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.