Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Been a long time...

Asteroid animation based on Andrew Price's asteroid tutorial at Blender Guru. Similar technique used to create the rock walls in the tunnel. Produced in Blender 2.56

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Superheroes Come To Feast

Sci-Fi London 10 will run from 23rd April to 2nd May. The full programme isn't out yet but details of the All Nighters are emerging plus some awesome events are planned above and beyond the films themselves. SFL is a great indie festival with a friendly, sociable atmosphere and naturally I'm looking forward to it. Check out their website or Facebook page for more details.

The Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge will be running this coming weekend, 2nd to 4th April, and is bigger than ever - there are 350 teams registered. I am all cut up to report that this year I won't be entering a team - I'm planning to be back next year ;) - but I'm looking forward to seeing any entries that make it online, and if you're in London that weekend and see anyone with a camera, give them a smile!

"Super" directed by James Gunn, confirmed for SFL 2011 closing night.

The Stockbrokers of NIMH [Review: Limitless]

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) the protagonist of Limitless, chooses to take a drug to boost his intelligence - turning him from that greatest of failures, the writer who has yet to write a single word of his novel, to a smart seductive polymath, full of energy and motivation who can learn to play the piano or the FTSE in days, or single handedly fight his way out of a street gang ambush. The opening events of the movie leave Eddie in possession of a supply of the drug that is not limitless, and no apparent way to score any more.

As a film about drugs Limitless both succeeds and fails. It fails to be fantasy, or to say very much new about either drugs or intelligence - the stereotypes of bankers and cocaine, or artists and hallucinogens (or cocaine) are too familiar, with the benefits of creativity and vision, better concentration and alertness offset by paranoia, flashbacks, nausea, withdrawal, dependence and entanglement with the equally stereotyped criminal underworld. It succeeds in being a cautionary tale without straight-to-camera morality lessons, and the Clear Pill encompasses the features of many different drugs - in addition to the creativity or alertness there are hints of Viagra and E plus of course Dutch courage.

Limitless succeeds as a combination of psychodrama and thriller and this comes down to the performance. A little like Sam Rockwell in Moon, Bradley Cooper plays several different versions of Eddie: Eddie as drop-out, Eddie as super-suave high achiever and Eddie paranoid, desperate and in pain. Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro are also great but their time on screen is limited to a few intense scenes each while Cooper is the constant presence.

An impossible zoom in the title sequence, accompanied by the first themes of a powerful and melancholy soundtrack, places Limitless squarely in the music video domain. Director Neil Burger uses every trick in the music video book to visualise Eddie's higher state of consciousness: colours brighten, view angles widen, and Eddie's intelligence is superimposed over reality - for example, stocks and shares rotate across the ceiling. The impossible zooms recur, adding momentum to the movie and symbolising both the way the drug smooths Eddie's route to success but also the way it controls his life and takes him to unexpected places.

Overall, despite its flaws Limitless is a sexy, addictive movie that you can immerse yourself in until your senses are overloaded - and watch out for the comedown after you leave the cinema.

No mice called Algernon were harmed in the making of this movie.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Norman Conquests [Review: Tarnsman of Gor]

If you’re going to create a fantasy or sci-fi series with a (seemingly) misogynistic slant, there’s no point doing things by halves. I mean, no-one’s going to sign up to a “lifestyle choice” inspired by the novels of Ben Bova, are they?*

John Norman’s Counter Earth novels are set on an alternative Earth where are city states ruled by the sword, and where slavery is the norm. The biology and culture of Gor is imagined to a level of detail comparable to Frank Herbert’s Arrakis and while there are some planet-wide organizing principles there is also plenty of diversity. The novels are highly readable pulp fiction with action and dry humour.

Lecturer Tarl Cabot is taken to Gor by the mysterious, unseen Priest-Kings who watch over the planet and set limits on technology. After rigorous Warrior Caste training, Cabot is drawn into the planet’s wars and intrigues and becomes a Boys Own action hero to stand alongside Tarzan, Quartermain and Conan. Is James Cameron secretly a Gorean? Gorean warriors and Pandoran natives bond with and tame their tarn (giant bird) or ikran (flying lizard) mounts with uncanny similarity.

On Gor there are plenty of male and female slaves – but Norman is mostly interested in the male master-female slave relationship which is the theme of the novels. Cabot’s initial discomfort is gradually replaced by a more open-minded perspective. The advantages of being a fiction writer are never more apparent: in your own created world, everything that happens will be in support of your own world view, thus in Nomads of Gor, Elizabeth, a secretary from Earth who finds herself under harsh conditions even for Gor, really does reach an epiphany of self-discovery through slavery. It’s feminism, Jim, but not as we know it. The books have strong adult plots but are almost never explicit – the focus is on the relationships more than the acts; by comparison the trappings of slavery – the ritual dances, the clothes, right down to the first closing click of the collar that no slave-girl ever forgets – are extremely detailed.

It’s not easy to swallow but it’s fair to point out that there are societies and religions on Earth that place more restrictions on women than those of Gor: in Norman’s imagination, it’s possible for women to be enslaved without being devalued. Also there are those who find that the perfect balance of power for their own personal relationships is not the role equality favoured by others: some of whom have chosen the Gorean lifestyle on Earth. There's an interview with John Norman, including some discussion of this lifestyle, over at io9. Personally I think that, if alongside the Goreans and the Archers Anarchists more people lived their lives according to fantasy-based values the world would be a happier place.

*Wannabe Rock Rats feel free to prove me wrong - credentials and photo to scifigene@operamail.com.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Work In Progress: Rat Run

The Blender Guru asteroid recipe can be used to create other rock surfaces:You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike... Always read the label...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Questions, Questions, We All Got Questions [Review: Exam]

“There is one question before you, and one answer is required. If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified. If you spoil your paper, intentionally or accidentally, you will be disqualified. If you choose to leave this room for any reason, you will be disqualified. Any questions?”

Eight young men and women are escorted into an examination room by an armed guard. They are smartly dressed but some have mysterious cuts or bruises. They are candidates for a highly prized job and the exam is the final stage of the selection procedure. The invigilator stresses that the unknown employer is so powerful that within these walls they can make their own rules. However the penalty for breaking a rule is not execution but simply a bus ride home – and failure.

Stuart Hazeldine’s film Exam is set in a cleverly designed concrete bunker which is reminiscent of Cube, as is the ethnically-diverse group of characters with complementary skills and the philosophical undertone to the dialogue. Exam does not rely on Cube’s cheesewire-trap shocks, although the setting is never “safe” and the danger escalates as the LED clock ticks down. The one-room concept is strictly adhered to – apart from the opening sequence in a washroom, the camera is entirely limited to the exam chamber itself and about two metres of coridoor outside the obligatory sliding door: this works in the film’s favour – a location that initially appears bleak turns out to have secrets and surprises behind every feature.

Exam is based on your own personal examination nightmare, and predictably the candidates turn their papers over to find that they are blank*: happily this is just the opening gambit in a series of puzzles, twists, red herrings and trust-betrayal dilemmas. The key is in the rules, or rather what the rules do not say. For instance there’s no rule against communication between the candidates, so they can cooperate to work out the nature of the question – but the same rules also leave open some interesting ways of disadvantaging each other. The cast of Exam try to resolve their situation within these rules rather than escape them so Exam is not science fiction.

Adar Beck as "Brunette" in Exam

Cinematically this is a tense and extremely watchable film. Exam is tightly scripted and does a very good job of gradually hinting at each candidate’s background as well as the nature of the mysterious employer and the state of the world outside. Colin Salmon is perfectly cast as the suave invigilator and Adar Beck is particularly good as a psychologist who turns out to have previously worked for the company – the others turn on her as they suspect that the exam is some kind of experiment. The ending is clean, resolving the mystery firmly and fairly: it’s well done but sometimes, as in Cube or, say, Blade Runner, it’s good to leave a little ambiguity.

*For those readers whose exam nightmare involves finding that instead of a paper on your desk there is a slice of black forest gateau, my condolences – but watch out for the sequel.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Work In Progress: Rock Rats

Asteroid generated using displacement modifier.
Textures, rock fragments, nebula background Compositing noodles for spacecraft porthole effect
Still image after compositing

Images generated in Blender 2.56. Tutorials are a great way to learn software like Blender - I made these images by following Andrew Price's asteroid tutorial at http://www.blenderguru.com/.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Where Did You Get That Hat? [Review: The Adjustment Bureau]

Adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, The Adjustment Bureau is a more light-hearted movie than I expected, going easy on the paranoia and the reality-bending metaphysics and adding elements of comedy and romance.

It's also reminiscent of several other films. It's a story about the power of love overcoming the power of fear, with magic doors as a symbol of the choices we make in our lives - great, but Mike and Sully got there first. The idea of our world being organized precisely by a secret cabal of control freaks was explored superbly in The Truman Show, itself a PKD-style slice of paranoia. Unlike Truman, Matt Damon's character is shown the true nature of reality early in the film but is sworn to secrecy.

The Adjustment Bureau - Seasonally Adjusted

The plot centres on the romance between Matt Damon's would-be senator David and dancer Elise, played by Emily Watson. In the grand scheme of things (which for the purposes of this film is a literal concept enforced by the mysterious Bureau), they're supposed to meet once but never see each other again - a series of chance encounters throws them together and threatens to derail the plan.

The romantic element is not ironic and borrows heavily from the standard fate-obsessed rom-com blueprint as seen in Serendipity but I forgive them, because when David makes his obligatory sprint to the chapel to stop Elise marrying someone else, his out-of-breath you-were-meant-to-be-with-me speech doesn't win Elise's heart over but makes him look like a psychopathic stalker.

I also liked the idea that, unlike the Truman Show's production crew or the Men In Black, The Bureau agents themselves are error-prone and tied up in bureaucratic red tape: as a result, although they are less threatening it's a much more interesting organization. Douglas Adams would be proud: bucks are passed, memos are taken down and things are kicked upstairs. The hats are also a nice touch, and as with those MIB sunglasses they are there for a reason.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Location, Location, Location

Indie filmmakers are often advised to limit films to the minimum number of sets, and I can personally vouch for this: moving from place to place and setting up over and over again in new locations wears everyone out and eats up valuable slate time.

Some films make a virtue out of this minimalist approach: Exam (review to follow) and the Cube series are all based around ingeniously designed one-room sets, while Buried goes even further and sets all the action in a coffin. Other variations include 127 Hours featuring a protagonist trapped on a mountain, while the two swimmers in Open Water spend the entire movie treading water and avoiding sharks.

This inventiveness also extends to other minimalist films like Phone Booth which is based around one location although the action does cut away sometimes, or The Hole (2001, starring Thora Birch, not the many other films with the same name) with a single location for about two-thirds of the film.

This is not a new phenomenon and there are some classic one-room films: Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men is superb and influential (leading into, for example, several of Tony Hancock’s television plays.) Several people also recommended Hitchcock’s Rear Window to me, a classic film I have yet to see.

There are also plenty of films that are limited to a single building or suite of rooms such as 1408 or Paranormal Activity. Films set inside aeroplanes also have a similar feel – Flightplan, Snakes On A Plane, Airplane! A group of people trapped in a house is a trope of the whodunnit genre, from Agatha Christie’s novels and their adaptations to another classic Sleuth: as with Cube, Exam and Paranormal Activity, the limitations are part of the puzzle which has to be solved if we are to escape.

One-location films subvert the potential scope of cinema – the freedom of the camera, and therefore the narrative, to go anywhere. It’s closer to theatre where, with exceptions, a small number of locations is the rule. These films also create an intense experience by playing on common fears of confinement. There may be a metaphorical explanation for many of these locations: life itself, or the Earth, is limited in all sorts of ways, and ultimately there is only one escape from it although we may dream of others.

With thanks to all the blogcatalog members who helped me research this article.