Saturday, 30 May 2009

Take my breath away

Is it possible to subscribe to just the cover of a magazine? I just received my copy of Interzone 222 and, not for the first time, I was blown away by Adam Tredowski's cover art. Here's one of the 3D models used in the scene, together with the final cover.

Predictably, "Ugly" here is another of my favourites:

For more amazing pictures go to Tredowski's portfolio or blog. The Interzone website is here and you can read more about Interzone 222 here.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Multi-dimensional book series

The novels making up a trilogy or series don't have to follow each other serially. Steven Baxter's trilogy Time, Space, Origin and the short story collection Phase Space are connected unusually - each tells a stand-alone story, but the characters and plot elements recur. Baxter uses parallel universes, and sends each story literally in a different direction, following a different space-time axis. Time follows the protagonist into the distant future, in Space he undertakes a very different voyage to the limits of space, while in Origin he finds himself cast from parallel universe to universe. The Origin here is also a reference to Darwin's Origin of the Species, and this novel explores alternative evolutionary possibilities.

As in many of Baxter's novels, the author shows off his knowledge of the world's space programmes (each novel features a different, though equally plausible "Big Dumb" launch system) and of astronomy, physics and evolutionary biology. The science is so clearly described that these could easily replace secondary school textbooks. Space also features a good, if scary, answer to the Fermi Paradox.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Steampunk inspiration

I took these photos of steam-powered road vehicles at Chatham Dockyards during a recent historic transport event. It's good to know that when the electricity fails we'll still be able to flatten roads.

What's the attraction of steam power? These machines can be hypnotic to watch - literally given the number of spinning parts; they're noisy, dirty and dangerous and all of this draws and holds your attention. If you understand only a fraction of the underlying principles then it's clear that they have to be the shape they are - this is form completely following function. Yet the engineers still managed to embed flourishes and appealing shapes into the structure.

These are also machines that should have rusted, fallen apart or failed long ago - nowadays who expects even a car to last more than a few years? The fact that these engines are still running now is the reason I am in awe of both the original designers and the enthusiasts who restore and maintain them today.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Machine

While time travel appeared in stories before H.G. Wells, it is Wells who introduced the idea of the Time Machine. By making time travel a mechanical process relying on the ideas of a scientist he brought the idea into the sci-fi genre he was busily making his own. Wells' story uses the time travel plot device in order to explore evolutionary theory - the upper and lower class trends of the day are extrapolated into the distant future in which humanity has diverged into two distinct species, the childlike Eloi and the more animal, although possibly more intelligent Morlocks. Wells didn't introduce any ideas about changing the future or time travel paradoxes - change was of course offered to Scrooge by Dickens while the paradoxes are a more recent time travel theme.

The classic 1960 film starred Rod Taylor and was directed by George Pal. More recently, Simon Wells, great grandson of H.G., directed a re-make with Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba. This was disappointing in some ways but introduced a version of the time travel paradox - the traveller is only driven to complete his invention following the death of his girlfriend, and tries repeatedly to save her life - each time, she is killed in some other, quite different but equally unexpected way. Eventually he stops trying and instead sets off for the future, where he is finally given a sad explanation for the paradox.

There's also an official, Wells-estate-sanctioned sequel written by Stephen Baxter, The Time Ships. In this book time travel has consequences: the traveller has returned from the future and shared his experiences and this has changed the future. Baxter's story uses the time travel device to explore a range of imaginative scenarios including a First World War that has persisted for decades, and a future where the Morlocks developed very differently from Wells' description - all the while developing Wells' ideas about class and evolution.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Q: How can sci-fi directors portray the future?

A By shooting their films in the present. As real-life architecture slowly but inevitably approaches Ridley Scott's Blade Runner-vision, the opportunities for futuristic cinema increase - and sooner or later, CGI fans will be going to see period costume dramas rather than sci-fi.

At Sci-Fi London, the future meant Docklands or the Jubilee Line. In Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, the future means Shanghai's business district. The film is beautifully crafted in general, with intense use of light, colour and vibrant sound to invoke emotional atmosphere. It also features two superb actors - Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. Morton's accent is a bit WTF here (perhaps this is a genuine dialect of the future) but this is irrelevant as she creates a complex tough-yet-vulnerable character that gets your attention without the aid of an empathy virus.

Empathy virus? Code 46 has some similarities to Andrew Niccol's Gattaca - it also deals with the increasingly restrictive use of genetic testing. The plot revolves around the love affair between Samantha Morton's character, a forger of biometric passports that help people fool the genetic tests, and Tim Robbins' married investigator sent in to find her. The empathy virus is his tool of the trade, allowing him to make quick deductions about his subjects based on seemingly irrelevant questions - a new twist on the hunch-following detective. Other behavioural viruses also turn up later in the plot.

The film falls down, a little, in two areas - the back story relies on the governments of the world passing universal laws to condemn reproduction between people who are too genetically close, and while the external cinematography gives a sense of the future, this is a facade - interiors of cars, trains, houses, cafes, offices, clubs are more or less unchanged. The illegal relationship between the two lovers is also complicated and unlikely, although it does introduce a potential complication of cloning that would make Sigmund Freud turn in his grave.

This is not a light entertainment movie, but I'd describe it as a romantic and intelligent drama.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Changing Allegiance

I recently made a difficult decision to change allegiance between 3D software packages. Up till now I've been teaching myself the basics with Maxon's Cinema 4D, and I also used this to produce the effects for Human Touch and Too Much Too Soon. I've now started teaching myself to use Blender.

Cinema 4D is a program I've always found intuitive and easy to learn and use. It's got a clear logical interface, a lot of useful and impressive built-in features, and whenever I've been stuck there have always been a number of extremely helpful online forums and communities to point me in the right direction. As I've tried more complex animations I've had to learn to use most of the features including the integral C-like programming language.

Blender is also well known for having a supportive online community, but its' interface is far from intuitive and it presumes a great deal of field knowledge - so why change?

Firstly, I've been using an outdated version of C4D but now want to try to produce some more advanced work, which means either upgrading or looking elsewhere.

Secondly, I have to acknowledge that cost is one issue. Most 3D packages are sold under a regular commercial software model, and even with the various upgrade offers, keeping up with the latest, most advanced versions and plug-ins isn't cheap for a non-professional user. Blender is different - it's an open source project on the Linux/GNU license model, so it's free to use. I should add that in my opinion C4D probably still represents good value to a commercial user.

Finally, I'm a little worried about becoming increasingly dependent on one software package over time - if I'm going to learn new systems then sooner is better than later.

Going through this change is making me think about the loyalty people have to computers or software - whether it's PCs and Macs, or more specific applications such as interactive fiction languages Inform and TADS, there are always users ready to defend their favourite package through reasoned debate (and the odd flamewar). I think this is only natural as, the more you use a particular program the more you are conditioned to its' idiosyncrasies and way of working, and switching to another program might actually be harder than if you were starting from scratch. With Blender it might be something as small as selecting with right-click instead of left, or larger jumps such as switching from COFFEE to Python. There's occasionally a near-religious feel to some of these debates though, and I wonder if, in future, mixed-OS couples will argue over whether to bring up their children in Windows or Linux.
Some first steps in Blender
I haven't quite abandoned C4D yet - I'm still working on two C4D-based projects.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Hell's Other Kitchen

The Nets of Space, a novella by Emil Petaja, was first published in 1969. My copy dates from 1972, and features an uncredited cover illustration of butchered astronauts in a Mercury-like capsule, and a United Kingdom RRP of 25p.

Donald Quick is recovering from a mental breakdown, following a freak hyperspace-fuel ingestion accident at the launch of an expedition to Alpha Centauri. The three spaceships have now vanished, but Donald, who remained on Earth due to an inner ear disorder, has become haunted by recurrent dreams of giant and hungry crustacean aliens. These are particularly nightmarish nightmares, such as the opening sequence where Donald finds himself in a finger-food bowl at an alien party waiting to be picked up, dipped in sauce and eaten alive.

The plot "twists" about half-way through, although this is not unexpected - psychiatrist Kelter's unconscious explanation of Donald's dreams is too elaborate and overconfident, and like Donald we never quite believe it. However it does introduce ideas of superiority and inferiority, and these themes are explored as the story brings together civilizations that differ in scale, intelligence and outlook.

Thanks to my sci-fi gene deficiency I was not deterred by the presence of characters such as Priestess Poogli (the Gordon Ramsey of the macroverse) or Kalnischeoraphibalistoibak. This enjoyable horror is also very much a tribute or open love-letter to Don Quixote de la Mancha, with whom Donald both idolises and identifies, although the dream encounters also bring to mind Gulliver's meetings with the Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians. In more than one way it is Don Quixote who saves the world.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Star Trek XI is...

(Contains some spoilers, although I've tried to minimize them as I'm aware that at time of writing Mish hasn't seen this yet!)

In this brave new world of re-makes, mockbusters, re-launches, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels, re-boots, tributes, directors' revised cuts, fan-films, enhanced anniversary additions (yes, that's you, E.T.) parodies and spoofs, my head is spinning trying to work out exactly what to make of Star Trek XI.

Let's get the actual review out the way quickly so we can get on to the pointless academic debate: I'm relieved to report that Star Trek is an enjoyable, well made and surprisingly accessible film which also provoked the following reaction from a close friend who does not suffer from the sci-fi gene deficiency: "it's not as bad as I thought it would be - it was O.K." Trek-style technobabble is not excessive, the plot is both intricate and easy to follow, and the new cast are a joy to watch.

So it's pretty good... but what is it?

It's a prequel: it introduces the main characters from childhood (and isn't James T. Kirk a cute baby!) and shows us their formative moments including the maiden flight of the Enterprise.

It's a re-boot: the plot neatly diverts the entire future history of Star Trek, allowing the adventures of the Enterprise crew to begin afresh.

It's a sequel: it also refers to events that happen after the Star Trek time line and continues the story of one character from this period.

It's a re-launch: or is it? The re-boot could theoretically lead to a new series of films, or an alternative TOS - I have no idea whether anything like this is on the slate though.

It's a re-imagining: or is it? Much of the film's visual style is faithful - the Enterprise bridge is familiar (although a little whiter and shinier than I remember) although the engine rooms are now much more industrial and low tech. Overall I think the Star Trek universe is present and correct. Most of the characters are faithful rather than re-imagined, with one original touch that stands out - portraying the young Spock as a manipulative bastard is a masterstroke.

It's a tribute: Pierce Brosnan's last appearance as 007 was a tribute film - reintroducing a selection of gadgets and re-shooting some of the iconic scenes from earlier Bond films. Similarly this film references all the Star Trek gadgets, characters, uniforms and costumes, concepts and quotes that made TOS so memorable. Vulcan neck pinch? Check. Miniskirts? Check.

It's a spoof: the film also shamelessly reprises many aspects of TOS that have been taken up by cynics and comedians over the years, including Kirk's polychromatic love life. Also, the young cast throw themselves into recreating faithfully their older counterparts with such enthusiasm and zeal it sometimes feels a little over the top. But only sometimes.

On careful consideration of all of the above, Star Trek XI falls neatly into two categories: firstly, it's a film about people falling over ledges and hanging on by their fingernails, and secondly, it's the best fan-made tribute I've ever seen.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Watson's Universal Robots [Interview: Christopher Watson]

Christopher Watson was the Effects Supervisor for Eyeborgs – he was responsible for the robot concepts and designs and for producing almost all the CGI content of the movie. He kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the making of Eyeborgs. You can see more examples of Christopher’s work on the Pixellex Studios website.

How did you first get involved in Eyeborgs?

Several years ago, in 2005, I was in my final semester as an undergraduate filmmaking student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I had benefitted from putting myself through a veritable VFX boot camp while there, creating occasional effects for my fellow film students' short projects, and Richard, a cinematography faculty member at the time, approached me about the idea of working on a small, low-budget sci-fi film filled with killer robots. I couldn't pass the opportunity up, and I've since been involved in developing the first feasibility tests, creating the look of the cg characters, and ultimately producing the visual effects for the final film.

Which 3D software packages did you use for this project?

Pixellex Studio utilized Autodesk Maya, Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, AnderssonTech SynthEyes, Imagineer Systems Mocha and Motor, and Apple Final Cut Pro.

Taking an example effect shot such as the Eyeborg walking along a rooftop, how do you get from storyboard to finished shot?

For most of the larger action sequences, storyboards were used, but in that instance, the shot only warranted a place on the day's shot list. During production, photographs of the lighting scheme (in this case, the direction of the sun), photos of environmental features, and measurements of the live action plate elements are taken. The shot is matchmoved and then laid out in 3d and the robot animation is blocked out and polished. The shot is lit and any texture maps for the plate elements and/or reflection maps are applied. The shot is rendered in several passes for reflections, shadow, occlusion, etc. The shot plate and renders are composited together and any rotoscoping of the robot's interaction with the background plate is executed. The final shot is rendered out and complete.

There's a commonly held belief outside the industry that thanks to CGI there's no longer a limit to what you can show in a film, although I think that underestimates the amount of planning that needs to go into an effect shot. Was there anything you wanted to do in Eyeborgs that proved out of reach?

I can only hope that we did justice to the realism and believability of the more ambitious shots, but for the most part there were very few VFX ideas in Eyeborgs that did not make it to the final film. One shot in particular that we were working on did not make it in. It was a rather intensive shot in Ronni's apartment when the bagged and battered LB lands after being thrown and wriggles inside the cloth, ultimately cutting itself out. We completed the animation and worked with the cloth simulation of the shot for what amounted to two weeks of production time, but ultimately scrapped it for reasons of time. It would have been a great comic addition to the scene and it was an unfortunate cut, but necessary.

There's an example on the Pixellex website of adding a car into the background of a scene from another movie - the kind of subtle effect that most viewers would never identify as CGI. Apart from the Eyeborgs themselves, what else is CGI used for in Eyeborgs?

We had the opportunity to add the window and framing in the alleyway scene when Jarrett is confronted by the SPYder. Another SPYder tosses several CG chairs during the Millennium Center shootout. Additionally, there were a multitude of stunts performed during production and many of them required wire removal. As an example, almost every shot involving Sankur's fall at the DHS headquarters falls into that category. The actor and stuntman, Dale Girard, was on a three cable pulley system suspended from a rather large rig assmbly anchored to the top floor balcony. The cables and rig all had to be painted out to produce the illusion of Sankur thrown from the elevator lobby over the railing and the ultimate fall to the atrium floor.

One theme developed through this movie was the trust people placed in CCTV images that were being manipulated. Given your own knowledge of image manipulation, do you think we should be worrying about this yet?

We're primed to pay attention to manipulated images when watching movies, but I would suggest that it's a consideration when watching anything on television, and today unfortunately that should include reports from reputable news organizations. That should make the conspiracy theorists happy.

Are there any plans to develop Eyeborgs into a game?

I think Eyeborgs would translate into a great videogame and I'd love to be involved if one is eventually produced.
With thanks to Christopher Watson, Pixellex and Crimson Wolf Productions. Related links: Quiet Earth's review of Eyeborgs here, my review here.

48 Hour Challenge news

Congratulations to Lost Souls, producers of Tracker - the 2009 48 Hour Challenge winner. I'll post a link to the film when it's available.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

End Game

The twist in the tale is a familiar and well-used device in sci-fi writing, particularly in the golden era - many Asimov stories, for example, seem to be constructed purely to end on a (bad) pun. Some twists are of course better than others - but can the surprise ending actually be detrimental to some novels?

I recently read The Squares of the City. John Brunner's novel of 1965 combines town planning, politics, mind control and sublimated civil war, structured around a chess metaphor. My copy has a cover by Peter Goodfellow combining chess, computer and architectural imagery.

Boyd Hakluyt is an Aussie traffic expert whose work takes him to the Ciudad de Vados, a futuristic city built by the dictator of Aguazul, a fictional South American state. He is hired to redesign the road system in order to disperse the slums, but becomes increasingly drawn into the tension between the citizens and the poorer nationals who are resentful of the city's wealth.

Chess is Aguazul's national sport; a key scene features a Prisoner-style live re-enactment of a chess game watched by the two political leaders (dictator Vados and minister Diaz). The two political movements are more evenly matched than they first appear, and the plot is a series of moves and counter-moves as characters are blocked, taken out of play (sometimes murderously) or exchanged; similarly Hakluyt receives expositions from both sides, often reversing his allegiance. Femme fatale Maria Posador tells Hakluyt, while beating him soundly at chess, that "each move must be seen in relation to the whole." Hakluyt gradually moves from his initial belief that people don't mind being governed - they just resent the mechanisms of government - to an understanding that the situation is more complex, and is both about the extent of control and the awareness of the control. Chess and town planning are both good metaphors - they both revolve around freedoms and restrictions of movement.

This particular rabbit-hole runs deeper still. The book is in fact a novelization of a real championship chess match from 1892, between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin, with chessmen represented by characters and institutions - the author helpfully provides details in the afterword which is fascinating. Iain M. Banks covers some similar ground in his novel The Player of Games - again the board game, the complex Azad, is a metaphor for political control, and the Player, Culture gamer Gurgeh, has to see the real poverty and cruelty of the kingdom to understand what he is playing for (naturally he is shown this by his drone companion). Ideas about the relationship between games and real life continue in the more recent Matter.

This novel ought to have a great deal of literary depth - it's a clever concept and is extremely well realised, and it has a lot of intelligent things to say about human relations and control. And it succeeds - almost. What lets it down is the ending which takes the metaphors and turns them into a pointless, literal reality that just dissipates the energy that the novel builds up so well.

Read it. But skip the last chapter and write your own.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Review: Tales from Earthsea

Coming up: after seeing Eyeborgs I was keen to find out more about the film's visual style and effects - so I'm pleased to report that effects supervisor Christopher Watson agreed to answer a few questions, and I'll post the interview shortly. Meanwhile here's a film with a very different visual style:

Tales from Earthsea is an anime adaptation of Ursula le Guin's quadrilogy, directed by Goro Miyazaki. It mainly focusses on the events of the third book the furthest shore although Tenar makes occasional mention of the events at the Tombs of Atuan. English voice-over artists include Timothy Dalton and Willem Dafoe.

This is a real mood piece. The animation has a zen-like slowness of pace and sense of tranquility - even the most violent confrontations take place against a backdrop of a beautiful lazy sunset and windswept cornfields. The film takes its plot mainly from the events of the third book, the Farthest Shore although there is occasional mention of the events at the Tombs of Atuan. Early on the film seems original and compelling - a prince, Arran, murders his father for no apparent reason then befriends the Archmage Sparrowhawk and runs away with him; Arran now leaves his isolated upbringing and comes face to face with the brutality of his world - particularly the commonplace slavery and slave-trading; he intervenes to prevent the abduction of a girl by slavers; meanwhile we are introduced to le Guin's universe where magic revolves around knowing, commanding or changing the true names of entities, and Sparrowhawk's quest to find out why the magic is disappearing. Dragons in this Universe are related to men but at some divergence point chose freedom over material wealth - perhaps they are Red dragons.

Given the richness of le Guin's universe and these early indications I was really, really disappointed that much of this seems to get forgotten, and the second half of this film collapses quickly into bad-guy-wants-to-get-in-touch-with-good-guy-so-kidnaps-his-girlfriend shenanigans. It's a long time since I read the original trilogy and I will have to go back and read it again now, but my memory is of much more complex plots and characters, as well as a universe with very detailed and well-developed internal logic and a richness of ideas and themes. In a few places, like the metaphysical aspects of the film's ending, there's at least a feeling that the director is hinting at solutions while leaving room for thought, and this ending does at least make some use of le Guin's ideas about magic, but for the most part there is simply nothing to explain.

Conclusion: background 2, foreground 1 after extra time.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Will they ever learn? [Review: Eyeborgs]

They gave Joshua access to the nuclear missile silos. They gave ED 209 a gun. They gave HAL a secret mission. They gave Skynet... well, just about everything. Now it seems they've given webcams legs. And concealed weapons. Will those military-security technical types never learn?

Eyeborgs premiered at the Sci-Fi-London opening night, a techno-horror in which cop Adrian Paul, journalist Megan Blake and guitar-playing teenage punk Luke Eberl take on an army of psychopathic robots. This is an unrepentant and delirious action movie although although the plot takes off from some serious concepts - it's very much a horror film for the CCTV age. But are the robots carrying out a secret government agenda, or has their network been compromised by terrorists? As the many abilities of the Eyeborgs gradually become apparent, the horror - and the gore - increase exponentially.

Eyeborgs Trailer by SFLTV

The Eyeborgs themselves, designed by CGI artist Chris Watson, are stylish creations - these innocent, chicken-like walking webcams follow the cast from room to room or track them from the rooftops, and prove both deadly and mischievous despite the fact that any individual cam can be shattered by a good swing with a 5 iron. Their larger six-legged cousins have a real sense of weight and solidity, ooze menace, and feature in some great action scenes and one genuine leap-out-of-your-seat fright. CGI and compositing is particularly well done and the effects stand up even in the complex fight scenes between Adrian Paul and the larger robots.

The soundtrack, including themes written by the director, is powerful and moody. Eyeborgs contains plenty of original ideas but also references a number of classic films including Robocop and 2001, for example the robot TV camera that turns on a red HAL light before trying to ram Megan Blake into a wall... Apart from invasion of privacy plot strands also highlight the way laws are created as a knee-jerk reaction to emotive events, and the trust people place both in authorities but also in images that can be manipulated. There are plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle digs at American electioneering and foreign policy, which along with the main themes give the film a decent satirical bite - and there's an eye for detail, including the alternative Stars and Stripes flag.

There was a lot of talk at the Q&A about how close this film is to real life - I am now watching my webcam for any suspicious movements...

Related article: my interview with effects supervisor Christopher Watson here.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Did I say overlords? I meant protectors...

Our robot overlords had clearly been working behind the scenes at Sci-Fi London before the Eyeborgs premiere on Wednesday night. Firstly they'd set up a cloaking/visual blurring effect of some sort so the Apollo really did look like this:

Secondly we, the Second Foundation, having come all the way from the Other End of the Galaxy, were hoping to see the winning entry in the 48 Hour film challenge - but as too few entries featured robots of any sort our mechanical masters deemed this entertainment unworthy. Perhaps they were also concerned that Eyeborgs, while it features a number of cool robots, has kind of an anti-robot message at its heart.

However, I can't complain - instead, we were treated to stop-motion short, The Day The Robots Woke Up, a sentimental piece of old-school animation with a doggerel narrative and a pro-robot message. Simply beautiful. You can watch it if you're in London this weekend, part of the Blink of an Eye Short Films Programme 2, shown on Saturday 2nd and Monday 4th May (see programme here).

I enjoyed the main feature - more on that coming up. After the screening, Eyeborgs director Richard Clabaugh came down with most of the cast for a very lively Q & A, where we learned that, even though the film includes more effect shots than Transformers, it was produced on what might be the catering budget for a Hollywood blockbuster, and actress Megan Blake described with great enthusiasm how she'd had to learn to fire a gun for her part.