Status Update

I sent out my packet today, which I’m pretty pleased with. The annotations turned out well, I think, and while it was two days late in going out, I’m satisfied overall with the results. I may post some of them up here later… we’ll see. Might nice to finally have SOMETHING up in my articles section.

My computer is behaving rather oddly… the Expose feature of OS X is randomly turning on… I think I’ve managed to isolate what’s happening, thought I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly happening now. Basically, when I’m typing with the computer in my lap, the whole thing bends juuust enough that the number lock and F9 keys are triggered. It’s very bizarre, and very VERY annoying.
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Annotation: Ways of Seeing

Originally published in 1972 as a companion follow-up to his BBC television series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a remarkable and interesting book from start to finish. Even the cover is nontraditional, ignoring the standard need for a cover separate from the rest of the book. Instead, they simply took an excerpt from the book, and used that as the cover. This establishes the sort of book this is from the very get-go: challenging the current deified, over-intellectualized view of art in modern society.

Standards are meant to be a groundwork, a starting point to grow from. They are not meant to be a constraint, a restriction as to the only “proper” methodology, but that is exactly what they have become. To fall back to an art medium I’m more familiar with, in photography one of the most commonly referenced “standards” or “laws” is the law of thirds, which is a guideline for composing your image. There are plenty of reasons to use this guideline, not the least of which is our natural predisposition to “sacred geometry” which a thirds-based image tends to satisfy. That said, photographers can end up trapped by this law, and become incapable of doing anything but this. They become chained to it, and often become incapable of appreciating any image that deviates from it. It is not until these deviations, these abnormalities become accepted by the artistic elite that they become accepted as a worthwhile technique. This has been my sentiment for quite some time, and I found Berger’s essays on this subject both cogent and topical. In particular, I found the statistics provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel on public perceptions of museums and art particularly interesting, as well as his discussion of the historical causes of this shift.

Interestingly, some art students argue that this shift never took place, and that this was always the nature of art. These are also the same art students that declare that “art is dead” so ardently, which I personally feel is the cliché battle cry of those who are afraid to contribute to it. Once again falling back to photography, I can pretty safely argue that this shift from art for art’s sake and as a commercial entity into the deified realm restricted only to the social elite is entirely within the realm of possibility, and with historical context as referenced by Berger, seems a virtual certainty. I have been witnessing the same progression in the field of photography for most of my life, and have discussed the topic with others who have been in the field for well over 40 years. With the advent of inexpensive scanners and printers, it is easier than ever before to accurately reproduce a photographic work, with or without the consent of the photographer. This has forced professional photographers to undergo a shift of their own: they must either shift into charging for their time and creativity rather than on a per-print basis, or face financial extinction through individuals purchasing a single print and duplicating it themselves. In order for this shift to work, however, there must also be a cultural shift in mindset to view hiring a photographer as a service, not as a product: you are purchasing the photographer’s creativity, not the print. This is, in my mind, incredibly similar to the cultural shift that painters underwent when lithographs and other methods to reproduce their art became available. The artists needed a way to justify their profession, and the social elite needed a way to continue to separate themselves from the masses, hence the shift to the importance of having an “original”, and to have the name of artist mean nearly as much (or more) as the painting itself.

I think I may have talked myself into a corner here, so allow me to clarify what I mean: the art community was forced into a paradigm shift in order to survive. This is pragmatic and understandable. While it is unfortunate, I do not consider this shift necessarily a bad thing. What I do consider bad is the way the social elite took this shift and bent it towards their own purposes — namely in further stratifying themselves from the rest of society.

As you can probably guess, the first essay in Ways of Seeing really struck a chord. I’ll let it rest for now, and instead move on to the rest of the book, which decidedly also merits discussion. His second essay, which was a montage of images gathered to form a visual essay was interesting. I found it directly relevant to one of his later essays on depictions of women in art, and I found both essays to be significantly less heavy-handed and accusatory than other essays and articles I’ve read about the topic. (While the objectification of women is a damnable thing, taking an accusatory, hateful tone about it is quite possibly even less effective or useful than simply doing nothing. Demanding reparations does nothing more than encourage resentment.) In particular, the use of female sexuality in commercial art is really rather directly pointed out, and the distinctions he makes between being naked, and being nude, and it explains my own personal choice to prefer the direct earnestness and honesty of an image of someone who is naked versus a picture of a nude. That is not to say that nudes don’t have their own place, and the objectification of the human form (male or female) can be used towards great effect as a method of artistic abstraction, much in the same way that a building can be made a thing of abstract shape and form through perspective, becoming something that is no longer a building (or in the case of nudes, a person). But as far as portraits, or human expression is concerned, I would far prefer to see someone naked because that is the most primitive, honest expression of themselves, than to see someone posed and nude because someone else wishes it.

I’m going to skip over the essay on the nature of art as a method of proving your possession of something else (a ship, a piece of land, a prize animal, a spouse or child, et cetera), because I feel like I’ve already addressed this in my discussion of the first essay, and go on directly to the essay on the use of art in advertising. This brought up some interesting points both in favor and against the ways art is used to sell things other than art, as well as how “corporate art” can still be considered art. Here’s my take on it, after reading his essay: of course it’s still art, and of course the social elite brand it as “selling out”. Use of art in advertising brings art to the masses, countering the whole push to keep art as a tool of social stratification. Whether it is through direct use, or through emulation of a classic piece of art, it allows the masses to have access to works that they might otherwise never see, and never appreciate or be enriched by. There was significantly more use of art in advertising and publicity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at which point there was a backlash, when the notion of use of art in advertising was a form of selling out and devalued the merit of the art really gained enough momentum to be noticeable. By the late 90s to now, there has been significantly less use (though it still does happen), and I can’t help but feel that this is part of the over-intellectual stratification, an attempt to retake art as solely the purview of the elite. Looking through the images included in the essay, while dated in composition, it is obvious just how much more direct influence prior art had on advertising compared to modern day.

Frankly, I blame the academic institution at large. While there are always exceptions, I find it remarkable and frightening how many schools of “art” I have seen that do nothing more than churn out more embittered, brainwashed pseudo-intellectuals that serve to do nothing more than maintain an entirely unnecessary stratification fostered by their professors (who themselves have been ensnared in this mindset). They obscure this stratification by hiding behind muddy definitions-through-lack-of-definitions of art, trapping their students in the circle of asking “what is art?” Well, here is a definition: art is a method of expression. That is my definition, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all a definition it needs. That, of course, is not acceptable to those who wish to deify art, because that definition intrinsically makes it accessible to anyone who wishes to express themselves. It returns art to the masses.

Mind you, I am not making a distinction between “good” art and “bad” art. That is a largely subjective arena, and can really only objectively be discussed on the merits of particular techniques, and subjectively on whether you (the individual) like it or not. Really, whether art is good or bad does not matter to the larger definition of art itself — the artist either expresses themselves well, or they don’t. They either have good technique, or they don’t. (I am well aware that nothing is truly binary, which is why I generally place things in three categories, things I like, things I don’t like, and things that I may not like but respect. But for the sake of the discussion, I’m keeping it generalized.)

John Berger has certainly raised some very interesting subjects, in a coherent fashion that are still just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. I would gladly recommend this to anyone interested in art (and in fact already have). Considering just how topical this book remains, it really serves to prove just how hard it is to break through the established mindset. I can only hope that at some point, it ceases to be topical, and instead becomes historical.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1973.

Annotation: The Art of Final Fantasy IX

I love beauty. I think it is a crying shame that the word has become so tied to a fairly vapid, superficial definition for so much of society, since the notion of beauty when boiled down to its most basic principle, is simply a method to name and identify that which draws us to a person, place, thing, or even abstract thought. It is with this in mind that I say I love beauty, and it is this idea that colors everything I strive for in my life. I suppose that is one reason why I tend to prefer the fantastic in art: more often than not, fantasy grows out of taking the beautiful from the mundane. The Art of Final Fantasy IX is an excellent example of this concept, creating an entire world that is beautiful and fantastic.

The Art of Final Fantasy IX is a companion book that was published when the game Final Fantasy IX was originally released, back in 2000. I bought the book at that point, and promptly lost it in a move. It resurfaced at my brother’s apartment this past April, as I was preparing for this semester, and I am extremely grateful for it. With my desire to learn the process of creating a world and characters such as (but not like) this, being able to see the actual original concept art that the game was built upon is invaluable. The majority of the art is by Hiroyuki Ito, Hideo Minaba, Akira Fujii, and Shin Kajitani, with a smattering of Yoshitaka Amano’s work on the lead characters. There is very little in the way of written work on it, though what there is was done by Dan Birlew, hence why the Library of Congress calls him the technical “author”. Interestingly, back when I thought the book was gone, I looked into buying a new copy… it has been out of print for several years now, and used copies are selling for over $85 (it was originally $20). I only wish they would turn this collection into a series, and release the art from some of the other games made by Squaresoft (makers of the Final Fantasy series, of which there are currently eleven released and another two in development. They also developed Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as the Mana series of games, and Xenogears, all of which were visually stunning in their own right), but I don’t think it made enough money in sales to merit it.

One of the interesting design choices they made for this this game was the use of caricatures, taking character traits of the individual to an extreme to create unique flavor to the environment (for instance, a gluttonous individual looks like a hippo, a set of pompous nobles have horns for noses so that they can “toot their own horn”, et cetera). It all ties into the underlying theatrical theme of the story, because in theater, things are also often exaggerated for the purposes of creating a robust atmosphere out of what could have been a very dull stage.

There are some images that I find particularly appealing or informative that I’d like to mention. Right off the bat, I’d say some of the most fascinating work is the work on the town of Final Fantasy IX. There are three primary cities, each with a very unique flavor: Alexandria, Lindblum, and Burmecia. Alexandria is largely influenced by pre-industrial European, with heavy emphasis on ornate religious symbolism, thatched roofing, and towering castle spires. The central design element of the city is a large (easily over 100 meters tall) crystal obelisk that crowns the center of the castle, which ends up playing a central role in a particularly magnificent scene later in the game.

Lindblum could easily considered a “sister city” to Alexandria, remaining strongly influenced by European architecture, but with a greater emphasis on technology and industry. The entire city is filled with clock towers and massive gates to allow airships to pass through (airships are a central aspect of all the Final Fantasy games… they are a recurring theme). Despite the fact that you are actually only able to explore a portion of the city, the designers do an excellent job of depicting a massive city citadel that has built upward rather than outward, with the entire city contained inside the gargantuan castle walls. (If pressed to choose between the two in preference, I would say I prefer the atmosphere generated in Lindblum, but appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Alexandria more.)

The third major city in Final Fantasy IX is an entirely different culture, and is called Burmecia, the City of Eternal Rain. It has VERY strong Indonesian cultural references, and I would argue that it is the most interesting of all three cities. We never get a chance to explore Burmecia in an undamaged state (it is invaded and decimated very early in the story), but even the ruins are truly beautiful and epic. Giant stone statues guard the gates to the castle, with lesser statues lining the streets. There are three themes to the landscape of Burmecia: that of battle (many warrior statues), that of music (in particular, harmonies and bells), and that of spirituality (especially revering one’s ancestors). It paints a remarkable backdrop for a fascinating culture, without even needing to say a word about it.?
A lesser town but still worth noting is the city of Treno, which is mostly drawn from Victorian era design. The city is mostly stone manors, and is circular, with the nobility living on the lower, inner ring of the town. What really makes this town notable is the overwhelming references to games. Several of the walkways take the form of large playing cards, and the nobles each take their name from chess pieces, playing cards, and the tarot (“King of Wands”, “Bishop of Coins”, “Queen of Hearts”, et cetera). The overall mood created by this design choice is really quite unique in the game. I think it may be my favorite town in the game, at least partially because of the juxtaposition they create in it: it is a two-tiered system. There is no middle class, you are either wealthy, or dirt poor. There is a certain amount of irony in binary socioeconomic classes that is interesting to observe, even in a fictional setting.

I’m going to address the section on the monsters they designed separately, because I would like to accompany my writing with some attempts of my own based on their work. Suffice it to say, they are well crafted and interesting, doing an excellent job of reasonably depicting what various beasts of legend should look like. Instead, I’m going to close this annotation by talking about airships.

Airships are a central, recurring theme in every Final Fantasy game, one of a very few recurring things. (Others include “chocobos”, large chicken-like birds that you can ride like a horse, and some character in the game named “Cid”.) It should be noted that no two Final Fantasy games take place in the same world… the theory goes that each Final Fantasy is the final world-affecting story of a given story universe. Airships have been in every single Final Fantasy game since the very first back in 1987 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That said, they have never been as ornate, detailed, or well thought out as they are in Final Fantasy IX (that includes games after IX).

Put simply, the airships in Final Fantasy IX are beautiful. They are massive and ponderous, and take on attributes of both sailing ships and fish (but not airplanes). In particular, the “Prima Vista”, a theater ship. It is called a theater ship because it in fact houses a stage on the aft of the ship. It is ornate and festive, designed with the need to house (and hide) the band and the various props and set pieces that might be needed during a performance. It is a delight to look at, pure and simple, physics of such a contraption be damned.

Truly, this book is a real treat for anyone interested in the art that goes into game design. The artwork itself is delightful, and the amount of information that can be gleaned from it is remarkable. While I would certainly not suggest purchasing it for the $85 a used edition is currently going for, I would definitely recommend finding a copy to borrow from somewhere to anyone interested in such a field. I said it earlier in this piece, and I’ll say it again: I would LOVE to see them turn this into a series of art collections, for the rest of the Final Fantasy series and other games as well.

Birlew, Dan. The Art of Final Fantasy IX. Indianapolis: Brady Publishing, 2000.

Annotation: Drawing As A Sacred Activity

Trying to find my own balance with the connection between spirituality and art has taken me to a number of books, not the least of which would be The Artist’s Way, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, neither of which I am directly talking about here (which is good, because I have not yet finished either of those books). It also introduced me rather directly to a book by Heather C. Williams called Drawing as a Sacred Activity.

It isn’t exactly a new concept: using art as a form of therapy has a lot of history behind it. But then, the issue for me has never been an ignorance of the merits of art. My issue has always been (and continues to be) getting past my internal censor to allow myself to DO the art. I do not have the technical ability right now to be able to create what appears in my mind’s eye, not as I would like it to be. Because of this, I am extremely critical of my own work, and allow myself to become paralyzed by this self deprecation. Which leads me to the blurb on the back of the book:

…many people are not encouraged to embrace their creativity. So they quietly shut down that part of their inner lives. Even people who learn to embrace their creativity may find themselves blocked by past emotions. Heather Williams has developed playful yet profound exercises to teach not only the technical but also the emotional skills that artists and nonartists alike need to create and heal their lives. (Back Cover)

Help me get past my past emotions and help me get back in touch with my creativity? Sounds good to me! It was this blurb on the back cover that got me to check the book out of the library. At worst it would be hokey, and I could lampoon it in my annotation. Instead, I was impressed with the honesty of her writing, and found that her advice genuinely made sense. While I have not managed to put much of it into practice, I have every intention to do so.

A good deal of the book is spent doing exercises, and ways to interpret those exercises. They start out very simply, with drawing basic lines, then moving onto doors and windows, then tables, chairs, and finally moving on to clothing and living things (trees, flowers, et cetera). She also recommends drawing with your non-dominant hand for a while, particularly in free-drawing, because it taps distinctly different parts of the brain, parts that often end up being tied to emotional response and memory. It is through this non-dominant drawing that we can often finally come to terms with things that have been blocking us for years. I definitely plan to work on this more, in the hopes that I can finally get past whatever it is that is keeping me trapped in the sentiment that my artistic ability is no better than a third-graders, no matter how good or bad it actually is. (In some ways it is more annoying to those around me than it is to myself. I merely trash my own work, which is an established routine for me at this point… those around me, though, are left confused and exasperated as to why I’m so hard on my work.)

I found her chapter on drawing animals far more interesting on an intellectual level than I did on a technical level. Her opinion (and I tend to agree) is that animals are an excellent way to learn to draw compassionately, which is more in tune with your own emotional well being. Animals (especially pets like dogs and cats) love unconditionally, and do not hide behind false pretenses. They will behave in exactly the way that most suits them at any given time, regardless of who is watching. This really struck a chord, because that is what I seek in my close relationships: an ability to behave exactly as I choose, without fear of judgment. I can be as goofy or relaxed as I’d like, without fear of reprisal. I can think of nothing that makes me love as absolutely and be as unconditionally happy as having that feeling with someone else. THAT, to me, is one of the core essences of love.

I’d say the biggest thing that I learned from this book is that a drawing doesn’t have to be technically perfect to be good, as long as it is emotionally honest. The corollary to that is that not every piece I draw must be technically good in order to not be a failure. There are some very childish, simplistic drawings in this book (admittedly, most of them were done with the artist’s non-dominant hand), but they still succeed in their goal: to honestly convey the artist’s feelings.

If the spoken and written word is the way that our thinking mind communicates, then the visual image is the way our emotional mind expresses itself. That may be an over generalization (where, for instance, does music fall in that range? It is an imperfect analogy at best), but it does convey what I am trying to say. I look forward to putting this (and what I learn from other books) into practice, and perhaps, finally, become comfortable with my own creativity.

I was a bit skeptical when I started the book, but now that it is finished, I am glad I took the time to read it. Anything even brushing up against the spiritual runs a strong risk (in my opinion) of being hokey rubbish, so discovering that I had not wasted my time with this one is really rewarding. I would definitely recommend it to anyone in a similar position to me.

Williams, Heather C. Drawing As A Sacred Activity. Novato: New World Press, 2002.

Annotation: The Dream Hunters

Everyone has someone that they look up to. Someone who so excels in a given field that you can’t help but wish there was a machine that could transfer talent like an infusion of blood. As far as I’m concerned, in the field of drawing and illustration, that person would be Yoshitaka Amano. He has an ethereal yet detailed way of drawing that I envy, creating some of my favorite images. I first became aware of his work from his character design work for Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy 3 in the US), which was incorporated into the manual. It immediately drew me in and influenced my perception of the world created within the game in a way that I had not experienced with other games or illustrations. For lack of better description, Amano’s work is like looking through the eyes of an Efreet, Djinn, or Genie: a magical overlay to a very real world. A recent collaboration between Amano and author Neil Gaiman continues this trend, in the most delightful way possible.

The Dream Hunters is a supplementary story that takes place under the aegis of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics and graphic novels. While considered a graphic novel, it is not done in the traditional “comic” style, but rather is written as a prose story, with a full page illustration for each page of text. The story itself is a retelling of an old Japanese myth about a monk and a fox, and the relationship that develops between them. Amano manages to capture the mood and magical, dreamlike nature of the story in a fashion that seems exactly and absolutely the correct way, and the very notion of it being illustrated in any other way would be intrinsically inaccurate and wrong.

That’s not to say that Amano’s style is the answer to everything. Other styles have their own merit of their own accord; it just so happens that in these circumstance, his style works well with the piece. It is a style that is most suited to the fantastic, the mystical, and the spiritual (really, aren’t these the same thing?), which is very much the nature of The Dream Hunters. I suppose what I am trying to say by this is that I am not claiming that Amano is the greatest artist of all time, that I would not elevate him above other masters (such as Da Vinci), but I WOULD place him in that same master category, and his particular style is one that I would like to adopt in my own work. I’m not sure if that notion is in some way silly or hypocritical to my belief that an individuals particular artistic style is at least partially developed through their personality, but I would certainly like to believe that it is not contradictory to include the desire to incorporate a particular style into your own work as well. (There is some credence to this, in my opinion, based on my observation of artists such as Fred Gallagher, who blends japanese manga style with american animation influences to create a style that is uniquely his own. You can see what I mean in his online manga comic,

While I enjoyed the entire book, there were some pieces that particularly leapt out at me. One that immediately comes to mind is the cover itself. The particular edition I have (there are several variations) is a metallic gold background, with the Sandman (very pale skin, black hair, black clothing, wrapped in a cloak) in the center of the image with a full moon in the background. Flowers are growing out of his cloak, and a raven is perched on his shoulder. Various creatures (a serpent, a fox, and several baku — dream eaters from japanese mythology) are faint in the background. Immediately in front of the Sandman is a beautiful woman, prone, floating/falling in the air (her clothing is draped downward as if she were floating or being carried, but her hair is pulled forward as if she were falling from a great height… the physics of a dream world is a marvelous thing). The overall composition is very direct and appealing.

Another piece I particularly enjoyed was about two thirds of the way through the book, when the monk travels to the King of Dreams (the Sandman), and is stopped at the door by an itsumade, which is a mythical beast loosely akin to a gryphon: “a monstrous bird, with a head like a lion’s, sharp teeth, a snake’s tail, and huge wings.” (90) Amano’s depiction of this creature was remarkable, both in the size and scope of the creature compared to the dimunitive monk, and in the blending of its traits into a believable creature. It literally fills the page with swirling color and shape, evoking wonderment at getting to see such a beast.

The final image I’d like to point out in particular is also somewhat epic in scope. It is when the fox meets the King of Dreams for the first time, where the Sandman takes the form of a giant black fox, who speaks to her from the top of a mountain. The image is very dark, yet still detailed, and does a masterful job at depicting just how much the fox is dwarfed by her surroundings.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, and would happily recommend it to anyone, both for the art and for the story. Neil and Yoshitaka put together a fantastic piece of work, and I look forward to seeing more (in the afterword, Amano mentions that this is just the beginning of his plans with Gaiman… the notion of another collaboration is more than enough to make me giddy with anticipation). I intend to continue to examine Yoshitaka Amano’s work during this semester, in the hopes of learning a bit about how he achieves what he does in his work.

Gaiman, Neil; Amano, Yoshitaka. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. New York: DC Comics, 1999.

Well, Hrm

I didn’t get the job. They sent me a very nice rejection email, though, and they actually stuck to their goal of having a decision by the end of the week. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about not getting it… I’m disappointed, but I’m also in some way relieved that I’ve once more been given a (only partially desired) reprieve from the corporate world.

Now the question really is whether I should continue to scramble to find work, or just give up the ghost, do my part-time/sporadic/on-call game testing gig for the rest of the summer, and move back to DC. With the additional income coming in from Chris (who thus far has not really impacted our normal spending whatsoever), that’ll certainly do us for the summer while we figure out what the hell is happening.
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Thought Showers

For lack of a better way to open, the title means very little beyond a reference to weather reports that say “Chance of Snow Showers”. It was going to be “Thoughts Scattered Like Papers on a Windy Day,” recalling a remembered moment from my recent trip to Chicago, but it was too long. Feel free to think of the title as that, though.

School has been going well. I managed to get my first packet in on time, and it’s looking like I’ll be able to pull that off with my second packet as well (don’t want to jinx it, though). I’ve been drawing at a fairly regular pace, though I really should try to step it up a bit. I see progress, which is good, but I still can tell that I’ve got a long way to go before I’d consider any of them “good”.

While we were in Chicago, Mickey, Mickey’s mom, our friend Ian, and myself went to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which is a regular tradition for Mickey and Ian, and the second time I’ve seen it (the first was in November, 2002). I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time (possibly more), and found some of the new plays quite engaging (the content of TMLMTBGB is constantly changing… as they say, “If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen the show once.”). We went and had coffee and chatted about various things (including UberCon), and in general had a good time.
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Interview, Muahaha!

Ahoy! Sorry for not posting recently, I’ve been exceptionally lazy. Here is a quick (happy) update: I’m currently working for VMC, testing xbox games. This is sporadic work at best, so I’ve continued to send out resumes. The Apple Store gig turned out to be a part time (10-15 hours a week) sales position, which isn’t exactly all that enthralling, especially since it’s only fractionally more than I make doing game testing, which actually has the potential to be a gateway into cooler things.

I also applied to OmniGroup, yet again, this time for a support position for their web browser, OmniWeb. I fully expected to not hear back, because I’ve never heard back before, but lo and behold, a few days ago I got an email asking to set up a phone interview.

I just had the interview, and I think it went very well. We’ll see if they share that opinion on whether or not I get the job (or at least to the physical interview). I’m pretty excited about this position, as it’s mostly just support and public relations of the sort that I’ve been doing for AVATAR for 7 years now, only I’d be getting paid for it.
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