Sunday, September 30, 2007

'Phone Home?

Most readers of this seemingly unending stream of guff will be aware that I am something of a technophile, a geek, perhaps even a nerd (who am I attempting to kid?). As I sit here writing this on my swanky laptop, running the various scripts I've written, talking to the internets on the wi-fi connection I can be fairly confident that my geek credentials are all in order, neatly folded and ready for use at a moment's notice in my wallet, just in front of my artistic license.

The one area of modern technology that I never really "got" however is mobile telephones. I am not a Luddite by any means, I got my first 'phone ten years ago and have been using one daily since then. The trouble is I cannot fathom the vogue for always needing to have the latest in mobile telecommunications technology. Such is my disinterest that I have had two 'phones in ten years. The first was a very brick-like Nokia, the second, and current Atrocity-field-telephone is the Nokia 8310e you see above. It is now 5 years old, has had a hard life in my satchel or coat pocket and yet has always been a stalwart servant. In recent time sadly, the old dear has become somewhat eccentric. She sometimes forgets to tell me that people have tried to call, today she was convinced it was 7.41 a.m. all morning. In short I think it's time she was retired and replaced by some nubile young plastic thing, no doubt with a camera I shan't use and an MP3 player I won't listen to.

Here is my plea, dear reader. I know as close to nothing about the current state of mobile 'phones as makes no difference so please, if you like or loathe you current 'phone, leave a comment so I can add it or discount it from my shortlist. Many thanks, and may all your ring-tones be mellifluous.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Realising Fantasy

One of the aspects of my job which is hardest to explain to non-VFX people (or "muggles" as I am now tempted to pretentiously and ridiculously call them) is that of interpretation. When we are charged with creating a fantastic entity, be it a machine or a creature, we are generally presented with some kind of concept drawings from the production art-department. These generally bear no resemblance to what the client actually wants the finished effect to look like but that's a topic for another, more embittered post. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that the concept sketch is the perfect graphite or gouache embodiment of what the client wants. "Right, well go and make it then" you say. "Ah", I reply, "but it isn't as straight forward as that because we have to interpret the drawing."

How can this be? It seems so obvious, here's the drawing, the plan if you will, how much clearer could it be? The difficulty is that concept artists and model-makers have a different agenda to us. They want to create a beautiful image/sculpture that works as an immobile art-work. We have to realise this vision as an entity that works visually from any angle, but also probably moves and often in a very complicated way. To think of a reductio ad absurdum example of this, M.C. Escher's drawings are beautiful and very detailed but you couldn't actually build them. On a lesser level all artists, either knowingly or not, put these kinds of tricks of the eye into their work. Sculptors who produce statues only need the body to work in the pose that they're carving, if it is a figure it doesn't have to articulate. I can think of a show I worked on where the clients had spent a lot of money getting a life-size and quarter life size sculpts of a character made and then cast in silicone. These were then duly delivered to our studio with a "Build that!" brief attached.

As we examined the modelling we realised that the way the the trapezius muscles had been placed and modelled meant that the creature could never turn his head. We looked at the clavicle, and this was angled in such a way that his shoulders could never articulate. The pot belly had musculature on the outside, just under the skin (was he pregnant? - seemed unlikely) and the thigh muscles were simply attached in the wrong places to move the legs. Had we realised the concept as delivered the character would have been just about able to bend his knees and elbows and that is all. "But, surely this is all fantasy", you say, "Surely you can do anything in visual effects?" Well, yes we could have made a perfect copy of the sculpt and put a CG skeleton and muscles inside and made it move. But it would only ever look like a real actor wearing a heavy latex suit. Or to put that another way - rubbish.

Our eyes are very adept at seeing structures under the surface of the skin, seeing how joints move, how muscles move and how the skin slides over them. If we cheat on this, it immediately begins to sound alarm bells in all but the most obtuse viewer. One of the main reasons why Gollum, King Kong and Davey Jones are such leaps forward are that they are the results of countless hours of careful anatomical analysis, the development of new tools to simulate muscle and skin movement and the application of those tools by diligent and technically obsessive artists.

And so we don't leave these sketches alone, we have to interpret them and this can be a protracted and argumentative process as you have to persuade the client that the design they signed off on will never look right "on the move". Notice I don't say "look correct" here, but "look right". We can and do cut corners in this design process. We generally do not simulate every single muscle, it would take too long with current technology but we have to do enough that the viewer sees a convincing creature, one that has believable weight distribution, moves as our minds with years of experience of looking at a wide variety of creatures thinks it should move and seems part to the world it inhabits.

And that, dear reader, is the situation I find myself in at present, and have been for most of the last fortnight - interpreting someone elses drawings and written briefs, trying to visualise how to make their ideas work in a believable manner in CG. I think my retinas may start bleeding imminently.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


RISC OS on Mac OS X, originally uploaded by Mr Atrocity.

Wow this is some old fashioned nerd nostalgia here. Tinseltroos and I both had Acorn Archimedes computers when we were growing up as our parents were sensible and didn't want us messing about with any of those Commodore Amigas which were "just for games". I loved my A3000 and I used it from the age of 12 right up until I was about 20. 8 years of usage from one non-upgraded machine is unthinkable today but the old dear was a game old bird and my first year essays on my degree were a fitting swansong.

Both T and I suddenly got the nostalgia bug and decided to see if we could get emulators for her PC and my Mac and lo and behold you can. That window above is a sight for sore eyes I can tell you. It brings the memories flooding back. Now if only I could get IRIX running...

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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Only Way Is Up

My adopted cricket county Middlesex's run of recent wins had, by yesterday, pulled them up to a play-off place. How wonderful you might think, and indeed it is an impressive achievement. Tragically for me, the other side in the play-off was Northamptonshire, my true love (though she's a cruel mistress with her constant teasing that she will blossom into a quality side one day and never quite managing it, I love her nonetheless). This was in all honesty a tie that given recent form was only going to go one way. Middlesex cruised to victory meaning that next year I will get to see 1st Division Pro 40 cricket (Yay!) but won't get to see poor old "always the bridesmaid never the bide" Northants (Boo).


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Art for Art's Sake

I have been asked to run an advanced lighting course at work to try and take junior and mid-level artists up a notch in their lighting skills. To that end I spent most of yesterday photographing photographs (like the Josef Koudelka above) and paintings to use as slides and as lecture notes.

It's something I very passionately believe in as I was fortunate enough to go through a full art education before I ended up doing computer graphics. When I was at art college there really weren't any computer graphics courses and so most people of my generation in the industry come from fine art, photography or graphic design backgrounds if they're creative types or computer science or engineering if they're more technical. These days there's an abundance of fully computer graphics orientated degree courses and most graduates we now employ come off one or another of them. I personally do not think that this is a good thing, primarily because they leave school at 18 and go straight onto these degrees. Back in the day (12-15 years ago) if you wanted to do a creative degree course you had to do a one year "art foundation" diploma where you did life-drawing three times a week, studied art history and practiced every type of art production from print, to paint to film so that by the time you went onto your degree you were a well rounded creative person with a developed eye. This does not happen any more and I see it in the work we produce as an industry - it's all very clever and innovative but not much of it is particularly beautiful. And that's where I come in apparently.

I have to distill a year's course into 3, 1 hour sessions. I'm actually really looking forward to it even though I'm having to do it during my free time at home because work has suddenly got so busy. Once I have some sort of syllabus I'll probably post it here for review since I know that there are arty types who read this and hopefully have an opinion.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Autumn is Here

It seems like the weird topsy-turvy on-off-on-again summer is finally over and autumn is upon us again. The cricket season is over, the footie and rugby seasons are upon us. The mornings are crisp and slippers must be worn indoors to prevent a chill. The nights are seriously drawing in all of a sudden. Partially this is because I am working late again thanks to project complications but it really is very noticeable when I step out of the office that it is dusk. It's also got a little cooler, which I don't mind a bit. In fact it meant I got to wear my eBay Buzz Rickson jacket for the first time in anger. I think it's going to see me through the winter no problem.

I am a fan of autumn. It means that the season of weddings and constant social engagements is over and I can crawl, bear-like back into my den and enjoy more domestic pursuits like reading, cooking, watching movies and shooting zombies without that nagging "I'm sure someone I know is doing a fun outdoor thing right now. Dammit, I should be there" feeling. It also means that big hearty stews, soups and solid pasta dishes can come back onto the menu. I am very fond of delicate cooking but if truth be told a big steak and kidney pie wins out for me any day of the week and summer ain't the season to be taking one of those bad boys on. Incidentally, my dad's cousin, Jean, has written down her "recipe" for steak and kidney pie. Here it is and you'll see why recipe is in quotes - the quantities are sketchy, you do it by eye:

For 2


One good round of shin of beef – about 6 ounces

Ox [or other good ] kidney – about 3 to 4 oz

A medium onion

Beef stock or one OXO cube and some Bisto and water

Cornflour to thicken


Salt and pepper to season.


Cut the meat and kidney into pieces. Cut up the onion very finely. Place these in a casserole and cover with the stock [or water mixture] and cornflour. Cover* and cook in an oven at 150o C for 2 ½ - 3 hours. Then cut up the potatoes and par boil for 10 mins. Add them to the meat. Season – bear in mind OXO and Bisto contain salt and seasoning - to taste and leave overnight to infuse.

Next day cover with short crust pastry and reheat to cook both – or cook the pastry separately and cover afterwards.

* Jean does not say cover – it will be necessary to ensure that the liquid does not evaporate but thickens nicely.

This is a bit of a family treat. My gran used to make it and my mother still does. I may have to make myself some individual ones as it's of no interest to the very vegetarian Tinseltroos.

The other big treat of autumn is that the leaves are starting to come off the trees and because it hasn't really rained for a while they're gathering, all dry and crunchy in drifts along walls and fences just waiting for me to run through them kicking them hither and thither. Tinseltroos says she cannot face doing this as she has fear that a stealth dog turd awaits her under every leaf pile. I say that as far as my ability to resist the temptation of a leaf pile goes it's like telling a junkie that heroin isn't very good for them. It's true but isn't going to stop me, I cannot help myself.

Today as I wandered into work, coffee in hand, smelling of Bois du Portugal (a very autumnal scent which I can't really wear during the hot months) wearing my warm new jacket I could feel myself easing into the fall mindset and it felt pretty good.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

More Brigstocke


Saturday, September 15, 2007

All Finished At Last

finishedHoldsworth_7647.JPG, originally uploaded by Mr Atrocity.

It's taken two months longer than expected, there have been many twists and turns along the way from bent dropouts, to seized seat-posts, to bizarre seatpost sizings, to chain-line calculations, to getting wheels built, to stripping the old paint, to sanding the frame, to respraying the beast, to tracking down the right decals, to fitting all the components to the frame, but finally it's done. The Penge Flier is ready for its maiden voyage.



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Friday, September 14, 2007


Apologies for the lack of posting this week, it's been a bit hectic. The evenings have been filled with bicycle work, hopefully all finished tomorrow assuming I can find bar-tape to my specification. Because of this I haven't blogged much - how much can one really say about cross-threading a not-so-cheap chain-tool and the travails of fitting seat-posts into mis-shapen seat tubes? Not that much that would keep you, dear reader, as entertained as I'd like, that's for sure.

Monday night was an interesting and fun experience though. Lord's, the self-styled home of cricket has long held out against having games played under floodlights. Partially I expect this is a matter of tradition (although floodlit cricket has been played elsewhere for 30 years or so) but mostly it is because St Johns Wood, the location of the current Lord's cricket ground since 1837 is a very quiet area, with very rich and influential residents and getting the permits required to have floodlights must be an absolute nightmare. Finally however, the club members have caved and Monday saw the first game to be played under lights at Lord's. Middlesex, my adopted county in London, managed another win - i am turning into something of a lucky rabbit's foot for them it seems and so home fans went home happy at about 9.30, if a little chilly. Here are a few snaps from the evening:

The Lord's Pavilion at Dusk

The Grand Stand at Lord's at Dusk

Media Centre and Floodlights

Dusk at Lord's Under the Floodlights

Night-time Floodlit Cricket at Lord's

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Almost Done

Almost Done, originally uploaded by Mr Atrocity.

I have a few bits to fix, the observant amongst you will notice the absence of a chain - an important compnent of a bicycle I'm told, but lookee here, I have a nearly finished vehicle. From this:

How It Arrived

to the above in a couple of months. I'm quite pleased.

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Monday, September 10, 2007


I finally watched "Zoolander" on Saturday night. Best bit: Milla Jovovich getting out of a Citröen SM. Quite liked the rest of it too, just not as much.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

New Words Please (Part 1)

The first part in an occasional series where words which are needed, but have yet to be formally defined, in English finally get a name to call their own.


Main Entry: Froles-worth

Pronunciation: 'frOls-w&rth

Function: noun

1: A word whose sound seems particularly apposite given its meaning but is not an onomatopoeia, e.g. melifluous or clumsy.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Toward A Lost Art

Ridley Scott has suggested that devices such as mobile 'phones and other gadgets that can display video are killing cinema. "We try to do films which are in support of cinema, in a large room with good sound and a big picture. But we're fighting technology" he said yesterday. It's an interesting idea and, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the televisualisation of cinema goes much further than its distribution mechanism - it is endemic in production too. Ridley Scott is certainly one of the directors who makes film for the cinema screen and, whatever the merits of his recent output, you can't say he doesn't know how to frame a shot for a 40 foot screen.

It is interesting how films can evoke different emotional responses depending upon how they are viewed.

Sticking with Ridley Scott as an example, I was used to watching "Alien" on a TV screen for years before I got a chance to see it at the cinema. When I helped run the film society at the art college I attended we discovered an anamorphic lens for the 16mm projector in the back of a cupboard and thus decided to hold a "widescreen" season in its honour. Amongst others we rented "Jaws", "Blade Runner", "Dirty Harry" and "Alien". The print for "Alien" was so old it had an 'X' certificate rather than an '18' and probably hadn't been loaned out by the BFI in a decade. After an afternoon patching up the splices on the brittle reel ends we were able to screen the film for the twenty or so students who could be bothered to come and see this classic as it was meant to be seen. I knew this film backwards, every shot, every edit and yet seeing it on a large screen made the whole experience radically different. The shots which really affected me differently on the big screen were the long tracking shots, for example those at the beginning of the film as we move through the intestines of the 'Nostromo'. On a small screen this has no impact beyond exposition but when the image is more than life-size and fills your peripheral vision the sense of place becomes palpable - one inhabits the space. The effect of having your eyes drenched in this new world is utterly transportative and you instantly become part of the narrative before you have seen an actor or heard a single line of dialogue.

I had exactly the same experience seeing "L'Année Dernière à Marienbad" on a cinema screen at the Curzon Mayfair for the first time last year - the long shots travelling though the baroque palace serve as transportation for the soul of the audience out of their seats and into the world of the film. Any narrative where a sense of place is important, or where a location almost becomes a character in its own right, like The Nostromo or the palace at Marienbad, is best served by the scale of a cinema screen; it envelops us rather than us dominating it. Similarly films where the characters' relationships with a location are important, "Brokeback Mountain" or "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" leap to mind, rely upon placing us, for empathetic purposes, into the same environment as the protagonists.

These shots are made for a cinema, not for television. Watching them on a smaller screen simply does not have the same visceral impact. It's like looking at a Mark Rothko painting reproduced in a book: it gives you an idea of what the piece is about without any of the actual substance. This is not to diminish TV, merely to point out that work designed for one format seldom translates intact to another. To give another hypothetical example: it would be like watching a soap opera on a cinema screen where the continual close-ups of heads and mid-shots would have you crawling for seats right at the back pretty quickly. This type of talking heads visual media is designed for a TV screen and that is where it works best.

So I understand what Scott says, and I largely agree. If we make films designed to be viewed on a small TV screen we will lose something that only a big screen can give us. For me, seeing Grawp in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" on the IMAX screen where he truly appeared gigantic, gave me a greater sense of who he was as a character and what he was capable of than all the hours I spent in front of a monitor working on those very same shots.

Similarly the close up of the full size mechanical Kong's face from the 1933 version, which appears comic because of its limited movement on television, (and has been duly parodied shot for shot in the Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror III" for that very reason) looks truly menacing when viewed on a full size cinema screen.

The ever increasing use of iPods and 'phones to watch video is not a bad thing per se. What worries me is that cinema is becoming less like cinema, it is seldom a transportative experience anymore and we seem to be headed to a world where homogeneous visual entertainment, which works equally badly via every method of delivery, becomes the norm. Indeed, if we are not careful we could lose those special qualities that each medium has to move us.

Cinema suffers a worse fate than the others though for an additional reason. Whilst modern televisions far exceed previous generations in terms of quality, going into a modern cinema no longer feels like entering a magical land of strange promise and wonder. I am not being nostalgic here. Everytime I go to the Curzon Mayfair I am reminded what "going to the cinema" really means. The architecture, the design of the seats, the interior design of the auditorium all make the experience special. Modern cinemas are nearly all tin sheds on industrial estates on the outskirts of towns and inside they look like cheaply designed and built service areas found on motorways. Even supposedly prestige venues like The Odeon Leicester Square feel cheap and tacky though the ticket prices certainly aren't. I cannot blame people for abandoning the cinema, the films are designed for TV and the theatres are tawdry. Having a projector and surround sound at home becomes increasingly affordable and why would you choose anything but that? It is a shame, and I am glad that I have been lucky enough to experience a real cinema as it is an increasingly rare phenomenon. Anyone who says seeing a properly cinematic film on TV is no different to seeing it in a theatre has clearly never watched "2001 A Space Odyssey" on 70mm in a 1950s purpose built modernist cinema. That is an experience I will always treasure whatever happens to the artform over the coming years.

Update: Once again I find myself wandering down paths previously trodden by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Here, Bordwell discusses watching films on his iPod.

For the most part, I don’t watch fiction films on my iPod. I watch documentaries... I don’t watch TV at home, but I catch up with shows like The Shield and The Wire via my iPod. I watch some YouTube clips, especially the Two Chinese Students (aka Back Dorm Boys), which always give me a lift.

But I confess I’ve also put on films that work, for me, like favorite music. These are films I know well and love to look at in idle moments.

I wonder whether the desire to watch documentaries and TV is because of their talking head formatting which works well on a tiny screen? Most other iPod owners I know (myself included) also have have what I refer to as "comfort food movies" on their iPods: films we know backwards already where the tiny iPod image is really just an aide memoire to the version we carry in our heads. Here the iPod is not really subverting cinema as we aren't using the device as a replacement for cinema, it is merely a crib sheet for our memories to relive those precious moments in the dark.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Big Bad Bottom Bracket

I installed the bottom bracket into my bike frame last night. I only hope that I've measured everything correctly otherwise after spending another hour putting on the cranks and the wheels I'll be doing the whole thing in reverse, spending another fifteen quid on a new bottom bracket of differeing dimensions and then rinse and repeating the entire experience, only with fifteen less quid than I had when I started.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Stinks and Smells

For the first time in I forget how long, Tinseltroos and I had a whole weekend to ourselves, to do with as we pleased. In order to maximise the pleasure we started yesterday comparatively early by wandering into Soho at about 9.45 for breakfast at Balans, a great cafe/restaurant on Old Compton Street. They do a great blueberry pancake with bacon and maple syrup, a dish I developed a real taste for in New York having sworn to all and sundry beforehand that I thought the idea of mixing bacon and syrup disgusting. Shows how much I know.

After a leisurely breakfast we jumped on a bus to just beyond Buckingham Palace. There, on Elizabeth Street, is a fantastic perfume shop called Les Senteurs. Its stock is amazing, the staff knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. In fact it's one of those places that is a true pleasure to buy things from. Tinseltroos and I both bought a couple of bottles. I needed to replenish my Green Irish Tweed and I was persuaded to buy Parfums d'Empire's "Cuir Ottoman" which I am currently wearing and is making me smell wonderfully leathery and a touch talcum powdery. Look out for a post on this on Tinseltroos' new blog, Smellbound to which I will be the (thus far) only male contributor. We walked back from Mayfair through Covent Garden to pick up the last items we needed for our stencil bleaching experiment. En route I was accosted by one of the staff of the legendary Neal's Yard Dairy who proffered a small piece of Stilton to try. It was sensational and so I was lured by their lactic tractor beam into the shop. It is a well known fact about me that I cannot enter a deli or cheese shop and come out with less than three cheeses. And so it was yesterday. In addition to the Stilton I got a slice of old favourite Montgomery's Cheddar of which I am apparently not the only fan and also a chunk of Cheshire Cheese made in Whitchurch, a village about 5 miles from where I was born. We ate big chunks of these along with English apples and sourdough bread upon our return to Schossadlerflug.

And then the real fun began. As I wrote at the arse end of last week we had planned to do some stencil bleach printing and I'd come up with a Green Man design that I liked and planned to use.

Main Stencil Design

It was however an absolute bastard to cut out and use because of the filigree detail and I was nervous that I'd make a mistake cutting the stencil and ruin it, that the bleach wouldn't resolve the detail very well and that I'd tear the damn thing the first time I lifted it of the fabric. Tinseltroos, being more sensible, opted for simpler designs and she cut three different patterns in the time it took me to swear and grump my way through one. Still I was pretty damn pleased with how it turned out.

Finished Cutting the Main Stencil

And so we got on with the bleaching itself. We made sure every window was open and that we'd covered all the surfaces in bin liner to avoid flat-deposit-voiding accidents and stuck our stencils onto our newly acquired garments. We mixed up some cheap household bleach with water (about 50/50 mostly) and, using a small atomiser, sprayed bleach onto the cloth. Most of our designs had two stencils, one for detail and one for an outer "glow" so once one layer had been done we pulled the first stencil, then dropped the second in place and applied more bleach. We stuck the stencils down with Spraymount which made them a lot trickier to get off the cloth once finished but did mean that we got quite crisp lines on the designs because the bleach didn't bleed under the edges. It was a very magical experience to watch the bleach do its chemistry on the cloth and for the image to appear in its new colour gave me exactly the same thrill that I used to get when I printed my own black and white photographs. Once the bleaching was done we put each item in the tumble drier for a few minutes before really soaking them in the bath.

Washing Our Shirts

As one batch soaked we sprayed the next. Needless to say we got better the more we experimented so my second batch was better than my first. After the last batch had soaked for a while we put the whole lot into the washing machine and gave them a gentle wash on the 30 degree delicates cycle before hanging them up to dry and going to bed. Here's a selection of what we did:

Green Man Shirt 3

Green Man Shirt 2

Tove Jansson's Stinky Vest

Tinseltroos' Octopus Skirt

And here's me wearing one of my creations today:

Me in Green Man Shirt 2

I'm so pleased with how these turned out and it was so much fun to do (apart from the hours of stencil cutting, but that's my own stupid fault for coming up with such a convoluted design).

Today we went round the British Museum and plotted what we are going to put in the fruit crumble we're going to prepare for supper. It's been a perfect weekend and with crumble to round it off it'll end as well as it began.

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