Thursday, 28 January 2010

Bast: Secrets Of Cat Training - update

A certain unruly cat now has its own home on the World Wide Web: our website is now live here.
[Ariel Tan, Paddington, Tammy Sander, Lewis Westbury. Photo: Stuart Birch]

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

*catteries not included

Two location shoots later, thanks to the kindness of software engineers and bookstore owners, one improvised camera dolly and lots of pizza: as of yesterday night "Bast: Secrets of Cat Training" is officially in post production. I'm fairly tired now but more on that story later.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Socrates' Stone

In C.J. Cherryh’s classic novel Wave Without A Shore, the scholarly inhabitants of planet Freedom believe that they can decide what is real. They choose not to see or acknowledge the indigenous aliens or a human underclass, both of whom share their city. This theme occurs elsewhere in science fiction – in Ulan Dhor, one of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales, the Grey and Green tribes share a ruined city but are magically unable to see each other; also in China Mieville’s recent novel The City and The City, two cities share the same space but citizens are discouraged, on pain of disappearance by sinister secret police, from seeing each other.

A related idea was put forward by avant garde architects Superstudio in the 70s. In the City of the Book, the last of their satirical Twelve Cities, they imagined a city made up of tunnels in which two contradictory moral codes co-existed. A book of laws could be read by sunlight on the city’s exterior or by filtered light in the tunnel cavity - in each location different words would appear, so the same citizens would behave in an upstanding moral manner in one setting but indulge in excessive vice in the other. The authors claimed that this, like their other City concepts, was based on a real city although they did not reveal which one they had in mind.

Wave Without A Shore is about post-modernism. Modernism is the idea that reality is empirical – it can be measured and understood; it’s closely related to science and to the Enlightenment. Post-modernism isn’t one philosophy and there are post-modernist trends in every walk of life, but the cross-hatch is that most of these ideas downplay or refute the existence of any base reality, instead emphasising a reality that is constructed by ourselves.

On this topic I’ve always taken the Philip K. Dick line as a good working definition: reality is that which does not go away when you stop believing in it. A version of this argument existed long before post-modernism ever reared it’s socially constructed head – Plato challenges Socrates to refute the suggestion that he only exists in Plato’s imagination. Socrates, kicking a stone, replies “I refute it thus.” From the title onwards, Cherryh’s novel is very much a response to post-modernist ideas and is about the hubris of choosing what is real.

Friday, 22 January 2010

March of the Na'avi

I have a vague memory of noticing and enjoying the music of Avatar - but when I try to remember it I have great difficulty. There's certainly no March of the Stormtroopers or any John Williams theme running round my brain and keeping me awake. I also noticed that Avatar has received huge media coverage but very little of this is about the score or other elements of the soundtrack - again, there's nothing wrong with the sound but no sense of a world-defining soundscape as featured in, say, Wall-E.

Let's forget about the red and green specs era for a second. 3D Cinema actually began when Dolby Digital Stereo or similar formats became projection standards - this was the point where a soundtrack alone could transport you or leave you dizzy in your seat. The set-up mimics real perception - forward vision and surround sound. And if the soundtrack can give you orientation, the score adds depth: those Imperial cruisers in the opening scene of A New Hope would only have been about a third as long without the music.

With Avatar, vision has caught up again - and I think that sound has been kept deliberately low-key. This BBC Music review of the score makes the point well. James Horner, a skillful and experienced cinema composer, (Titanic, Apollo 13, Wrath of Khan) has written a subtle and effective score for an epic sci-fi blockbuster - this is itself a daring and innovative move.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bast: Secrets Of Cat Training - Day 1

Overcoming embarrassing ailments, exploding glue canisters and other everyday cinema hazards, Bast: Secrets of Cat Training has survived and progressed to production day 1. Some photographic highlights from the day:

Paddington arrived early with his staff of one.

Read-through (Tammy Sander and Ariel Tan)

Costume check (Tammy Sander)

Trainer Charlotte Wilde teases an Oscar-worthy performance from Paddington.

This movie business is highly technical.

Lewis Westbury does all his own stunts.

Composer David Novan joins the crew.

You can never have too many photos of the cast sitting on some stairs (Tammy Sander, Lewis Westbury, Ariel Tan)

Further updates and details to follow. All photographs by Stuart Birch.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Felindependence Day

The main shoot for Bast took place yesterday. Thanks to everyone's hard work we got through the slate - just two off-location scenes left to film, then a lot of post-production to come. I am now recovering from a very full day - I expect other cast and crew members are too - but will post updates and stills shortly.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Watching the Vast Machine

The Traveller, by John Twelve Hawks, is a thriller about the rise of CCTV monitoring. In the novel, all the CCTV and other forms of remote monitoring are combined to form the “Vast Machine” which gives a small elite the ability to monitor and so rule the world. The only defence is to live “off the grid” but this becomes increasingly difficult. The Vast Machine effectively creates a “virtual Panopticon," a reference to architect Jeremy Bentham’s speculative prison – the Panopticon – in which prisoners are always on view.

The number of CCTV cameras in the UK is not known. In 2004 Professor Clive Norris estimated that there were 4.3 million, with any individual being caught on camera 300 times per day – but as there is minimal regulation of state or private CCTV installation there is no accurate or up-to-date figure. In addition to regular CCTV, Gatso cameras pick up speeding, traffic light violations, inappropriate use of bus lanes and other driving misdemeanours while other cameras enforce congestion charge zones. Eating one’s own food at restaurant tables? Probably in the near future. And more - soon they will be picking up faces or suspicious patterns of movement. There are some interesting articles about the rise of surveillance in the UK on the SpyBlog.

However the fear of constantly being monitored – and who might have access to the data or images – is only one side of the CCTV story. I wonder if other people have driven past a Gatso camera and triggered the flash – it’s not always clear why this happens – and then heard nothing? Or, in trying to recover stolen goods, have discovered that the tapes were “lost” or “corrupted,” or worse, the premises don’t want to share their CCTV with the victim or the police – and are not legally obliged to do so. According to the BBC, about a thousand cameras are installed for every crime that is solved by CCTV. It's hard to see how all those cameras could be effectively monitored unless every one of us carried out some shifts as a security guard, recalling the plot of A Scanner Darkly in which an anonymous narcotics agent is required to set up a watch on himself.

A feature of Bentham’s original Panopticon design was that, while the prisoners would always be visible in their glass cells, the guards were always hidden in the central tower. A single guard could operate window shutters via levers to give the impression of a fully staffed watchtower – or at times there might be no guards at all and the prisoners would never know. Sometimes I get the feeling I’m not being watched…

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

End of a Tennancy [Review: Doctor Who: The End Of Time. Spoilers]


I finally watched the second part of The End Of Time on iPlayer yesterday. I couldn't see it live and I've avoided commenting on this or reading anything about it in the press or on blogs until I'd seen it. As many have pointed out, avoiding David Tennant has pretty much meant avoiding the entirety of human media output over the past month.

The End Of Time is the swansong for both David Tennant and Russell T. Davies. Interestingly, the main plot is resolved just over halfway through the episode and the rest is taken up with the highly ironic (and contrived) situation which leads the Doctor to regenerate, and with the Doctor, knowing he only has a few hours left, travelling around saying goodbyes to key characters. It was a bit like the end of Lord of the Rings in this respect, although I think it's just about justified here for several reasons.
Over at io9 there's been a fascinating discussion about all the unanswered questions in this episode - this is deliberate as the questions or hints are actually voiced by characters in this or previous episodes - and I read this straight after watching as I felt desperate for more Doctor Who. I'm surprised to admit to myself that this has been emotional.

What I've been thinking though is that regeneration is treated much more seriously than in the past - when old Doctors regenerated (I'm old enough to remember - in a vague blurry way - the end of the Tom Baker era and the arrival of Peter Davison) it was traumatic, possibly painful, quite trippy, but it was still basically a healing process. Tennant's Doctor portrays it more as a death and rebirth - does he literally mean that he dies and a new Doctor grows in his place (like a butterfly replacing a caterpillar) or is this more metaphorical? The latter would work - this Doctor has spent longer in his body and personality than the last few regenerations and would be more attached to and identified with it. Along with this comes a powerful blurring of fiction and reality - the sadness of both the actor and character on their leaving behind this part of their lives after such a long and intense period, together with similar sentiments from the writer/creator and perhaps from viewers? This is a huge event and it takes place both within the Doctor Who universe and here in the real world.

Matt Smith's appearance was yet another Douglas Adams reference: based on the scene where the sperm whale, brought into existence by the Improbability Drive, has just a few minutes to make sense of the universe before realising that he is about to crash into the planet. I also liked the moment where he thought he was a girl - referring to the predictable debate that happens every time the BBC are casting for a new Doctor. You'll get no more Matt Smith comments from me here, I can't really think about it at the moment so I'll be waiting to see how the new series pans out.

Overall I though The End Of Time was one of the better episodes from the Russell T. Davies era although nowhere near the best - there are many wonderful, right notes (the moment when the Doctor hears about the Time Lords and instantly takes the gun!) but also some wrong ones. However fittingly enough this is definitely Tennant's best performance and as it was so moving I don't mind the overlong goodbyes after all - they both fit the character of the Doctor and have been earned by the actor.

Catpocalypse Now

Coming up to the shoot for a new short sci-fi film, Bast: Secrets of Cat Training, in a few days. A gorgeous cat called Paddington will be making an appearance in a key role - we've cast him as a cat although I hope in future productions he will broaden his range a bit... I carried out the recce and met with the animal trainer earlier this week which was very reassuring. As with all my film projects I hope to learn a lot from doing this, and for each film to be a little better than the last.

There's still a lot to do in the next few days mainly in prop acquisition & construction, and this is quite a challenging project - of course anything can still happen. I'm working with a small but fantastic cast & crew so am feeling cautiously optimistic about this one. No photos today but I'll post updates and photos when I can.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Flight of the Na'avigator [Review: Avatar]

Welcome to the second age of 3D Cinema. My verdict: Avatar succeeds as an enjoyable film - not just a technically impressive one.

The film is set in 2154 on the hostile world of Pandora where a Terran outpost seeks to mine a rare mineral resource with a silly name - but must first persuade an intelligent native race to abandon their homes above the deposit. They send agents in amongst the Na'avi in specially grown Na'avi bodies - avatars - both to persuade the natives to cooperate and to gather intelligence.

Avatar as a narrative takes in several somewhat familiar plots: conflict over resources or territory; double agents with divided loyalty; the outsider leading the tribe against his own side; Romeo and Juliet's love affair. The plot is simplistic, it doesn't really surprise or twist much, but it doesn't collapse or lose momentum either. The messages are pretty basic - pro-conservation, strongly evoking the plight of the rainforests, and anti-war. There is one point where the anti-war message is hammered home using contemporary references such as "shock and awe" in the dialogue but this is the exception.

It's fair to say then that Avatar draws heavily and openly on other films and books, for example re-using the iconic Apocalypse Now shot of helicopters taking off in front of a giant sun. Other influences include everything Anne McCaffrey ever wrote, as well as Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart, Pocahontas, Dune and so on.

Avatar as a performance: Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri are faultless in motion capture, and Worthington's live portrayal of a paraplegic soldier is also great. In support, it's nice to see Sigourney back in a sci-fi role and she is as captivating to watch as ever; Michelle Rodriguez is amazing too - would someone please cast her in the lead soon? She seems to be making a career of fine support work but is capable of much more.

Avatar as a spectacle: on a few occasions the 3D shots don't quite capture the viewer - but when they do work they are simply breathtaking. The ten years of world building has paid off and Avatar really is worth seeing for the spectacle alone.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Coming in 2010

Happy New Year from Sci-Fi Gene and I wish you good luck with your resolutions. My New Year's resolution: direct more films about cats taking over the world.

More soon.