I’m making a cello EP

Since I just can’t seem to get enough of owing people Kickstarter rewards, I’ve decided to launch a new project: a professionally recorded cello EP. Much like my previous large-scale Kickstarter project, I have never attempted a project of this scale before in this particular medium. The good news is that this time, the recordings are almost done. They just cost a sizable chunk of change and it would be amazing if people could contribute to the Kickstarter and “pre-purchase” the EP to help me make up the cost.

You can donate to the project here. Thank you so much to all who have already contributed!
While my Kickstarter goal of $1000 was fulfilled in less than 5 hours, I was originally quite unsure of what the response would be like. Several of my previous Kickstarters have also been successful,  but they’ve all had something to do with stuff people know me by, whether it be film or podcasting. This was my first project where people might not have had any frame of reference for what I was producing. I was grateful that so many took a chance on this one, and I am hopeful I will be able to make something beautiful that will make us all proud.

A few thoughts came to mind on how I could’ve done this run this Kickstarter a little bit better:

Under a certain goal amount, it feels weird to launch a Kickstarter – One of the benefits and downsides of Kickstarter is that if you don’t fulfill your goal, you get none of the money (Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo famously gives you money along the way). Thus, I toyed with putting a goal of something like $300 or $500, to give myself a better chance of reaching the goal. But on a personal level, I felt as though under a certain amount (call it $500?), it doesn’t really make sense to do a Kickstarter. Why not just borrow some money from a friend or something? In addition, Kickstarter projects take a crapton of work. If you’re going to do one, you might as well set your goal higher to make it worth the time that it will take.

Very few people will take your lowest tier – Again, as with previous Kickstarters, my dream was that I would get hundreds of people contributing small amounts of money (i.e. $3 for just the EP) and once again that did not play out. When it comes to Kickstarter, people like to be upsold! They like bonus content, they like the personal connection with creators, and they like knowing that they are getting a set of rewards that are hard or impossible to obtain otherwise.

The emotional and practical barriers to entry for people supporting Kickstarters is pretty high. They need to support your work, they need to be willing to contribute to it, and they need to know that you have a live Kickstarter. Once those barriers have already been surmounted, they are likely going to be willing to contribute a larger amount than the bare minimum. On that note…

You should absolutely have a reward tier between $15-25 – A lot of people gave $5, but I’m fairly certain they would’ve been willing to contribute up to $15-25. That’s a lot of money that I simply left on the table, and while I did eventually add a few $15-25 options, I really should have built this in from the beginning. As in, I literally should have spent as much time as necessary time thinking of how I could produce a ton of $15-level rewards and not launched the Kickstarter until I had come up with something. It’s that important.

The average Kickstarter donation is $25.

All rewards have been delivered

Photo Credit: elldubphoto.com
This past weekend, The Primary Instinct World Premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. On the /Filmcast, we talk frequently about how much technology is changing the film industry and how much viewing is moving towards streaming and online. But despite all these market forces, I can now confidently say that nothing beats seeing your film projected on a big screen. Seeing people line up around the block to see my film, and then hearing people laugh and engage with it in a darkened theater – there’s nothing else like it. I suspect it’s a feeling I’ll want to chase again.

One of the biggest, most emotional moments for me was actually fulfilling the final reward in our Kickstarter project: sending everyone a viewable copy of the film. Firstly, I need to say that the service we used for this, VHX, was excellent.  They have amazing, responsive customer service, along with a platform that did everything I needed it to. I’d highly recommend them if you ever need to fulfill a project, and it’s very likely they will be part of the mix if/when our movie ever gets sold on VOD.

While it was a pleasure to enter into this journey with all our backers, it was also a mentally taxing obligation. All these hundreds of people chose to give us money — they deserved not just to get a film in return, but one that was of high quality and that they will be proud of.

Sending out those copies to everyone meant that my obligation was over. I had run the race. I had delivered what I promised I would. And even if the film goes nowhere from this point forward, I can hold my head up high as someone who followed through on a very ambitious project. In a world littered with crowdfunding projects that never delivered, it feels like an accomplishment. (That being said – the film won’t go nowhere. We’ll have more to announce soon…).

For our final update. Stephen wrote a note to all our Kickstarter backers that I think eloquently sums up how we feel at this moment. I’ve included it below. If you’ve supported me in any way during this intense journey. I hope you’ll accept my gratitude.

***

It is hard to give credit where credit is due.

There have been too many hands that have helped me in times of need. I have tried to make a list to demonstrate how one small thing like The Primary Instinct is really the work of thousands. Literally. 
To:

Cedering Fox for encouraging me to write down my first story.

Robert Brinkmann for proposing we make a film—a wonderful collaboration resulting in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.

Andy Putschoegl for producing and editing it.

All of my friends that had to wear the same clothes for three days straight to be party guests.

That stupid horse, Little Red, that broke my neck and forced me to start writing more stories to save my sanity.

David Chen for inviting me to be a guest on the Slashfilm podcast at just the right moment.

David Chen for devoting uncountable hours, for no pay, to produce, edit, and promote The Tobolowsky Files.

David Chen (I’m sensing a trend) and Peter Sciretta for making a home for me at Slashfilm.com.

Jeff Hansen, the innovative Program Director at KUOW for taking the leap of faith to put The Tobolowsky Files on public radio.

Melinda Ward of PRI (Public Radio International) and the extraordinary talents of engineer Margaret Moos Pick, assisted by Mark Kausch and events coordinator Elisa Pluhar for making The Tobolowsky Files a national radio event.

HOWEVER …none of that would have happened if it weren’t for the efforts of Brandon Taitt, an unpaid volunteer who introduced Melinda to The Tobolowsky Files while working at his regular job in a computer repair store.

Ben Schwartz for making the introduction to literary agent Jud Lahgi—who said, “Yes!” – such a precious word.

Ben Loehnen, my brilliant editor at Simon & Schuster, for publishing my book of stories, The Dangerous Animals Club. David Lavin, Ken Calway and Octavia Ridout at The Lavin Agency for booking appearances.

To David Chen for harassing David Blum at Amazon Kindle into publishing “Cautionary Tales.” And Mark Crilley, a podcast fan, for doing the artwork.

There were many people on the radio who have promoted The Tobolowsky Files. Before anyone there was Nick Digilio at WGN. Nick has been there from before the beginning in support. He was the first person I sent a copy of The Dangerous Animals Club. I wanted his opinion. So many in the media have helped me. Marc Maron (WTF), Tom Rhodes, Liam McEneaney (scariest bathroom in a recording studio ever!), Alan Sepinwall (Hitfix) , Luke Burbank (Live Wire!), Jesse Thorn (Bullseye), Tyler Smith and Dave Bax (Battleship Pretension), Dave Davies of NPR’s Fresh Air, Scott Simon (Weekend Edition)…

Pause to take a breath. So much help.

Whitney Matheson at USA Today, Jim Philips of the Philips Phile in Orlando, Bob Strum and Dan McDowell at The Ticket in Dallas, Nadia Chaudhury for The Awl, Richard Sergay at Curiosity Project with Discovery Communications, Michael DeSenzo, Jennifer Wilk, Jenna Dooley of WNIJ Public Radio, Vanessa Finney, Colleen Horning at KTXD-TV, Brandon Isaacson, Mark McKeown, Wolfie Rankin, Elizabeth Shepherd, Anne-Marie Welsh, Jay Wulff, Philip Wuntch, Adam Yoffe, Joshua Youngerman, and John Swansburg from Slate.

David Farrier, journalist, comedian, bird watcher extraordinaire, who opened his country, New Zealand to us and his home as well.

Denis McArdle who did the same for us in Dublin (I didn’t live in his home, but I DID eat his sister’s food!) We haven’t even touched on the producers and theater owners that extended themselves for my stories.

Adam Zacks (Seattle Theatre Group / the Moore and the Neptune) and his wife Lynn Resnick at BFI Seattle, Michael Hawley (The EG Conference), David Hunt Stafford (Theatre 40), Nick Hinkle at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Robert Newton at his theaters in Worcester and Gloucester Mass., Rebecca Graves, Lauri Hennessey, Susan Hanson, Kim Cunningham, Hedy Anderson and Vashon High School Theatre Program, David Caplan (Bell House, 92Y Tribecca ) Robyn Tenenbaum (Live Wire!), Kyle Mann and Dan Forte (Kentucky Center in Louisville), Lietza Brass (Paramount Theatre in Austin), David Wolkin and Matthew Grob (Limmud NY), Cole Stratton (San Francisco Sketchfest), Clinton McClung at SIFF, Randi Caldwell and Randy Lubas (Ventura Comedy Festival), Ann Alexander and Carrie Rodgers at USA Film Festival in Dallas and Katie Hutton at Dallas Museum of Art.

Amy Carver with Friends of the SMU Libraries. Jennifer Hall at Aegis Living. The Classic Theatre in Auckland New Zealand, Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write, Wendy Hammers’ Tasty Words, Paul Morrissey of Alley Oop, Kimmie Dee, Brett and Lester Levy, Jr.

My friends at PIXAR: Galyn, Angus, and, of course, Dr. Wave for inviting me out to tell stories from The Dangerous Animals Club.

Super Frog Saves Tokyo – now cut.com – (Mike Gaston, Blaine Ludy, Jason Hakala, Joanny Causse) for going into the venture as partners with David and me.

Gary Matoso and his team from Vignette, and Joel Clare and his team for helping us with our Moore Theatre shoot. In the end, it all comes down to individuals.

Richard Kagan who bought a LOT of books for Christmas. I mean a LOT.

Matt and Maria Swanson for being our angels on The Primary Instinct, and funding a whopping 25% of our budget.

And you. 

I know. It’s overwhelming. It’s like the beginning of the Book of Numbers. Every name here, including yours, represents time spent and risk taken. Your time and risk are honored. David Chen and I will endeavor to return the favor with enjoyment. Thank you all.

 – Stephen Tobolowsky and David Chen

One Second for Every Day of My Life – 2014-2015


Another year, another video where I recorded one second for every day of my life.

As with previous years, it has been a challenge not just to maintain the project, but to maintain it in a way that performs good storytelling. Anyone can record a second of video everyday – not everyone can use these seconds to create a narrative, an intense feeling, or a memorable moment. Over time as this project has gone on, I have continued to optimize my life around experiencing these moments, rather than recording them. This has led the videos to suffer overall.

But despite all the challenges, I must say that going through all my seconds at the end of the year was still an intensely rewarding experience. So many moments I would have forgotten resurface during this process. I recall people who were incredibly important to my life, and others who I was grateful to have just tangentially connected with.

A few big themes emerge for me:

1) This was the year of the cello – I have no idea where my cello proclivities are going to lead me, but for now, it’s incredibly valuable to me that I have this video document showing exactly how hard I worked at this thing this year. Every single second of cello represents a day that I practiced, and I am proud to have worked so hard at it.

2) Meeting my heroes – I’d almost forgotten that I’d had the opportunity to meet and talk to some awesome people this year, including directors Bong Joon-Ho and Megan Griffiths, as well as George Takei. It’s nice to have mementos of many of these moments.

3) I made a movie – It’s world premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 29th (buy tickets here). And in this video, you see many seconds where I’m hard at work, either editing the movie or sending it off to film festivals. I’m so grateful for the folks at Cut.com for joining me on this endeavor. I can’t wait for y’all to see the fruits of our labor.

All in all, I hope you find these videos provide at least a somewhat-interesting perspective into my life. They certainly are worthwhile for me to continue making, and I plan to continue them as long as I am able.

Go here to see the past videos/posts on this project.

Ten of My Favorite Moments from Max Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is out in theaters this weekend, and if you haven’t yet, you should go see it. Walking out of Mad Max, I felt like I did when I’d first seen movies like Jurassic Park or Star Wars – a feeling like what I’d just seen was genre defining, and that all future films would be compared to this one.

This movie was satisfying in ways that the vast majority of summer blockbusters are not. While most films are happy to create entire worlds in shiny CG, George Miller apparently filmed hundreds of hours of vehicular action in Namibia, and did a lot of it practically. We feel the danger that these characters are in, and that’s probably because the actors and stunt doubles portraying them were also in danger too.

When it comes to visceral thrills, gorgeous composition, and spectacular action choreography, nothing will beat Mad Max: Fury Road this summer. Maybe for the next few summers. Probably also for the past 10-20 summers.

Anyway, here are a bunch of random moments from the film I really enjoyed. This is FAR from an exhaustive list – there were many dozens of moments that I thought were incredible. Spoilers ahead.

Opening chase scene, which ends with a spectacular car flip

Mad Max is led away in chains as Immortan Joe’s thugs drive towards the Citadel – the ultimate reduction of the titular character to rock bottom

 Dust storm juxtaposed with chase scene creates surreal beauty

Tornado absolutely rips apart many bad guys driving through it

SOME DUDE DOES THIS

Imperator Furiosa creates the most memorable tableau from the film as she recognizes the futility of her journey

Monster truck does spectacular jump in front of the War Rig, with people HANGING OFF THE SIDE

This quiet moment, representing the transition from the past to the future

This guy gets absolutely owned

My favorite shot from the film – the ultimate confluence of all elements in an action scene 

Crazy In Love – Looping Cello Version

About a month ago, I got this nutty idea to perform a looping cello version of “Crazy In Love” with a pole dancer. Why was I moved to try this?

Firstly, I loved the new “Crazy In Love” rendition that was done for the Fifty Shades of Grey film. It was dark, brooding, and its tone really got to what the implications of the original song were. Plus, beyond the fact that I already had connections with an incredibly talented pole dancer that I knew could deliver on an amazing interpretive dance (Danae Montreuil), I also knew that looping cello, pole dancing, and Fifty Shades of Grey had never been combined in this way before. I’d be creating something that would be wholly unique, even though it was based off of a song that had been remade.

After weeks of planning, we shot the entire video in about 5-6 takes at Divine Movement in Seattle using pre-recorded audio. This video was shot using a Canon 5D Mark III (primary camera), as well as a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and a Canon 60D. After we’d got all the material with me in it, I repositioned the Canon 5D Mark III and shot Danae at a more close-up angle, which I spliced in to the rest of the video. I think the result is fairly seamless.


This video was picked up by my colleagues at MTV and Refinery29, along with many other pole dancing-affiliated sites and Facebook pages. It dramatically expanded the audience for my cello playing. I’m grateful to all the people that made it possible.

The Perfect Response

Adam Sternbergh from New York magazine takes on the concept of “The Perfect Response”:

[T]he Perfect Response you cheer for and re-post frantically also tends to be one that (a) confirms whatever you already believe and (b) sticks it to someone you already despise. The Perfect Response is, in essence, not a radical new perspective, but simply a person saying a thing you agree with to a person you disagree with. It’s a kind of linguistic record-scratch, a perfectly crafted gotcha that ostensibly stops trolls in their troll-tracks and forces them to deeply reconsider the sad wreckage of their wasted lives. Which means the Perfect Response is also largely a figment of the internet’s imagination.

I agree with most of what Sternbergh writes here – that an actual  “Perfect Response” is essentially so rare as to make its sharing more like an act of wishful thinking.

But I think this headline format has really taken form primarily because of sharing sites like Facebook and Twitter, something that Sternbergh acknowledges. A “Perfect Response” is simply more interesting and attention grabbing than “A Really Good Response” or “An Adequate Response.” Publishers often need to exaggerate to get attention on your News Feed these days.

My question is: What is next in the Internet arms war for attention? What happens when Upworthy-style headlines are so common that all they receive in response is an indifferent shrug?

The Rise of the Sh*tpic

Brian Feldman at The Awl charts the rise of low-resolution internet images that continue to degrade in quality as time goes on:

The Shitpic aesthetic has arisen from two separate though equally influential factors, both of which necessitate screencapping instead of direct downloading. The first is that Instagram, which has no built-in reposting function, doesn’t let users save images directly. This means that the quickest way to save an image on a phone is to screencap it, technically creating a new image. The second, more important shift is the new macro format that divorces text from image.

As a photographer it’s sad to me that, in a world where we can replicate digital objects with 100% accuracy, our most popular memes are those that have degraded to almost being unrecognizable due to unintentional compression.

My 15 Favorite Longreads of 2014

This past year has totally revitalized my “reading life.” For the first time in many years, I’ve read entire books (not just longform pieces online) and it feels great. I’ve also discovered a love for Audible, which is fantastic if you choose works that are performed well.

All that being said, I thought was still worth sharing my favorite online longreads of the year, as I have in years past. Here they are, in reverse chronological order:

Justine Sacco Is Good at Her Job, and How I Came to Peace with Her  – Sam Biddle tells a personal, self-deprecating story of how the person beyond your computer whose life you’re raging against online is likely a well-balanced, real human being. The internet destroys people’s lives on a daily basis, often for no good reason. This piece is a good reminder of how senseless it all can be. There are a ton of quotes from this piece that I am going to return back to from time to time, including, “She knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.”

The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis – Jonathan Rauch explains some of the biological foundations of the “midlife crisis” and how to set yourself up for mid-life and late-life success.

I Regret Reporting My Female Boss for Sexual Harassment – Tana Yeşil describes, with great regret, an incident in which she had to make an incredibly difficult decision and the toll it took on her and her boss.

Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies – The sugar industry has been trying to convince you that it’s not killing you for many years. Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens break down how we got here.

Amazon, Publishers, and Readers – Clay Shirky, a professor who I’ve been fortunate enough to be a student of, always puts out some of my favorite pieces, and this year was no different. Here, he explains why Amazon will win any dispute against publishers in the long term: because it has a vision for the future.

The Price of Blackness – Lanre Akinsiku describes the psychological toll of being black in a country that has seen numerous high profile cases this year of young unarmed black men shot and killed by police with no repercussions.

17 Things I Learned from Working on Other People’s Films – It’s been an enormous pleasure this year for me to get to know local talented filmmaker Megan Griffiths (you can listen to a /Filmcast episode we recorded together here). This piece on 17 things she’s learned during her time as a filmmaker was useful for me to have, as someone who’s in the process of making my own film this year. I’ve also enjoyed her writing on her personal blog as well.

The Greatest Story Never Told – I didn’t even remember that Passion of the Christ was supposed to have a sequel until I read this gripping piece by Luke Dittrich. Apparently, there are pretty good reasons why it never happened!

The Trials of Entertainment Weekly – Few people write as intelligently about pop culture as Anne Helen Peterson. As someone who used to read EW quasi-religiously (before the rise of fan blogs like /Film), I found this to be a fascinating journey through the magazine’s history that also functions as a commentary on the state of the publishing industry at large today.

The Day I Started Lying to Ruth – This is one of the few articles I’ve ever read that have made me openly weep. Peter B. Bach, a cancer doctor, describes his last days with his wife. That last paragraph will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.

How to WriteHeather Havrilesky has been one of my favorite writers on the internet for at least 7-8 years now, and this piece demonstrates why. I won’t say anything more about it, except that it is delightful.

Amanda, @TrappedAtMyDesk on Twitter, Dies, Age Unknown – Content goes viral every day, but often, it’s not real. Jennifer Mendelsohn dives deep into the existence (or lack thereof) of Twitter user @TrappedAtMyDesk, whose death was repackaged into a viral video earlier this year.

Street Fighter: The Movie – What Went Wrong – Absolutely hilarious and unfortunate story by Chris Plante (fast becoming one of my favorite internet personalities – see his video essay on the racism in Gremlins here). Street Fighter: The Movie needs its own Lost in La Mancha-style documentary.

The Prophet – Unfortunately, this piece by Luke Dittrich (his second entry on my list this year!) is no longer available for free. However, the way it explores the background of Eben Alexander (author of Proof of Heaven) is fascinating and revealing. I was particularly interested in how the piece described Alexander’s own reaction to the forthcoming the piece itself that Dittrich was working on as he interviewed him. It’s rare to get a peek behind the curtain like that in these features.

Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True – Eric Schlosser describes in excruciating detail how the events of Dr. Strangelove easily could’ve happened.

O Holy Night – Cello Version


I put together this cello rendition of “O Holy Night” in the hopes of bringing everyone some Christmas cheer. This video is dedicated to my mother, Marilyn, who gave me the gift of music. Can’t wait to see the whole Chen family in Seattle in a few days!

This is my first cello video using pre-recorded loops. I liked how it turned out although the arrangement is very simple – hopefully I’ll be able to play with some more complex rhythms in the future. Find the rest of my looping cello videos at DaveChenMusic.com.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday season this year. To those who’ve read this blog and supported my endeavors, you have my gratitude.

What ‘Serial’ Was Really About

As most-popular-podcast-of-all-time “Serial” finally comes to a conclusion, there’ve been a lot of pieces written to try and figure out what did this all mean? Many were disappointed with the show for a variety of reasons – this is natural, as any show that is so insanely popular is going to experience intense scrutiny.

One of my favorite writers, Jay Caspain Kang, wrote what was, to me, a fairly unconvincing piece about the show’s “White reporter privilege.” Justine Elias chided the show for being “slack and meandering.

But what I really appreciated was Sarah Larson’s piece for The New Yorker on this topic:

Episode twelve conclusively proved that what we’ve been listening to is not a murder mystery: it’s a deep exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt, and therefore an exposé, if unwittingly so, of the terrible flaws in our justice system. Those among us who deign to be jurors, and don’t try to wriggle out of jury duty, too often don’t understand reasonable doubt, or can’t convince fellow-jurors about what it truly means. We convict people who haven’t been proved guilty because we feel that they are guilty. We feel that they’re guilty in part because they’re sitting in a courtroom having been accused of a terrible crime. In cases like this, the burden often ends up on proving the accused’s innocence—not innocent until proven guilty. And Adnan Syed is just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if the show doesn’t accomplish anything in the legal case of Adnan Syed, and even despite its other potential flaws, “Serial” has highlighted some of the systemic flaws in our justice system to an audience of millions of people. For that reason alone, it deserves our praise.

Maverick was a phony

Right around when LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson was releasing her biography of Tom Cruise, we discussed how she might go about promoting it. Typically, an author will make appearances on podcasts or do Q&A’s with various publications. I pitched the idea of a video essay instead, and Amy happily obliged.

Unfortunately, I got mired down in random things like a sinus surgery and completion of The Primary Instinct. But I was able to scrape together some time this month to finally put this together and give it the attention it deserves. 

I don’t always agree with Nicholson, but I always find her viewpoints interesting and thought-provoking. I hope you will too.

Seattle Urban Craft Uprising 2014

I haven’t been shooting enough recently. 
Between my full-time job, the new cello videos, and finishing up work on the film, and all the podcasting, it’s been tough to find the time and will to get out there and do some photography. Thus, I decided to head to the Urban Craft Uprising today with my Canon 5D Mark III and a 50mm f/1.4 lens. I’ve been shooting a lot with the GH4 recently, but despite how convenient, portable, and fun that camera is to use, I occasionally crave the beauty of full-frame. 
It was pretty great seeing all the cool things that craftspeople from the Pacific Northwest came up with. Pro tip for these situations, by the way: Artists really appreciate it when you ask for permission to take photos. It’s their livelihood you’re dealing with, and they’re graciously giving you control of how it’s presented to the world. Tread carefully. 
Thanks to artists such as Clarissa Callesen and many others for allowing me to photograph their work today. You can find all the photos the photos from this set right here
[Side note: This photo set was made using VSCO’s new Film Pack 06, their Cross Process collection.]