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]