Careers: Interviews
Acclaimed Writer, Noted Video/Graphics Expert

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Gerald Everett Jones.

Gerald Everett Jones has written more than 20 books on computer and business subjects, including Real World Digital Video (coauthored with feature director Pete Shaner), Easy Photoshop Elements, PMP® Certification For Dummies®, How to Lie with Charts, and A Guided Tour of Excel (Sybex), as well as Harvard Graphics: The Art of Presentation. His screenplay Ballpoint, a comedy about the outrageous huckster who promoted the ballpoint pen in 1945, was among ten projects to be accepted into the Screenwriter's Lab of the Independent Feature Project/West. He is a past director of the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America. He has professional expertise in computer graphics, industrial video, and website development and served as writer and executive producer of the InnRoom Shopping Network, a private TV channel in luxury hotels.

Discussion:

Q: Gerald, amongst your many talents, you are as a celebrated writer, and graphics/video expert, thank you for doing this interview.

A: I’m flattered that you asked and that you value my opinions. They say fame is overrated (it won’t necessarily make you rich), but anyone who has had a little of it always wants more!

Q: Tell us more about your work in screenwriting?

A: When I was in college I was an actor and did summer stock, and for my senior thesis I wrote and directed a play. As the writer, I could play all the parts. Back then there was no film school, and screenwriting really didn’t figure in my plans. When I got out in the world, I started as a writer of industrial film and video—commercials and corporate PR—and my colleagues were all obsessed with becoming screenwriters. I caught that bug. Most of my writing career has tended toward business and technical books, mainly because that’s where I found the paying work—and it’s work I know how to do. But all along I’ve been writing screenplays, taking courses, entering contests, hustling my screen stories. I’ve been doing it for more years than I care to admit.

I’ve won two awards—a runner-up at the Long Beach Playwrights Festival for a historical drama (Hypatia of Alexandria) and a finalist in the Independent Feature Project Screenwriters Lab for a comedy feature (Ballpoint). I’ve had several other “near misses,” with semi-finalist placements in the Chesterfield and Nicholl competitions and some options that came and went. Today, I have two feature films under option, and like everybody in Hollywood I try not to sit around waiting for the phone to ring. But all that said, screenwriting is a very special, rarified art form. The constraints to be concise, compelling, and visual—all at the same time—are unlike those in any other medium. So making it work is always a thrill, all the more so because the magic is hard to catch, doesn’t happen every day.

Q: Detail your past work as a director of the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC)?

A: I’ve been a freelance writer since the mid ‘80s, with occasional lapses for day jobs, and IWOSC was one of the first professional organizations I joined. It has several hundred members in L.A., mainly journalists and book authors. As I became more active in the organization, I gravitated to a subgroup called the Scriptwriters Caucus, which had separate meetings, talked about features a lot, and had about 20 working members who did industrials for a living. One of the reasons I served on the IWOSC board was to try to integrate the screenwriters better into the larger organization. It didn’t work too well. The caucus broke off and became the Scriptwriters Network, which still exists today, but I’m not involved with it. However, IWOSC is the best support organization I know of for writers who aspire to actually make a living putting words on paper. I’m still a member and occasionally I give seminars or participate in panel discussions. Even though writing is such a solitary activity, that doesn’t mean you have to build your career all by yourself. The other writers you know will rarely if ever be your competitors for particular assignments. They can be your mentors and networking buddies. See www.iwosc.org.

Q: What are the benefits in being a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America?

A: The Dramatists Guild (DG), based in New York, is a professional society that serves playwrights. Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has offices in both NYC and LA, is a labor union that serves television and film writers (also, increasingly, multimedia). The WGA East membership skews heavily toward writers of news and soaps, while the West deals mostly with episodic TV and features. To join the DG, you must have had a play produced and pay nominal annual dues. (If you become successful as a playwright, you will pay a percentage of your income to the Guild.) The DG publishes lists of contests, festivals, grants, and other programs periodically, and they are very good about covering most of the opportunities for struggling playwrights to get recognition, if not productions. They also have negotiated standard contracts for the commercial venues (Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional), and their legal department will review any member’s contracts. As for the WGA, traditionally you don’t join it, it comes to you when you’ve made a deal with one of its signatories (studio, network, or production company). That’s changed in recent years. There is now an associate status for writers working in nonfiction (reality), animation, and indie films. You can join as an associate if you have some professional experience (there are specific requirements in each specialty). If you are an associate member of WGA, there are nominal annual dues. If you get enough screen credits to become a full member, the dues are low four-figures per year, but the pension and health plans are included. WGA works closely with writers’ agents, managers, and entertainment attorneys to make sure that deals are fair and consistent with standard practice in the industry. There are more professional hand-holders (like agents and managers) in TV and film than there are in the stage world because the deals tend to be richer and more complex.

The main benefit of both organizations is some degree of protection against producers who try to get writers to work for free or on spec—or take advantage of you in other ways. Remember: 1) Fame is overrated, and 2) people don’t value what they don’t pay for. And beware of anyone who is peddling his ability to get a script to (insert big name here).

Q: Can you describe your work in computer graphics?

A: Along the way in my industrial film career, I started working with computer-generated business graphics (slides). I then ran a Genigraphics service center in Detroit, back in the days of room-sized minicomputer systems. We started experimenting with the first desktop systems, including a Cromemco Z80 with color display, just before the Apple II and the first IBM PC began to dominate the marketplace. From there, I got heavily involved in supervising software development for those systems, and eventually—years later when the dot-com boom was under way—those kinds of projects encompassed websites and digital television. Having hands-on experience with computer graphics is really what got me into writing technical books. The first book I wrote was on AutoCAD, followed by books on Harvard Graphics and Freelance Graphics. Then I became something of an authority on Excel—because the boom in business graphics died when Microsoft started “giving away” PowerPoint. More recently, I’ve been caught up in the DV revolution, and I’m really excited about what’s being called the Democratization of Video. The business models of indie film producers are looking more and more like those of garage bands—anyone can do it!

Q: What lessons can you pass on from your work in industrial video?

A: A lesson? Don’t go the cheap route. You’d think that corporate video is like home movies for business. Wrong! Industrial video production is every bit as serious (and potentially expensive) as the slickest feature production. Why? Because the success of products and company stock values are on the line. How good should it look? Anything but the best just won’t do. But now that DV is coming to every desktop, there will be a lot of pressure on middle managers to go in-house, to save money. Top management may even push the idea—until they see the results. It’s not that DV is poor quality—it’s that the people holding the cameras, setting the lights, capturing the sound, and editing the footage have to know how to achieve quality. They need professional skills. No one is going to get promoted by producing a “good home movie” of the company CEO’s annual address to the shareholders. As evidence of this, consider that the highest cost-per-minute of in any medium is spent on network television commercials—still shot mainly on film because advertisers perceive it means higher quality 

Q: Tell us more about website development.

A: There are still no generally accepted business models for making money on the Internet—Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and eBay notwithstanding. The big result of the dot-com meltdown is that websites, in the present business climate, are most successful when they are an adjunct to some mainstream business. And they work great for that. For example, computer-dependent consumers are discovering that automated customer support sites can actually provide more information, more consistent and reliable answers, than live operators. Especially for those “FAQs.” If I want to find a manual for an outdated product, I can be reading the PDF in about three minutes. I can find an updated driver for my old printer just as fast. My personal feeling is that website media distribution won’t really take off until there’s a generally accepted system of micro-payments. Perhaps on a subscription model—like cell phones. You get so many clicks at a fractional penny per click, for so much per month. Some of the business managers think this can’t happen because kids are such a big target audience and many of them don’t have credit cards. No problem, I say. The bookstores and retailers already figured that out with the electronic gift card. The parent gives the kid a card charged up to a certain limit. You do your homework, it gets recharged. Everybody wins in that model.

Q: Can you discuss your work as a writer and executive producer of the InnRoom Shopping Network?

A: Good follow-on question to the above, it turns out. I spent several years working for Reynolds Printasign, which develops and sells desktop systems for making retail signs and shelf labels. It was just one of my many iterations of computer graphics development. That business went soft when PCs became commodity items. So we started looking around for other business models that involved computer graphics. After we abandoned color printing on tee shirts and ads on the back of cash register receipts, we formed Targeted Digital Networks and got involved in digital TV distribution—what used to be called closed-circuit TV, but using computer networks. We set about to design custom networks for corporate clients. You’re seeing more and more of that today—a private version of CNN in airport departure lounges, LCD displays at supermarket checkout and bank teller windows—all with paid—and locally targeted—ad placements. It’s a potentially huge business—completely outside traditional broadcasting and cable—that is about to explode. One of our ventures was with Wyndham Hotels. We piggybacked on the in-room TV distribution system and produced a private channel for luxury shopping. We hired our own on-camera host, and we “re-purposed” and edited infomercials that were produced for The Golf Channel and some others—selling upscale items like golf clubs and exercise equipment. Then we had a toll-free phone number for inbound orders, as well as a website (a Yahoo Store) for online fulfillment. It was a really cool venture—but it fizzled for a variety of reasons, including the dot-com meltdown and the scarcity of investment capital after 9/11. But we did find out some new things. For example, you can’t do a repetitive “call to action” in a hotel-room setting. People will just switch you off, and you really can’t make them pick up the phone. So those spots had to be cut down, the pitch made softer. And there was a schizoid kind of split between the time people watched and when and how they bought. They watched during “shave time,” 7-10AM business-day mornings. They bought—not by picking up the phone—but by going to the website. And several hours later—when their morning business meetings ended and they broke for lunch! Makes perfect sense, but who could have predicted that behavior? Just goes to show, when you, in effect, create a new medium, it generates its own rules and behavior patterns.

Q: Describe your most surprising experience?

A: I don’t remember the moment specifically, but being born has to be the big one.

Q: Do have any humorous stories to share?

A: Okay, showbiz joke. Old, but hits close to home. Famous director—John Huston, let’s say—dies and finds himself standing at the Pearly Gates. He thinks he’s about to enter when St. Peter warns him that he won’t be working any time soon. Apparently Heaven has lots of sound stages, but they’re booked solid and there’s a long waiting list. Huston is distraught. He had so looked forward to having Michelangelo as his set designer, Dickens and Balzac as a writing team, Garbo as his star! The big Gatekeeper thinks a moment, then offers, “You might want to try the Competition.” And before Huston can reply, he finds himself transported in a flash to Hell, where he’s immediately jostled by a couple of grips carrying gigantic movie lights. Looking around, he sees that Hell is no fiery inferno at all—it’s one colossal movie studio! And it’s full of the best equipment, the most sumptuous sets, the most dazzling costumes—and the talent pool isn’t too shabby, either. John Barrymore is head of SAG South and apparently there’s lots of partying and all the sex anyone could want. Huston stops one of the harried crew and asks, “This place is incredible! Why would anyone ever want to shoot in Heaven?” The bewildered grip just casts his eyes resentfully upward and replies sadly, “Up there, the movies actually get made.”

Q: Can you share your ten most valuable guidelines from your book, “Easy Adobe Photoshop Elements”?

A: 1) There are lots of digital file formats. Learn how they differ and which to use for specific applications—print repro, email, web design.
2) Before you edit any shots, transfer them from the camera and burn a CD—store it as your digital negative.
3) Use the PSE feature to print Contact Sheets and store with the CD.
4) Use the File Info function to store photo research, copyright, location, subject, and/or source information on your shots. It can hold a lot of text for a single picture.
5) Mark your own original photos with copyright notice and/or digital watermark and include your website URL in File Info.
6) When you convert a color photo to B&W, you will always need to increase the contrast. The Auto Contrast feature usually does the trick.
7) Watch for blown-out whites. You can’t recover detail from areas that have gone pure white (also true for black areas, but not as common a mistake.)
8) When retouching portraits, don’t overdo it. You’re not married to a manikin. Character and personality are in the lines and wrinkles (okay, nuke the zits).
9) If you have time to digitize (scan) your old snapshots, you’re better organized than I am.
10) Set aside some free time and play with your digital photos to make artwork. It will engage the other side of your brain, and you’ll be surprised at the results.

Q: What future books, columns, and articles can we expect from you?

A: I’m working on The 24P Primer with Pete Shaner—a book on film-look DV Hollywood-style. Also a DV editing book on Vegas 5. I have several other book projects, one on a scandal in art history and another on ancient Alexandria. (I might have to “retire” before I can finish those.)

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: At a keyboard, I hope.

Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some detailed recommendations?

A: 1) After the U. S. presidential election, no matter who wins, I expect interest rates and taxes will rise rapidly. I hope I’m wrong. Don’t pay attention to financial analysts on TV. They work for advertisers—brokerage firms that want you to buy, buy, buy.
2) I don’t expect a business boom. Artificially low interest and tax cuts are keeping things going until the election, but I don’t think that situation is sustainable. There’s too much capital outflow, both to the ventures and adventures in the Middle East (which won’t produce returns, I fear) and from the dollar to the Euro. Expect rocky times ahead, for a long time.
3) Publishing is going through yet another transformation. It’s the Wal-Martization of the literary world. Authors’ advances are getting smaller. Books are getting dumber. There’s more pressure to accept reduced royalties or even work-for-hire. Experienced editors are disappearing as younger executives with law or business degrees take their places. There are only two outlets—Amazon and B&N. Let’s hope on-demand digital publishing (iUniverse) can become a viable alternative.
4) The web model may evolve toward micro-payments within subscriptions, as I described above. I hope it does. Some people like the free-for-all atmosphere, and that’s fine if you’re a young computer geek playing around. But as a place to earn a living, it has to have its “protected” areas with rules and costs.
5) If the ISPs were to charge internet postage for email,  it would be the single most effective way of doing away with spam. Russian hackers hate to pay money for anything. And if legal users see unexplained spikes in their bills, they’ll pay attention to whether their systems are being ripped off as spam servers.
6) I hope Mozilla Thunderbird becomes the de facto standard as an email client. Give it a try www.mozilla.org. Its adaptive spam filter is better (and less annoying) than anything I’ve used, including Outlook 2003. I’m still fuming that XP left the door open for all those pop-ups.
7) I’d like to see Linux blow Windows away, but I still have a codependent relationship with Microsoft products. I’m just disgusted with software that almost works. But going over to the Dark Side (Macs) will just aggravate you in different ways. (I know this seems at odds with my advocacy of paid models on the Internet, but it doesn’t have to be. A Linux world might be based on micro-payments, too.)
8) We haven’t yet seen the far-reaching changes .NET technology will bring. Computers will talk to other computers: “Hey, bud, got a few processing cycles to spare? Tweak this file and forward it to my homie over in China, will ya? If not, pass it on. By the way, you are licensed, aren’t you?”
9) Gasoline will become so expensive that the alternative-fuel industry will finally come into its own. But, guess what? The “energy” companies are ready. Analog: Tobacco companies now sell food.
10) Factory farming will reach the limits of practicality and land use. Morality aside, rising costs of meat production will eventually drive most of us to much healthier diets based on vegetable (or even synthetic) protein. 

Q: List the 10 best resources.

A: 1) Google (not a big fan of the toolbar, though)
2) The online card catalog and subscription information services provided by your local public library
3) Library of Congress online catalog
4) For writers, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
5) Your parents—in fact, anyone older than you. Or younger, for that matter.
6) For story ideas, memories triggered by paging through your high-school yearbook
7) A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (DVD set produced by BBC)
8) Shaner and Jones, Real World Digital Video, Second Edition (Peachpit Press) – Immodest? Hey, I put it off to No. 8, didn’t I?
9) Jones, How to Lie with Charts (iUniverse) – Perhaps the best book I’ve ever written, certainly in a niche by itself.
10) www.lapuerta.tv - Not fancy but I call it Home.

Q: Who/what do you think are the winners and losers in the next five years and why?

A: I hope the people who think a better world can be achieved by war and violence will be the big losers. I hope that people who love each other and love the planet more than they love any ideology will be the big winners.

Q: You pick five topic areas and then provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.

A: I have no exclusive hold on any of this, but here’s what occurs to me:

1) Area 1: Screenwriting
a) When writing or editing, here’s how to choose the point of attack in a scene or story: Same as attending a Hollywood party—get in  as late as possible and leave early, before it gets boring.
b) If somebody makes you an offer on a script, first check his/her credits on imdb.com.
c) List your scripts on Inktip.com but register them first. In fact, register every new draft that has major changes.
d) Never, ever give up.

2) Area 2: Computers
a) Try not to fix it if it isn’t broken, but realize you will try anyway, and break something else.
b) Learn hierarchical directory structure and how to navigate your drives. If you store everything in My Documents, you should ask your grandfather about Fibber McGee’s Closet.
c) Give files descriptive names and include the date of creation; don’t rely on the date stamp (which can change).
d) You can’t create too many folders or make too many backups. (Hard drives don’t fail as often these days, which creates a false sense of security. I know a video editor whose [supposedly crash-proof] RAID drive when down in smoke right before a big deadline.)

3) Area 3: Writing
a) Please try to preserve some personal style in your sentences. We can’t all write for the New York Times, so why should we all imitate its vanilla style?
b) Resist the advice to make your statements and your logic too simple. Go ahead and throw in a few sentences that exceed 20 words—just learn to punctuate them properly.
c) Explain in context, preferably with an example or a comparison, and preferably from the reader’s experience.
d) If you write for a living, save some time and energy for your own stuff. Otherwise, you will lose your love for it. 

4) Area 4: E-mail
a) If you receive a note encouraging you to forward it to everyone you know, don’t. Regardless of how virtuous the message is (kid with cancer, heartfelt prayer), the originator is probably a spammer who wants to run a trace and vacuum up all your friends’ email addresses.
b) If you get a note from anyone in Africa you don’t know, don’t reply. Disenfranchised princes with sob stories didn’t start working their cons on the Internet. They’re at least as old as the Pyramids.
c) There is absolutely no chance whatever that you could win a lottery you didn’t enter.
d) The price of a free web service is usually, at the very least, an invitation to spam you without mercy. At worst, it’s an invitation to install malware on your computer that will compromise your privacy and possibly also do serious harm. Furthermore, email spam offering to remove this stuff can be a trick to plant more. My personal recommendation, go to www.tucows.com and download Ad-Aware, which is free for personal use (and doesn’t come with strings).

5) Area 5: Life
a) If you promise something, either deliver it or notify promptly when you can’t and recommit. It’s amazing to me that people don’t seem to realize how being absolutely faithful to your word is the best way to win respect and power. Power proceeds from trust. Breach the trust, lose the power. (You’d think politicians would understand this better than they apparently do. Actually, they keep their word faithfully—to the people who put them in power.)
b) If you find yourself disagreeing vehemently and often with your coworkers or spouse, improve your diet and try getting more sleep. They will think you got religion.
c) Believe in something outside yourself, but act as if you’re its only pair of hands.
d) In life as on a movie set, go to the restroom and sit down whenever you get the chance.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: HP Pavilion (Athlon) reconditioned desktop (great value for the money), Gateway laptop (workhorse, with DVD, been around the world), home Ethernet and broadband cable (service sucks)—with Airport bridge to my wife’s iMac upstairs. (We agree to disagree on some things.)

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: Q1: Why did you become a writer?
A1: I didn’t like the life of a preacher, but I had the urge.

Q2: What drew you to being an actor?
A2: I wanted to find out what it would be like to behave differently, without the slightest chance of incurring anyone’s disapproval.

Q3: Why didn’t you continue your acting career?
A3: I had nightmares about forgetting my lines—or knowing my lines perfectly and finding myself onstage in a different play on opening night. But, as I said, I act all the time—when I write—and I get to play all the roles.

Q4: Do you enjoy writing computer books?
A4: I don’t enjoy the idea of writing them. They are income-producing projects for me. But when I’m actually writing one, it’s like a giant crossword puzzle. Then it’s fun. I particularly like writing books about topics I don’t know very well (when I start out). The trick is conning publishers into thinking I’m an expert so I can get the chance.

 Q5: Has writing business and technical books been a lucrative career for you?
A5: The biggest royalty check I ever got bought me a so-so used car. And there haven’t been many of those.

Q: Gerald, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: Concluding thought: I tried to envision world peace once. I expected it would be a crashing bore, a long droning Ommmmm. Turns out, not. Everyone was busy attending seminars and chattering like mad!

 

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