Monday, 29 November 2010

Would You Buy A Second-Hand X-Wing From This Man?

Over at Robert Hoffman published a list of 100 greatest cinematic spaceships which has been troubling the blogosphere for a few days. I took the io9 challenge and tried to predict the top 10. Suffice it to say I was not at all surprised by the number 1 entry, and in addition, I correctly predicted that Discovery, Enterprise the Close Encounters mothership and of course Serenity would make the top ten. It was inevitable that Star Wars and Star Trek would be prominent in this list - and I applaud Hoffman's attempt to stop them from dominating altogether.

The nostalgia is strong with this one: E.T.'s spaceship and the X-Wing (both just missing out on the top 10) but also further down the list were Max from Flight of the Navigator, the unexpected yellow spaceship from Life Of Brian, and a certain Interstellar Circus Tent. Recent films with iconic spaceships such as District 9 also get a mention.

Not iconic enough?

I was, however, surprised to see that the Nostromo and Sulaco only clocked in at 36 and 44, and there are also some interesting omissions: although it's only had two cinema outings plus one TV movie appearance, surely the TARDIS ranks somewhere in the top 100. Also I thought the Martian Flying Machines (complete with string) deserved more of a place than many of the entrants, as did Jane Fonda's inexplicably carpeted interstellar RV from Barbarella. Possibly the Flying Machines were excluded on a technicality as they were aircraft rather than spacecraft.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Ready To Feel The Sunshine

The b-roll shoot* took place for a music video last night - the song is "2007" by Tenderstar and the video will feature two members of the band. We turned a local community hall into a bluescreen studio for the project, which will combine live footage and CGI, and the treatment includes a number of effect challenges including teleportation, artificial mirror shots and a weightless scene. This is my second music video project - I previously made an animated video for David Novan's composition Soupremacy.

The shoot was successful in that we covered all the material in about three hours (plus an hour to set up.) The dolly performed OK but there's still some wobble over the joints even though the tracks were taped into place: as it should only affect 5-10 frames of action in each shot I'll be able to correct this by hand in the video sequence editor.

James Cameron dreams of a high tech studio set-up like mine.

Oops - accidentally included one of Roland Emmerich's photos from the making of "The Day After Tomorrow" there. My bad.

Tim Burton's version of "The Commitments" will be a re-imagining and not just a re-make.

Learning points:

Lighting: always check your lights - that way you won't set up a new floodlight only to find it has a faulty transformer and blows every bulb you put in.

Direction: This is important although I'm sure it's obvious to anyone more experienced. "Turn away, move your arms like this, step back" doesn't help the actors. "There's an explosion coming from this corner, so cover your eyes and turn away from the blast" is the way to go. Don't treat them as robots, give them a situation or an idea and trust them to create a response.

*Performance roll - the band performing the song. B-roll - interpretative footage or any other footage used in a music video.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Floating In A Most Peculiar Way

A few weeks ago io9 published their list of the greatest zero-gravity sex scenes of all time. They're NSFW so I haven't embedded them here but it's an interesting list. Now I'm nowhere near ready to direct my first sex scene, but I am planning to shoot a weightless scene later this week - so that probably makes me the only person on the whole Internet who watched these videos purely for research purposes. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

There are some common techniques:

  • smooth rotation
  • shots taken from a progression of angles
  • extreme close-ups
  • shallow depth of field
  • slow motion
  • drifting props

My budget won't stretch to either an Inception-style rotating set or a high-altitude flight. I do have space to set up a large bluescreen plus a camera dolly, and I have a few other tricks up my sleeve I'm dying to try out - so let's see how we get on. Meanwhile, here's a music video with freefall that's work-safe and still awesome - thanks to Dyeve for the suggestion.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I, Go-Bot [Review: Transmorphers]

This is why I love The Asylum!

You may be surprised to hear that Transmorphers has nothing to do with the Transformers movie at all, taking its cue instead from The Matrix: Revolutions and the Terminator films. Following Earth's complete subjugation by an army of robots - possibly of alien origin - the last humans cower in an underground city, hatch their plans to take back the planet, and generally argue, bitch and catfight.

These robots don't actually transform into mechanical disguises, with a couple of exceptions (and incidentally, did the scriptwriters never see Tom Hanks in Big? Turns out he was right about something) but they do morph between flying, walking and heavy weapons configurations.

General Van Ryburg (Eliza Swenson) has a cunning plan - but naturally it's doomed to failure unless Mitchell (Matthew Wolf) - a revolutionary placed in suspended animation by Van Ryburg - is thawed out to lead the squadron. Complicating matters is Mitchell's former girlfriend Nadir (Amy Weber) who is now married to the General. The General was originally written for a man, and Eliza Swenson has been switched into the part with no changes to the plot or script - creating an interesting dynamic between the lead characters, plus a society that no longer bats an eyelid at either gender roles or sexuality - Captain Jack Harkness would fit right in.

Eliza Swenson as General Van Ryburg

Of all the Asylum movies I've sat through, this one probably has the highest production values - in that it has actual sets, many of which don't resemble painted cardboard. There are also a lot of giant robots, although sadly CGI and bluescreen footage are both overused and poorly executed. By contrast the acting, while not devoid of ham and cheese, is generally good - certainly the best thing about the movie. In addition to the leads, Matthew Tower stands out as the loopy Professor Alextzavich, and his sidekick Suzy the supercharged cyborg (Erin Evans, aka Erin Sullivan, half of the reason I enjoyed Monster so much) is woefully underutilised.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Death By Lens Flare [Review: Skyline]

"God I hate L.A."

Independence Day was - amazingly - a decent date movie and a real crowd pleaser: something for jingoistic Americans, USAF hardware enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, chess players, and fans of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air - I mean, that's just about everyone, right?

Skyline is not a date movie. It's a solid B movie with an A ending, for alien invasion enthusiasts and other sci-fi-gene deficiency sufferers only. While imaginative captions such as "Day One" mark it superficially as an ID4 clone, it's actually closer to War Of The Worlds or Cloverfield in telling the story of everyman heroes caught up in the sidelines of the invasion rather than the leaders, movers and shakers.

The aliens, a menagerie of biomechanical horrors with orifices in curious places, come armed with a variant of the War of the Worlds death ray: a hypnotic blue lens flare that gives you a serious case of acne, then sucks you up into the mothership. The humans fight back, naturally, with automatic Venetian blinds, bad driving, handguns, fireaxes and a Canon EOS 5D.

Avoiding the aliens and their hypnotic weapons, the cast are confined to an apartment block, the rooftops and a few streets, and the style switches between claustrophobic interior and action-heavy exterior scenes. Two thirds though there's a sequence where an alien mothership gets taken down by a drone-launched nuclear missile: what happens next isn't particularly believable or well done, but it does mark a departure from the ID4 storyline - and from this point onwards things get steadily better: the last third of this film more than makes up for earlier weaknesses, and the last few minutes are unexpected and very moving.

I wondered whether the film was a metaphor for parenthood - Elaine (Scottie Thompson) is pregnant, and both she and her boyfriend Jarrod (Eric Balfour) are unprepared for either parenthood or alien invasion, a situation brought home by their visit to eternal playboy Terry (Donald Faisal) and reinforced by constant talk of accepting the reality of the changed situation, stepping up to the mark and taking responsibility for others than yourself. No. It isn't.

Bonus points are awarded for having the heroes actually worry about radiation exposure after the nukes go off - however points must also be deducted for the crude way in which that DSLR (gorgeous as it is) is hammered into the plot as a semi-McGuffin. Sorry, but if it ain't subliminal then it's just advertising.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Cat Who Doesn't Walk Through Walls [Review: Her Fearful Symmetry]

Audrey Niffenegger's second novel that is not a picturebook is not a sequel to The Time Traveler's Wife but a completely new ghost story and a worthy entry in the Creepy Twins novel subgenre. The story centres on a small block of flats which the recently deceased Elspeth finds her ghost self unable to leave. Elspeth has signed her flat over in her last will to her twin nieces Julia and Valentina, who are the daughters of her own twin sister Edie. The block of flats is also home to Robert, Elspeth's former partner and tour guide/attendant at Highgate Cemetery, and to Martin and his long-suffering partner Marijke. Later it becomes home to the Kitten Of Death as well.

As with the "time travel genetic disease" from the previous novel, Niffenegger takes her supernatural concept seriously and writes with far more precision and internal consistency than many science fiction authors do - in many ways this is a hard sci-fi ghost story. Elspeth's predicament becomes clear as she explores the parameters and boundaries herself. She takes a scientific, trial and error attitude to her new existence, which it is hinted at is somehow electrical in nature. Elspeth also gradually works out different ways in which she can or cannot interact with the others, and thus takes an increasing role in the proceedings. The author has considered fully the potential consequences of the ghost concept - an impossible love triangle that develops between Elspeth, Robert and Valentina is particularly poignant.

Martin's struggle to overcome his OCD after Marijke finally leaves him becomes a symbol for the central theme of the novel, control and letting go. Martin's condition also reinforces my idea that Niffenegger as a writer is particularly interested in mental illness and this is one way of reading The Time Traveler's Wife. The two pairs of twins depicted here are very much dominant and submissive pairs: interestingly they are physically "mirror twins" rather than "identical twins" - this has a bearing on their characters as Julia is healthy while Valentina has situs inversus (a problematic reversed heart.) We come to understand Julia's desire to care for Valentina and Valentina's desire to escape at any cost, and the dynamic between Elspeth and Edie, which is even more twisted, comes to light too. The characters are never simplistic or purely good or evil, for example Julia's overprotectiveness of Valentina is completely consistent with her tenderness towards Martin.

The book is also about love and how intense it becomes when the relationship is unequal. Towards the end of the novel many characters, driven to extremes by intense emotions, participate in some atrocities - with a surprising twist in the outcome, perfectly foreshadowed by earlier hints about the personality of one of the participants. Despite this, and as with The Time Traveler's Wife, the ending brings together both pain and hope.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Bell Jar [Review: Under The Dome]

Under The Dome is set in Castle Mill, a small town in Stephen King's Maine that is completely isolated by the appearance of a mysterious invisible forcefield.

The novel is a continuation of themes of isolation and group dynamics from King's previous novels and novellas, particularly The Mist; also, like Albert Camus' The Plague there is a strong element of Nazi allegory (Camus' novel describes the Nazi occuaption of France as a bubonic plague outbreak leading to total quarantine, as well as being a rich and powerful disease-horror novel in its own right.) King signposts both of these aspects of the novel rather obviously through conversations, and the parallels with the Third Reich are also very direct - the similarity between the Hitler Youth and the Dome's teenage police recruits, and Big Jim's eventual confinement to an underground bunker are two examples.

The Mist was mostly about how regular people can make errors, and find themselves driven to terrible acts due to isolation, stress and ignorance. The Dome complements this by showing just how evil and influential people can control such a population and turn the situation to their own ends - and this time the issue is not a lack of information but the inability of external forces to intervene. The Dome has appeared around a town where the leaders and some other individuals and groups are already corrupt and twisted - and they quickly act to consolidate their hold on power. It's not a subtle plot, and this is probably not a book for young children: hot-tempered and amoral youngsters are drafted onto the police force and quickly learn to abuse their power, getting away with brutality, rape and murder, while a series of accidental and deliberate acts leads to disaster upon disaster for the dwindling population.

Apart from the network of cynics who are already running the town, most characters start out neutral but quickly turn to either good or evil. In a situation like this King is probably correct to describe the group polarizing to extremes, taking on the roles of guard or prisoner. Rather than allow human ingenuity to defeat both the barrier and the fascist-like evil that has taken hold, the heroic characters barely manage to cling on to life, and the ending is not a triumph but a War Of The Worlds humbling.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Digital City

When I see an effect shot in a film, I can't help myself. The first question is always, how did they do it? and the second, naturally, is, could I do something like it? I'm not alone: when the trailers for this film started to appear, the online CGI community got busy making its own versions. The most impressive I've come across so far is this one by Blender artist Ted Malaska:

Here's my own, more basic attempt at this:

Animation created in Blender 2.5. The rider is Low Poly Female from the Blender Model Repository.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Rajni's Universal Robots [Review: Endhiran]

Endhiran (Robot) is a Tamil production starring Tamil superstar Rajnikanth and Bollywood's Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Given the size of the Indian movie industry - and audience - I don't think I need to point out the significance of bringing these two names together in one film. Rajni plays android Chitti and also his creator Dr. Vaseegaran who would rather spend his nights in the lab with a soldering iron than with his long-suffering girlfriend Sana, played by Aishwarya Rai.

Even though the film is shorter than Return Of The King there is a hell of a lot of plot: Chitti goes from failed military prototype to superhero to love rival to supervillain, and the film rolls together ideas from RoboCop, The Terminator, I Robot, Bicentennial Man, very heavily from Short Circuit and probably every other robot movie book or play since Rossum's Universal Robots, while adding one or two twists of its own.

Endhiran also utterly disregards Western genre conventions combining elements of action, thriller, romantic comedy, slapstick comedy and black comedy and of course musical theatre, and there is absolutely no conflict between any of the styles: you get to have your cake and eat it.

I have one complaint: the subtitles. Endhiran has the worst English subtitling grammar I've ever seen. Sorry. I'm often disappointed in fellow cinemaphiles who miss out on some great films because they find subtitles too irritating - but this is exactly the kind of thing that gives subtitling a bad name. Incidentally, and just to drive the message home, you can see the best subtitling ever in this film.

As a Westerner with little experience of Bollywood or Tamil cinema I can report Endhiran is very watchable and I would recommend it to others outside the traditional audience. It has captivating stars and catchy music, it's full of ideas whether original or borrowed and it's fun from start to finish. I sincerely hope this leads to many more Bollywood-style sci-fi epics.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

May Be Side Effects

May Be Side Effects, a short film starring two of my favourite sometime collaborators Molly Brown and Tammy Sander, also written and directed by Molly Brown. One of the props in this film seems strangely familiar to me - I wonder how many WeightWatchers points it's worth?