Sunday, December 28, 2008

The hat - again

Matt's Hat at Moviestorm Office Xmas Party, by David B. The hat gets to all sorts of interesting places. Fortunately it usually takes me along for the ride.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chew Valley Lake

Chew Valley Lake
Originally uploaded by Matt Kelland
Imagine looking out of your window and seeing this every day. I'm not jealous. Much.

This is West Harptree, near Chew Valley Lake in Somerset, where my mum's husband's sister Pat lives. More pics from sunset on Boxing Day 2008 on my Flickr site.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nearly solstice

Nearly solstice
Originally uploaded by Matt Kelland
No shopping. That's what it looks like.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stand by Me

Thanks to sizemore for pointing me at this truly excellent and inspiring video. Normal blogging will be resumed after I get over my jetlag.

From the award-winning documentary, "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music", comes the first of many "songs around the world" being released independently. Featured is a cover of the Ben E. King classic by musicians around the world adding their part to the song as it travelled the globe. This and other songs such as "One Love" will be released as digital downloads soon; followed by the film soundtrack and DVD early next year.

Sign up at for updates and exclusive content available only to those who join the Movement to help build schools, connect students, and inspire communities in need through music.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Me. Talking. Again.

Since I've been going mad twittering recently, my blogging has fallen a little by the wayside. I know you all miss my erudite, controversial, and entertaining words of wisdom. Fear not! You can listen to me instead.

  • Today's offering is an interview with the creative genius behind Male Restroom Etiquette, Apology, and other works of machinima legend. The truth will out, that's all I'm saying. You may never see the Overcast the same again. That's Sideshow #021
  • Earlier in the week, I chatted to Joseph Matheny about machinima over on Alterati. That's seen the light of day at G-Spot #47.
  • And last week, I did a webcast for The Movies On Air, which clocks in at somewhere near 90 minutes. That mainly focuses on Moviestorm and where we plan to take it.

I shall now return to being my usual shy and retiring self, communicating via prose.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

WoW, the Opera

Raph Koster's keynote speech at Living Game Worlds in Atlanta has left my brain spinning with ideas and new perspectives. The enduring image I'm left with is a juxtaposition of a set from Wagner's Lohengrin, and one from World of Warcraft. Raph's thesis was that Big Gaming is rapidly becoming like opera, in a world dominated by Britney Spears.

What we're seeing is a huge growth of casual gaming, mobile gaming, and entertainment based on simple web apps. These games are cheap to produce, and deliver a small burst of simple fun, accessible by anyone. They don't require much investment in time, and you can get them anywhere, any time. They're mostly disposable, but they pass the time. It's like pop music. The three-minute pop song has taken over. Most songs - even the popular ones - are simple, formulaic, and forgettable, but they're ubiquitous and profitable.

By comparison, Big Games are expensive, hard to make, and only available to a minority, who can afford the right hardware. They can be profitable, but many (most?) aren't. Halo, WoW, and the like are the exceptions. Their business model is a gamble - the same gamble as movies. You pour money in, release it, and hold your breath to find out whether you've made your money back inside two weeks, or else you've had it. In many ways, they represent the apex of this art form. They're rich, they're deep, they're beautiful to look at, and they're incredibly well produced. But they take time to appreciate and to learn. They're not something you just dip into. That's opera. It's big, luxurious, expensive, and only really appreciated by a minority who regard themselves as more cultured than the hoi polloi.

(For the record, I'd like to state that I like opera. Especially Wagner.)

I reckon most WoW players will be pretty steamed up by now. Look at the size of the audience, you're saying. Look how popular it is. It's mainstream. What do you mean?

OK, let's look at the size of the market. So there are maybe 10m people who play WoW. There are 50m people who have played Line Rider. 150m people played Scrabulous. Habbo Hotel has 115m subscribers. Nintendogs, Brain Training and the like are still selling 1m units a week after a year or more. And WoW's one of the biggest of the big dogs - most other MMOs and AAA games struggle to hit 1m players.

Next, accessibility. 30% of people access the Net exclusively via a mobile device. 30% more access the Net via a mobile device at least 50% of the time. In other words, the computer is now a minority way to get to the Net, and its share is shrinking. Even within the computer space, there's a drive towards entry level machines. Although technology is improving, a smaller and smaller proportion of people have top end kit. Most people have low-cost machines. So when you design for the top graphics cards and powerful CPUs, you're designing for a smaller and smaller proportion of a shrinking market.

Then there's the learning curve. How long does it take to learn to play WoW? And play it well? And how long to learn to throw penguins into space with a rubber band? You've got to be pretty dedicated to even bother getting into something as rich as WoW. In fact, it's not just a game, it's a lifestyle choice, and most people don't actually want to devote their lives to a game.

So sure, if you're a loyal WoW player, then WoW is the biggest thing in the world. Take a few steps back, look at the bigger picture, and it's really just a small niche.

This isn't an attack on Big Gaming. It drives innovation, it's hugely entertaining, and it lays down cultural benchmarks. It's a perspective shift. The entertainment world is now dominated by new forms of games. They may not be as good or as memorable as the Big Games, but that's where the money is, and where the majority of the people are. Are we, perhaps, seeing the beginning of the end of this branch of the art form?

Maybe what we should be looking out for is the Andrew Lloyd Webber of the game world. All the trappings of opera, but with plenty of tunes you can hum and mass appeal.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mamma Mia

OK, I admit it. When I was younger, I liked Abba. I had posters on my bedroom wall and all, until Agnetha got displaced by Princess Leia in 1977. (Yeah, I liked the music too. It wasn't just her butt. I was twelve, OK?) And I'm quite partial to Bollywood movies. I like the visual style and the sheer exuberance of the dance sequences. So I figured what the hell, let's give Mamma Mia a shot. Even if it has got Meryl bloody Streep in it. (She was good in Sophie's Choice, but I've found it almost impossible to watch her in anything else since.) It looks like a Western Bollywood movie, so it has to be worth a look.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

The production design is brilliant, and I bet it was a hell of a lot of fun to make, but the cast absolutely butcher the music. They're actors, not singers, and it shows, painfully. They can't dance either, and the choreography is mostly uninspired anyway. (Though admittedly, as I got drunker, the dance numbers got funnier.) Julie Walters singing Chiquitita while wiping Meryl Streep's nose is something I wish I could erase from my memory. I used to love that song. Now it's tainted. Does Your Mother Know has become a MILF song, and now makes me faintly nauseous, And please, God, I never want to see Meryl Streep in dungarees playing air guitar ever, ever, ever again.

As forthe script and the story, well, let's just just say that I'm male, middle-aged and heterosexual, and it wasn't written with me in mind. I mean, just look at the casting. Colin "Mr Darcy" Firth and Pierce "007" Brosnan, all of whom spend pretty much the entire movie in beachwear. And yes, ladies, they both end up in wet white shirts. That kinda tells you who they expect in the audience.

I can imagine it'd be a lot of fun going to see it as the token straight guy with a bunch of female and gay friends. Start off with some outrageously priced cocktails in a suitable club, preferably something that looks like one of Carmen Miranda's hats, with loads of fruit and umbrellas, and get right royally ripped. Somewhere along the line, let yourself be persuaded to be assaulted with eyeliner and lipstick, and hope the photos don't end up on Flickr. Then treat it as a Rocky Horror type singalong movie, and end the night at a drag show or getting even more smashed with a DVD of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. They do Abba properly. (Just remember to take the eyeliner off before you go to work the next day, guys. Listen to the voice of experience here.)

Under any other circumstances, though, I can't imagine myself ever watching Mamma Mia again. But I have to confess, I watched it through to the cheesy end,despite everything. Even the credits. Draw whatever conclusions you like from that. But it's worth sticking with it just to watch Meryl Streep delivering the most emotional and heartfelt performance of The Winner Takes It All you will ever see. Damn. I wish I hadn't just admitted that in public. Oh well...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Easier done than said

I'm off on my travels again next week, and I realised my passport is about to expire. Even though it still has long enough to run before I get back, the US don't like people turning up with only a short time left, so I figured I'd better get it renewed. Dave's off to the US as well, and his passport is totally expired, so we decided to go and get fast-tracked through the renewal service.

To my amazement, it was a breeze. This isn't one of those tales of officialdom gone mad. Sorry.

On Friday afternoon, Dave booked us into Peterborough, and we got an appointment for Monday morning. We duly turned up, and got seen half an hour early, after waiting for about two minutes. (We'd have been seen even quicker, except I was waiting for the photo machine which took sixty seconds to print my pictures.) We handed over our documents, waved a credit card at them, and then went and had a late (and rather fine) breakfast in Harriet's Tearooms. Then we wandered round Peterborough Cathedral for an hour or so, went and had some pastries in Le Petit Four, and dashed back through the hail to the Passport Office an hour before our official collection time. Our passports were ready and waiting, and that was it. Then we went home.

Despite all the horror stories we'd been told about how bureaucratic and time-consuming it's become these days, the whole process was easy, quick and straightforward. Even the security on the way in was good-natured and lightweight. In fact, it was all far, far easier and quicker than when I had to do the same thing ten years ago, pre-9/11.

Hmmm, that's not really much of an anecdote, is it? It needs some Kafka-esque drama in it somewhere, or at least Ian Rankin... maybe I should throw in the barbed wire and armed checkpoints all round Peterborough, or the big signs threatening to haul you off to Gitmo if you make jokes about faking your identity, or the Daily Mail-reading Passport Officer who makes you prove your Britishness by reciting the Litany of the Good Works of Saint Diana Princess of Wales and asking you trick questions about whether fish and chips or chicken tikka massala is the True National Dish of Britain. It would have been so much more interesting that way.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Méliès the Magician

One of the DVDs that lives by my TV for occasional inspiration is Méliès the Magician, a compilation of very early special effects films by one of the most amazing pioneers of film. I've been pondering a bunch of new machinima projects, and I'm toying with the idea of recreating a load of his films using Moviestorm, just for the fun of playing with special effects and learning how to do them.

Many of his 500+ films are really short (under a minute) and are just there to show off a trick. Méliès was originally a stage magician, and his aim was to bring the same sense of wonder to the screen. He used multiple exposures, split screen, glass painting, stop motion, miniatures, and animation to achieve all sorts of things that had never been seen before, and became standard film techniques ever after. I quite fancy the idea of developing the same range of skills he had, and at the same time paying homage to one of the greatest film makers of all time.

Georges Méliès, 1861 - 1938

From the description on

Melies` Magic Show: These magnificently restored prints are a dream-like journey into the world of Georges Melies. The 15 films demonstrate the breadth of his command of different genres, including trick film, spectacle, burlesque and fantasy.

Titles included:

1. The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)
2. A Trip To The Moon (1902)
3. The Infernal Cakewalk (1903)
4. The Scheming Gambler's Paradise (1905)
5. The Music Lover (1903)
6. The Infernal Boiling Pot (1903)
7. The Man With The Rubber Head (1901)
8. Playing Cards (1904)
9. Hilarious Poker (1905)
10. The Devilish Tenant (1909)
11. Untameable Whiskers (1904)
12. Imperceptible Transmutations (1904)
13. Bluebeard (1901)
14. Fat And Lean Wrestling Match (1900)
15. The One-Man Band (1900)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The vast and endless sea

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I bumped into this earlier while reading about designing Web sites. It's been stuck in my head all day.

A moment of joy....

It's 2am. I'm looking for something to read. None of my books are what I'm after.

"I know," I think, "I want a murder mystery / political thriller set in Vladivostok in the run-up to the Russo-Japanese war. Preferably with a bit of romance and some naval action. Does such a book exist, or am I going to have to write it myself?"

Five seconds later, and Google has the answer. It exists, and it's called The Floating Madhouse by Alexander Fullerton. Half a minute later, and I've gone to the Cambridge Library Web site, and reserved it from the library 50 yards from my house, for the princely sum of, erm, nothing at all.

I picked it up seven hours later on my way to work this morning.

OK, it's only a tiny example of what the Net can do, but it's things like that which show me how much my world has been transformed. The book I imagined, almost instantaneously, effortlessly, and free.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The hat - again

Seems it's becoming a tradition to take photos of my hat wherever I go. Still, it was better than wearing a blasted name badge on my non-existent lapel.

Essential Mediatech 2008, London. Photo, David Bailey.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Movie Pyre

Yesterday I deleted all of the Mongoose Movies work in progress, bar Cormorant Close. These were mostly very personal pieces, and I know I'll never have the heart to see them through. I did think of putting the scripts and treatments up for anyone else to finish, but I don't think I actually want to see anyone else complete them either, at least not in their current form. I may revisit some of them some day, but if I do, I'll just pick up the original idea and rewrite them from scratch.

I do intend to finish Cormorant Close some day, partly because it's so close to completion and needs almost nothing from me, and partly out of respect for the other people who worked on it for nothing and who don't deserve to have their hard work trashed. And hey, I promised Zuckerman that I'd put Zuckerman's Diner into my next film, and CC is it.

I was quite surprised to see how much I had created in the last 18 months or so. Here's what was in the pre-production bin.

Mummer's Cliff
A short film in the Cthulhu mythos, based largely on Shadow of the Steeple, but updated and set in a North Somerset coastal village. A man goes to investigate the death of his friend, and discovers the inevitable ancient forces at work. I was never happy with the bit just before the end; it started well, moved along nicely, and I really liked the closing sequence (very cheesy 1970s type Hammer ending, but just what was needed), but couldn't quite get there smoothly enough. I did like the character of the occult researcher though: instead of a library full of dusty old books, all he had was a laptop and a net connection. Everything's online these days, even the Necronomicon! I spent a fair amount of time playing with how to create various VFX in Moviestorm and Premiere, as I wanted one scene to take place in a thunderstorm, and there needed to be a sequence where we saw someone change their face, and another where a statue appears to come to life. Since I did those pieces of test footage about a year ago, other Moviestormers have done the same thing.
Length: 12-15 mins
Status: Script complete, technical and visual FX tests complete, sets & characters designed

Due Diligence
A mid-length thriller in the Michael Crichton (RIP) mould. A young man working for a venture capital firm realises that one of the companies they are investing in is developing ways to transmit bird flu to humans so that they can sell their vaccine. Shelved when I realised how many other people had done the same thing already.
Length: 30-40 mins
Status: Outline complete, script about 25% complete, prose version about 75% complete

One-off episode, or possibly a pilot for a high-tech thriller series along the lines of BUGS and Spooks. One of the earliest things we came up with when thinking about Moviestorm a few years ago, I dusted this off and started work on it again not so long ago. A computer security firm is blackmailed by a secret government agency into conducting covert cyberwar against the Russian mafia. But all is not as it seems, and they begin to ask who they are actually working for and why. I enjoyed writing this, but never quite got the characters to be more than stereotypes.
Length: 15-25 mins
Status: outline complete, script about 50% complete

A Philip K Dick-ish near future SF story about a goverment agent who finds his name thrown up by the computers in an anti-terrorist operation. He knows he's innocent, but the system he's always believed in says he's a suspect. It was all based on taking current surveillance technology and current anti-terrorist legislation (here and in the US) and asking what kind of world this would create. The challenge here was making it not too much like Minority Report.
Length: 15-25 mins
Status: outline complete, script about 50% complete

An SF short about an old man who's following a beautiful young woman who turns out to be an alien. It ended with a great fight sequence in a nightclub, inspired by Dusk Till Dawn.
Length: 5 mins
Status: Script complete, rough dialogue recorded, pre-vis version shot. Needed to be redone with the latest version of Moviestorm.

Confidential Report
A full-length noir-ish movie inspired by the Orson Welles film of the same name. An ex-con is forced to commit a robbery, and is caught, and is then embroiled in a conspiracy to bring down an international arms dealer. This was a very complex film, with a lot of plot twists and character development, and really pushed my writing to the limit. The current draft of the script was too wordy, and the next stage was to start shooting a rough version and work out how much of the story I could carry with sound and visuals instead of dialogue. I wrote this with a voice-over, which was a lot of fun. I also spent time working on filters in Premiere to give me a suitably grainy, washed-out look rather than the slightly garish colours you get out of Moviestorm. I would have liked to get Ricky Grove as the lead role on this one, and it was very much written with his voice in mind. For the lead female character, I wanted Abigail Rokison, and I had many of the other parts cast in my head from the students I was working with a few months ago.
Length: 70-80 mins
Status: script complete, technical and VFX tests complete

St Francis
A highly successful CEO of a major company tries to explain to his family why he is quitting his well-paid corporate job to go and live a life of solitude and contemplation. This was a commentary on the clash between capitalist values and personal morals, and was written in anticipation of the day the global banking system collapsed. I wrote several versions of this, but never quite got the story to come out right. I tried it as a scene between him and his wife, I tried just telling it as a story of him quitting his job and starting over, I tried it as him as an older man talking to a "disciple", but was never really happy with any of them. It kept on coming out too political in some versions, which wasn't what I intended - it's supposed to be a moral piece about someone who realises what ruthless corporate greed means to the people on the wrong end of it, and has to question whether he is prepared to take responsibility for inflicting that. This is one I probably will revisit at some point.
Length: who knows
Status: bah

A is for Angel
A sentimental modern day fairy tale inspired by The Fisher King, It's A Wonderful Life, and Citizen Kane. A down and out meets a mysterious woman who turns his life around: once he becomes a successful children's author, he spends the rest of his life searching for her, and wondering whether she was real or just a figment of his imagination. The entire thing is shot in flashback on his deathbed. I really rather liked this film, especially the sequence where she shows him a vision of two people dancing on her outstretched palm, which took a fair amount of green-screening to create. I think it has my best scriptwriting to date in it, apart from one thing. I could never decide whether it took place in England or New York, and the dialogue kept slipping between the two locations.
Length: 12-15 mins
Status: script complete, visual FX tests complete

The Muse Bar
This was an idea for a scene in the Fas Ferox world. I imagined a bar in some otherworld where all the Muses gather to share their experiences of the people they inspire, and talking about what a pain it is working with artistic people. It's one of the few bits of comedy I've written, and it never quite came out right when I tried to move it from a prose sketch to a screenplay.
Length: 5 mins or less
Status: never quite got off the drawing board

I'm not sure what I'll do next. I should probably focus on shorter, more achievable pieces. Working full-time on Moviestorm really gets in the way of actually making movies. After a long day in the office, the last thing I want to do most evenings and weekends is to fire up Moviestorm for another few hours. I'd usually rather play my guitar, make a nice meal, read a book, watch a DVD, or relax with some friends. I very much enjoy scriptwriting, and I love doing voice recording sessions, but I find it really hard to convince myself that using Moviestorm isn't work.

However, we now have a shiny new dedicated Moviestorm computer at home for Johnnie and I to play with, and I'm determined to make use of it once he's finished assembling it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mongoose has left the building

Hi all - welcome to the new home and new name of my blog. All the old "Mongoose World" content has been moved here.


Well, I decided it was time for a change. The Mongoose persona was something that meant something to me a while ago. I left a slightly cryptic reference to it in the sidebar, but never really explained it. Here you go. It's in the third paragraph. If it doesn't make sense to you, never mind. I said it was personal.

But that time is gone, and so's the Mongoose. I'll miss the little bugger. Hope he's happy, wherever he is.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

MFF08 - a personal view

It was really good to catch up with so many people last weekend in New York at Machinima '08. I spent many hours on the street outside Eyebeam smoking and chatting, or in Jake's Saloon drinking and chatting, or wherever-it-was-we-ended-up eating and chatting. About machinima, what we've been doing, what we're going to do, what we really want to do, what we think other people should do, and where it's going. And, equally importantly, we chatted far more about life, movies, music, places we've been, things we've eaten, families, politics, and every other topic under the sun.

The common theme throughout all of that, you might notice, is chatting. What we didn't do was sit and watch panels (apart from Phil & Ricky on sound) or watch machinima films. We all know what we have to say on our pet subjects, because we talk about them endlessly on blogs, forums, podcasts, twitter, or Web sites. We've all seen the movies already, because that's what we're into. And if we haven't seen them, we can catch them online any time. Meeting with other machinimators from far and wide is something we can only do at events like this. As far as I'm concerned, that's what festivals are for.

So it was a little disappointing that there was nowhere in Eyebeam to just sit and chat. The few comfy chairs and sofas were in an area with student films showing on a continuous loop (and with sound that kept bleeding through into the area where they had the panels, so you couldn't hear the speakers). And, what was worse, there was no coffee (let alone beer!) so if you wanted a drink you had to go a couple of blocks. As a result, I spent hardly any time at the festival in Eyebeam itself. I'd go off with someone, chat for a bit, head back, bump into someone else I knew somewhere on the street, and we'd head right back to a bar or diner. The party after the awards was OK, but it had only just got going when we had to head out to a nearby bar for the after-party, and then I lost touch with most of the people I wanted to chat to.

There were maybe thirty people I wanted to talk to, and I could have spent an hour with any of them. Sadly, there just wasn't time in a one-day festival.

It's very tempting for anyone organising an event to think that the reason people are coming is to see the things that are laid on, but it just ain't so. The scheduled events are generally excuses to be there, or places to meet, or a way of structuring your day. Events like this are gatherings, a way of getting people into the same place at the same time so they can interact face to face. The time and space needs to be built around those interactions, with the scheduled events providing a backdrop. MFF08 could easily have been a two-day event, even with no extra events, just more space between them.

Still, I did enjoy myself immensely, and I'm glad I made the trip across the Atlantic. I feel I know many of you much better now, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of it. And, of course, looking forward to the next one.

Ken Thain of Bioware clutching his well-deserved Mackie and an equally well-deserved beer.

Monday, November 3, 2008

It wasn't the airplanes

Yesterday, I fulfilled a childhood dream by going to the top of the Empire State Building. It's something I've wanted to do since I was maybe ten years old, first time I saw King Kong. That's been one of my favourite movies ever since, and a trip to the observation deck has been something in the nature of a pilgrimage for over thirty years. Every other time I've been in NYC, I've had only a few hours between meetings and planes, and the queues are huge. But on a cold Sunday morning, you can pretty much walk straight in. So we did.

When I say "we", I should just point out here that Johnnie is severely acrophobic. Even looking down a flight of stairs from the upper landing makes him queasy. So when I asked mockingly if he was coming up with me, I wasn't expecting him to say yes. That takes some guts.

Walking through the stunningly beautiful Art Deco interior was exciting enough, and by the time we got to the 80th floor, I was as excited as a ten-year old when I pressed the button to take us all the way to 86. Stepping out, over a thousand feet above the Manhattan streets, just took my breath away. It really is as amazing as they say. It was awesome. Not just pretty damn cool. As in "I stood there in awe." I kept scanning the skies for biplanes, but there weren't any. There should have been.

Strangely, though, my overwhelming image wasn't of Kong. Everywhere else in NY, movies just leapt out at me. But staring out over New York, all I could see was Sim City. Looking down on skyscrapers, commercial districts, and parks, with little yellow taxi ants scurrying along the streets and the Statue of Liberty in the background, is a view I know so well from playing that game for hour upon hour. I immediately wanted to re-zone things, add in some freeways, and demolish chunks of city to make way for an even larger park.

When I eventually dragged myself away, I had a grin on my face that Conrad Veidt would have been proud of. Before I left, I texted friends and family from the top. They'll know how much it meant to me being up there.

We then made our way down to the Lower East Side where we met up with some people for lunch, and a wander round a few shops, and then walked our way through Chinatown and Little Italy, down Broadway to the Battery for some more New York tourist action. Battery Park was much smaller than expected. Speaking of batteries, by this time, my camera battery was all but dead, so I didn't get a shot of the street performers. But the view of the Statue of Liberty was simply incredible. As in "I could scarcely believe what I was seeing." (See, kids, you can use words like "awesome" and "incredible" in their proper senses.) Johnnie's words say it best, though.

"She was bathed in God's own spotlight."
We stood, dumbstruck, as the late afternoon sun shone down onto the statue, and a path of light blazed across the water from Ellis Island towards us. I don't know if any photo could capture the moment. My crappy old Nikon had just enough juice for one last shot, so I stuck on the night filter, pointed it in her general direction, pressed the button, and hoped. And this is what I got. Possibly my favourite picture I've ever taken.

We wandered off in search of beer, and ended up in a bar just off Wall Street (which is way smaller than I'd expected), listening to blues, and then I got to do something else I've always wanted to do. I stepped out onto Broadway, hailed a yellow cab, and said "Empire State, please." We ended the evening in the bar, right back where we started, before catching the late-night flight back to London.

I haven't forgotten there was a machinima festival I should be blogging about too. But, hell, going up the Empire State Building, after dreaming about it for thirty years, is something I shall treasure for ever.

More pics from New York on Flickr.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween in Times Square

It's 7.30 am in Manhattan, I've had four hours sleep, I'm jet-lagged and there's no coffee in this hotel room. I may have to get up and go and find some shortly.

I'm in NY for the Machinima FilmFest 2008. The flight was great. I normally like to fly Virgin, because of their inflight entertainment system. Well, BA have finally got around to putting in some good entertainment too, and it made the trip a whole lot better than usual. I didn't even open my book, let alone listen to any of the podcasts I was going to catch up on. (Sorry, Phil!)

I thoroughly enjoyed Speed Racer. It's the sort of cheesy special effects kids movie that I normally hate, but this was just what I needed at the time. It had elements of Spy Kids, and Matthew Reilly's Hovercar Racer, it's made by the Wachowskis, and it has John Goodman in it. It has that hyper-real CG style, with primary colours, and completely OTT visuals, the racing scenes are ridiculously cartoony, and it's obviously completely tongue in cheek. Great fun, as long as you're not expecting anything too serious. And, ashamed though I am to say it, it actually made me want to play the game.

For a complete change of pace, I then watched Tashan, a Bollywood thriller. Well, not so much a thriller as a comedy gangster caper movie. OK, OK, I'll admit it, I only picked it because it has the lovely Kareena Kapoor in it, but I'm glad I did, not only because she's very easy on the eye. It has a great story, full of twists and turns, and uses that wonderful narrative device of having characters talk straight to camera, interspersed with flashback. And it has exotic locations, great dances, and some good action scenes. The subtitles are unintentionally (I think) hilarious, especially as much of the film is about speaking English. As lead character Jimmy Cliff says, "Here even Hindi is spoken with an English accent." It has bags of style - Tashan means "style" - and was a great way to pass the rest of the flight. One to buy when I get home.

Johnnie and I got to our hotel on Madison Avenue mid-evening, and I realised I'd forgotten to bring mobile numbers for just about everyone I know in the USA, so we failed to hook up with any of the other machinima crowd. So instead, we took a walk three blocks into Times Square and watched the Halloween partygoers, at which point I realised I'd left my bloody camera in the hotel so I can't show you any of the fantastic costumes. Let's just say neither of us was looking at the Manhattan architecture. Sorry, peeps.

I did wonder why I kept getting admiring glances, and was feeling rather flattered until Johnnie punctured my ego by pointing out that I was wearing my usual Stetson and trenchcoat, so everyone assumed I was in costume. Not my devilishly handsome good looks making an impression on the young ladies of New York then. Shucks.

We ended up in the Heartland Brewery, where the beer was truly fantastic.* The Red Rooster was punchy and toffee-flavoured, and then we sampled the Smiling Pumpkin, which is indeed made with pumpkins, and flavoured with ginger, cloves, vanilla, and so on. We then noticed that they do a sampler where you can try small quantities of half a dozen different beers, and wished we'd gone for that instead. However, by this time we'd been up for 20 hours, it was starting to feel like 5am, and the need for sleep was kicking in, so we had to pass on the rest of their selection.

And now the sun has risen over the Manhattan skyline, and I've realised I forgot the cable for the camera so I can't show you that either. Damn, damn, damn. So instead, here's another picture of Kareena Kapoor in Tashan. Much, much prettier than skyscrapers.

Reminds me of Salma Hayek in Desperado. Which can't be bad.

Edit: now I'm home, here's the skyscrapers.

*A quick aside to some of you European beer snobs. Not all American beers are Budweiser, Coors or Miller. Some of my very favourite beers are American. Don't knock them till you try them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

More from the King

Another few quotes from King Vidor:
I wouldn't even approach a documentary film on a factual basis. Facts need to be interpreted.... Film is an art form and must not be inhibited by anyone else's interpretation of how you might behave or how an event happened. There is no correct interpretation of a historical happening.
Given my life-long rant about "inaccurate" Hollywood movies, such as U-571, I found myself surprisingly in agreement with this sentiment. The next one is about sex and violence in the movies.
Whenever someone [complains] about some strongly sex-oriented film, I usually reply, "Who twisted your arm to make you see it?" I explain that there are many ways to find out about a film before going to the theater. And the truth is that these people know what the film is about, but afterwards try to rationalise their voyeurism by finding a scapegoat to ease their own conditioned consciences.
And lastly, the supremely arrogant but insightful:
I recently received a letter from a student fan who asked me to name someone who had had the greatest influence on my work. For an opener, I wrote "David Wark Griffith", but then I realised that Griffith would have to take second place. The person who influenced my work more than anyone else was King Vidor.

Machinima Expo Finalists

I seem to be in demand judging things at the moment, which is rather flattering. This week, I was asked to judge the finalists for the upcoming Machinima Expo.

Having put together or assisted with several major machinima screenings recently, I'm usually familiar with most of what's put up for consideration in these competitions. As always, though, it was great to discover several new - and extremely good - movies in among the old stalwarts. It reminded me that the world of machinima is way bigger than any of us realises.

In 2004, when I was writing my book on machinima, I reckon I saw most of the films that were out there. And every day, I could watch everything that was released. Now I can't even keep up with each day's new Moviestorm films, let alone all the great movies made in other engines. And that, I think, is a wonderful point to have reached.

There are too many good machinima movies for one man to watch.

That's a sign of a healthy, vibrant, creative medium. In the machinima community, we have the talent, we have the tools, and we have the dedication to produce works of art that don't just appeal to fans of the games the assets were drawn from, but to people who have a genuine interest in film, and also to everyday people who don't give a damn how a film was made, only whether it's entertaining enough to hold their attention. We are slowly but surely becoming an accepted part of the film community, and they respect us for what we are doing.

That's a great feeling, isn't it?

Thanks to Ricky & Phil for asking me to do the job, and thanks to all the finalists for making great movies.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

You have the camera

I've been reading King Vidor on Film. It's mostly fairly run of the mill stuff, but this paragraph jumped out at me.

You have the camera. Take it and run with it. Hold the camera upside down if you want to, run the film backwards if you feel like it, shoot in color or black and white, or mix the two together if this says something for you. Underexpose or overexpose or throw the lens out of focus. Run at any speed the camera will accommodate and light the scenes with candles and don't pay any attention to what I have to say or anyone else. You are the first person who has ever done what you are doing. No one has ever done it before. You are photographing ideas and feelings, not words.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Anya's pheasant

While walking through Wandlebury yesterday with the Morrigan, she spotted pheasant running down the forest pathways and wondered what they tasted like. So.... here's Anya's Pheasant, inspired by a Hungarian recipe, Chicken Badacsonyi.

Lightly saute some chopped onions & garlic, rosemary, and finely chopped bacon in olive oil for a couple of minutes, using a big heavy saucepan. Then put your pheasant in and turn it a few times to lightly brown it on all sides. Now add mushrooms. Lots of them, and with as many varieties as you can. (European mushrooms, not shiitakes or the like, though. Go with wild forest mushrooms if you can get them.) A touch of parsley, salt & pepper, then add a couple of glasses of port. (I then threw in some left over champagne that had gone slightly flat). Now put the lid on, and leave it simmering very slowly for twenty minutes or so until a lot of the liquid has been absorbed.

Baste the pheasant with the remaining liquid, and chuck in a few small potatoes. I used Anya potatoes because they seemed appropriate. Then in goes the rest of the port. Half a bottle of Warre's Reserve works just fine. Put the lid back on, and leave it for another half an hour or so, cooking very slowly. Then, when everything's cooked through, take the lid off and let most of the liquid evaporate into a sauce. Serve, garnished with chopped coriander and parsley, with a strong red wine.

Yeah, my tablecloth sucks. Like I care.

We followed with chocolate souffle (yeah, I cheated, it was from Gu), and Warre's Otima 10-year old Tawny port, and coffee spiced with cinnamon, clove and vanilla.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A bit of rabble-rousing

As I mentioned in my review of Tom Watson's Causewired, I've been a bit of an online activist for some time, in my own quiet way. Here's what I did today in ten minutes over lunch.

It may not change anything, but at least I know that I've put my point of view to the people who are elected to represent me.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Like many books about new social phenomena, the basic premise of Tom Watson's CauseWired can be summed up in three sentences;

1. The modern internet allows unprecedented levels of communication.
2. Some people are using this for Good Stuff, not just porn and gossip.
3. Woah!

The rest of the book is a mass of solid supporting evidence. I've been online for about twenty years now, and have been involved in various forms of (admittedly, low-level) online activism all that time, so very little of it came as a surprise to me. There were some new facts, and some interesting anecdotes, but nothing startling.

However, CauseWired did get me thinking about all sorts of things. The first was that we need to change our perception of the younger inhabitants of cyberspace. The Jack Thompsons and tabloid journalists of this world would have us believe that our teenagers do nothing but slob around at home, playing online games, pirating music and movies, surfing for free porn, and babbling away pointlessly on MSN in some incomprehensible argot, while ignoring the bigger issues in life. Sure, they do that some of the time, but they also care. They care passionately. They're actually far more politically and socially active than any previous generation, because technology makes it easy for them and because, believe it or not, it's cool.

Be honest, before the Net, how many of us took the time to write to our MP, put in a written objection to a planning proposal, or complain to an oil company boss about their ethical practices in the Third World? Not many. But teenagers these days think nothing of that, especially if all they have to do is to click a few links and then get kudos by being the one who told their friends first via blogs, Skype, email, or twitter.

Which got me thinking about Tom's second profound, but understated point. Ten years ago, most of us craved anonymity online. That's now completely changed. The modern Net user lives his or her life in public. "Look at me!" they scream. Photos, diaries, itineraries, even candid confessions are all open to everyone. We want people to see who we really are, blending the professional and the personal. Our friends and social networks are part of who we are, and so are the things we believe in. By proclaiming to the world that we, too, support a cause, we get a sense of belonging that both affects our immediate social group and reaches out far beyond it.

That's a huge change, with effects we are only just beginning to understand. It's easy to dismiss mass grass-roots activism as just a rent-a-mob, but that would be a mistake. True, some causes may be just a flash in the pan, but our leaders need to be aware that there are other issues that people - voters - really do give a shit about. I may not be personally affected by starvation in Darfur, by court-sanctioned rape in Pakistan, or be displaced to make room for a huge hydro power station, but I, and literally millions of others, don't want to live in a world where those things happen, and I want those in power to damn well do something about it. When a million, or ten million people all stand up and say, "hey, buddy, this ain't right," they can't help but take notice.

CauseWired isn't a manual.. It won't tell you how to change the world. However, it's an important chronicle of a social upheaval in which the silent majority are being replaced with a vocal majority. If you're already involved in online activism, CauseWired probably won't be much of an eye-opener to you. On the other hand, it does leave you with a comforting feeling that you're not a weirdo. You're part of a fundamental shift in the way our world will be run when we all have the ability to express how we feel about the things that make a difference to us.

Democracy, I think it's called.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Interfacing Virtual Actors

I'll be on a panel at Machinima FilmFest 2008 on Interfacing Virtual Actors, along with Michael Nitsche (GeorgiaTech University), Ken Perlin (NYU Media Research Lab), and John C. Martin II (Reallusion). Hope to see some of you there!

Macbeth's Disciple

One of our very first clients when we started Short Fuze five years ago was a little London-based outfit called Spearean. They commissioned us to design a PS2 game based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, but with a strong historical context. Sadly, it never got off the ground, which is a shame, because it had some damn good ideas in it. But now they've used some of those ideas and made a short movie, Macbeth's Disciple, which is premiering on London in early November.

I'm really pleased for them, but gutted I can't make it as I'll be in New York at the Machinima Festival. Dave & I wish Jasmin the very best of luck.

Come and See

Some of the very best films I've ever seen are so powerful and so emotional that I really don't want to see them again. Come and See is one of those. It's a Soviet-era Belorussian movie from 1985, set in the Second World War. It would be wrong to describe it as a war film, though. It's a coming of age film, centred around a 12-year old boy, Florya, who joins the partisans.

Most reviewers describe it as a brutal film. I didn't see it that way. I found it harrowing. It wasn't a film about the horrors of war. It was a film about what happens if you live in a world where life is cheap and meaningless, and where everyone around you has resorted to savagery and barbarism. In contrast to films such as Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket, there is very little voyeuristic or explicit carnage. The violence mostly happens off camera. We're more interested in the after-effects than the actual events. The one scene where we do actually see something happen, where a detachment of SS Einsatztruppe destroy a village, is quite horrific. Not because of what happens to the villagers, but because of the casual, unconcerned looks on the faces of the Germans looking on.

It's a stunning film, in every sense of the word. It leaves you numb, shell-shocked, and reeling. And it's excellently made in every department. Top marks have to go to the young Aleksei Kravchenko. His performance is simply astonishing. Director Elem Klimov made life hell for his cast to get them to give of their best. They shot for nine months in the swamps and forests, dragging the cast and crew through mud and rain, and for added realism he used live ammunition.

The photography is reminiscent of Werner Herzog's psychological work, such as Aguirre and Woyzeck. There are lots of long, slow, static, silent shots, where the story is told with facial expressions or simple head movements. At times, as I often find with Herzog, I found it almost painfully slow, but editing it faster would have lost the intensity required to immerse you in Florya's world. This is particularly the case after the first battle scene, where the sound work is probably some of the best on film. After an artillery attack, Florya is deafened, and all we hear for the next few scenes is the ringing in his ears and some muffled voices. The sense of isolation - another hallmark of much of Herzog's work - is quite eerie, and as Florya's hearing is slowly restored, we find ourselves drawn back into a macabre world that is somehow changed.

I can't say I enjoyed the film. As with much Russian cinema (more accurately, Soviet cinema), it was bleak, raw, and uncomfortable. It's what Russians do best - just read most of the great Russian literature from the early 19th century onwards; it's either light comedy or depressing as hell. Their operas fit into the same pattern. (Please, Lord, let me never sit through another performance of Boris Godunov.)

But Come and See isn't a film you watch to enjoy. Like Sophie's Choice or Christiane F, this is a film you watch to see the world through the eyes of another. Afterwards you feel relief that you don't live like that, and determination that you will do anything you can to prevent such a world happening again. See it, and feel how powerful film can be.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Repo! The Genetic Opera

This looks like a fun film.

In the year 2056 - the not so distant future - an epidemic of organ failures devastates the planet. Out of the tragedy, a savior emerges: GeneCo, a biotech company that offers organ transplants… for a price. Those who miss their payments are scheduled for repossession and hunted by villainous Repo Men. In a world where surgery addicts are hooked on painkilling drugs and murder is sanctioned by law, a sheltered young girl searches for the cure to her own rare disease as well as information about her family’s mysterious history. After being sucked into the haunting world of GeneCo, she is unable to turn back, as all of her questions will be answered at the wildly anticipated spectacular event: The Genetic Opera.

It's a stylish SF musical with Anthony Head and bucketloads of attitude, which is always a good sign. And, erm, Paris Hilton. And Sarah Brightman. Yeah, I know, but I still want to see it.

Trailer here.

M27 Planetary Nebula

More from Paul's Workshop of Telescopes: this is the M27 Planetary Nebula, popularly known as the Dumbbell, last night.

Paul says:
If I'd known you were going to put this pic up, I'd have got rid of the slight gradient and improved the flats to make it a little smoother! But sure - taken last night - 2hrs total exposure, but needs more! It's stretched a little too far - the noise is too visible - but enough to show dim signs of the ancient skirt of older nebulosity.

I'm going to shame him into updating his Web site...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

OMG it's full of stuff

Last night I managed to confuse most of my twitterfriends by telling them I was looking at stars and seeing pretty things in the sky. I wasn't just standing in the back garden staring upwards, as they thought. I was sat in the comfort of my mate Paul's shed, beer in hand, being amazed at what his Workshop of Telescopes could do. It was quite stunningly impressive.

In his back garden, just outside Cambridge, he and Tim have built a serious observatory. Inside, they have a pair of pretty damn cool scopes, each fitted with motorised mounts, cameras, and remote controls. Everything then runs through to the (heated!) shed, where the control systems live. It's not just about swinging the telescope round and peering through. Oh no. This is twenty-first century astronomy, and to see it in someone's home is quite awesome.

Photo: Paul Beskeen Astrophotography

This, as I'm sure you all recognised instantly, is a quick snapshot of the Eagle Nebula, about 7000 light years away. To get this, you first open up your 3D skymap on the PC and find an interesting object, then just click on it and tell the scope to point at it. Whirrr, whirr, and it spins around, all by itself, out in the darkness. (There's a camera in the observatory so you can watch it move, which is rather neat.) Now you fire up the camera on the scope, and tell it to take a picture. But this is no ordinary camera set-up. You can apply all sorts of filters: this is a H-alpha filter, which just looks for signs of hydrogen. Since nebulae are made of hydrogen, this is a good way to enhance them. Now you wait four minutes while it collects photons on the CCD and turns them into electrons. Of course, while you wait that long, the Earth continues to rotate, so the scope automatically counteracts that by adjusting itself. It has a guide star, and every couple of seconds it tweaks itself to ensure that the guide star stays in the same place in the image. And then you get your first image on the screen. Using various image manipulation techniques, you can play with the image to bring out different aspects of what you're seeing, or else just to make a pretty picture.

As Paul pointed out, four minutes really is just a quick snapshot. He and Tim were just showing off what their kit could do. For serious photography, you often have to wait much, much longer. Some nights he and Tim spend hours tracking a single object across the sky. If you want colour pictures, you have to photograph it three times, with red, green, and blue filters, and then recombine them to create the composite image.

I'll try to find some more of Paul's pics. Somewhere in Second Life is a screen showing a load of his images which he released under Creative Commons, and I'll try to hunt those down.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Leaving the Game

Leaving the Game was a project we did last year with the American Film Institute Digital Content Lab and a whole heap of different people from around the game, film, TV & IT industries, including Kuma Reality Games, Cartoon Network, Disney, IBM, Microsoft, Method, Georgia Tech, Furnace Media, and a whole bunch of freelancers. It was a pilot for a machinima series – one which we knew would never get made, but we wanted to prove that technically, it could be done, and artistically, that machinima has the ability to create TV quality entertainment. (You may argue that “of course machinima is good enough”, but the professionals still need to be convinced about what would happen if they started to use it.)

Looking back on it, it’s one of the things I’m rather proud to have worked on, and having it nominated for a technical achievement award at this year’s Machinima Festival is very satisfying.

So what’s so damn clever about it?

First of all, you have to understand that LtG uses old-style machinima technology. Those who’ve been around the machinima scene for a while will remember that machinima wasn’t originally a way to create video files. You didn’t get avi or wmv files you could upload to YouTube or stick on an FTP site. You had to watch machinima by running the game it was created in, and then loading a demo file which played everything back in the game engine in real time. So, no post-production, no clever edits, no mixing different engines. LtG went back to these roots, and everything you see is played in the Half-Life 2 engine, on a X-Box 360, in real time.

Early concept art for Amber's assassin costume

This, of course, gave us a whole heap of problems. Switching between locations – of which there are several in the film – would have meant huge loading times if we did each one as a separate level. Instead, we had to build all our sets on a single level and just teleport to them. We couldn’t cut away when we wanted to compress time, so we had to build identical sets running in different time frames and cut between them.

On the other hand, it enabled us to introduce some other features that would not have been possible if we had just made video files. What you don’t realize from looking at the video on the Web site is that Leaving the Game isn’t just a straightforward video. What you see depends on who you are and where you are.

Leaving the Game is delivered to the X-Box via X-Box Live as a pile of assets (all the custom content, skins, models, levels, sounds, music, voices etc) and the script. That, in itself, makes for a completely new content distribution model. If we’d done episode 2, we’d only need to send assets we hadn’t already used earlier in the series, so we’d already have the lead characters, main locations, title sequence, theme music, etc.

But – and here’s the bit that’s unique – the assets you get aren’t the same for everyone. If you’re an adult, you get the unrestricted version with full-on gore, swearing (and, I think, sticky-out nipples on Amber’s catsuit – not sure if those stayed in the final cut, though). If you’re a child, you get the PG-rated version without the blood and moderated language. If you’re Spanish, you get the Spanish-language version, and because it’s real-time, the characters lip-synch correctly, and the timings of the scene adjust to fit the duration of the speech. (To be honest, although we did the tech demo of this feature, it didn’t make it to the final cut, simply because we ran out of time to do the second set of voice recordings.) And finally, the product placement is adjusted to fit you as well. In one scene, we had bottles on a shelf. Kids saw a soft drink, adults in some states saw one brand of beer, adults in another state saw a different brand of beer. We experimented briefly with making the lead character either black or white, male or female, at the viewer’s choice, but decided that although it was technically possible, we didn’t want to make the story or the character too radically different.

So what?

This is a completely radical approach to the way we produce, deliver and view content.

By using a connected games console and game engine as the core of the viewing medium, we change the way you get content. Instead of delivering movies, you deliver everything you need to have that movie reconstructed locally. This in turn means that you can produce content for a wider audience: the same content can appeal to both kids and teens, and you can create foreign language versions faster and cheaper.

And lastly, and possibly most importantly for the professionals, advertisers can see the potential in being able to target audiences more precisely. They can place a product into a piece of content, and know that it will only be seen by relevant people. In these days of dwindling ad revenue, and as content creators find it harder to get funding, this is highly attractive.

I’ve believed for a long time that machinima has the power to shake up the media world, and Leaving the Game proved it. It was also a hell of a lot of fun to make, and a great opportunity to work with all sorts of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Hats off in particular to Keith & Dante at Kuma, whose team did most of the hard work.

Amber as she appears in the film

Monday, October 6, 2008

Porkin' out

Last night was a bit of an experiment, blending Elizabethan flavourings with Eastern European style cooking, and ending up with the sort of thing that might have been around in the days of Dracula. (The real bloke, not the neck-biting undead "I never drink... wine" geezer.")

Sadly, there's no proper picture to go with this, because we ate all the food before we realised it was blogworthy, and empty dishes don't look so good. So here's Vlad Tepes and Bela Lugosi instead.

Matt's Transylvanian Pork

I started with a lump of pork, and rubbed it all over with caraway, paprika, salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and allspice, then stuffed it with bits of apple. Then I simply put it in a roasting dish with more sliced apple, sultanas, dates (instead of the usual prunes), onions and garlic, added a touch of vegetable stock, a bit of ginger, and some red wine, and left it to slowly roast in the oven for about five hours.

While that was cooking, I made a bacon and mushroom salad: I fried the mushrooms with garlic in butter and olive oil, then fried chopped bacon, rosemary, and ciabatta in more butter and olive oil. Add balsamic vinegar, spread on top of rocket, and then crumble some Stilton on top.

By the time the pork arrived, we were well and truly ready for food. I decided to go for bulghur wheat as an accompaniment, rather than potatoes, in keeping with the Eastern feel, and actually got it right this time: roasted peppers, fried leeks and onions, and a touch of caraway made for an interesting pilaf which worked well. The fruit in the sauce gave it a lovely touch of sweetness, combining well with the caraway and other spices. We then followed with strong, sweet Malabar coffee, flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, and a glass of tawny port.

And, what's more, there's enough pork for sandwiches!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mongoose Overdrive

Every so often, a week comes along that just throws things at you from every which direction, and doesn't stop till you beg for mercy. Well, to be truthful, it doesn't even stop then. This has been one of them.

Some of the highlights of this week have included:
  • Being asked to be a judge at the Machinima Expo
  • Being asked to be a judge for a design competition at Long Road 6th Form College
  • Having a movie I worked on as technical consultant (Leaving the Game) get nominated for an award for technical achievement at this year's machinima festival
  • Having one of my photos, a picture of Reality Checkpoint on Parker's Piece, selected as part of a guide to Cambridge
  • Meeting a whole bunch of interesting people at a conference and being asked for help using Moviestorm in some very cool and socially rewarding ways
  • Getting invited to do a screening and workshops at one upcoming UK film festival, and being asked to speak at another
  • Meeting a British Vice-Consul based in San Francisco, discovering he knew who I was and what I do, and being asked to go out there and speak
  • Finding my photo in a local photographer's online gallery - Gordon Tant, who took the picture of my hat that I'm now using as my avatar
  • Doing some of the most creative personal work I've done in ages as a result of some random research turning up some extremely surprising things
Scene from Leaving the Game (American Film Institute, Kuma Reality Games, Short Fuze, Cartoon Network, Disney, IBM, Microsoft, Method, Georgia Tech, Furnace Media, and others, 2007)

It's also been a good week for catching up with old friends, and making new ones, especially via Twitter and Facebook. My son got his first job, washing up in a local restaurant, saving up so he can build himself a computer. We had some great Moviestorm movies, including the marvellous Star Wars Election 08, and it looks like I'll finally be getting around to some podcasting again. It seems as if everything I've been doing for the last 18 months is finally coming together.

More weeks like this, please. With the aid of Red Bull (and Stolichnaya) I'll be just fine. I'll sleep in November, after the Machinima Festival in NY...

Reality Checkpoint, Cambridge, 2007

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It only encourages them

(This is pretty much an unedited transcript of a rant I had in the office yesterday. If four-letter words offend you, shut your eyes when you read them.)

As you might expect for a company on the periphery of the movie world, the office Skype chat at Short Fuze is filled with news of upcoming movies. Most of the time, this is greeted with groans, wailing and gnashing of teeth as we find out about yet another sequel, remake, or adaptation. This week the screams of total anguish hit record levels as we found out about Blade Runner 2. (Or in my case, the remake of Angel Heart.)

"Why, oh why, do they have to fuck with my favourite film / book / comic / TV show?" the assembled crowd shout out every time we hear about another of these movies. "It's going to be dreadful, you can't better the original, why can't they think of anything original these days... blah blah Phantom Menace blah blah..."

Well, people, it's your own damn fault. So you're all gonna hate Blade Runner 2, right? On principle. (Except Chris, who stuck up for it.) So why the hell is it, when I ask you if you're going to see it, you say "Well, yes, it is Blade Runner, after all." That's why they make these shit-awful movies. Because people like you will give them money to see them, even if you don't bloody like them. (Hands up all those who went to see Star Wars Eps 2 & 3 even though they hated them. Matrix 2 & 3? Spiderman 2? Resident Evil? Doom? Yeah, you know who you are.)

My youngest daughter, who's now ten, has gone through all the usual obsessions of a modern Western girl. Winnie the Pooh, Teletubbies, Barbie, Bratz, High School Musical, and so on. And like all kids, she's a sucker for merchandise. If she sees something with her current favourite brand on, she immediately wants it, even if she doesn't actually want the item in question. "Look, Daddy, a rectal thermometer for a hamster, can I have it? It's pink and it's got Barbie Sleeping Beauty on it, pleeeease! It's only £17.99...." And if she had her own money, she'd damn well buy it too, even though she hasn't even got a bloody hamster. The only thing that stops her handing over all her money to Mattel and Disney is the fact that she hasn't actually got any. I'm just hoping she grows out of it by the time she's old enough to have a credit card.

And how exactly is that different from people who go and see a movie they know they won't like, just because it has a tenuous relationship to a movie (or book, film, or game) they do like? It's not a film, it's a piece of merchandise made by the film industry, and you fell for it. Why do they fuck with your favourite film? Because they will make money. They're not in it for the art. They don't give a shit about the characters, the worlds, or the stories you love. They're a business, and if they can get away with selling you crap, they'll make crap, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Now, before you all jump on me and accuse me of saying we shouldn't make sequels, we shouldn't remake films, and we shouldn't adapt things, that's not what I'm saying at all. Some sequels are great (Aliens, the second two Indy movies, Bride of Frankenstein), and some remakes work really well (The Grudge, Peter Jackson's King Kong*, Magnificent Seven). And the film industry has a long and proud tradition of adapting from other media (Jungle Book, Lolita, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Chocolat, Throne of Blood). When done well, these make really enjoyable films. There's nothing wrong from an artistic point of view with sequels, remakes & adaptations, provided they're made with love and respect.** There's just something wrong with an artistic culture that seemingly can't think of anything else and treats its source material and audience so cynically.

However, If you look back at the history of Hollywood, from about 1930 onwards, only about 20%-25% of films have ever been based on completely original scripts. About 30%-35% are adaptations of books, and the rest are a mixture of remakes, sequels, and adaptations from other media. The change we're seeing now, though, is that nearly all the top budget and high profile films are drawn from the latter category, and fewer and fewer are originals. That's because they're comparatively low risk. If a studio sinks $75m into making a Blade Runner sequel, they can be pretty certain there are ten million Blade Runner fanboys out there who'll go and see it (and then buy the DVD, and while they're at it, buy the re-issued original yet again, and then buy the box set, and the director's cut special edition with the limited edition postcards in, and the new action figures, yadda yadda yadda) that they will be certain to make their money back. And the fan networks will do their advertising for them. (Like I am, right now, by so publicly ranting about it. Guilty.) But if the studio puts that $75m into making exactly the same script but without the Blade Runner name on it, they'll have an uphill struggle to convince people to go and see it, they won't do as well out of merchandising rights, and they could well lose money. So from a pure business point of view, it's a no-brainer.

(Compare that with Bollywood or the European film industry where there are relatively few sequels etc, and the whole business is very different. But that's a post for another day.)

Rant nearly over. Thanks for sticking with me this far.

Here's the message. It's a simple one.

If you don't like the fucking film, don't go and see it.

And quit bitching. Nobody's making you watch those movies except you.

If we, the public, stop giving Hollywood money for their lame-brain exploitative knock-offs, they'll eventually stop making them. That's the only language they understand. There are thousands of brilliant, original, almost unknown movies out there. Go and see one of them instead, and show some independent film-maker who's pouring his heart and soul into a movie that what he's doing is far more worthwhile than some pointless $100m special effects extravaganza.

Or, to quote Lloyd Kaufman, boss of Troma, make your own damn movie!

(I think that's my Hollywood career over before it's begun. Unless maybe those Miramax fucks will have me?)

*Yes, I do actually quite like Jackson's King Kong. It has its flaws (editing, Peter, it's where you cut out the boring bits and keep the tension up), and I still prefer the original, but it works as a film, and it speaks to the modern generation with as much depth as the original spoke to me. What comes across is that Jackson made his version of Kong with love and respect, and he wasn't just banging out a cheap money-grabber like Dino de Laurentiis did. Now that's a shit remake.

** And in general, I'd prefer to see an adaptation or remake of something I don't already know. Many times I've watched a film, thoroughly enjoyed it, and only then seen the words "Based on the novel by..." If I already know the source, I'm immediately comparing it to the film as I watch it, and start asking myself why they did it that way, which isn't nearly as much fun.