Things What I Have Liked In 2008

Posted Monday, December 29, 2008, 4:54 PM

I have seen many movies and TV shows this year, many of which I have greatly enjoyed. Some I have not enjoyed, and most are somewhere in the middle.

I have also done some cool personal things which are of note.

Here are my lists of those things for 2008.

Firstly the movies.

These are the ones I liked, the ones I thought were acceptable, and the ones I haven't yet seen but certainly plan to, with the expectation that they'll be fun. I have not listed the bad movies, because I tend to weed them out before I watch them. I have a pretty good radar for that sort of thing.

The Dark Knight
The Spiderwick Chronicles
Prince Caspian
Kung Fu Panda
The Incredible Hulk
Get Smart
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Iron Man
Horton Hears A Who
Nim's Island
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

The Tale of Despereaux
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Transporter 3
Quantum Of Solace
City Of Ember
Death Race
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Speed Racer
The Forbidden Kingdom


Next are the TV Shows.

As well as the shows that debuted this year, I have also watched a whole bunch of shows from previous years that I missed at that time, having discovered the magic of downloading them, while also experiencing the crap of premature cancellation of some great stuff. And of course, seeing more of my favourites.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Pushing Daisies
The Mentalist
Burn Notice
Kyle XY
Lark Rise To Candleford
My Own Worst Enemy

Eleventh Hour

Doctor Who
Battlestar Galactica
Time Team


And then there's my personal stuff.

I've done some things this year that are new and I've not done before, and some other things that I have done before but were the best ever so far.

Started a blog
Rob's WWII short film: Checkpoint
Began my short film: Horizon
Wrote my first feature length screenplay: Pegasus Rampant
Visual Effects for Dags's short film: Reality Check

Railway Locomotive
Jet Fighter Plane
Judge Dredd and his Lawmaster Bike
PigeonMan's Car
French Cafe Exterior
French Cafe Interior
DC3 Plane
Space Shuttle


Gee. When you list it all out like that, it seems like a hell of a lot!

Pegasus Rampant - The Third Draft

Posted Tuesday, December 23, 2008, 12:01 AM

About six weeks ago, I started receiving reviews of my first feature length screenplay, Pegasus Rampant. They had lots to say, a lot of it good, but also a lot of it critical.

But the good kind of criticism, the kind that was helpful. Pointing out the weak spots, the technical mistakes, and what to concentrate on in the next draft.

Well, the next draft has been completed. It meant going through it carefully and tightening up the dialogue, to eliminate repetition and extraneous words, and to make the pace speed up considerably. It surprised me how much of it was long and unwieldy and could be reduced to sometimes only a third as long.

One particular character was not intended to have a very strong arc to his story, but they drew my attention to how important it was for him in paticular to have one, so I added that in. It didn't take much to do it, and it really did make the story better and the relationships between the characters more realistic.

The fight and battle scenes needed to be expanded on. Just saying "they fight" and letting the stunt arranger fill in the blanks is not acceptable in a spec script, so I had no choice but to put in the additional detail that they needed. They're possibly still a little too thin, but they are good enough to show the main beats of the fight, and they add some character motivation too, so that's good. And another thing it did, unexpectedly, was let me add in an extra plot point that wasn't there originally, and which adds an interesting texture to the whole story and the world it's set in.

There was a lot more I did to fix it up too, but they were subtle things like changing a single word in the dialogue or description to help emphasise some character beats or add visual imagery to the scene.

There is still room for improvement. I recently bought a book about scriptwriting, and reading it will give me new insight into how characters can and should behave in a story to make it zing, so I will read through that and hopefully it will inspire me, perhaps to formulate character moments, and give it some energy where it needs it.

But the plot is just where I want it. I don't anticipate much of that changing in any further drafts. Most of my emphasis will be on strengthening the dialogue and characters.

One day I will figure all this story writing business out, and approach it already knowing what I'm doing. Who knows, I may even sell one some day.

Pegasus Rampant - The Characters

Posted Thursday, December 18, 2008, 11:03 PM

Because I am writing a movie screenplay, I can't help but think of it as though it was a movie playing out in my mind. This means a fairly clear image of the characters should be in my head.

Unfortunately, finding the right words to describe the characters so that, when others read it, they see them in their head the same way, is not a skill I particularly excel at. I can certainly write their behaviour very clearly, as the story plays out, and I do write a simple physical description upon their introduction, with additions as and when new plot situations require it. But they aren't really very vivid.

For example, one of the main characters in Pegasus Rampant is Wren, who I describe thus:

    A young woman, dressed in light leather armour. Lean and strong, her hair is dirty and cut short, though under the rough appearance she is boyishly attractive.

Well, that's broad enough to give an idea of who she is, but I don't specify too many details. Casting would already be limited enough to find an actor who fits the absolute requirements, no need to specify the negotiable ones.

Is that enough of a description for you to imagine what she might look like? When I go on to describe her as a Mercenary, in this Mediaeval era film, does that add to the image?

I am a visual person, an artist, and when I think of characters I like to firm them in my mind with a sketch. But my drawing skills are rudimentary, and lately under-practised, so my attempts to sketch an image of Wren have not been very successful so far.

I am consistently disappointed by the way most Fantasy artists portray female warriors. They always have them in impractical clothing, sometimes only bikinis, with exposed flesh everywhere! No armour to speak of, no sense that they're trying to protect against a weapon. That's just absurd!

I don't mind a little bit of exposed skin, but that should be for showing off muscle tone and scars, and maybe a tribal tattoo. They shouldn't be looking like beauty contest finalists parading on a catwalk!

So when I draw my warriors, I try to give them more realistic layers of armour, chainmail, leather jerkins, bracers, boots, etc. They have to be something you can walk around in, be flexible enough to fight in, be comfortable in all weather conditions, and protect you against weapons. Not expose you to the cold, be too heavy to stand up in, or let you be vulnerable to blades!

The other day I was in a Video Rental store, wandering around, and I saw a cover of a DVD that I really liked. The movie isn't anything to write home about, though. I looked at the image of the kick-boxing woman and thought "that's a great image with the perfect pose and build for Wren. If only she wasn't wearing those modern clothes..."

I looked up the image when I got home, and thought about drawing over the top of her to give her a Wren-like look, but soon realised I could do better than that - I could source each individual element of her clothing and distort and recolour them to fit the figure, creating a more photorealistic kind of conceptual art.

After a few hours work (I was up until 2am tweaking it) I came away from it pleased with the result. It's not perfect, but for a quick collage of disparate elements it's pretty good, and a close representation of the character's appearance.

The adjustments I would make, looking at it now, are things like perhaps a slightly prettier face, and a happier expression (I was trapped by the fact that the original image was of someone recently beaten up in a kickboxing fight) and a few more period-ish items of clothing, such as lacings for the jerkin, or some studs on the chain-mail. But that's just being picky.

I am often surprised with what I'm capable of doing when I put my mind to it. Things that seem daunting or unlikely to work often turn out a lot better than I had realistically initially hoped, and this is one of them.

Checkpoint: The Edit

Posted Monday, December 15, 2008, 11:31 AM

My mate Rob's short film, set in WWII, which I have talked about several times this year, from shoot through to visual effects, is nearing an important stage of completion.

About a month ago, he invited me and some of our mutual movie-related friends over to view an edit of his film, and to give suggestions on how to tidy it up. Editing was a daunting task for him: with five or six hours of footage; sometimes as many as ten or fifteen alternatives for some scenes; and ten minutes to fill. He was finding the task exhausting, and overwhelming, so after the viewing, and the suggestions we threw at him, he called me in to help him out with finishing the edit. I was more than happy to participate!

Rob uses Final Cut Pro on his Mac. I'm more familiar with Adobe's Premiere Pro for PC, but they are very similar in most respects, so though I wasn't at the keyboard doing the physical work, I knew what options were available to us. Rob's method of working was not too different to mine, we both are very familiar with movies and their styles, plus we were mostly on accord with what we wanted to achieve with each scene. When we didn't agree on anything, I deferred to the Director's choices, because I knew he definitely knew what he was doing, and when his ideas worked, they were better than mine anyway.

So, we sat down together and figured some things out. Firstly, what was wrong, and why. That was relatively easy. Rob's first try was apparently very choppy, with too many close-ups. His second edit, which was the one the group of us had viewed, went in the opposite direction, with too many long takes that were Wide. For a movie that has tension and some amount of action, slow pacing can be a killer. But for a movie with some interesting dramatic beats and an extended dialogue, fast cuts are not good.

So secondly, we needed to figure out how to fix it. Easier said than done, we decided to go in step by step, and address each scene from start to finish. Some editors claim starting from the beginning in chronological order is a bad idea, and perhaps that's true. But bollocks to them. We'll learn the mistakes our own way.

You have to pick and choose the right places to put each shot. Wide shots establish location, position of characters, physical points of view from off-screen characters, isolation and vulnerability. Close up shots increase tension, show emotive facial expressions, allow for reactions. Mid shots are normally a good in-between, where you can orientate characters, see hand gestures, introduce a third character, and are good to cut to when you've had too many close ups already.

What we discovered, as we worked through the movie scene by scene, is the power you can have to change and create. I really was thrilled by some of the tricks we managed to do. I was afraid we'd not be able to achieve some of the ideas we were going for, because there is often a risk a lack of the right angle or a bad camera motion or line reading can ruin an otherwise usable shot. But what we discovered was not only could we cheat some shots, because two locations looked very similar to each other so we could mix and match, but that because we are also visual effects artists, we could assemble several different elements from various places (still images, different scenes, Behind-The-Scenes footage on a lower resolution camera) and manufacture a whole new shot to suit our needs!

And this is the part that really astonished me, though I don't know why because I hear of how this goes on a lot when editing. If you need an emotional beat, but aren't sure about where to place it, it's an incredible thing to see how a single shot can make a difference. If you don't have it, you feel like it's missing. If you do have it, and put it too early, it ruins the flow of a scene. If you put it in the right place, it completely transforms a scene into magic. If you shorten it by just a couple of frames, it can feel flat. If you lengthen it by a few frames it can change the emotional tone of the whole moment.

It's amazing.

We finished the edit, but there are many effects shots to do to complete it. We also are going to go back in, in a few days, and look at it afresh, to tidy up some of the rough edges that inevitably will be there. Especially since the morning we began, we were kind of floundering a little, but by the end of last night we were on a roll, and that difference may have affected how the edit flows.

Exciting stuff, and a lot of fun. I would be very happy to sit in on an edit with my mate Rob any time.

Neither Rhyme Nor Reason

Posted Sunday, December 14, 2008, 1:27 PM

A limerick is not hard to write.
Given time, I could write ten tonight.
   The bit at the start's
   Not the difficult part.
It's the line at the end that has to make sense in context of what the poem's about, but also fit the rhyming structure, that makes it such a struggle.

Horizon: Casting

Posted Wednesday, December 10, 2008, 4:53 PM

As this is my first proper short film (not counting the stuff I did for I am finding myself having to make the kinds of decisions that I have long heard about when others do it, but now are inevitably my own to make. It's somewhat surreal, as well as imposing. I'm a little bit worried, but also excited.

Casting has always been something I have been afraid of. When I wrote Horizon, I deliberately eliminated all the spoken dialogue, to avoid the fear of having to deal with bad acting ruining my film, something I see very often. Dialogue performance in an Australian accent always sounds bad to me, and you have to be really seriously amazing to make it work. It's the difference between Neighbours and The Castle; One sounds like lame boring line recitation, and the other sounds like real people. Coupled with the fact that my idea of good acting rarely coincides with what others think is good (a strange situation, I thought), I had to do something, and the answer was to eliminate the need for dialogue at all.

But I also was worried about going through the full audition process when there's no dialogue - how do you audition people for that? Ask them to cry on demand? Impossible. I was painting myself into a corner. The single thing that mattered to me more than anything was that you'd believe the romance between the two characters; accept that they really loved each other. A good actor can do that, but if I'm not auditioning or requiring great actors, then that limits my options - and the answer to that conundrum I set myself was to cast a real life couple.

Crikey, that's a big ask! In my attempt of making things easier for myself, was I really making things more difficult?

We've been working with Alex Sheedy, who is the girlfriend of a casual crew member Andy Scott, on a side project. She's proven herself to be excellent at taking direction, and enthusiastic in taking part in our crazy ideas. To the point where every new project idea Rob and I come up with, we slot her into it, imagining her in our heads to see if she fits. Sometimes she does.

What's that you say? Girlfriend of Andy Scott? Why yes indeed, that's rather convenient, isn't it? Andy is just the right age and look to play a fighter pilot! So I contacted them both, we've discussed it some, and they have signed on.

That's a big weight off my shoulders. I now have my cast, about two thirds of my locations, and most of my crew. All that's required now is to compile a shot list, book some equipment, and commit to actually filming it.

Easier said than done.


Posted Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 11:48 AM

How's that for an original title. Oh well.

Dreamworks Animation has, in my estimation, a bit of a chequered history when it comes to originality. Its very first production was 2D, based on the Biblical story of the Exodus of the Jews, better known as the Ten Commandments, and was called Prince of Egypt.

It was pretty good, but a bit dour and dramatic. Not really a movie for kids, though I'm sure they got something out of it. It's one of those Bible myths that probably has a fair amount of truth to it, somewhere amongst the miracles and epic absurdity. If you ignore the talking to God, burning bushes, and parting of the Red Sea, the story comes down to two brothers who diverge in their beliefs and have a bit of an argy-bargy over ruling their people.

Anyhoo, they soon realised that kind of movie wasn't going to bring in the moolah, so they immediately took a leaf out of Disney's book, and headed down a family friendly comedic route.

The Road To El Dorado which was based on the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby "Road To..." movies, was clearly stolen from what Disney had planned originally for Emperor's New Groove (which had started out as the more dramatically themed Kingdom of the Sun).

Sinbad, which wasn't as good as it ought to have been, was very similar in style to Disney's Treasure Planet.

As Pixar started to make a real impact, Dreamworks shifted its focus to CGI animation, believing that those movies make more money than traditional 2D animation. A load of baseless nonsense, of course. Pixar's success is based entirely on great characters in fun stories with hilarious humour. All things that do not impact the style of art used to create them.

But as the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, used to work for Disney, he had some insight into what was being developed by Pixar. And though he denies it, he clearly was stealing their concepts and then trying to rush them through to release first. I have always resented that about Dreamworks.

Equivalent movies include:
Antz = A Bug's Life
Shrek = Monsters Inc
Shark Tale = Finding Nemo
Madagascar = Into The Wild

Now, plot-wise they aren't really similar (except for that last one) but if you were to hear on the grapevine that Pixar's next film was going to be about fish, or about monsters, then you can definitely believe Katzenberg would then say "Hey, lets do a movie about monsters". Even worse, they have a new movie out in the new year called Monsters vs Aliens and the character design is so similar to Monsters Inc it's highly suspicious. Though it does look like a funny film.

I watched Dreamworks's new feature last night, Kung Fu Panda. It stars Jack Black as a panda who unexpectedly is chosen as being the greatest warrior of legend and prophecy despite being an incompetent clumsy boob. It is an excellent movie. Really funny, brilliantly animated, and highly recommended.

And best of all, as far as all the plagiarising of ideas that I have just accused Dreamworks of partaking in, this is a wholly original concept, that I can only praise them for.

And this is the thing - when they forego the pop culture references, and choose a story that is not based on another company's production, Dreamworks do amazing stuff, the top of their game. Though the sequel is inevitable, I hope they continue to make original product, one-offs like Over The Hedge (admittedly based on an existing comic strip) and Bee Movie, and don't run ideas (like Shrek) into the ground. They deserve better, and deserve to be seen.