The problem with Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a strange beast of a film. On its surface, it has everything I could ever want in a big holiday movie; battles, orcs, amazing special effects, and the best representation of a dragon onscreen ever. 

And yet it left me flat. 

 

 

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Visual effects we still can’t get right

For all the razzle-dazzle of current CGI, there are still a few areas where we’re left wanting. New York Metro details four things movies still can’t convincingly pull off.

My own additions to this list would include some creature effects, as only top end digital beasties like Gollum or…well, Gollum seem to be utterly convincing. Creature animation has always been the toughest part of VFX animation and that won’t change no matter how many petaflops you throw at the problem. Andy Serkis is the reason Gollum works..or at least he’s a component of the hard work everyone puts in to make you forget Gollum isn’t there.

But even when effects are utterly convincing, as they are in Man of Steel or Avatar, you still check out a little bit. It’s all just so “big” that you brain slides into apathy. Alien jungle? Check. Entire city collapsing? Meh. You don’t want to, or at least I don’t, but you care a little bit less about the goings-on because it’s all stunningly common-place.

I think it might also have something to do with the overriding subject. Gravity has two characters and a very simple goal; survive. It also employs stunning effects that you don’t question, because you care more about the characters than you do about pixels flying around. It’s a very thin tightrope, and to maintain that tension the effects have to be both invisible and impeccable, but Gravity pulls it off. Minus an Alfonso Cuaron at the helm, the likelihood of that combination declines sharply.

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The world of digital comics

Comics, like the rest of the publishing industry, have undergone a huge shift in the last decade. There was a time not so long ago when you had to march down to a specialty comic book store, make sure you had a “pull list” so you wouldn’t miss the latest foil-cover collectors edition of Hawk & Dove, and dedicate physical space to a growing set of boxes containing your favourite 4-coloured funnies.

The emergence of tablets has changed the game. You can now easily download conventional comics through Comixology, DC and Marvel apps, and other means. More than that, people are using the malleability of digital to create new forms of comics, from Batman ’66 where you can reproduce the “BIF! BAM! POW!” of the old show to guided reading and augmented reality.

I have no idea where all this is going, but if it’s anything like the rest of media, there are a few likely outcomes. For one, a lot more independent and self-published content will become available, just as happened with webcomics in the past and is happening the e-book space at present.

On the other end of the scale, bigger companies like Marvel, DC and others they partner with can continue with new ways to use tablets and other platforms. The Big Two also have the advantage of huge stables of beloved characters, which they can (and will) exploit in as many ways as they can. Can’t really blame them.

Of course, a slice of humanity will always want to read a comic on paper, to feel the pages run under their fingers and smell the ink. I can understand that, and I sometimes feel the same way, doubly so when it comes to books. But there’s something to be said for having an entire library in a tablet, and having an entire run of a comic series in a virtual folder.

I think it’s inevitable that this convenience will win out over nostalgia, just like it did with movies and music and books. We may lose the physical aspects of reading, whether its words, pictures, or some combination of both, but I don’t think we’ll ever lose the love for the medium, no matter what form it takes.

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Things you should listen to on the internets

It’s been a while since I’ve run through my list of podcasts I listen to (and, less often nowadays, watch) so here’s a compilation of some of the newest and greatest:

Canadaland: Jesse Brown’s new thing takes aim at the Canadian media. About time somebody did.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel: The Nerdist network’s flagship podcast with Chris Hardwick can be pretty hit and miss. When he has a good guest, it’s gold, but sometimes it’s just kind of meh. Not so with the Nerdist Writer’s Panel, which is almost always chock full of interesting conversations with writiers of tv, film and comic books.
Inkstuds: Speaking of comic books, this local offering is a cornucopia of great interviews with comic book creators from the strictly indie end of the spectrum. Definitely worth a listen.
Cinema Sewer Podcast: Robin Bougie is a local filth merchant and the publisher of Cinema Sewer, a zine that celebrates the best in sleaze. He’s just started a podcast covering the same material, and it’s remarkably polished.
That Post Show: Kanen Flowers is an indie filmmaker out of Portland, Oregon. The show has a cast of regulars and can get very technical, which depending on your familiarity with the tools being discussed, but if you’re into post-production it’s well worth a listen.

All these audio entertainments cost you only your time, so go check them out.

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Gear fatigue

I’ve always been fascinated with the newest and shiniest filmmaking equipment. Even back in the 90s, when I was taking Broadcast Production at NAIT, I avidly followed the “cheap” 16mm cameras that were just coming onto the market and servicing indie auteurs.

Time passes, technology advances, and now practically anyone can make a film. DSLRs don’t look like film, really, but they look close enough that they’ve become an acceptable alternative. Almost any computer can cut together video in a professional manner. I’ve even made a few short films myself.

But one thing that hasn’t changed in the 20-odd years I’ve been noodling about with film gear is the endless “if only” factor of the latest tech. You can get a DSLR, and make serviceable images, but if only you had a C300. Or an FS100. Or an Alexxa. Or the Holy Grail of film dilettantes everywhere, the RED camera. If only your computer was that much faster, that graphics card that much more powerful, your RAM maxed out to…well, you get the idea.

All well and good, and I wish nothing but luck with those who use these tools. But after all this time I’m starting to get tired of keeping up with it all. I’m starting to think it would make more sense not only to use what I’ve got…but also take a step back from the whole process.

I’ll still write scripts for short films, but given the incredibly thin odds of getting a feature made or financed, I’m starting to look at other forms of (fictional) writing. Like books, short stories, comic books and audio plays. None of these hold any more promise of success than film, but they do promise more tangible results.

And at the end of the day, success (or the lack thereof) can be just another way to avoid doing what needs doing. What needs doing is writing, creating, experimenting. Not fantasizing about the next best thing. If there’s one thing Radio Free Skaro has taught me, it’s that just plugging away at something for the love of the process means more, and yields more tangible results, than any shiny new toy ever could.

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Bookshelf Doctors!

In an attempt to keep being creative, I’ve been looking into making comic books. However, my drawing skills are (at this point) minimal at best so I’ve started putting together photo comics using objects I have at hand. Unsurprisingly, that means Doctor Who action figures are being drafted to comedic effect, as seen below:

bookshelfdoctors1

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Video Free Skaro: the final episode and a post mortem

Here’s the final episode of Video Free Skaro for your enjoyment. It’s much longer than the usual episodes and it’s chock-a-block full of interviews, action figure shenanigans and other goodness!

And if you’d like a breakdown of how and why we made it and why we’re finishing up with it, read on.

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Canuxploitation!

Ever woken up and said “wow, I’d love to see the lowest and dirtiest cinematic offerings Canada had to offer in the 1970s and 80s?” Well, probably not, but here it is anyway. Enjoy!

And if you like this sampler of Canada’s filthiest Z-grade trash, be sure to check out Canuxploitation, the definitive resource for exploitation film north of the U.S. border.

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Comic books!

I’ve recently been on a kick to learn how to create comic books. I have a bunch of ideas rattling in my head for stories and sagas and most of them would require a Hollywood budget and unlimited free time to manifest themselves as moving images.

But where film denies me, comic books provide. The budget of a story in a comic book is essentially limitless, but there is one problem…it requires art. And I am no artist, at least not when it comes to drawing anything past a stick man. So I’ve tried to concentrate on writing, which I can actually do with a modicum of skill.

Of course the best thing about writing is avoiding writing by reading books in a serious, chin-stroking manner, so I’ve tackled Write or Wrong by Dirk Manning, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics and How to Make Webcomics, as well as Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, Volume 2.

The most practical advice is found within the pages of Write or Wrong, where author Dirk Manning advises newbies to concentrate not on multi-part sagas but 5 to 10 page, self-contained stories. Make it in black and white, and for the love of all that’s holy…avoid superheroes. He’s right about all these things, and I hope to explore all of these limitations/creative kicks in the pants in the next little while.

Of course, I’ll still need to find an artist, otherwise it’s just all words on a page. So first comes the writing and the agonizing and the giving up and the starting all over again….and then I have to find someone who can draw. Any volunteers?

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Recent happenings: Gallifrey Academy and Gallifrey One

That fine piece of work above is Gallifrey Academy, my latest short Doctor Who film. Every year I try to make a short film in advance of Gallifrey One, the biggest Doctor Who convention in North America (more on that later.) This year I was lucky enough to run it ahead of our Radio Free Skaro live show in front of a big crowd, and it got a pretty decent reception. Kyle Anderson, a friend and writer for The Nerdist, also featured the short in his Gallifrey One wrap up.

The film featured the talents of Eric Fell, Joanna Gaskell and Shaun Stewart in front of the camera, as well as a certain Time Lord whose identity I’m not at liberty to disclose. All those named can be seen here in Vancouver at the Critical Hit Show, a hilarious live Dungeons and Dragons improv that happens every month at the Rio Theatre. Laurel Brown, Vanessa Driveness (who also played an apathetic Shobogan) and Mel Siermaczeski also helped out behind the scenes.

And how was Gallifrey One (or Gally, as its know to its many fans)? Simply amazing. I’ve been for five years running now, and the sheer amount of Whocentric content never ceases to amaze me. Shaun Lyon and the other hard-working people who have been putting on the convention for a quarter-century(!) pour their heart and souls into this yearly event, and it shows. Now matter what you’re into in the Whoniverse, there’s someone else at the convention who digs what you dig.

What’s next? Well, it’s a guarantee I’ll be at Gallifrey One next year, and I’ve got a few ideas for the next short film. I try to be more ambitious with each film, so next year, expect ILM quality visuals and a 6 hour running time. No pressure.

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