Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A polarizing element

Not since the likes of people such as Richard Dawkins, Barack Obama, George Lucas or maybe even Adolf Hitler, have I seen a person of celebrity notoriety as polarizing as Kevin Smith. You probably know Kevin Smith. Savant indie film maker, turned low-brow comedy laced-with-underlying-social-commentary movie writer/director/producer, turned twitter icon, turned podcaster, turned podcasting network runner, turned internet radio host. That's without mentioning his comic book work and the hinted at forthcoming television talk show. Kevin Smith, after his two decades in show business, almost has to have made a bleep on any pop-culture aficionado's radar in some kind of context since his indie film project 'Clerks' hit it big back in 1994.

Smith's film work is varied, funny, relatable and speaks to a generation in a way that movies from film makers like John Hughes or Cameron Crowe might have in their heyday. Despite his commercial and critical success, however, Smith seems to divide audiences and critics alike, no matter what area of pop-culture he's trying to tackle. Listen to his morning internet radio show, 'Plus One Per Diem', and there's a good chance you'll hear Smith rile against bloggers, critics or journalists that have personally attacked him, miss-represented the truth, or conducted themselves in a way that warrants Smith himself to publicly tell them that they're 'bad at their jobs'. It seems that Kevin Smith has had a love/hate relationship with writers and journalists, despite a vast and enthusiastic fan base, his whole career. Most of the criticism seems to be focused on his ability as a director, his some might say 'shameless' self-promotion, or that he, somewhere along the line, has 'sold out' as a film maker. Smith seems to, at times, take it all in his stride, at other times he seems to take it all very personally. Never the less, it's interesting to hear a Hollywood film maker address his personal and professional criticisms straight from the horses mouth, as it were.

Enter the January 2011 Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah. If Smith detractors had some things to say about the man before, they certainly did after his announcements there. Smith's latest film 'Red State' debuted at Sundance, and so did Smith's public plan for the release of the movie. Leading up to the festival Smith had stated that he would auction the rights to his movie to the highest bidding distributor, but following the Sundance screening, Smith announced on stage that he was going to self-distribute the picture, sending opinions and speculation over the whole project into overdrive. 'Kevin Smith was imploding' was one notorious opinion that was circling the internet. Distributors that were at the screening were vocally unhappy, the internet seemed to swell with Smith criticism, and there was a growing opinion that Smith had 'alienated' Hollywood. In all the controversy it was almost easy to forget that Red State itself was a genuinely interesting looking film, it looked like a major departure from everything Smith had previously written and directed, and that there was an excited Kevin Smith and Smodcast fanbase that just wanted to see the movie.

The Red State saga, which is still playing out via Smodcast network podcasts, Kevin Smith blogs and Sir internet radio broadcasts, is interesting to say the least. It would have made pretty amazing documentary fodder if a doco film crew had been there along the way. Smith's self-distribution model is something that hasn't really been seen since the golden age of cinema, when film makers had to take their film's out on the road, touring from city to city, spreading the word like apostolate preachers. Kevin Smith buses all over America and Canada, other parts of the world to follow, showing his film and giving Q & A's afterwards, interacting with his fanbase on a personal level that Hollywood seems to have forgotten somewhere along the way. Smiths mantra is that there is no need to spend millions of dollars promoting a movie through standard channels; tv, billboards, radio et cetera. Instead he uses his podcast network, his websites and fan word of mouth to get promotion for Red State out there.

Personally, I don't really understand the level of criticism that's directed at Smith. It seems like a genuine way for a passionate artist to get his work to the people that want to see it, and I can't remember ever being so interested in the promotion of a film. It's been an entertaining experience in and of itself hearing the Red State saga play out via the Smodcast network. There have been dramas with foreign distributors setting up press screenings despite Smith vowing not to give his movie away to critics for free, creating some genuinely interesting talk from Smith himself. There are instances where Smith has publicly dressed down bloggers and film critics that have attacked him and Red State, something I have never heard a film maker do on the record. I've never even seen Red State but to a movie lover it's been very interesting to be privy to it's birth, adolescence and all the up's and down's along the way. I'm looking forward to when it finally reached maturity and gets a world-wide release so I can see it down here in Oz.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Demonic comic

Just in case a whole awesome supernatural webseries isn't enough, Ryan McCalla has released the first issue of the Inner Demons comic series, featuring beautiful art by local Aussie artist Rhys McDonald. It's dark, it's sexy, it's up now.

Check it out here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Face your demons

Just in case you missed it, I recently interviewed Tommy Larkin and Ryan McCalla, the two creative forces behind the upcoming 'Inner Demons' web series.

Next I got a chance to shoot a few questions at some of the actors behind the series. Three of them in fact. Mark Stevens, Tony Rahme and Tim Reuben, or as you will get to see them in the forthcoming first series; Mephisto, Blackout and Sparky.

What attracted you to acting?

Mark: The sum of a life of polemic experiences... this is what I do.

Tony: Ever since I was a kid, I played the lead role of Jonah in my school play in front of a crowd of hundreds, and I aced it. Ever since then, I've just
loved the idea of taking on a different character for a short time.

Tim: I've always wanted to act since I was a kid. I love the places it takes me and the challenges it presents me with.

How did you get involved with Inner Demons?

Mark: Casting call on StarNow(great site) to which I responded; Hello, My age precludes Me from applying directly for the only role I desire..... Mephisto. I do a thousand years in hell real good. Give me hell and I`ll give you a truly outstanding Mephisto. Regards, Mark.

A: It was through the StarNow website that I found the auditions - and after reading the concept and the short character bibliography, I thought it was role that suited me and applied for it.

Tim: I auditioned for Inner Demons soon after graduating from acting school. I was totally sold on the idea of playing a super hero and getting to teleport.

How was your initial approach to your character? Did your attitude towards the character change at all between script and performance?

One of admiration and empathy! That's not changed...

Tony: Surprisingly enough, my character and I have so much in common, it's beyond the joke. The physical structure, the core beliefs, even my characters job and the incident where he discovers his powers - these are all things that made me question whether Tommy or Ryan were in fact stalking me for some time before they made this character... All in good humor, of course.

Tim: I found the character quite quickly and have basically stuck with it. Tommy and Ryan's writing is often very detailed, which really helps you access
and deliver what they're looking for.

Do you have to spend a lot of time getting inside your character's skin, or is it an easy, natural process for you?

I have a method. I close my eyes, visualize the loop of infinity and allow the universe in. Click.

Tony: It's pretty easy, seeing as Blackout and I do have a lot in common. The only difficulty is toning my natural self down to suit the quiet nature of my character, when I am very much the extrovert.

I think of Sparky as a part of myself. I just find that fun playful part of myself and bring it out.

How is it working with Tommy and Ryan?

Motivating. You wanna work with them, they value our input. Gotta love a couple of guys following their dream.

Tony: Without trying to sound like a crawler, I would have to say freaking awesome! They're both patient; they know that the cast are not a bunch of mind readers; they're always willing to help out in any way shape and form - pretty much, they are the epitome of a couple of Top Blokes.

Great. They're both so informed about the technical aspects of film making that you feel you're in safe hands. They also are incredibly trusting and give us a lot of creative freedom.

Are you a horror fan?

Mark: Not particularly. Good story fan. Okay, with a dark thread......

Kind of and not really... Like I'd watch a horror movie, but it would really have to grab my attention. I'm probably more thriller than horror though.

Horror? Ahhhhh! I love the idea of horror movies but I get scared so easily. The last horror I went to see at the movies I had to sneak out of. I then snuck into Harry Potter. That's about all the horror I can handle.

If you can say without spoiling anything, do you have a favourite scene or moment from Inner Demons?

Mark: Seeing expressions on cast and crew faces after shooting very last scene of season 1... heh heh heh!

Can't really say... We have awesome actors all around, the directing and photography always looks perfect. But from what I've seen, I reckon the opening of Episode 3 would have to be my favorite so far.

I got to shoot an amazing fight scene against a stack of demons recently. I'd been training for a few weeks in Krav Maga which was so cool!

How do you feel about independent film in Australia? Is acting work abundant or pretty hard to find?

Mark: Love the personal input
associated with indie productions. Seems to be some salacious projects out there (for a character actor with a dark streak). Sites like StarNow are a gift...

It varies really... One minute there is more work than you can handle, next minute you're bartending for three months until your next gig.

I think Australia produces great film work, but it is hard to come by.

Are there any actors you could point at as big inspirations for you?

Mark: Mark Gattis, Johnny depp, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman.

Yeah, several really; The old action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lungred - these boys were muscle heads that had to deliver pretty damned well on screen
. Hugo Weaving - after V for Vendetta, how can you NOT love him?! Hugh Jackman and Heath Ledger - some of our greatest national exports. And of course, Ed O'Neil for playing the best dad under the sun (Al Bundy in Married... With Children).

I'm inspired all the time, by not just actors. Lately I've been inspired by Moby, Bon Iver, Dayne Rathbone and Titus Andronicus. I love art that opens my perspective.

What's the funn
iest/strangest piece of direction you've received while filming Inner Demons?

Mark: To fall "gently" on the precious carpet at the Windsor Mansion....

I think my co
-star Tim Reuben (Sparky) may kill me for this; but it was when the crew told us to lie on the green screen, hug each other close and shake... Yeah, I know - kinky!

Tim: Shooting in front of a green screen can lead to some pretty funny situations. The other day we were shooting a scene where I had to lie on a green screen with Tony (Blackout). I'm sure on screen it will look amazing, but on the day it just felt like spooning.

What would be more of a dream role for you; an intense character study of a historical figure or a lead role in a super-hero blockbuster?

Mark: One that affords me a Will Smith type trailer. Luvvie!

Tony: I would probably have to go with the lead character in a super hero blockbuster - assuming it's not a box office flop. But hell, does not mean I would not like to try give the charact
er study a shot some day.

Tim: S
uper hero. Unless its a historical figure with super powers.

What's your favourite film of all time?

Mark: Eraserhead, David Lynch, 1977.

One film for ALL time?! That's not fair... But if I have to say anything; V For Vendetta - the fact that the protagonist is a well versed killing machine just locks it in for the winner.

Tied. Garden State and The Breakfast Club.

Do you have any parting wisdom for anyone interested in getting into acting?

Tony: Always remember that the only people who will ever say that you can't achieve your dreams are those who were afraid to chase their own.

I recommend training at an acting school. I trained at ACA but there are many great schools out there. I think that's the first important step into the industry today.

The first series of Inner Demons is currently in post production. It will be available via iTunes, YouTube, Blip Video and Vimeo upon release. Check out the series website for more information.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Roll credits...

Opening credit sequences are a part of movies that, thankfully, have evolved over time.

In the silver screen days they were something audiences had to suffer through; static text over a still frame, interminably long, crediting everyone and everything right down to the type of film used, before the audience had even had a taste of the movie to come.

The first evolution of film credits came in at the end of 'old Hollywood', in the late sixties to early seventies. Just a few of the more 'important' credits on opening (main cast, writer, director, producer etc.), the complete list of credits rolling at the end of the film. It was a move in the right direction. It avoided boring the audience before the movie had even begun.

Although there are some interesting credit sequences that you can point at throughout the seventies and eighties, the next and most important evolution of opening credits didn't come, in my opinion, until the mid-nineties with David Fincher's 'Se7en'. Fincher recruited a guy named Kyle Cooper to create the sequence. It was pretty revolutionary. Cooper's sequence set the mood of the film perfectly. It was like looking through the eyes of the demented serial killer that the Se7en's story was built around. It played more like a slick, dark, disturbing music video, with the cast and filmmaker credits throughout, in a font that looked as if it might have been carved manically with a razor blade. Add to this a seething, pumping remix of Nine Inch Nail's 'Closer' and the tone is set.

Cooper's sequence was truly game changing and often imitated, and he didn't stop there. His production company's have produced some of the most interesting and memorable title and montage sequences in film. There was the darkly apocalyptic opener for Zach Snyder's 'Dawn of the Dead' remake, and the cool intro to 'Spiderman 2' that showed the events of the first film in a stylistic, illustrated composition. His list of work is huge. Braveheart, The Mummy, Zoolander, Iron Man; even the opening sequence for AMC's 'The Walking Dead' series.

Kyle Cooper's mark on the film world is often understated, his influence overlooked. You might have never heard his name before, but its unlikely, if you love film as much as I do, that you haven't seen his work.

You can find the website for 'Prologue', Cooper's production company, here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New collaboration

I've never read the source material, and I know next to nothing about it, but when three incredible artists (David Fincher, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) come together on a project, this is the kind of thing you can get. Impressive trailer, amazing cover.

Fresh off of their collaboration on The Soical Network, the contemporary masters are back at work together again. I can't wait to see the finished product.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Interview with Corey Cole

A man that for any serious classic adventure gaming aficionado needs no introduction, Corey Cole, co-creator of the Quest for Glory series, agreed to do an interview with me recently. Corey was a chief programmer throughout the series and co-designed the games with his wife, Lori.

How did you get started at Sierra and how was is working there?

A friend we knew through science fiction conventions did contract animation work for Sierra. She had been in a meeting in which Ken Williams said he wanted an “expert tournament-level dungeonmaster” to create a new RPG for Sierra. Carolly thought of us and arranged a phone interview with Ken. When he asked, “Why should I hire you instead of some other designer?” I mentioned that I was an experienced programmer currently working on an Atari ST project. He immediately invited me to interview... not as a game designer, but as a programmer. After I had been at Sierra about six months, they talked to Lori about designing the game.

Your game was unlike any previous Sierra adventure in that it was an adventure/rpg hybrid. Was there any trouble getting Sierra to green light that project?

Our champion was Guruka Singh Khalsa, Sierra’s first producer. He was hired based on things he had written as a fan. During a green light meeting including us and Guruka, Ken said, “I really don’t understand this game.” Guruka said something like, “It’s going to be a major hit,” and Ken left the meeting saying, “I like this game. It’s going to be a major hit.” It’s possible that Sierra might have cancelled the first game without that support; we’ll never know.

What would you say were your main influences for Quest for Glory?

The combat and skill development system was based on a paper RPG Lori and I ran (“Fantasy Guild”, unpublished). It took a lot of ideas from “Arizona D&D”, a D&D variant Lori had played in Phoenix. Computer game influences included Wizardry and maybe Rogue and Dungeonmaster (to a very small degree). My mantra was to simulate the experience of playing in a paper D&D game with an excellent dungeon master. I also talked about combining the best parts of computer RPG’s and adventure games. Since Sierra’s tools were optimized for adventure games, that made sense.

Do you play current any current rpg's? Have computer rpg's gone in a direction you expected?

I play World of Warcraft to the level of addiction. I haven’t played any recent computer RPG’s. We still get together with friends a few times a year to play AD&D 2nd edition, but I’m finding it less involving than I used to... I’ve replaced it with WoW. When people ask if we’ve thought about doing a Quest for Glory MMO, the answer is of course, “Yes,” but at this point we really feel that WoW is the MMO we would have hoped to make – It really exceeds expectations.

What do you think it would take to spark an adventure game renaissance?

Hard to say. Players are different today and much less patient. In the early CRPG days, players had to make their own maps on graph paper. Nobody would stand that today, but other aspects of adventures are almost as painful. The worst, in my mind, are puzzles that can only be solved by reading a walkthrough on the Internet. People used to buy hint books for this, but to me it’s just bad game design. So a start would be well designed, less frustrating games.

I understand that Telltale Games is doing very well with their games, so maybe there already is a renaissance. On the other hand, I can’t even solve their games without occasional Web searches. WoW has some similar issues with tough dungeon and raid encounters, but they’ve steadily made most of the quests easier and more accessible to average (and below average) players. Some people complain about this dumbing down the game, but I find it refreshing. I *like* being able to zip through a quest line and not have to spend hours searching for the right object or character to complete it. I hate “hunt the pixel” game mechanics and “try to read the designer’s mind” puzzles. We tried to fill Quest for Glory with reasonable, solvable puzzles... although I understand many players found the puzzles very difficult, so perhaps we made mistakes there too.

Would a re-imagining or sequel to the series interest you today? What would stay the same and what would you 'modernize'?

I don’t think it could get funded. What would be the business model that would attract a publisher or enough funding to make a high quality game? Certainly the graphics should be updated to modern standard... and that probably means 3D. I think we could make the combat more interesting, but at the same time I would probably reduce the amount of it. It would probably be a Web based game. I’d like to do an MMO, but that’s completely daunting, and I think that WoW and similar games have already addressed that space very well.

I’d actually see more point to doing a new Castle of Dr. Brain, probably for handhelds or Web based. I tried to push a project like that to Sierra, but management didn’t think a “brain game” would do well on consoles. That’s been disproved; the question is whether there is still room for such a game. I think there is. Of course, a Quest for Glory remake targeted at modern consoles could be a great idea also. I think there is a vast untapped market out there of people who want more intelligent games and less death and destruction. The question is whether there is a good way to find that audience and get them to try the game so they might buy it.

Fighter, magic user or thief?

I’m a Magic User by nature, but I also think the Thief game play is really fun and interesting. We didn’t do as much with Warriors as we might have – They were basically designed for people who wanted more straightforward game play. I like the way WoW has essentially given “spells” to Warriors, so they have as many options as other classes. In WoW, I play everything; my two main characters currently are a Night Elf Druid – I mostly play as a bear “tank” and occasionally as a healer – and an Undead Magic User. At level 80, I had a vast stable of characters of every role and most classes. No Warlock or Hunter, mostly because they seemed a little redundant with my Mage.

Which game of the series are you most happy with?

QG2, followed closely by QG4. Despite the occasional game crashing bugs (mostly caused by a memory leak we never fixed), my favorite is Quest for Glory 2: Trial By Fire. I think the setting was unique, the puzzles were good, and the storyline really carries through. The city mazes accomplished what we wanted – making the cities feel large and complex – but were too frustrating for players. The combat system works fairly well, with a good mix of simplicity and tactics.

Quest for Glory 3: Wages of War (or “Seekers of the Lost City”, since we had a copyright problem with the original name) probably has the best story line and most original setting. It’s a little light on puzzles. QG4: Shadows of Darkness was very buggy out the door, but most of the major bugs were fixed for the CD version. The voice acting on it (with John Rhys-Davies as the narrator) is fantastic. We also pulled off the atmosphere very well in that one. Young Frankenstein was an inspiration for the mixture of Gothic horror and comedy.

QG1: So You Want to Be a Hero (originally “Hero’s Quest”) gets an honorable mention for originality, as it set up the series and was the first real RPG / Adventure Game hybrid. Finally, QG5: Dragon Fire is the most epic game in the series. The artwork is gorgeous and the scope of the game – area to explore, quests, and story – is huge, yet I think very consistent and enjoyable. That’s hard to pull off with “huge”. And of course there is Chance Thomas’s fabulous sound track. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the voice acting was up to par; some of the performances are too cartoony and over the top.

Actually music deserves its own mention, as we got fantastic compositions for all of the games – Mark Seibert developed a memorable theme for the first game. Mark also directed the music for Castle of Dr. Brain, which I think is amazing. Chris Braymen, Aubrey Hodges, and Rudy Helm also contributed some wonderful music to the series. Lori still likes to listen to Aubrey’s tracks while doing artwork, and we all had Chris’s QG2 harem theme on continuous loop for quite a while, especially while finalizing the design on QG2.

What is your name? What is your favourite colour? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Were you or Lori the Monty Python fan?

I sometimes post as Erasmus, but there’s a lot of competition for that name. Zartan is another one I use sometimes; it’s just a gaming handle I used to use for early BBS roleplaying. Lori uses Fenrus (I think even in the games, we sometimes called him Fenrus and sometimes Fenris). Purple, of course. Or royal blue. Lori’s is teal/aquamarine. As for the swallow, I’d need a lot more data on species, size, and environmental conditions. Otherwise, the best I could give you would be a rough average (which I’d look up on the Web). Yes. I was the Firesign Theater fan.

Quest for Glory is an undeniable cult classic. Have you had any encounters with over enthusiastic (or scary) fans?

No. Sometimes they demand a bit much. We’re either slow with such responses, or never get to them. But in general, our fans are fantastic. They appreciate our work, and let us know about it (which feels really good), without demanding too much of our time. Of course, we voluntarily sink a huge number of hours every week into www.theschoolforheroes.com, which is sort of our interactive follow-up to the games, but has morphed into a more serious site on being a real-life hero and living a successful and productive life.

The biggest problems we had weren’t with fans, but with people who complained about things that weren’t really in the games. For example, a Wiccan complained about the stereotypical portrayal of witches in Baba Yaga. Of course, she isn’t a witch, but an Ogress, and she’s lifted straight from Russian fairy tales, on which we based her appearance, the chicken-footed hut, and the laser-eyed skulls (ok, that might have been a *slight* variation) on the fence. Another complaint came from a woman who felt we were anti-Jewish because the villain used a six-pointed star for his rituals. She didn’t bother to read up on the Seal of Solomon or the other research on which we based that.

The one that really floored us was the complaint about the black people in the opening scene of QG3 using poor English usage and strong accents. We based Uhura’s accent on a Jamaican co-worker from my first job in Vancouver. We wanted people to have strong personalities, so we did that with memorable accents. Stereotyping? Maybe, but that’s what you have to do in the limited conditions of a game or film. But what really got us was that we were the first people to come out with a game with strong black role models, and that really made use of an East African setting... but instead of being applauded, we were criticized for the way we did it. That woman should have been our champion, not our critic! Uhura, of course, was inspired by Star Trek, but particularly by a Star Trek filk song with the words, “My name in Swahili means ‘freedom’.”

Do you have any funny/interesting development stories?

Well, we had a lot of fun with some of the incidental jokes and cameos. Many of them were contributed by team members rather than scripted by Lori or me. “Silly Clowns Mode” in QG2 was there because Brian Hughes commented that a lot of business applications had non-functional menu items intended for later expansions. The original idea was to have a menu item that did absolutely nothing, but at some point we decided to use it by changing the silliness level of parts of the game. Brian also collaborated with Kenn Nishiuye to create the Saurus Repair shop at a dead end in the alleyways. We really wanted to keep it in the game, but had to cut it when we exceeded our disk space budget. That scene was revived by AGDI in their fan-developed QG2 VGA remake. I loved producing the voice recording for QG4. All of the actors were terrific to work with, especially John Rhys-Davies even after he discovered he had about five times as much material to record as he’d anticipated when he signed the contract. (He renegotiated and got some additional money, but it was still pretty small considering his stature, talent, and the amount of work he had to do.) One of the best moments was trying to decide on voices for Hans, Franz, and Ivan. Two of the actors wanted to “do Jack Nicholson”, and I decided that their versions were just far enough apart to use them both. They also adlibbed some very funny lines, as you can tell if you compare the screen text with the voices in their scenes. The best parts of development were when we really got everyone on the team pulling together to make something work great. Those became harder as the teams got larger, and spread out throughout the building, in the later games.

When you look back at your time building the Quest for Glory series do you think of that period fondly or is developing games more stressful than the uninitiated might realize?

Yes. It was an amazing opportunity for us, and it was a *lot* of work. We pulled many 60-hour and longer weeks during all of the games. QG5 was by far the worst in amount of unpaid overtime and sheer number of months spent in crunch mode, but I think we came out with a very good game that might have been weaker without the extra work. QG4 was frustrating, because the team was really burned out by the end of the project and it Sierra shipped it months too early. It needed much more QA, bug fix, and tuning time. Fortunately, Sierra management recognized the problem. While we were working on recording voices for the CD version, they assigned one of the programmers full-time to fixing bugs. That he spent almost a year at that, and the game still has a few serious flaws, is a testament to how much work remained undone before the first release.

Lori’s “favorite” anecdote about the stress of working on Quest for Glory was when Sierra installed a security system to get into each section of the building. One day she showed up at work and spent about five minutes trying to remember her access code to get in. Finally someone (breaking company rules) opened the door and let her in. This was during QG2 development, and we wrote some of the stress and paranoia of the time into the game script (including using anagrams of several of the managers as villains – Ad Avis, Khaveen, and al Skurva). It’s not that they were bad people, but the challenge of mixing a very creative process with trying to run a profitable business caused some very stressful moments.

Thanks for your time.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Musical prodigies

Musical prodigies. The true game changers. Artists that stand on the precipice and give the world music that will never be forgotten. The transcenders. The progressers. The virtuoso's you can point at and unequivocally know were ahead of their time and culture.

Plant and Page. Bowie. Morrison. Reznor. Hendrix. They are classical. Their art is eternal. Jackson. Mercury. Yorke. Kobain. Ramone. True rock prodigies.

But who was the last musical transcendent that appeared from the nether and set the art form of music as we know it on a new course of exploration? It feels overdue to me. Enter the current mediocrity of contemporary music.

I'm not someone that likes to attack people for their art. The detractors that spend their time and energy filling blogs, websites and forum posts with venom for things they don't like, are people I am always keen to distance myself from. That kind of 'bad karma' doesn't do anyone any good. If you don't like something, don't waste your time. That said, I find it hard to get too connected to any music I've heard in the past few years. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting old, and that the generation gap is growing like a chasm between a pair of tectonic plates, separating at glacial speed. I've just noticed recently that every new band I hear is, for want of a better word, plain. I haven't had a piece of music get inside my blood, and speak to my soul, the way artists like Nine Inch Nails or David Bowie did the first time I heard them. Maybe music isn't what it used to be. Maybe I'm just getting cynical in my old age. Maybe I'm going deaf. Who knows. I just know that I have to stop myself almost daily from thinking that whatever contemporary band I'm hearing on the radio doesn't measure up to what I used to hear in my younger days, lest I become a crotchety, old curmudgeon, complaining that new musicians can't do covers that compare to originals. I need a new rock prodigy to light the fire I used to feel.

There could, of course, be an external explanation for how underwhelming I find current artists. Maybe because bands are worrying too much about their twitter feeds and what kind of DRM their new tracks are embedded with, rather than being concerned about committing some gross acts of rock 'n roll, drug fuelled debauchery, has something to do with it. I don't use drugs personally, but if music history has taught us only one thing, it's that drug culture and amazing music run parallel. Name any great artist, and chances are their 'third eye' was teased open with a little chemical inspiration.

To equate that point better than I ever could, here's a clip from the late, great Bill Hicks on music and drugs...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Modern Hollywood

Versatility is an asset any good aspiring actor knows the importance of. Pigeon-holing your craft into any one aspect of performance limits your potential career opportunities right from the get go. An actor that can tackle a variety of different jobs, intimate performance, stunt and martial arts work, and voice acting, for instance, is more valuable than a performer that only knows how to wear one, single proverbial 'mask'.

Matt Yang King is one actor forging an impressive career for himself in Hollywood. Take a look at Matt's IMDB page, and it's clear he knows how to push his talent into many different aspects of performance. From television roles in shows like 24, Numbers, Frasier, The West Wing, CSI, Strong Medicine, Friends and ER, to his long list of voice work in video games like Dragon Age, Warcraft III, Uncharted, Infamous, The Saboteur and Alpha Protocol, as well as work on animated series such as GI Joe, Family Guy and Naruto, it's clear that Matt knows how to make his talents work, anywhere he needs.

Matt was kind enough to answer some questions for me about his craft, and Hollywood at large. Here's what he had to say...

Me: What made you decide to pursue acting?

Matt: I was a concert violinist at a very early age. Then I got into 45 minutes from Broadway when I was in 8th grade and I realized I loved performance not violin. I never looked back.

Which of you jobs/performances are you most proud of?

My role in the pilot Washington Field. My role as Caliban in the Tempest. My work on GI Joe the animated series.

What garners the most geek respect/admiration; your voice work on G.I. Joe or as Illidan?

GI Joe.

What's your attitude to the current acting scene in Hollywood?

It's rough. I wouldn't do it unless I loved it. It requires that you spend a great deal of time expending effort being a business person on a day to day basis, followed by 30 second bursts of being an artist. Rinse and repeat. The juxtaposition of the amount of time necessary practicing your craft and practicing your business is disproportional.

Which kind of role has more appeal to you personally; a complex characterization or a more physical, action role?

Complex characterization at this minute in time. Although I think that one is the same as the other. When I am truly doing my best performances, I am "in my body." So whether I am fully grounded in a character that is driven by complex thought or complex body movement is largely irrelevant as long as I am grounded.

Did you find it hard to find your success as an actor? Did you ever see yourself as a 'struggling actor'?

Yes, still do. It's all just another rung on the ladder. Someone is ahead of you and someone is behind you. The only way to stop worrying about it is to stop climbing.

How do you perceive Hollywood's general attitude towards Asian actors? Has it improved or worsened over the past decade?

I believe that Hollywood's perception has improved, if at a glacial pace. And largely the improvements have been variations on a theme. Asian women are now allowed to be love interests, but they are still subservient or exotic depending. Asian men are no longer the help, they are the best friend. Bruce Lee opened the door to allowing us to be perceived as ass-kickers and that has stayed open but all in all Asian men are largely shafted. Name the last time you saw a major Asian American actor kiss a girl or (gasp) have sex with a girl in a film or TV. It's non-existent. Jackie Chan is an action star twice the size of Schwarzenegger and he might as well be a Ken doll as far as Hollywood is concerned. It will take an Asian Sidney Poitier to do it, and hopefully one will come along soon. The Asian American community does not help either since it delineates itself (rightly) into Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc. However when they take umbrage against a Chinese woman playing a Japanese woman and yet do not come out to support when As-Ams produce good film it creates an atmosphere that is non-conducive to changing Hollywood's opinion. Hollywood after all only really cares about one color... green.

Which comic book/video game character would you love to play on film? Do you have any particular 'dream role'?

There are no good Asian American superheroes. See my last rant. However, I always wanted to be Spiderman, but that's neither here nor there. I don't think that Peter Parker should be Peter Park. I would love to play a role as a "Knight" in a TV series adaptation of the comic "Checkmate." That would be oodles of fun. My dream role is to play Cyrano de Bergerac.

Is there a performance medium you haven't tried yet that you'd like to?

No. I just would like more opportunity to really show my stuff on film. I'm pretty covered in TV and now animation, but film was one of the reasons why I came to LA.

Which on screen performance, not of your own, do you most admire?

Recently, the King's Speech blew me away. But I actually tend to LOVE the little performances rather than the big ones on Film now that I am an "insider." I think that big actors can let one scene go whereas the small actors have to reveal a whole character in a tiny scene in order to support the film. Stephen Tobolowsky (sp?) is brilliant at this. Chris Cooper was one of my fav's forever. I'm really glad he's getting the response he's getting. I do have one favorite, but really I'm a devotee of film performances in general. So here's what I'd give as a primer.

Still performances;
Derek Jacobi in the I, Claudius TV miniseries
Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross
Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice
Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda

Moving performances;
Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai
Chaplin in The Great Dictator
Daniel day Lewis in My Left Foot

Overall for me Peter Sellars in anything.

You can find Matt on the Geekson podcast, or at his website.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Area...

Anyone in my local area, Griffith NSW, might have caught me in today's Area News, the local newspaper, discussing blogging. A Sincere thank you to Alexis and Daniel, over at the Area News, for the exposure. It was a lot of fun.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Exploring 'Inner Demons'

If there is one tool that has changed the game for independent film makers in the last decade, it's the internet. Online video delivery systems, such as Youtube and itunes, have put the power to reach a vast audience directly into the hands of the content creator. Indie webseries have well and truly caught the attention of major film and television studios, and made them sit up and take notice. It's clear that as more and more people spend increasing amounts of time in front of their computers, that they are spending less in front of the old idiot box. The time for talented and ambitious indie film makers to make their mark, and raise the level of what can be achieved via independent marketing and distribution, is now.

One such team, Ryan McCalla and Tommy Larkin, are preparing to make their first mark on the independent webseries scene. Their anticipated first project, Inner Demons, is nearing the release of it's first series. Inner Demons is a non-linear story, with its roots in horror and the supernatural.

I recently had a chance to ask Ryan and Tommy some questions about their ambitious new project. Here's what they had to say...

Me: Describe the genesis of Inner Demons.

Tommy: It started off with Ryan writing a short story about someone who has to deal with being a werewolf and a drug addict. I loved the initial concept of it. After many games of Halo and many discussions, we started talking about making a short movie. As we kept talking about it, more characters kept coming to life. Since I was studying film at the time, we thought it would then make an awesome movie. However, because funding was really hard to get, we decided to make it a series. Then we both came up with the idea of showing it on the web.

Ryan: Yeah once we decided to go for web distribution it really opened up the ideas for more characters and ideas – I still remember passing Tommy the first draft of season 1 in hand scrawled notes, and him going off to decipher my so called “chicken scratch” handwriting as he called it. Initially I wrote alot more characters but Tommy really helped to streamline this down getting rid of unnecessary characters, merging characters and coming with several new ones as well such as Sparky, which was initially just an unnamed teleporter that Tommy helped to flesh out and bring to life. We wrote the main storyline in a linear fashion, plotting out certain moments and beats in the season, before going into more depth, before settling on going for a non linear format, meaning we could just really push in and focus on these key dramatic moments in the season 1 timeline.

Tommy: Also having this being shown on the web cuts out any drama trying to pitch it to a television network. Plus with the content of the episodes, I think that the web will be able to reach more people than television would. It works so we because Ryan and I are using practical tricks we have learnt to pull off something that looks like it has a big budget.

How long did you work on the script? Any inspirations?

Tommy: Overall we have been working on getting this series off and running for the last two and a bit years. It’s been long road but worth it in the long run. We started casting in December last year and since then, it has snowballed. We have managed to find fantastic cast and crew that love the project as much as we do.

Ryan: I think it helps having people that love the source material we came up with as well, to really help bring this to life, and are as enthusiastic about this as we are. Basically the we plotted out a major arc that goes over 4 seasons of 13 episodes during the first year and a bit of development, then we went in and fleshed out the moments we thought would have the most impact. This took us about another year getting the season 1 scripts finalised – inspiration wise I loved we have alot of comic books and various tv shows as well, I really quite liked in the UK show SKINS, how we saw these events and moments from a certain characters point of view and just really focused on that character for a given episode with other characters still weaving in and out but more just being in the peripheral.

Is the series totally self financed?

Ryan: Haha yes completely self financed... scrimping an saving bits and pieces here and there to put towards it.

Tommy: Yeah basically we have been doing this on the skin of our backs. Any big pay we would get, would go straight to equipment props, costumes, catering etc.

Are you using a distribution plan similar to other web series, or are you trying a different model?

Ryan: It is similar in some respects yes – we are pushing it out via as many different video distributors as possible to get a maximum reach, so people are not just forced to go to youtube to watch the latest episodes. People will be able to watch through itunes, Vimeo, Blip.TV, Youtube and also on the Inner Demons website.

How did you find the casting process? Is it difficult to find actors interested in independent film projects in Australia?

Tommy: We actually got really lucky with our cast. Everyone that applied for the roles loved the idea and were definitely keen. The casting process was stressful at times but in the end was really worth it all.

Ryan: Everyone is perfect for their roles as well, both in acting ability and look. It’s quite scary how much they match what we originally had envisioned in our heads.

How long were you in pre-production?

Ryan: Including the writing process about 2 years – though really, its been more the last 6 months that we have really started to push things together with costumes, props and the like – we got very lucky with our costume designer Jerrel Dulay who has just nailed exactly what we are after from the get go.

Tommy: We had basically started doing some VFX tests about 3 years ago to see what we could and couldn't do. From there I was also doing some camera and sounds tests. And also before we started shooting, we had a few table reads to make sure that all the cast members were on the same page and we also did lighting tests and camera tests. We figured the best way to shoot this series was to be as prepared as possible.

How are you finding the filming process? Is it what you expected?

Tommy: SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH FUN!!!!!!!!! The cast and crew are so amazing to work with. After a day of shooting, we all relax and watch the rushes of the day. It has become a real family vibe. I wasn't expecting everyone to get along as much as they do. They have been all so supportive and keep both Ryan and I going which is rewarding to see.

What kind of equipment are you filming with?

Ryan: We are using the Cannon Series DLSR’s, plus Tommy has a lot of his own equipment...

Tommy: We are also using the latest in steadicam units and dolly tracking systems. The camera team is just doing an amazing job.

How do you get what you need out of your actors? Is that an easy exchange?

Tommy: I find that in order to get a great performance from your actors, you let them play around with the idea first. See if they can truly get the vision. After that, I simply make suggestions to help improve the performance. The cast we have are so spot on. Everyone is very professional and really easy to direct. They all know how to bring the best of the character out and give it 110% everytime. Even with blocking through action scenes, everyone goes balls out and fully commits to the role.

Ryan: Alot of the time too they will think of doing things that we hadn’t even thought of during the blocking process – taking the characters to a completely new level.

Inner Demons is ambitious in terms of special effects, especially for an independent project. What's the biggest effect you have to tackle for Inner Demons? Is there anything you had to omit due to budget or technical limitations?

Ryan: when we initially plotted out the season, we both sort of said to ourselves lets go all out. Put it all in and we can reel it back in once we realise what we can achieve – with most of the VFX side of things we would go out and shoot tests to see how we could achieve things in post and what we would need to pull off the effect, I think for me that moment when I could actually breathe a sigh of relief was watching a finished shot of the twins. Being able to see them interacting with each other and brought to life with just one actress (Melissa McConnel), it was one of those sort of moments where if we didn’t get it right the whole thing would have fallen apart. A lot of what we are doing is using every little trick in the book to pull of certain shots and cheating as much as possible before we go to a Digital VFX shot in post – if we can do it on camera we go for it.

How important are social networking tools for spreading the word about your series?

Tommy: Having social networks such as Facebook and youtube, gives you the option to reach out to more people as these sites are being used in everyday use.

Ryan: They are pretty much the standard nowadays, it allows you to interact with fans and people interested in the project at a great level.

Which aspect of production or filming has surprised you the most so far? Is creating a series like Inner Demons from the ground up what you expected?

Ryan: Mostly just how friendly and supportive everyone has been throughout the whole process, our friends and families have been extremely supportive about the series along with all of the cast and crew which makes so much easier and can what would be a painful long day go by do quick with laughs between takes.

Tommy: For me I guess it would have to be the crew. The crew we have are extremely talented and by far the best crew I have worked with in years. And even if there is something that needs attending, they stop and help out. It's very much a "no one gets left behind" mentality and i think thats why we work extremely fast and awesome together.

Ryan: I think I expected to be a lot more difficult than what it has been – all of our cast and crew like I was saying earlier are so friendly and down to earth – it makes our jobs alot easier. The most difficult part was getting it started, once you get enough momentum the project takes on a life of it’s own and picks up more momentum. Me and Tommy like to call it the snowball effect, which sort of hit for us about halfway through casting.

How do you feel about the state of independent film making in Australia these days?

Tommy: I find that indie films made in Australia really suffer as I feel that there is little to no support. I find that every indie film maker struggles as most of the stuff shot in Australia either has to have everything Australian in it to get funding, or, Make it for an overseas market with little theatrical releases. If the indie film industry had more support, It would seriously boost the film making in Australia. There is sooooooo many talented film makers in Australia that are just waiting for the chance.

When can we expect to see Inner Demons hit the web?

Ryan: At the moment we are shooting for a Q4 release, once we have most of the episodes finished we will be releasing the details through our website 'innerdemonstheseries.com' and our Facebook fan page as well.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In a hole there lived a hobbit...

Any fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy needs to see this; a directors diary from Peter himself, with glimpses of pre-production, the first day of shooting, and some sneak peeks at new and returning characters. This is truly awesome. Find it on Peter Jackson's Facebook page.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Blood, sweat and hobbits

The fantasy film genre is a pretty interesting one. To define the genre; fantasy movies have magical, supernatural themes, fantastical, exotic settings, and larger than life characters. To put it simply; the fantasy genre can deal with anything outside the realms of common believability. Then there are a few subcategories of movies within the 'fantasy' genre. There are horror, supernatural, mythological, science fiction, historical, romantic and sword and sorcery fantasy films.

The 'sword and sorcery' sub genre is arguably the most popular fantasy sub class. Sword and sorcery films are fairly self explanatory. Heroes and villains, warriors and wizards, dungeons and dragons. You know sword and sorcery when you see it. It's very Tolkeinesque. They have archetypal characters; clearly defined representations of good and evil, muscle and magic. They almost always have a quasi-medieval undercoat, with a second layer of monsters and sorcery. They have an almost magnetic attraction to most self proclaimed geeks. Throw a magic acorn at a geek film convention and you'll probably hit a six-foot tall dwarven warrior, or a lanky guy with fake, pointy elf ears.

If you take a look at the fantasy movies that Hollywood has produced over the years, you see it's a very hit and miss affair. You really have to wade through the less than great stuff to find the diamonds in the rough. But there are some truly great, genre defining titles out there to enjoy. The problem with making a fantasy movie is usually the cost. To make these fantastical worlds come to life convincingly, a studio has to throw a lot of money towards any given project. Just look at 'The Lord of the Rings'. Stanely Kubrick, when considering taking on the monumental task of directing Tolkein's legendary book trilogy, was quoted as saying that it was 'un-filmable'. Thank Crom for Peter Jackson and company. The other roadblock to a sword and sorcery film's success, is Hollywood's reluctance to take the genre seriously. Despite the mega success of films like the Rings and Star Wars, many studios see fantasy as untested, silly and that it only has a small, niche audience. There is some justification to this attitude. For every Lord of the Rings, there are half a dozen 'Deathstalker's', 'Krull's' and 'Hundra: Barbarian Queen's', or in other words, awful movies.

There are, however, many great, well made, interesting sword and sorcery epic's out there. Here are my top 5...

5. Willow - Willow is a something George Lucas threw together, obviously heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Ron Howard directed the mid-eighties epic about the half-pint, aspiring magician (Warrick Davis), out on an adventure to protect a prophecized child, told to be the only hope of overthrowing the evil Queen. Along the way you get to meet Val Kilmer as a swashbuckling warrior, some hairy trolls and a villain that likes to turn her enemies into pork.

4. Star Wars - Some might argue that the Star Wars trilogy doesn't fit the sword and sorcery genre, but I think it clearly meets the specifications. Star Wars has always felt far more 'fantasy' than 'sci-fi' to me. It has the clear cut, black and white sides of good and evil, the young farm boy that wants to take up his fathers sword, the ominous black knight, the cackling, old evil wizard, and even the unscrupulous, dashing rogue...and his wookie sidekick.

3. Legend - When Ridley Scott, one of the contemporary greats, wants to bring a world to life on film, he really, knows how to bring a world to life on film. Wether it's ancient Rome, sci-fi San Fransisco or a beautiful, fairytale, fantasy world, like the one in 1985's 'Legend'. This flick, about a forest dweller named Jack (Tom Cruise) and his quest to save the princess and the world from the clutches of a maniacal villain (played with relish by Tim Curry), is an underrated film. Every shot looks amazing. Shigeru Miyamoto even sites Legend as a big inspiration for the Legend of Zelda video game series.

2. Conan the Barbarian - Ron E. Howard's Hyboria is a harsh, unforgiving world where you either live by the sword or die upon it, brought to life in his classic series of dark, pulp fantasy novels. When Arnie put on the loincloth and brandished Conan's enormous, phallic, broadsword, a classic was made. This is an eternally watchable epic, complete with blood, sweat, snake cults, larger than life characters, an immersive world and, of course, Crom. Strong in his mountain. This is a top notch production from start to finish. It feels dirty, mythic and darkly poetic, much like Howard's source material. Easy to recommend to anyone that loves action epics.

1. The Lord of the Rings - The trilogy of trilogies. The one trilogy to rule them all. Tolkein's books invented the fantasy genre at large, it's only fitting that a typically epic movie series be made by some truly game changing film makers, tackling the monumental task of putting Middle Earth on film. Peter Jackson knew what he needed to keep from the books, he new what he needed to omit, he kept the spirit that Tolkein instilled in his stories, and made films that would appease the die hard fantasy fans and mainstream audiences alike. Some of the scenes that are brought to life need to be seen to be believed. A film trilogy that belongs in any ones DVD collection.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Inner Demons' teaser

A good friend of mine, Ryan McCalla, and his production partner, Tommy Larkin, revealed the first teaser to their brand new web series, 'Inner Demons'. The series promises to be some dark, complex and non-linear storytelling. I can't wait until they launch their first series, later this year. You can keep up to date with the Inner Demons launch at the official site, or the Inner Demons Facebook page. Oh, and keep an eye out on this very blog for some exclusive insight and interviews with Ryan and Tommy.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Girl power

Late last year, like many others, I watched the trailer for David Fincher's 'The Social Network'. It had quite an effect on me. Visually it was a little underwhelming. It consisted of a mash up of shots of Facebook pages, seemingly random profile photo's of people fading in and out, relationship status' being updated, and words like 'where are you?' and 'this day sucks!' filling the screen with the ominous text cursor blinking next to them. All this was obviously there to show how personalized and integrated the social networking phenomenon of 'Facebook' has become in how people interact. However, the thing that made this trailer so effective to me was the haunting cover of Radiohead's 'Creep', which sounded to me like it had been performed by a women's choir with a simple, understated piano accompaniment. Thom Yorke's beautifully angst filled lyricism, combined with this angelic performance, really fit and catapulted the bittersweet mood that the trailer was obviously trying to invoke.

I liked the cover so much that I did a little looking about on google and found that it had been arranged and performed by two brothers, the Kolcancy Brothers, and a Belgian girls choir, known collectively as 'Scala'. To quote Scala's website; "Scala is a youth choir from Aarschot, Belgium, roughly sixty teenage girls, directed by two talented brothers, receiving international recognition." And much deserved recognition, in my opinion. After listening to a few more Scala tracks I was very impressed with what I heard. Scala has made five studio albums, along with a collection of live recordings. They do alot of covers of well known acts. Some that jumped out at me as being particularly good were 'Underneath it All' by Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', Rammstein's 'Engel' and 'I Touch Myself' by The Divynils. The group tackles all kinds of genres, and manage to make everything they do sound delicate, precise and, above all, hauntingly beautiful. The instrumentals in Scala's music are always understated, typically nothing more than some sombre, simple piano. The vocalisation by the sixty or so teenage choir singers are amazing; beautifully harmonized and directed.

If you look at the impressive list of well known songs that Scala has tackled, it's easy to recommend the group to anyone that loves covers. They've done songs by Garabge, The Chilli Peppers, The Verve, Sinead O'Connor, Muse, The Police, Depeche Mode; the list goes on and on. It's also easy to recommend Scala to anyone that loves beautiful music. Scala is amazing. In fact, the group is fast becoming my current musical obsession.

You can find Scala's website here.