Sunday, 31 October 2010

License To Wash The Dishes [Review: Moonraker]

Ian Fleming's novel Moonraker is a well-written thriller and a great read, and another reminder of just why 007's adventures first caught the public imagination, but in many ways it's not what I expected.

The first seven or eight chapters show a side of James Bond that never appears in the films - in the months resting between Bond's dangerous missions overseas, which only happen two or three times per year, it turns out Bond shows up at the London office and does his paperwork! He goes on training days! He goes home to his little flat! He goes out for an evening of card games with the boss and his pal, society philanthropist Hugo Drax! Admittedly this last encounter is plot-relevant: it's the source of some clues to Drax's real nature, and a clever literary device - the bridge game serves as an allegory for the plot as a whole.

Bond also flirts with all the secretaries in the building, not just Moneypenny who turns out to be a bit boring, and of course he has his own secretary - Loelia Ponsonby - who definitely needs to appear on film in future as she is quite a character herself. She works for Bond and the two other 00 agents (008 and 0011, naturally) and her apparent cold and aloof nature conceals her desperate love for all three - she won't let herself get involved with any of them as she is terrified they will die on the next mission.

Despite all this flirting Bond doesn't actually get past second base with any of the secretaries although it is tangentially mentioned that he has a few friends with benefits in London. His relationship with Gala Brand, an undercover police agent, develops through the novel and is full of Mulder-and-Scully tension, leading to a surprising (but expertly foreshadowed) conclusion.

Fleming takes pity on 007 and he doesn't actually do his washing up - instead from chapter eight the action gradually hots up and becomes more like the movies as Bond and Gala get a little too close to the truth about the mysterious deaths at Hugo Drax's rocket installation, and (most sinister of all) the reason why all his employees have such elaborate moustaches.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review: The Social Network

The Sci-Fi Gene blog is two years old. Last weekend I was at Howl At The Moon shooting footage of a live performance. Other current projects include finishing post-production on Bast, and a music video that is slowly coming together. Plans for the next year: more shorts and perhaps music videos. A feature lurks at the edge of my mind but realistically this would be a massive undertaking and is still several checkpoints away.

The Social Network has a witty, intelligent, non-condescending script and perfect delivery by the cast: Jesse Eisenberg is riveting to watch as Mark Zuckerberg - it's a lesson in how an actor can portray superintelligence and social naivete - but this is very much an ensemble piece. It's tense and exciting despite there being no action whatsoever. Finally a film has been made with accurate portrayals of websites and operating systems, hacking and computers in general.

The film also features Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker and could pave the way for a whole series of spin-off films based on other websites: I look forward to a docudrama about Ikea's Ask Anna.

I think that, while this film is one of the best-made and most enjoyable dramas I've seen for a long time, it should be treated with caution in terms of historical accuracy: it's taken from "The Accidental Billionaires" a book by Ben Mezrich written in consultation with Zuckerberg's former colleague Eduardo Saverin, so may well be a one-sided interpretation. If you also enjoyed this film you might want to check out Micro Men, the BBC's dramatization of the rise of the microcomputer and the rivalry between inventors Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Life Will Find A Way [Review: Next]

Michael Crichton's novel Next is about genetic engineering and has an unusual structure, somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, as the minor characters from one chapter become the heroes or anti-heroes of the next. While there is a clear narrative, timeline and ending, each chapter deals with a new consequence of genetic science or a new twist on a previous event. This structure is perfect for the topic as it suggests that genetic science is running out of control with each development leading to several others, and as with Jurassic Park there is a sense of chaos overturning order.

I'm not going to go into Crichton's beliefs about global warming in this article except to make the general point that, despite being a highly intelligent writer, Crichton isn't always right. For example, the world hasn't been taken over by robot cowboys. Yet. Next takes a scattershot approach so no doubt some of these wild predictions will come about - indeed, some may already be happening.

A recurring theme is the legal status of genetic science - the point about how far behind the law is and how little it reflects reality is exaggerated heavily. Another is the creation of transgenic animals with human genes - such as Gerard and Dave the intelligent parrot and chimp respectively - they're not at all realistic but make for a great read, and ultimately the comedy wins out over the scientific or thriller elements.

The novel Next by Michael Crichton bears no relation to the film Next, which stars Nicholas Cage as a Vegas conjurer who actually does have magical powers. I will be returning to the theme of psychic powers and reviewing this film in a later post.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Voodoo Doll

A second trial with the DIY camera dolly, with miniDV footage tracked in Voodoo and then post processed in Blender 2.5 including CGI elements and colouring. I've included some timelapse footage of the creation process in the video. Voodoo performs well with slow, forward motion, but there was some loss of tracking during a faster, lateral movement, so I had to base the second animation around a shorter clip than I'd hoped for.

Physically there are still some wobbles on the camera dolly but greatly reduced by using paint rollers at the track joints. A further addition to the dolly is an eye at the front so it can be pulled along from the side with a pole and hook.

Motion capture data taken from the Carnegie-Mellon Graphics Lab Motion Capture Database via cgspeed.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

All Just A Little Bit Of History Repeating [Review: Titanic II]

“Let’s make history.” Captain Howard (D.C. Douglas)

“The watertight bulkheads were designed for a head on collision. We never anticipated being hit from the side.” Hayden Walsh (Shane Van Dyke)

“Women and children first?” Hayden Walsh
“Looks like history’s repeating itself.” Captain Howard

“That’s half the lifeboats!” Hayden Walsh

The bridge crew take their places. Champagne is served. The Titanic departs on it’s historic maiden voyage, the four steamless funnels shining brightly. Passengers wave at the Statue of Liberty as it glides past. Hang on. Statue of Liberty? The date is April 13th 2012, and this is the Titanic II, a replica ship departing on a memorial cruise that will retrace the original ship’s voyage. In reverse.

For the record,
Titanic II may not be The Asylum’s finest hour. There are no sharks… at least no literal ones. Celebrity engineer Hayden Walsh (Shane Van Dyke) is the designer and owner of the Titanic II, which outwardly resembles the first Titanic but is in fact the most advanced ship ever built. He arrives on deck via helicopter with his four girlfriends in tow. Remind me - who wrote and directed this film? Oh yes.

Production values are varied. The Titanic II itself is pretty good – the Queen Mary doubles for it in dock, with a detailed CGI model taking over at sea. The whole replica ship concept has been given a lot of time and effort – non-functional funnels, hanging lifeboats which apparently don’t even float (instead there are some hi-tech submarine lifeboats below deck) and a reconstruction of the original bridge controls above the real, high-tech bridge.

Marie Westbrook and the Queen Mary as Amy Maine and Titanic II respectively

On the other hand, production values hit a spectacular low in a couple of scenes: Kim Patterson (Brooke Burns) exploring the collapsing polar ice shelf via some dodgy bluescreen, or Hayden and Amy (Marie Westbrook) climbing "up" a lift shaft Batman-and-Robin style.

This film is short – about half the length of Titanic I, and as with many Asylum films it’s quite enjoyable even though flawed. It’s not a spoof or comedy but nor does it take itself too seriously - it's a melodrama and the acting is suitably over the top. Shane Van Dyke does capture his role (half Leonardo Di Caprio, half Richard Branson) but the best performances come from D.C. Douglas, Marie Westbrook and Bruce Davison all of whom are very watchable and entertaining for all the right reasons.

Bruce Davison as Captain Maine

That Bruce Davison is an unsung hero. He deserves a knighthood for his services to science fiction through mastery of the Supporting Role. You might remember Mr. Davison as Senator Kelly in the X-Men films, or perhaps as George Henderson. If you were really lucky then you might have seen him play George Orr in the well-received 1980 TV movie Lathe Of Heaven. But check out his IMDb page where you can see he has taken occasional parts in Lost, Voyager, Enterprise, Sarah Connor Chronicles, V, Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, and The Outer Limits - no doubt adding that extra bit of credibility and richness to each episode.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Dolly Golightly [Skateboard Dolly Part II]

You can read Part I of this blog here.

The base for the skateboard dolly is two sheets of 12mm plywood bolted together. You need something to hold the tripod in place - I've used furniture coasters.
I reversed the direction of the wheel bolts for better spin. The wheel trucks have to be positioned accurately so they keep the rails parallel. For this step you will need : one Doctor Who Series Three box set and one Woody Allen box set.Welcome to the future of high-tech filmmaking.
First test run footage:

OK. Runs smoothly except for wobbles where the pipes join - at the moment I only have very loose joining plugs for them (next on the to do list.) The wheels are completely silent, track is self straightening and there's no lateral roll.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Digital Scavengers!


Lifting Me Up's Digital Scavenger Hunt coincided with a visit to Birmingham. Check out these other Digital Scavengers who will also be posting photos on the same themes over the next few days:

Lifting Me Up


Photography by Hank Plumley

Joocy Bits & Wotnots

Water Cooler, The

Soul Energy

Pink Dandy Chatter

The Sci-Fi Gene

Kent Today & Yesterday

Be Your Own Detective

Jerome Aoustin Photography


Life, The Universe...

Click 'N Light

[update 12.10.10: final list of participants with direct links to their scavenger hunt photos]

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

How Not To Train Your Dragon

Sintel, a short film produced by the Blender Foundation. The purpose of these "open movie" projects is to drive forward the development of the Blender open-source animation software - new features are programmed in order to meet the needs of the filmmakers. Sintel has now appeared on io9 and several of my other favourite blogs - you've probably already seen it and commented elsewhere, but I still want to give it a place here. Sintel is also the cover girl for this month's 3D World Magazine, where you can also read more about the film's development.

I've followed the development of this film with interest as I rely heavily on Blender as a filmmaking tool. It's an awesome software suite if frustrating to learn. Watching the film demonstrates that Blender 2.5 is now capable of creating a film that is not only beautiful or technically impressive, but also deeply emotional. It seems many viewers at io9 agreed.

The same comment thread also refers to some weaknesses in animation of hair and eyes. Boosting Blender's built in hair simulation system was a major development target for Sintel, but despite this there was a constant struggle to avoid unexpected behaviours from the simulator. The end result is OK but hair movement has been restricted in many scenes to avoid difficulties, and this is one of the few areas where Sintel's animation does not compare well to commercially produced features.

Eyes are another matter. It's extremely difficult to animate them realistically - perhaps because they're under greater scrutiny than other features, and "dead eye" is a complaint levelled against animated films or CGI characters at all levels of animation. Even Avatar is not completely immune. There are so many different aspects to get right - the textures and transparencies, and the constant, tiny involuntary movements of the eyeballs and the surrounding skin. Sintel's eyes hold up well to scrutiny and certainly manage to convey a lot of humanity and emotion even if they're not always perfect.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Augmented Reality Part II: Imagine Greater

As well as the settings there are also differences in the history of the two media: Cinema was invented and popularized by conjurors and showmen and has always been about the spectacle. In the first ever public showing of the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, audiences were thrilled and terrified by the image of a steam train heading towards them. Fans of all the recent 3D films should agree that little has changed since those days. Special effects have been a crucial part of the cinema experience since its origins in the 1890s.

Please put on your 2D goggles now...

Scottish inventer John Logie Baird, who built the first working television system, was a scientist and humanitarian and was said to believe that if viewers could see how their fellow humans lived in other countries and societies, war between them would no longer be possible. The biblical quotation “Nation shall speak unto nation” remains a catchphrase at the BBC. Television has since been driven forward by governments and a wide range of commercial interests, and has been as much about the news agenda, documentaries and public service broadcasting as it has been about drama and the arts.

So you could argue that television is more about reality or realism and cinema is about hyper-reality or augmented reality. This is why "reality TV" makes sense as a trend - love it or hate it, it's a logical evolution of the TV medium and takes it in the opposite direction to cinema.

Documentaries are made for TV and cinema but differently. Cinema documentaries are often driven by strong beliefs and provocative agendas. Take Morgan Spurlock, Michael Moore and Al Gore’s work as examples. Television documentaries often seek to appear (sometimes misleadingly) neutral either by presenting balanced, opposing views or through reality TV.

Movements in cinema to reject augmented reality have arguably failed to do so: instead reality becomes augmented in new and exciting ways. Gritty reality films such as Fish Tank tend to expand into exaggerated, gritty hyper-reality. The camcorder viewpoint and mockumentary styles have led to a fresh way of making fantasy films, as seen in The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and District 9. And if you can’t see that dogme films are the most augmented realities of all then I’m sorry but I can’t help you anymore.

My point is, far from converging, these differences between cinema and television are still very valid - in some ways they're actually moving further apart. And perhaps this is something to accept, encourage or even celebrate.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Black Dog [Banned Book Review: Cujo]

Stephen King occasionally writes about large-scale horror, for example in Cell where he imagines a zombie pandemic spreading through the mobile phone system. Most of his writing takes place on a smaller scale with individuals, families or small towns isolated and under siege. Cujo is one of King's most minimalist novels, the tale of a large but friendly and faithful dog who becomes rabid. There's a small cast and less than a handful of gory deaths. Just a tiny hint of a supernatural element - Cujo might be possessed by the soul of a serial killer, but cleverly this remains speculative so adds colour to the story while the horror remains grounded in reality. Out of these basic ingredients King bakes a perfect two-act horror novel with a build up of suspense followed by Cujo's killing spree.

The author is on record as being a dog lover and perhaps for some readers the real horror is the unthinkable: man's "best friend" turning to bite the hand that feeds. For those of the cat persuasion there's a different payoff - schadenfreude.
This book has been banned from a number of school libraries across the U.S. apparently due to profanity and strong sexual content although I suspect the pro-dog lobby may have had a hand in it too:

'In April 1998, Stephen King's novel Cujo was thrown in the trash can by the principal of Crook County High School in Prineville, Oregon, after a parent requested that the book be removed. Principal Chris Yeager said, "It's not what most parents would want their child to read." In a written complaint to the school district, Sue Baca cited profanity, violence, and sexual content in Cujo as justification for its removal. She also asked that all of King's books, as well as any other horror novels, be removed from the county's middle and high schools. "I object to any book by Stephen King as he writes horror fiction, which has no value," said Baca.' - Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Libraries, Herbert N. Foerstal.

It's easy to criticise Baca's attitude but does horror fiction have value? Some ideas:
  • Firstly, entertainment and escapist value is perfectly legitimate. I am not alone in getting a great deal of enjoyment from Stephen King's novels.

  • Secondly, think about artistic value which I often think of in terms of emotional response. Well written horror does exactly that - in addition, horror that originates in the everyday has the power to stop you taking the world around you for granted and instead see it from a different angle.

  • Thirdly, consider artisan value. Stephen King is sometimes portrayed as a writer of trashy fiction - usually by those who haven't taken the time to do any more than skim-read his novels. Being generous I think the confusion stems from his highly accessible writing style - short paragraphs, straight-into-the-action. However this "hides" a skillful writer who controls the reader's emotions as both composer and conductor of a symphony. The writing is also full of literary and cultural allusion and there is often a philosophical undertone: writing as Richard Bachman King went futher and wrote The Long Walk and several other novels with strong allegorical themes.

  • Fourthly, the way to fight real fears and phobias is confrontation. Books that help us learn to face fears and master them contribute to personal development. This sense of mastery might be the reason why children grow up loving fairy stories, which until recent decades were traditionally the most horrific of all fiction.

  • Finally, let's consider economic value. King sells! So by definition his work is valued by some - this also means he is contributing to the income not only of himself, but of printers, cover artists, bookshop assistants, and so on - plus Cujo was made into a film too.
The next Stephen King is out there somewhere, ignoring her teacher and daydreaming new and terrifying plots in the back row of her classroom. When she emerges as a fully fledged novelist she will no doubt be valued, feted, criticised harshly and loved just as intensely, and I look forward to being scared silly by her priceless writing. Thanks to Sue Baca she probably won't turn out to be an alumnus of the Crook County High School in Prineville, Oregon.