Monday, 29 December 2008

What about the crew (part two)

Two more capital ship sims:

Star Trek Bridge Commander definitely deserves a mention here: the slow, heavy movement gives the feel of a capital ship even though this is essentially a very simple mission-based combat sim. In addition this is very much a Star Trek capital ship: combining immense weapon power and other high-tech with vulnerability (computers emitting smoke and sparks at the tiniest blow); also many of the combat sequences in the films and Next Gen TV series do feel very consistent with combat in STBC. Interaction with crew is particularly good here; there's a real sense of actually ordering people and teams to carry out work; each character has a tiny amount of autonomy (the First Officer raises shields when you are attacked; helm and tactical stations carry out their own combat maneuvers; engineering starts prioritising repair works etc.) Combat is particularly immersive - as the action unfolds crew members are constantly calling out status and damage reports for your own ship or the target. Outside combat the game is much more limited. Crew are fixed - there's a disappointing mission when your tactical officer is replaced by a Klingon. Hoping to see braver, riskier or even suicidal tactics I was disappointed as combat remained unchanged apart from a slightly dodgy Klingon accent (I don't remember any Scottish Klingons, although I suppose lots of planets have a North). I played this game with a Game Commander voice recognition set - if you try this, don't use the packaged command set, search for the better, fan-produced file on the Net.

Homeworld: conjures up the feeling of commanding a capital ship and fleet (although no crew element apart from background radio chatter) Much of the immersion comes from the attention to graphical detail - supply ships and fighters dock smoothly with motherships and maneuver to avoid collision with each other as they enter formation.

So what I'd like is to hire crewmembers from Frontier to man the Homeworld ships, interact with them through the Bridge Commander interface and watch them live and work as in Battlecruiser. I don't ask for much...

What about the crew?

I've played a number of space sims looking for a way to live out the space-opera experience (think Star Trek, or even better David Weber's Honor Harrington series). I'm not hugely interested in mission-based fighter sims, however many wingmen you get - what I'd like is to be able to captain a large, complex capital ship, to be able to make both military and non-military decisions, and to manage crew dynamics. My search so far:

Frontier series: allow you to interview, hire and fire crewmembers who have names and faces; they occasionally quit of their own accord; the offer of work on one bulletin board may correspond to a missing persons or wanted notice elsewhere. However we're only usually talking about three to seven crew; and apart from remove the chocks at take-off they don't seem to do all that much. This is also not really a capital ship game as in the Elite universe the small one-ship import-export entrepeneur is king (think Only Fools and Horses in space) however Frontier is the only game that gets ship choice right: it's not about working your way up to the biggest, fastest, blingiest ship with the most weapon ports, it's about specialization and the right sized hull - that enormous cargo-hauler is great for profitable trading routes or exploration, but will be too slow for a high-speed parcel courier or an assassin overtaking his marks in hyperspace. The equipment you need e.g. cabins for a passenger ship, takes up so much of the hull space that you can't afford to be a generalist.

Battlecruiser series: larger crew complement, varied roles, crewmembers actually seem to do their jobs, move around the ship and come on and off duty. The ship feels like a capital ship, particularly as you can scramble fighters and shuttles to deal with some situations. However only bridge crew and fighter pilots have any names or personality and they are fixed - you clone them if they die; other crew members can be hired at space stations but are just numbers.

Both series were let down by bugs and other issues around release. BC should have been closer to what I was looking for but FFE was in fact much more enjoyable and immersive despite the bugs.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Ladies Vanish

Flightplan (2005) is a re-make of The Lady Vanishes (1938), linked by a common theme - the disappearance of a travelling companion and doubt as to whether she existed at all; the same plot device is used in both films to resolve this highly paranoid middle phase of the plot, and both lead to straightforward action climaxes. Flightplan isn't quite science fiction - although it's set on a futuristic, advanced airliner, this doesn't have a huge impact on the plot.

Hitchcock's film is hard to fault - I found the comic relief sequences tended to jar with the rest of the film but overall The Lady Vanishes is very effective psychodrama. Flightplan is seriously flawed - supposedly post 9/11 however this is only true superficially - a knee-jerk reaction for many of the passengers is to blame a group of "suspicious" Arabs for the mysterious happenings. For some reason these curious characters are called upon to apologise to Jodie Foster later in the film - I'm trying not to think too hard about what's being said symbolically here. Once the mystery is uncovered things actually degenerate into the kind of high-altitude shenanigans that could only really happen before 9/11 as these days the plane would probably have been shot down about half an hour before the end of the film. And, this is a newly designed, high security plane. You can't get in or out of the cockpit - but it seems you can easily get from the toilet cubicles into the cargo space (admittedly if you, the heroine, happen to have designed the plane).

For all this, the tension is maintained by the quality of the acting and camerawork, making excellent use of a large but claustrophobic set.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Rossums Universal Robots remake?

Sorry. I'd love to see a cinematic re-make of this play, the Czech origin of the word "robot," but I doubt there's one on the cards.

Never mind - there are other ways to get your robot fix. Hidden amongst the trillions of pop videos out there are some brilliant pieces of short film. I have several non-sci-fi favourites but here's a sci-fi classic: Believe by the Chemical Brothers.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

L'extra terrestre

A few years ago I was in Paris during a rainstorm and took shelter in a cinema. The film was the re-release of E.T., dubbed into French. I previously saw ET at age 5, a formative experience for me. The update is thankfully minimal, just a few tweaks to the special effects.

Firstly, watching ET as an adult is an eye-opening experience as you can make sense of the behaviour of the adults in the film. For example I had no idea what the grown-ups were doing to ET after he died, the first time - now I can clearly see that, in a gesture of hopelessness at his alien physiology, they are following a standard advanced life support/resuscitation protocol. The film is written for children, and perfectly creates the sense - to a child - of a scary and perplexing adult world.

Secondly, dubbing the film into a language which I can use to only a small extent made absolutely no difference to the film. It could have been in Chinese, Linear B, BSL or filmed as a silent movie - the visual language of the film is so powerful and so clear that the script is more or less superfluous.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Production Values

I honestly believe that the presence or absence of Hollywood production values is not what decides the overall quality of a film. It's partly a trade-off - with a big budget you get undoubtedly more realistic and more demanding sfx throughout a film, better technical stuff generally, more famous actors etc. but you also get the problems - you have to keep all your investors happy and get the widest possible audience so you have to dumb down the film to the lowest common denominator, or change the ending to please the test audience (that means you, Little Shop of Horrors) or include characters to sell merchandise or computer games; also I think too many films rest on CGI at the expense of plot, dialogue and other character-driven stuff. Let's leave the sequels issue for now.

Indie films meanwhile are a very mixed bunch - lower budgets and production values sometimes compromise the vision but other times force the film-makers to innovate. It might be easier to stay true to your own ideas - or you might be even more dependent on your limited sources of money.

On a related subject I was thinking about the reasons people (like, say, the Asylum) might make derivative rather than original films - it's easy to be cynical about this. Here's a link to an interview with Sandy Collora who previously made a Batman fanfic short but is now working on a more original project. He talks quite frankly about getting more attention for his earlier work because it featured a known character - on the other hand by making it he developed skills and proved he could see a project through to completion, which must have helped when he was looking for support for his new feature.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Entries closed

The deadline for the Guardian competition has now passed with Human Touch up against a small number of other films - many far more surreal than amything we came up with. There won't be a judges' result until some time in the next month or so.

I had a great deal of fun making Human Touch, and also learned a lot about film-making, apart from the general truism about how much hard work goes into it. A few of these lessons were sadly learned too late for this production.

-save money on lighting
-never save money on microphones
-if your camcorder actually has lower resolution than your stills camera, don't use the camcorder
-never work with children, animals or furniture
-Windows Movie Maker is the most useless piece of software ever written
-Windows Movie Maker is the most fantastic piece of software ever written
-spotlights gradually slip downwards if you leave them
-keep all your locations near each other

I also learned that musicians are incredibly generous - I was very grateful for the music from the University of Illinois which was released under Open Audio/Creative Commons licensing, and for the kind offer from another musician Mary Mei to allow me to use one of her beautiful harp recordings - if only we'd had the time to use this it would have been perfect for the film.

Will I do this again? I hope so. There are some animation/CGI projects I'd like to see through next. I'm also still thinking about whether to enter the Sci-Fi-London 48 hour competition, and my co-collaborator has some projects I might help out on. Watch this space...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Drop the camera and run - again

A creature attacks the metropolis, survivors go on the run shooting everything on camcorder as they go. Sounds familiar? Monster, made by The Asylum and distributed by Lighthouse, is as close to a rip-off of a certain other monster movie as it is possible to get (even though it was released first!) and it set me wondering about why people make derivative films. Cloverfield itself actually has very high production values - this film clearly cannot afford the same values so this is a cheap attempt to mimic an expensive attempt to look cheap.

Having started with a negative point, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, although more in the way you might enjoy an amateur or fringe theatre production. There's a lot to learn here about how to make films on a budget - clever use of sound and camera angles to convey panicking crowds without actually showing any people, etc. I might try some of this if I make any more short films. Most of the film seems to have been made by a handful of people - actually I was surprised by how many names were on the credits!

The two stars are Sarah Lieving and Erin Sullivan. Sarah is apparently a regular at Asylum, Erin has only a few credits including "Transmorphers" (I wonder what that one's about...) They're both endearing and reasonable actresses - this film gets a lot of criticism at least on imdb but this is mainly because it's derivative. It's also fair to say that unlike a film with a larger budget, the pair pretty much have to carry the whole film - clearly there was only a budget for a few minutes of film with other actors, plus the brief action climax at the end, plus a few extra dollars for special effects, so most scenes just feature the two girls, and a lot of the action can't be shown so they have to rely on their acting skills to convey it. The whole shoot must have been hard work.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Human Touch

Several late nights and one system crash later, finished post-production so here's the film.

This will be an entry in the Guardian YouTube competition, based on a short story by Mark Ravenhill.

Creative Commons License

Human Touch is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

My definition is this...

What is sci-fi? Two answers:

a - it's a genre and is therefore defined in a circular way as being the books that are enjoyed by sci-fi fans, or written by sci-fi authors, or found in the sci-fi section of your local bookstore. The idea of what makes something sci-fi can change over time, and of course there is the possibility of disagreement or different perspectives.

b - John W. Campbell had this idea that a true science-fiction story could only have one difference from the real world - this could be a divergence from history (a Jonbar point) a change to the laws of physics, or some other invention or postulate; the story should explore the consequences of this one change. This makes science-fiction similar to the idea of gedanken-experiment (thought-experiment).

I prefer b personally: this excludes anything in the Star Wars / Star Trek area (fun though they are) and relegates them to fantasy, while confirming the status of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo as classic science-fiction.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Preview frame

Still working on the 5-minute film. Here's a frame from the opening sequence. The CGI sequences aren't going to be too much trouble - it's editing the live ones that is keeping me up...

Monday, 8 December 2008

So far, so good

The shoot yesterday was long, surreal and (amazingly) successful - we managed to shoot every required live scene in the script in just seven hours, including setting up and dismantling lighting in three different locations. Early review of our footage suggests the sci-fi concepts actually look OK, no people animals or furniture harmed and no equipment deposits lost. Also we only had to break into one location Ed Wood-style. Our cast of volunteers were superb and very willing to go along with what must have seemed very eccentric directions. I've also learned a great deal about the difficulties, particularly around lighting, camerawork and continuity - if we do this again it will be faster and better (although probably not cheaper).

I don't want to say anything specific about the content of this 5-minute sci-fi epic yet. The submission deadline for the competition is next week and there's still the CGI animation and the editing job to do. There's still time for things to go wrong but I'm cautiously optimistic. I'll post some teaser stills during the week and a YouTube link as soon as we've submitted.

In the past few weeks I've been watching some very low budget film and TV, partly with an eye to this project, and reading up on guerilla film-making. Now I know what it feels like to shoot for a 5-minute project, I have the greatest respect for anyone who completes an amateur, indie or low-budget feature-length film.

Answers to Star Wars quiz.

I'm sure you got them all:

1: A New Hope
2: Empire Strikes Back
3: Revenge of the Sith
4: Attack of the Clones
5: Return of the Jedi
6: The Ewok Adventure


Thursday, 4 December 2008

Back down to earth

I'm now back online but have had to re-activate my old computer until my new Vista-compatible router arrives. Why is Vista so much less powerful than XP? It reminded me of the film Robocop 2. This was a disappointment after the sharp satire and effective horror of the first film but was worth watching for the highly symbolic face-off between Robocop (running on MS-DOS) and Robocop 2 (Windows 3.1) - I often think that if Robocop had won in real life things would look very different now.

One of the reasons I started writing this blog was to try and get myself back into a more creative frame of mind in general, as I'm often guilty of coming up with ideas but not seeing them through. Currently trying to get things together for filming a sci-fi short this Sunday - spent last night trying to build a greenscreen and arrange lighting hire.