It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.
Category Archives: Book Behind the Scenes
Running this blog is strange. It’s great to be able to have a place to post images that won’t fit in the book that I’m writing, but there’s still a nebulous disconnect that I can’t shake — only a handful of people have seen the book-so-far, and maybe everyone else abstractly figures I’ll never finish or never quite started.
Above: printouts of chapters 2 through 8, researched and written and edited and designed. The good news is that they’re finished, and were finished in 2011. The bad news is that in the past year I’ve learned more about several important moments in G.I. Joe history, and scanned or photographed some key pieces of G.I. Joe art, so chapters 2, 3, 6, and 8 need revisions. But the good news is that I learned those facts and saw those images, so the book will be more accurate, and more interesting.
The other bad news, I write half-jokingly, is that I still teach and I still own Hub Comics, so there are many days where there isn’t time to write. School vacations are wonderful, though. May and September are not — end of the semester, Free Comic Book Day, start of the semester, field trips, grades. This summer was to be a return to form, like the year or two before I bought a comic book store, when I seemingly wrote every day for weeks on end. Then, unexpectedly, my father died, which meant taking time off from writing. He was also one of my two editors. (And a very good writer.)
In practice, however, not having him around to read and comment on each chapter doesn’t hurt the book. Other-editor Nick Nadel is up to the task of helping me whip this into shape. I’ve been leaning on Nick since 2001, or 1990, depending on how you count. I’ve posted this photo before on my website, but not here, so this is what it sometimes looks like when we get together twice a year.
But most of the time we’re on Skype, so imagine that same photo with a split screen down the middle and the New York City skyline behind Nick.
So what did I do this year, anyway?
-Started a Twitter for the book
-Added 23 posts to this blog
-Edited a G.I. Joe podcast (and recorded a second one, stay tuned).
-While in Los Angeles, met with two gents I’d interviewed years back and had coffee with a new interviewee
-Flew to Chicago so a knowledgeable fan could read chapters 1-10 and offer feedback
-Drove to Connecticut for an interview
-Drove to Rhode Island for a follow-up interview
-Trained to New York for an interview
-Telephoned New York for an interview
-Found four people online who had small but important contributions
-Wrote and edited and rewrote significant portions of chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and X. Yes, there’s a “chapter X.”
(And all while teaching two classes, running a store, and hosting two art openings, two events, and four signings there. Phew!)
(Also, I’m cheating with that tally by including these first two weeks of 2015.)
And the interviews listed above represents a variety of contributors — toy alums, comics talent, animation people, and film folk. What didn’t work out? Unfortunately, three people politely declined to be interviewed, two more didn’t respond to requests, and there’s another person out there that I just can’t find. There are enough facts and recollections in the 190 interviews that I do have to reasonably fill in those gaps, but a few sentences here and there will be vague and a few points of view are under-represented. But the book is interesting, accurate, and fun.
What’s in store for 2015? I think I can…
-With my photographer visit a collector in Texas to shoot his collection, which will help me write chapter 15.
-Attend JoeCon 2015
-Finish chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15.
-Figure out where chapter X goes, or if it needs to be broken into thirds and spread across chapters 13, 14, and 15.
-Send the finished text of chapters 9-13 to my book designer.
-Set up a shoot with my photographer for the picture that heads chapter 11.
-Start and finish writing chapters 16 and 17.
Which gets me pretty close to finishing.
That would leave my designer laying out chapters 14-17, and X, and another photoshoot or two. And getting the book published. Which is a long way of saying I think I can just about finish writing this in 2015. But getting it published is a whole other project, and at least a whole other blog post.
So now you now where I am. Please feel free to spread the word — Like A Real American Book! on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, and tell your friends and family that are interested in popular culture about this. Google “Tim Finn book” or my name and “gi joe.” That’s always welcome.
But I’d like to say thanks to three key people: To Gary Goggles-Head, for spending a weekend offering feedback, for keeping me in the loop, and for running the G.I. Joe discussion group on Facebook; to Clutch, for being this blog’s most dedicated commenter; and to TV writer/producer/editor/funny person Nick Nadel, for smoothing out the clunkiest of sentences.
Also a helmet-tip to Nate and JMM, who get the silver and bronze medals for commenting here at the blog, and all the interesting and patient fans in the aforementioned G.I. Joe discussion group on Facebook. I don’t often ask questions or chime in, but it’s great having access to such a knowledge base. And to those fans who occasionally send an e-mail saying “I’m really digging the blog, keep up the good work, can’t wait for the book!” That means a lot.
Back to writing for me.
Sorry for no blog posts these last 6 weeks — busy with school and store, and, best of all, writing the book! Lots of good progress on chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and chapter x, which I don’t know how to fit in yet.
I’ll get back to blog posting soon, probably this week.
I’m pretty sure this hasn’t surfaced previously. Commonplace is Cobra Commander’s weird blow dryer/flashlight/laser pistol-thing.
It came with his 1982 straight-arm figure, and the 1983 swivel-arm retool, and the 1984 mail-in hooded version of the character. (Embarrassing trivia: My brother and I never knew the gun fit into CC’s back! I figured this out in 2008, meaning I should probably call off this whole book thing.)
From 1981, here’s Greg Berndtson’s control art for the weapon in question. This was drawn concurrently with Ron Rudat’s figure turnaround.
And here’s Cobra Commander’s other weapon, the one that wasn’t ever produced and did not come packed with the Cobra Commander action figures!
Know of any other designed-but-scrapped weapons?
Ace lensman Andre Blais came on board just a few weeks after I signed the contract for Gladworks to design my book, and part of the appeal was that he was (and is) in-house there. So in one room there’s designer Liz Sousa at a Mac, and in another is Andre, with a cyc, pro lights and diffusion, tripods, and more. (And a Mac.) I’ll interview him soon for a future blog post.
The general idea for these photos came from the toy photography of Brian Malloy and Erik Hildebrandt in John Michlig‘s G.I. Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. (Regular readers will recognize that book as one of the two main inspirations for A Real American Book.) There are only four “fantasy” shots in Michlig, where the reader point of view is in scale with the 12-inch Joes, but the toys themselves are set against the scale of the man-made world. Rather than product shots, like a catalog displaying toys on a table top (even if the table top is a dressed set), I wanted story moments, like movie stills.
This was also practical. I don’t want to reproduce too many visuals that are commonly available. My book aims to continually show and tell unrevealed facts, anecdotes, and imagery. But whole sections tell the history of people talking and making decisions, but people weren’t taking candid photos of co-workers at the office in 1982. (Which may seem odd compared to today when every cell phone and music player is also a high resolution camera.) If an interviewee recalls making the Snake-Eyes figure, an obvious pairing would be a photo of that figure, or a scan of a concept sketch. But what if there’s no obvious pairing? To break up stretches of history that have no clearly analogous visuals, the solution was to sprinkle in dramatic diorama-style toy photos.
For this photoshoot, I had only a vague idea of where (or why) an image of Duke and Spirit would go. Maybe Chapter 4, when the narrative gets to the second and third waves of toys? Sadly, nothing from this shoot made the final cut. There are two reasons for that: First, I had forgotten to bring Spirit’s belt. I was worried that hardcore fans would dismiss the photo for not being fully accessorized, so I asked Andre to crop above Spirit’s waist, which really limited the composition. Second, the chapter where this photo would go ultimately didn’t need a photo of two action figures in a “fantasy” setting, even if it’s a great photo.
Note the difference in these two — how the golden light from the left adds dimension and warmth to Spirit’s hair, gun-holding arm, and torso. It’s not in the first shot. Here they are together for comparison:
A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.
Dramatic lighting separates Cobra Commander from his two guards. But CC’s pose doesn’t work — he’s too casually holding his pistol. If this is HQ, it doesn’t make sense, if it’s going into battle, why the fancy backdrop?
Change in angle adds drama, and more space between CC and his guards, but now his sigil is in shadow and the right guard’s helmet is clipped.
The vertical here accentuates the proportions of the figures, and by cropping out one guard we’ve honed in. There’s movement, like the two are walking toward us, so CC’s weapon now makes sense. But in general I don’t want vertical shots in my book — just a personal preference — so a choice horizontal one is beat out by this one.
Here we’re trying underlighting, but since we don’t have a proper set-up, with the figures on a grid or a transparent floor, the underlighting is more frontal low-angle. This, combined with the down angle POV, makes the figures look like toys rather than living characters in a fantasy story moment, the kind of photo I’m avoiding.
But to repeat from last week, none of these shots — even the best ones (and these four are just a sample) — made the cut since the slot for a photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers never materialized. But that’s fine, since the writing process is really rewriting, so I along with my editor and designer and photographer Wes and Andre are collectively keeping what works, trimming what doesn’t, and then trimming some of what does for considerations of space.
More photos from both Wes and Andre here soon!
Up until now I’ve only shown artwork here at A Real American Book — pencil drawings, ink designs, offset printed four color paperboard, and such. But no photography. I’d have to get a few clearances to show some of the vintage G.I. Joe-related photos I’ve cataloged while researching, but what is free to show are the original photographs we’ve taken specifically for the book. Or at least, a few that haven’t made the cut. And so here, debuting in public for the first time ever, a couple pictures posed, lit, and shot at Glad Works’ studio in Pawtucket, RI.
The ink on the contract for graphic design services was still drying in March 2008 when we had our first photoshoot. I posed a batch of 1983 Swivel-Arm G.I. Joe figures and photographer Wes Rollend shot for three hours, racking up 250 pictures. At the time I wrote “I’m sure when all is said and done, only nine or ten will make the cut.” With almost half the book laid out, that number has declined, mostly for space reasons, but also because a few shots have replaced those early ones. All I knew then was that a) I had an entire chapter devoted to people at Hasbro making decisions — not product — and no firsthand photos or memos to go with it, and b) sooner or later amidst all the pre-production materials I’d have to show some actual production, mass-produced action figures and vehicles. So I started with some 1982 toys, guessing at what photos we might need later on in Chapters 2 and/or 3.
The photo studio at Glad Works, a room next to the main one where designers click away on Macs, has what you’d expect: a tall ceiling, a makeshift cyc, lights and diffusion, bricks and cinder blocks for making flat surfaces taller or shorter (like a tabletop), fabric for backdrops, and more. Wes played around with lighting (from the side, above, below), and camera angles (low, eye-level), and backdrops. Plus we had two Cobra Commanders to choose from.
This first one above has a great composition, depth, and a bit of menace from the foreground soldier. The backdrop maroon nicely echoes the Cobra sigil. But we’re cropped in too closely, so we lose the sense that the Soldier is holding a rifle. But this does manage to be both about product — you can tell they’re plastic toys — as well as fantasy — this is a story moment during some kind of speech. So I still like it very much.
This second one tries the other end of the rack focus from the previous shot. But it doesn’t work much better — there’s a clearer sense of the Cobra Soldier holding his rifle, but he’s too out of focus, and therefore too ambiguous. The background isn’t distracting, but it’s also not adding anything. Maybe if I’d built a little throne?
This third one introduces the second soldier, and in a way I’m channeling the bit from 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie where two Crimson Guards stand in front of Serpentor. But the composition flattens out — the distance between the two guards and the Commander is uninteresting — they’re about the same size, and they’re all in about the same pose. And the added gap between CC and the second guard doesn’t do anything.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The two guards are cropped too much, as is CC’s hand, but I like this one as a balance between the dynamism of the first two and the concept of the third.
Again, none of these above made the cut, and this does not take away anything from Wes’ fine skills. He took 35 photos of this trio, knowing I would file down the selection to one, so of course there would be some duds. In this first attempt we were figuring out what was possible, and getting a sense of what I wanted. Ultimately the book has little need for a toy photo of Cobra Commander and two Cobra Soldiers, as nice as these are and as majestic as that background is.
The book project seemed to suffer a setback when just after this shoot, Wes moved on to another company. But things worked out, as photographer Andre Blais joined Glad Works soon after and has handled photoshoots 2 through 9. More outtakes from both Wes and Andre here soon!