Friday, May 30, 2008

Miscasting voice parts is easy

Last week I released a short piece called My Voices, which was designed to show voice actors how they could show themselves voicing a range of different characters. Part of the reason for doing this piece was that voice actors often find themselves cast for their looks, rather than their voice, and this gives them a way to hide behind a character who looks completely different.

This week, I cast three actors for a short with the working title of Cormorant Close. After doing my auditions last week, I had a pretty good idea who I wanted for the two leads. Their demo piece had a lot in common with Cormorant Close, they worked well together, they sounded good, they were fantastic actors, and I was sure they'd be perfect. But then I listened to all the voice samples again, with my eyes shut, and without looking at the names.

Suddenly, among the female voices, I heard one who was absolutely perfect, and when I looked up who it was, it wasn't who I expected. Then I listened to the men again, and knew that to complement that female voice, one of the other actors would be much better than the guy I had originally thought of. It's no disrespect to my original choices. I'm sure they would have done a good job, and in fact, I have other parts in mind for them and hope to work with them later in the summer.

Without realising it - in fact, even though I was consciously trying to avoid doing so - I had based my original casting on the personalities and appearance of the actors, not on the sound of their voices. And, more subtly, I was perhaps thinking of their natural voices, not of the other voices that they could portray.

Now I'm just hoping they're free next week for a recording session and I can find out whether I've made the right call! Oh, and I suppose I'd better get round to building the recording studio as well. And finish the final, final, really final draft of the script in time for them to read it in advance...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Januscz Kaminski. Who? OK, it's an Indy post!

I enjoyed Indy 4.

Though most people disagree, Cate Blanchett was the weak link for me. It was great to see Karen Allen back in the series, and John Hurt was having a whale of a time in the dimwitted prof role.

IMHO the unsung hero of the movie was DoP Januscz Kaminski. Some of the shots were quite superb: in the opening scenes, look at the reflections on the hubs of the vehicles, and how he positions the cameras to get the "money shots" in the action sequences. The man knows his stuff. But DoP's rarely, if ever, get the credit they deserve.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The next revolution will be televised

Whoever said that, back in the Sixties, was wrong. He was wrong by about half a century. It’s been going on for about as long as there has been film.

Starring Pancho Villa As Himself is a superb movie starring Antonio Banderas as the great Mexican revolutionary from the start of the last century. It’s based on an incredible true story, spanning the world of early movies, PR, media manipulation, and international politics.

In about 1912, Pancho Villa approached the great director D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company, offering them the exclusive right to film his revolution in return for cash which he could use to buy guns. Griffith himself was busy with other productions (he shot a staggering 72 films in 1912!), so he sent a junior director, Frank Thayer. Thayer and his crew became the first war cameramen, getting right into the thick of the action and capturing real footage of battles. However, the film, Life of Villa, was a dud. Real footage of men fighting just wasn’t as exciting as the staged battle sequences that Griffith was making for films like Birth of a Nation. So in 1914, Mutual Film Corporation (who had bought Biograph the previous year) sent Thayer back to make a second film, The Life of General Villa, interspersing real-life battle sequences with staged back story, starring Pancho Villa as himself, and the young actor Raoul Walsh as Villa in his early days. (Walsh, of course, later achieved fame as a director, with over 130 films to his name.)

The Life of General Villa was, believe it or not, the first feature-length movie. Thayer convinced the studios and distributors that to tell the story would take an hour, and he simply couldn’t do his subject justice in two reels (24 minutes).

The motives behind making this movie were complex: it wasn’t just about trying to make a good film. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had business interests in Mexico, and had a vested interest in seeing Villa’s revolution fail. He was using his media empire to turn American public opinion against Villa. The fledgling motion picture wanted to prove that movies were more influential than newspapers, and decided to use Villa as a test case to see if they could sway opinion in the opposite direction. And the rivalry between Hearst and everyone else meant that there were a lot of people who quite liked the idea of seeing Hearst lose a lot of money.

The real Villa

So The Life of General Villa wasn’t just a film. It was a weapon in a new type of propaganda war. Movies won. This led, in turn, to Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda movies for the Third Reich, live news reporting from Vietnam, and ultimately the embedded journalists in the Gulf who bring us our daily dose of gung-ho jingoism.

The most incredible sequence is where Villa agrees a contract with the movie company for the second film. He has to agree not to fight battles at night, because the cameras wouldn’t be able to film them. He has to give the film crew 24 hours notice of any engagements, and he agrees to restage any battle that they can’t film. And later, he has to replan an attack to suit the movie, because otherwise they’d be shooting into the sun. Literally, the war is being run at the convenience of the people filming it.

This is a fascinating film from a historical point of view, and a gripping film in its own right. Banderas delivers a top-notch performance, and the cinematography is stunning.

Sadly, all the original film of Villa is now lost, apart from a few clips in a museum in Mexico, but Starring Pancho Villa As Himself stands as a testament to one of the defining moments in the history of the motion picture business and its role in the modern world.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rewriting – everything!

Mongoose Movies is looking like a going concern once again. I’ve had about half a dozen scripts on the go for months now, but none of them seem to make it out of Celtx and into Moviestorm. I’ve done some test footage for several scenes, but the only things that have got done are the few teasers and demos I’ve done for the company. Part of the reason for this is that I just haven’t had the actors and actresses I want, so I’ve been doing all the voices myself. While I can do a few different voices, this has been enormously limiting, and I haven’t been at all happy with the results.

However, in the last week, I’ve acquired a huge crew of students from Homerton College, Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University (the other university in Cambridge). Yesterday I auditioned about a dozen drama students, who between them can give me an enormous range of different voices, both male and female. Very few of them have done voice acting before, and they’re really keen to get the experience. I’ve also hooked up with a few student sound designers and composers, which more or less fills in the last bit of the movie-making process I can’t do myself. Again, they’re really keen to get the experience of working on films; during their course, they do a little bit of film work, but they want to move from re-scoring existing films to helping to create films.

The talent in that group is quite overwhelming. I was genuinely surprised by the quality of some of what I heard. They’re all enormously enthusiastic, which is hugely inspiring.

I thoroughly recommend this approach to other machinimators – it’s a win/win situation. You get a first-class crew; they’re desperate to work on “real” projects and get material to put in their portfolios or showreels. All it took was an email to a few heads of department; they were, without exception, totally supportive, and told their students via email or blogs, or they put up posters, and I started getting replies within – literally – minutes. And still more are coming in every day.

So, starting today, I’m going back to all of my scripts, and polishing them up, ready to start dialogue recording in June. I’m going to ruthlessly rewrite anything and everything, now that I know what voices I have available. I can put in the extra characters I originally wanted, use more female characters, and rethink some of the characterisation now that I have specific actors and actresses in mind. I can also start to re-imagine some of the music and atmospheric sequences to fit with the styles that my new composers can give me.

It’s a lot of work, but having new, talented, and exciting people to work with has given me the drive to get back to turning my dreams into reality.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When Bad Writing Is Good

I've been reading a lot of Matthew Reilly novels recently.

On so many levels, he has got to be the worst writer in the world. I can imagine his English teacher at school throwing a complete fit when he turned in his creative writing assignments. He seems to have absolutely no regard for any of the standard rules of style, and doesn't care. He writes like a demented teenager, too busy gabbling out his story to bother with polishing his sentences, and you can almost see him underlining the most important words.

But you know what? He gets away with it. What he produces is the most unbelievably readable, fast-paced, unputdownable prose. It reads like a cross between a comic and a scriptwriter pitching a movie, and what you get are the most cinematic novels I have ever seen. You really can see everything as he describes it. The pages are bursting with life and energy. The characters are, admittedly, about as one-dimensional as typical action movie characters (c'mon, don't try and kid yourself that Bond or Indy are complex characters), but that doesn't matter. What matters is that Reilly knows how to tell a cracking story at a totally breathless pace.

You'll have to bear with me on this, because out of context, this reads like crap. But trust me, it works. Here's an extract from Area 7. All the italics, the line breaks, and punctuation is exactly as it appears in print.

Schofield turned to the President and yelled, "Okay! I grab the ladder! You grab me!"
And with that, Schofield charged across the flat roof of the cockroach and leapt off its forward edge...
... and flew through through the air, reaching up with his outstretched arms ...
... and caught the bottom rung of the dangling rope ladder!
He waved for the President to follow. "Now you grab me!" With a doubtful shake of his head, the President said, "Okay ..."
And he ran forward and jumped -
- just as the silver 747 shot forward, its engines engaging.

You can just see the individual panels in the comic, can't you? Or every shot in the storyboard for a movie? Wham! Wham! Wham! Every sentence is a visual image, leading into the next one without a pause. Close two-shot on Schofield & the Pres as he delivers his line... long shot on him jumping, insert on his feet as he leaps ... mid-air shot (cue Indy-style amazing stunt leitmotif on the music) ... insert on hands grabbing ladder ... back to two-shot, Pres in FG for the dialogue ... go to same long shot as we had for the jump ... insert on plane's engines firing up, we see the background starting to accelerate ...

See? It's already storyboarded. (Though I'd be interested to know whether you saw the same film sequence I did.)

Like I said, most English teachers would have a fit if presented with prose like this. But then, most English teachers would regard writing a comic or a movie script - particularly an action movie script - as a somewhat unsuitable way to make a living anyway.

Reilly doesn't write literature, he writes entertainment. And he's damn good at it. His plots are deliciously complex, and he's exciting to read. He keeps talking about getting his books made into films. I really hope that happens. They're crying out for movie adaptations. Until then, I'll just keep ...

... reading the novels!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A beautiful sight

I may have mentioned before that I'm a real fan of vintage aircraft. It's very rare to see these old biplanes fly, but every so often they drag them out of the museum at the Shuttleworth Collection, and put them in the air. It's even rarer to see a triplane in the air. This is a Sopwith Triplane, the only one anywhere in the world.

Wow. What an evocative silhouette.

And that's not all. Check this out.

If it looks like something out of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, that's because it is. It's a Bristol Box Kite, and in the movie, it was The Phoenix Flyer, piloted by Stuart Whitman. It's not often you get to see something like this pottering about.

Friday, May 16, 2008

En Garde!

Did you know there are French movies that don't have Jean Reno or Gerard Depardieu in them? And some of them are damn good.

For some reason I seem to have been watching a lot of French historical dramas recently. That's one of the nice things about the Tesco DVD rental service, you just list a load of obscure movies you wouldn't mind seeing some time, and they randomly pop through your door every so often, and you end up seeing all sorts of things that you wouldn't buy, don't turn up on the telly, and aren't likely to be in your local Blockbuster. The French seem to be making some of the best historical dramas of recent years: they are usually sumptuously photographed, with stunning scenery and costumes, and beautifully produced. Le Pacte des Loups, in particular, is simply unmissable. (Really. If you haven't seen it, do so.)

I grabbed Le Bossu, (The Hunchback aka En Garde!) after seeing La Reine Margot , largely because of the two male leads, Daniel Auteuil and Vincent Perez. Perez is probably familiar to English & American audiences from The Crow II or Queen of the Damned: here, he is a very different character, the aristocratic, and initially slightly pompous, Duc de Nevers.

Le Bossu is possibly the best swashbuckler since the glory days of Errol Flynn. The sword fights are a sheer delight to any fencing fan. Arguably, the duel on the clifftop in Princess Bride is the best sword fight ever filmed, but the fights in this movie are truly awesome. It's like watching Stewart Granger in Scaramouche, Ronald Colman, and all the Musketeers rolled into one. These don't feel like Hollywood fights - though of course they are cinematically unrealistic in their own way. They are genuinely thrilling, and will have you on the edge of your seat. The sword is a real killing weapon, not some poncy stick, and these guys know what they're doing with them.

But there's more to Le Bossu than just swordplay. The story is simple enough, taken from a novel by Paul Feval, published in 1858, a contemporary of Dumas. (Feval is an interesting character, who was one of the earliest pioneers of both vampire fiction and the detective novel as well as a prolific writer of swashbucklers. He predated Stoker's Dracula, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Pretty impressive. Go read the Wikipedia entry about him.)

Set in the early 18th century, we have a nobleman who schemes to take his cousin's land, a loyal retainer who vows to save the Duke's daughter, people in disguise, chases, and all the other ingredients of a good Dumas-style plot. It's beautifully acted, gorgeously shot, has perfect music, and holds your attention for two hours with ease. Marie Gillain, as the Duke's daughter, makes a wonderful heroine, and even she gets in on the action at times. It's funny, it's exciting, and it's emotional. What else can you ask of a film?

If you enjoy a fine swashbuckler, and a classic tale of revenge, then give this one a go. There's no dubbed version, though - you'll have to brave the subtitles. But it's worth it. If you liked The Duellists, this is a must-see movie.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Greatest Film Of All Time?

It was Orson Welles's birthday a couple of days ago, so I decided to watch Citizen Kane in his honour. I have to confess, I've never liked the film. Last time I saw it, I was about 20, and it bored me stupid. Now, 20-odd years on, with a bit more mileage under my belt, I figured I should give it another go. After all, it's regularly voted the best film of all time.

Well, frankly, I still don't get it. It's a good film, sure, but the greatest film ever? Why? What makes it so damn good?

Yes, the cinematography is unquestionably excellent. Gregg Toland produces some magnificently iconic shots, and his use of deep staging is superb. There were some great technical innovations, true, but technical innovation does not make a great film, it makes a cleverly created one.

The shot of many Kanes in the mirrors is a masterpiece of camerawork

A lovely atmospheric shot - but is it any better than what Universal were doing in their monster movies around the same time?

Look at the lighting in this scene - as good as anything the German Expressionists were doing

Welles's acting is powerful, but not, in my opinion, a truly awesome performance compared to many others - Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Neeson in Schindler's List, Brando in Godfather, Hurt in Elephant Man, or Depp in quite a lot of things. The rest of the cast are fine, but that's it. The music is OK, but lacks the punch of scores like Scott of the Antarctic, The Sea Hawk, Battle of Britain, or even Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean or Gladiator. The story doesn't really resonate with me - Hearst was a foreign media mogul of times past, who's even less relevant to me than Robert Maxwell. And yes, the script has some good lines, but I think it's often confusing and loses pace.

I'd say that Kane is an extraordinarily well-shot film, with an interesting structure, but I still don't see why so many people think it's the greatest film of all time. Wikipedia's page on films considered the greatest ever makes interesting reading - it's as if great film-making stopped in the 1950s, according to critics and directors. I love old movies, but I don't feel that movie-making reached its peak in its first half century. Do we really think that no film made in the last 67 years was as good as the 25-year old Welles's 1941 debut piece?

I don't know what I'd consider the greatest film ever, but it sure as hell ain't Kane. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I've just finished recording an interview with Hugh Hancock about his latest movie, When We Two Parted, which will shortly appear somewhere on the Moviestorm site. (The interview, not the movie. The movie's already out, and even hit the front page of YouTube!) Previously, I've used various free tools for recording Skype conversations, but they all time out after 15 minutes, which gets to be a real pain, as you have to keep restarting, retaking, and then you have to stitch everything together, and I've never quite got around to buying a Skype recorder.

Tari put me onto CallGraph, from Sedna Wireless in India, which seemed to work really well. You can record unlimited duration calls, it has a nice history function, and it's dead simple to use. It records you and the other person on separate stereo channels, so editing with something like Audacity is really easy too. And so on. And it's free - though the Web site doesn't make it clear whether that will continue when they come out of beta in a few weeks, so I'd advise grabbing it now. [EDIT: the developers say that the basic version will always be free.]

It's Windows only atm, though the FAQ says that Linux & Mac versions are imminent (and you can get a preview version if you contact them).

Well recommended if you record podcasts over Skype.