On Writing

Posted Sunday, July 27, 2008, 7:15 PM

I like to write stories. I remember the first time I realised I had the power to create any story I liked, without the limits that restrict creativity. I was ten years old, and the Teacher said we could write a story with a particular theme (in this case it was a treasure map). Up until then I always struggled to write anything, I found it a chore because the motivation was forced, and the story ideas were on subjects that didn't interest me - usually based on some dull dramatic incident I didn't care about, or even a non-fiction event that had actually happened to me that I had to dredge up and write about. Dull dull dull.

But when I began this story, I suddenly saw opportunities open up each time I wrote a new paragraph; I knew I could introduce a new character whenever I wanted, someone who then would take the story in a new direction when it needed it; I could also invent a location, so that it would look just the way I needed it to, so that certain incidents could occur to serve the story; I could have a conclusion that made a certain amount of sense and which related back to the beginning of the story; and best of all, I could add humour that was natural and real.

Now, this was when I was ten years old. The finished story was only six pages long, and wouldn't exactly set the world alight with my incredible grasp of the written word. But when the story was finished I realised a very important concept: that when you write, you can create anything you want, and have things happen in any way you want, and that kind of freedom, where you aren't restricted by the kind of rules that would mean a boring result, makes writing fun and exciting.

Throughout my teenage years I continued to write stories - some short, some long and involved - and I became quite well known for it. Most of them were silly and absurd wacky stories, inspired by my love for Spike Milligan's Goon Show, but then later, after I gained an interest in Mediaeval Fantasy, a few of my stories started to turn into epic magical adventures.

My biggest problem, though, was completing what I started. And in fact, I still have that problem.

Unfortunately I don't write very often anymore. Partly due to having no time to commit to it, and partly because I am discouraged by my lack of motivation to finish anything I start. But also because I find it hard to be inspired enough to actually commit myself to something like this. I know I really enjoy writing when I get started, so I wish I could find the time to sit down, force myself to self-motivate, and actually get something done a lot more often than I currently do. I need to lock myself away and force it out, even though I know it's not really "forced" once it starts flowing. In fact by the time it gets going, it's usually impossible to stop myself.

In the past I've written many different kinds of work: short stories; long stories; play scripts; TV scripts; movie scripts; even songs and poetry. The most fun I've had, and most motivated I've been, is usually when I am co-writing with another person, because you get to bounce ideas around, complement each other's strengths and weaknesses, and just have a laugh together. In that situation I'm happy to do the actual typing up of what we come up with, as long as I have someone to go to when we see a hole in the plot, or need a new event.

My biggest storytelling weakness is plot - I tend to be very derivative and linear and find it hard to come up with an original idea to bridge a gap. But my biggest storytelling strength is dialogue - I can move the story along with some good naturalistic conversations between characters, along with sparkles of humour. That's my belief, though it's a rare occasion when I can prove it to myself, I write so infrequently these days.

So anyway. Last week, when I was over at Rob's house after my toothy surgery, we talked about movies, as we always do, and watched a couple of DVDs. One of them was a low budget fantasy film that didn't really zing with amazing visuals, or have a particularly clever plot, and the fight scenes were uninspired. But it did have some nice character moments, and there were a couple of good ideas buried in there. However, when viewing those many flaws it made me think "I could do a better job than this!" and when Rob agreed on a few of its weak points, I was somewhat inspired to give my own version a try.

These kinds of films have very low budgets, and so can't have expensive visual effects or epic action sequences. But that doesn't matter - if it's written well enough, has some fun characters, and has the right tone, it will be looked on favourably, be handed a budget, and will be given an opportunity to be made. These films always find an audience at the local DVD rental store, and will easily make their money back. And it occurred to me that I want to be in that position - to be able to write a good enough story that it will at least get made and be watched. It's a great way to get a start in filmmaking, and even easy to make a career in it if you are willing to work in the low budget arena.

I was in something of a state of dizziness after my dental surgery, so I wasn't able to articulate myself to Rob very well that afternoon, and what I wanted to say to him was we should work together on our own fantasy film. Sit down, nut out a plot together, and write it - just for fun. But I never got the chance to articulate my idea properly, I was still a bit dazed and uncomfortable to talk properly, so after getting home, I spent a few hours thinking about what kind of movie I could write that had all the elements I like in an adventure, fit within a low budget, and was better than the one we watched. I even started noting down some plot elements, characters, situations, etc, that I would like to see.

And what amazed me is this: I looked at this list of ideas, and I thought about ways to have them fit together, and I saw a few possibilities and considered them. I saw a few ways to fill in what was missing with some more ideas. Then I assembled them together into something resembling a beginning. Suddenly, from there I saw what the next scene should be. And the next. And then I saw a middle, and a way to bridge them all together. I even saw a possible conclusion.

Next thing I knew I had enough to start writing something down, what's known as a "treatment", which is a rough but complete description of the storyline. I got about two pages into it and got stuck - I realised I had a D and an F but didn't have an E. I also had a pretty good idea what my H was going to be, so had to think about the G.

So I took a break, lay on the couch, and thought about what I'd written so far. Within an hour I had come up with ideas that filled the gaps, perfect Es and Gs, which also sorted out what my N, O and P would be. I leaped up and started filling in my alphabet even further, and was going great guns, until eventually I realised I needed a twist. I knew why the twist was needed, where it would go, and what it would involve, but not what would motivate it.

So I stopped and lay on my couch again, and just thought about what I had written so far... and this is what surprised me the most of all - I came up with something, and this is the point of this whole post, that not only worked as a twist, but fit into the beginning of the story, the middle, the ending, and, most amazing of all, even made the temporary title make sense. All of it suddenly snapped into place, worked so perfectly with each other, filled in all the plot holes I had, and completed my entire story satisfactorily. What's so odd about this is it was an idea that I came up with really late in the game, and yet now it looks like it should've been what the entire story was inspired by!

Writing is a strange beast sometimes. But it is so satisfying when it works.

Now, whether this is actually a good story I'm writing is another matter entirely. First I have to finish the treatment, I'll need to play around with some of the pacing, and then of course actually write it as a script, before I will know if it's all worth it. After that it is extremely unlikely it will actually be made (I have no illusions there. I certainly have no money to make a mediaeval fantasy movie).

But that's not the point. I'm just enjoying the act of writing. It's so much fun!

Excised From Mouth Region

Posted Wednesday, July 23, 2008, 11:07 PM

I used to have four wisdom teeth (as do most people) and two broken teeth long since impacted. I no longer have these, because this morning they were forcefully removed, ripped from my mouth, snapped and wrenched out of my skull, by a professional dental surgeon who I paid to do it for me.

Luckily I didn't feel a thing because I was knocked out with a general anaesthetic by the pleasant anaesthetist (she was a fellow Kiwi) and afterwards there was no pain because the nerves of the teeth were removed along with them, and there was no residual damage to my facial nerves that run along my jaw (near where the wisdom teeth sit). Therefore my dental surgeon clearly is a very talented and experienced man, and did an excellent job.

My friend Rob did a huge favour for me and drove me home, but with a detour to his place to supervise my immediate aftermath of the general anaesthetic and help me get my mind off the discomfort and numbness from the local anaesthetic. He had plenty of experience with hospitals himself, and his anecdotes very much reassured me that what I was going through was normal on the upper side of fortunate.

Most of the fees will be covered by my health insurance, which is great - I rarely use my insurance, as I can afford most of my rare medical procedures already anyway, and tend to think of them as a necessary part of life I should deal with my way, rather than get someone else to pay for it like a cop-out of responsibility. But as I'm paying for the insurance, then surely I should use it for big expenses like this.

Right now I'm all swollen, which is quite an uncomfortable feeling and makes me look like I have "superhero lantern jaw syndrome"; ice packs help with that. I also have to take a goodly amount of antibiotics to prevent infection, plus I have some extra strength painkillers which I hopefully will not require.

The swelling should go down in a day or so, but it does make eating challenging, so I'm not sure if I should venture out and find some suitable easily swallowable foodstuffs, or just muddle on through with what I already bought in anticipation.

So I'm a little indisposed, but not too messed up.

"Gates of Hell" gets a review

Posted Monday, July 21, 2008, 3:45 PM

Last year I did some effects for a feature length film called Gates Of Hell. It was directed by a friend of mine, Kel Dolen, and is a horror. Fairly formulaic in plot, as these things tend to be, but it has a nice twist to it.

I was asked to do the effects by my friend Rob who was already working on it, and then the effects supervisor James got a hold of me for more stuff. My official credit is as a 3D Artist, I think.

Most of my effects were for 3D graphics and "matte paintings", but I also did a couple of minor composite tricks, like extending a wall and lightning flashes. Seamless stuff, mostly. You shouldn't even know any of my shots have had any work done on them.

Anyway, there's a review of it at Aint It Cool News by local reviewer Latauro, and he liked it a lot. It was a pretty cool review, which hopefully is a sign that it may one day get a successful theatrical release. And there's a trailer for it here.


Posted Thursday, July 17, 2008, 9:08 PM

Ways to tell if someone on TV or a movie is only pretending to use the computer:

  1. They never use the mouse. Every single action seems to be done via the keyboard.
  2. Their hands barely move as they type, but their fingers go sixty to the dozen. Real typing is a system of firm key striking, a deliberate hit each time, not just a light twinkle of tapping.
  3. They never use the space bar or Shift key. They're clearly just typing gibberish with no punctuation or spaces.
  4. They never look at their fingers as they type. Even professional touch typists look down occasionally.
  5. They never make typos. All the touch typists I know make tons of errors.
  6. Backspace and delete keys? Keypad? Function keys? Never touched.
  7. The number of key hits they make never match the number of sound effects or the number of letters shown on the monitor.
Similar rules apply in faking playing musical instruments.

The Dark Knight

Posted Wednesday, July 16, 2008, 4:12 PM

I just saw The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Eric Roberts.

Holy crap! What an amazing movie!

Dark Knight is a great name for it. It's more than just a nickname used in the comics, it's really what the film is all about. It's dark, very very dark, in all meanings of the word. And it's about a White Knight versus a Dark Knight and what they mean to Gotham City. Just what has Batman's reputation as a vigilante above the law caused to happen? How have the people, and more importantly the criminal underworld, reacted to his presence? This film explores that.

It really is taking the idea of superheroes into a realistic area of analysis. In the real world if someone was crazed enough to dress up in costumes to secretly commit acts of either heroism or cruelty, there would be outrage and obsession over them. Most comic book films gloss over that, in order to tell an action packed storyline, with a prerequisite happy ending, and leaving room for potential sequels. This time Chris Nolan, the Director, has taken it to a new level, one that's been sorely missing from comic book films. And comic books themselves, really. This time it's really dealt with some of the harsher issues that a Superhero-guarded city would have to endure, in a confronting and sometimes tragic fashion.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. Dark, twisted, exciting, surprising, and thrilling. You really don't know what is going to happen as each scene unfolds. Completely unbelievably cool.

Oh, and Batmanuel in a Batman film. Surreal.

Kyle XY

Posted Tuesday, July 15, 2008, 1:34 PM

Remember Starman? It was a movie and subsequent TV show about an alien who takes over the body of a recently deceased man, and then learns all about the world. He spends most of the series (which didn't last long) trying to figure out who he is as a human, wandering around the country discovering new things about humanity, and evading pursuit from the Government.

Certain concepts from this idea have been adapted into a new show, Kyle XY. As my friend Vic said when I reminded him of Starman: "Found without a memory, fostered out, doesn't really know who or why, just that he is, and he's supersmart". Having never seen anything of Kyle XY, he got the premise 100% right first time.

Kyle wakes up in a forest, alone and naked, and possessing no navel. He has no memories, and no knowledge of who he is or much of anything at all. He possesses some rudimentary human skills, because he seems to understand and adapt rapidly. After a foster family takes him in, it is discovered he is incredibly intelligent and super smart, with mathematical abilities manifested in such ways as predicting weather, counting time, and being able to draw images almost photographically: pointillism as pixels.

It plays on a channel in the US called ABC Family, so it has a slightly "family friendly, moral-of-the-week" nature to its episodes, which is a little bit sappy, but it's not as heavy handed as was common in the 80s, and it is tempered by some nicely played characters and a compelling story arc as the mystery of Kyle unfolds.

So far I've only watched the first six episodes, but a complete second season has already been broadcast, so there are thirty-three in total so far, with a third season planned.

There have been a lot of geek-friendly SF or Fantasy TV series lately, some gaining more attention than others (Lost, Heroes, Middleman, Journeyman, Day Break, Galactica, Chuck, Reaper, Sarah Connor Chronicles) and it's great that, through means that isn't technically acceptable but nevertheless is ubiquitous and not illegal, I am able to watch these shows without having to wait for the unlikely time when they may air locally. I get to see a lot of cool entertainment that way that I would normally risk missing out on.

Firefox 3

Posted Wednesday, July 9, 2008, 7:19 PM

The problem with most applications or products is that in order to not feel stale or old fashioned, they constantly feel the need to update their features. Usually that's a great thing, as it will mean bugs get fixed, and it will keep up with other technological advances. But there are drawbacks.

Sometimes when you have found an app you love, that does everything you want and no more, you don't want it to change. And yet the people who make this app don't know that; they think all the new features they're developing are super duper cool and useful and will transform their application into genius level perfection.

I still use ACDSee version 2.43 because soon after that version they added so many useless unnecessary features it uglified it, it slowed its ability to do anything without chewing up memory, and removed some of the things I particularly like. So I'm still using the version from 8 years ago, which is fast, and efficient. After all it's just an image viewer - what more do you need than a way to view images and flick through them quickly? I'm not looking for a fancy way to "organise" my images in a freeform holistic method, that's for stupid hippy geeks, not me.

However, I have a favourite app for making HTML, called Homesite. It was developed by a company called Allaire, and it was by far one of the best applications in the world. Then Allaire sold it to Macromedia, a graphics application company in competition with Adobe, who developed things like Dreamweaver and Flash. They basically abandoned Homesite soon after purchasing Allaire and concentrated all their efforts on Dreamweaver, which I have never liked and find intently annoying. Then Macromedia got purchased by Adobe themselves, who aren't even aware of Homesite's existence. So that's it, it's been abandoned since 2002.

Unlike ACDSee and image viewing technologies, however, web technologies are constantly developing and evolving, and an HTML app needs to keep up with that. But it's not. It's left abandoned by the side of the road. It still works okay doing what it's always done, but as DHTML, XML, PHP, CSS, and Javascript evolve, Homesite is left further and further behind, incapable of adapting to them. Total suck.

Which brings me to my point. Firefox 3 is out now, and has updated from Firefox 2 in some small but visible, and some large but hidden, ways. One of the things I don't like is the new History Button next to the Navigation buttons. There used to be two, one for going back, one for going forward. Now there's just one, which go both directions. Practically speaking it works fine, and may be better. But aesthetically speaking it's caused the Nav buttons to be positioned closer together on the skin I use, which means less space to click, and more likely my misfiring the wrong button. It just looks ugly.

They also have added a "Most Visited" bookmarks button, listing your most frequently visited pages so you can... visit them again? Admire the statistics? I have no idea, I can't really see much practical use for it at all. Surely your most visited sites are already in your bookmarks, that's how you get to them so often, so you don't need a new listing of the same links in a non-intuitive list order. Huge waste of time. So I've deleted that one off my toolbar.

However, on the good side, it is a lot faster at loading pages. And... um... well, that's about all I've noticed so far. And that's not much.

Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered.

Doctor Who: Journey's End

Posted Sunday, July 6, 2008, 6:50 PM

Companions and crossover stars out the wazoo, most of whom were named either Jones or Smith, populated this episode and tended to crowd things somewhat. Plus an additional character that was unexpectedly present. It made for quite an epic tale.

The Doctor, Donna Noble, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Ianto Jones, last week was Harriet Jones, Francine Jones, Mickey Smith, Sarah Jane Smith, Luke Smith, "John Smith", Mister Smith, Captain Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper, Jackie Tyler, Sylvia Noble, Wilfred Mott, K9, and, of course, Davros, and the Daleks.

After the unbelievable cliffhanger last week, and a very successful series, with a ton of hints about what may happen at the finale, the conclusion to this season was enough to leave me breathless. After last week, where I've never seen such a reaction online to an episode before, and with a build up like that, there was no way to really live up to the promise; but I have to say it came very close. Sure, if you look too hard you can nitpick everything about it, but as it's an SF adventure show ostensibly for kids, you have to realise it may go a little askew in some ways to please its young audience. If you can accept that inevitability, then you'll have to agree that this episode, and the season as a whole, delivered all it could possibly hope to, in as spectacular a fashion as you could ever desire.

It is the last episode of a four season arc, the seasons that were under Russell T Davies's supervision, and as he is going to be leaving for pastures new after the Specials next year, he apparently decided to put in as much of his own particular self-indulgent fanboy fun as he could, all in this one big trilogy of episodes that made up the finale: all his favourite recurring characters; his favourite enemies with an appearance from a classic villain; his style of epic danger - the destruction of everything; crossovers to the spin-off shows; and an iconic location to end the episode. There is a definite closing of open-ended threads; a satisfying conclusion to the story, the season, and the four season arc; some explanations of long ago set-up mysteries; but still a few hints remain of some potential revisiting of these characters again, which, who knows, may yet come to pass if the powers deem it worthy.


Next up is a short special one-off episode, set to air in a few weeks. This may be the one that's rumoured to include multiple past incarnations of the Doctor, such as the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and maybe even the Eighth or Ninth Doctors! Or, if those rumours are even true, that may be for a different special, much like last year's Children In Need Fifth Doctor cameo. And then there will be the Christmas Special, featuring the return of the Cybermen.

Next year there are apparently three more extended episodes, presumably released spread throughout the year, and perhaps another Christmas Special for 2009 too. But then, in 2010, there will be a whole new full season, this time under the auspices of popular writer Steven Moffat as Show Runner.

It's not known if David Tennant will continue for that series, as he has not signed on beyond next year's Specials; plus, with a new Show Runner they may decide that a more complete changing of the guard might be appropriate. But, then again, as David Tennant is spending the next twelve months reducing his commitment to TV, and instead is doing a theatrical Shakespeare season of Hamlet and then Love's Labours Lost, he may be re-energised by then, and up for continuing the series. Since he's so popular as the Doctor, it might be a bad move to remove him during a transitionary period like that, risking the possibility of losing a considerable chunk of the current audience, and they may feel it would be best if he stays on for a little while yet.

I hope he will stay, I find him to be a charismatic and compelling actor and person, and his Doctor is exactly what the show needs, long term. Anyone who follows on beyond him, as there inevitably will be, would have to be equally as vibrant a personality, and that's a tough ask. I say keep Tennant around for as long as they can, even if it means doubling his paypacket. Here's hoping.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

Posted Friday, July 4, 2008, 7:01 PM

As soon as the movie began, showing the spectacular landscapes of Scotland, I immediately recognised it. "That's not Scotland, that's New Zealand." And it turned out I was correct, as I soon spotted some familiar New Zealand actors in the cast.

In truth, Scotland and Otago are very similar in appearance, hence the Scottish settlers in the Dunedin area, but even so New Zealand has a distinctive look that's all its own.

Anyway, that's just the backdrop to the film. The real story is about a boy who is missing his Father, away at War, and needs a friend. He stumbles upon an unlikely item when he was down at the lakeshore, and it turns out to be the egg of the legendary Water Horse, a supposedly mythical creature. As it grows and gets spotted by various locals, it is clear this is the source of all the Loch Ness Monster sightings over the years.

It's a sweetly told story, with a hint of brutal reality scattered throughout, about a friendship between a boy and his monster, and the people who variously discourage and encourage him. The conflict between the military captain and the friendly handyman characters is particularly well handled, and adds a very effective sidestory to keep the characters interesting. The bad guys, however, if you can call them that, are a little under developed.

The visual effects, some of which were composited by my friend Cameron at Weta Digital, are almost universally outstanding. In some shots the interactivity of its motions in the water, especially in the bathtub, were stunningly realised and extremely convincing.

I will enjoy watching this film in the future, and it may become one of my favourites.

A Quiet Week

I haven't been doing much lately. Not anything worth sharing, anyway. I volunteered to do some video compression for Dags, so that his movies will be viewable online, and some artwork for MPS to use in his pitch for an amimated TV show. But aside from that it's been pretty low key, and all personal stuff of no great consequence.

I'm finishing the textures for the jet plane, just to put that aside, and trying some compositing tricks to animate 2D pics of clouds in such a way as to make them look convincingly 3D.

I will also be experimenting with how to perfect greenscreen keying, from a book I just bought which is really cool and hopefully will be useful. There's so much to After Effects and compositing work that I am still trying to figure out, or am afraid to try, like expressions and colour correction.

And someone just contacted me, as I was recommended by a friend as a website designer. This site will be a promotional site for an actor/presenter, so hopefully should have a few nice graphical elements to it.