Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Austin from Austin

Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist) sums up for me how I can appreciate derivative works and remixes and mash-ups while still finding very little to like in fanfic:

In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.


Monday, October 15, 2012

My buddy Burtt

Ben Burtt is one of my heroes. Apart from popularizing the Wilhelm Scream, he did sound design for all of the Star Wars films. He gave us Artoo's voice, Vader's breathing, the footsteps of AT-ATs. By embedding Lucas's fantastic, alien visuals in an organic bed of sound, he made the Star Wars universe feel real in a way no other fantasy world ever had. R2-D2 didn't just beep and bloop; he spoke, and his fans whirred, and his servos whined when the sands of Tatooine got into them. Ben Burtt gave Artoo life.

I wanted, in my own fumbling way, to honor Burtt in my Empire Uncut clip, so I did all of my own sound recording — no downloaded clips, no computer-generated sounds (though I did edit them electronically). Kat looped her own dialogue for Admiral Piett, since her face is visible on-screen, but everything else was me:

  • Vader's voice was my voice, slowed incrementally and filtered a bit.
  • Threepio's voice was my voice speeded up slightly. (Threepio was one of the first impressions I ever tried to do, when I was wee. "Artoo Detoo, you found a cigarette!")
  • Boba Fett had my voice as well, processed to sound like it was coming through a speaker.
  • The Executor's bridge hum was the whirring of my iMac.
  • Vader's breathing was me breathing through a snorkel, trimmed and spliced to match the timing of Vader's actual breathing.
  • The Star Destroyer's blasters started life as water in a steel bowl, struck by a spoon, with a lot of layering and flanging and whatnot. (Probably my least successful SF/X. I had high hopes. Ah well.)
  • The explosions were layered "bssh" mouth noises.
  • In the shot between Dengar and IG-88, there's a mechanical clattering in the right channel that I took to be IG-88's mechanisms. I replicated them with mouth noises.
  • I added a couple of subtle bloops for IG-88's "voice", which were really reversed kazoo noises put through a flanger.
  • When the Falcon is hit, the crash you hear is a slowed-down sample of some art supplies and rolls of tape pushed onto the floor.

It took hours of nudging and tweaking to get things sounding more or less right, and I'm sure I could have spent hours more. My first mix was overwhelmingly noisy; I had to dial back all of the background noises to 12% or 20% to make the ambience feel more or less natural. To make Piett's off-screen voice come out of the left channel, I had to export the audio to GarageBand and tweak it there, because iMovie doesn't handle channels (what, really?!?). But I'm very proud of the end result; listening to my clip with headphones will enhance the experience, not detract from it.

I spent the night before sound editing editing the video tracks, which went pretty smoothly — except for the green screen compositing. For the other five shots, it became clear quickly which take I wanted to use, and iMovie's clip editor made it easy to fine-tune the start and end of each clip. I just measured the frame count of each shot in the original, and made sure my shots had the same number of frames (although I extended the circular wipe a smidge, because it looked too fast otherwise). I have a continuity mismatch or two around Vader's movements, but (don't tell anyone) one of them's there in the original, too.

The green screen cockpit, though, was a nightmare. I had "hot spots" of light on the screen, which were washing out the green, and enough green on my actors to create artifacting on their heads. If I adjusted the color balance in iMovie to correct the problems, my asteroid field began to wash out, and eventually vanished altogether. Even worse, the camera I was using didn't have an exposure lock, so when everyone leaned out of frame the exposure compensated, changing all the values. The desaturated, blurry, noisy cockpit scene I have in the final cut — it looks like the Falcon is driving slowly through a blizzard — was the best I could achieve after about three hours of tweaking.

But that is part of the fun, isn't it? Making the best of the shots you have, no matter how meager, and calling the result good. After three nights of editing, I was ready to upload.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"The possibility of successfully filming a scene with these resources is approximately 3,720 to one!"

On Sunday, I whipped up a batch of ice-cold bantha milk, and my cast and crew got down to the business of making movie magic. We had a hoot and a half — maybe three quarters!

A communications snafu waylaid my Boba Fett (Trish), so we shot the cockpit scene first. I'd had a lot of fun assembling found objects to make something that would read on-screen like a cockpit — a soldering iron, some Christmas lights, a big military decade box, a couple of plastic pen carriers, and (as a nod to the Satellite of Love) a couple of spray paint caps. We wrapped my C-3PO (Herbert) in aluminum foil, dressed my Leia (Kat) and Han (Kendra) in their color-coded jackets, and convinced Rosie to lie on the floor and shake the Wookiee. ("I always knew my film debut would be on my back," she said.) They all crammed themselves into the cockpit and did their best Star Trek lean as the Falcon "was hit by lasers" and "avoided asteroids."

(Those two hot spots of light on the green screen will come back to bedevil me during editing. Live and learn.)

Boba had arrived by the time I got my shot, so we all trooped downstairs to the "Super Star Destroyer bridge" I'd turned my living room into, and my long-suffering actors suited up. Vader (Rosie) wore a black zentai hood and sunglasses that made her nearly blind; Dengar (Yossi) strapped a baking pan to his chest and stood on a rickety stool; the Imperial Trooper (Will) wore a bowl on his head. Boba Fett (Trish) and Admiral Piett (Kat) had less onerous costumes — though Boba did get cardboard pieces duct taped to her chest — and Herbert played puppeteer for IG-88.

Everyone did a bang-up job. Vader hit her mark every time, despite being unable to see. IG-88's head turned just like it was supposed to. Boba Fett slouched to make Vader look taller. Dengar really stepped up — literally, since he had to stand on a stool to make it look like he and IG-88 were looking down from a raised walkway. (It's a shame that only his midriff appears in the scene, since his costume was surprisingly successful.) Imperial Trooper Will, apart from having the perfect slightly confused military-stern expression of an Imperial Trooper, offered deep insights into Star Wars character motivations. Admiral Piett held Vader's train as IG-88 presided over her marriage to Boba Fett:


I spent most of the shoot standing on my coffee table, directing people and framing up shots in the viewscreen of Kat's little camera. (My camera doesn't shoot HD video.) I learned I'm better at building things to go in front of the camera than I am at standing behind it — I don't worry about foam core and duralar getting impatient with me. But I got all four of my shots, and even though nobody drank the bantha milk the peanut gallery seemed duly impressed:

Monday, October 8, 2012

When theory meets practice, practice wins

Shooting is when theory collides with practice. I can spend hours and weeks getting all the little details right with my models and my costume, but when I've got a limited time window, and a limited supply of Silly String, to get my three shots, all of my clever plans run up against the cold, hard wall of physics. For miniature photography, I had fixed lighting options, a limited depth of field, support rods that bobbled around more than I expected, and support structures that didn't quite get out of the shot the way I expected them to.

But, thanks to my technical support crew (Kendra and my friend Kat), I got my three shots.

The first was relatively simple: the Star Destroyer moves ominously toward the camera, chasing the Falcon. I opted to hold the two ships steady and move the camera, which required a makeshift dolly:

Three Matchbox trucks did the job, though they refused to go perfectly straight, and the Falcon never was in focus. But it's a one-second shot that may not even make the final cut.

Shot two was the background for the composite cockpit shot. It was my job to make the cockpit "shake" at the right moment, by pivoting it on a clothespin stuck into half a music stand. Kendra slid the asteroids closer to the cockpit, to give the illusion of flying through space, while Kat fired Silly String "lasers" across the bow. The asteroids bobbled all over the place, especially when the Silly String hit the support rods, and weren't in focus anyway. But I got the shot. (God only knows what it will look like when it's composited with the green screen.)

For the "pursuit" shot, in which the Star Destroyer chases the Mini-llennium Falcon for about five seconds, I had Kendra rotate the office chair the Star Destroyer was mounted to, to simulate linear motion with rotational motion, while I manipulated the Falcon at the end of a support rod. Kat lay on her back with a can of Silly String hidden by a fold of backdrop fabric and fired "laser blasts" at the Falcon. The three napkin asteroids held still in the foreground.

(That's Kat standing in for me for the production still.) We shot takes until the Silly String ran out, Kendra slowly and smoothly swivelling the chair while I puppeteered the eensy-weensy Falcon.

A couple of pre-production tasks remained before I could turn my mind to principal photography. I did some weathering on Boba Fett's chest armor, to make it match the helmet:

That's a bit of metallic silver paint pen, a bit of Sharpie. Then I finally sorted out IG-88's sensor lights, duct-taping the inside of his dome for opacity and rigging up a little duct tape loop to hold the bike light:

I spent Saturday evening setting up the Millennium Falcon cockpit set in my bedroom alcove and prepping my living room for the Star Destroyer shots. Then a horde of actors descended on my house on Sunday...about which there will be more anon.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Predator and spray

Spray painting on Wednesday was an adventure. Outside there was a steady drizzle, which ordinarily would have forced a delay. But I was out of time — filming is on Sunday, so it was Wednesday or nothing. The solution: a spray booth, made from a cardboard box:

My office was heady with the fumes of spray paint, and I had to scrub the floor with turpentine after, but it worked well enough...except that the too-clever trigger-shaped nozzle of the black spray paint was broken right out of the box. I jury-rigged another nozzle, but if I didn't depress it juuust right paint dribbled out over my fingers, or (not preferred) squirted out backwards towards my face. This is what the can looked like afterward:

I had to bathe in turpentine later, but it got the job done. Here're Boba Fett's rocket and the "invisible" support rods for the miniatures, against the starry backdrop:

And here are Boba Fett's helmet and armor, after a couple of coats of Rust-oleum's moss green:

To detail the helmet, I bought a pack of acrylic paints (black, white, and the primaries) at Blick, then remembered that I hadn't mixed acrylic paint in about twenty years. But my mom (the artist) gave me some tips, and late Thursday night I ripped up some sponges and set to work. To produce crisp edges with the notoriously squoogy technique of sponge painting, I used a paper stencil for the visor:

Two hours later, here's the final helmet (sans rangefinder):

Weathering, it turns out, is a lot of fun. Through all the painting, I left the Duralar's protective film on the T-shaped viewport, and when I peeled it off I was pleased to see it had worked beautifully to protect the transparency.

The emblem on the chest plate is a duplicate of the one from the film, meaningless at the time but subsequently retconned to be the crest of Jaster Mereel, a Mandalorian commander. Mine was daubed on with bamboo skewers.

I just finished weathering the chest plates, gluing the rangefinder, and working the kinks out of IG-88's head dome illumination, which means I am completely finished with props and costumes. Earlier tonight was miniature photography (more on which later). Tomorrow I'll set up the Falcon's cockpit and turn my living room into a sound stage. Sunday will be principal photography. Then (up to) four days for editing, S/FX, and delivery!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fine Fettle

It's funny — as this thing progresses, I'm spending more time worrying about accuracy. IG-88 looks like a gray 2-liter bottle with eyes, but Boba Fett's helmet is scaled to the nearest millimeter. I'm gaining confidence in my skills, I suppose, and the internet offers up a heck of a lot more detail on Boba Fett's armor than IG-88, so it's easier to set my sights higher. But I hope I haven't lost sight of the amateur charm of the project.

...On second thought, I'm pretty sure there will be enough goofiness on-screen to carry me through. I'm using Silly String instead of lasers, after all. Being amateur enough is probably not my primary concern.

Anyway. For Boba Fett's helmet, I'm wrapping sheets of styrene around an old bicycle helmet. Here are some of those aforementioned templates being traced onto the styrene:

The trapezoidal wedge of graph paper is there as a spacer — the bike helmet tapers in the back in a way the real helmet doesn't, so the wrap-around panels need to be extended.

Here's the assembled helmet, pre-painting. That milky T is what's left of the translucent protective sheet that styrene comes covered by. I peeled most of it off, but left it in place over the visor, so it'll remain transparent when I paint the helmet. Clever!

Looks a bit like Jango, actually.

The rangefinder is foam core, and the circular "hinge" it rises from is the end cap of a poster tube (IG-88's left arm, actually). Duct tape covers up the holes in the helmet, and holds gray acetate in place against the visor so it won't be totally see-through. Note the screen-accurate dent in the forehead.

Internet templates also provided me with the chest armor, here portrayed by corrugated cardboard. (Fett only appears from the chest up, so I don't need to worry about the rest of it.) Once they're painted, I'll attach them to a light blue turtleneck I found for $2 at a thrift store.

Finally, his rocket will slide through loops in my hiking backpack and be seen poking up over his shoulder. I made mine out of a few cups, a mop handle, some leftover posterboard, and the panacea that comes on a roll, duct tape:

If weather permits, I'll put a couple of coats of spray paint on tomorrow afternoon, then detail the helmet with sponged-on acrylics when the spray paint is dry.

In the last few days, I've also: spent some time figuring out how iMovie's voice over features work, tested my microphone with said features, greebled my Star Destroyer model so it doesn't look quite so clean, and bought black starfield fabric for miniature photography.

Boba Fett was the last big build before principal photography on Sunday. Once he's all painted and pretty, I'll still need to futz with the lights in IG-88's dome and make a couple of asteroids out of napkins and glue, but I'm very nearly ready to take off my modelmaker / costumer hat and put on my director hat. Almost time to start figuring out lights and camera angles!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's not easy being green screened

My Empire Uncut chunk includes a scene in the Millennium Falcon cockpit, with asteroids and laser blasts moving past outside the windows. If it's worth doing, it's worth overcomplicating, I say, so I decided to recreate it in a composite shot, using a green screen and a cockpit miniature.

I have an alcove in my bedroom that's just about the right size for the cockpit, so all I need to do is turn the end of it green. Fluorescent posterboard from CVS, taped together and supported with foam core struts, makes a dandy green screen:

Or possibly a hang glider. Unless I've reinvented baseball.

Then I sketched out the cockpit window struts on graph paper, pinned it to foam core, and began cutting out window panels:

Once I had my cockpit miniature, I set it up with my camera and a black background and shot a few seconds of footage to test the concept:

Finally, I shot the back of my head against the green screen, and combined the footage in iMovie:

And there I am in the cockpit, with Tom Servo (actual height: 4") saying hi from outside! For the scene itself, I'm going to have to pay more attention to relative scale and lining up the footage — my head's too big, and in the wrong place. But for a ten-minute test shot, I'm pretty pleased with how well it worked.

That was all last night. This afternoon I took another trip to Blick to get materials for the Boba Fett costume, which is already coming together. His dented helmet is staring at me from the coffee table, waiting for the weather to brighten up so I can give it a coat of paint.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oh, Sith

Initially, I was planning to put a diving mask over a black zentai hood and call that Darth Vader, but Kendra convinced me that a Dark Lord of the Sith deserved at least a fraction of the attention paid to IG-88 (who is, in my mind, the star of the scene). Another trip to Blick netted me a sheet of black foam core, and on Monday evening I went to work.

I knew the chest plate would be easier than the mask, so I started there. It's just a cross pattée of black foam core scored, folded, and glued to make the base, then a few scraps of white foam core for the buttons and lights. I used blue and red markers to color the buttons and a silver oil-based Sharpie paint pen for the box details. (I love those metallic paint pens.)

I really had no idea how to approach the detailed origami piecework involved in making Vader's mask, but I knew I wanted to incorporate a broken pair of sunglasses I had lying around, so I measured them, drew them on graph paper, and sketched around them until I had something that looked plausible. Then I made a mold of my lower face in aluminum foil and pulled some estimates about angles and distances out of my butt (keeping in mind that someone else would end up wearing the costume). I held the partially completed mask to my face at each intermediate stage, coming close to putting out an eye with the pins I was using to hold the joins until the glue set. Here's the final mask, with ribbons for wearing:

And here's the full look, with cloak, black shirt, zentai hood, and biking gloves:

(It turns out it's quite difficult to take a picture of yourself with an iPad while looking through a black z-hood and a pair of polarized sunglasses. This is as good as we're going to see until someone else puts on the costume.)

I think the mask looks more accurate off than on; I'm seeing a little Tusken Raider, a little Baron Karza, a little Doctor Doom in the finished product. But it's recognizably Vader, provided you don't hold it up next to a movie still. I toyed with a lamp shade for the helmet and cowl, but I don't think I'll be able to get it to work in the time remaining. The hood of the cloak is perfectly serviceable, Kendra's needling notwithstanding.

It's going to be a claustrophobic, legally-blind kind of shoot for my Vader, but she'll sure look good.

The last remaining big build is Boba Fett. Ten days to principal photography!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Foam Wars

Two of the shots for my Empire Uncut! scene are miniature space effects shots, with a Star Destroyer pursuing the Millennium Falcon. For that, I'm going to need some miniatures, so on Wednesday I convinced my long-suffering wife to drive me to the art supply store, where I acquired some sheets of foam core, a steel straightedge, and new blades for my X-acto knife. I adapted some papercraft patterns I found online, and set to work:

It's fifteen inches long, all stuck together with plain ol' Elmer's glue, and weighs a grand total of four ounces. To crease the layers of superstructure, I scored the underside with the X-acto knife, then used the butt to crush the foam down to create a hinge. The support rods slide through holes in the interior supports.

That's the beauty shot above, all smooth and gleaming white. Unfortunately, it'll actually be shot from this angle:

The nose-on angle really highlights every flaw, thanks to my old enemy foreshortening. If I have time, I might spackle the little gaps beneath the creases, and add some greebles.

Then, tonight, I put together model #2: a one-inch Millennium Falcon. The tiny sensor dish is the top layer of paper on the foam core, cut free and flipped up.


Last night, I made a list of everything I have left to do before filming: Vader's costume, Boba Fett's costume, the green screen cockpit windows, a couple of screen tests, and a few other lesser bits and pieces. I found some of the necessary elements at a thrift store today, including a fetching blue turtleneck for Boba. At a party tonight, I think I completed casting. Principal photography will be Sunday the 7th, with VF/X a couple of days before that, which gives me a little less than two weeks to get everything together. Delivery on the 11th!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The IG stands for Instagram

IG-88 is pretty much finished. I laid him out in the back yard yesterday and gave him a couple of coats of Rust-oleum's Dark Steel, followed by a couple of coats of Aged Iron. I wasn't happy with the eyes in the previous post, so I swapped in hotel shampoo bottles for the corks. In the photo above, he's wearing his bandolier (my kilt belt) and has a black sock stuffed in his mouth to soak up light. Here's the head just after painting, showing the neck of the 2-liter bottle that serves as his neck joint:

The dome is still a little transparent, which means the bike tail light I'm using to illuminate his sensors shows through where it shouldn't. I might need to touch up his paint in a few spots, depending on how I'm shooting him. But he's mostly done!

Next I move on to the EXT: SPACE shots, which means constructing a miniature Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyer, a few asteroids, and a clean black stage. Also possibly Silly String, fingers crossed.

Monday, September 17, 2012

IG-88 fluid ounces

I'm just about finished assembling IG-88, which should be the hardest build for my Empire Uncut scene, particularly since I'm viewing it as "an opportunity to make an IG-88! Plus some other stuff." Those are two 2-liter bottles forming his head. Not sure about the eyes — I'll have to see how much he looks like Beaker after a coat of metallic paint. Tomorrow will be spray-painting-in-the-back-yard day.


The pink circles on his forehead aren't acne — they're paint shields. After I'm done spraying, I'll peel them off, and hopefully the plastic beneath will still be clear. Then I can stick an LED inside his head and make them glow, just like the real IG-88 (seen here waving from big IG-88's shoulder).

If you look closely, you'll see a white rod running up through his head. That's a puppeteer's control rod:

Well, okay, actually it's a curtain rod. But it'll allow the puppeteer to reach inside IG-88's back and rotate his head 45°, which is all IG-88 needs to do.
I've taken a lot of liberties with IG-88's appearance, but I'm not too concerned about details. Like, at all. I'm not going to run out and find exactly the right Derwent flame tube for the head. I've got 25 days left, and IG-88 appears in only two of my six shots — I have Vader and Boba Fett and a Star Destroyer and asteroids and lasers and the Millennium Falcon and the Falcon's cockpit to worry about. Slapdash construction is all in the spirit of Empire Uncut, anyway. It's all fun and shoestrings and chewing gum. That's a feature, not a bug — part of what makes this exhilarating is being forced to turn off my inner perfectionist. There's simply no time. In the spirit of Roger Corman and Ed Wood Jr., it doesn't have to be good, it has to be done. That's good for me.

I also picked up some green posterboard for use as a green screen (!). I spent some time last night playing around with iMovie's green screen function, and found it blessedly easy to use. I know I'll use it for the starfield outside the Falcon's cockpit; I'm not yet sure about the two EXT: SPACE shots.

This continues to be wildly euphoric.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Oh gee, hey gee, you should see my IG

Work on Houses of the Muses continues apace. I hit the hundred-page block for a couple of weeks, but put my head down and bulled through instead of going back and starting the second draft.

But this isn't about that. This is about Empire Uncut, and the scene I have thirty days to film.

Star Wars: Uncut chopped Star Wars into about 800 fifteen-second chunks, then handed them out to amateur filmmakers to recreate. Which they did, using action figures, Lego minifigs, computer animation, traditional animation, pencil sketches, cats, dogs, ferrets, terrible costumes, excellent costumes, excellent terrible costumes, puppets, adorable children, greenscreening, machinima, rotoscoping, repurposed footage, shop vacs, stop motion, fast motion, slow motion, no motion, instant messaging, an Oscar statuette, a hamburger, and My Little Ponies. Then they stuck them all back together and added John Williams's soundtrack back in. I saw the final result at the Brattle Theater in June, and it was joyous and jubliant and ridiculous. (If you want to watch it, it's on the internets.)

I couldn't resist signing up for the sequel, which is why I have thirty twenty-seven days to film fifteen seconds of Empire Strikes Back. That sounds like a lot of time, but the chunk I selected has six shots, two locations, two F/X shots, four speaking parts, and a life-size IG-88. I'll be posting updates here — it's not exactly writing, but it is a creative endeavor slathered with fandom sauce, so here it is.

I've never filmed anything before, so I expect this to go extremely well. If you feel like signing up for a scene of your own, or watching the chunks as they're uploaded, go here: http://www.starwarsuncut.com/empire.

My first storyboards. Adorable!
Plans for IG-88.
IG-88's torso, the early stages

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Photo post

Daring jumping spider in a water-droplet hat. As seen in our tomatoes.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Spot on

Two quotes from China Miéville, in an interview on BoingBoing:

"When I am reading books that have things I don't understand in them, though, sometimes that mystery is completely part of the point. It's the desideratum, you know. And that disinclination to explain can, if done well, be part of what makes a book feel fucking great for me."

"If the reader is having to work a bit, so is the writer. All books are a collaboration between reader and writer — and, as a reader, I don't mind having to work if I feel it's worth it. It's exciting."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Write Anywhere Project

For the first time, my writing is portable: I'm the proud owner of an iPad 3, which my dad got me for my birthday. In the past, I've done well taking notes with a pencil in my little quad-ruled Moleskines, and I've filled three and a half of them over the course of these two novels, but I've never really gotten the hang of composing with one. I know, I know — Nabokov wrote on index cards at a lectern in his socks, &c. &c., so what's my excuse? All I can say is that I've tried it, and produced the odd workable paragraph, but after a page or so I begin feeling cramped and crabbed.

Enter the iPad (which I have named Hhml Haml, after the angel of what I can only assume is preparatory throat-clearing). My wife got me a keyboard case (a ZaggFolio), which connects Bluetoothily to the iPad and permits me to use command-C and option-delete and various other shortcuts I've grown dependent on. iPad-specific keys replace the function keys — I can control my music, head to the Home screen, and so on. I find it a great pleasure to type on. (For a week or so, it wasn't — the space bar tended to stick, because one of the tiny pegs on one of the tiny scissor mechanisms under the space bar was broken. But the good people at Zagg sent me a replacement that fixed it right up. Now the keys are springy and responsive, and make a charming chickering noise.)

At the moment, I'm sitting in the back of Diesel, watching hipsters post flyers on the bulletin board and writing this post in a very nice blogging app called Blogsy ($4.99). My formatting options are arranged unobtrusively in a gray-on-black bar at the top of the screen, and a column of buttons along the right side lets me quickly drop in media from Flickr, Google Images, YouTube, &c. At the lower right, I can touch a pair of angle brackets to flip my post from preview mode to HTML, in case I need to poke around under the hood.

For prose, I am using iA Writer ($0.99), which sports the endorsement of Stephen Fry. It is as stripped-down as it is possible for a word processor to get — there are no italics or other formatting, no font choices, no justification options, just lines of black text on a white background. In "focus mode," only three lines are clearly visible; the rest of the text is grayed out, and there are no buttons or icons or other fripperies to be seen. I was deeply grudging of this minimalist mode; on my iMac, I have my templates in Pages set up to mimic the look of a mass-market paperback, and I like things to look Just So. But iA Writer is liberating. The text I produce on it has the look of a draft — and nothing more than a draft. It's easier to silence my inner critic and follow Kerouac's advice: "Just imagine it better and keep going." (I wish I had a way to mark italics, but it's not a deal-breaker.) When I'm done, I can email the text to myself or drop it in my DropBox. It turns my first drafts into zippered-together Frankensteins of scene fragments, but I'm learning to stop worrying and love the draft.

On the road that led to The Slow Palace, I walked with a lot of crutches. I had to be sitting at my computer, with a mug of cocoa close to hand and my special green lightbulb lit, and it had to be quiet, and I had to have checked a particular roster of websites, and, and, and. There's nothing particularly wrong with that — if you need crutches to help you walk, then crutches are the thing to have, and, after all, The Slow Palace did get written. But I've reached a point where I'd like to learn to walk without them, and with this 2.75-pound self-contained typing machine I can write in coffee shops, on the train, in fields of wildflowers, on the tops of mountains.

Lord, it is a miracle! I am healed.