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 '' 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.