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.