Sunday, May 28, 2006

More Render Tests

These are the 21 shots that make up my short film. I rendered a still from each shot to check lighting levels, framings and so on. The grade and post render effects are how I see the finished sequence at the moment though these may of course change with time, so the look's not absolutely final yet. I'll probably get the sequence rendering tonight. 5400 frames to go...

Alexander Toth 1928-2006

His name is unlikely to feature in any of the obituary columns of the newspapers nor to be mourned nor mentioned in the arts reviews but amongst a small group of people, those who love comic books, the sad news that Alex Toth died yesterday morning will come as a huge blow. Toth was often cited as a cartoonist's cartoonist, one whose name whilst not widely known beyond the confines of comics was widely hailed within it as being the best there was.

For me, as a sometime draughtsman, there are three aspects to Toth's work that provide continuing inspiration and amazement.

Firstly, Toth's line work is utterly exceptional. To be able to define any surface or shape with a few, deft pen strokes is a remarkable talent, to be able to draw the sexiest people, to create and describe whole worlds, both real and imaginary with bold, decisive pen-marks that are still able to carry every subtlest nuance of detail or expression is what marked him as a cut above for me, and it's the people of Toth's world that bring me to the second thing I admired him most for.

Alex Toth drew the sexiest people to grace comic books, both male and female. His Zorro could not be more dashing, his Catwoman the most intriguing and beguiling interpretation. But it's not just his eye for a beautiful face or body, it's that everyone he drew seemed like a person with a history, an agenda and a back-story. Even the figures who populate the backgrounds of his drawings are alive, and unlike so many comics are not identikit cardboard cut-outs merely there to fill up a little panel space. Very few artists (Rembrandt and Hogarth are two that readily spring to mind) are able to draw such variety of humanity, even within the limits of the most generic of media.

The final aspect of Toth's talent that, for me, made him pre-eminent was his compositional skill. His graphic eye and unerring ability to make every panel of every page fizz with dynamism and life are a treat to behold and no matter how familiar you may be with the page it always seems fresh; his style is timeless. Toth did a series of Zorro cartoons, I believe for newspaper syndication in the 1950s. To fit in with their remit almost every panel in the Zorro series has exactly the same proportion; a very limiting factor for as vibrant and expressive artform as the comic book. Yet as an object lesson in composition I cannot think of a better primer for any budding artist, film-maker or graphic artist than Toth's Zorro comics. Every panel is perfectly judged even though their shape is constant he never seems to repeat himself nor allowed the format to become stale.

Though he was probably best known for the great design work he did for Hanna-Barbera on such series as "Space Ghost" it will be his prodigious comic book art that I shall always remember him for. Thank you Alex Toth, artists like you come along once a generation. is Alex Toth's official website and includes a fine gallery of some of his work.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Veggie Lasagne

Because I was tucked up in bed very contentedly and highly asleep all last Saturday morning it meant that I wasn't in William Rose Butchers on Lordship Lane. The knock-on effect of this was no meat at home for Mr Atrocity this week. So I made a veggie lasagne instead. I hadn't tried making one before and didn't have a recipe so I busked it and I was quite happy with the results so I'm recording it here lest I forget.

If you make your own pasta, make the dough first. This can be resting whilst you make the sauces. I made the simple 4oz Tipo 00 flour to 1 egg variety with no semolina or extra yolks. I made 4 eggs worth of dough. Once that was in the fridge doing its glutenous thing I set to work on the rest.

Peel and finely chop 2 medium onions, 2 large cloves of garlic, 4 large carrots, 3 large courgettes and 2 peppers. Put a good slug of olive oil in a heavy bottomed stockpot and heat. Add the onion and garlic and begin to fry till the onions go translucent. Add the remainder of the veg and stir for a couple of minutes to get everything mixed and starting to cook. Chop 8 tomatoes into eighth's and add these to the pot. Pour over a mug full of vegetable stock and add a squirt of tomato puree and a little sugar, salt and pepper. Put the lid on the pot and turn the heat down to let this all simmer and become saucy.

Turn on the oven to heat up to 180 degrees Celsius.

Once your pasta dough has rested (I leave it for about an hour) roll it all out and make it into lasagne. I have one of those pasta mangles which makes finer lasagne than using a rolling pin and doesn't leave you with fore-arms like Popeye once you're done. You could use a rolling pin, but your pasta will be quite a bit thicker.

Next take the lid off the veggies and see how they're doing. I found that there was a bit more liquid than I'd like in the pan at this stage so I left the lid off to get some of the excess to evaporate. Now make a regular mornay sauce. The usual, make a roux (with butter), add milk and then cheese (without rennet if you're doing this properly) and allow the sauce to thicken as it simmers. I tend to stir the sauce with a balloon whisk as it minimises lumps.

Now put a layer of veg, some mornay sauce and a layer of pasta in a ceramic dish and build up the layers till its full or you run out of filling. Make sure that you leave enough mornay to thinly cover the top layer. I added some black pepper over the top at the end. Pop it into the oven and cook till the sauce on the top has turned pleasingly golden.

Eat it.

That's it.

The end.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reviewing the reviewers

Mark Lawson, professional reviewer and pundit, has a piece in today's Guardian about criticism and the rise of critic-proof movies such as "The Da Vinci Code" which despite a pretty uniform savaging by critics world-wide has proved highly successful at the box office. Lawson's thesis is that such movies or books are immune to the critic because they have a star the audience wishes to sleep with, (Tom Hanks? Really? Are we sure?) are developed from an already massively popular cultural phenomenon, or because whilst critics are delicate aesthetes, the public is seeking escapism and therefore their requirements are different.

The question the piece raises therefore is what function do mainstream media critics serve now? In the past they served as a filter to assist the rest of us who cannot spend all day in the cinema to choose what to go and see with the limited time at our disposal. Today we have internet trailers, we have innumerable websites all proffering opinion, amateur and professional alike, so any review we read is tempered by a greater knowledge of the film being reviewed, if only in a distorted trailer-edited version. Audiences no longer have to take the views of a very small minority as their sole source of information and this I would argue is an advance.

I gave up reading film-reviewers long ago simply because I cannot find one with whom I agree on any kind of regular basis, and as someone whose job is to recommend (or not) something for me to see at the flicks, that is his or her sole function. I should draw the distinction here between "ahead of time reviewers", like Lawson, and the critics who write essays and treatises on films as a critical study for those who have seen the film, like David Thomson for example. And this lack of agreement between me and every film reviewer I've consistently read goes for the arty films Lawson lauds as well as block-buster schlock. An example occurs to me. "City of God" was hailed as a gritty, yet stylish piece of film-making about growing up in a Sao Paulo street gang. I found it trite, insultingly simplistic, pornographically violent and the only character ever to show any emotion at all is thereafter written out of the story. But it was from a non-Hollywood director, it was in a foreign language and allegedly dealt with "issues". Lawson says that the general public seeks escapism, I would argue most critics seek something that they can write an article about that chimes with the rest of their paper's content. This has no bearing on the actual quality of the film. Yes, there is a problem with street crime amongst young gangs in Brazil. Yes, the liberal media are highly agitated about it. Yes, it is good that the hegemony of Hollywood is challenged. None of these points, however important as issues in their own right are, makes "City of God" a good film. All it provides is a useful framework on which to hang a load of other issues that raise the ire of the reviewer and his or her employer, and to demonstrate that the reviewer has the right set of political and cultural attitudes to fit in with his or her contemporaries.

Lawson argues that just because the public has flocked to see The Da Vinci Code does not render reviewers useless :

"If The Da Vinci Code had been an unknown novel, media indifference could have killed the film. The same would have been true if [Mel] Gibson had made a Latin-language movie about Catullus rather than Christ, or Cruise were a novice actor appearing in a movie called Shanghai Tower rather than Mission: Impossible III. The reason all of these movies could bypass the thoughts of the arts pages is that at least one name - Da Vinci, Christ, Cruise, Mission: Impossible - brought in a pre-sold audience...

In the area of fiction - on factual subjects, there is a greater crossover of taste between punters and pundits - the books pages and the bookshops are separate states, with almost no travel between them. Which is perhaps the place to say that my review of The Da Vinci Code as a book was not "wrong", at least in my opinion; it simply applied values - of literacy, plausibility and characterisation - that are clearly not significant in the choices of beach and plane readers."

This I do not agree with. There are plenty of shoddily written books, and badly made films which do not become successful and to suggest that willful philistinism on the part of the public explains the success of The Da Vinci Code in whatever medium is simplistic. Much can be made of successful advertising, hype (of which the critics are a part) and indeed people's pre-disposition to the current fashionable sensibilities. "Citizen Kane" was lauded upon it's release, derided as being an essay in style over content in the late '40s and was then resurrected to its current status by a new band of critics in the 1950s. The film had not changed, it was merely a different audience with a different perspective. There is a far more complex interplay between the makers of art, the work that results and the audience who consume it than Lawson's aesthetes versus escapists argument suggests and this is fluid both geographically, socially and through time.

A final word from John Lasseter, a maker of very fine films in my opinion, "I believe in the nobility of entertaining people, and I take great, great pride that people are willing to give me two or three hours out of their busy lives." Amen to that.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Crapper of St. George

Crapper of St George, originally uploaded by Mr Atrocity.

All in the UK cannot have failed to notice that a football World Cup is almost upon us. As a football fan I am not immune to this but what I am inured to is the panoply of St George branded tat that accompanies all such tournaments and the sprouting of flags everywhere making the whole country look, as Jeremy Hardy put it, like a Loyalist housing estate.

I was moderately irritated by the trainers I saw in Lillywhite's with a tab you can fold back in the event of England actually winning the damned thing reading "'66 '06", a reference to the last (and only) time England won. I was puzzled by Stanley, a manufacturer of construction tools and DIY kit, who have brought out a range of flag of St. George branded spirit levels, tape measures and the like. But I was downright flabbergasted by what you see above, spotted in a shop on the Walworth Road in London (off which Charlie Chaplin was born for those who care).

What does a flag of St George lavatory seat mean? "Every movement I make I'm further in touch with my deep cultural roots"? "I'm crapping for Sven and the boys"? It's a mystery. Does someone look at their home and think, "Well I've got the replica shirt, I have the trainers and the spirit level but what's missing? Hmmm, let me see. Yup that's it, it is not enough for my body to be covered in England, that I check my shelves with England. No, I also have to take a shit with England too".

It boggles my tiny mind.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Atrocity learns a lesson

This week has been very strange and highly emotional for reasons it isn't prudent to go into here. I merely preface this piece with that information in order that you may realise that I'm "not quite myself" and that might make what I'm about tell you a wee bit more comprehensible.

So, to the nub of the matter. I am currently obsessed with a video game called "Animal Crossing". Now those that know me will say that I am not much of a gamer, which is true. A half hour of Counter Strike once in a while is plenty, thanks. If pushed, I favour "knifey-grenadey", a variant of the game which precludes the use of all ranged weaponry. It's very Ancient Greek really; they poured scorn on the Persians for the effeminate antics of using bows and arrows and, even more girly, wearing trousers. Real men wore skirts and no under-pants, if that, something which I still don't understand. Anyway back to the point in hand - I don't really play games and I didn't own a current gaming system. But I felt I must be missing out on something here. So I asked around the studio I work in. Being a visual effects facility the place is stuffed full of uber-geeks who were keen to evangelise their favoured platform/game etc. The distillation of all this wisdom was that I should buy a Nintendo DS and Animal Crossing, which I did.

The principle of Animal Crossing is straight forward, you are a cute little person who moves to a small seaside village populated by other small cute people with whom you must live, chat with and help out. You can collect shells and fruit, dig for fossils or go fishing all in a totally non-linear way. It's like Grand Theft Auto for hippies, basically. Now many of the inhabitants of my village are a bit weird or irritating. There's Roald the weight-training obsessed penguin, or Opal the elephant, who's always complaining about her boyfriends and so on. Alice, on the other hand, was pretty sensible, and calls everyone "geezer" or "guvnor" which I thought was sweet. Alice and I had got on, she'd helped decorate my little house, I'd run a few errands for her and the things she had to say were pretty funny. Then disaster struck, I went round to her house to find all her stuff in boxes and she announces that she's leaving "Whimsy" (the name of my village). I try to talk her out of it (which isn't easy when you only get 2 possible things to say to any question she asks or statement she makes) and eventually she agrees to think about it and make up her mind by the following day.

And I, as in really me, not the little munchkin I control on screen (see above), but really real me, a thirty year old man, am genuinely upset and concerned about all of this. I can only conclude that either :

  1. Human beings are hard-wired to respond emotionally when we are subliminally stimulated in certain ways OR
  2. I am a sap.

I expect that there's an element of truth to both of these statements, but I do think it's an illustration of the power of these immersive environments that can transport us and short-circuit our inbuilt reserve about emotion. I know that Alice is a character made by my DS, I know that if she leaves "Whimsy" nothing has happened in the real world. I know that she probably has some sort of "should I stay or should I go" algorithm to prompt these actions along with all her other behaviour traits but still none of that prevents me from seeing her as a real person within the context of the game. Amazing. I begin to understand the fascination of the MMORPGs more now, and I further comprehend my chum The Furry Straayan's comment that as soon as they develop World of Warcraft for mobile phones there are many lives around the world that are effectively over. You can see it everywhere, there was a fascinating presentation at Pop!Tech this year about real-world economics in MMORPGs and that people can and do choose to effectively live permanently in these online worlds. In some ways it puts a fearsome burden of responsibility on Blizzard, the games maker, as there's a lot more at stake now than simply walloping an Orc.

Alice decided not to leave in the end so I shan't have to sue Nintendo for emotional injury and counselling expenses, and although you can't really see it in the picture, you should check out my AC/DC t-shirt I designed for my character. For those about to rock...

Monday, May 08, 2006

When Life Imitates Art

I'm sure everyone has days when you feel like the star of your own slightly art-house existential thriller. Well I do at any rate. Today I have lived that life. I wandered into town at about lunch time, I was nonchalantly thinking my thoughts about the day and what I had planned as I approached THE CITY.

Scene 1. EXT Piccadilly.

Our detective, on the trail of some clues that will help defend the reputation of a glamourous socialite, heads into the city. He finds himself in the midst of a mass of people, jostling to get a view of a giant, mechanical elephant. Our detective takes it all in his stride and whilst pausing to take in the scene in front of him heads off into the back streets.

Scene 2. EXT London's Mayfair.

Though he feels out of place amidst the glitz and the money, our detective ducks in and out between the Bentleys of the glamourous and expensive Mayfair district of the city until he finds respite in the Curzon Cinema

Scene 3. INT Curzon Mayfair.

Our detective takes solace in the interior of the fabulous modernist Curzon Mayfair cinema. Here he watches "Last Year at Marienbad" and wonders at the nature of reality and whether a powerful unseen hand is writing the script to his very existence. The film also has Delphine Seyrig 30 ft high which isn't half bad. After this our detective emerges into the light and heads off to meet up with glamourous people in fabulous venues and to live the life we only read of in the better sort of detective fiction. Or something like that.

Or to put it another way, I've just had an ace day.

Friday, May 05, 2006

And Your Starter for Ten...

A friend has just sent me the URL of her blog. I shan't link to it as she doesn't want its existence broadcast hither, thither and yon. Anyway on it there is a list of questions which I thought were quite fun and I liked reading her answers so here are mine :

1. My uncle once: I don't have any.
2. Never in my life have I: Punched anyone, though I have been sorely tempted.
3. The one person who can drive me nuts, but then can always manage to make me smile is: My mum.
4. School is: The worst time of your life.
5. When I'm nervous: I pace.
6. The last time I cried was: At my God-mother's funeral.
7. If I were to get married right now my bridesmaids/groomsmen would be: I'm not having any of that nonsense.
10. When I was 5: The world seemed much bigger.
11. Last Christmas I: Cooked, ate and drank too much.
12. When I turn my head left, I see: Some plastic fish.
13. When I turn my head right, I see: A photo of Ollie Reed looking pleased with himself holding a pint of beer.
14. When I look down I see: A well-thumbed copy of "Advanced RenderMan", a mug of tea, an origami nesting crane and a wooden teaspoon.
15. The craziest recent event was: What is it about John Prescott that the ladies love so much?
16. If I was a character on Friends I'd be: Never seen it; dunno.
17. By this time next year: I shall not be a year wiser.
18. My favorite Aunt is: Don't have any of them either.
19. I have a hard time understanding: People who are proud of being ignorant.
20. One time at a family gathering: My grandmother loudly asked my great aunt if she would like, "some more sour wine, Ethel?" It was a rather good Burgundy and my dad was not impressed.
21. You know I "like" you if: Well it would probably be pretty obvious, I don't think I'm especially subtle. I am male after all. What an odd question.
22. If I won an award, the first person I'd thank is: My agent. I don't have one but it's the done thing isn't it?
23. Take my advice: Do what your heart tells you, not your head.
24. My ideal breakfast is: bacon, sausage, egg, Staffordshire oatcake, black pudding, tomato, mushroom and beans with lots of tea.
25. If you visit my hometown: You can see the Rolls Royce Silver Starlight Ballroom and bugger all else.
26. Where do you plan to visit anytime soon: Cookham, Japan, Melbourne, Cornwall, Hawksmoor.
27. If you spend the night at my house: I wouldn't be at all surprised.
28. I'd stop my wedding: Yes I would, I don't really believe in them you see.
29. The world could do without: Wasps
30. I'd rather lick the belly of a cockroach than: Lick the bellies of two cockroaches. What is this, "I'm a Non-Entity, Get Me Out of Here"?
31. Most recent thing you've bought yourself: a soldering iron and some needle-nose pliers; I really know how to spoil myself, don't I?
32. Most recent thing someone else bought for you: A beautiful book about the green man.
33. My favorite blonde is: Lauren Bacall
34. My favorite brunette is: Betty Page or Diana Rigg
35. And by the way: Life is very very good.
36. The last time I was high: My attorney has advised me not to answer this question.
37. The animals I would like to see flying besides birds are: I'm going to cheat and say penguins. I know they're birds but it seems so unfair that they can't soar majestically.
38. I shouldn't have: Eaten that entire tub of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food. But I couldn't help it.
39. Once, at a bar: I spent an entire evening talking to a beautiful singer whose phone number I then lost on my way home.
40. Last night: I saw a great film with some lovely people.
41. There's this girl I know who: has double jointed thumbs. It's quite revolting.
42. This guy I know: Took a table-football set around the world.
43. A better name for me would be: Ralph (as in "Rafe" not "Ralf").
44. If I ever go back to school I'll: have failed miserably.
45. How many days until my birthday?: Too many.

I like quizzes like this; they act as little time capsules of your thoughts and attitudes at a particular moment and that pleases me.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Six of One

I'm afraid I shall have to rant. Readers with a delicate constitution may wish to look away now.

Right, so Sky One is going to make a "thrilling reinvention" (media double-talk for "buggered about with version") of "The Prisoner". I must admit at this juncture in the narrative that "The Prisoner" is my favourite television series of all time and it is perhaps understandable therefore that I am somewhat resentful of this new version. But it's not just pedantic snobbishness. Well it is a bit, but there's more to it than that. Firstly there's the new show's executive producer who describes it thus: "The Prisoner is like Pandora's box - it's the ultimate conspiracy thriller." For those who haven't seen it I am here to tell you that conspiracy has precious little to do with it, and calling it a thriller is a bit of a stretch. "The Prisoner" isn't "24 in blazers", it's a bit more subtle than that. And that's the crux of my complaint. Why do we feel the need to take something which is so clearly a product of the culture that created it (the late 1960s) and panel-beat it into a new and unnatural shape merely to please the mores of a 2006 audience? It makes no sense.

The producers at Sky, mistakenly in my view, liken this remake to the recent success of the new "Dr. Who". This is not a helpful comparison, "Dr Who" is a completely different show, one that has already spanned many generations and therefore evolved over time. There are only 17 episodes of "The Prisoner" and they were all made at the same time as one, self-contained series. It just isn't serial material and without giving anything away to those who haven't watched the original - there is a conclusion.

It's not as if there isn't great new TV being made. I haven't seen "Firefly" or "Lost" (I did see and love "Serenity" however) but all reports indicate them to be very good and very much a product of today. There will probably be some whinging pillock on the internets in 30 years complaining that GoogleTV is remaking "24" in order to bring it "up-to-date" and capture a new audience etc. etc. These things are cyclical and we never seem to learn.

Dear Sky, RE this whole "Prisoner" thing; just stop it. It will annoy those who like the original (who are amongst the most obsessive and pedantically anal of cult TV fans) and I don't see how anything properly "Prisoner-ish" can be retained and make it into something that TV execs in 2006 would commission. I fear the worst.

OK, rant over. Thank you for your patience.