Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013, 4:29 PM
I really like the new Channel TEN comedy/drama series Mr and Mrs Murder. I like the premise, of the crime scene clean-up crew noticing clues that were missed by the Police and figuring out who the killer was. I like the characters, a married couple (Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart as Charlie and Nicola Buchanan) who adore each other and have fun and silly conversations, and who drag their niece (Jess, played by Lucy Honigman) in to their schemes as their unwitting accomplice. I like the distinctive environments where each murder takes place.
But there is much that I don't like, and those things kind of ruin it for me. So much potential to be a really good original show, that would even work internationally, but they mess it up in too many places.
The biggest problem for me is that there's no sense of jeopardy. When you have two people who are overstepping their bounds in a criminal investigation, there really ought to be consequences. Admittedly the Detective, who has a soft spot for Nicola, and recognises their abilities as amateur sleuths, gives them free rein, carte blanche, all-access pass, but the suspects ought to be somewhat less forthcoming with spilling their guts to strangers who have no right to be where they are, doing what they're doing, questioning who they're talking to. There have been a couple of cursory scenes in two or three episodes where they've been lightly confronted, but they still get the answers they seek too easily.
The murderer has to be engineering it so that they cannot be fingered as the culprit; constructing lies, alibis, and misdirection that puts the Police off their scent, but such that an outsider with a fresh point of view would not be distracted and can see through their web of deceit. Instead we are presented with four suspects, and they just go about their business like nothing happened. They don't seem affected by the murder, don't seem to be afraid for their own lives when there's a killer on the loose, don't seem to be actively trying to deflect the investigation that would reveal their guilt, and instead are just sitting around under the bold assumption that nobody is going to ask them any questions.
Now what the hell are the Police doing while this is going on? They wander around in the background of the crime scene at the very start of each episode, if you're lucky, and they seem to be there to arrest the guilty party at the very end, but apart from that they seem to be completely absent, coming across as lazy, incompetent boobs who aren't doing any groundwork that real investigators do. They need to have some kind of interaction with Charlie and Nicola, an opportunity for them to pick up new clues, overhear conversations, swap information, just enough for it to look like the Police are actually doing some work. Having the Detective, Peter, occasionally appear to moon over Nicola and then tell them lists of stuff isn't enough, it's too cheap and easy an exposition tactic, and feels clumsy at best.
The pacing is all wrong. This is not the fault of the writing, I don't think, which is generally pretty decent, especially the dialogue. Instead I think it's something that can easily be fixed in Post Production, in the editing and the music. When you're dealing with a drama like this, there needs to be stakes. You have to feel that if the murderer isn't found they may strike again, they may even attack the investigators who are getting too close to the truth. The audience has to feel like there may be danger at any turn. You can do this with careful editing, that increases the urgency, builds up tension, shows facts that cause the audience to fear for the protagonists' lives as they go about their amateur investigating. Editing shots faster, lots of close ups not showing faces, shadows and footsteps, a sense of close pursuit, music that builds tension to a climax where they finally discover, and then directly confront, the murderer. Then a short denouement where they tie up the loose ends, explain some of the plot twists, and relax after a job well done.
Too often the pacing was on an even boring keel. No sense of adventure, excitement, or risk. No confrontation. Too often a line of dialogue was something like "I think I know who did it!" and then they cut to a shot of the bad guy being carted away in cuffs. No confronation, no demand for an explanation, no confession. Pathetic.
On an unrelated but equally annoying note, the opening titles really bother me. I like what they're going for, comic book style graphics, with nice plinky-plunk detective type music, but the images don't match to the rhythm of the music, and it really annoys me. All they needed was for title text and comic book frames to appear on the beats, for the animation of the images to be in actual perspective instead of randomly sliding around, and with a sense of storytelling (and maybe if the likenesses of the characters were slightly more accurate) I would be giving them high praise, but what they've actually got is just frustratingly inept and poorly directed.
Now I'm not an especially good writer, and have no real professional experience. And to be perfectly honest I don't think it's the writing that is at fault, it's clever, original, funny, and is expertly performed by the cast, so I can't blame that at all. I think it's a flaw in the directing of the pre- and post-production, establishing how the story should be played out, and how to achieve the best end result with what you've got in the can.
If there's a second series, I hope they pay attention to these factors. They're small, in the grand scheme of things, and easily addressable. And if they're looking for script doctors to help them out, I'm available.
EDITED TO ADD:
And then the final episode of the season plays and it addresses almost all of my concerns, including pretty much everything I was after: Jeopardy for the main characters, Police involvement, ramping up the exciting pace to a climactic conclusion, and a satisfying denouement. Brilliant stuff! If there's a second series, just do more like that, please.
Posted Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 10:36 PM
There's a risk when you get onto your film set, that you adhere too closely to the ideas you have had churning in your head for so long. Once you've decided that you want, for example, a shot of the actor's feet, a pan up to their waist where they are holding an object, and then up to their head where they have a steely glint in their eye before they exit out of shot, you are determined that you will get that shot by hook or by crook. So you build a rig for your camera that can make the move, you position your actor in just the right angle, you wait for the sunlight to be perfect, your camera operator practices the shot over and over, until finally you film it... and it ends up looking a bit wobbly, out of focus, and you can't even see who it is and what's going on. The shot you thought was going to be so cool turns out to be crap, a waste of time that never makes the final cut.
You have to go onto set with alternative plans, an open mind, be prepared to change everything at the drop of a hat. An idea, perhaps suggested by the location, the time of day, or a whim that your first assistant makes up on the spot, could mean your entire morning is rearranged to accommodate for it. If it's a better idea, then be ready to drop everything and go for it.
A few days before going on set for my Steampunk short film, Eleanor Xandler: Temporal Detective, I drew up some storyboards of about half the shots I had planned. Each one also was intended to have a close up and a wide, and additional shots from the 'B' camera, but broadly the plan was for them to stay the same angle with the same action as I had boarded.
Here are some of the completed shots alongside their storyboard. It just goes to show, when I have a good idea, I stick to it.
Posted Sunday, January 13, 2013, 12:10 PM
I first saw Photoshop when it came free on a coverdisc on a magazine and my friend Dion installed it on his PC, back in the early 90s. He thought that I, as an artist, would find it useful to create some of the artwork required for our little projects. But after opening it up I was mightily confused. This was probably version 2.0, and it did not come with a manual (before the Internet, before PDFs, physical books were the only way manuals were provided). I was completely lost by the multitude of buttons, tools, menus, and icons. Where do I even begin? So for the first couple of times I scribbled colourful swirls and then just sat there. I couldn't figure out how to do straight lines, the mouse had no easy way to draw like a pen, and so clumsily I moved the pointer around a few times, achieving nothing.
It was about five years before I opened up Photoshop again. I had just been hired as a website designer for the first time, and I was completely new to the specifics of that job. I was hired solely on my artistic abilities and my familiarity with computers, but had no specific experience with HTML or Photoshop graphics. So I was allowed about two months just to familiarise myself with both those things.
Now I had a purpose for using Photoshop. I was given a Wacom drawing tablet, and with a goal in mind could go through all the steps to achieve an image. How do I create a box with round corners and highlighted edges? How do I create a drop shadow, a gradient, or coloured text? This was version 4.0 of Photoshop, so certain things did not exist yet - no multiple Undo, no auto dropshadow and glow (known as Layer Styles), no Batch Actions. But I had a manual, I had a few excellent quality guide books, and a mailing list of Professionals including some Adobe employees, all of whom were really helpful.
And the key to using Photoshop effectively is understanding layers. Unlike drawing or painting, where you're stuck with a single sheet of canvas or paper to just pile stuff on top of itself, with Photoshop you have individual layers which you can move, erase, recolour, distort, fade transparency; an infinite amount of adjustment, for each individual small part that you choose. It's a fantastic way to create.
Over the years I've learned a lot more about Photoshop, that there are multiple ways to achieve the same thing, that each subsequent version adds features that make some jobs a lot easier, it integrates better with Adobe's sister-products, and evolves and adapts to be useful for new technologies.
And one day I had to learn to use another of Adobe's products, called After Effects. When I first used it, I didn't understand just how powerful it could be. It seemed like a fewer-featured Photoshop. But in fact its role, to composite different video elements together for Visual Effects, requires such specific tools that comparing it with Photoshop is futile. After Effects is its own thing, and arguably even more powerful.
But one similarity, that it uses even more effectively than Photoshop, is its use of Layers.
I am slowly working my way through each shot for my Steampunk short film, "Eleanor Xandler: Temporal Detective," mostly in chronological order, and have just completed one of the most complicated shots of them all. And that's because it's a shot I didn't actually film on the shoot day. I realised, after looking at the rough edit, that there were a couple of shots that I really needed in order to transition from one shot to another effectively, and I had not thought ahead enough to have filmed those shots, so I wondered if I could make them up using what I could find amongst the clips I had.
One particular shot was from after I had called "Cut!" and the actress playing Eleanor, Sarah Breen, looked over to me to check if I was happy. That glance was all I needed to convey what was required, so I had now found my missing shot. Simple. But there was another shot I needed that was vastly more epic, and luckily this is where shooting on greenscreen, and having plenty of Behind-The-Scenes photography, each come in handy.
I wanted an Establishing Shot, one that shows the audience the location where the scene takes place, and orients them to where the characters are standing in relation to each other. I hadn't thought to film such a shot, because in my head I knew where everyone was. But that's not good enough, because of course I know, it's my story. I know plenty of things that the audience do not, it's my job to make sure all of those things are conveyed where necessary, be it through dialogue, performances, or editing. So now I had to create a shot that told everyone where my two characters were actually standing.
And where they're standing is in a huge dark smoky warehouse, filled with junk and decorated by 1880s style structural architecture. I had to create an over-the-shoulder shot of Eleanor entering through large doors, pointing her weapon at the Professor who was at the far end of the building, all while showing off how large and beautiful the warehouse was.
The warehouse 3D model had already been built, as an exterior and in preparation for all the interior shots that I was going to composite, but only in a limited fashion. Only build what you need, as anything more is just going to slow down the process. Well, now I had to expand on that, as this additional unplanned angle meant more of the warehouse would now be seen. I added in extra features, including a spiral staircase, an extra wall, a couple of piles of junk, and additional detail on the interior skylight roof.
During the shoot I had a B Camera, which is a second camera recording the shots from different angles and framing, giving me extra footage I can cut to should I need it. One of those shots was almost an over-the-shoulder of Eleanor, except from the wrong side, and that section of it was only 30 frames long. I needed 100 frames at least, but I clipped the shot out, flipped it to match the angle, and then stretched and reversed the shot a couple of times to extend its length. This can sometimes be glaringly obvious, I've seen reversed shots in feature films before and there's a few physics giveaways that you can spot sometimes (a turn or a blink in reverse looks slightly peculiar) so in order to hide the trick I made sure the part of the shot that was Eleanor would be completely out of focus with the depth of field.
In the far distance is the Professor. None of the shots I had of the Professor were full length, they all cut off at his knees or higher. Extremely luckily there was a single photo taken amongst the Behind-The-Scene images which included the Professor's legs, so I grabbed that, flipped and scaled them to match, and then animated them to match his movement, which wasn't much but still had to be done.
Unfortunately the angle of the Professor shot didn't match the perspective I needed, which was most obvious with the Console Panel he was standing at. So I had to replace the console with another BTS photo, which meant I had to cut around the Professor's arm (a technique called Rotoscoping) so that it looked like he was manipulating the controls accurately. The side of the console prop also has no surfacing, so I had to fill in that blank as well.
The warehouse is full of smoke, steam, and dust, because this is Steampunk and that's what the goggles are for, so I had to layer in not just multiple instances of atmosphere, just like if there had been a smoke machine on set, but I also had to include the shafts of sunlight that came through the door and skylight.
Couple all that stuff with the camera move, which is a pan down from skylight to Professor, that I had to track and match, it makes for a very complicated shot that should, in viewing it, go by quickly and seamlessly, and convey exactly what I wanted, that the space of the building is so big, and this where the characters are standing.
Posted Friday, October 26, 2012, 11:20 AM
There are flaws with this approach. When it's been done before in the past it has had a spotty success, and this is from professionals who really know what they're doing. Films like Sky Captain, the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and King Kong, all have at least some greenscreen in every single shot, and a few environments that are entirely digital from top to bottom - and yet, to me, it's somehow glaringly obvious. Something about the compositing, the lighting, the staging, the artificiality, I'm not sure what, gives it away, at least to me. Even Avatar was convincing only a few times.
This gives me hope. My compositing skills are not ever going to be at professional level quality, but as, apparently, that can be a bit dodgy at the best of times I am in good company.
The first artificial background I have begun creating is for the opening sequence. I figure chronological order is as good a place to start as any. This means a cloud-filled sky, and a Steampunk Airship called The Wandering Star.
After filming was complete I began to model the final version, carefully going through it step by step to include as much detail as I could. My normal approach to 3D modelling is to be a bit slapdash, to save time, cutting corners where things won't be seen, trying to find short-cuts to achieve the look I'm after. But this time I couldn't afford to be so cheap with my attention, and tried to give the model all the detail it needed, even if it meant hours of just pushing points around in a mundanely dull fashion.
Posted Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 9:56 PM
It was a long time coming. I have helped out on other films for the last twenty years, off and on, in both small and large capacities. An aborted attempt at helming my own a few years ago discouraged me a bit, but at long last I finally committed to an idea that really spoke to me as being a decent bit of fun, and last weekend I went ahead and directed my very first film shoot.
Leading up to the shoot day I was not at all nervous, and that surprised me. I was concerned that I'd forget something, and I wasn't entirely confident that people would listen to me and do what I ask of them, but it turned out those worries only led me to take extra care and do things right. By knowing my film sideways and backwards I had a clear picture of what I wanted, which meant I could answer questions with precision, and present myself as confident and focused. That seemed to cause everyone to respond, and led to a fast shoot, a fun day, and a creative atmosphere.
It did help that most of the crew were already friends of mine who trusted me, but there were a couple of other things that really helped me along. The costume design by Alex Chambers of Clockwork Butterfly was exquisite, and the props built by Adam Gill were perfect. That combination, when seen on my actors Sarah Breen and Phil Zachariah, as they recited their lines in the first takes, brought my vision to life, and everybody on set could see now what I was trying to create. It proved to them, and more importantly to myself, that I could do this.
I was on my feet all day. Every time I sat down, not two minutes later I was called away to something new. I had to prepare a few shots ahead at every step, I had to make sure all my crew were doing what they needed to do, knew what they needed to know, and were as busy as they needed to be, to keep them alert, interested, and informed. And it seemed to work.
I had a lot of fun, and it was strangely compelling to be in charge, something I've never felt comfortable with in the past. I think in my heart I am a co-Director, and would also love to be a co-Writer, but stepping up to the plate to take full charge is now something else I think I can do occasionally.
I will be editing a rough cut of the footage over the next couple of weeks, and then preparing the assets for the backgrounds over the coming months. A greenscreen shoot means every single shot has to be composited in, and that's potentially fifty different images and animations. It sounds like a lot, but really it's only three distinct "locations" I have to build - the airship, the exterior of the building, and the interior of the building. There are a few additional special effects like the Time Vortex and the weapons powering up, but they'll be relatively straightforward I think.
It's all in hand. I am confident I can do everything I have set before me, and have people to help when it starts to get complicated or falls into zones I'm less familiar with. This is finally happening.
Posted Sunday, June 17, 2012, 10:53 PM
Steampunk means different things to different people. Indeed, to a large chunk of the viewing public it doesn't mean anything at all, as they have no idea what you're talking about. But to the geeks who are into it, it's a kind of retro-style science fiction that has great appeal.
Based on the Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs era of adventure stories, it stems from a time when steam, clockwork, and airships dominated technology and therefore influenced their futurism. Aeroplanes, cars, and computers weren't easy for the writers to imagine, so they tended to just extrapolate from what they knew. Now it comes across as antiquated, but nonetheless quite stylish, and the naivete of their predictive tales have a compelling charm.
The key element for modern Steampunk adventure seems to be entirely aesthetic. You have to get the look right first, then after that the story fits within. The plot doesn't necessarily have to revolve around steam, though the limits of the technology of the time can play a part. But even that doesn't always apply, as new tech will have evolved to fill in some gaps. So you might have a road vehicle of sorts, but it will travel at 30mph and need a refill of coal instead, or there may only be airships, but they're small, efficient, and as manoeuvrable as a helicopter.
Many times I have thought about how I'd do Steampunk, given the opportunity, and I have devised a base that I think it would need to follow on from. First, the internal combustion engine doesn't get invented, so that means the aeroplane doesn't get invented either, nor cars, diesel or electric trains, and any sea-going steamships are limited in speed.
Then what if WWI doesn't occur. That would mean certain changes in attitudes that happened after are no longer initiated; which would be compounded further if there were no WWII either, as it was an era where views on equality and racism started to change. So if those huge world events never occurred, that would mean many old-fashioned attitudes would still linger.
But having said that, if we were to set the story in our own current year, via a Steampunk history, there would still be sociological development, and a certain amount of modern attitude would inevitably happen no matter what was different in the recent past, which opens up the world to strong-willed dynamic female characters, even if a lot of sexism still remains.
Also, a steam and coal based history means we still need to utilise horses for much of our transport needs, and therefore cobblestones would remain common. The smoke would cause all sorts of havoc to the climate, forming a thick grey cloud layer, leaving a grimy scum on water and every other surface, and an acrid everpresent stink of smoke and oil.
People would therefore dress accordingly, hence the prevailing popularity in Steampunk of thick wool and leather coats, goggles, and sturdy boots. The adherence of a Victorian fashion sensibility doesn't necessarily make sense unless you keep the story set in the era of the late 1800s or early 1900s, so many stories remain in that era, but my approach of no World Wars, which had sparked such changes as trousers for women, and fabrics developed for comfort and practicality, would explain why those never develop in my Steampunk universe.
A year or so ago, I was thinking about what it would take to make a short Steampunk film, and the problem that stopped me from proceeding was the need to find a lot of very specific stylish costumes for the characters, and very specific kinds of locations that would require a lot of props and expensive set designs.
But having recently completed a lot of 3D backgrounds for a short film that was shot entirely on greenscreen, the realistic results buoyed me somewhat and convinced me that we don't always need a real location to achieve a believable quality image. And as time goes on and our skills and equipment improve it only gets easier.
As much as real locations always look better than anything wholly artificial, I believe that if I do it right I can create something believable enough we can get away with it. Shadows, depth of field, and a great foreground to draw the eye will help hide the digital nature of our sets.
And so I have decided that my next production will be a Steampunk short film. We've already begun pre-production. I will be Directing, my first time at that most important of roles. In the past I've only ever been anonymous crew or post-production. I have sort of semi-co-Directed with my mate Rob on some little productions, but really it wasn't much more than as an assistant-poke-my-nose-in with no real responsibilities to stress me out, so this will be a whole new experience for me. I have tried to Direct once before, but I was discouraged by the rigmarole of preparing that shoot, things just never worked out the way they should've. Locations are harder to find, not only because people demand some kind of money for the use of them, but also the higher restrictions on what you can do and where you can go, due to the weird paranoid privacy issues that have evolved in the last decade.
This time, though, not only am I more confident with my own vision, I have already figured out how to work around the usual stumbling blocks we may encounter, by having a minimal number of actors, no live locations, a controlled environment, and a very short and simple shot list. I have every confidence this will work out very well.
Posted Saturday, May 19, 2012, 11:34 AM
Early last year my TV ran out of steam. It was on its last legs for quite a while, but a few kludgey fixes via my technologically minded friend Adam, and a couple of judiciously placed bangs to the case seemed to fix it, until one day nothing I did worked anymore and it was consigned to the forever after. At that point I had no job and even less money, so I just had no TV for what turned out to be around 8 months, and I watched all my TV online instead. I don't actually watch that much free-to-air TV locally anyway, I download it all. It may or may not be legal, but they get more real money from my DVD purchases than they ever got from my watching an ad. Plus my watching does not affect ratings measurements, so whatever. In the end, no TV wasn't too much of a loss.
Eventually I got a new job, which is still going very well, thanks for asking, and could afford a new TV, which I purchased late in 2011; as this time it was an HD set I figured the least I should do to take advantage of that is buy a BluRay player; there certainly isn't any HD content to speak of on TV, which is ridiculous, so this is the only way to see HD in all its glory.
I made a decision pretty early on that I would buy most new movies as BluRays, unless there was no advantage from them, such as a comedy or romance, something without interesting visuals. And I would purchase only a few of my existing catalogue in BluRay, movies that I love and watch repeatedly. For the most part I have kept to that, especially when they're at affordable prices.
But it wasn't long before I began to suspect that BluRay wasn't all that special. I had always had doubts that higher resolution was all that much of an improvement over DVD, but now I saw that I was right. There is an increased sharpness, no compression artefacts, better range of gradient colours (no banding), and some extra detail in shadows, but in the overall scheme of things those are very minor improvements, and in some cases even those don't apply - the DVD copies are plenty fine. BluRay players and HDTVs both "upscale" a DVD, the higher spec components improving the image quality.
So I have made a second decision, and that is BluRay is only worth it if it's on sale. Otherwise I'll most likely get the DVD every time. If it wasn't for the fact that some BluRays have better Extra Features (a conspiracy they've implemented to encourage BluRay purchase) I wouldn't even hesitate. And these days I'm getting a bit bored with Extras as they are usually three minute sound-bite patronising self-congratulatory crap in fast cut edits. Ugh.
When they created the BluRay standard, it was competing directly with HD-DVD, a system that arguably would've had better features, but eventually capitulated under pressure from Studio support going to their competitor. I think BluRay rushed their development, and missed a lot of useful features that could've made the system robust and future-proofed. Instead they concentrated only on slightly more dynamic interactive menus and stupid interfering crap.
Here are a few things wrong with BluRays:
- When one starts, it asks for a language setting. That should be a default setting in the player, so the disc automatically plays in the language of choice, instead of just sitting there waiting for input.
- Many BluRay discs have copy protection, which slows down startup to sometimes as much as five or six minutes of pissing about. I don't know what it's actually doing, but it's the most annoying crap ever. Plus copy protection is a waste of time, it doesn't stop the Pirates and only inconveniences the legitimate buyer. Just stop it, already.
- Trailers are still sometimes unskippable. Fuck that.
- There should be a way for the player to detect the current date, and change the trailers to adjust their "Only In Theatres" to "Now Available On Disc" after six months.
- After the second time you've played the disc, the trailers don't need to play automatically anymore. Or those stupid disclaimers. Or any of the other crap that clutters up startup of a disc. We've seen them already, no need to subject us to them forever.
- BluRays have 25GB of space on the disc, single layer. A Dual-Layer disc has 50GB. You could store two entire seasons of a TV show each made up of 22 x 42m episodes, in 720p HD, and yet the box-sets come on as much as five discs per season. It's bullshit designed to make it seem like you're getting what you're paying for, but it's just an absurd hassle to be forced to get up and swap discs all day.
- BD-LIVE is a joke. You need an absurdly good internet connection for downloading, which I do not, and a home theatre system that works in tandem reliably, which is an almost impossible task, and in the end all you get out of it is nothing anybody could possibly find entertaining.
- The image is prettier.
- The menus are easier to use, though they are a little bit confusing occasionally.
- If you want 3D, this is the only format that can do it. But 3D is a fool's errand.
- Apparently the sound is better. I am not very good with audio so I can't tell.
- That's about it.
HDMI, which is the cable connections between an HDTV and the BluRay player, via the AV Receiver as the main unit, makes for interactivity between all the devices. I can turn the TV on and my AV Receiver will turn on and switch to the optimum settings I've preset. I turn on the BluRay player, and the AV and TV turn on. Same when I turn one off. At first I had bought a universal remote to do all that, but turns out I didn't need to, and in fact it was more annoying than just swapping remotes anyway. Plus I can adjust things like channels and audio on one remote because of how HDMI works.
I download a lot of TV, and they come in two formats. It used to be only AVI, compressed in DivX, but recently they've added MP4, compressed in H264, which makes for smaller file sizes, faster downloads, and better quality image. However, there's a problem. The only way to reliably watch the AVIs on my TV is to save them to a USB stick and watch them through my BluRay player. Whereas the only way to watch the MP4s is to connect my TV directly into the Network. Any other method for each causes glitches. This is because of the brand of my devices, in this case Panasonic. Other brands do things slightly differently.
I admit these are 21st Century Problems. I live in a future arguably better than projected by science fiction. My ability to watch any TV shows from around the world, any movies only a short few months after cinema release, under my personal control, is an incredible situation that if I could've imagined it when I was a kid would have blown my mind to smithereens. But really it is a shame that a few missteps make the whole thing that much more irritating than it needs to be.