Thursday, November 29, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Sorry for the lack of posting but work has been all consuming. I haven't had a day off in nearly three weeks now and I'm really starting to feel it. Yet more changes were made to our brief today so the chances of me having any time off this weekend are looking very slim.
Here is another photograph in lieu of words which are not coming very easily at the moment. There's a lot of things I would like to say but I'm bound by very strict non-disclosure agreements here and cannot. And since I am here in the studio for every waking hour of every day I have really done nothing to tell you about.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
A Tourist, A Pigeon and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe
Took this during a brief moment out of the studio today. It makes me smile and sums up a great deal about London to me. A befuddled tourist and a pigeon sitting on the head of a statue, whose identity means nothing to all but the smallest group of people, in this instance, naval scholars.
It was supposed to be Tinseltroos and my Christmas present to ourselves but we'd both had very crappy weeks at work and decided Christmas had to come early. So we rocked out for a few good hours last night when I got home from work and I suspect a little more rawk may happen tonight.
I'm in work again today, but as I have a lot of simulations to run, and most of that involves a great deal of waiting I'm playing a lot of Zelda on my DS. Today has gone thusly. Kick off a simulation, wander round a dungeon in Zelda looking up every now and again to check on progress. Rinse and repeat. Boring but could be worse.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
I'm still working 7 day weeks and have therefore done nothing apart from toil on next summer's box-office fodder so I have nothing fun to share with you good people. I did get my new "proper" camera (as opposed to a snapshot camera) but I haven't had time to take many pictures. The one above I took on my way to work just to make sure it was all functional. The one advantage of doing nothing other than work is that I have been earning a lot of overtime - hence the camera. Nice pictures when I have a spare moment. Those of you who have weekends, have a good one.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
The Backlash Against Computer Generated Imagery
"Now I should point out before we begin that I have major, major issues with digital effects. I had to go through several months of counselling after witnessing the sight of Jabba the Hut digitally recreated and superimposed onto a previously deleted scene in the "updated" version of the first Star Wars film (I refuse to refer to it as A New Hope). And I haven't yet seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but plan to keep things that way after viewing the trailer, which features a Spanish Armada rendered completely devoid of grandeur and menace through the use of CGI.
"Frankly, I would happily see a blanket ban on all digital effects in film, tomorrow. Imagine if science fiction movie makers had to use their ingenuity again when depicting spaceships and monsters (as in the original Alien). We might witness a return to the practice of using scale models, such as those in the original Star Wars films, which were 100 times more realistic than their CGI equivalents in George Lucas' rubbish triptych of prequels." - Ben Child writing in The Guardian
For every well reasoned piece written about CGI there are a mountain demanding a backlash. Most of these pieces and innumerable fora comments are targeted against computer generated visual effects and this week came the call, albeit tongue in cheek, for all CGI to be banned. There seem to be two strands to the complaint. The first is that films with visual effects are aesthetically inferior to those without. This argument is generally couched in terms like "not real" or "fake looking". This is a complaint about the actual imagery produced. The second line of attack comes against the processes themselves and those who use them. Digital effects are created by "boffins" rather than artists and they are made "by a computer", the implication being that no human effort or talent has been expended in their production. Directors are lambasted for resorting to digital trickery rather than using ingenuity and talent as previous generations had.
Before examining the state of digital visual effects it is perhaps worth looking at what qualities are lauded by these critics and therefore, by extension, what CGI apparently lacks. The over-riding concern seems to be one of ingenuity and craft. The hand-crafted models in the 1977 version of Star Wars are regarded more highly than the digital creations in Revenge of the Sith. The question is why? Are they more realistic? This is a very loaded question. Realism is a slippery beast. Is the complaint that, if the film-makers were to construct full size examples of these ships, put them into orbit and photograph them and then compared that footage with a CGI version and a traditional model, the model would more closely resemble the real plate? That is a tough question to answer objectively in this instance. We can however compare the huge amount of virtual set work done using CGI where a digital element takes over from a practical set. Take the exterior of Newark Airport in United 93. This and every aircraft exterior was created digitally, apparently without complaint. If therefore, digital effects artists were able to create, with scientific precision, an object would that then be acceptable or is there more subjectivity at work here?
When Troy was released, complaints were raised in some corners that the ships in the Greek armada had too tiny wakes and almost no bow-wave, a sure sign they said of CGI trickery. A little nautical knowledge is a dangerous thing. The Greek penteconters upon which the CG armada was based were keel-less and had a very shallow draft. There is minimal surface contact between the boat and the sea because it is much harder to row a boat that sits deeply in the water, overcoming drag becomes exhausting and your crew mutinees. These ships create no wake at all, one can examine footage of the 'Olympias', the trireme (a much larger vessel) built for the Greek navy in the 1980s. When creating the effects for the film, the VFX team, of whom I was one, elected to put some wake in as we felt, artistically, it looked odd without them. Perhaps we did not add enough fakery to make the ships believable to that section of the audience. The bow waves were photographically sampled from a real penteconter and layered onto the CGI ships incidentally; they could not have been "more real". The difference between realism and believability is key. They are not synonymous. It is not "reality" that the opponents of CGI crave, it is a believability that they see modern films with digital effects lacking.
Believability of course implies "suspension of disbelief". Everyone, but the most credulous, is aware that fictional films are just that. The events portrayed did not occur. Looking at the mechanics of film-making we do not in reality see in a series of edited long-shots and close-ups. We however buy into their believability because of our continuous exposure to them from the first moment we are placed in front of a television as a tot. We absorb what these devices mean to the point where we no longer need consciously to decode them. Much as when reading a novel the experienced reader does not consciously decode the squiggles on a page into letters, process the assortment of letters into a word and then recall the meaning of that word - this happens subconsciously. We experience cinema similarly, there are tropes, conventions and stylistic choices we learn instantly to decode. Puppetry and model making fall into this category. We understand, certainly in the case of films we saw uncritically as children, the symbolism of the animated Talos in Jason and the Argonauts. Though beautifully animated what we see on screen in no way matches what a 100ft tall bronze giant would look or move like, but we learn how to read this image, how to understand it. We learn how to believe it, and images created in the same manner. Such is the depth of our immersion and our ability to believe in these narrative conventions that a journalist can write the following and no-one will pick him up for making an obviously fatuous statement that live-action films are "real":
"On the other hand, for a movie which features what should be appalling scenes of men having their heads bitten off and gently crunched by Grendel, perhaps the most hideous creature ever to be shown on the big screen, not to mention Angelina Jolie starkers, it somehow fails to really get the blood pumping. And I can't help feeling that's down to the fact that the use of CGI is less affecting than live film. If it's not real, why should we react to it as though it were?" - Ben Child
As we become older, more critical and sophisticated, this entrenched belief changes into a nostalgic familiarity for what we loved and responded to when younger. It is now the aesthetic we delight and believe in. The more familiar the trope, the easier it is for an audience to become immersed. To use the literary analogy once more; if, whilst reading a novel, we come across a word we do not understand we are immediately jolted out of the narrative, the artifice of the literary form laid bare in front of us. This is the problem that CGI has to overcome. For those of an age to post on the Guardian website, CGI effects have come after childhood. There is no deeply ingrained way of decoding them. The only time they work for this audience is when they don't notice them because they are so seamless. To put it crudely, this is why critics respond more harshly to imperfect CGI than they do to sub-par models or puppets, they have no inbuilt mechanism for subconsciously decoding what is happening on screen. The huge, sweeping "impossible" camera moves jolt for the same reason, they lie above our subliminal understanding. That these artificial camera moves are so often combined with CGI merely compounds the problem.
The natural reaction of people to something they don't like is blame. In the case of CGI that blame is generally aimed in two directions, the film's directors and those who actually do the work. Directors are blamed for being "lazy" and visual effects professionals are either labelled "boffins" (another way of saying, in the popular lingo, not artistic or creative) or irrelevant because the effects are created by a computer not a person. This is not as complex an issue to understand as the reaction of an audience to what they see on a screen. This is simply an issue of ignorance and misunderstanding.
Part of the problem is that the process of creating CGI is very complicated, full of acronyms and has a massive learning curve for anyone wanting to understand it. Most people have dabbled with a paint set at some point in their lives, even if only as a child. There is some knowledge therefore that creating a beautiful painting is difficult. We understand how it is done and most of us understand that we cannot do it as well as Rembrandt. The same can be said of puppetry or model-making. We can see that professionals do it so much better than most amateurs. Amongst the majority of consumers of cultural product there is a mannerist appreciation of difficultà or skill. Again from the Guardian comments:
"When it comes to special effects vs. real spectacle, let's be honest. Sometimes, we pay for the thrill of watching people do something difficult, perhaps dangerous or just really, really impressive." - BigBennyBoy
This is not new. John Donne, the poet and preacher, wrote in his "Sermons" (1649) about judging the quality and worth of a painting based on the technique of the artist thus:
"A picture without any drapery, any clothes about it...is much a harder thing, and there is much more art showed in making a naked picture, then in all the rich attire that can be put upon it".
If the average audience member believes that CGI is created by a machine without human input it is quite understandable that they would look upon it as an inferior art to that of a model-maker or painter. Even the term "Computer Generated Imagery" perpetuates this myth. I presume the term, "Artist Designed Computer Generated Image" was deemed too unwieldy. Just as a painter is not criticised for not making his or her own brushes and pigment, neither should the digital artist be lambasted for his or her choice of tool. Every digital effect is designed, described and planned by a human, or more often, a team of humans. Within 50ft of me there are painters, sculptors, animators, model-makers, graphic-designers, engineers, scientists and mathematicians. There will be many for whom the inclusion of the latter three under the heading of "creatives" will seem odd. Surely these are "boffins" so scathingly described thus:
"I actually don't think it's the technology that's to blame. It's the folk that 'use' it...the boffins that harness the tools, are blinded by the possibilities; instead of an artist with a vision we get a gadget obsessed dad in front of a flat an HD TV fiddling with the controls and marveling at the apparent improvement in quality.
I don't think they're is anything wrong with CGI or any digital technology, it's just the people of a certain age and temperament that get very aroused - possibly sexually - by the lengths that can be reached, exaggerated, spoiled, overdone, and polished to an unnatural sheen when working in this field.
Boffins are to blame. You have boffins making films. All should be controlled by the director." - francaisenyc
This comment suggests that those with technical skill must de-facto have no artistic ability, or to put it another way, they are not creative. It is a huge failing of our society that mathematics, engineering and computer programming are not seen as creative disciplines, quite the opposite in fact. When one actually examines them it becomes increasingly apparent that they are deeply creative, but it requires a certain basic level of understanding to appreciate it. If one is illiterate then there is no beauty to a novel. We do not however argue that because there are people who are illiterate that the novel is an invalid art-form; we instead suggest that they should perhaps learn to read. Appreciation of any art-form or culturally creative endeavour requires an investment of intellect and time from the audience. Films and TV are absorbed from an incredibly early age, reading comes a little later. To understand the basic principles of computer programming, mathematics or engineering takes effort and time; if one does not spend that time it is unsurprising that looking at the results of these disciplines is unrewarding and perhaps challenging, maybe even an affront. A computer programme can be a very beautiful thing indeed. When its output is an image of delicate complexity and depth it has an additional level of aesthetic quality that even those without an understanding of programming can appreciate. One comment from the Guardian piece writes:
"The wonder of film was in seeing the smoke of the train coming into the station, the rustle of the leaves in the trees. There's nothing wrong with faking these things - the broiling, rolling seastorm in Pinocchio is an artistic achievemennt of the highest order - but when you fake it with algorithms you simply throw away the mysterious germ of truth in film" - ruskin
I am unsure precisely what point is being made here. In reality smoke moves in a mathematically describable way, as do the leaves on trees, these are the laws of physics. A sophisticated piece of fluid dynamics software in the hands of a technically savvy artist can produce utterly beautiful, convincing results. The smoke can be controlled to behave in a fantastical fashion (wizards apparating in Harry Potter) or to mimic reality incredibly closely. For example, the smoke, along with the towers and debris in World Trade Center was created digitally for obvious reasons. The "mysterious germ of truth in film" sounds to me like a pseud's way of describing nostalgia once again mixed with a great deal of ignorance of the processes that are involved in CGI's creation, either in reality or in simulation.
So, seemingly, it all comes down to familiarity and comfort. Children emerging from any of the Star Wars prequels had the same expression of magical delight on their faces as I did seeing The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi in the 1980s. For this new generation, the current debate on CGI will seem archaic and incomprehensible. In 1929 The American Federation of Musicians ran a series of press advertisements following the introduction of "fake" (pre-recorded) music into films:
"This is the case of Art vs. Mechanical Music in theatres. The defendant stands accused in front of the American people of attempted corruption of musical appreciation and discouragement of musical education. Theatres in many cities are offering synchronised mechanical music as a substitute for Real Music. If the theatre-going public accepts this vitiation of its entertainment program a deplorable decline in the Art of Music is inevitable. Musical authorities know that the soul of the Art is lost in mechanisation. It cannot be otherwise because the quality of music is dependent on the mood of the artist, upon the human contact, without which the essence of intellectual stimulation and emotional rapture is lost."
The idea that someone could object to a recorded film score seems laughable now. In 30 years I believe we will see reprints of the piece from The Guardian being sniggered at in the same way.
British Gas Must Die
Tinseltroos took a day off work yesterday so an engineer could come and service the boiler. He didn't actually "service" it, he more "broke" it, so we now have no heating and must rely on the immersion heater for water, which involves remembering to turn it on an hour before you want any hot water and costs a fortune. The engineer promised to return this morning and repair the damage. He hasn't. British Gas have contacted our land-lord and say they will try and return in a week when they have the required part. Looking at the weather forecast it will be freezing every night this week and we have no heating at all. I am speechless with anger.
Just in case we forget, British Gas only made half a billion pounds in profit for the first six months of this year (£533m to be precise). Apparently this is nowhere near enough to maintain an inventory of boiler parts so that mistakes made by their cack-handed employees can be remedied quickly.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Saturday Nights Alright For...Music apparently.
In my excitement at new guitars and the wonder of dogs I forgot to mention what I did on Saturday night. Tommy Dog had managed to get four of us tickets to see The L.A. Philhamonic play Sibelius' Symphonies 5 and 6 plus a few of his songs at The Barbican (or "Barbie Cannon" as my chum L calls it). We were due to meet up in a pub at 6 for a quick beer before wandering down to the concert hall. It was comfortably close enough to Schossadlerflug to walk, so thirty minutes early I trotted out of our front door and headed east down Clerkenwell Road. I had bought a new zip-up cardigan and had chosen to wear it with a suit. Though it was a cold evening the layers kept me cosy in that way that only several layers of natural fibre can - not baking, can't breathe hot, just toasty and warm.
I got to the pub a few minutes early and enjoyed watching the world go by whilst nursing my pint. Eventually my buddies arrived and we had a drink and a chat before heading down into the bowels of the worst of 1980s architecture which surrounds the Barbican. I like the centre itself, but there are a lot of soulless concrete cubes surrounding it. I hadn't been to a concert there since I went and saw Bert Jansch with L a year or so ago. It's a superb venue. Even though we had seats in the very back row we had an unobstructed view of the whole stage and crucially for me, being a little over six foot, some leg-room. It makes a huge change from the Royal Albert Hall. The performance was very good. They played the pieces in the order I'd have chosen, i.e. ending with the 5th Symphony. This worked doubly well becuase it took most of the performance of the 6th for the orchestra to get into its groove. After the interval they were really very very good. It was a really sweeping reading of the 5th and a delight to the ear. If it lacked the fire and passion of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, they certainly were supremely musically confident.
After the show (about 9.45) I decided to take a little detour and walk around St Paul's Cathedral on my way home. When you start walking through the empty streets of the financial district at night you can't help but feel a little like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. It feels very cool. That opens out into London Wall, which marks the boundary of the old city and from there you can see St Paul's. Not only did I get to hear the bells chime 10 o'clock but I also got to see some of old London at night. I sauntered along Fleet Street past the beautiful old Daily Express offices where I saw three teenage girls attempting rail slides on their skate boards. Using a short-cut I learned from Dr. Nic I was able to cut through up onto Chancery Lane and from there, home. A bowl of apple crumble and custard warmed me ready for bed.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Varied Fun Shenanigans
As I've mentioned previously I made up my mind a couple of months ago that the Flying V would have to go and that all my travels around guitar shops in London had not yielded that which I sought. I put all the search terms I could think of into eBay and sat and watched as nothing turned up for weeks until Tinseltroos suggested I try the US eBay site. I had no idea we in the UK could use it but that's just my dumbness for you. This made perfect sense because not only is it a much bigger marketplace but the type of guitar I desired was very American in nature - and never really caught on here so much. Joy of joys I found the perfect model, a brand new Charvel EVH San Dimas guitar located in a guitar shop in Fort Lauderdale.
The other advantage of buying from the US is that the strength of the pound means I get a lot of guitar for my money. So I bought the instrument and then waited. Firstly I waited for the seller to acknowledge that they'd received my money. This took days during which I panicked that I'd been scammed somehow as the cash had definitely left my account but no word. Finally I hear that they have the money and that the guitar will be dispatched the next day. Days more silence. I prompt them to send me the shipping info so I can track the package and arrange to pay duty when it arrived at Customs. Silence. I begin to get very nervous. Perhaps it really is a scam? I begin to do some extra detective work. By Googling the email address that I sent the PayPal payment to I find out that the firm is a large music store in Florida. I find their 'phone number and call them up. The staff are incredibly helpful and say they will bully the guy who deals with the eBay sales to send me the info. Eventually said guy admits that the courier who took the guitar to the Post Office never got a receipt with the shipping info. ARGH! My beautiful guitar could be anywhere between Fort Lauderdale and a van on the way to our studio and neither I, nor anyone else, have any way of knowing. It could vanish and no-one would be any the wiser. All I could do was wait. Finally on Thursday a letter from the UK Parcel Force turned up demanding that I pay a hundred pounds in import duty and tax before they'd deliver my guitar. I have never been so pleased to hand over a big chunk of money for effectively nothing in my life. And then on Friday the beast turned up. Here it is being held by a happy little rock monkey.
Today we took our annual pilgrimage to Discover Dogs. This year, because Tinseltroos and I have decided which breeds we'd be potentially able and want to own we tracked down the breeders and made sure we met as many of those dogs as possible. I had a play fight with a Griffon Bruxellois (which I would have won had it not run away), as well as petting a Tibetan terrier and a Norfolk terrier. After we'd done our "serious research" we went and played with as many dogs as possible before we tired ourselves out and had to retreat to the Fulham Road for burgers and beer.
Tomorrow I have a meeting with real-life Hollywood film industry types as we try to sell them on the idea of bringing the visual effects on their next project to the studio I work at. I am a mixture of incredibly nervous and very intrigued. It isn't something I do that often because I try and avoid the whole selling side of the business in favour of actually doing the work and I think I make a pretty poor salesman but I really want to work on the project so I'm willing to be a complete whore for a morning. Fingers crossed.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Monday, November 05, 2007
Mixtape - The Nights Are Drawing In
- I Am You - Nightmares on Wax
- Wicked Game - Chris Isaak
- The Valleys - Electrelane
- When the Levee Breaks - Yat Kha
- Paciencia - Tina Grace
- Flashlight Fight (feat. Chuck D) - The Go! Team
- Get Your Snack On - Amon Tobin
- Witchcraft - Wolfmother
- Run to the Hills - Iron Maiden
- Waiting for You - Bent
- Chrono - Kraftwerk
- Enjoy the Silence - Depeche Mode
- Planet Caravan - Black Sabbath
- Be Easy - Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
- Tutti-Frutti - Little Richard
- I Don't Feel Like Dancin' - Scissor Sisters
- Danger Diabolik- Main Theme - Ennio Morricone
- Descendi In Hortum Meum - Laudibus (Conductor: Mike Brewer)
- Kickstart My Heart - Mötley Crüe
It's recipe time again folks. Here's something that Tinseltroos and I created whilst on holiday the weekend before last. In the manner of Danny's Camberwell Carrot from Withnail and I we have named our dish Suffolk Pie because it is the shape of a pie and we created it in Suffolk.
Here's what you do. Slice up three leeks, a red onion, a red and a green pepper and two courgettes (zucchini). Fry the leeks and onion in olive oil for a few minutes until they begin to go translucent then add the rest of the veg and cook for another ten minutes or so. Season to taste. Add some chopped parsley and take off the heat and spoon into a shallow ceramic dish. Make a Mornay sauce or if you can't be bothered with that just heat some créme frâiche in a pan and add the cheese to that. We used mature cheddar for a good strong flavour. Pour this mixture over the vegetables. Sprinkle bread cut into half inch cubes over the top and then sprinkle a little more grated cheese on top. Put the pie into a hot oven until the bread/cheese looks golden and delicious.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Buttle, Not Tuttle
Labels: complaints dept
Friday, November 02, 2007
My head hurts. It is no-one's fault but mine own. Well the lovely people who came to the pub to help celebrate my fake birthday also had a hand in it but there were operating with the best of intentions I'm sure. My suffering is as nothing compared to Tinseltroos who may have had a beer too many and is currently contemplating all the joys and perils that a slice of toast may have in store for her.
I am lucky old sod you know. I have in the past organised big weekend birthday dos to try and see all my chums who, due to us all working silly hours, I don't get to see all that often. This year, because T and I had our weekend away over my birthday I thought I'd keep it low key. I sent out an e-mail saying I would be in The Clachan, a beautiful Victorian pub in Soho, from quitting time onwards if anyone fancied stopping by for a pint. By the time the full complement was present almost half the pub were my friends. Such good people. It's always a treat when you get different groups of friends mixing for the first time. I found myself looking around the room thinking, "But you don't know them." And yet happy, involved conversations were had by all. I count myself so fortunate that this wonderful group of people consider themselves to be my friend and to see them all together is a rare treat.
At eleven o'clock the pub staff kicked the last of us out and Tinseltroos and myself bade farewell to Tommy Dog, Miss Weeza, Joopie, Danny Boy and the Fake Frenchman and we all weaved our slightly tipsy paths into the night. If I'd been smart I would have taken a camera but I am not smart so you'll all have to use your imaginations. I am now off to rub my temples and consider what I might usefully achieve at work today. Oww.