Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Impressionable young minds

I've been getting more and more involved with education over the last few years. First there was the games design course at NSAD (now NUCA), where I helped to design the syllabus and was an examiner, then Short Fuze got involved with NESTA Futurelab, and were invited to consult on various aspects of using technology in schools, and now we're doing Moviestorm workshops in schools and colleges, and I'm actually finding myself teaching. This, of course, is something I promised I'd never do. My mum was a teacher (and still is), and I decided that I really didn't want to do the same.

But - and please pardon the cliche - it really is a rewarding job. As I wrote over in the official Moviestorm blog yesterday, there comes a moment in every session when the students suddenly "get it". As Johnnie so neatly puts it (and he's done more of these and is a better teacher than me):

"During every workshop, and for every single user, there was always a moment when they moved from an attitude of “Talk slower – I'm trying to take all this on board” to “Would you shut up for a second? I'm trying to make a movie here!”. The moment that the user realises that Moviestorm will let them tell whatever story they wish is the moment that the concept is sold to them. Although different users reached this moment at different points, every user got there."

It's not like we're trying to teach these people geography or the history of the Suez crisis. Learning Moviestorm genuinely is fun, and within an hour, our students get a skill that most of them never believed they would ever have. When you see that moment, it feels good. And you know you've made a difference to someone's life. It was the same when I was coaching rugby at Castle Cary RFC: when you watch a child finally learn to catch a ball, and then become part of a team, you know you're doing something that matters. I still don't want to be a teacher, but every so often it's good to get out of the business environment and see the effect that you can have on real people.

Which got me thinking about all the teachers who made me who I am. Most of them won't ever read this. Half of them are probably dead. And these names won't mean a damn thing to most of you either. But I wanted to say thanks to them anyway. Teachers don't get nearly enough respect in this country. They work bloody hard, they do a vital job, and our government knows it can get away with paying them crap because most teachers do the job out of love. Teachers, not politicians, priests, celebrities, journalists or businessmen, are the people who are shaping the next generation. The knowledge and the values they pass on to our children is what will determine who they become. I was lucky. I had a lot of good teachers. And I never appreciated that at the time.

So, thanks to you all, in particular: Geoffrey and Charlotte Wass, Don Clarke and Simon Ransome, Peter Yerburgh, John Thorn, Martin Scott, Nick Fennell, Peter Partner, John Durran, and Alan MacFarlane. And most especially to Stephan Hopkinson, the kindest and most caring man I have ever known, who taught me how to subvert the system without malice, and how to think from other people's points of view.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Man Bites God video comp

Aussie band Man Bites God are "bribing aspiring film makers with a chance to win AU$500 by making a music video featuring a Man Bites God song of your choice." They're keen to see something different:
You don’t need to follow the storyline of the song, we’re interested in kick-arse clips, not narratives. Surreal or logical, bizarre or literal, live-action, machinema or animation - we’re interested in your original and creative approach.
OK, they're only offering $500, but what the hell. What else were you going to do before October 31?

Who? No, I hadn't heard of them either. Thanks to James over at Alterati for this one.
Man Bites God is an upbeat, fun, busker-rock band from Melbourne. Their music is catchy and melodious and their lyrics are funny and clever. Their songs are a mix of pop/punk/rock, with cool harmonies and lush arrangements

(P.S. Do you think we should tell them it's spelt "machinima" these days?

The cinema is a harsh mistress

Taking machinima from the computer to the big screen is an unforgiving experience. Every pixel is magnified enormously, and every visual glitch screams out at you. The encoding artifacts that you can hide on a monitor are suddenly much larger. Every dropped frame or jump in animation looks like a broken film. And whatever the problems with the images, the problems with sound are worse. Once you put the audio through a THX cinema system, you can hear every little thing. The tiny buzzes and clicks that you will never hear through a typical home computer set-up suddenly jump out at you. Every rustle of clothing in the dialogue becomes obvious. And if your sound balance is a tiny bit muddy, you end up with a cinema full of audio sludge. If you’ve ever thought to yourself when doing the final render for the fifth time, “what the hell, they’ll never notice,” just get your film shown in a cinema and see for yourself. They will notice. And you’ll wish you’d fixed it.

On the other hand, it was a very pleasant surprise to see how many of the 50-odd films we showed in the last two days worked really well. Yes, there were some visual issues we couldn’t address, particularly when upscaling some of the older or low-res films to 720p, but those films that started life as high-def were quite amazing. I particularly remember the smile on Jim Thorpe’s face as he sat in on the tech test for Zero Budget, Big Audience and he saw his Marillion video up there. At the end, he turned to me and grinned. “You can see the stars,” he said. And you could. They weren’t just tiny pixels, and possible encoding errors in a tiny window. It transformed the final sequence from pretty good to amazing. If you do ever hope to see your movie on the big screen (and let me assure you, that experience alone is like nothing else for a film-maker), do spend the time to make the highest quality render you can possibly manage. The difference is worth it.

Set-up for first screening in screen 3. That's my laptop with Monad on down there in the midst of that.

Much of the credit for how well everything turned out has to go to three people, Joe, Claire and John, our projectionists. I’d never realised how complicated it is running a projection booth. They really got things looking at their best, and drove the sound system to make the best of the audio I gave them, swapping in different amps, different patches, different filters and different combinations of speakers.

However, their finest moment came when we blew up the analog to digital converter with a rather loud explosion (at the end of No Licence, wouldn’t you know it), and we lost all the sound. I sprinted to the projection booth, and within 30 seconds they’d swapped the blown one out, replugged the entire sound system, and had us back up and running by the start of the next film. Apparently the audience provided their own sound effects and music during the silence – I wish I’d been there to see it! Still, 98% of films screened without a hitch – not bad for a first festival.

Chief projectionist Joe setting up the sound system on screen 2. That huge thing on his left is the 1080p digital projector.

Spending several days in the projection booth has been a fascinating experience. That place is hot*, airless, noisy, and full of exciting toys. They seem to have every kind of projector and sound device known to man. Reels of film are everywhere. (Happiest moment: holding a huge reel which contained a print of the 1933 Frankenstein.) And into the middle of that lot went my little laptop.

The projection room: on my right, screen 2, on the left, screen 1 and its monster 70mm projector, and screen 3 in the far distance.

Connecting the laptop wasn’t straightforward either. Everything was temperamental. After the first screening, we set everything up ready for the second one, then powered down the laptop. 25 minutes before, we fired it up again, and then discovered that the aspect ratio was all wrong, and the digital projector no longer recognised the preset we’d put in place.** So we got it running properly again, tested it again, and everything was OK. Next we got the mics in the cinema working so Saint could do his intro, and then, just in a moment of paranoia, rechecked the video, and to our horror discovered that we had no sound. More panic replumbing of the sound system ensued, more kit swapped in and out, but we had no way to tell Saint we had a problem, and the screening started. And literally as Saint said the words, “OK, roll the films”, John said, “we’re good to go,” Joe brought down the house lights, switched over the projector to the laptop output, I hit the play button, and everything worked perfectly. Nobody knew except us. It’s non-stop seat of your pants stuff, and these guys just coped. Awesomely.

Proper film: Bicycle Thieves showing on Screen 1.

After several days of this, I’m now thoroughly exhausted, but very, very happy. The films looked good, and I'm extremely proud of what we all did. We got good reactions from the audiences, and the screenings and workshops all got 5-star reviews. We got coverage for machinima in the national press, television, and specialist film & animation press, and we've made a lot of new people take notice of machinima and want to get involved. Most importantly, we changed a lot of people's minds. On Friday, nobody knew who we were or what we were doing. By yesterday, we'd earned their respect by showing them that machinima is a serious form of animation, and that machinimators are just as talented, dedicated and creative as any of the other film-makers there. A lot of people became genuinely interested in what we in the machinima community are all about and how we have the potential to change things from grass-roots level, and they want to get involved. That, for me, has made the Cambridge Film Festival a huge personal success.

But I tell you this. I swear I’m never, ever going to do this again.

Until next time.

* It didn't help that one of th air-con units died at the start of the Festival, and shutting the projection room for half a day to fix is simply isn't an option. So we baked.
** To all you Linux/Mac fan-boys, nope, you can't blame it on the fact that I'm running XP. According to Joe, this just happens when you run things off computers, and next time would I please burn everything onto a standard digital format so he can just play it off their kit.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Antics competition demonstrates film rules

Antics3D have just launched a really nifty competition for students which requires entrants to show a real understanding of cinematic composition and grammar. The challenge is to produce a short clip showing a filmmaking concept, such as the rule of thirds, the 180 degree rule, a shot-reverse-shot, etc.

This is a great idea, forcing people to think about the structure of the film rather than just the content, and could be the start of a really useful resource for all budding film-makers. Given how useful machinima is as a tool for learning how to make films, as well as a tool for making films, it will be extremely interesting to see what comes out of this.


It's Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Will I be able to resist after a day at the bar?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Short Fuze Sci-Fi winners

At long last, we've announced the winners of the Short Fuze Sci-Fi competition.
Best Clip (under 3 minutes) Best Short (3 to 10 minutes) Best Full-length (10 minutes and over) The overall winner, which we'll be showing on a big screen at the Cambridge Film Festival, was James Thorpe (aka RAFBlackAce) with his superb music video Marillion - Whatever is Wrong With You.

It was an absolute pleasure to be one of the judges for this competition. The standard was, quite honestly, breathtaking. There are people out there doing things with Moviestorm that I didn't believe possible, and their work is an inspiration to me and to others. Your imagination and ingenuity is astonishing, and the stylistic range covered by the different entries was completely unexpected.

Thank you to everyone who entered, and congratulations to the winners and runners up.


It's exciting times in Mongoose World right now.

I just got back from the Picturehouse, where we did the final tests of the Cambridge Film Festival machinima stuff. Damn, it looks good on a big screen. Really, seriously, good. Even though I've seen all the films at least half a dozen times now, I'm going to be right there in the audience just to get the experience of watching machine cinema writ large. The festival kicks off in a few hours, and I'm going to set up home in the Picturehouse for a few days, hoping to meet as many of you as possible.

And yesterday was just unbelievable. I've had people I haven't heard from in years contacting me to tell me they'd seen me on BBC news, on ITV news, and on the BBC Web site. I spent all day being swamped by investors, technology partners, media companies and journalists enthusing about Moviestorm, wanting to know more, and itching to get home and try it for themselves. Now I'm being asked to go all over the place and talk about Moviestorm, from schools to TV companies, major corporations, and indie film groups.

It's like my little baby is growing up. Personally and professionally, I've never felt more excited or fulfilled. I can see a huge future for machinima, and a huge future for Moviestorm within that.

And at the same time, I'm somehow finding the time to write my own films, even if I haven't got around to shooting them, which is an immense source of pleasure. The knowledge that I could shoot them gives me encouragement. When the frenzy dies down a bit, I'll move out of Celtx and back into Moviestorm.

To everyone who's helped, encouraged, criticised, nagged, or just cheered from the sidelines: thanks for making this happen. Let's carry on changing the world of film.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How cool is machinima?

The BBC is showcasing cool new technology, and is asking for your votes.

Moviestorm is one of them, which makes me feel like the last four years of work have definitely been worth it.

It'd make us even happier if we won. Please show us your support.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Six hours of 720p

When I agreed to sort out all the films for CFF, I had little idea what I was letting myself in for. After all, I've shown machinima countless times. You just line up all the films in a folder, rename them 01_blah, 02_blah, and so on to make sure they're in the right order. fire up VLC, and just hit play one after the other.

It's not quite like that when you're doing a cinema screening, though. The audience doesn't want to see a Windows screen, and they certainly don't want to watch you flicking between Explorer and VLC, then flipping into full screen each time. They expect a proper show. It's what they've paid for.

One option was to burn everything onto a DVD, and just run it off that. This sounded like a really good idea until I realised that all the hi-def pieces would be shown at something rather less than their best quality. Since we have a top-end HD projector and a huge screen to play with, I really wanted to push the quality as far as possible And, since DVD software is very picky about what aspect ratios and frame rates it will handle, I'd have to convert pretty well every single movie anyway.

I opted instead to build each screening as a single film of between 75 and 90 minutes, complete with opening and closing titles and a title screen before each film, and then just play that off the computer plugged straight into the projector. This seemed like a sensible idea, until the reality of dealing with 50-odd movies began to hit. What was sitting on my hard disk was an assortment of films in different file formats (wmv, mp4, mov, avi, and dv), different codecs, different frame rates, different aspect ratios, and different resolutions. At this point Premiere threw a complete wobbly. It refused to read some of the files at all, others had video but no audio, and some just came out as a blurry mess. (Yes, yes, Final Cut Pro and a Mac, I know!)

So, many hours with a transcoder later, I managed to get everything into Premiere, then resized everything so it would fit as nicely as possible into a 1280x720 frame. Some pieces just slotted straight in, others end up as widescreen (Red vs Blue, for example), and some end up as a 4:3 frame in the centre. Then, after a manic paranoid backing up session, I finally hit render for the first time.

Each screening takes about 20-26 hours to render. Well, we are talking 100,000+ frames of high-definition video, all of which has to be decoded, resized, its frame rate changed, and recoded. It's not a small job. It's a nerve-wracking time, as you pray that it's not going to crash or the power go out, and only when it's complete do you get to find out how well it came out. Even checking the finished thing is exhausting: you have to watch like a hawk for unwanted artifacts, typos in the titles, and bad clipping, and if it goes wrong, you have to wait for the current render to finish, then spend two minutes in Premiere correcting the mistake and another twenty-odd hours waiting.

So far, it's all looking good, and I can't wait to see this on the big screen next week. But I don't think I want to go through this ever again, unless someone gives me an enormous bank of seriously powerful computers and several minions.

To anyone who's ever organised a film festival - you have my utmost respect.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Outdoor movies at CFF

Punting on the Cam is jolly fun, they say. Well, yes, it is. Especially at night, with movies thrown in.

"Isn't the idea of watching short films, sitting in a punt, wrapped in blankets and sipping champagne lovely?"

Last week, after filming an interview for ITV Anglia, the Cambridge Film Fest organisers dragged us off, along with some press, on a mystery punt tour along the Cam. Every so often, we slowed alongside a screen, and watched a short film, then floated off into the darkness to the sound of owls and waterfowl. The films themselves were a slightly odd choice, but it all added up to a unique film-watching experience. Official Festival blogger Rosy Hunt describes it much better than me. (Well, she was taking notes.)

It's well worth considering if you're around during the festival, especially as they throw in champagne and nibbles. Two words of advice though.
  1. Wrap up warm. It gets bloody cold on the river at night.
  2. Don't have two pints of beer just before getting on board. There are no toilets on a punt, no convenient landing stages until the end, and peeing in the river is generally frowned upon in mixed company.

Welcome to the blogosphere, David!

After being badgered by all and sundry for about a year to get blogging, Moviestorm head honcho David Bailey has finally got himself a blog.

His musings on machinima, and what it means, make worthwhile reading. Take a look, and you'll see why Dave and I love working with this guy.

He has some pretty pictures, too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Creative feedback loop

How machinima has helped me write prose fiction

About 40 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a writer. All through school I wrote short stories, and came to the conclusion that I was a lousy playwright and a worse poet. But I still dreamt of being a novelist, until I was about 17 or 18. I used to show my juvenile works to a guy I knew who was a writer. Not a particularly good one, and certainly not famous, but he was at least a professional who would give me the time of day. One day, after critiquing some points of style, he launched into me in a way that stopped me dead in my tracks.

"What makes you think you have a damn thing to say that anybody would want to listen to? What have you done in your life that makes you think you know anything at all about people? Have you ever experienced love? Loss? Triumph? Why don't you wait until you have something to say, and then maybe you'll write something worth reading?"

Ouch. Harsh, but fair. So I set out to find those things.

In many ways, even though I haven't written that novel yet, I've been a writer ever since. I was a journalist for ages, writing about subjects as diverse as African politics, cookery, music, motorsport, technology, film, and computer games. I've written material for RPGs, wargames, computer games, and history magazines. I've written more Web site copy than I can recall. I write business plans, presentations, contracts, user documentation and software specifications. I've written song lyrics, haiku, CD cover notes. (And I did that machinima book.) It wasn't always exciting stuff, but it helped me develop clarity, economy, and the understanding of how to write for different audiences in different voices - and I got paid for nearly all of it. And, perhaps most importantly from the point of view of being a professional writer, how to write fast and hit a deadline.

And recently, I've started to write screenplays, purely so that I could film them for my own pleasure. The biggest breakthrough for me was reading William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. (If you're into films and haven't read it, do. Seriously.) His technique for writing scripts changed the way I approached everything. Screenplays aren't about the dialogue. They're about describing to the director what the audience sees on the screen, and how they feel about what they see, and how they interpret what they see. When you read a Goldman script, you can already see the film in your head. It's like reading a well-written comic script, where we writer describes each panel in detail. At one point I was quite friendly with various of the 2000AD scriptwriters, and it was interesting to compare the different styles in which they communicated their ideas to the artists.

As I started to apply Goldman's methods to my screenwriting, I started to detect an interesting synergy between the filming and the writing. As a writer, I'd begun to think like a director. I was thinking visually, about how things would look on the screen, about how the camera moved, how the edits worked, and I was putting that into my screenplays. As a director, I'd begun to understand the relationship between the way stories are carried through both spoken and non-spoken elements. I've had to think about where I want to focus my audience's attention, and how to convey emotion without resorting to simply saying how people feel. Doing voice production has made me think about how people talk, and how the same words can carry so many different subtexts through subtle emphasis and inflection. Doing sound design has made me think about the way that music can completely change the feeling of a scene.

Through machinima, I've had to understand that stories aren't about the plot, or the words people say to each other, they're about how making the audience feel that they're actually there, and that they care about what the characters are going through. Yes, it's Creative Writing 101, but knowing it, understanding it, and being able to do it are different stages of the process.

And then, this weekend, I sat down and wrote a short story for the first time in about twenty years. With some trepidation I sent it to various people for their criticisms. The comment that pleased me most was this:

"You have a knack for painting a scene, for manipulating words to the point I feel as though I just watched a movie when it's over."

What I seem to have here is a very positive creative feedback loop. Making machinima, even just unpublished test pieces, has got me thinking about a whole new way of telling stories using sound and moving images. That, in turn, has made me develop my screenwriting skills so that I could express those sounds and images through words. And now, I've taken that back into prose fiction, and am learning how to write so that my readers can see and hear what I'd want them to see and hear if they were watching a film. Which, in turn, will help me write better screenplays, and make better movies - I hope!

I don't claim to be a good writer yet. I know how good I want to be. And I know I'm still a long way from being the director I want to be. But I'm fascinated by the way that making machinima has made a real difference to the way I write stories as well as screenplays. Perhaps it's something that more writers could learn from. Perhaps it's another of those roles that machinima will one day slip into.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my story and tell me exactly what they thought of it. It's all appreciated, especially the tough love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mongoose vs Cobra

Vicious little beasties, mongooses.

Apparently, mongooses have receptors for acetylcholine that, like the receptors in snakes, are shaped so that it is impossible for snake neurotoxin venom to attach to them. Research is being done to determine if similar mechanisms protect the mongoose from hemotoxic snake venoms. How damn cool is that, eh?

What are (film) schools for?

Fascinating post by Mike Jones over at Digital Basin about the relationship between film schools and the film industry.

Should Film Schools service the 'industry'? Cater to its demands and provide it with what the school perceives the industry needs...? Or Should Film Schools lead the industry? Challenge it, change it, reshape and guide it...? In other words, Should Film Schools be the forward scouts leading the industry or the rear-guard supporting the industry.
Of course, I never went to film school. I'm completely self-taught, so I have no direct experience of either the professional or educational side of the film world. However, it's a very similar debate to how universities should teach games, which I have been involved with. On the one side, they are under pressure to turn out graduates ready to go into the games industry, but on the other they want to teach people to break new ground and help drive the industry forward. It's much the same with other arts subjects: should art schools be teaching graphic designers to create cornflakes packets or to be challenging, independent, and original, even if this makes them unemployable?

There are serious problems with both these approaches. I've been grappling with them for about five years now, ever since getting peripherally involved in some aspects of higher education, and it's become more and more important to me, professionally and personally, as we start getting Moviestorm into schools, universities, and film schools. What should we be teaching our kids?

The dilemma is this:

If you try and churn out industry-ready junior staff, you risk stifling their talent and originality, and you have a real problem knowing what to teach them in a fast-moving technical world. When I worked on the games course at NSAD, the hardware and software that is now standard in the industry didn't even exist at the start of the first year: there was no PS3, and no Wii. As a result, they'd trained on platforms and with techniques that were obsolescent by the time they were sending out CVs. In my view, you learn on the job far more, and far faster, than you learn by studying for three years. Compare that to the hot-house training establishments in India and China where they give you seriously intensive training for six months for one very specific role - using Maya to create faces, for example - and then you're ready to go straight into the industry as a character artist, totally up to speed with current generation tools and techniques. Imagination isn't important - just the ability to deliver good quality product on time to a tight brief and fit in with a team.

On the other hand, if we do teach people to design amazing new game concepts or direct controversial movies or design immense public buildings, we may well be wasting their time and giving them false hope. When they go into the real world, they'll probably find that their actual job is to load a camera on a reality TV show, build part of the map for the fourth mission of a low-budget FPS, or do the plans for my loft conversion. And frankly, as an employer, I don't necessarily want to hire a visionary to work on my project - I want to hire someone who will fall in with my vision of what we're building and just do the job I need them to do. There can be nothing more dispiriting than coming out of three years' training with the verve and the desire to change the world and then realise that you're never going to get that chance.

As a teacher, I want to expand my students' horizons and help them reach their potential.
As an employer, I want schools to provide me with the staff I need.
As a parent, I want my kids to get an education and a job and be happy.

Those aren't necessarily compatible.

The only answer I can come up with - for the UK, at least - is to scrap the current philosophy of treating all education the same. We don't need to turn every poly or art school into a university or A levels in how to sell beds. Bring back apprenticeships, and expect employers to take on some of the burden of training staff rather than expecting the state and the individual to furnish them with ready-made employees. (We might even revive some notion of loyalty to one's staff then, if we actually invest in them.)

Why not make a distinction between places where you learn a trade and places where you learn a craft? Make it clear from the start - to students and industry alike - whether you are training for a job or learning to think. Let some places lead, and others follow.

The world needs both.