On a rainy afternoon Joe and I took a road trip to check out the Walldog event in the nearby town of Arcola. The Walldogs are a group of sign artists who have painted murals on the sides of buildings in towns and cities  all across America. The murals are designed to chronicle people and places of significance to the particular town, so they enhance the town’s character as well as adding artistic beauty.

Arcola Seed Corn Company

The painting was underway during our visit although the artists retreated indoors or under tents when the summer shower became a downpour. We braved the rain to take photos of the works in progress. (So okay, I snapped most of them from inside the car, but we did get wet. Well, damp anyway.) We plan to return once the murals are complete and photograph the completed murals. Meanwhile, here are some of the shots we got.

Every Town Needs at Least One Candy Kitchen

Some murals commemorated historical businesses like the two dedicated to Pfeifer Seed and Arcola Candy Kitchen. One honored Arcola native “Average Joe” Ernst. According to an article from WAND-TV news,

A decorated veteran, Joe is now 88 and watched work on a mural honoring his life.  In 1941, Joe was working in a local restaurant when a group of African Americans came in seeking service.  “Man’s hungry,  I don’t care what color he is, he’s hungry.”  It was in the days of segregation and black Americans could not be served in most eateries.  Joe served those customers and the next day he was fired.  “Oh yeah.  Next morning I came to work and the key wouldn’t fit the doors” Joe told WAND News.

"Average Joe" Ernst, WWII Hero

The African American customers?  It turns out it was the “Queen of Jazz,” singer Ella Fitzgerald and her band.  Joe had no idea who his famous customer was.

The average Joe is a decent guy. So much for my dark and cynical view of the world.

Here are some other Walldog murals in various stages of completion.

Hard at Work

Brightening a Parking Lot

Tribute to the Railroad?

The final mural celebrates Arcola Lawn Rangers, the world-famous lawnmower precision drill team. These guys have marched in hundreds of parades all over the country, including President Obama’s inaugural parade. If you want to know more about this quintessentially American group, check out this video.

But really, their motto says it all.

Motto of the Arcola Lawn Rangers

I’ve been so busy with Occasional Writers: Bringing the Past Forward —an anthology of essays and poems by the Past/Forward memoir group and the latest title from Cantraip Press—that my other creative endeavors have fallen by the wayside. Hopefully I’ll have time for my own writing once Occasional Writers comes out next month.

Or is that in Tuscola?

Douglas County Seat

Meanwhile I offer some photographs taken last year by my husband, Joe Heumann, as he was wandering through Arcola, a small town north of Charleston. Joe was taking photographs when I met him in college, but he hasn’t taken any for a number of years. Now that he’s back, I hope he keeps snapping pictures. I love his way of looking at the world.

 

Silos in Arcola

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silos in Arcola

Come Closer . . .

 

 

 

At least I think it's a street.

. . . hidden wonders reveal themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A glimpse of Arcola's infrastructure

Terminus

In August I spent several days with my friend Carol in Studio City, California. Carol works in the movies as an art department coordinator. She was working then on a film called The Artist, so we partied in the evenings and I entertained myself during the day. I took my mini-cam and explored Ventura Boulevard. I trekked from Laurel Canyon Drive almost to Universal Studio, alongside a relentless stream of traffic. It seemed never to let up. My husband the eco-critic (yes really, he and Robin Murray write books on eco-criticism and the cinema) informed me later that Los Angeles has the most polluted air in America. It certainly seems that way when you breathe it.

Side streets with quaint names like Blue Canyon Road branched off Ventura and twisted up the steep hillsides, but the boulevard was mostly commercial. A sinister atmosphere emanated from the hustle and bustle and mixed with the pollution. Maybe it came from my assumption that so much commerce cannot exist without some corruption or from the bleak depictions of Los Angeles in novels by James Ellroy and Michael Connelly and films like Chinatown and Mulholland Drive. I imagined dark happenings in the seedy motels and massage parlors. I wondered what was cached in the windowless storage facilities. So many businesses exploited parents’ dreams of vicarious stardom: “Comedy Lessons for Kids,” “Children in Film.”


I passed a building of gleaming black glass with a large courtyard behind the tall bars of a fence. The sign on the building said only “Pure Beauty.” A spa, maybe? I must have passed 15 or 20 downscale spas in various strip malls. This could be an upscale spa. But a sign on the gate into the parking lot warned that the place was under “constant video surveillance.” What would happen if I took pictures? Would guys in suits and sunglasses come out and break my camera? Later I searched online and discovered it was just an ordinary spa. Maybe the patrons felt insecure or the facility needed protection from  feral gangs of starlets foraging for beauty products.


After some research into editing software, I narrowed my choices to three: Sony Vega, Corel Video Studio, and Adobe Premier Pro. All three companies offered free download of a trial version that would function for a month then shut down unless you paid up. So I began with Vega. I downloaded the trial version of Vega and imported my cemetery clips. To my bewilderment, Vega couldn’t open them properly. There was sound, but no picture. Back online I went, trying to figure out why. Thus was I introduced to codecs.

“No,” TechTerms.com reassured me, “this is not just a cheap rip-off of Kodak. The name “codec” is short for “coder-decoder,” which is pretty much what a codec does. Most audio and video formats use some sort of compression so that they don’t take up a ridiculous amount of disk space. Audio and video files are compressed with a certain codec when they are saved and then decompressed by the codec when they are played back.”

So I recoded the clips in a format Vega recognized, using the Windows 7 media encoder. But I had to process them one at a time – a tedious job. Someday, I vowed, I would own a camera that would render all that unnecessary.

After trying Sony Vega and Corel Video Studio, I made a lucky discovery. Adobe offers special pricing to faculty at universities. As an instructor at Eastern Illinois University, I could buy Adobe Creative Suite 5 Production Premium at a fraction of the retail cost. The bundle includes not only Premier Pro and Soundbooth – the two programs I really needed – but Flash Professional, Illustrator, Photoshop, and several others. A deal too good to resist! I did the free tryout first to make sure I could work with Premier Pro. Then I went for it. Adobe offered some free online training, which helped a lot, but I’ve only begun to learn how to use these powerful programs.

When I began promoting Talion, I noticed book trailers were hot. I found dozens on You Tube, thirty-second or one minute ads with authors talking about their books or music and visuals to evoke the book’s atmosphere. I thought Talion deserved a trailer too. And I knew right away what it would be. In my novel, Conrad (Rad) Sanders, a serial killer, visits the grave of a victim to remember their night together. My trailer would be a sequence of cemetery shots with a voiceover reading the passage and creepy music playing in the background.

I looked online for a video artist to transform my idea into reality and found it would cost far more than my budget allowed. Disappointed, I knew I should forget the whole thing. But I couldn’t quite do it. The book trailer would be a highly dramatic and visual way to call attention to my novel, and I was proud of my concept. I hadn’t seen any trailers like the one I imagined for Talion. I decided to make it myself. Sure, I had zero experience in making videos. But my husband, Joe, a film professor, had taught filmmaking for years. He would show me how.

I already owned one essential piece of equipment, a Vado mini-cam that I’d bought on sale. It’s not much of a camera, but it does shoot high-def video. One lovely spring morning, I took it out to the local cemetery and shot footage for my book trailer. I rushed home, downloaded the shots onto my desktop, and asked Joe to look at them. I was mortified at what he saw. Surely my hands weren’t that shaky. I had to stop drinking so much coffee. And every single shot ended with a long and pointless pan, as though something off to the side kept drawing my attention.

“I suck,” I said.

“This shot is interesting,” Joe said, pointing to a tree shadow falling across a fresh grave. As for the others, he just shrugged. “If this is what you have, this is what you work with.”

No way, I thought grimly. I bought a small tripod and returned to the cemetery.

My second attempt at camerawork yielded more promising results, and I decided to plunge ahead and purchase editing software. This was the moment of commitment. So far I’d only spent a few bucks on the tripod. Now I was poised to lay out serious money. If I bought the software and never made the trailer, Joe would never let me forget it.

Joe laid down the rules. First, I had to make a storyboard laying out the shots of my book trailer and matching them to the voiceover narrative. Then I had to make a rough cut in Premier Pro. My trailer should be 60 seconds long precisely, Joe told me, like an ad on TV.

“But why?” I insisted. “You Tube doesn’t have rules about the length.”

“People get bored if it’s too long,” Joe said. “Besides, you got to work within a form. You got to have some artistic discipline.”

Okay, I understood that concept.

Working on my storyboard, I soon realized the passage from Talion would take longer than sixty seconds to read, so I shortened it. Then shortened it again. I began to see interesting relationships between the narrative and the images, which helped me to choose which shots to include and suggested how they might be arranged. I finished the storyboard and made the rough cut, trimming the shots and placing them in sequence in Premier Pro. Joe said the rough cut should run about 90 seconds. Mine ran close to three minutes. It was extra rough.

Watching it play on Premier Pro, I realized the string of images lacked coherence. I shuffled shots around – removing some, adding others – until my original storyboard was no more than a memory. I went back to the unused clips for more material and rediscovered all my reasons for not using them in the first place. I needed more. Finally, I drove to a tiny church cemetery in the country and shot the footage to complete my grand vision. After further tinkering and trimming, I had a rough cut that looked okay.

I trimmed my rough cut to a 60-second video keyed to the narrative voiceover. Still it wasn’t right. The framing and unsteadiness of some shots made them look like vacation movies. Since they were filmed on three separate occasions, the lighting and color tone didn’t match. All the shots were too cheerfully green for the creepy effect I wanted. But to my relief, Adobe Premier Pro has fixes for these problems.

Shots could be reframed – to a point. Extreme cropping blurred the image. But in most cases I only needed to trim a bit off the edges to improve the composition of shot. In one case I made a radical crop so an inscription on a gravestone that read FATHER MOTHER became HER MOTHER. I liked it enough to put up with a bit of fuzziness.

Here is the original frame:

 


Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

The stone angel, the last image in the trailer except for the book cover, is a more typical example of how I reframed shots. Here is the original:

Here is the frame that appears in the trailer:

 

I eliminated shakiness by exporting stills from the footage and using those images in place of the shots. The lack of motion looked absolutely unnatural, an effect I liked, especially in contrast to the shots that had movement – the wind ruffling flowers or spinning a toy windmill. Premier Pro also has a function to minimize shakiness, which I used for a shot that wasn’t altogether palsied.

Next I adjusted the brightness and contrast of the shots to make them consistent. One shot gave me problems because it was so much darker than the others. Brightened, it had a strange sheen. I couldn’t cut that shot; it was necessary to the visual narrative. I kept fiddling with the brightness but never got it exactly right. If you watch the trailer, you can probably tell which one I’m talking about. It did become less conspicuous after I adjusted the color to give the video a more somber cast.

The trailer ended with a shot of the book cover. I wanted to zoom the cover so it came hurtling dramatically toward the viewer, but Joe nixed the idea.

“It’s jive-ass,” he said. “Show some restraint.”

Oh well, one less thing to do.

At Joe’s suggestion I added cross-dissolve transitions between shots, and then my book trailer was finished. Finally. It was precisely 60 seconds long and, I thought, not bad for a first effort. I posted it on You Tube and Facebook and here on my blog. Links to it appear on several Web sites including Pump Up Your Book, If Books Could Talk, and The Hot Author Report. Recently I ended gave a presentation on publishing and promotion to a local group. I ended by showing of my trailer, “Rad Pays His Respects.” Afterward, of course, I sold copies of Talion. There were still buyers in line when I ran out of copies, and I like to think my book trailer had something to do with it.