Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Avatar and the language of 3D

Continuity editing, the dominant style of narrative cinema and TV, is about how much you can get away with: two actors can film on opposite sides of the Earth, ten years apart, yet the viewer can be made to believe they are looking into each other's eyes and sharing an intimate conversation. It's also about what maintains this illusion and what disrupts it. An example is the infamous 180 degree rule: the camera should remain on the same side of two characters so they do not reverse their left-right onscreen positions.

Note that these are not rules punishable by death. You can "cross the line" using a moving transition shot; or the sense of disorientation caused by breaking this rule may actually be of dramatic use or might suit a more edgy style of direction.

Which brings me to Avatar which is a huge experiment in 3D cinema: a feature-length film combining live action and CGI, with characters, a (simple) narrative, and a great deal of action. For me it succeeded in it's own right as a film: not just impressive but enjoyable.

However, whether Avatar succeeds or fails for other viewers, it is also a huge seam of material to be studied. 3D is not just a better version of 2D. Some initial thoughts on the new language of 3D:
  • Speed is important. Get it right and the viewer is twisted or thrown around with the action; move the camera too fast or too jerkily and she becomes detached from the action.

  • 3D can be used to flesh out foreground or background but rarely both - if there's a lot of foreground depth then the panoramic background will still look like a painted scene.

  • Focus pulls are just plain wrong in 3D. So, predictably, are any other shots that make use of a forced depth of field effect. The viewer can switch their own focus from background to foreground in a 3D projection - if you artificially defocus part of the field then what exactly are you doing? Damn.

  • The 180 degree rule stands. If anything 3D is less forgiving of this.

I can imagine that one day the majority of films might be made in 3D, from high concept sci-fi to low-budget gritty-reality indie drama. When this happens, we will need a new version of continuity editing and we will learn our new rules about what works by going through Avatar frame by frame.

Sigourney Weaver - still cool in any number of dimensions.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Trick or Triffid?

Day of the Triffids, Episode 2, the ending: I wish to enquire - WTF? More on that story later. For now, thank goodness the BBC didn't fall into the trap of giving us an ending that made Any Sense Whatsoever. Whoever you are, wherever you are, this is Sci-Fi Gene broadcasting for Radio Britain, happy if somewhat perplexed.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Feed me, Seymour! [First impressions: Day of the Triffids]

I've just seen the first half of the BBC's new Day of the Triffids drama starring Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard. The tone is serious - there's very little Doctor Who-style playfulness although I loved the TRIFFOIL petrol stations.

I am struck by how assured and confident a production this is. The first of the two feature length episodes is easily of feature quality - in particular the portrayal of post-apocalyptic London and some plot elements bring to mind 28 Days Later and Children of Men, and this episode could certainly stand alongside both films.

Eddie Izzard stars as Torrence, who enters the plot by escaping from a diving plane - his method of survival has a lot of flair and defines Torrence as a character even though they may possibly have nuked the 'fridge to some extent.

Everything's cool: from the colourful and dynamic scene lighting, to an audacious screenplay, to the acting, to the edit particularly in terms of pacing - those 90 minutes flew by. Large scale set pieces - aeroplanes crashing, anarchy on the streets or in the wards, massed Triffid attacks - are accomplished smoothly. It's a marker for just how far the BBC has come in recent years, and is a far cry from the "good old days" when I would watch old episodes of Doctor Who and love them despite the dodgy production values. Looking forward to the concluding episode tomorrow.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Family Cookbook [Reviews: Seizure, chromosome 6]

Seizure and chromosome 6 are novels by Robin Cook M.D. Both explore a number of similar themes - in particular doctors or medical researchers who take unethical routes to develop experimental treatments.

Seizure, a stand-alone novel, is about stem cell researcher Daniel Lowell who is close to demonstrating a cure for Parkinson's. Frustrated by the rules around research ethics he forms a series of unholy alliances - his secret patient is a conservative Senator fundamentally opposed to the technology, who also has some rather odd requests about the treatment; the treatment is to be carried out overseas in a highly unethical clinic; and through his girlfriend's family, Lowell has unknowingly accepted Mafia funding. Oops.

Chromosome 6 is another in the series of novels featuring pathologist Dr. Jack Stapleton, the hero of Coma. The point of view alternates between Stapleton, investigating a mysterious Mafia killing, and transplant researcher Kevin Marshall who, like Lowell, has taken up with some strange bedfellows in order to get past the red tape: in this case a biotech company with a Jurassic Park-style operation off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Marshall's creation goes way beyond Lowell's stem-cell therapy, with elements of both Jurassic Park and Dr. Moreau.

Rather than writing just about good or evil, Robin Cook's main characters tend to be driven by ambition - they're drawn into making increasingly Faustian pacts by their belief that they are only a few steps away from that life-saving or Nobel-winning breakthrough that will benefit humanity. They become increasingly dependent on less ethical or more evil supporting characters, and step by step find themselves further away from their own ethical origins.

Although the scenarios are preposterous, Cook is able to describe both the underlying science and the sinister medical research politics in compelling detail. So why, in both novels, does he have to include Mafia sub-plots? And why, in both novels, are the Mafia limited to being stereotyped Italians and bungling idiots? Both novels would remain readable and in my opinion be improved if this plot strand were omitted, or alternatively by bringing either original ideas or a bit of historical research to the organized crime table.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Haikuphobia [Review: False Memory]

Atmosphere of dread.
The monster is in yourself -
watch out for haikus.

Martie Rhodes, the programmer heroine of Dean Koontz’ novel False Memory, starts to experience episodes of fear. Initially this is a vague fear of her own shadow or reflection, but this develops into a more specific fear that she is going to kill someone. Martie’s fears develop as she is helping an agoraphobic friend get to therapy, and drive her obsessively to remove or destroy any potential weapons in her house. Meanwhile her husband Dusty (that would be Dusty Rhodes) is trying to talk his suicidal half-brother down from a roof.

Martie’s initial fears, and her plausible, obsessive response to them, create a tangible atmosphere of dread and mystery, a feeling that something is wrong with the world or that disaster of some sort is about to happen. Having introduced a few more mysteries and clues, the novel then jumps, harshly to the villain’s point of view – and Koontz has created a paranoid, nightmare-inducing vision of a villain with an appetite for abusive and demeaning treatment of those within his haiku-drawn power. His abilities lead to a shift in perception of the world, a small-scale Matrix or Truman Show, as the characters are unable to trust themselves or anyone else. The many references to the Manchurian Candidate are appropriate if crude – Koontz wants to credit Condon as openly as possible as the origin of some of the ideas in the book.

As the novel continues it loses some of this earlier strength. I find that in some of Koontz’ novels, he is a little too fond of his perfect heroes – and so once the abusive nature of the villain is established through cruelty to a supporting character (admittedly in a well-written, disturbing sequence of events), the heroes are spared the most demeaning stuff and have to make do with taking bullets or other more heroic injuries, despite the fact that they have been within the villain’s sphere of power and vulnerable to him for a long time.

There are also plenty of serial killer mistakes, which detracts from what would otherwise be an immensely powerful position - and too many coincidences and quick fixes in the plot although they are portioned out evenly between the good and bad characters. Some opportunities are missed – for example, Martie’s programming skills are barely explored yet there are obvious parallels to be drawn between them and the villain’s abilities, and this could have contributed to their discovery of him or a defence against him.

Friday, 18 December 2009

On The Bleach [Review: Carriers]

Carriers is a low-budget horror movie starring Chris Pine. The world, or at least the USA, is decimated by a killer virus. A small group of survivors, including two siblings with opposite personalities, are carjacking their way across America to a place of childhood significance, relying on a list of self-made rules to avoid infection. However about fifteen minutes in, during an encounter with a mysterious doctor, it becomes clear that this is not simply Zombieland minus the zombies - it's Zombieland re-imagined by Nevil Shute. The list of rules is also much shorter and they mainly involve bleach.

This is also a film that is hard to classify - it's certainly not a feelgood comedy! However while there are moments of action, suspense and horror they take second place to a drama in which desperate choices are made - and there's no guarantee that everything will turn out all right. The acting is therefore crucial and all four leads are good: Lou Taylor Pucci and Chris Pine play off each other well as brothers; Piper Perabo is convincing in her role and Emily VanCamp is slightly scary and perfectly understated. I was also impressed by how little the film relies on overt CGI: apart from a few eyes with infected irises I didn't spot any CGI shots. Of course there could have been any number of covert CGI uses.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Ataque de Pánico! - the next District 9?

You may already have seen this: Fede Alvarez' short film "Ataque de Pánico!" made for £108 (plus muchisimas grasias) and uploaded to YouTube, which is in the news as it led to a slightly larger budget for the director's next feature.

Naturally I love the effects and camerawork! but also the simplicity: the giant figures appearing from the mist, the repeating music...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Gunpowder Plot

Fellow sci-fi blogger (and apparently a fellow Colcestrian too) Adam Whitehead has been busy with a fascinating and well-written series on the history of the plot arc in sci-fi drama. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of "Arc of Truth" can be read over at the Wertzone and I look forward to Part 4.

Personally I like a good plot arc - I was particularly impressed with the way this was done in the first of the re-launched Doctor Who series: the way the characters returned to the same locations, and the whole series explored the idea that the Doctor's interventions had consequences that played out in the long term after the Tardis had departed.

I've struggled however with the new wave of slow-burning plots - Lost, Invasion, Heroes - with only a trickle-feed of exposition interspersed with hints and tense atmospherics. They can make you feel that, if you miss one episode, you might miss the single key revelation that explains the whole series. I tried with Invasion, I really did - it was such a good first episode I wanted to get into it but it was just too slow.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Blood Borne

Viruses (virii) get a bad press in science fiction generally. In films such as Virus, Outbreak or Twelve Monkeys they are presented as a threat to the survival of humanity. This reflects the fears associated with historical pandemics such as influenza in 1918, and more recent panics around SARS, avian or swine flu, and BSE.

Elsewhere, for example in 28 Days Later, Zombieland, the Underworld and Resident Evil series, and the forthcoming Daybreakers they seem to be replacing demonic possession or voodoo curse as the origin of the vampire, zombie, and werewolf. The reason may be that this explains the transmission of the “condition” by contact or bite; also using these explanations brings the monster myths up to date and introduces science or science fiction elements to the plots.


Occasionally viruses are used in more subtle or original ways: in Alastair Reynold’s novel Chasm City, a virus induces flashbacks from the life of a legendary figure; in the film Code 46 an empathy virus gives an investigator near-psychic powers of interrogation while it appears that other viruses can force code violation criminals to hand themselves over. In Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio the reactivation of a viral genome hidden in the human genome triggers an evolutionary leap.

Swine flu

In real life viruses may be deadly but also fascinating: they are the simplest lifeforms on the planet, some having as few as seven genes; they may hold the key to curing both viral and non-viral illnesses, in the case of live vaccines from cowpox onwards we are fighting fire with fire. The idea of silent viruses inserted into the genome is also plausible. In science fiction it’s hard to think of positive portrayals of viruses: the only one that springs to mind is the common cold responsible for foiling H.G. Wells’ Martian invaders.

Photographs of Luke Jerram’s Glass Microbiology sculptures are used here with the kind permission of the artist.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Black Hole

Miroslaw Balka’s Turbine Hall installation, How It Is, takes the form of a giant cargo crate. Although one end is completely open, the lighting arrangement means that as you enter the crate you quickly pass into complete darkness or perhaps into another, vast universe. Dimensions are warped in the darkness – the interior definitely feels bigger than the exterior. Eventually the effect fades as your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, but for a short while you have the experience of taking a step into the unknown.
How It Is also reminded me of a unique punishment described in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, a device that allows the victim to perceive themselves in the context of the entire universe, creating a sense of inferiority. The punishment was apparently ineffective when it was given to Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Different people responded to the experience in different ways – some wander randomly while others hug the walls or stand in one place. I was impressed by a young art student who was sitting deep in the dark interior, sketching the scene.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Last Zombie Standing

Two films released onto YouTube in a week, and both have been a long time in production. Here's the final cut of Last Zombie Standing, my entry with Team Special Circumstances in the Movieum Zombie Film Competition 2009. Watch in HQ here or on the YouTube channel. I held off releasing this so that the screenwriter and I could re-edit and put together this shorter cut with completed effects scenes (a slightly longer version was entered in the competition.) I had great fun making this film - enjoy!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Soupremacy: animated music video

Soupremacy is an animated music video collaboration between myself and composer David Novan. You can see the HD version here or on the YouTube channel. This animation was produced in Cinema 4D and edited in Blender.

Edit 6.12.09: Soupremacy has been in production for almost a year: I first posted a still image of the Rocket here in January!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Screenplay Babylon [Review: Babylon A.D.]

This film, in which Vin Diesel's future mercenary smuggles a mysterious young woman and her religious minder from a chaotic, kill-or-be-killed Eastern Europe to the richer, advertise-or-be-advertised West, surprises with both strengths and weaknesses but ultimately disappoints.

The casting is excellent - for your money you get Vin Diesel who, if his repertoire is limited to tough-as-nails mercenaries, tough-as-nails convicted killers etc., at least he plays them extremely well, plus Michelle Yeoh! as that religious minder who is peaceful but not weak, and Charlotte Rampling!! as a sinister, white trouser-suit wearing cult leader. The settings, particularly the poverty and lawlessness of the East, are well portrayed and the plot holds together (or at least it would do - see below.)

I felt the script for this film was poor - actually bad enough to kill the film. A particular low is Rampling's diatribe to her minions about their failure to recover Melanie Thierry's character, but all the leads are forced to deliver totally unconvincing dialogue. This is a real waste of talent and also, through bad, bad, bad exposition dumping, ruins what would otherwise be a cool plot - a cynical cult seeking to stage a miracle in order to become a real religion. And I can't bring myself to discuss the ending.

Given the presence of Vin - and for that matter Yeoh - you might be prepared to accept a lame script in fair exchange for the promise of extravagant stunts or thrilling martial arts action. Sorry - the talent is wasted here too. Action sequences are brief and unimaginative, and neither Vin nor Yeoh get to strut their funky stuff beyond the odd fisticuff or gunfight. There's also an entire troop of parkour stunt actors credited - but in their confrontation with Vin and party all they seem to do is jump around as if the seedy nightclub setting is actually a bouncy castle.

It's a real credit to all the actors here, Vin included, that they actually do as much as they can with such poor material. It's amazing how much a good actor can achieve non-verbally, but sadly in this case it's not quite enough to restore the balance.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Kindness from a stranger

A few weeks ago I had a bag stolen. It happened quickly but was a huge loss although I was lucky enough to be amongst supportive friendly company at the time. I quickly found what some others in this situation may also have discovered - that it's the personal things, or the intellectual property, that cause you the most distress. In my case the photos on the camera or the half-written drafts on a flash drive rather than the camera or drive itself.

Yesterday, a stranger tracked me down and returned the flash drive with contents intact. I simply feel a need to report the event.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Earth vs the Neutrino [Review: 2012]

The sun is spewing out more and more neutrinos – and they’re not the usual ones that pass through the Earth without so much as a blip on a billion dollar detection facility. No, these are special neutrinos that boil the Earth’s core. Cue a series of plucky, lucky escapes as cardboard cut-out characters drive their cars or fly their planes away from continental collapse, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. Here’s why I expected not to like 2012: the two and a half hours running time, and the themes - we’ve seen earthquakes, mega-canos and tidal waves before. Yawn.

Here’s what I liked about 2012:

The triumph of spectacle over realism or plot is total and shameless. There’s no pretence that any of this holds together. In reality the aeroplane escaping the collapsing city might have avoided some skyscrapers but would have hit one of them; in the film world the vision of lucky escape after lucky escape, coincidental meeting after coincidental meeting, is the point.

This is very much an old school disaster movie. There’s no way to avert the crisis – we are at the mercy of the elements; the planet, and life itself will survive with or without us – our quest is only to survive the cataclysm not prevent it.

The Arks, when they appear, are awesome, colourful creations of sci-fi art. They deserve to be found on the cover of a Golden Age paperback.

The idea of an optimistic novel about human selflessness, so bad it only sold 500 copies, ending up on an Ark by chance – simply because another character was reading it – is cool.

Emmerich’s trademark landmark-trashing scenes are more artistic and more fun than before, if not actually more meaningful: it’s not just tidal waves and cracks in the ground – the White House destroyed by the John F Kennedy aircraft carrier; as Vatican City falls a crack runs through the Sistine Chapel roof separating Man from God. It’s as if the world is actually being destroyed by irony. Admittedly you’ve probably seen many of those moments in the trailer.

In the face of disaster, do we become selfish, seeking our own survival, do we try to save our closest loved ones, or do we become completely selfless, risking our lives so that strangers might survive? This is not a deep philosophical film. But Emmerich’s answer – that there’s a bit of all these things – seems fair enough.

One thing jarred for me which was the science: not so much that it was clearly all bullshit or that the exposition was so crude – rather, was it really necessary at all? Why not make a movie genuinely about ancient prophecy or even unexplained catastrophe and just cut the scientists out altogether? The science strand made “more sense” (a relative term) in The Day After Tomorrow but adds very little to the plot here.

Overall I found this film to be watchable and enjoyable mainly due to it's brazen silliness and infectious sense of fun - perhaps the most fun you can have while watching billions of people die. Incidentally watch out: there will be not one but two Asylum takes on this movie - Megafault and 2012: Supernova. Meanwhile I look forward to Emmerich's adaptation of The Cherry Orchard next year - that cherry orchard is going down.

[Edit 19.5.2010 Even now this post seems to be generating more traffic than anything else I've written. If you are reading this, I'm curious to hear from you: drop me a line, let me know how you came across this post & what you think.]

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Dream a little dream [First impressions: The Temporal Void]

This is an early update - it will be centuries before my descendents finally reach the end of this novel. Set centuries after the events of the Commonwealth novels, The Temporal Void is the sequel to The Dreaming Void and there will eventually be a third book. I hesitate to call this a trilogy though.

The archetypal fantasy trilogy is the Lord of the Rings, and this illustrates the point that the three parts of a trilogy, while they tell a coherent whole story, should still be separate novels with their own very different flavours. TTV simply carries on from TDV as if you had turned the page - there’s no compromise or even recap, and nothing to suggest a specific plot focus for this novel. It’s as if the author actually wrote a single, 2500 page novel, which has been simply cut into three parts to facilitate packaging.

Having said that, more of a good thing is sometimes still a good thing. The Void storyline continues in two parts – the story outside the Void of complex, multi-stranded interstellar politics, and the Discworld-esque story inside the void. Interestingly, while the outside world is full of sci-fi trappings – wormholes, augmented humanity, clones, spaceships and aliens and planet-eating weaponry, there’s no attempt to make the science coherent or plausible so it might as well be fantasy.

Inside the void, technology doesn’t seem to work and instead magic rules supreme – but it’s a simple magic, and most of it comes down to a single ability, telekinesis – for example the ability to shoot fire is explained by the ability to telekinetically spin up a cylinder of air. So despite the fantasy language this plot strand is much more sci-fi.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

How to get ahead in CGI

We used this scene in Last Zombie Standing but during the 48 hour period I only managed a low resolution fluid sim. Here's what it should have looked like:

As I'm trying to get faster at these techniques, I always look at what the time constraints were for any particular shot. For this one they included researching tutorials and examples (this can often be the most time consuming part!), finding a decent freeware spine model; fine-tuning the position of the alpha mask; trying out different variations of the fluid flow; baking at a half-decent fluid resolution. Rendering was surprisingly quick but there aren't many objects in the scene apart from the spine and the fluid mesh.

For any composite effect to work you need to have some kind of interaction between the live action and virtual elements. Examples include lighting, shadows, foreground objects, reflections or physical interactions - in this shot the fluid is partially obstructed by some of the leaves on the ground.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Mega Novella vs Giant Novel

If you are a Freudian psychoanalyst STOP READING THIS NOW. You have been warned.

I’ve just started a new Peter F. Hamilton brick, The Temporal Void. I’ve also just finished a Dean Koontz novel, False Memory, of similar proportions – more about both novels will follow in future posts.

I came across an astute comment by fanzine editor Claire Briarley (I can’t link to it! It’s on paper!) about how it’s become much harder to get a short sci-fi novel published. There must be something in this, at least for mainstream publishers and bookstores where the shelves are dominated by Hamilton-scale novels – while the books I buy from second hand shops or borrow/steal from friends and relatives are tiny slips of things.

Who’s responsible for this timeshift? Are we, the book-buying public, assuming that bigger is better, and buying our books like groceries, by the kilogram? Are we guilty of judging a book not even by its’ cover but by the cost per page?

Alternatively is this something to do with economics or insurance – the risks of publishing a sci-fi novel or some kind of cost benefit analysis that is only justified for books above a certain weight? There does seem to be a difference between the major publishers and some of the smaller, more independent labels – who seem more able to take risks with shorter fiction.

I think it’s worth remembering that so many classic sci-fi novels are small - Farenheit 451, for example, or Flowers for Algernon. Short stories have always been the heart of sci-fi for me, and many novellas or short novels are more like extended short stories, requiring the same degree of tight control. Go back to John Wyndham and you’ll find stories that have everything – but are never a word too long, always ending at a perfect dramatic point.

The short story form, happily, is alive and well – despite the loss of some subscriber magazines in past years Interzone and other magazines carry on, author collections and compilations are being published all the time, and there’s a wealth of free stories on the net. The novella may be an endangered species.

Monday, 16 November 2009

History Of The World - Part I

Time has run out - like an aircraft carrier falling from the crest of a tidal wave, 2012 has been released upon us. Time for a quick history lesson from the movies:

In 1,000,000 B.C. cavewomen were fighting dinosaurs and wearing rabbit-skin lingerie. By 10,000 B.C. teeth were the new rabbit-skins and mammoths were the new dinosaurs, but otherwise very little had changed. In 1492 Chris Columbus discovered America and the Round Earthers enjoyed a certain amount of social acceptance, and in 1941 America was saved from a Japanese invasion by a bunch of idiots. In 1969 it turned out that War was officially a bad thing however by 1984 we had forgotten this and were all in love with Big Brother.

2001 was of course the Dawn of Mankind and this had something to do with malfunctioning computers and black obelisks. Despite, or possibly due to those idiots in 1941, Japan never actually lost World War II and Korea never gained independence - until 2009 when the Korean resistance begins. Luckily in 2010 those monolith-loving aliens are back to sort everything out for humanity, at least until the world ends in 2012 as a direct consequence of the Mayan Calendar-Makers Strike. But it all ends well - by 2046 the world has been rebuilt as a supercity with some really cool trains.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Water Zombies [Review: Doctor Who The Waters Of Mars]

Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars was, as promised, a darker episode than usual, with very little humour apart from Tennant's occasional clowning. There have been some great episodes that really play on claustrophobia effectively and this is one of them. The dark tone also applies to the fates of many of the characters - and the Doctor, who as usual is forced to make difficult moral choices, responds in a way we haven't seen before. Set on a human colony on Mars, Bowie Base One, the story featured zombie-like monsters - colonists' bodies taken over by an entity in the water. The set up reminded me of an old PC game, Martian Gothic - Reunification which is also about zombies on Mars.

If you also just watched the episode, you will know that the BBC played a trick on everyone in one of the trailers. Nice one! If not, and you're reading this within a week of the transmission date then The Waters of Mars should be available on iPlayer here. I am going to miss David Tennant.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Last orders at the blood bank [Review: Thirst]

Thirst (Bakjwi) is a Korean vampire movie directed by Chan-Wook Park and starring Kang-ho Song and Ok-vin Kim. I must be straight with you: due to circumstances beyond my control (and unrelated to the movie) I’ve only seen ¾ of Thirst so cannot comment on the ending.

Sang-hyeon is a priest who becomes a vampire when he is given a vampire blood transfusion while volunteering for a religious virology research project. OK so far? Fresh blood removes his infectious blisters and heals any injuries including those from his self-flagellation. Like Eli in Let The Right One In, Sang-hyeon has a doting father who is willing to let him drink from his veins - he also has access to blood from comatose victims. However his thirst is not only for blood, and this leads him to become involved with Tae-joo, a Cinderella-like figure severely abused by her husband and mother-in-law.

Thirst is, as I'd hoped, a proper adult vampire movie. It is about love - and lust - but it doesn't hold back from the brutal or alien aspects of the situation and is far removed from any teenage will-they-won’t-they drama. It's also about the nature of right and wrong - not the black and white opposites themselves but the path that leads from one to the other.

The film is long but very watchable. There's a lot of beautiful camerawork. The dialogue is moving although occasionally clumsy. Having horrified Tae-joo and scared her away by demonstrating his nature, SH confronts her in her bathroom and pleads with her to accept him in an extremely memorable, riveting scene – while SH’s outbursts are unintentionally comic “Do you think I could have slept with you if I was only a priest?” etc., her terror at being trapped in a nightmarish situation is clear and very moving.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Software hamster? Afar mother stews?

"I am completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly" - H.A.L. 9000

The shape of things to come: any, all, some or none of the following stories will be featured in subsequent Sci-Fi Gene posts.

Doctor Who returns to TV this weekend in "The Waters Of Mars" (anagram). It's about time, as I think it's now traditional to say whenever a long-awaited Doctor Who project finally gets broadcast. Anyway, here's the "I don't hear anyone knocking" trailer.

After seeing Let The Right One In I've re-acquired a taste for vampire movies. I saw Thirst last week - full review to follow - and I'm also looking forward to Daybreakers. Vampires are the new zombies...

While it still needs some fine tuning, I managed to get this chromakey shot to work. This effect will be needed in my next film project, which is slowly coming together - more on that story later.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Killing The Dead

Here's the winning zombie film, Killing The Dead produced by team Bad Gas.

The Zombie Film Challenge website has links to this film and the winners of previous 24 and 48 hour challenges, as well as several of Johnnie Oddball's excellent articles on how to be a director: in retrospect I'm sure our team would have fared better if I'd invested in a baseball cap...

Last Zombie Standing is currently back in post-production for an unnecessary and highly indulgent Director's Cut - watch this space.

[update 8.11.09: embedded video is now the YouTube version]

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Zombie Film Challenge

I attended the Zombie Film Challenge screening on Halloween along with three other members of Special Circumstances. Apart from the (compulsory) zombies themselves a number of trends were seen in many of the films, including the District 9 effect: documentary/mockumentary style used left right and centre, whether in the brief or not, and in addition to our film two others took up the zombie rights cause with gusto. There were several cats - directors of zombie films are also unafraid to work with animals - and I'm clearly not the only person with a love of dodgy decapitation effects.

A Night At The Movieum [photo: Brandon Butterworth] Zombie make-overs [photo: Brandon Butterworth]

Congratulations to the makers of the winning entry, Killing The Dead. I can't tell you much about the team - they didn't make it to the screening - but their film hit all the right notes for me and was well produced while still clearly a low-budget amateur effort.

I'm happy with our mockumentary entry, Last Zombie Standing, and I think it made the grade and went down OK with the audience - although, having seen it on the big screen I have a number of minor changes I'd like to make, so watch this space.

Director, DOP, Screenwriter and Composer
[photos: Molly Brown, Brandon Butterworth, Sci-Fi Gene]

Unfortunately Sci-Fi Gene has had a significant data loss and I will be taking the next few days to get back on top of things. I'll be back soon with news of some future zombie-free projects, and links to some of the zombie films when they go up. Normal service will resume shortly...

Completion Certificate of the Dead [photo: Brandon Butterworth]

Saturday, 31 October 2009

In Harm's Way [Review: Harm]

This novel takes anti-terror freedom of speech legislation to it's extreme, and may have been written as a response to the increasingly restrictive laws here in the U.K. The protagonist has written a romantic comedy in which one character jokes to another about assassinating the Prime Minister - as a result he is rendered to an interrogation centre in an initially unidentified country where he is imprisoned and tortured. He seems to dissociate under stress or lack of stimulation and episodically enters a fantasy life where he is amongst the human colonists of an alien world. However it remains unclear for much of the book whether this is dissociation or whether the present day scenario is a flashback or memory, as the colony scenario is clearly in a future that has developed from this present. Issues and character similarities connect the two scenarios, particularly during a resonant sequence where he is imprisoned in both worlds.

I like to think Aldiss would never have bothered writing either scenario on its own. One would then have been a straightforward political satire, the other a stereotypical space opera along the lines of Dragons of Heorot. It's the interweaving of the two stories that leads to a deeper dissection of issues such as terrorism and abuse of state or other power, and as one would expect from Aldiss, the easiest route is not the one taken.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Zombie alert

Zombies are the new robots. It's official - while we and other teams have been making zombie movies all over London, across the world people have either been participating in major zombie gatherings or in reconstructions of Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Over the weekend we've been shooting and editing our Zombie Challenge film, the zombie mockumentary "Last Zombie Standing." As I was both directing and doing a zombie cameo I didn't get a chance to take any production stills - these are all taken by other team members.

Zombie high noon [photo: Molly Brown]

When zombies attack [photo: James Silverston]

When zombies defend [photo: Brandon Butterworth]


Insert amusing zombie leg caption here [photo: Brandon Butterworth]

Zombies Actually [photo: Brandon Butterworth]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are undead [photo: Brandon Butterworth]

Monday, 26 October 2009

Zombies rule! at least while the cats are away...

Final update: we completed the score a bit after ten o'clock last night, and I got the edit down to three minutes at around the same time. I spent most of last night having another crack at the CGI elements (some successes some failures), tracking down a few extra sound effects we needed and reworking the rest of the soundtrack around the score. I took the final cut in to the Movieum this morning on a mini-DV and it feels good to have finished, at least until the screening next weekend.
I'm now winding down and this post comes to you from the Robot Workshop cybercafe at the Trocadero, with their collection of androids and spaceships improvised brilliantly from kitchen utensils...
I feel positive about everything that went into this project - the script, the performances, the score, the camerawork, the general team spirit - which is another way of saying we had a really good team, and I hope I've done at least some of them justice in the edit. This has all been another step up from previous projects in terms of quality of picture and sound, which is what I wanted - did I mention we had a score? And we may or may not have the best film in the competition but I suspect that we may have had the best zombies. Some on-set pictures will follow later today.

The film will appear somewhere on the Internet in the near future, and I'll post a link when it goes up. I firmly believe that the reasons for climbing a mountain are both because it is there, and also that it's the best way to recce for the next mountain, so once I've recovered from the last two nights and allowed some blood back into my caffeine system, the question will be where to go next.

Movieum Zombie Film Challenge: update 4

The composer has left the building: now it's down to me. I have a rough edit that brings the film down to 3 minutes and I can assure you that was painful. Now working in the soundtrack and sound effects.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Movieum Zombie Film Challenge - update 3

No stills yet - yesterday was a success but trying to do the CGI last night was a different story. However I've got a rough edit (only about twice as long as it should be) and am ready to do some work with the composer in the next couple of hours before I start brutally cutting down to the final edit. The problem is our zombies were too good so there's too much cool footage - now I get what directors' cuts are about!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Movieum Zombie Film Challenge: update 2

T-Zero: four of us turned up to London's Deathtrap this morning at 10 and our youngest team member chose our title and genre from the lucky dip. We phoned this through to our scriptwriter who approved of the choices.

T+3h: Arrived on set, met up with scriptwriter and DOP, everything ready: started shooting in front of house to the amusement of those in the street.

T+5h: All members of team now on set. House full of zombified people.

T+9h: Wrap

T+9h 30m: Tidy up and set off home.

T+12h: It's 10 p.m. I'm back home, I've watched through all the footage - looks great. Still a lot to do - the edit, some voice-over, some CGI and the soundtrack. It's going to be a long night but so far so good: we've shot the whole script in one afternoon as planned, we've got some really fantastic performances - now it's my job to turn them into a great film.

More updates and some shots to come.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Movieum Zombie Film Challenge: update 1

The Movieum's Zombie Film Challenge takes place this weekend: if you're in an open space anywhere in London, watch out for large numbers of the undead. Our team is preparing for a film shoot this weekend and I have been researching fake blood recipes and gathering random props.

Where do zombies come from? The zombie concept starts from the Voodoo religious system, as a dead person revived by a sorceror and under their control. However over the years alternative origins have been suggested in films while the idea of magical control has been abandoned in favour of brainless hungry rampaging. A virus is a popular cause, for example the Rage virus in 28 Days Later or the BSE variant in Zombieland. In Shaun of the Dead there's a hint of some kind of alien contamination from a crashed satellite. In Steven King's novel Cell the zombies are created by mobile phones - also, interestingly, the brainless rampage is only the first stage as a sinister, organized behaviour begins to appear from the chaos. Of course zombiehood is the gift that goes on giving as in most film versions, if you're bitten and die you get to join the luncheon club.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

They Lurk

The Sci-Fi Gene blog will be 1 year old on the 23rd October. It's been a good year. I'm also currently gathering a crew for an entry in the Movieum's zombie-themed 48 Hour Film Challenge next weekend - more on that story later.

For now, here's the result of slightly too much time with Blender and Voodoo:

Rock and Roland [Review: Moon 44]

Before he developed his obsession with trashing the White House in as many ways as possible, director Roland Emmerich had a career making films. For instance, you may remember a little number called Stargate that went on to do quite well.

Moon 44 is a German Emmerich feature from 1990, set in an Alien-like future where space is exploited commercially by competing transnationals. One corporation is preparing to defend it's last resource mine against it's competitor's robotic aircraft. Naturally they can only man their helicopter gunships with convicts and fly them with the help of teenage hackers. There's also an undercover agent amongst the convicts on the trail of some stolen shuttles, trying to find a whistleblower amongst the hackers.

The interaction between the convicts and the hackers accounts for much of this relatively low-tech, character-driven film. Outside the mega-blockbuster arena Emmerich proves capable of handling more challenging, less mainstream material including the (off-screen) rape of a hacker by a convict, and the subsequent revenge taken by the hackers. Effects and locations are pre-CGI but effective with well designed models and sets, and great, gloomy sci-fi lighting. If only someone would hide Roland's multi-billion-dollar effects budget then maybe he'd direct a few more of these movies.

Having said that, there's a lot in Moon 44 that echoes Independence Day - air force machismo, canyon-based aerial action, and a certain Dean Devlin who plays hacker Tyler, and who went on to co-write Stargate and Independence Day.

Friday, 16 October 2009

It's Not That Easy Being Green

Or, Blender is driving me mad.

Firstly, I was trying to work out why, half way through a scene, my mist stopped seeping, rolling and doing what mist generally does and instead just hung in mid air. While I'd set the simulation to run through the whole scene, baking had only been set up for the first 250 frames. D'oh! (Particles, like water, have to be baked before you can use them. Obviously.)

Secondly I've been fighting a running battle with Blender's chroma keying system. Admittedly I started off with not the greatest quality footage. Problem solved by chaining large numbers of keying nodes together, each set to spot a slightly different shade of green, but the resulting noodle network is reaching a scary level of complexity: I won't be handing over control of the world's defence systems to it any time soon. And that's before I add the blurs, glows etc. The cat version of TRON may not be released for another few months...

Finally, I'm now conditioned to using right click instead of left to select - which means I constantly try to use right click to select things in Windows as well.

I wonder if Hot Chip suffered from the same kind of difficulties with chroma key while filming this pop video. Enjoy! (embedding disabled - sorry)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Let Us Crunch Some Numbers!

Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry aren't the only unlikely pairing in the history of computing - in fact I wonder if Stonehenge wasn't designed and built by two druids with opposing personalities who inspired each other to great things despite being constantly at each other's throats.

The Victorian equivalent of Sinclair and Curry were mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, an unlikely pairing that led to the design of the Difference Engine and Analytic Engine. Babbage himself never completed a fully working Engine - or at least that's what I'd always thought until I read the awesome 2D Goggles web comic, drawn by animator Sydney Padua.

As well as the comic strips themselves I enjoyed reading about their real-life correspondence and Babbage's journal, itself a very entertaining read, which are plundered without shame, along with other historical sources, to great effect in the comic.

I found 2D Goggles via the excellent Brass Goggles steampunk site. I previously wrote about the modern-day replicas of the Difference Engine - that totally validate the original design - here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Baked Water

Blender has a built in fluid simulation engine. Conveniently there are options to simulate oil and honey as well as water; alternatively you can change the properties of the fluid directly, change the way that it sticks to or flows along obstacles, or cheat by accelerating or decelerating the sim. Whichever way there's a lot of trial and error involved in setting up a scene and even at a low resolution, "baking" the fluid can take a while. Oh - and you'll need some serious hard drive space to try this.

Here I'm trying to add a fluid simulation into some mini-DV footage, tracked painlessly in Voodoo and then mapped in Blender with some (non-simulated) elbow grease.

The Blender interface reminds me of the flight deck of a 747 - too many buttons. Trying to get a particular effect to work as expected often descends into a hunt for the one tiny, unlabelled button that I've forgotten I pressed earlier - for me the worst culprits are the row of portraits on the far right that exclude objects from the final render.

camera view

side view

Now to sort out the materials and lighting...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

It Takes 6502 To Tango [Review: Micro Men]

Many of my childhood memories were written in Basic IV so for me the BBC's drama Micro Men, broadcast on Thursday, brought on some tears of nostalgia with a heavily dramatised version of the story of the microcomputer and it's inventors. If you're reading this before 15th October 2009 you might still be able to catch this one-off on iPlayer.

Alexander Armstrong has a ball as shouting, swearing, bullying, telephone-hurling, electric-car-obsessed Clive Sinclair. Martin Freeman plays mild-mannered former employee Chris Curry who left Sinclair to form rival company Acorn. The two men went head to head in a race to develop cheap home computers - leading to the brief success of the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.

This is a great production, from the Matrix-styled titles to the 80s period detail. Characters are all exaggerated to comic effect - in addition to Curry and Sinclair there's uber-geek Roger Wilson and the Austrian wine-heir Hermann Hauser who gives up his family heirdom to start up Acorn - "Have you tasted Austrian wine?" "If you had, you would understand why." This is melodrama unfettered by any hint of subtlety but with plenty of nice touches such as Curry's team working around the clock to complete the BBC prototype, eating their takeaways with pliers and soldering irons. Sinclair's C5 gradually takes shape in the background and is used to good effect in the highly symbolic ending sequences.

A weaker link is the attempt to "sex up" the drama: while the high-spirited office parties fit in well, scenes such as the trio of girls hitting on Sinclair at MENSA, or Curry in the back seat of a limo with two blondes - and looking completely at home - don't quite ring true.

The script tries to give the impression that these two men literally lived parallel lives and this is often both comic and tragic - for instance Sinclair's disgust at being indirectly responsible for "Jet Set F**king Willy" is mirrored by Curry's despair at finding only one Acornsoft game in his local shop.

Both companies made the wrong decisions following the Spectrum and BBC. Acorn struggled on for a few more years after being bought out, developing the RISC-based Archimedes which was a respectable machine but couldn't stop the mighty onslaught of the PC. (The ARM chip, developed for the Archimedes, is another story and remains the basis of many mobile phones.)

At least according to this version of history, the point is that almost every decision Curry and Sinclair made was in response to the other - despite being rivals, it was the relationship between the two that led to both the rise and the fall of the microcomputer. Hilarious and also compelling viewing, and cleverly done.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Enjoy the little things [Review: Zombieland]

Zombieland is the USA decimated by a zombie virus. It's a road movie featuring Jesse Eisenberg (also seen in The Village), Woody Harrelson (Cheers!), Emma Stone (No. Me neither. But you will) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) - playing four orphaned, misfit characters each changed by the plague and their experiences. They meet while travelling across the US to places of some significance to them - after all, what else is there to do? Eisenberg's phobia prone teenager has survived because he's developed his own, highly obsessive rules of survival which recur throughout the film.

There's no gradual revelation - the whole zombie plague scenario is expositionified in the first few seconds, plus some occasional flashbacks to flesh out the characters' backgrounds.

Zombieland is a fast zombie film in both senses - it's a fast-paced film featuring fast zombies. It's also witty, funny and endearing in turns, and if you can put up with a certain amount of ketchup and spaghetti, it's definitely one to watch even if zombies aren't usually your thing as the plot, the dialogue and the characters will win you over quickly. There's also a brilliant cameo by... no, better not say any more. I loved this film and I think it deserves it's many glowing reviews including a rare 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
I understand George A. Romero's argument about zombie speed - they have to move slowly otherwise their rotting bones and tendons would break. But from a dramatic standpoint, fast zombies can provide a different kind of action. In Zombieland they're fast but not as superhumanly fast as seen in 28 Days Later. So you might outrun them - if you're lucky, and you've kept up Rule #1 of survival - Cardio. But even then it's not a done deal. This also means that a single fast zombie can be a threat - with slow zombies, since you can outrun them easily the threat only really builds up when they're massed. Of course, if you forget Rule #15 - Know your way out - and you get backed into a corner then the speed of the zombie may be less of an issue.

Zombie films often climax with some kind of siege - and Zombieland doesn't disappoint with it's ending set imaginatively in a theme park. Rule #33 might be, if you find yourself in a theme park during a zombie plague, don't turn on all the lights.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Planet of the Baboons

Those who, like me, were slightly disappointed by Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet Of The Apes may find solace in Alexander McCall Smith's latest endeavour.

It wasn't enough for the author of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency to set up Botswana's first opera house from scratch. He has also written a new opera for them to perform, based loosely on the plot of Macbeth and set amongst a tribe of baboons. In general I've always seen opera as more of a fantasy than a sci-fi thing but if this one tours in the UK I think I may have to see it.

Baboon photo from Animal Photos!

Monday, 5 October 2009

Great D12s of Fire [Review: Bender's Game]

District 9 update: there's a link to Neill Blomkamp's short film "Alive in Joburg" here - (thanks Molly Brown).

Bender's Game is a feature-length Futurama episode. The plot revolves around waste-of-space robot Bender who becomes addicted to Dungeons and Dragons and starts to confuse reality with the game. Meanwhile Fry and the crew are searching for an energy crystal that could end Ma's domination of the Universe's fuel supply, which has naturally enough been disguised as a D12.

This episode is enjoyable and witty enough but suffers from the same problem as the Simpsons Movie - it differs from the regular episodes only in length. This could easily have been compressed to the regular length without too much loss, and there's no sense of either higher production values or of the greater scope that you might want from a feature. Half-way through, having lost their battle with Ma, the crew are transported into an alternate universe where they get to fight the battle again through D&D analogues of the previous events and characters - this is a clever structure but in places the repetition skirts a little too close to the boring frontier.

As with other Futurama and Simpsons episodes, the best parts are often the throwaway comments or scenes least relevant to the plot. Here, an early sequence where Layla participates in a spaceship demolition derby sees Lego and Meccano spaceships collide, while the heads of George Takei and Scott Bakula argue over who has done the most damage to the Star Trek franchise; later Bender's D&D addiction takes him to a robot psychiatric hospital for a brief parody of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - the robot versions of individual and group psychotherapy are hilarious.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Apples, Oranges and Spaghetti [Review: Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs]

CGI and cinematic depiction of freak weather events go together like apples and oranges. Films such as Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact and The Perfect Storm have used computer generated tornados, tidal waves and other phenomena to great effect.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs may just be the CGI weather blockbuster to rule them all. It's a children's film with a witty script, a sharp message about junk food, greed and waste, and possibly the best simulation of a spaghetti twister I've seen all year. There are also some subtle-ish nods to Independence Day as well as many of the features above.

If you enjoyed the film, check out the concept art at io9.