As Far As The Eye Can See

Posted Saturday, January 30, 2010, 8:39 PM

There is a disproportionate number of Australian blokes called Lachlan.

I mean, what's up with that?

I'm Watching Big Brother

Posted Thursday, January 28, 2010, 1:20 PM

My older brother is well known amongst his peers. He was the head of an organisation significant amongst the Maori population, known as Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, and was the visible face and spokesperson whenever there was a need for comment on Maori issues. In that role, he had opportunities to meet dignitaries and visiting celebrities, and interacted directly with political figures. It was quite impressive to have a family member so prominent in the news, especially for such good reasons.

He doesn't have that job anymore, but after leaving for a brief semi-retirement, has returned to that same organisation in a less prominent position. He now represents the Maori people just for the localised region of Otago, and he figured he needed to communicate to the people he represents, so wanted a website, where he can update folks on Tribal matters, as well as air a few of his personal thoughts.

As I am a website designer (and always looking for new work) he asked me to build the site for him. I put together a few design samples, which he liked, and I found a good CMS software to host it in. ExpressionEngine is easy to figure out (after a bit of head-meets-keyboard bashing to distinguish the various levels of hierarchy involved) and gives ultimate power to the designer, not rigidly adhering to template structure for the HTML.

After working for a couple of weeks within the original design idea I had put forward, I realised it just wasn't working. It didn't look as good as most modern websites, and there wasn't enough room set aside for expansion, so I sat back and rethought it. Over a couple of days I figured out a complete redesign, which gave the text more space to breathe. And I've also dripfed new features in, every couple of days.

In the end, I am very pleased with how it came together. My brother seems to like it, too, and he's shown it around to some people and they've given positive feedback.

I think there's a likelihood I will be getting some more work out of this, fingers crossed. And you can't hope for better than that.


Posted Wednesday, January 27, 2010, 11:49 AM

I'm an arty sort. Kind of. Well, people think I am. I just bugger about clumsily until something starts to come together. It's not very efficient or a display of a particular amount of talent, really.

So what I like to do is dress my computer monitor with a nice desktop wallpaper background, and change them regularly every week or so. I troll around online for either ready-made wallpapers from movies or comic books or video games or just nice photography, or just cool images that I can adapt into wallpaper-sized images.

My desktop is fairly high-res, at 1680x1050 pixels. It's a common ratio, so most newer wallpapers are available at that scale, but the older ones are still at maximum 1280x960, or more likely 1024x768. These can often be wonderful images, but you can't scale them up without distorting them, Standard Def ratio doesn't work for a Widescreen monitor.

The other problem with a lot of amateur made wallpapers is the very low quality work that's gone into them; either the original image is poorly matched to its background, or there is horrible "artefacting" (speckling caused by high compression), or it's just an ugly mess of styles and bad composition.

As I am very grateful for the work others have put into some of my favourite wallpapers, I thought it was past time for me to put up my own work, all adaptations of images, with a lot of effort gone in to make them look sharp and nicely composed.

This bunch is an eclectic collection, with no specific theme. Except maybe attractive women, which, in my experience, is quite a popular subject amongst a certain crowd.

And as I say, these are all at 1680x1050.

First up is a pic of actress Sandra Bullock. I didn't do too much to this pic - I straightened it, rescaled it to fit, then added a bit of white space to follow the rule of thirds. It's also a good idea to put the main image slightly to one side to make way for the crazy way people stack their icons.

Next up is Selma Blair, as her character Liz Sherman in the Hellboy films. This is a promotional photo, used in posters and the like, but the only one I could find even closely resembling a wallpaper sized pic was badly cropped and with messy artefacting. So I found a larger scale of the original pic, and made my own.

Anne Hathaway, who is something of a star du jour recently, is next up. This image was already used on somebody else's wallpaer in full scale, but it was badly blended into their white background, and I also didn't like the composition they chose. So I moved her over to the right, and then tidied up the ragged edge of where the photo met the background. Then I added in her name, just to fill in the blank space.

The most recent one I made is of Josie Davis. Who's that, then? She was an actress who started out as a kid in the show Charles in Charge back in the 80s, and has worked steadily into adult life. And though she played the nerdy character in that sitcom, she sure didn't maintain that image into adulthood. I was looking through her images after she appeared on my favourite TV show, Chuck.

The original picture was taken in a room with a dirty wall and floor, so I eliminated most of that and gave her a new white background. I added her name, because otherwise you wouldn't have a clue who she was. I really like the colours in this pic, especially her blue top, so I maintained that colour with the gradient and text.

Beginning to move away from the hot chicks motif, but following on tangentially from the previous pic, is a promo pic of Yvonne Strahovski and Zachary Levi from Chuck that I adapted into a wallpaper. I decided to add the red strip behind the characters, which I think works well. I may have overdone the saturation, though; they look like they've just come out of a tanning salon.

One of my favourite video games series is Myst. It started out so uniquely and cleverly, then as the series went on just got better, then it tailed off disappointingly. I couldn't play the last game at all, my computer wasn't powerful enough to handle even the lowest settings.

In Myst IV, which was made by a different team to the other games, the opening of the story occurs in Atrus's home, which is a fantastic steampunk-like series of buildings, clinging to rocks surrounding a pool and waterfall. This image, which I found available online in a huuuuge resolution, has just been scaled and cropped to fit the desktop.

Last up is an adaptation of an Alex Ross painting of the Joker and Harley Quinn, from Batman. I didn't do much, apart from sweetening of the image and adding enough black background to fit the screen. That's the beauty of working with astonishing artwork like that of Alex Ross. I experience similar perfection with Adam Hughes's work.

I was sure I had more than this to upload, but I think I must have lost some of them over the years in various crashes. But I'll put up some more in a few months time, once I have gathered them together.

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Anatomy 101

Posted Thursday, January 21, 2010, 5:42 PM

Whenever I model something in 3D that I've never done before, it's an education.

When I first modelled a building in any level of detail, I had to look at the structure of it as though it was real, and piece together all the elements in much the same way you would to build it in the real world. But without the heavy lifting.

So I was acutely aware of how walls meet the roof, and what makes up the details of window frames, or how the door latch works. And now whenever I look at a house, I have a new appreciation of how buildings look and what went into its design and construction.

The same for modelling a car. I learned a lot about how the steering works on front wheels, and how the suspension attaches to the chassis. Even the curve of the windshield is a complicated feature that you don't really appreciate until you see how neatly it has to fit into a very specifically curved slot, unique to each and every make of car.

I have found the same newly discovered fascination with big complicated things like aircraft, right down to small domestic items like computer keyboards, and organic stuff, like trees and birds, which have a whole other level of sophistication.

For the past few days, for a Pick Up And Go production, I have begun modelling a human skeleton, which will eventually be animated as a sword-wielding skeletal warrior and composited into the footage we shot a few weeks ago.

The human skeleton is something we're all very familiar with, but few of us will have had an opportunity to look at one closely. There are 206 bones in the human body, and I have to model each one of them (though some are fused together, and some, like ribs and fingers, are very repetitious) and then piece them into place, at the right scale and proportion to not only look exactly right, but also to be able to move in a way that looks cinematically appealing.

And it's amazing to me how cleverly the bones interact with each other, how the range of movement is so wide, but with limits that suit our needs so well. Admittedly, we push them right to the edge sometimes, and occasionally wish we had more flexibility, or the ability to adjust them, or had a couple of extra limbs (even wings), but what we do have is a miracle of evolutionary engineering, and it was fascinating to see that, as I am putting the skeleton together piece by piece.

So far I've been quite happy with how it's looking. I have been building most of the parts individually, from memory, then comparing it with an image of the real thing including the joint assembly, so I can adjust my model to match closer. However, I haven't yet compared it as a whole to an image of a complete skeleton; I expect I may have to slide the knees or elbows around a bit to get them right.

Though, of course, no two skeletons are the same. It's part of what makes we humans distinct from each other, and the differences go as deep as the bones themselves. Therefore, as long as I have all the bits approximately correct, that will likely be close enough to be acceptably believable.

Cinematic Catch Up

Posted Sunday, January 10, 2010, 7:11 PM

I have not had a lot of money to spend on frivolities lately, so have not splurged on DVDs on days of release for a long time, instead waiting for them to halve their prices later in the year. But last week, I decided I wanted to finally catch up on movies I had missed, movies that had been praised at their cinema release, so I bought three movies to watch: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, G.I.Joe, and District 9.

Goodness me, what an entertaining week I've had watching them.

G.I Joe was first. I missed out on most of the toys that were turned into cartoons, during the 80s. Partly because I was just a little too old for the toys themselves, and partly because the cartoons were such poorly animated, badly acted, horrendously written dreck, I just stayed away for my own sanity's sake.

G.I. Joe is a very old toy franchise, however, and inspired the UK equivalent of Action Man, which was more popular when I was a kid, even though none of my friends or I had an Action Man toy either. But I was aware of the storyline, generally, that was used as the basis for the TV series. It amounts to nothing much more than good guy US military vs bad guy Foreign military, with fancy weapons and vehicles that did lots of flashy foldy shooty stuff. Basically, standard violence-based boy's toys.

Movies based on toys and games and video games are, as a rule, awful. The main problem seems to be the interactive and single-player nature of a game is impossible to translate into a story that really encapsulates the experience each person has with it. It's hard enough to adapt a book and fulfil the imagination of the author, let alone the imagery concocted by the reader, but to re-create the individual experience of a kid who plays with his toys in a particular way peculiar to their own approach, is not universal enough to work properly. Couple that with the inherent ridiculous and fantastical nature of something like G.I. Joe, and any attempt to take it seriously is a waste of everyone's time.

So how do you deal with those issues and still make an entertaining and successful movie?

Imagine you're an eight year old boy, and you have four or five of the G.I. Joe (and the enemy C.O.B.R.A's) action figures and vehicles. How do you play with them? Do you slowly drive the car along, and watch as you characters exit the vehicle and wander along to a house where they sit on the couch and watch TV? Do they have tea parties with your sister's teddy and dolls? Do they sit on a shelf gathering dust as a potential collector's item?

No, they do not.

"And then Joe runs to the helicopter, and they fly over a cliff and go RRRRRRRGGGGHHHH, and then the tank comes up over the dunes and it goes BBBKKKKHHH POW POW POW AKAKAKAKAKAK!!! And then the helicopter goes WEEEEEEEEEE BAAAABOOOOMMMM!!! And then COBRA arrive in their submarine, and attack all the divers in the boat POW SPLASH! CRASH! AAAAAARRRGGHH You got me, Commander!!! AAAARRRKKKKHHH. But they don't know that Joe's got an army of jet fighters, WWWHHHOOOOOOSSSSSHHHH!!!!! POW!!! BAAABOOOOMMMM!!!!"

And that, in a nutshell, is how they made the G.I. Joe movie.

And because it re-created the way kids played with the toys in precisely the right way, the movie works. Against all odds, and despite its absurdities throughout, it knew what it was, what it was trying to be, and it achieved success. If you want to see a completely over the top mind blowing blast of a movie, G.I. Joe is worth a look.

The next movie I saw was District 9.

I had seen the trailer, and when I had ever seen the reviews the implication was always "Don't read this review, because what you think the movie is about, it's so much more, and not at all what you are expecting." So I kept away from as much promotion for it as possible, until now when I finally saw it on DVD.

Also, I love visual effects, and the things I had seen for District 9, the casual approach, where whole sequences had a dismissive feeling of the effects being not "special" at all, just accepted as real, it so intrigued and impressed me I was completely drawn to it, even if the movie turned out to be bad.

Luckily the consensus has been that it's a wonderful film, of great impact and handled with astonishing, seemingly effortless, dexterity.

And I agree.

It starts out as a documentary, following a dorky Government official in South Africa, where Aliens had arrived in their spaceship, twenty years earlier, and now he has to convince them to relocate to a new location outside of the city. Cleaner, but smaller, but more importantly...

Click for spoilers

...far away from a buried spacecraft, which only needs fuel to allow the Aliens the opportunity to go back to the Mother Ship and head home again.

But when the Official accidentally sprays himself with the fuel so carefully collected and distilled, he begins to go through a metamorphosis that completely turns the story around into something new. And not even that is what you might expect.

It truly is an amazing film, and may even be up for an Academy Award, if reviews are anything to go by. I urge anyone who hasn't seen it to not read my spoilers, and just go and get the DVD and watch it as soon as you can, because you will be at turns revolted, amazed, thrilled, energised, and inspired, by what unfolds.

And the visual effects are really cool, too.

The last one I watched this week was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I started reading the Harry Potter books way back before they were a phenomenon. Well, maybe right on the cusp of its beginning. And though I've never felt they were great literature, or particularly worthy of the praise and crazed mania that they ended up in amongst, they are nevertheless entertaining reads, with a great grasp of character, and with very well woven plot threads that leads to an ending that fits all that had come before.

Half-Blood Prince, as a book, comes at a difficult point in the over arcing plot. The main characters are fleshed out, the main plot threads are in play, and the end game is yet to begin. But the main bad guy and his motivations are left as something of a mystery up to this point, and so Jo Rowling set aside this book to finally tell Voldemort's tale, and provide the final clues to his reign, his return, and his motivations to kill Harry.

But there has to be more to the story than that, and both Rowling, and director David Yates, managed to find a good backbone to carry the characters along. Yates has exploited it in a better way for the film than was portrayed in the book, even though all the beats matched. As he was the director for the previous film, he had set up a few threads that carried through, and that continuity, coupled with the unexpectedly subtle performances, brought it a sincerity that resonated throughout the length of the film.

Basically the kids have grown up. They're teenagers with raging hormones, and are making stupid decisions based on instincts obscured by unimportant things they think are crucial.

The actors have likewise grown up, their acting has improved in every way, but they still have an amateur performance element, which sort of gets on my nerves. But that's being picky, because it's drowned out by spectacle, wonderful relationship moments, and a stylish flourish that bodes well for the next movie.

Which, incidentally, covers one book, but will be split into two films, because it's so long and can't be easily trimmed back.

So I definitely recommend all three of these films for a great evening's entertainment. They are fun, provocative, and spectacular. What more can you hope for?

Doctor Who: The End Of Time is The End Of An Era

Posted Monday, January 4, 2010, 9:38 PM

A two part episode to end the year, also ended the reign of the Tenth Doctor, as David Tennant bows out of the iconic role he has so assuredly made his own.

It was, of course, an epic load of silly pseudo-science-fiction, an over-abundance of drama and melodrama, and a healthy dose of unnecessarily tortuous story call-backs. Couple that with celebrity cameos, enigmatic character cameos, and more cliffhangers you can shake a plunger at, and you have a typical Russell T Davies television feast.

It was as entertaining as you can hope for. Yes, it went over the top rather too many times, but that's no different than the original series, which any fan will tell you was an embarrassment as often as it was a triumph. Russell persists in thinking of Doctor Who as a show intended for kids, which though is true, doesn't mean you should be too patronising (like the Sarah Jane Adventures) or you should ignore the adult fans and the Whovians who obsess over it.

Which is why I love to listen to the episode commentaries that Russell participates in, where you get an insight into his intent, and why he makes some of his seemingly sillier story decisions. Really, he knows what his audience wants, and who they are. He is masterfully in control, of so many difficult aspects of writing and Producing scripts, and all he has to reign in is the absurdly over-the-top edge-of-your-seat disastrous cliffhangers. End of the world? End of Reality? End of Time? Who would want to wreak such havoc, realistically? What is the point of ending everything so you have nothing left to rule over?

Anyways, it was an excellent production, wonderfully acted, quite moving, and the appearance right at the end of the Eleventh Doctor was written by the new showrunner and head writer, Steven Moffat, and even those scant few lines of dialogue was marvellously entertaining. It bodes well for its future.

Which is only weeks away, as it is scheduled to return sometime around March or April.

I can't wait.