Posted Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 5:29 PM

My hair has always been unworkable. From as early as five years old, I can remember the struggles I had with being able to do anything with it.

For a start, it parts on the opposite side to most other people, which made it look lopsided. It was very thick and dark, which gave it no shape, and no control. It just did whatever it wanted, which was always the same thing - fluff up and sit like it was somehow separated from my scalp. Hairspray and gel don't work on my hair; thus far they have been unable to tame it. If it's cut too short, it spikes up, so it needs some amount of length at all times to look even remotely acceptable.

Whenever some new trendy haircut was in style, I'd go to the hairdresser's and ask for something resembling it. They'd immediately say "Sure! No problem!" and get to work. After five minutes they'd start to hesitate, and go "Hmmm..." until eventually they gave up. "Sorry, I can't really do what you want. But I tell you what, I can make you look like a dork for the rest of your life. How about that?"

End result, the exact same haircut I have always had, forever.

I started losing my hair when I was in my mid-20s. It was a slow, but incessant, loss, which wasn't really visible to others for a while, but by age 30 it was much more evident. I also started going grey at about the same time, and though I wish it had gone shock white instead, it remains patchy and haphazard.

So. Uncontrollable, lopsided, dorky, patchwork, potentially spikey and flyaway, and rapidly falling out. What a disaster.

The common approach to such situations is to shave it all off. But that would mean having to constantly keep it close cropped a lot more often than regular haircut frequency, which sounds far too much like hard work to me. And anyway, it would just spike at the earliest opportunity, which I hate. Plus, I suspect my head is a funny shape.

Genetically I have to blame my Granddad on my mother's side; I have the exact same pattern of hair loss that he did. Whereas my brother is not losing his hair at all, and has something resembling our Dad's curly frizz.

There's not much to do about it. It's not like I have enough vanity that I care about my appearance in any way. I'll just continue to slob along looking like a scruff, as always.

Still, it does suck.

One Way Out

Posted Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 12:27 PM

I'm not very good at video games. I don't play them very often, certainly not as much as I once did, but even back then it was an infrequent pastime, as I was universally crap at almost all of them. Much like board games, and sport, and most other similar activities.

I do still occasionally open a video game up and give them a burst of effort, but it's half-hearted and brief before I get frustrated, or bored, or more likely killed eight times in a row, and so give up and move on to something else.

There are a couple of game types I like more than most of the others. When I was a kid, text adventure games were my favourite. Espionage Island is a title that leaps to mind. I was continually frustrated by them, though, as the aim wasn't to solve the game, but figure out what the right word commands were. Was it "pick up rock"? Or "get rock"? Or "throw rock"? And then it would crash and you'd have to reload it.

Then graphical adventures started to appear. Same idea, but with cool pictures to go along with it, sometimes even animated in a limited way. This gave rise to such classics as King's Quest, The Secret Of Monkey Island, and Myst.

I did play other games, platform or shoot-em-ups or whatever, but generally I found them less satisfying, especially as death was the usual and frequent outcome, whereas with the LucasArts and Myst games you couldn't die or lose the game, you'd just get stuck for a while, desperately clicking on every option until you'd stumble upon the answer that was, in retrospect, obvious.

Then along came 3D when Doom appeared on the scene (okay, there were precursors, like Wolfenstein, but I believe Doom was the true turning point). I liked that game, but even better was the appearance of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. That game was perfect for me! It had all the elements of adventure I liked, i.e. the exploration, the puzzles, the discovery; coupled with the action adventure that was just at the right level to be challenging, but, if you were prepared, easily overcome and never overwhelming.

As the Tomb Raider games developed, I followed along with them, but the most recent versions have changed their control system to the standard gamepad method, which I find inexact and confusing, so I have lost interest. I still go back to my favourite in the series, Tomb Raider II, which in my opinion had the best locations to explore, including: the canals of Venice, a huge Opera Theatre, an Oil Rig, an enormous sunken Ocean Liner, and a Monastery in the snowy Himalayas, each of which were split up into multiple Levels. Unfortunately the graphics are so outdated now it's a little disappointing to revisit, but the gameplay and controls still stand up and are just at my level.

The most common games are still the 3D shoot-em-up alien, soldier, zombie type, where it's wholesale slaughter from start to finish. Or it's the colourful kiddie platform games where you bounce around collecting stars and rainbows to free the princess from the evil genie. Or it's the weird Wii games where you have to do... something with the... weird thing to... save the... whatever (see Mirror's Edge, Spore, Portal, Flower, etc).

And there are numerous other genres, like Strategy, Management, Driving, Simulation, Role Playing (MMORPG's especially), Sports, etc. Most of which I have no interest in (except for Driving games. I can get into them sometimes, even though I don't drive in real life).

It occurs to me that there ought to be a perfect game to suit my interests. Surely I'm not the only one who would be into this particular idea I am about to suggest.

We are all familiar with mazes. You start at one end, and you try to get to the other end, by following a route, and getting distracted and lost down dead ends. A very simple concept that has been around for thousands of years, still popular today. There have been numerous maze-like video games, from the obvious and simple like PacMan, which are more like obstacles than puzzles, to the complex labyrinthine 3D tangles that you find in Doom or Tomb Raider. Most other shoot-em-up or 3D games tend to have complicated multi-level locations, but not really a true maze (some even lead you all the way with flashing arrows and on-screen maps).

What I want to see is an epic 3D Maze game, where there are multiple Levels, each of a different distinct location. For example: an office building; an oil refinery; an Egyptian pyramid; a shopping centre; a cinema complex; a multi-story car park; a mediaeval castle; a city block; a sewer system; etc. Each place would be fully complete and accurate, with every room, alcove, corner, elevator, fire escape, and floor in place. Everything would be interactive, from desk drawers, to cash registers, to food items, to bedsheets, to tools.

But the key would be, there is only one route to get from your start point to the end point, with lots of dead ends and red herrings to distract and confuse you. There would be no other characters seen in the entire game, though there would be evidence of their existence. There would be puzzles that require items you need to pick up, found in logical locations. There would be clues, such as notes and phone messages, that would help you if you got stuck. There would be certain routes that would be a struggle to get through, where you would not be able to go back the same way. There would be some back-tracking required to get missed clues or items. You would only be able to carry a limited number of items at once, so you may need to drop one useful tool to access another, then drop that one again to pick up the previous.

Nobody shoots at you, nothing leaps out and tries to eat you, no deadly traps or dangerous risks. It's just a maze.

So it may go like this:

You begin in the foyer of an office building. The front doors are blocked by fallen masonry, and the outside is chaos. You need to get to the roof to be rescued by helicopter. There are two elevators. Neither call button is working on this floor. You can access the stairs, but the only way clear is down. You head to the basement, where there is a maintenance room full of useful tools. You select a crowbar and a wrench.

You keep heading down, until you get to the underground carpark. There are four or five cars, but the rest of the spots are empty. You check your pockets and discover you have a car alarm lock, which opens your own car. Inside you find your mobile phone, but the battery is flat.

You head back up the stairs where you use the crowbar to dislodge some of the debris blocking the way up, and manage to get to the next floor. This is where a small finance company work, but the floor is scattered with debris. You can get into some of the offices, where all the desk drawers can be opened, and some useful items, and notes in diaries, contain clues useful for later in the game. The computers are all down. But you can pick up a whiteboard pen.

One of the elevator buttons works here, but it can only travel two floors up on this eight storey building. These floors are for the cafeteria and a mobile phone company that has chargers lined up. Though there is no power, there are charged batteries, and you find one that matches your phone.

And so it goes. You can climb out onto the fire escape to get to the next floor, where the second elevator works up to the top floor, where the Penthouse suite is which has luxurious places to explore and fancy items to use, etc etc etc.

And imagine that kind of scenario at an airport, or a science lab, or a prison, or even a jungle setting.

It seems to me that this is an untapped idea that could really sell. Sometimes you just want a game where nobody is trying to kill you, or infect you, or invade your world, that you can spend twenty minutes making your way through the attic of a cathedral to get to the bell tower. It uses existing game technology, or "engine", and therefore would be mostly pretty easy to put together, without requiring huge complexity or fancy new weapons that blast away at things in ever more spectacular ways.

Somebody should make this.

Hidden Gems

Posted Saturday, November 14, 2009, 11:14 AM

Every so often, to waste time and go for a fun drive, Rob will call up and say "It's a nice day, let's go looking for possible locations we can film at". A few weeks ago we travelled out to Mt Buffalo, which when it's out of ski season is a fantastic mountain covered in uniquely beautiful rock formations and fresh waterfalls.

And yesterday we headed out to Heathcote, and a spot called Pink Cliffs. A previous film had been shot there, so Rob was familiar with it. It seemed like a great place to set something like a miniature Indiana Jones, with its low set clay hills. It's a unique look, but limited in its possibilities; most angles show distinctive Australian trees on the horizon.

One of the things we are constantly fighting against is finding places we can film that don't feel like Australia. If we want to set a movie in the past, in a different country, such as a generic mediaeval era, we are not exactly spoilt for choice, like those who live in Europe or even New Zealand. Instead we have gum trees and desert. The best we can hope for is Tasmania, not unlike NZ in many respects, but even that isn't enough and is severely limited.

We headed back home, but it was early in the day yet, so we took a random detour down a side road. As we turned the corner, I thought to myself "wouldn't it be weird if we happened to find exactly what we were looking for after this completely random decision?".

And, naturally, we did find exactly that.

Emu Flat is a rural area full of farmland that is peppered with amazing rolling hills topped by enormous exposed boulders. They look like weathered castle ruins, or a giant's teeth emerging from the ground. Weathered over millennia, they are left with the appearance of boulders precariously balanced on top of each other, as though a little tap will cause them to tip over and roll down the hill.

We looked around for public access to these fields, but there appeared to be none. They were all on farmland. We will probably have to seek permission of a Farmer to film in his paddocks, which I hope won't be a big problem, if we so choose.

When I visited a local Milk Bar to ask the owners if any of the rocky fields were accessible to the public, they looked at me funny. They didn't quite understand what it was I was talking about, because to them those rocks are what they see every day, and if anything are an inconvenience the Farmers have to avoid when they cultivate their fields.

What an amazing and beautiful discovery it was, and one that so many people manage to miss out on or, at least, don't appreciate when they do see it.

Checkpoint: Soothing The Savage Breast

Posted Friday, November 6, 2009, 8:52 PM

I don't know much about music. I don't even listen to it as often as most other people do. I prefer working and relaxing in silence.

But I do have a small music collection, which I unearth and play every once in a while, and a lot of it tends to be movie soundtracks. I used to buy quite a lot of it, but recently it's died down somewhat, as not a lot of movie music takes my fancy as being particularly pleasant to hear outside of the context of the visuals.

Movie soundtracks (or "scores" as they are often called, to differentiate them from the myriad of pop song collections that have marred the soundtrack racks in recent times) used to spirit you away back into the story of the film, or allow you to visualise something even more exciting of your own making. But these days the editing of a good action movie can be so erratic that the score has to match that effect, making for something quite unpleasant and jarring.

Rob and I have been churning through the final digital visual effects shots for Checkpoint, and we are almost nearing the end of it all. After the main CG work is done, there are a few composites of bullet hits and similar, followed by the colour grade, and the title and credits captions. We can handle all those ourselves, but there is one side we don't have the talents for, and that's the audio: sound effects and music.

The sound effects will be started soon, as the edit is only a couple of effects shots short of the final cut, so that just leaves the music.

In the past, our team has not had a local composer. There is a guy that Dags uses for his films, but though he has visited Australia frequently, he actually lives in the US someplace, which is not the ideal way to get a soundtrack fine tuned. Dags seems happy using this method, but for us it would not have worked very well, we felt we needed to be able to sit down and go through each part of the film piece by piece.

Unbeknownst to us, one of our general dogsbody and anonymous background extras we use frequently, Andy Scott, has a talent that had been hidden from us. He's a pianist. Coupled with his interest in movies, and his willingness to always be a part of the team in whatever capacity that's going, he was an ideal choice. If we could organise a keyboard and a suitable piece of software, we thought we could probably get something that would sound pretty decent out of him, if we sat with him all the way through it.

There are lots of different kinds of music creation software, both simple and elaborate. One that has been around for a long time, and has become quite sophisticated, is Cubase, which allows for MIDI keyboard input to be translated into full realistic orchestral sound samples. A friend of Rob's, Troy, had a copy of this software and a little bit of experience in using it (though not as MIDI, instead for offline track mixing). We corralled him in, and this week we all sat down together to nut out our soundtrack.

At first we struggled, as you might expect for newcomers to this branch of movie making. Partly it was due to learning the software, which had a couple of fundamental bugs we had to work around. But also it was because Andy's piano experience doesn't exactly mirror what is required to get a correctly arranged orchestra. Luckily Troy is a talented violinist, and is familiar enough with orchestras he could provide his own input into what was required.

After searching online and fixing the bugs in the software, and learning the basics of how the software operated, I took over from Troy on the days he wasn't available, and after four days of work, we managed to create six or seven pieces of music, including a few incidental moments, for throughout the film, and though we were muddling along in an unfamiliar environment, I think we came up trumps. There's a consistent style to the music, and it has some evocative melodies. We are justifiably proud of what we've achieved so far.

Troy will now take the MIDI tracks away and mix them into a full sounding orchestra, and hopefully it won't be too long before we'll have our completed soundtrack.

It has been very interesting to have to deal with this part of our movie. Though Rob seemed a little bit daunted by our lack of experience, I was nevertheless quite excited. Rob provided suggestions of what he wanted, I was able to relate it in terms that Andy could (almost) understand, while Troy filled in the terminology blanks, and together we made a great team.

I hope that one day soon we can do this again. Perhaps, dare I say it, even for a feature length film.