Why Joey’s note caused tears

This is the note left by the young hero Joey in my machinima Pieces of Your Heart (part of the University of Western Australia MachinimUWA V film competition) before he embarks on a fantastic space voyage in his Radio Flyer wagon to find the lost world of a stranded alien robot he finds hiding in his backyard. As you can imagine, it made his mother cry.

Both the mother’s crying and the note took some doing to pull off in a Second Life machinima. But the note in particular took far more attention than any 10-year-old would ever give it. I thought I would tell you the story of its building, since the whole affair touched my heart and had quite a lot to do with how the machinima’s story itself unfolded. Also, it shows just how much goes into the making of machinima in a virtual world.

Every scene, even every beat, of a machinima is full of avatars, props, animations, poses, and in this particular machinima, a young boy’s entire bedroom complete with teddy bear and dinosaur, a canvas that displays the imagined cosmic sky of a young boy’s mind, a backyard with an old-fashioned garage and outhouse (where the lost robot hides), a bicycle that shows up for 3 seconds in the machinima and has a story of its own longer than this blog post, a wagon that turns into an airplane, a dragon on top of a mountain, an outdoor park (aka Sunken Garden at the UWA), a whole galaxy of planets and stars, a path of asteroids across the sky, and a family of robots including a robot dog.

Every one of these things has to be built, animated, timed with music, and its movement coordinated with the others — which means actors and acting by other people in other places, with (shudder) other computers that can, and often do, crash and freeze and send any number of your props flying off-world.

The Crash Scene

And these avatars, by the way, while constructed and operated by people, are not exactly people themselves; they are pixels, and they are interacting with other pixels in what the Second Life wiki calls “somewhat complicated ways” — and oh, have I mentioned you are capturing the footage in real time as it’s being distributed more or less consistently over the Internet via a farm of servers reportedly in California, Texas, and the District of Columbia?  The whole thing can make your head hurt if you think about it very long.

But getting back to this note: for anyone who may not know, stuff like this has to be built in Second Life out of prims or sculpties or mesh, or some intricate combination. In a real-life movie, you could just write out the note on a piece of paper and be done with it. Not so easy in Second Life.

I tried to build the note myself, but it turned out looking like a block of wood. It didn’t look crumpled or tear-stained or torn or any of the things it would look like if a 10-year-old had in fact written it. I sifted through all my Second Life friends trying to decide who I could ask to build it. As soon as my mind hit on Rose Mackie, I knew I had the right one. She is a poet, the Poet Laureate of Elf Circle for three years, an incredible storyteller, and a builder (she runs the Just Rose shop in Elven Glen).

I was going to such great lengths with this note because it is the crucial bridge in the story between two worlds, connecting everything that comes before to all that happens after. I knew it had had to be exactly right. I told Rose a brief one-liner of the story of the movie and asked if she would build the note. She just said yes. She didn’t ask for money, or how the machinima would be used, what credit she’d be given, what permissions the object would have, how future sales would be handled, or all the other questions builders sometimes ask (which adds to the complexity of machinima-making, btw). She just said yes, she would try to build it on Saturday.

But then she did come back with some questions. I’m going to give you this word for word. It’s amazing to see the detail of a poet’s vision:

“Can it be just a texture? What type of writing – handwriting, child, printed, cursive? And what type of paper and ink – blank, white, lined, crayon, pencil, inkpen?”

I had to think! There was more to this than even I had thought. And she wanted to know the story — all of it. So I wrote back:

“Oh thank you! Let’s see, yes a texture is fine. Handwriting, a child’s, about a 10-year-old, probably pencil but easily ink or even crayon, probably blank paper, maybe a slight cream color. I’ll leave it up to you. Here’s the story: a young boy meets a stranded alien hiding in his garage, makes an airplane out of a Radio Flyer wagon, then together they travel through the stars back to live with the alien family on another planet to forge a human-alien culture. This is the note he leaves for his parents to say he’s gone. I’ll zoom in for a closeup of the letter, but think subtle. I won’t focus on it long, and I may even give a little wavy look to it. It’s the kind of scene that will hit hard because it’s short, soft, and subtle. If you look at my Facebook wall, there are pictures of both the alien and the kid – about 7-8 posts back. thanks again! Hugz, Bay

I thought we were done concepting. Not so! I got the “first draft” of the note several days later with a few more detailed questions:

“Is this what you had in mind or do you want more curve to the paper shape? And are the words okay? I looked at an old note my daughter wrote me to get a sense of the wording.”

An old note my daughter wrote me” !!! I didn’t dare go there. Heartbreak quicksand was under my feet. Oh Rose. She came back to me with a build containing the note leaned up against a teacup (with stars on it!) There were two versions. The second one was more blurred (tear-stained?) and it looked perfect to me. I told her so:

“O Rose, this is perfect. Exactly what I had in mind. You have such a wonderful talent …”

But then I reread the last line of the note: “I will be back soon.

Uh-oh. Joey would never have written that he’d be back soon. When he wrote that note, he was pretty sure he’d never be back. And then there was the bit about going to another planet with an “alien.” Joey’s new robot pal was a “friend.” He would never have called him an “alien.”

So it was back to the drawing board. I chewed my lip anxiously and asked Rose to revise the wording, just tweak it a little bit, a tiny bit. She didn’t object. She completely understood.

Several days later, I had the final note in hand. Well, almost. In the revised note, Rose had Joey write: “I don’t know when I’ll be back again.” Oh dear. It wasn’t just “back” Joey was talking about. He was dealing with home issues. He didn’t know when he’d be home again.

Back to Rose again.

“At the risk that you’ll think I’m just a horribly picky awful editor, could you possibly change “back” to “home”? Oh and be sure to leave “Love Joey” blurred (tear-stained) at the end. That was such a wonderful touch.”

She did. I had the third version back within hours. (It’s the one at the top of this blog post.) Joey’s note was finally written. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks so much, Rose.

2 Responses to this post.

  1. Sally Caves's Gravatar

    Posted by Sally Caves on 23.07.12 at 10:44 am

    If you have photoshop and know how to do masking, you take a piece of paper torn out of a notebook, write on it, crumple it, tear off part of it and scan it in. Then you mask off the edges and the holes in the paper for a transparent background. There’s a smudge tool that will blur part of the text, and you can enhance the shadows created by the crumples if they don’t show up. Upload it, and put it on a slightly curved prim. Very interesting to see your communications with Rose, who took a lot of time to make it look the way you wanted it. Maybe Rose can tell us exactly how she did it.

  2. Rose's Gravatar

    Posted by Rose on 23.07.12 at 10:44 am

    Sorry for long response … this is how I did it

    I tore a piece of paper out of a notebook, crumpled it, wrote on it and then scanned it against a dark background.

    I used GIMP to remove the background and a smudge tool. I tried water drops on the paper before scanning but had much less control so went for the smudge tool.

Respond to this post