Social Networking with Scott Kirsner

I attended a seminar on Wednesday with Scott Kirsner, organised by North West Vision and Media (they should have a video of the event on their site shortly). He made a great presentation summarizing his book “Fans, Friends and Followers” with example YouTube videos and websites, and we had an interesting Q&A session afterwards.

I came away energised and (perhaps mistakenly) confident that I can use the internet to fund and distribute my work. Fortunately, Steve Turnbull mailed me an early draft of our new web serial “Winter” the night before, so I had something concrete to visualize applying these promotional techniques to. The key is to start early, and be patient – it takes time to build an audience. Let the promotion begin…

Choice of the Dragon

Choice of Games have released a free web-based multiple-choice game called Choice of the Dragon. It’s basically an RPG pared down to the most meaningful choices. Imagine half-an-hour of random combat and exploration between each of the choices, and you’ve got Mass Effect or Fable.

It’s a striking design choice, which works well – the text is terse but witty, and the choices reveal character…forcing you to decide whether your dragon is cruel or merely disdainful. And the consequences of your choices play out later in the story. My only real criticism is that with such concise vignettes you have little time to develop empathy with any of the characters your dragon meets – but that may also be because you’re a dragon, who doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy anyway.

The best thing is that they are working to make the scripting language and interpreter available to anyone. It’s not just a branching tree of options, they have support for simple variables so that extra choices can be made available based on past actions, or the success of a given choice can depend on your previous experience. I hope we’ll see a whole crop of games exploring the strengths of this minimalist format – anything from intimate character dramas to epic tales of world domination. I can even imagine major games studios prototyping their plot arcs in this engine.

The interpreter has been ported to several mobile phone platforms too, so you can download Choice of the Dragon for free for your iPhone or Android phone. And finally, they have a blog discussing the finer points of creating games in this format, which is well worth a read.

So, why not go and write a game?

Manuskript – Protect and Survive

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Manuskript - Protect and Survive
This was a classic case of “not what you know, but who you know”. Mike Uwins of Neon Zoo also happened to be the lead singer of legendary pop-goth band Manuskript, and he liked Darkest Dance enough to ask me to shoot a video for their new single, launching their latest album. This was a great opportunity for me because Neon Zoo were new on the scene – and while they made a striking entrance attracting considerable publicity, Manuskript already had a huge following within the goth scene. I’d been a fan for years (in fact Mike gave me a copy of one of their hard-to-find albums to complete my collection, which was cool).

So, we set a couple of weekends for the band (who live all over England) to get together so I could film them. Mike effectively produced the shoot – he conceived the setting, story, arranged locations and costumes. I didn’t really appreciate how much organising he did at the time. So I just turned up with as much kit as possible, and winged it…

Day 1
Mike had got access to a dingy warehouse to film in. It was freezing cold and certain corners smelt decidedly unsavoury, but I was too busy to notice. I did spot some obscene graffiti we had to cover with paper though.
I’d brought my homemade dolly for it’s first real use, and the trusty halogen site lights. Mike had borrowed a PD150 to shoot with, which was a joy to use, and produced excellent footage. The guys set up in the middle while I lit the space, which was a nightmare without proper lights. I had no dimmers, no barn doors, no gels or gobos or anything really. All I could do was move the lights closer or further away. I just about managed a satisfactory look.
Then the band mimed while I filmed, rolling back and forth across the front of the “stage” shooting two takes each of wide, medium and closeup shots. I also shot a take from a static tripod directly in front. The PD150 had good enough optics to get a nice soft background in the closeups, which delighted me. Then we went back to Mike’s for Chinese and a quick review of the footage.

Day 2
A few weeks later, we reconvened at a Saturday night gig in a pub (a very small venue for Manuskript). A military enthusiast friend of Mike’s was providing all the costumes and fake guns for the Cold War Berlin setting. Mike had also recruited a model who had come all the way from London on the train to star opposite him. My wife and I had booked into the same hotel as her for the night, which was going to double as our first location. We didn’t have permission to film and were worried about being denied it, so we decided to start shooting the corridor scenes at 7am, hopefully before anyone would be around to notice us.
Mike and I had worked out the rough story beats on the phone, but I hadn’t visited any of the locations, so I had to make up the shots, blocking, lighting and camera positions as I went along. This continued all day, but Mike had conveniently arranged to visit the locations in sequence, which helped enormously.
For this shoot, the PD150 was unavailable so I was stuck with my JVC DV4000, which was noticeably poorer. I relied on practical light in the hotel corridors, and created a cheap steadicam by bolting the camera to a folded tripod and just holding it at roughly the centre of gravity. We got the shots, and moved into one of the rooms.
Again, lighting was a nightmare. The uncontrolled halogen light bounced around the magnolia walls turning everything yellow, and I was in such a rush I forgot to white balance. It’s still an ugly yellow in the final video, because the DV footage didn’t have enough latitude to grade it out. But we got the shots and moved on.
Next location was a pub with a small cave behind it (Nottingham is riddled with caves), for the prison cell. Another nightmare to light, because I could only put lights at the front of the cave for the wide shot. On the closeups I used a small light at the back to outline the cast. This sequence had some simple dialogue that had to be comprehensible without audio and some simple action. It was remarkably fun to direct, and the band members were wonderfully cooperative. We also did a couple of shots outside in the street, where a row of trees and brick buttresses disappearing into the morning haze looked very appropriate for Berlin.
We grabbed lunch on the way to the final location – the band’s studio, in a converted mill building with an enclosed courtyard which looked suitably bleak. A car was parked right where we wanted to shoot, and looked like a modern Renault even with a tarpaulin over it. My wife brilliantly suggested stacking some stuff under the tarp to make it tank-shaped.
Mike’s military expert arrived to brief the band on how to move and salute like soldiers while I planned the blocking and camera moves. He did a superb job. We finished the elaborate exterior scenes and moved into a stairwell inside for the climactic gunfight just as dusk fell.
Inside, the lighting setup I was obliged to use was bold but workable. All shooting was mimed ready for muzzle flash in post. My long-suffering wife almost froze in the unheated building, but finally we wrapped.

Editing this was a challenge. First I synced up the band footage on parallel layers so I could switch between them. I did a quick pass picking out all the coolest shots of the band performing, and then started fitting the “story” sequences in between. Sometimes I’d need to add a bit more of the band performing to bridge two story scenes, sometimes I’d have to cut shots I liked to fit the story in.
I had to add muzzle flash to gunshots, paint out a couple of UK signs, find establishing shots of Berlin landmarks on the internet, and grade everything to look as good as it could.
Finally I rendered it out in three different formats and created an HTML frontend for the data section of Manuskripts enhanced CD single. Mike and I both worked through the night communicating by phone and email to get the CD master ready on time. It was surprisingly fun.

This is where I failed. Once the video was delivered, I relaxed. I did submit it to a couple of festivals, but it was a half-hearted effort. I should have posted low-quality teasers all over the web, visited forums, hit every music and film fest I could. But at the time, I was just pleased to have completed another project. And I’m still very proud of it.

Planning ahead

So, here’s my current plans for 2010 – outside work, at least. I’ll post about my TT projects when they’re announced.

• Write making-of posts for the rest of my films. I’m doing them in chronological order, and the more recent ones are bigger projects and fresher in my memory – which means the posts take much longer to write.

• Cut a trailer for Monsters to enter in the inaugural Trailer Festival. Ironically, this was our original plan, until I persuaded everyone that the mini-pilot format would be a better use of the budget. The ideal trailer would have more characters, more locations and more VFX, which takes money (and/or big favours). So I’m going to try some experimental editing…

• “Winter”! This is a brand new script by Steve Turnbull, written specifically as a web serial. It’ll be the most ambitious project I’ve worked on – the biggest new challenges for me are directing action and doing our own publicity. Lots to plan, and we’ll be keeping a production diary too. This is the focus of the year.

• I’m working on a feature script of my own, which is still an incomplete outline. I’d like to get a few drafts done within the year if I can, mostly to prove to myself that I can write a feature.

Should be a hectic but rewarding year!

Doctor Who RPG

Since it’s now on the shelves, I’m fairly sure the NDA I signed has lapsed, so I’m going to blog about it…

I was lucky enough to get to playtest Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space a few months ago (all thanks to Jac Rayner), and I’ve been biting my lip ever since. There are detailed reviews elsewhere (Try, so I’ll keep it short: the game is utterly inspired.

Cubicle 7 have created a simple system with a built-in bias against violent solutions, which really captures the essence of the show. Some reviewers have interpreted the minimalist rules as a sign that it’s targeted at younger novice players; which it is, but that shouldn’t put off experienced roleplayers. My favourite systems are those with the fewest rules; Amber and Nobilis in particular.

But the best thing was that I got to play the Doctor. And it was amazing.

I’ve been a Who fan since I was about 4, so I am steeped in that universe. The Doctor was my first and strongest role model. The system is designed to promote dialogue and problem-solving over fighting, and as the Doctor I honestly felt like I could march into ANY situation, hold court and solve everything – but if not, I could always run away and try something else. Over a decade of ground-in roleplayer’s paranoia evaporated in minutes. It was like flying.

The only flaw we detected in our playtest was that the companions can have little to do (or perhaps I just monopolised the GM and ordered them around). The simplest solution seems to be to split up the party so that the Doctor can’t do everything himself, but careful character design could also alleviate that problem – making sure the party have complementary skills, and that everyone has at least one specialist skill they can do better than the Doctor. Also, we used characters we’d generated that afternoon, so the group didn’t have much chance to build up relationships between the Doctor and companions. A few more sessions and I think we’d have settled into a comfortable partnership.

Character creation is astonishingly versatile, allowing you to create humans, aliens, robots, even Time Lords. And the game encourages alternative party setups such as a group of Time Lords or Unit agents. They really have made anything possible. I can’t wait for Cubicle 7’s expansion books…

Doctor Who: The End of Time

Warning, spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it yet…

I’ll admit to shedding a tear at the passing of David Tennant’s Doctor, and a fanboy squee! at the almost-return of the Time Lords. But really, Russell T’s era peaked at Doomsday and never quite managed to attain the same level of emotion without feeling contrived. Davies’ scripts are strong on emotion but when the plot gets too reliant on coincidence and lazy technobabble, my suspension of disbelief is destroyed and the emotional highs feel hollow, although the great acting and score usually manage to carry them off to some extent.

In this story, the Master is resurrected by some random groupies who are wheeled on for this scene and never heard of before or since. His wife conveniently has a plan to sabotage the process, which has no effect other than to give him superpowers that give the Mill more work. This imperfect resurrection manifests in three completely unrelated ways, one of which is purely cosmetic. Then he’s kidnapped by a random rich guy to fix an alien machine which conveniently gives him an opportunity to take over the world…again. It’s all too coincidental. The changes to the timeline in Waters of Mars are never mentioned – seems like the Time Lords could have used the Master to escape at any point in history. And by the end everything goes back to the way it was before, except that Wilf is stuck in a deathtrap ready for the Doctor to save him. Tennant performs brilliantly, but the story feels so transparently engineered. The greatest hits epilogue was nice but heavy-handed and felt unrealistically protracted, as if the Doctor can go weeks after a mortal wound before actually having to regenerate. I was looking forward to this because Euros “Children of Earth” Lyn is a fantastic director given decent material, but this isn’t his finest hour.

Still, hopefully the new era will be better – Steven Moffat is much better at coherent plotting and consistent use of the SF elements, so I expect his new rebranded version of the show to be more thoughtful and less hysterical. Roll on spring…

Stereoscopic 3D – worth the effort?

I went to see the IMAX 3D version of Avatar over Christmas – I was sure I ordered digital tickets but the projection didn’t look digital, judging by the registration on the credit scroll. It wasn’t as crisp as I expected either.

Avatar is certainly a technical tour de force. The story is fairly well-worn and a bit predictable, but it’s so well executed that I don’t mind. I was still drawn into the world of the film. But I was most interested in what advances they’d made in the 3D techniques.

To be honest, for the most part the 3D doesn’t add much – until the climactic battle. Having proper depth perception made it far easier to read the action in a frame crowded with flying lizards and helicopters. This fits with my experience of 3D in games – depth perception makes it far easier to judge spatial relationships, particularly handy in a platform game. Generally, third-person games where the player spends most of their time watching the character will look great. First-person games will struggle, because it’s harder to judge which part of the screen the player is focusing on, and it’s critical that the 3D effect matches the viewer’s focal point to avoid headaches.

Although theatres are hoping that 3D will draw audiences away from their home cinema systems, there are several home 3D solutions in development, and a new generation of consoles due within 5 years. I predict that as soon as a new console supports stereoscopic 3D, it will drive takeup of the home 3DTVs far faster than movies will – and theatres will be on the back foot again.