Monday, December 29, 2008


Well, according to Twitter Grader I am now ranked 777,641 out of 806,421 with a grade of 3 out of a possible 100. Some improvement possibly needed. Like me actually using it, one would presume.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Naming those Pesky Flying UFO Objects

One of my guilty pleasures is an interest in the whole flying saucer malarkey business. Equally, it's also something which annoys me intensely. The whole subject seems to have gone off the boil (to regurgitate a phrase) in recent years, with only a fairly recent pick-up.

Not much has been happening (and to the hardcore skeptic, never happened in the first place) until the last year or so. I find this Interesting, because of the fascinating history which I think was kicked off for me with a Swap Shop special in 1976. I find this annoying because the bar for explanations seems to have been set so low; i.e. anything slightly odd couldn't possibly be anything other than aliens.

Anything can indeed be pressed into use as a UFO, which itself is an indictment of the terminology used. “UFO” was created in, I believe, 1955 by a USAF Captain, Edward J Ruppelt. The U in UFO means unidentified, not that the sum entirety of the public has any truck with such technicalities. UFO equals aliens. Last year's release of the MOD's Condign Report made a point of describing reports as UAPs - Unidentified Atmospheric Phenomenon. UFO has become too broad a brush.

So, sitting on a bus one day, which can sometimes be great for thinking off at tangents, I realised that if there were really any solid mysterious craft buzzing around in the air – as opposed to misidentified sightings of the Moon, plastic bags floating in the air and so on, they'd need a different categorisation. Taking a leaf from the book of monster hunters (yeah, yeah, I know) who describe their field as cryptozoology – crypto means hidden after all – a hidden craft would have to be a crypto something.

And this is where the freeform thinking on a bus comes into its own, because I'm rather fond of the old-fashioned names for certain classes of aircraft. An aerodyne is a normal aircraft, a gyrodyne is a particular kind of helicopter and so on.

So I thought an excellent name for nuts and bolts mysterious craft in our skies, both stealth fighters and – hey, alien spaceships why not? - would be Cryptodynes.

Feel free to spread the word. (Yeah, right!)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hammond's Law

So, at the Iain Banks talk, I was originally going to suggest one of the 'laws' that might be appropriate, but then decided that I was going to keep it to myself; thought I think it rather fits in with the spirit of the Culture. So much so, that I might have subconsciously absorbed something like it from his novels. Anyway, Hammond's First Law – and the associated arrogance which goes along with it – is this: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is an insufficient hoot”.

Sounds like something a Mind would say.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Silicon Heaven

Slightly sad news, as far as I'm concerned, this weekend when my old laptop - an HP DV1588 - finally ended up in Silicon Heaven. The noteworthy (if you choose to take it that way) part of all this is that it's the machine on which I put together Heavy Lies the Crown, editing a substantial chunk of the movie on it, doing most of the compositing and rendering a number of CG effects. I bought it after my old Desktop had gone the same way, picking it purely on the basis that it had enough spec to let me finish the film. It even appeared in a couple of TV news items with me, where I pretended I was editing on the spot for the camera crews.

Why do I get so fond of these things?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Lemmings II

Via Mike at Life of a Games Programmer, I present the end sequence for Lemmings II, which has my name in it!  The reason for this is that I designed some levels for it.  Wow, I haven't seen this since sometime late last century!

Spooks Series 7: Episode 2

It's a terrible burden actually knowing stuff.  At least that's how the writer of this episode must feel.  There is a certain cuteness, it must be said, when the mainstream media tries to do technology, like a puppy trying to join in a game of football.  It'll make you go 'aw' but what you really care about is the team.

Strained analogy.  Sorry.

The episode had a distributed denial of service attack on the UK, carried out by a submarine tapping an underwater cable.  Which is, er, a single location.  The 'distributed' part of it was obviously merrily sidelined in favour of - gasp! - a big dangerous looking thing!

So of course the defence against this is to launch a 'zero day attack'.

Oh dear.

A zero day attack is making use of an undisclosed computer vulnerability, i.e. zero days have gone by since it was discovered and hence no defence is in place.

I actually laughed out loud when I heard this.  Politics and police procedures are carefully researched for that added authenticity, of course, but as soon as technology is involved, any old shit is made up.  In this case by someone who has heard the phrases but has clearly no idea what they mean.

And just for good measure, the zero day attack is also a virus.  Because as far as TV people are concerned, computer viruses can do anything.  Perhaps it should have been named the MacGuffin virus?

This kind of thing, being a flagship BBC program, should be beneath them; it turned the normally excellent Spooks into a cartoon.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Banks' Law

Back at the Edinburgh book festival, which I claimed I was going to write more about, we saw Iain Banks at one of the big events. Iain, of Culture novels fame – was giving a talk essentially about being Iain Banks, followed by a book signing. The whole thing was something I was intending to blog about immediately afterwards in the pub, as I'd done the day before, but a rather nasty headache overtook me and so the on-the-spot blathering was quietly dropped. Overall, though, I do believe I have added to the Banks' canon.

So here's how I remember it.

We turned up early, to the point of being first in the queue. In no way are either of us a fanboy or fangirl respectively.  Given that it was SF, does that make us fanbeings? In any case, we were first in the door and by happy chance none of the front row seats were reserved, which is how we came to be right in front of him, a mere smattering of feet away.

(I'm really racking my mind to think what was said, the danger of waiting a few months to note things down. As opposed to my memories of the computer games industry, where the notes have waited something like sixteen years.)

Anyway, the important thing happened afterwards at the signing. Lesley had given me Matter and I was dithering about whether I was wanting it signed, meaning that I worried whether I would be too star-struck to form sentences in front of the great man. Lesley contrived to escape from the signing queue, the better vantage point from which to watch everyone smile and nod and say their names and then Iain's autograph would be jotted down.

Most people brought a single novel; Matter was a clear favourite, being newly released. One or two brought a whole pile of books and the guy in front of us had a Kindle. The mystery of how he was going to get an electronic book signed was resolved when he also had a normal book. A Book, book. Someone asked for Iain to write “something inspirational” to which his response was “Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

I think we can all live with that.

But then it was my turn and in a sudden fit of inspiration I asked for his full Culture name! In the Culture, you see, your full name also includes your planet and star system of birth. Emboldened, I managed to mumble out the question that I'd been too chicken to ask in the talk itself. Given that Arthur C Clarke has a law and Asimov has his laws of robotics, does Iain Banks have his own law?

I was amazed that he only needed a second or two to think this over and come up with a clear answer on the spot, though as he said, laughing, it was still a first draft.

“Any worldview, indistinguishable from solipsism, is wrong.”

I left happy. The remainder of the evening involved the train back and watching a massive glow in the sky from what was apparently a fire at a chemical plant. But that's another story.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Satellite Dish

As a follow up on my delivery of a satellite dish (and a stand), you can see (in a metaphysical way since I didn't add a photo) that it's a bit larger than I imagined.  The 60cm wasn't in stock and I was impatient, so I went for the 90cm one.  It blocks out the Sun and resonates quite spectacularly when bellowing out some rebuke to the television; it makes me sound like a radio FX.  The rebukes to the TV, incidentally, tend to be to the effect that the content is risible and its inventors were fools.  (i.e. not enough Battlestar Galactica.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

DMA Design Office Tour

Well, the poll has spoken. Out of the (did I break double figures?) responses came a clear preference for the old computer game days. I think it was just before Christmas 1992 that I took my new video camera into the office and asked Andolf (Graeme Anderson) to be the presenter. You can see me in my Halo Jones T-Shirt somewhere in the middle of it. My desk is surrounded with bits of paper containing Hired Guns material. Right at the end, you can see a very disdainful Mike Dailly, which has a certain level of irony since I gave him a copy of this a couple of years ago and he bloody posts it to YouTube without asking!!!!

I had this half-assed notion that I'd gather together every possible bit of video relating to DMA and make it into a documentary. I have the DMA fireworks display, the Lemming we made out of snow in the car park, and a dozen b/w frames from an episode of Working Lunch which featured us sometime in 1996. Much other stuff as well, including the big boss Dave Jones telling a sweary anecdote! (Which Mike also uploaded without asking! Bah, at least I still have the pudding eating competition on video. You don't have that on tape Mikey boy, do ya!)

Still, a documentary about DMA? Who'd be interested in such a thing? :)


I was actually in cardiff back in Jan, but since I haven't posted anything recently, here's a picture of the mysterious "Dr Horizon".
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Intrepid: Sisters

Last night I put the final polish to the audio script for Sisters, something which I'd been meaning to do for the last week. Originally this was a short story of mine which I'd thought of as being akin to Intrepid fanfic, written while Heavy Lies the Crown was yet to be released and not really 'official'. So it was nice to see elements from it being incorporated into the proper background. That made it the real thing for me.

Micheal Hudson thought it would make a good audio drama and made an attempt to convert it, before realising that it might not be that straightforward. Almost the entire thing was either some visual imagery or else internal character thoughts; not something lending itself to audio very easily.

So I've been rewriting it, in some places quite substantially, to fit the new form. A narrator has been added for some of the exposition, while the remainder has been changed into dialogue divided between the characters. In some cases, new characters. It was an interesting experiment and now that it's in Micheal's hands I've promised to be hands-off while he gets it made.

That last part might be tricky - I can't help wanting to do everything!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Edinburgh Book Festival

The Edinburgh book festival is now in full flow and I've just been along with Lesley to see Richard Dawkins (famous scientist) give a talk. All was going pretty much as expected, arrive early, see huge queue, guy with new iPhone (non-famous member of public) behind us, start going into the tent where the talk was being held. We found a seat and sat down. No problem, until this proved to be the very wrong seat indeed when Lesley spotted Iain Banks (famous author) having walked in as part of the audience.

The wrong seat, of course, was any seat that was not immediately adjacent to Iain Banks (famous Scottish author). Lesley happens to like Iain Banks (famous and clever Scottish author) a lot. So that was why the minutes leading up to Dawkin's talk consisted of observations of the form "Iain's taking his coat off", "Iain's looking around" and "Iain's looking at me!!!" (Disclaimer: Lesley is normally very *non-starstruck* and independent.)

The talk proved to be an interview chaired by Paula Kirby (famous, er, non-famous? I really have no idea) who started off by telling us that we'd be going into some less-travelled questioning. Most of the questioning stemmed from Richard's views on aliens, which itself came from an earlier debate in which he'd been consistently misrepresented. Even though it was outside his normal area of expertise, he spoke lucidly and at one point I wondered what must have been going through Iain Banks mind (famous clever Scottish Science Fiction author) as Richard explained that any real aliens would be vastly different in form to the old humanoid shape. Most science fiction writers don't have their aliens as being anything other than humanoid.

I wonder if Richard has read The Algebraist... but then Iain is most definitely not most science fiction writers. (Iain's giving his own talk on Wednesday, I'll have to ask him his thoughts - if I'm brave enough.) Dawkins is not most science fiction writers either; he revealed that his own story about aliens on the moon didn't follow the usual SF convention of having them speak English - the spoke French. But then he was seven at the time.

Most of the rest of the talk continued in on this theme, with a discussion of the Earth as a likely place for life and of multiverses. It was an unexpected avenue, and something which I am more familiar with than I would have been with biology. Of course it was all discussed with reference to scientific explanation versus "God did it", the result being entirely fascinating, even mentioning Fermi's Paradox. At that point I couldn't help thinking how amazing a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Baxter (another famous science fiction author) might have been.

Myself and Lesley were half expecting Iain to ask a question during the subsequent Q&A, but he remained silent. I thought that the questions from the audience were rather more interesting (and of course wider ranging) that Paula's questions, which really just stuck to the same theme.

So I'm blogging this from a pub a few streets down from the book festival and there's a lot of events still to go this week, including one about blogging.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Doritos in Space

(I wrote a first draft of this a while back and then promptly forgot about it. I was reminded of it by a BBC news item of something similar. I'll get to that in a later entry.)

The notion of using space for advertising isn't a new one. The Last Action Hero was briefly featured on the side of a NASA rocket launch, Pepsi was launched to Mir and Pizza Hut was on A Proton launch vehicle, amongst others. But with the latest ad effort, one has lurched into the entirely sinister.

Soon after NASA broadcast a Beatles song deep into space with a radio telescope, an advert for Doritos was broadcast in the same way. As far as any potential inhabitants of 47 Ursa Majoris are concerned, the first contact with humanity will be spam. Not content to merely pollute our own airwaves, we're exporting our pollution as far as we can possibly throw it across the universe. How noble.

Spamming would be grounds for an invasion all by itself, by any presumed civilisation. But then that is not the larger point that is being made. The very basic fact is that we have been making ourselves visible for some time now, but now we are doing it deliberately. As has been pointed out elsewhere on the net, were exposing ourselves to a something whose capabilities and intentions are unknown.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do. Even if the chances of the broadcast actually being picked up are vanishingly small, the potential consequences are immense. For example an event, such as a large asteroid hitting us, is unlikely but the result is catastrophic. Our Doritos advert has an even smaller chance of any consequences, but those consequences could be vastly greater.

We're conditioned by fiction to think of aliens as spanning the whole range of possible psychologies. Klingons are warriors who hold honour above all else, for a well-known example. But almost the entirety of alien depictions are variations of humans in one way or another. A truly alien psychology may act in ways we could barely comprehend. List all the SF battles between humans and aliens and the two sides are essentially pretty well matched. Any real encounter would have no such luxury.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, the Martians debate the artistic necessity of destroying Earth. Extraordinary. Yet in real human culture we have behaviours which are far stranger. Draw a cartoon with a particular subject matter and a sizeable section of humanity will call for your execution. And it hardly need be pointed out that after only a hundred years of technological progress we can destroy ourselves quite thoroughly. What can another civilisation do with a thousand years head start? Or ten thousand?

To reiterate; we are making ourselves known to possible aliens who may react in ways which cannot be known in advance. Whose intentions perhaps can't be known even in principle. Truly, we have no idea what we might be messing with.

They may think an interstellar Doritos advert to be funny. They may think it is the sign of an appallingly immature civilisation. Or they may merely see that a new technological culture has arisen – and move to eliminate it before it can become a threat. Or - and how humiliating this would be - we join the greater galactic community but are forever after treated as a joke, a third rate culture, because our first detectable broadcast was not about art or science or any of the things we supposedly hold to be important, but about crisps.

We can't know. And given the limitations of the speed of light, we won't know, though future generations may. Carl Sagan once asked who speaks for Earth. Well now we know the answer: a marketing executive.

Friday, July 18, 2008


So, not unusually I'm waiting on something I've bought to arrive. Seems straightforward enough; order, select next day delivery, pay a little extra for the 'delivered before 10am' option. I hate waiting, you see.

So I get the dispatch confirmation from the shop by email, which gives me the tracking number. Which tells me to allow until 12 midday before the tracking will start working. Midday. On a delivery before 10. (Or perhaps 10:30. The shop and the delivery company don't agree on this.)

Sure enough the web tracking system of the delivery company has 'no information'. So my stuff is theoretically anywhere.

Back to that same email, which at the bottom tells me to allow five working days.

The noise you hear is me sighing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Where there's a Sea...

This weekend is allegedly the release date for the short episode "Where's there's a Sea...", which I've been working on all week putting it together. At the moment there's a few items which the CG guys are working on, which I'll drop into the edit once they're finished. One shot that I don'thave to wait on (aside from rendering) is this still from the opening animation, which is my own contribution to the CG. Given that we've got a lot of talent willing to help these days, it's not likely that there's a need for me to do much CG anymore. This may very well be my last CG contribution.
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kid Kirby

I've just been doing some (rare) tidying of the house and an come across the legal disclaimer that I wrote for the Kid Kirby manual. Kid Kirby was a platform game that DMA were doing for Nintendo, before it unfortunately got canned at the eleventh hour. Here's what I wrote:

Disclaimer: Nintendo of America is utterly nuke-proof when it comes to legal matters. We employ a device called a High Energy Attorneytron which emits powerful Anti-Lawsuitino particles. Thus it is guaranteed by the very underlying physics of the universe that we live in, that you shall not at any point - no matter how many dimensions you occupy - have any claim against Nintendo of America. Not even if a direct causal connection can be established between this Game Pak and a high incidence of newly discovered comets striking your property. By glancing at this Instruction Booklet, you have agreed to the conditions laid down therein. Resistance is futile.

Somehow I don't think they would have went for it.

Found another one, this time intended to go at the front of the manual.

Purchase of this Game Pak implies the acceptance of the following conditions: Nintendo of America reserves the right to come into your room at night and shine bright lights in your face.

I don't think that would have got past them either.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Stone Unturned: Friday's Shoot

Friday was when I realised that my fifteen minutes had expired. Nick had invited the Courier to come and have a good old look around our filming efforts, and just shortly after I'd been given a lift to the Abbey Theatre, a reporter and photographer arrived. I was prepared for this, of course, feeling as I did that I was something of a veteran after 2006's little publicity epidemic. (And some of 2007 too). With CNN, the BBC, ZDF all having interviewed myself and Nick for television and a number of newspaper articles appearing at the same time, it was almost routine. (I keep all the newspaper articles in a special shrine where I go to in times of feeling sorry for myself.*)

So I made certain that along with the other camera, the script, a pen, two pounds fifty pence, chocolate, a handheld GPS (don't ask) and a thing that glows in the dark for no reason, I'd also packed my World's Greatest Director baseball cap. Nick and Lucie had brought me this back from Las vegas and it is most treasured, because it reminds me of what I'm supposed to be up to when I attend these things. So, just the same as last time, then.


It bodes well for Stone Unturned that Giles in uniform is such a draw, and having all the guys in uniform – especially one who looks like that captain bloke in the Next Generation – made for an irresistible image. Not many pictures are as eye-catching as a bunch of Trekkies poised in combat against a hasty assembly of council workers, somehow discovered spraying the paths and shanghaied in the photo-op.

But no matter how much I tugged at my cap and made pitiful mewling sounds, no-one appeared to think that I was a fit subject to appear in the article, or indeed notice. “My blog shall hear of this!” I declared to the surrounds, but to no avail. And no time to set the iPod to the “sorry for myself” playlist.

A surprisingly melancholic moment, then.

Most of Friday's scenes were set on the Intrepid Bridge, the ones that weren't probably constitutes a spoiler alert, and were shot against the greenscreen. One of the 'key' advantages (he he, I just made a digital compositing joke) of using the Abbey Theatre in Abroath is the amount of space available to put up things like greenscreen, at least in comparison with the kitchen which has slightly less than sound-stage status and is full of teapots, irons and other miscellany. We set a small record for ourselves with the amount of material draped at the back of the set.

This is good. Up until now, in Intrepid, I've been using what are called locked-off shots. In other words, the camera doesn't move when it's rolling and any scenes are made by getting another take from a different angle and cutting between them. It works pretty well, though it doesn't stack up well to the modern TV filming method of moving the camera around constantly. In our case it's been through sheer pragmatism. Steve Pasqua over the years has constantly tried to get me to pan the camera, which would be fine if I thought our tripod was up to doing it smoothly. Worse yet, we don't have the technology to move the camera against the greenscreen, since for example the 3D bridge model would have to match the motion and we can't do that... yet. Locking off the shots also means that the limited space in the kitchen can be used effectively.

You'll see some more adventurous camerawork soon, though, be sure of it!

So back in the theatre, we've enough space that – even though I'm not doing pans yet – Giles is able to walk from one side of the bridge to the other! Sounds like a minor thing, but it makes a tremendous difference. In fact there were numerous improvements over our last greenscreen shoot. Ric Forster helpfully arranged the lighting, for example, and we had enough room to illuminate the greenscreen without too many shadows. In fact everything that went smoothly seemed to be down to the extra space. When shooting a side angle on the bridge, where Caed's station is located, all we needed to do was rotate the set around ninety degrees. And since the set was a chair and a rear console, this didn't take long at all.

I can't remember the time that we got finished, sometime late in the evening. All I can remember is that I was too tired to get fish and chips. And when you're in Arbroath, that's pretty tired.

*Actually, I can't remember where I've put them.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Stone Unturned

I was viciously attacked by a tick a couple of Saturdays ago when I was doing the “Mr Big Shot Director” thing again. Against all common sense,I was lying down in the grass trying to get a good dramatic (too melodramatic!) angle on a couple of the actors. That the grass was above a cave entrance and I have a fear of heights too, meant that I wasn't really doing myself any favours that weekend.

The Stone Unturned is an Intrepid script by Brian Matthews, that despite the gratuitous and unnecessary use of the word 'intergalactic', managed to combine a good old adventure story with the return of an old character from TNG. Naturally, you'd have to pay a negative amount of attention not to notice that it was in fact a certain Picard, played by Giles Aston. Coverage of the event appeared in the Dundee Courier as well as the slightly more widely viewed BBC website.

My task over the weekend was to direct the scenes with Giles in them, as we had a limited amount of time while he was in Dundee. This led to the most intensively scheduled shooting of anything we've done so far. I'll describe the three days in separate posts when I have the chance, but the important thing to note here is that we got the shots we needed and I managed not to lose it to any significant degree.

Shooting the scenes took us to many exotic locales; the magnificent hills outside Dunkeld, the ancient city of Arbroath and Nick's Kitchen. Or perhaps that should be Lucie's Kitchen, depending on which one of them actually prepares the most meals.

“Mr Big Shot Director” is what my girlfriend called me just before we started. I'm almost certain there was no sarcasm involved.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Grand Theft Auto - Remembered

Today, on the way to work, I saw a special collector's edition of a magazine in the newsagents and just had to buy it. It was a retrospective of ten years to celebrate GTA, marking the release of GTA IV. So far, nothing odd about that, except that I haven't played GTA and haven't actually played much of anything in the last ten years. So why did I consider it a must buy?


You see I was, in a minor way, involved in the creation of the original GTA from DMA Design. It was created there in the last few years of my time at DMA, where I worked on stories and manuals and stuff like that. This was late 1996, early 1997 and through a combination of opportunity and circumstance, I was going freelance the next summer.

Meanwhile I was writing the story for Body Harvest and trying to keep both hands on the keyboard instead of one of the keyboard and the other one with a fistful of my recently removed hair. Some of the decisions about the story that were being imposed on me from Nintendo were, frankly, barking as well as contradictory. Long story. So it was a relief to be asked by Gary Penn to write some dialogue for GTA.

My task was the write some "mission briefings" which were to appear on the pagers within the game, something which was quite refreshing, being completely non-science fiction. So in the relative "quiet" of my home, I cranked up the unreliable WordPro and wrote. This went on and off for several months, during which all kinds of pop-culture seemed to make its way into the pager messages, all of it at an entirely subconscious level. Trainspotting was big at the time and I somehow managed to name a character Renton, despite not actually seeing the film for another five years!

I cringe to imagine what Gary thought when he saw that apparent lack of imagination, though I suppose I could have spun it as a currently hip pop-culture reference. None of that mattered, because what actually happened was that I nervously presented the printout of the dialogue so far and Gary read. And read. And read.

"Very entertaining" he concluded, "but they're way too big to fit on a pager."


Development of GTA continued past my time at DMA and as far as I know, none of my dialogue was included; certainly not any of my characters. I've still got the files and have spent some time going over it and wondering at the amount of swearing I included in it.

Still, that's GTA for you. Dangerous to know!


Incidentally, my own games entry is here. The information there is not entirely accurate.

Friday, April 11, 2008

No More Intrepid Blog

Well it looks as though this is going to be my only blog now. I used to have one at the Intrepid site, but the forum feature which allowed it is no longer a paying proposition and Nick isn't going to renew it. All of which makes life a little easier for me, since I never knew which blog I ought to post stuff in, or whether to duplicate content in the two of them or what.

All of the Intrepid bloggers have some time before it's shut down, so I'll probably start moving my stuff to here which gives me lots of material at no effort to me!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Come for the Cave, Stay for the Dead Whale

We were doing some location scouting on Sunday. Part of an upcoming Intrepid story takes place in a cave, and since the caves are supposed to be on a different planet from the last lot of caves we filmed in, they needed to look different. For the episode called Transitions and Lamentations, the cave was really a some rocks which had collapsed together leaving large gaps. It looked the part though and started to flood as the day wore on. We got the shots though. So just in case that wasn't traumatic enough, the caves we went to have a look at this time were Arbroath. Just outside Arbroath in fact. Right next to the sea.

These were caves in which flooding would be an understatement, and as it happened we narrowly avoided being cut off by the rising tide. Not that there was any real danger, since we could have toughed it out halfway up a hill but only once of us had brought any food and I hate cheese...

By that time it had started to pour with rain as well.

A much better overview could be found via the clifftop path, which was vantage point enough to sea some more impressive caves and also a beached and entirely dead whale on the beach below. I managed to get a few photos on maximum zoom, but we weren't able to get closer. The path was purely around the edge of the cliff and the only reasonable route to it involved navigating what looked like the output of a sewer, so we gave up the idea.

As it turns out, the whale had already been reported. As far as I can tell, it was a Minke whale, which is the only common one around Scotland.

Nice though the caves were, we're not convinced they'd be easy to film with. Tides aside, they're difficult to get to and that was just us lot without any gear.

We'll keep on looking.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C Clarke

A couple of weeks ago at a party, in the midst of a conversation about the divide between sports and science, I said "Every true geek can remember where he was when Isaac Asimov died." One of the guests thought he was still alive, but further questioning proved that he was actually thinking of Arthur C Clarke. Asimov had been gone since 1992 and despite my proclamation, I don't actually remember where I was when I heard the news; I only remember a vague impression of writing down how I felt. Last night, of course, was different.

Unfortunately, I actually did get to know where I was and what I was doing when I found out Clarke had died. Even though we had all acknowledged that he was pretty old, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't go on forever. I was online on the Intrepid forum, arguing about the correct length of phaser beams in Star Trek, and then suddenly there was a new thread started with breaking news...

In my last post I wrote that Islands in the Sky was one of the first Clarke books that I had read, but it wasn't the one that made the most impression. Even for a techie like myself, who loved the sheer plausible, accurate detail in his short stories, it was the imagery that sold it. No other writer could convey such a sense of awe. And for all that his style was functional, and his love of technology perhaps offputting to those who couldn't appreciate the inherent cleverness of the stories, there was just enough sprinkling of poetry to require carefully putting the book down for a few minutes to savour it.

One image that has stayed with me for years is from The Songs of Distant Earth, when the colony ship ignites its drive system on the opposite side of the world and the whole of the horizon lights up. The colonists are departing, and because this is proper science fiction with the emphasis on science, of relativistic time dilation, we have a full, deep, understanding of what it means; there is no possibility of return. None.

Two groups of people who can never again meet.

And its this fusion of enormous concepts with a very human dimension which shows Clarke at his finest. I have some of his books on my bookcase right now.

I think I should do some reading.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

I'm not in SciFiNow!!!

Well, fame was almost mine. I'd been wondering for years if SFX would even pick up on this little movie that we were doing. OK, so I could have got in touch with them at any point, but that would have been a little presumptuous. (Also they might have laughed and that wouldn't have done me any good!) I'd kind of had a long-standing ambition to get the remake of Hired Guns in there as the best SF game of the year, but that didn't happen... So now there's SciFiNow having joined the ranks of SF magazines for almost a year now and, hey, there was a request for an interview! With Nick.


So I somehow convinced them to include myself by going something like “Me! Me! Me!” and so that was how I came to be writing a bunch of interview answers. And as happens with these things, the whole lot was compressed and edited down to the point where, as you can see in SciFiNow issue 11, my contribution is entirely invisible. Well, apart from a few photos of mine which were credited under “copyright of their respective owners” and one that I'm actually in, (On the hillside in the distance!)

So rather than let them go to waste, I've included them here. Interview questions are copyright of their respective owners...

How did you get into Star Trek and science fiction in the first place?

The first written science fiction I can remember reading were the Scott Saunders adventures by Patrick Moore and collection of Star Trek episodes in short story form, which utterly failed to capture the spirit of it. Star Trek itself wasn't anything I really 'got into' as such, it was just always an ambient part of the 1970s background when I was growing up, along with Space 1999 and the Gemini Man. I recall first watching TOS on my 4" black and white TV. If there was a moment when I suddenly knew this kind of stuff was important, it was missing the pilot episode of Space 1999 and everyone else in the playground was talking about it! Mainly though, it was written fiction that held my imagination from an early age, such as Arthur C Clarkes Islands in the Sky and a collection of Asimov stories that I found in my Dad's cupboard. I think it wasn't until maybe the third season of TNG that I really counted myself as a Star Trek fan. It's funny that now I'm older I have much more of an appreciation for the original series.

What made you decide to create your own series?

It wasn't my idea in the first place, but I managed to secure a place when we were still at the "wouldn't his be cool" stage by having a fairly modern digital video camera. I wasn't aware of other Star Trek fan films at that point, though I knew of Troops which I very much liked. I had no idea it was possible for a bunch of fans to make something, and it seemed like a fun notion for us to do it because our fan club's turnout was dwindling and we wanted some endeavor that kept the core group socialising.

Originally we'd never planned to make an episode, we were making a short film, and for a long time the format seemed to be fairly fluid. In fact I will still use the phrase 'movie' and 'full length episode' interchangeably. By the time it had solidified, it was effectively a pilot episode.

What’s typically involved in the production of an installment?

I don't think there's anything that's 'typical' about it, since we've changed a lot of things for the new shorts that we're making, based on the experience gained. Nick is always telling me to shoot less takes and I'm always telling him that I want to shoot more takes! I personally love the look of the CG bridge which we placed against greenscreen, but I still have nightmares about the amount of keying I had to do night after night. So one of the changes is that we're trying to shoot against physical sets as much as possible.

What equipment do you use for photography and post production?

It's pretty much off the shelf stuff that you could get in the high-street. We've got some higher-end cameras and mikes now, but the first episode was filmed entirely on my Sony Handycam (a TR330) which I'd fortunately bought a little while before the whole idea for the movie came along. I edited and assembled the whole thing on an HP Pavilion laptop using Adobe Premiere. Most of the special effects were created in LightWave by our CG guys and any digital sets were created in Cinema 4D. I still find it amazing that in principle it's possible to go on the net with a credit card and two days later you've got everything you need to make a movie!

Where do you tend to shoot, and do you have permanent sets like Star Trek Exeter?

We have permanent bits of sets, though some of the panels are looking like they need an overhaul! Most of the original movie is shot against greenscreen in Nick and Lucy's spare room, with some of the later material shot in the kitchen.

Given your experience of making fan series, do you have any advice for anybody thinking of starting their own?

Prepare for anguish. As we discovered, doing this was a lot of work and we experienced a lot of setbacks. Make sure that your cast and crew are people who'll go the distance. Way back at the beginning we were nearly scupped by an actor who decided to quit after his first scene had been filmed - to this day he has not bothered to inform me of his decision.

And so there you have it!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bob Exists

As of about 7pm a couple of Sundays ago, I had no idea that Bob even existed. Bob is a third cousin of mine, assuming I understand the arcane nomenclature of genealogists. I'd always assumed that third cousin, twice removed, was the kind of description that only had a reality in friend-of-a-friend stories. You know, the ones where a friend's cousin's barber's parrot's personal trainer had seen a ghost pirate carjack a hummer and drive it upside down into a river. i.e. possibly a tad more fiction than hard nosed fact. But Bob is a real person, living in the USA, and was a topic of family discussion because no-one had heard from him in twelve years. Not that he was missing, exactly, just that no-one on this side of the Atlantic had any idea where he was or any means to get in touch.

As was being told this, I slowly got more interested in the possibility of locating him through a generous application of internet magic. Up until now the search had been based via the Salvation Army, an approach which had depended on knowing his exact date of birth; information which wasn't available. I convinced myself that I was the guy to save the day and in my head I began to plan my approach.

Evidence existed in the form of a photocopied letter from his wife, printed in 1996, and describing the usual family matters which included plans to go on a Mediterranean cruise. It was a puzzle to be unlocked, which I thought I might morbidly tackle by first looking at shipping disasters. (After the obligatory Google search, of which a current example meme seems to be “Where are my damn keys”. We'll have to wait until 2015 for that one.) A border around the letter struck me as reminiscent of a template once used by the desktop publishing software Quark Xpress. A line of enquiry would then be to ask if anyone of that name had registered it. From then on, my thoughts got more elaborate and since I had no net access at that point, nothing existed to attenuate my growing enthusiasm.

I had no idea how Google Earth could help find a missing person, but I added it to my list anyway as well as the thrilling thought of calling the FBI to ask their assistance. Which was around the point that the phone rang.

It's my cousin Anne, who (having heard the tale last week) was calling with the news that she'd popped his daughter's name into Facebook and was swapping emails with her right now. Bob, she said, was alive and kicking and doing OK.

Well, after twelve years, at least I had the honour of being part of the search for the last thirty minutes.