Friday, September 6, 2013

The Workflow Zone

Twilight Zone fans know what Rod Serling’s workflow looked like: he’d lounge by the pool, basking in the Southern California sun, verbally composing his teleplays into a Dictaphone, which his secretary would type into script form. This is about as leisurely an approach as one can take, and I’m jealous as hell.  My workflow for writing this blog is nowhere near as relaxing and, as I’m about to relate, has mutated out of necessity a number of times since I started this thing four years ago.

In the early days, I did most of the work in my home office/mini home theater, which we'd built inside our garage. I had the complete setup: computer, big monitor/TV, blu-ray player, scanner, etc. Every facet of the blog was easily addressed in that one room: it was there that I screened the episodes, composed the blog entries, acquired the screen captures (directly from the Definitive Edition DVDs using a highly useful --- and totally free --- program called VideoLAN), took pictures of merchandise to be spotlighted and, finally, published each entry.  It all happened right there in that 8x8 tech-cave, and God, I loved that room.  Note the past tense there.

A confluence of unfortunate circumstances led to us losing our house, which subtracted my beloved office from my life. A dramatically inferior workstation was set up in a tiny kitchen nook in our new residence, which provided a place to pull screen caps but not much else, since it was a noisy, high-traffic area. Since I no longer had a private, quiet place to write, I began doing most of the writing at work. It was relatively quiet, and I always had time to kill (still do, actually). 

The kitchen nook, April 2010. Far less than ideal.

I got a new laptop* about a year after moving into our new digs, complete with a blu-ray drive. At this point (summer 2011), I set up a makeshift workstation in our den (which was fairly isolated from the rest of the house), at which I was able to both write the blog and pull screen caps (which, from then on, were sourced from the blu-rays instead of the DVDs, dramatically improving the image quality**). The den gradually became my new office, complete with a swanky turntable/liquor bar and lots of atmospheric candlelight, which I christened The Vinyl Lounge. For about eight months, I toiled in swanky style. Note the past tense there.

The legendary Vinyl Lounge, January 2012 (left: workstation, right: turntable/bar area across the room)

Things kinda went to hell around June of last year.  Our lease on the rental house was up, and since my wife had lost her job, we couldn't afford to renew it. Our marriage had deteriorated pretty severely as well, so we separated upon vacating the house.

If this trailer's rockin'... well, it's probably just the subwoofer. 

For the next four months (July-October 2012), I was holed up in an RV park deep in the forests of a tiny town called Boring, Oregon (the jokes just write themselves, don’t they?).  I wrote about this dark chapter in my life hereThe Twilight Zone was on a six-month hiatus for the entire second half of 1962, which meant no episodes were turning 50 during this time period. In all honesty, my depression was deep enough to preclude me from being productive anyway, so my blogging was sparse to say the least (I posted a paltry seven entries during this period). I spent most of my time drinking and watching movies on a setup which I christened The Endor Micro-Theater.

The Endor Micro-Theater, inside the RV.

My wife and I got back together on a trial basis at the end of October, so I moved in with her (she was sharing a house with some friends, renting what amounted to a large studio apartment, plus a separate bedroom for our daughter). The new workstation was essentially the same as the one I’d used previously in the Vinyl Lounge, without any of the swank or atmosphere (I also shared the desk with my wife, who was now a college student). My workflow for the abbreviated fourth season was as follows: I watched the episodes on my laptop during my lunch hours, during which I’d pull my screen caps. I also used the Notes app on my iPhone to record my vocal ramblings during my commute to and from work (which I detailed here). I wrote the entries themselves during my work hours, in between actual work-related tasks. I assembled and posted the blog entries at home, in the evenings or on weekends.  This system worked well for me (plus it gave me something constructive to do during my downtime at work, which is plentiful, often maddeningly so), and I fully expected to continue with this approach through season five. Note the past tense there.

My laptop died a painful, tragic death in early July of this year. I was suddenly absent the ability to watch episodes and pull screen caps during my lunch hours. Since we’re currently a one-income family, buying a new laptop was out of the question. There was no way I could possibly do it all at home, especially since my wife’s course load required massive amounts of computer time. It became apparent that the blog was essentially doomed; it would have to end a year early, incomplete. Further, there was absolutely no way I could manage my other blog, My Life in the Glow of The Outer Limits, which was to officially launch in September (to coincide with that series’ 50th anniversary). I began composing a final tearful entry, in which I’d explain the catastrophe and offer my heartfelt thanks to those who had embarked on this five-year mission with me (pardon the Trek reference), before closing up shop for good.

But you never saw that final entry, because I never finished writing it. And as you can see, this shop is still open for business. Like Kirk beating the Kobyashi Maru by modifying its parameters, my thoughts drifted beyond the geometric shackles of the proverbial box and hit upon another way.

It occurred to me in late July that, since I subscribe to Hulu Plus (which is a steal at $7.99 a month, by the way), I could watch the season five episodes on my iPhone during my lunch hours. I could continue writing the entries during my downtime at work (since I wasn’t using my laptop for that part anyway). I’d still have to do the screen caps at home, but moving that task to the end of the process would make it a much quicker job (I could essentially pre-pick the images I’d use).  To test this possible solution, I watched “In Praise of Pip" one day during my lunch hour. I made some mental notes, came back to work, and started writing the associated blog entry. I quickly realized that, at the advanced age of 43, making mental notes is a pretty unreliable method. Since I was already using my iPhone to watch the episodes, I couldn't use it to take dictation at the same time.

And then I dimly recalled having purchased a digital voice recorder some years earlier. I dug it out of my storage unit, threw in some fresh batteries, and voila! I was in business. I worked like mad all through August, getting as far ahead as possible (you know, just in case some other catastrophe might be looming on the horizon). As of right now, I've finished writing entries for the first thirteen episodes of season five (which takes me up through the end of the year) and, now that I’m four months ahead of schedule, I can slow down a bit. Relax. Reflect. Breathe.


This is my life in the shadow of The Twilight Zone. Chaos rules my personal life, I’m repeatedly beset with misfortune, and I’m regularly forced to find new tools and methods to get things done. Keeping the blog going has been much, much harder than it should’ve been, and I've certainly done my share of shaking my fist at the heavens in protest. But I’m gonna see this thing through to the end, goddammit, one way or another. And who knows? Maybe all of this has transpired for a reason.  Maybe I've been subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) maneuvered here, to my current circumstance, by a force beyond my comprehension. Those friends I mentioned, the ones we’re cohabitating with?  They just happen to have a very nice swimming pool, and we've still got at least a couple of months of warm weather left…. and I have the modern equivalent of a Dictaphone…. I think you know where this is going.

* Yes, that's a picture of me licking my new laptop. It's a tradition started when I got my first laptop back in '06. Here's proof:

I certainly had more hair then. It had thinned a lot by the time I got the newer laptop in '11, and I imagine I'll be stone cold bald when I get my third one.... whenever the hell that might be. 

** You may be wondering how I’ll manage to acquire high-definition screen caps for season five, since my blu-ray drive died with my laptop.  I’m not aware of any software that allows screen captures directly from a blu-ray disc, so I used a marvelous program called MakeMKV to rip all 156 episodes in August of 2011, before I started spotlighting season three. I still have those ripped files, safely archived on an external hard drive, so this blog shall remain happily HD.


Joel "Lord Dalek" Henderson said...

There are a few ways to take screencaps of Blu-rays.

1. PowerDVD07 and 08 will do it (they stripped out the feature from 09 after the lawsuit and the programs may complain that they're too old though)

2. VLC + AnyDVD + PrtScr is how I did my hd screencaps for a top 25 list I did at another forum. Costs a bit of money for AnyDVD though.

3. Aforementioned Matroska method.

Joel "Lord Dalek" Henderson said...

Oh BTW is that a HP 4065dx you got there?

Craig Beam said...

The HP was a dv7, but I don't know if it was the 4065dx. All I know is the thing fucking died on me, and I'm still bitter and devastated.

I like the MakeMKV/Matroska approach because, in addition to acquiring screen caps, I have a high-quality portable version of whatever I'm ripping. Of course, this is largely moot now, since I don't have a blu-ray drive anymore (again, the HP catastrophe).

Joel "Lord Dalek" Henderson said...

I know what you mean... my hd just died on me (the only reason I pointed the computer is I have the same exact one!)