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.