully you’ll find something of redeeming value in them. If not, we’ll simply move on. No harm, no foul.

But fair warning:  If you ever call my kid stupid I might punch you in the face 🙂

Catching Up

Hey folks! I know it’s been a while since my last post. The last month has been a pretty crazy one for me. My family had been living in Southern California for the last 5 1/2 years, and for the most part, we loved it. What we didn’t love was the lack of job security. So when a really good job offer from Blue Sky Studios (They do the Ice Age movies) came in, we jumped at it. The only problem? It was literally on the other side of the country in Greenwich, CT, 2802 miles away. But it was a great opportunity, so we rented a truck, piled all our junk in it, and hit the road. (I’m purposefully glossing over the packing process, which was awful.)

I’ve driven cross-country a few times, and loved it. But I’d never done it with four kids under the age of seven. Thank goodness for dvd players and Disney. Speaking of which, on one of our last California days, we hit up Disneyland one last time and grabbed a plush Perry the Platypus, and decided he was going to be our traveling buddy.

I highly recommend driving across this amazing country. There are a million things to see, and even things like the open expanses of Kansas can be breathtaking. But again, maybe don’t do it with little kids and a moving truck. (All said and done, the kids did great, though.)

After five long days on the road, we finally pulled into our new home in Connecticut. It was hot and humid, trees blocked the horizon in every direction, and there were spiders everywhere. I know I wasn’t alone when I thought we should just turn around and head back.

But one word that kept coming up when we told our friends and family about the move, was “adventure.” “This is going to be such a fun adventure” they’d tell us. And you know what? They were right. Getting lost and adjusting to new things and leaving our comfort zones and seeing my kids’ faces when they saw fireflies for the first time. This is an adventure. And what’s life for if not to have adventures?

A great American hero, Neil Armstrong, passed away this last weekend. As I was reading about his life, one quote of his really stuck out to me. He said, “I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine.” Great words to live by, and ones I hope I can follow. I don’t want to miss out on adventures because I’ve become complacent, even if it means leaving behind everything I know. The clock is ticking, and so are our hearts. Let the adventure begin!

OLDSOUL book trailer outtake

Last night I shot the footage for my book trailer. I think it’s going to turn out pretty cool. It won’t be ready for about a month though, so here’s a brief outtake. For some reason I sound like Christian Bale’s Batman. Oh, and he was about to say, “Can I get a Mtn Dew?” at the end. That’s his motivation.

End of Year Check-In

The best thing I did this year (even though my wife did most of the work)

Another year is coming to an end. Does anybody else feel like time is just flying by? I can remember being a teenager and the months dragged on and on. Now it seems like I never have enough time and am getting way older by the second. I guess that’s just how it goes. Last January I made some resolutions for the year, and I figured I should list them again and see how I did. Because what’s the point of having goals if you don’t follow through, right? Here we go.

1. Publish my book. This one didn’t quite happen, but in about four months it will. My first book OLDSOUL is coming out April 24th, and I couldn’t be more excited.

2. Finish my next book. This turned out a bit different than I had planned. I got about 5000 words into the new book, but then I signed on with Kathleen Ortiz, and started on the new new project. I’m halfway through it, so it’s a decent start.

3. Finish my short film and get it into festivals. This has been a goal for the last few years, and I’m happy to report I finally got it done. It played in a few festivals, even winning a some awards. It’s playing one more festival next year, then I’ll be posting it online. You can see a clip here.

4. Blog at least twice a month. I’ve done pretty well with this. Hopefully most of it is worth reading 🙂

5. Create something every week. This was a pretty nebulous goal. I know I wrote every week, so I guess I can say I got this. But next year I need to come up with better, more measurable goals.

6. Read tons. My goal for the year was 100 books. I just finished my 100th book, Howl’s Moving Castle, yesterday. (I love the movie, and the books was quite good, though rather different) Thanks to Goodreads.com I kept track of them and even have a handy dandy widget:

2011 Reading Challenge

2011 Reading Challenge
Dan has completed his goal of reading 100 books in 2011!

7. Draw and write at least three times a week. Like I said, I know I wrote every week. The drawing was a bit more sporadic. Some weeks I drew every day and some weeks not at all. This might be a goal I carry over to next year.

8. Make more comics. Unfortunately, this one was a failure. I made one comic, which is what I’d made the year before. I’ve got to make at least two next year.

9. Get a job that allows me more time with my family. This is still my most important goal, and it didn’t happen this year. I’m not really sure how it’s going to happen, but I’m hoping for a few things in the next few months that might make a difference.

Well, that’s it. Not too bad I guess. Still plenty of room for improvement, but it feels like I’m making progress. And no matter what, I’ve got my health and my amazing family, and I don’t really need much more than that. I hope you all had a great 2011, and hope for an even better 2012!

Comic-Con 2011

The annual “celebration of the popular arts” known as the San Diego Comic-Con was this past week, and I was able to go again this year. Unfortunately, because of work I was only able to make it one night, but it was still awesome. This year I went with my brother-in-law Ryan and my oldest son London. We dressed him up as Aang, from the amazing animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and he was a big hit with the crowd. As always, the main convention hall was filled to the brim with people, both in costume and not. This video Ryan shot will give you an idea of what it’s like:

It was hard to tell who was more excited about some of the displays, Ryan or London. London wanted pictures of pretty much every Lego thing, of which there were plenty, and Ryan was stoked to see all the Star Wars and different geek things there.

When we first got there, we made a quick round of the convention hall, taking in as much as we could. We saw tons of cool displays, and even saw the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. We had to sneak a picture of him though, since I really couldn’t justify spending $40 for a Poloroid(!) with him. Dude is still incredibly ripped though. I was impressed. I didn’t get to meet as many creators as last year, but I was still able to meet a few. First I met Robert Kirkman, writer of Invincible (which I love) and The Walking Dead, among other things. He was super nice. Then I met Ryan Ottley, who is the artist on Invincible and is also from Utah. He was awesome, and might even be related to Ryan’s wife. We also got to meet Derek Hunter, a rad comic writer/artist who knows a bunch of folks I went to high school with. I bought this Invincible print and Robert and Ryan were both nice enough to sign it for me.


The other creator I was able to meet was Stan Sakai, writer and artist of Usagi Yojimbo. If you were ever a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fan, you probably know who the samurai rabbit is. But you might not have known that both TMNT and Usagi Yojimbo started out as comic books. Anyway, Mr. Sakai has been doing this for years. I think he’s up to about volume 25 now.  I’ve been meaning to start reading the Usagi Yojimbo comics, so this was a perfect chance to buy the first volume. Mr. Sakai and his wife were both incredibly nice and I can’t wait to start reading. I also got to see Jim Lee, one of the best comic book artists ever, but I wasn’t able to meet him. Maybe next year.


I mentioned London’s love for Legos, so when we got to the Lego booth and there was a huge pile of yellow Legos for the kids to play in, he was in heaven. Something pretty cool happened while we were there too. A guy named Brian Tong, who works for a technology website called CNET.com, approached us and asked if London could be in a video he was making for their site. He had London climb into one of the huge swag bags they give us, then carried him around. It was a short video and London was kinda nervous about it all, but it was fun to be a part of. You can watch the whole video here. London’s part is at about minute 2:45. I also taped it though, so if you just want to see that it’s below.

After a few hours of wandering around we were all pretty tuckered out, so we headed home. Overall it was an awesome experience, and I can’t wait to do it again. One of the best parts is I didn’t leave the camera on top of our car like last year 🙂 Below are a few more pics of the displays and such. Can’t wait for next year. Hopefully you can make it too!


Optimus Prime, us as action figures, big hairy guy.


Perry the Platybus! Not sure…, and another Optimus Prime


Batman, Dark Knight costumes, and Tron

New Arthur Christmas teaser

The movie I’m currently working on, titled Arthur Christmas, just came out with a new teaser trailer. Once again, it doesn’t show anything from the actual film, but gives you a fun look at the main character. The teaser was shown before Harry Potter 7.2 over the weekend, so about five kajillion people saw it. Hopefully at least some will want to go see it when it arrives this Thanksgiving 🙂

My Animated Short Film

Wow, I definitely didn’t plan on it being so long between my last post and now. Life just gets busy I guess. The exciting news I mentioned in that post was that my animated short film was accepted into the Palm Springs International ShortFest. Out of about 3000 entries, mine was one of about 300 accepted. Needless to say I was pretty excited. My short was also accepted into the California International Shorts Festival, where it won the Honorable Mention. Unfortunately, there was an issue with it playing at that fest before the Palm Springs fest, so it wasn’t able to be screened. However, they were very kind in allowing me to keep the award.

The Palm Springs fest actually took place last week, and was a really cool experience. It was part of the On The Job program, which focused on job-related films. It was a wildly varied program though, from a documentary about a young charcoal-selling boy to a story about Italian carnival workers, to a birthday party clown who can’t cry. All the films were really good, and it was cool to be a part of the program. It was also very cool to see my film in a theater. It’s something I hoped would happen about 4 years ago when I started it, and it felt great to realize that goal. I’m still submitting to festivals, so hopefully more will be on the horizon. But for now I’m just thrilled it had the chance to play in Palm Springs. Below are a few images related to the fest, and above is a small clip of the film. At some point I’ll post the whole thing, but that won’t be for a while because of festival restrictions. I have a facebook page for the film, as well as its own site, www.thestarshepherd.com Thanks for checking it out!

Animation = Happiness

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to do what I do for a living. The long hours and endless notes can be draining at times. But at the end of the day, I still get to help create something that will hopefully be enjoyed by millions of people. It really is a pretty cool job. Although what I do for work is all on the computer, what drew me to animation in the first place was the ability to draw something and make it come alive. I can still remember the first time I pressed play and saw the things I’d drawn start moving. I’ll never forget that feeling.

My sons love to draw. A few months ago I did a flipbook of a bouncing ball to show them how animation works. My oldest boy , who’s five, copied it and made his own little version. I scanned them in and made a video so he could see his drawings in motion. He loved it. Fast forward to this past weekend. Out of the blue he brought me a stack of drawings and asked me to put them on the computer. When I did, I was amazed at what he came up with:

Pretty great for a five year old. Heck, my first animations at age 21 weren’t much more complex than this. I’m thrilled and couldn’t be more proud of him. But as much as I love his animation, what makes me the happiest is his reaction to seeing his work in motion.

His smile is pure joy, and I can’t help but smile along with him every time I watch this video. This is what it’s all about. Animation is a special medium. It can tell stories as dark or funny or beautiful as any other storytelling medium, but there’s just something incredible about it. Among other things, it’s the ability to create something entirely out of your head, and give life to it. I don’t know if my son will pursue animation as a career. It’s okay if he doesn’t. But I’m so glad I was able to be there for the moment he saw his drawings come to life.

Script Frenzy Fail (Again)

One of these years, just you wait, I’m going to succeed at Script Frenzy. I didn’t even have to write the whole script this time, just half of it. Alas, life has a way of making things difficult. But it wasn’t a complete failure. I started on page 45 and am now up to 74. I’m shooting for around 90 pages, and I have a pretty good outline for the remaining scenes. (Did you know that one page of a script is roughly equal to one minute of film time? It’s a handy thing to know in order to gauge how long your movie will be) So really I’m not in too bad of shape. I just need to finish the darn thing. Once I do, and have gone through a few revisions, I’ll post some pages here.

Script Frenzy 2011!

April is the best month for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that my wife and I both have our birthdays. But besides that, April is also Script Frenzy month. What is Script Frenzy you ask? I’ll let them do the talking.

“Script Frenzy is an international writing event in which participants take on the challenge of writing 100 pages of scripted material in the month of April. As part of a donation-funded nonprofit, Script Frenzy charges no fee to participate; there are also no valuable prizes awarded or “best” scripts singled out. Every writer who completes the goal of 100 pages is victorious and awe-inspiring and will receive a handsome Script Frenzy Winner’s Certificate and web icon proclaiming this fact.

Even those who fall short of the word goal will be applauded for making a heroic attempt. Really, you have nothing to lose—except that nagging feeling that there’s a script inside you that may never get out.”

Last year I failed miserably at this. I just couldn’t find the time. But this year will be different! And I’m kind of cheating, because I’d already started the script. But the goal is to have it done by the end of the month. I’ve realized for me the best way to write is just to get it done. Finish it. Don’t noodle around and try to make it perfect. It’s not going to be perfect after 5 drafts, so why try to make it perfect the first time? Get it done, then go back and revise. This might not work for anyone else, but it’s what I’m going to try to do. Best of luck to anyone who goes for this. Now go write!

p.s. You don’t need to buy any fancy screenwriting software in order to do this. I’m going to be using Scripped, which is a free online screenwriting tool.

Here’s more info on Script Frenzy.
SF Website
SF Twitter
SF Facebook

Getting Serious

I had my last day at Disney a few weeks back. It was a little bit sad. I loved my time there. Working on Tangled was one of the best experiences I’ve had. Now I’m at Sony, working on a movie called Arthur Christmas. It should turn out to be a pretty good movie, and from what I’ve seen will look awesome. But it comes at a cost. Namely, I basically only get to see my family on the weekends. I’m incredibly blessed to have a job, especially doing something that I love. But after almost 5 years in this industry, the novelty is wearing off, and reality is sinking in. Seeing my name on the big screen a few times has been awesome, and I’ve made some incredible friendships that I’m very grateful for. But I want to see my kids grow up. More than I want to work on a Batman movie or work at Pixar, I want to be home at a reasonable hour and eat dinner with my family. So it’s time to make some changes.

I wrote a book and have been polishing it for about a year. I’ve sent out a few query letters which were rejected, but I haven’t really put my all into it. So starting this week, I’m going on a query letter blitz. At least five query letters a week for the foreseeable future. I’ll either eventually run out of places to query or somebody will give me an offer. If nobody bites, I’ll go the self-publishing route. I’m also working on a new novel that I’m hoping to finish the first draft of in the next 6 months. Now, I’m not delusional enough to think I’m going to have the success of a JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. So I’m also looking into going back to school and getting an MFA or MBA. I’m planning on taking the GRE next month and going from there. I don’t know what’s in store for me. Maybe it’s teaching, maybe it’s something completely unrelated to the arts. As long as it pays the bills and allows me time with my kids while they still want to be around me, I’m open to it. All I know is that it’s time I got serious about what’s really important to me in this life. And it’s not about seeing my name in lights.

New Demo Reel

I’m going to be done at Disney next month, soI figured I should put together a new demo reel and get it out there. A demo reel is the visual effects/animation equivalent of an artist’s portfolio, and these are all shots I did lighting and some compositing for. Since I had a bunch of new stuff from Tangled I scrapped my old reel and started over. Let me know what you think. PS if you haven’t seen Tangled, there might be some spoilery bits.