Author Archives: Tess

About Tess

Screenwriter | Producer | Author

DisneyLiving – Ghoulish Greetings


Director Sebastian Davis, Producer Tess Ortbals

Ghoulish Greetings Spot #1

Ghoulish Greetings Spot #2

Ghoulish Greetings Spot #3

Published: October 31, 2010

Disney Living – A Post Coloring Tutorial

Hey folks,

Our friends over at Basher Films put together a detailed blog on the process of color correcting our Disney “Ring” spoof spot.  Entitled “Anatomy of a Grade” Chris Hall takes us through the process of matching the cool style of the original material.  I highly recommend it for all those interested in the emerging art of film coloring.

Check it out:

Basher films ( just announced the addition of the DaVinci Resolve to their facilities.  If you are in need of quality color correction at a reasonable rate – give Chris a call!

Happy Halloween!

Published: October 29, 2010

WCA 2010 Industry Forum – Not Your Mama’s Film Industry

Not Your Mama’s Film Industry

Every year the Women of Cinematic Arts puts on a killer conference with a line up of current power house players in the Industry.  On the whole, there are a ton of USC alumni and most encouraging – WOMEN in key creative roles.  Aside from hearing personal anecdotes on blockbuster movies and shows, it is also a great forum to catch up with up-and-coming peers in the industry.

I’ve been a volunteer for the WCA for the past four years and at every Forum as well.  I’m a bit of a junkie to these events.  But the value isn’t with the face time with these Industry elites – it’s really with the connection to the women in the audience.

The WCA is now about 700 members strong with a wide variety of people in various stages of their career.  From current students to working freelancers to young execs – We cover the spectrum.  And we also hire each other.  The Forum is always a great place to reconnect with old friends and new, and to seek out new opportunities.

I have to quote one member – an old friend of mine whom I started film school with back in ’05 – Kate Powers (MFA Screenwriting ’07 – now a writer’s assistant on Breaking Bad).  Her thoughts on the Forum:

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk, doing the *exact job* I dreamed of
landing when I started at USC — and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t be here
without the guidance and lessons I’ve learned at these industry forums.

Kate is super talented, and I know she is going to be writing in the room on a show in the next five years, for sure.  I’ve had the privilege to direct her work which always had witty dialogue and fun comedic action twists that keep audience engaged.  If not for the WCA – I might have lost touch with Kate.

Yesterday I was able to touch bases with people I haven’t seen in over a year – and in some cases over 5 years!  All dynamic women with a lot of new exciting projects or job opportunities before them.  Many women were exchanging cards and figuring out how they can help each other in their objectives.  That was when it occurred to me…the WCA had achieved it’s goal.  Women supporting women in this industry.

I left yesterday feeling invigorated, as though I got a shot of adrenaline towards my goals.  The keynote speaker, Linda Woolverton, said you have to live your dream and every day work towards that goal no matter how discouraged or alone you may feel.  If you want to write – then write!  And as it turns out, most of the recent phenomenon “Alice in Wonderland” was written in the bathroom to avoid persistant animal distractions.  With organizations like the WCA, I feel a breath of relief, because it IS HARD and LONELY – but with them, that supposedly insurmountable mountain seems more like a challenging hike.

Thank you to all the volunteers and the School for all the hard work of putting on the Forum.  As always – top job ladies!

Published: October 10, 2010

Don’t Make Your Characters Dumber Than Your Audience

There should be a universal list of no-no’s that every writer (and editor) should be forced to go through when they have completed their work.  Amongst them, in fact maybe even atop this whole list, is that your main character should never become dumber than your audience.  Here’s what I mean:

I’m in the last 150 pages of a 2500 page fantasy trilogy.   I have some real pet peeves with this series (which I run into in a lot of fantasy novels) , but here’s what just happened.  Throughout this complex, intriguing, and very good story we have gotten very close to this character named Fitz.  He’s had to endure massive tragedy, massive pain and punishment, and massive discrimination.  He’s strong-willed, clever, and dedicated to his King most of all (who was overthrown by his scheming brother when the King went searching for a way to stop the raids from evil foreigners on their coasts).

Now, nearing the end of this epic story, Fitz and a small group of others have traveled out of their land to find the good King and help him overthrow his conniving brother.  For Fitz, this also would mean that his wife, a woman whom he loves more than anything but believes him to be dead, and his daughter whom he’s never seen will be safe and that he can return to them.  We are close to these people, and we want Fitz to get back there and finally have something good in his life.

Fitz holds The Skill (like Jedi mind tricks – only a few people hold this power and some are evil), though he was never trained in it.  There is a group who are from the conniving King, however, who have been very well trained in it.  They have been following Fitz and his group into the wilds, hoping to corrupt his mind and find a way to hurt him.  Fitz and his group members have realized that a very minuscule Skill-link has formed between Fitz and another character in his group, The Fool (he was the King’s fool – kind of a mysterious prophet).  They are all concerned that this link could be exploited by the king’s Skill users to get into Fitz’s mind without him knowing, or worse – they could take control of the Fool’s mind and get to Fitz.

Then the conniving king recently communicated to Fitz through one of his Skill users that I know where your wife and daughter are.  I will rape her, torture her, and then kill them both.  You can do nothing to stop me. As you can imagine, this is horrendous news for Fitz.  However, he quickly realizes that there is no way any of them know where she is.  So he simply must not allow them to know.

A few pages later, The Fool begins acting strangely.  He asks Fitz if he would be okay with him visiting his wife were Fitz to be killed.  Fitz responds that he’d rather his wife (remember, she thinks he’d dead) never know that he still lives because she’d be hurt he didn’t come to her.  But the Fool persists with his pressure and Fitz says, “Well I don’t even know where she is specifically.  Only that she’s near this town called Buck Cliffs.”  And suddenly the Fool freezes, collapses, and acts exaclty like the last two times evil King’s skill users tried to take control of him.

What does Fitz do?  He gets angry at the Fool for acting like an idiot.  Even when the rest of his group claims that they found the Fool laying on the ground having violent dreams.  They even say, “It’s as if he’s been Skilling using.”  What does Fitz do?  He gets concerned the Fool is sick.  Eventually the Fool wakes up and Fitz has a change of heart, telling the fool he does with him to visit his wife if he were to die.  “Why on earth would you be telling me that, Fitz?”  He doesn’t remember the conversation – only as if it were a remnant of a dying dream.  What does Fitz do?  He still assumes the Fool is sick.

So here I am.  150 pages left, and my main character has been deliberately made an idiot by the author.  Why wouldn’t they realize that the Fool is doing exactly what they’d warned themselves about for days and days on end?  They would realize it!  Instantly!  And if they couldn’t prove it, Fitz wouldn’t be able to hold himself back from using the Skill to try and kill those other guys or at least use people’s minds to try and warn his wife.  Oh I’m certain he’ll realize that the others have now found the approximate location of his wife.  But not for a while (and the book is nearly over).  And in the meantime, I don’t believe anything any longer.  I think a hell of a lot less of the characters I should care most about.


Published: October 9, 2010

Disney Halloween Spoofs – It’s Alive – Ahhhh!

Hey All,

Come check out my Disney Living Halloween Spoofs up on YouTube.  Disney Living is launching a Costume Contest.  Check out the details below from their YouTube Channel (via Facebook, too).

Disney Halloween Spoof: Ghoulish Greeting #1

Let Disney Living trick and treat you to three scary movie spoofs and participate in our Halloween contest with your own video. More details below. Don’t get too scared…these videos are just frightfully funny e-greetings for you to send to your family and friends this Halloween season!

Disney Living invites YOU to create your own Ghoulish Greeting video and enter it in the “Happy Halloween from Disney Living Contest” for a chance to win one of five $100 Disney Store gift cards. All you have to do is videotape an original Halloween video greeting including this Disney Living Happy Halloween Graphic:


and at least one Disney character costume (store bought or homemade). Then post your video as a “video response” to one of these three Halloween Video Greetings.

See full contest rules here: CONTEST RULES and terms of use here: TERMS OF USE



Ghoulish Greetings Spot #1


Ghoulish Greetings Spot #2

Ghoulish Greetings Spot #3


Published: October 5, 2010

Write Movies Finalists – 25th International Writing Competition

Moving on up…

Terra Incognita made Finalist at the competition.  They actually have made some of their past winning scripts.  Good competition to participate in.  At least we now have an idea that our script can compete with international ideas.  Global market value, baby! International Writing Competition #25

We received nearly 1000 screenplays, books, plays, short stories and articles from the following countries: USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Belgium, India, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Georgia, Mexico, Japan, South Africa and The Cameroon.

The list can be seen at: CLICK HERE

Published: September 28, 2010

Terra Incognita – how the script came to be.

I should start out by saying “Terra Incognita” is a passion project.  Ironically, it’s not your typical, “I-have-a-personal-drama-story-I-have-to-tell” passion project.  It was my guilty pleasure of loving old time action-adventure high-concept fantasy films.

Anyone who knows me would classify me as a history nut.  For a time I thought I was going to make historical documentaries and even spent a good 5 years studying archaeology in pursuit of it.  But the narrative bug wouldn’t leave me alone, so I returned to the world of stories clearly influenced by my old field of study.

Terra Incognita was originally going to be my Thesis script from USC’s graduate program.  We wrote the synopsis, but something didn’t click.  We chose instead to develop something smaller scale, something new graduates could tackle in the Indie Market and raise funds for (A Touch of Magic). But high concept (and big budget) movies are in my blood, so I wrote it anyways.

LOTR aragorn's ring of barahir3

Adventurous, Awesome and God’s Gift to Women = Men like Aragorn

It is inspired by the memory of Men.  You know the type.  They burly, danger-seeking, tough as nails salty men who just don’t seem to exist any more.  It’s also inspired by the actual events of the discovery of Easter Island.  In fact, the original title was Rapa Nui: Land’s End – but man does that title suck.  I vaguely mentioned to Zack Luna, a Sales Rep from Kathy Morgan, Int’l that I was consider changing it to Terra Incognita – he said “now that, I can sell”.  I knew he was on to something.  A Good Title = a possible read.  All any aspiring writer could hope for, right?

Terra Incognita, for the uninitiated, is the mythical southern land mass the Old World believed existed in the unexplored areas of the world.  It was supposed to balance out the globe and be home to all the legendary creatures of mythology (hey, they have to live somewhere, right?).  Old nautical maps have it scribbled in the corners.  Or as wikipedia calls it:

An urban legend claims that cartographers labelled such regions with “Here be dragons“. Although cartographers did claim that fantastic beasts (including large serpents) existed in remote corners of the world and depicted such as decoration on their maps, only one known surviving map, the Lenox Globe, in the collection of the New York Public Library,[1] actually says “Here be dragons” (using the Latin form “HIC SVNT DRACONES”).[2] However, ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers did use the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES (Here are lions) when denoting unknown territories on maps.

Alternatively, ‘terra incognita’ may also refer to the hypothesized continent Terra Australis Incognita (“The unknown land of the South”), as seen in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map by Abraham Ortelius (1570). 


Dating from ca. 1510, is the second or third oldest known terrestrial globe. It is housed by the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library.

The old school adventurers truly believed in its existence.  They scoured the globe looking for it.

What if they found something?

That is what inspired “Terra Incognita”.  The “what if”.  And the ability to say something about the ecological ruin of Easter Island.  It really is a lesson for our entire planet about resource conservation.


Tongariki Moai Heads – the largest carvings of the ancient world made with stone tools.


The script has done better in competitions than I could EVER have expected.  We just heard back today that we are FINALISTS in the 25th International Writing Competition</a>.  We are travelling to Austin in October to meet with panelists at the Austin FF Conference.

I’ll be blogging about that experience soon!  Thanks for reading.

Published: September 28, 2010

Disney Living Halloween – It’s a Wrap!


We just wrapped production on 3 Disney Living web-mercials with Director Sebastian Davis.  I need to give a shout out to my fantastic crew who made the project not only visually stunning, but a smooth enjoyable time despite the record 110 degree heat wave in Los Angeles.

It turned out to be a Trojan reunion, with all of the Keys former USC film school grads.  Jay Visit and Raul B. Fernandez co-DP’ed the gig.  Susan Havens was on Locations.  Monica Surrena on Production Design. Michelle “you rock” Kramer is by far the best 1st AD I’ve worked with.  Paul Fonarev and David Lankton of Miso Sound were our tireless sound team.

I even met a new (and hopefully frequent) collaborator, in our stylist Myriam Arougheti.  She’s fantastic.  Hire her.

But mostly I need to shout out to Sebastian.  He’s a wonderful collaborator and fantastic director.  I knew it the moment we started casting and saw him working with the kids.  He’s a natural.  And the fact that he’s so darn level-headed makes working for him so much easier!  Thank you Sebastian for being such a great partner.

The spots recreate (satirically) classic Hollywood horror movie clips with a Disney flare.  Look for them all over the web during this Halloween holiday season.


Tess “tired, bruised, but loving it” Ortbals
Producer, Disney Living Halloween

Published: September 28, 2010

Why is Writing the Red Headed Step Child?


I’ll admit, I’m in new territory submitting my script in lieu of my finished films to competitions.  And as my feature action/adventure tale of swashbuckler hero-types ACTUALLY progresses in the competitions, I’m amazed at the perceived insignificance of it.  I truly think writers get the short end of the stick.

Yes – there are 100s of competitions out there that really don’t mean squat to an aspiring filmmaker.  The same is true of writing comps or film festivals.  However, there are a few that honestly open doors for new talent.  Here are the top 5 competitions my research has determined to mean anything.

#1 Nicholl’s Fellowship – Ran by the academy and open only to non-professional writers (you can’t earn your living writing to win this fellowship).  Even quarterfinalists get industry attention.  HOWEVER – they got 6404 script entries this year.  Wow.



#2 Austin Film Festival – 17 years and still running. This competition runs simultaneously with their large Screenwriting Conference.


The Sundance Writing Lab is pretty awesome, but so very very rare to get an invite.  Don’t waste your money on the $65-75 entry fees at the other “pro” competitions.  If you want Hollywood to come to you, my money is on Nicholl.

Published: September 20, 2010

Austin Heart of Film Screenplay SEMIFINALISTS!


So I had received my rejection letter from AFF on my birthday, no less – telling me that we made it to the 2nd round of the Drama competition with Terra Incognita.  I was so bummed.  I really thought that script was perfect for this competition.  They even had a special section for:


Perfect, huh?  Well, I guess so…

Because a few days later I got a call from Matt Dy from Austin telling me I was one of 8 Sci-Fi scripts selected for the Semi-Finals!  Apparently my action-adventure mythology script didn’t cut it in the drama section.  Thank God for the special genre category!

The Semis list is on the web “Here

We find out about Finalists at the end of the month.  I just booked our Producer’s Passes.  Can’t wait for the parties!  Woo Hoo!

Published: September 13, 2010