Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Looking for voice actors & actresses in Cambridge

Is there anyone in or around Cambridge (UK) who would want to lend their voices on an occasional basis?

Mostly I'm looking for people to work on my own Mongoose Movies productions. I can use voice actors of just about any age, and a wide range of ethnic, regional and national accents would be more than welcome. I'm aiming to build up a list of about 20-30 people I can call on, as my mimicry talents are now getting to their limits! My films currently in production range from short 2-minute clips to one full-length feature.

There is also the possibility of some occasional paid work for Short Fuze, doing voice-overs for Moviestorm promo films. These will mostly be clips of 2-3 minutes or less.

Reply to matt [dot] kelland {at} moviestorm [dot] co [dot] uk
Before I get inundated with offers from far and wide, or comments about how I could use the mighty Internet to record remotely, I'd better say straight out that I much prefer to record face to face. Much though I'd absolutely love to work with some of the people I know who are scattered across the globe (yes, Mr Grove, Mr Rice, and so on, that means you!), I find it much easier to work with an actor in the same room. I'm quite picky about the vocal performance I'm after, and I don't find I can establish the rapport when I can't see the person and give silent direction with body language, facial gestures, and so on. I also prefer to have several actors in the same room when they record dialogue so that they can feed off each other. This isn't to say that remote recording can't work or isn't a damn good idea, it's just that it's not the method I'm most comfortable with.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mind/wallet duality

Before she became a silent movie star, Louise Brooks was a dancer with the Denishawn Company. In 1922/23, they did a tour of 180 US cities in 200 days, a punishing schedule by any standards. Half-way through, the cast was becoming dispirited and tired, and the shows were beginning to suffer. The troupe leader, the redoubtable Ruth St Denis (below), gave Louise a wonderful piece of advice.

Ruth St Denis in 1916

"You must think of it as art, my dear, and then do it as a business."

Neatly sums up what it is to be a professional entertainer, don't you think?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Nuff said.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Help - I need a logo!

I need to be able, for obvious reasons, to distinguish between films I do for work, and those I'm making off my own bat, in my spare time, and which I don't want to have associated with Short Fuze. (And which Short Fuze would probably need to distance itself from anyway, for all sorts of reasons.) So the next personal film I do will be released under the Mongoose Movies banner.

(I tried the following, but they're all taken already: Mongoose Studios, Mongoose Productions, Mongoose Films and Kelland Productions.)

Anyways, MM needs a logo. I know exactly what I want, but I'm not a graphic artist and I can't draw it myself. I'm after a really simple line drawing of a mongoose rearing up and twisting around. Ideally, it should be really stylised, a bit like a Chinese brush painting, using as few lines as possible to convey the shape. Something like this, for example, but with even fewer brush strokes if that can be done ...

I'm after a pose a bit like this tiger, with the head turned back, the mouth open, and the body curved sinuously, and the impression of intense energy. What's most important is the shape and the feeling, it doesn't have to be instantly recognisable as a mongoose - if it could equally well be a ferret or a weasel, so be it.

I'm thinking probably black and white, but maybe it would be good to be able to do it inverse, so I can use the logo on black backgrounds (which I seem to be doing more and more).

Any artists out there who can help out?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dammit, Mark!

Yesterday I blogged about the scene I'm shooting in a nightclub. It's been a right bitch trying to get my characters to make their way through the crowd in a way that doesn't look totally crap, and tbh I'm not happy with the results so far.

So today, we get a look at Mark's fabulous new walk code for Moviestorm, which looks like it'll do exactly what I want, and let my guys weave neatly between the clubbers and the tables. Now I want to throw a whole load of the choreography away and start shooting the scene again. Trouble is, the code's not finished, the test version's not even in a build I can get to, and Mark's gone on holiday for a week! Damn, damn, damn!

Like Johnnie said, "Patience, Grasshopper."

I just bought the box set on DVD. It's really cheesy 70s pseudo-Zen bullshit, and it's nothing on Jackie Chan or Jet Li, but still totally nostalgically wonderful. Now I want to make the Moviestorm martial arts pack!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thirty's a crowd

I've been shooting a fight scene today set in a nightclub. As well as the two protagonists and a couple of bystanders who get involved, I needed a whole bunch of extras. There's a band, a couple of bouncers, and a load of clubbers, some sitting around, some drinking, and some dancing. For the first time, I found myself wishing I was shooting in an MMOG instead of using a script-based machinima tool. It would be so much easier to find 30 people, tell them what I want them to do, and let them run their dance animations. Instead, I'm having to script every one of those extras myself. Setting up the basic actions takes quite a lot of time, but then having to put all the reactions in and get all of them rushing for the door is really time-consuming, and really tedious.

One way of looking at it is that if I were to shoot the scene with lots of people, it would probably take three or four hours to get it right. That's 100+ man-hours. And if I later decide to reshoot, that would be a logistical nightmare, and I don't even want to think of the continuity problems. This way it'll take me a couple of solid days to get the scene, which is way fewer man-hours all told, and I know I can come back and tweak the lighting and the cameras later if I need to.

But that doesn't stop me wanting a tool for controlling crowds and some AI for my extras so I can get the whole scene done in half the time. Then maybe I can realistically aim for getting real crowds like this...

Hmmm... maybe I should hack Total War and change the soldiers into nightclubbers and turn their combat animations into dance animations... on second thoughts, maybe not! It's a damn shame the rumours a few years back of a freeware version of Massive never came to anything. It's rather too expensive for me.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The voice-over question

I’ve been messing round for a couple of months with a script for a noir-ish thriller, and I can’t decide how I want to tell the story. Oh, the plot’s there, and the characters are there, and I know what order I want the scenes in. I just can’t decide whether to go with a voice-over or not. And that changes my whole approach to how I write the script. Until I make that decision, I can't decide what has to go into the script, and what has to be carried purely visually.

I have to admit, I quite like voice-overs. I prefer Blade Runner with the voice-over, for example. Anyway, this got me thinking about voice-overs in general, and in particular why I’d want to use it in machinima.

The earliest use of voice-overs was mainly for narration and scene setting. Instead of audiences having to read text telling them what was going on, a narrator simply told them what was happening. This was all part of opening up movies to illiterate audiences, and made the whole movie experience less wordy. A great example, if only for its stiff upper lip British pomposity, is William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come, where the narrator explains to the audience at each stage how the world got the way it did, at times interjecting with authorial moralization. When you look at that film now, the voice-over seems really clumsy, but the device has stayed in use in all sorts of formats.

Things to Come, based on the HG Wells novel

Think of the opening to Fellowship of the Ring, where we get a full introduction to Middle Earth through the narration of an epic battle. Or SF shows like Babylon Five (“the last, best hope for mankind”), Dune (“the spice must flow”), or even, though I hate to mention it, Star Trek (fill in your own quote, depending on which series you prefer). Voice-overs work particularly well for SF and fantasy, as there is usually a lot to explain to the audience, not very long to do it in, and relying on the script to carry all that back-story is hard to pull off.

Aah, an excuse to show a picture of Claudia Christian

In shows like Dragnet and Kolchak (a cheesy 70s precursor to The X Files), for example, the voice-over sets not only the scene but the tone of the show by mimicking police files. You know the style: “11:43 pm, July 25th, Los Angeles. Jenny Jacks is walking home, alone, unaware that she has been singled out by a serial killer. 11:52 pm, Officer Gerry Osgood arrives on the scene.” It’s really easy to parody that stuff, but writers continue to use it time and time again. It’s a really neat short-hand, almost like having Scully reading from her report – off-screen – at the end of each X File.

Sometimes the voice-over is used to supplement what’s on the screen, reading the exact same words for those who can’t be bothered to read them for themselves. In Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, there is a long opening explanation and historical introduction which, quite frankly, goes on far too long. If I’d had to read it all, I’d have been asleep before the movie actually started, which would be a shame, because it’s actually quite interesting and not your usual bloodsucker movie. Voicing it helped. And having the text as well meant that I didn’t lose track of what was going on due to being distracted by the visuals, unlike, say, Underworld Evolution, which still hasn’t made sense to me yet.

Dark Prince, a bio pic of Vlad Dracula. It's actually not bad

However, the main use of the voice-over, and what we mostly think of when we think of a voice-over, is to provide the first-person internal monologue that movies can’t provide any other way. It’s a staple of the film noir, which we always associate with Bogart and the like. The essence of Chandler and Hammett’s writing was to portray not just the story, but what it felt like to be a down-at-heel gumshoe. The books are full of commentary, effectively talking straight to the reader, and that’s not something you can do easily in movies. Ian Richardson did an amazing job of talking straight to camera in House of Cards, but that was the exception, rather than the rule.

Francis Urquhart: shows what a Shakespearean training can give you in the art of the aside

In general, you need to get the scriptwriter to put in a second character and put in the commentary in dialogue – hence the reason why so many movie adaptations give the hero a sidekick who wasn’t in the books. David Suchet’s Poirot, for example, uses Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings and Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp far more than Agatha Christie ever did, purely to give Poirot someone to be in the reader’s place and allow him to explain himself without breaking the frame of the movie.

Not one but two dumb sidekicks

The only other option is the voice-over, which seems to be less and less popular these days. The voice-over really does shatter the illusion that you are watching reality. As the viewer, we are seeing this character do the things he does, but at the same time he’s talking to us, reminding us that what we’re watching is a story, an artificial construct.

Probably the best example of this is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a superb vehicle for Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer. Robert Downey’s totally irreverent narration turns this from a humdrum thriller into a wonderful cinematic experience. Director Shane Black plays with the conventions of filmic story-telling; fairly early on, he gets us into a flashback sequence by having Harry Lockhart go “woah, back up, there’s something I should have told you” (or words to that effect) and then apologizing for telling the story all wrong. It works really well – most of the time. Sadly, towards the end it gets more conventional, and not as much fun.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Probably my favourite Robert Downey Jr movie.

I guess that’s the real kicker with voice-overs. Do them well, and they can work really well. But if you’re not careful, they can be lame, and a substitute for second-rate acting and directing. For example, I could have two characters have a conversation, and as one leaves, the other says in voice-over, “I knew I had to keep my eye on her. She was lying. I didn’t know what about, but I knew she was lying about something.” Very Phillip Marlowe. But instead, you could cut to a well-lit and well-framed CU, and convey all that with just a twitch of the eyebrow and a slight sneer.

Well, we had to have one picture of Bogey in this article, didn't we?

In machinima, though, you’ve got an excuse for going the voice-over route. Most of the time, you just don’t have the subtlety of performance you can get from a real actor or a hand-animated virtual actor. A "twitch of the eyebrow and slight sneer" in machinima can easily end up as a Groucho Marx eyebrow wiggle with a demented Joker-like rictus, which ain’t exactly the effect we’re after.

So where I find myself heading is that, if I were filming with real actors, I’d probably rely on them to carry the unspoken sub-text. But because I’m using machinima – and also consciously trying to get a bit of 1950s style into it – I’m going to give the voice-over a go. And if it turns out wrong, then hey, it’s machinima, I can afford to start again.

The machinima director

I've recently been reading some of the writings of the early Soviet film director and theorist Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein. It's amazing stuff, although seriously heavy going in places.

One thing that struck me was a note in Vladimir Nizhny's Lessons With Eisenstein. He reports Eisenstein's comment that:
"The director is simultaneously an architect, a poet, a painter, and a composer, but above all a film artist. No one aspiring to be a film director has any right to neglect anything that makes him a better man and a better film director."
Nizhny wryly says that this may seem excessive breadth of knowledge in these days where "a director is reduced to a craftsman giving orders for filming a ready-made scenario on already-built sets with the resulting footage being passed to the mercies of his editor."

As machinima directors, we're fortunate that we're still in the auteur position that Eisenstein held so dear. In my experience, machinima directors tend to be some of the most knowledgeable about the whole film-making process, because they have to be. We can - and usually do - have control over every aspect of our films. We often work alone, and we almost all make films purely for the love of it, to satisfy our own desires. We're not cogs in a giant production machine. We have more artistic and creative freedom than any other film-makers. We don't need to care whether our films are commercially successful. We get to be not just the director, but also the writer, the actor, the casting director, the production designer, the cinematographer, the composer, the set designer, the costume designer, the lighting designer, the sound designer, the editor, and ultimately we alone have final say as to when the film is finished. We are indeed "poets, architects, painters, and composers". We truly make our own films, from beginning to end. How many professional film-makers can say that?