Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back

I recently returned from a course where I learnt the Interview Rules of Survival. They're pretty similar to the Zombieland Rules of Survival although apparently the double-tap is frowned upon by most HR departments. On my return to Paddington I came across this space-time anomaly:

I was impressed by the group of excitable orange-suited RailTrack engineers who were making a fuss over Bittern (a sister locomotive to Mallard) on a rare excursion down south.

In other news I'm uploading a sequence from Bast to YouTube that I thought would make a good second trailer, this time with some of the animated content. I'll post a link when it's up and running - check back here or on the Bast website later today.

[produced in Blender]

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Frights, Bites and Lights [Review: The Wolfman]

The Wolfman has lots of bite but no originality whatsoever. It's a re-make of "The Wolf Man" (1941), not to be confused with "The Wolfman" (1961) which is quite different, and features all the usual werewolf tropes - moonlight, howling, restraining chairs, silver bullets, the link with mental illness, excessive body hair and posing on top of a (steam) bus, as well as some even more cliched cliches - I mean seriously, Cinema Industry In General, can we dispense with the father-son dynamic now? Also I have completely forgiven Daybreakers for it's occasional reliance on sudden scares - The Wolfman averages about three per minute, a form of shock therapy not unlike Talbot's treatment in the asylum.

There are some good things in this film. It makes great use of some wonderful historic settings, and you probably won't see a more beautifully lit film this decade: for fans of being able to see things in films this will be a big bonus. Fans of seeing guts drawn out of stomachs like Mr. Punch with a string of sausages will also not be disappointed. The werewolf itself is quick and vicious and rapidly establishes that it can decimate a village in minutes. Benicio Del Toro as Talbot makes for a brooding Heathcliff of a hero while Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving both deadpan their way through the better parts of the script, making for some funny scenes. Emily Blunt does her best with much weaker material and makes for a captivating if vacuous heroine. It's not her fault, people! Overall this is entertaining light entertainment but nothing memorable.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Pandora's Box Of Oscars: Part II

Further thoughts on Avatar's multi-Oscar nominations: for all the criticism, Avatar hasn't been nominated for a single Golden Raspberry this year. It's fair to say that the public, who vote for the Razzie nominations, haven't carried a knife for this film - they've either been highly enthusiastic or indifferent rather than especially critical, and seem to have reserved their real hatred for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Twilight.

However this also reflects the categories of Raspberry which are still too broad and too traditional. There really aren't any grounds for Avatar being nominated for Worst Picture, or Worst Supporting Actress etc. However if there were a Raspberry for Worst Name Of A Mineral In A Sci-Fi Movie, for example, or perhaps Most Badly Disguised Political Message, then Avatar would win hands down.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Pandora's Box Of Oscars

Team Avatar in the news again - with nine Oscar nominations. I enjoyed this film, but on reviewing the nomination list I had some mixed feelings.

Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, with Kim Sinclair for set decoration
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Visual Effects: Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones
No argument on these three: quality of physically constructed sets and props and of CGI elements is pretty high, as is the overall standard of photography. The depth of simulation of Pandoran geography and culture is a factor here as it really comes across well in the film.

Editing: Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron
Has Avatar been edited in an unusually brilliant way? Not so sure, although editing is one of the most important creative processes in film; also as I've previously said, editing a 3D film is different from 2D and there may have been numerous achievements and envelope-pushes along the way. Agreed (after extra time).

Original Score: James Horner
Not the most memorable film score ever but beautifully understated, and deserves some kind of award for not going down the March of the Stormtroopers route. OK, you can have that one on me.

Best Picture: James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers
In a year that Moon didn't even get a mention I'm going to be overcritical of the Best Picture category. Avatar is a very enjoyable film (if you're not a full time critic) and that should count for something, but is it in the Best Picture overall category? Sorry, it's no turkey but it doesn't quite make the grade.

Sound Editing: Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
Sound Mixing: Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson
I should know more about this technically, but I actually don't think the sound was of such stand-out quality to deserve Oscar nominations in the same way as the visual elements.

Direction: James Cameron
For: Cameron is well known as a hands on director, and has pushed every aspect of this movie from start to finish. So you can't separate his input from any other aspect of the movie - if you're giving out any gongs at all you have to include him.
Against: once upon a time, a director's job included coaxing great performances out of actors. Remember? Avatar has nine nominations - none of which are for acting - and I don't believe the cast are to blame for this as they included seasoned professionals like Weaver and highly talented newcomers like Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.
Conclusion: you can keep the nomination but only after a slap on the wrist. Understood?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Bast: Secrets Of Cat Training [trailer]

A first attempt at a trailer. Bast is still a work in progress - some shots still need some adjustments but from this point I'll be working on the final version. The film will eventually feature an original soundtrack - for the trailer I've used Gustav Holst's classic trailer composition "Mars" performed by the USAF Bands Programme [via wikimedia commons].

The film website is here. Further updates planned soon including more about the cast.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Feed the bats! Tuppence a bag! [Review: Daybreakers]

Daybreakers is all about the vampire gags.

It's the near future, a few years after a vampire virus apocalypse, and Daybreakers takes every opportunity to show you how they have adapted the world around them: they drink tea with blood, they've adapted their cars and buildings to shield them during the daytime, they have an army equipped with daytime armour and tranq guns that hunts down humans for blood, and so on. I'm not sure how a vampirism virus would actually make you invisible in your wing mirror but the DoP within me loves the shot so I'll let it pass.

The plot itself is pretty good - the vampires are still unused to their sudden ascendance and have ambiguous feelings about it, embodied in the two brothers, one a grunt in the human-hunting army who seems content with the way humans are treated, the other a haematologist who tolerates the situation as a temporary measure but has many regrets. The plot develops along similar lines to Stephenie Meyer's The Host, with the haematologist on the run from his own kind and living with a band of rebel humans who don't quite trust him. Some of the ideas about possible cures for vampirism are a bit convoluted and illogical but, on the other hand, they lend themselves to a brutal twist in the ending.

The main vampire gag is the blood bank which features heavily in the plot. Humans are stored suspended in a giant vault and milked like cows - but the bank looks and runs like a city bank, and when the world's blood supply begins to run low, investors start removing their "investments" triggering the best cinematic banking confidence crisis since Michael Banks decided to cash in his stock options and feed the pigeons.

The film was produced by Australian twins Michael and Peter Spierig, whose previous films include Undead and the acclaimed short The Big Picture. I noticed the twins have given themselves a credit for the effects as well as for writing, producing, directing, etc. Pat on the back - the effects are definitely a high point of the film, including plenty of David Cronenberg-style blood and gore as well as architecture and landscape that tells a lot of the story.

Overall Daybreakers is stylish and witty. It sometimes relies too much on sudden, contrived B-movie scares but when it rises above this the original ideas really shine through.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


Or, look! no keys!

Blender can do chromakey - chain together as many chromakey or channel key nodes as you like, each one picking out a particular shade of green. The more nodes you can be bothered to put in and adjust, the less overspill you get.

I like noodles!

However, sorting all those nodes out can get quite fiddly - and you can get better results by avoiding the chromakey system altogether (if you know your format well enough). Here, I'm taking my original mini DV footage and subtracting the red from the green channels - leaving only the areas that are predominantly green. Once I've amplified these remainders with a colour ramp the output is more or less what I want. I've used an animated oval in the 3D scene to create a matte so I only process a small area of the image.

Whichever approach I use, I end up with very low resolution - that's because I'm using the colour channels, and mini DV encodes squares of four pixels all in one colour. Not to worry - I just multiply my output by the luminance channel, add a bit of blur, and full resolution is restored.

Right. Three more of these and you can have a trailer.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Not With A Bang [Review: Knowing]

Knowing is a creepy, post 9/11 apocalyptic film starring Nicholas Cage and Rose Byrne. A disturbed child writes down a list of numbers which is sealed into a time capsule for fifty years, then given to the son of Cage's physics professor. When decoded the list corresponds to major disasters during the fifty year period, with clues to three disasters still to come. Cage becomes obsessed with trying to prevent these events and also with tracking down the child's family to solve the mystery. Meanwhile mysterious figures follow Cage and give black pebbles to his son.

The film does not ultimately explain any of it's premise - in particular the reason for the existence of the list remains unclear, there is no attempt to define whether the disasters are occurring for a reason e.g. punishment or as part of some greater scheme, or if they are still natural and random yet somehow predictable. Cage attempts to divert them but it is unclear whether he has made any difference, or whether this is even possible. It's not clear exactly why Cage and his family are special, or even if they are.

This is OK. The film is called Knowing. Not Understanding, or Preventing. The central theme is what happens if you know your fate - for example, you have a terminal illness, you've run out of treatment options and you know roughly how long you have to live. In this situation you can't change the outcome but what can you still do with the time left to you? The characters have to choose between trying to escape their fate, using their time to help others, setting their affairs in order, righting old wrongs, or seeking understanding - and they are in a great hurry, with little time to choose and no guarantee that they will succeed in their choice. The theme is embodied perfectly by Byrne's character who has always known the date of her death, but is in denial until the events of the film force her to act with only hours left.

You may like or dislike the ending but read on: Firstly as many commentators have pointed out, it doesn't compromise on the film's theme either by making everything all right with a quick fix, or by offering an equally quick explanation. Secondly, as with the rest of the film it is beautifully shot. The film shares a few plot points with 2012 but where that film is loud, colourful and showy, Knowing is quiet, subdued and eerie.

There are plot holes. Dammit. The lack of explanation for the premise is actually quite a good thing, but some scenes definitely need explanation. Cage's ability to figure out the third disaster in a few seconds is a bit silly - surely if [SPOILER REDACTED] it would have been predicted much earlier! Worse, when Cage's character takes his disaster prediction list to his scientific friend he is laughed out of town on the basis that he is reading too much into the numbers. Would make sense if he had used his own idiosyncratic system to "find" the references - after all Michael Drosnin does this for a living - but the list seems to feature several hundred events, in order, all clearly identifiable once you've found the first one. Together with the list's tamper-proof history it would have to be taken more seriously by a scientist - in fact you would need to go to extraordinary lengths to disprove it.

Overall though I was impressed with this film for building up such a strong atmosphere, for bringing subtlety to the apocalyptic genre and for generally not wimping out on its premise.

Monday, 1 February 2010

I do not approve of murder [Review: Curtain]

Agatha Christie’s novel Curtain describes Hercule Poirot’s departure. It’s also a departure from Christie’s usual subject matter if not her writing style or general sharpness: the typical plot is turned on its’ head as Poirot, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from severe angina, already knows the identity of the killer he is tracking, although not his victim, and is racing to solve an impossible crime that has yet to be committed. The killer’s identity is concealed from Hastings, who must act as Poirot’s eyes ears and hands, precisely because he is too reliable a narrator. Physically lightweight, and as short and succinct as Christie's other novels, the characters constantly debate the morality around issues of life and death, and Poirot's disapproval of murder is tested. The novel was written in the 1940s but at Christie’s request was only published in 1975, the year before her death.

Most of Agatha Christie’s fiction centres not on pathological killers but on crimes of passion, necessity, or desperation committed by people who are not so unlike the rest of us. Given the time of writing, it is striking that in Curtain Christie has written both a serial killer novel and a sci-fi cross-over. Whereas today we are used to the serial killer concept and question it far less than perhaps we should, in the 1940s this would have been a relatively exotic concept and the novel takes time to justify the killer’s psychopathy, along with an explanation of a highly speculative method of killing, in psychological terms. At the same time the novel is consistent with – and explains – Christie’s reoccurring theme that anyone can be a murderer.

You can read more about the novel here – but serious spoiler alert: only follow this link if you have already read Curtain.