Sunday, July 03, 2011

Moviemaking Updates and Other Miscellany

I claim to be an amateur movie-maker at the top of the blog, but hardly ever seem to post anything about that very subject. Well the truth is that for the last while, I haven't been entirely focused on the movie making part of it.  My last big effort in that direction was completion of the fine tuning for The Stone Unturned edit, the entire project of which has been rumbling on for a couple of years now.  The edit is now, as they say, locked.  All that remains is for the sound mix to be completed, at which point I should theoretically be able to drop it straight into Premiere, render it out and we have a complete movie! Theory is all very well in theory. Dropping the sound mix straight in should perhaps be more of a hypothesis than a theory, until tested against the evidence of having something that works.

Rendering for this half-hour production used to take my machine twenty minutes, until I figured that it could use some fancy colour-grading to give it more of the cinematic feel which all amateurs working in video seem to crave.  Movie-looks were provided by a plugin called - unsurprisingly - Movielooks, a freebie obtained when I bought Premiere in the first place.  Rendering it out no longer takes twenty minutes: it takes thirty hours.  Looks great though.  I'm especially pleased, since the free version is no longer available as a promotional item.  And the reason I'm pleased is because I was able to find it cowering in a corner of one of my old hard drives.  And that reason that pleased me is from having to partially rebuild the computer a few months back, when everything started to fail spectacularly. (An obscure interaction between the ATI graphics card and the rest of the system caused drive cacheing to fail. Not sure I believed the explanation, but only became convinced when the card’s fan physically spun itself right off the board.)  I thought I'd lost the plugin entirely and the full - and only version - now available is a tad outside the range of my budget.

The Stone Unturned is tentatively scheduled for free release sometime before mumble mumble mumble. Potentially before the end of the year, but as we’ve learned these things never go to plan. In any case, I reckon it is the best-looking episode of Intrepid we’ve made so far. (Up to speed section: The Stone Unturned is a Star Trek fan film, the latest in the series.  We're approaching it all quite allegedly professionally you know.)

Mainly, however, I’ve been preoccupied with writing or at least attempting to be preoccupied with it. To this end I've now got a complete short script, around 23 pages, which I've passed both to Nick and T'Other'Alf.  Nick likes it well enough to film as-is and Lesley has assured me that "it's not complete pants".  Which is encouraging!  Executable, as it's now titled, has had an odd history.  When I was writing Bit Patterns as a full-length Intrepid script, I was halfway through when Brian Matthews' script for The Stone Unturned made an appearance.  At the time I didn't think I could complete mine quickly enough to start filming in the following months, and so it got bumped to next in line.  Nick was working on a feature length Intrepid script called Conviction of Demons, of which some scenes have since been shot.  I was concerned about what would amount to trying to make two feature films simultaneously, both of which would require extensive outdoor shooting.  In typical Intrepid fashion, both were written in the large.  A huge effort, then.  Multiplied by two.

This was the point at which I started thinking about a full length original film which would be simpler to make.  Something in a single location and with as few characters as possible.  So I started jotting down notes and thinking about a project which had the working title Bottleneck, potentially our first original film.  Then something odd happened.  As I've written in another post, myself and Nick had a conversation, the outcome of which was to rejig Bit Patterns as an original film.  Nice idea, but it involved way more than merely changing names.  As it happened, it needed almost as much effort as writing it in the first place.  Now that it's in the only-tweaking-required stage of scripting, it's obvious that it would need a serious budget and huge effort.  We reckon we could start on a sizzle reel this year - well, next year - but so far it's just in the speculation stage.
(Of course this means that I still owe Nick an Intepid script...)

So now I wanted to think once again about something which could be achieved with less effort, and with the bonus of being less likely to drive me crazy.  So I turned to the idea for Bottleneck and wondered how it would work not as a full-length script, but as a short one.  And that was the genesis of what is now Executable, the final words of which I wrote just recently.  Since it effectively takes place in a single location, is indoors and requires only three actors, we think it could be filmed in a weekend!  Even better, from my perspective, it gives me a chance to make use of the DSLR for shooting, which I bought for the very good business reason that I really, really wanted one.  DSLRs aren't known for their audio quality, however, but since Nick has just ordered a digital audio recorder...

And that’s where I am at the moment. No doubt everything which happens from now on is subject to change.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Computer Active Quotes Me on Lemmings

Computer Active has a very nice blog post about the 20th Anniversary of Lemmings; very nice because they've quoted me and asked nicely about using one of my photos! This is probably as good a moment as any to show off my belated joining of Flickr, to which I've added a selection of pics from the celebration. Here's the selection I've uploaded.

The (temporary) plaque at DMA's "old old office". I'm told that there are plans afoot for something a little more permanent. I've also taken the opportunity to add this location - and DMA's other office - to Ben Goldacre's Nerd Map in case anyone wishes to make a retro computer game pilgrimage.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lemmings is 20

This Valentines day, I’ll do doing something a little different from the usual. Twenty whole years ago today was the release day for Lemmings, developed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis. At the time I was in college, doing little freelance jobs for Dave Jones. Converting graphics for our ports of Ballistix and Shadow of the Beast occupied my spare time in the days before I was employed by DMA full-time. My job was to take shiny 32-colour graphics from the Amiga and hack them down into 4-colour character set displayable by the Commodore 64. Wednesday afternoons were free time as far as college was concerned, and that was when I’d tend to visit the office, bringing along the my latest efforts. It was during one of those days that I saw Mike’s famous Lemmings animation for the first time.

At one point in the late 90s, I came up with a small demo chapter to show what a History of DMA book might look like (a project which seems more relevant as time progresses; I never would have imagined I’d be getting interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland on this very subject two decades later.) Here’s a remastered version, without all the notes-to-self, or known typos, but with ‘restored’ text. At the time I wrote it, I was still very much influenced by the book Game Over, which was about Nintendo. The first section of the test chapter isn’t directly about Lemmings, but leads into it thematically, and is by no means a comprehensive account of its creation. In particular I haven’t mentioned Gary Timmons, who added much to Mike’s original animation and refined the appearance of the Lemmings themselves. The full story awaits a fresh text and a broader scope.

DMA Test Chapter (1996)
At the time of Blood Money, the output from the young DMA still couldn’t be accused of originality. Both of Dave’s shoot-’em-ups had been inspired by specific arcade machines. In one early demo which he showed to the KACC, Menace displayed waving tentacles on one of the levels. Tentacles of the sort which had been seen in Salamander.
A horizontally scrolling game was inevitably going to be the product of Dave’s initial efforts, Salamander being his favourite game; he played it constantly in the Reform Street arcade, Dundee’s largest. The Amiga had custom hardware to provide two layers of scrolling, making it easier (and less CPU-intensive) to display spectacular moving screens. Of the few games available for the Amiga so far, none had made use of this ‘parallax’ scrolling.
Dave had a definite philosophy about how to name his products. Out was weird ‘made-up’ titles and in their place was the sort of name which could easily crop up on the news, magazines, or in conversation. Words or phrases which were in the general public consciousness. His thinking was that the title would appear in the normal course of event and people would begin to associate it with ‘that game.’ Hence, Blood Money; a title which was at one stage going to be called IOU.
In later years, naming came full circle. The possibility of lawsuits made the use of such easily recognised words too risky and there was a return to made-up names such as ‘Tanktics’ and ‘Kraniaks.’ A name search by a legal firm even saw risk in the use of ‘space station’ in a title, but oddly, not ‘silicon valley.’ At the start of the 90s, however, such concerns never surfaced.
Admittedly, most DMA game names were only accorded the status of ‘working titles’ which nevertheless made it intact all the way to release day. It was this spirit in which Lemmings was begun.

Scott Johnston joined DMA after responding to an advert in the local paper. Setting something of a trend, he was one in a line of Science Fiction fans; something which his art portfolio clearly showed. On being accepted into the company, he was assigned to another embryonic project: Walker. Despite applying as an artist, he was soon to show that he had programming skills too, often combining them to good effect. Within weeks he had written a program to generate graphics for the Walker’s head, over which fine detail could then be hand-animated. Initially, however, he had to draw small characters for the Walker to stomp over. He elected to make them 16 pixels by 16 in size.
Mike saw this and told him that the characters could be at least half the size and still look good. Scott didn’t believe him.
“But I’ve seen it before,” Mike insisted.
What he’d seen - and later dragged out in evidence - were the characters from Beachhead which had made incredible use of the C64’s limited resolution. Each character had been exquisitely animated. What had caught his attention in particular, was a character throwing a grenade. It was everything that animation should be; smooth, detailed and ignorant of the computer’s limitations. Here, they were brought to life in a grid of a mere 8x8 pixels. Without a copy to hand, though, Mike decided to prove his point over one dinnertime.
Ignoring Dave’s ban on eating chips, which stunk out the room, he fired up DPaint and proceeded to create a simple animation with small creatures. One after the other, they walked steadily up a hillside to the top where they - in a macabre sense of humour - got blasted to pieces by a laser, just before they made it to the end of the cliff.
Biscuit thought this was hilarious, so much that legend has it that he literally fell off of his chair, laughing. (It was suggested in a later year that DMA needed another reaction like that.) Russell, immortally, said, “Just like lemmings” and followed it with the moment in which Lemmings was truly born. With a laugh he said, “There’s a game in that…” and wondered how it would be possible to go about saving the poor creatures. Dave remembers it differently, with himself playing the role of saying there was a game in the animation. Mike is openly dismissive of that.
For his part, Scott didn’t react much when he was shown it later, but sure enough the characters in Walker soon shrank to the same dimensions.

Russell began work on the PC version, purely because time was available to him, several months before the Amiga version got going. The most common PC graphics standard at the time was CGA, which had a fixed - and limited - colour palette; white, green, blue and black. Lemmings had to make use of these colours and that is the reason why Lemmings have green hair. After a while, Russell had to put work aside to focus on converting Ballistix to the PC, at which stage the Amiga became the lead development platform. Mike worked for a time on the C64 version.
As a result, 1991 effectively became the Year of the Magazines. Never before or since had DMA Design ever had so much coverage [Note: obviously this was written before GTA!]. Other games would soon be released by others, which had been inspired by Lemmings to a greater or lesser degree. Extreme satisfaction was to be had in DMA, seeing those magazines universally call these games Lemmings-like or Lemmings-clones. No doubt existed that Lemmings had been unique in games history, and had in fact kicked off an entirely new genre: the ‘Save-’em-up.’

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some More DMA Witterings

Wikipedia continues to confound me, and my feelings are decidedly mixed. Previously I'd written about how the DMA article claimed myself as one of the founder members, something which I found to be a rather amusing thought. I mentioned this to Mike Dailly, himself a founder member, and to my surprise he agreed with the article. I'd been thinking in terms of business, for which I'd played no part. But in terms of the four of us, including Dave Jones and Russell Kaye, sitting in the computer club canteen in 1984 discussing how cool it would be to makes games.... well, perhaps. It didn't exactly help in my post when I was in full obfuscation mode. And when the inventor of Lemmings calls me a founder member of DMA Design, I suppose I should listen. As Londo Mollari says in Babylon 5 , “I was there at the beginning...”

But it's odd how history is coming to judge this, and by history I mean the internet. Tonight on one of my not-as-frequent-as-you-think egosurfing sessions, I stumbled across an article which was written about
Unirally , the Super Nintendo game. A couple of years ago I'd been asked a few interview questions, offered up my answers, and didn't think much more about it. Now I've found the article, The Making of Unirally, and am chuffed that some of my answers made it in. I'll post more about Unirally in due course, but suffice it to say that the manual I wrote was called “ often hilarious” in the article and “hilarious” in the comments. To coin a modern fanboi phrase: squeeee!

Which of course led to a more comprehensive search for myself with the qualifier “DMA”. This was the point that - contrary to information as recently as last year - the “founder member of DMA” infonugget is now
everywhere ! This is what history, or at least the little corner which I'm in, will record. But confounding happens when, as tonight, I find that bits of my blog are being used as a Wikipedia reference. This is great! It means I'm an authority or some such damned thing. In the entry for Turbo Esprit, it repeats the BBC's Gameswipe claim that it was a direct inspiration for Grand Theft Auto, and uses my blog post as reference for the counterargument. Makes me sound controversial too! And calls me one of GTA's designers, which I'm really not. (Though Mike differs on this, maybe it was all my input on why it shouldn't be called 'Freeway' and the screeds of dialogue I wrote for it ). Perhaps, in the fashion of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently , I can make myself the brains behind every game DMA ever made just by the simple expedient of constantly denying that I'm any such thing.

And while I'm pasting in random thoughts, I had a vision of the future, of sorts. I now what picture my obituary will contain. When I sent off my interview answers, I also included a photo of myself for illustration which happens to be from the single weekend of my life when my haircut worked as advertised. It's about five years old now and makes me look like the sort of cool dude who's obviously super talented merely on the strength of the photo being both b/w and slightly out of focus. Which of course is why I picked that one. What I looked like at the time I actually wrote the manual was really, really geeky. And in colour.

And no, I'm not posting the picture just now, at least not until I've digitally removed the spot from my forehead.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Hefting around a video camera from time to time, in the course of making Intrepid or otherwise just being idle, means that I sometimes get asked to wave it around for altogether more noble purposes.  T'Other'alf, for inscrutable reasons, was organising an Unconference; which as far as I could gather was a Conference but without the Conference bits.  The closest I'd come to this was reading about the Fortean Times' Unconvention, although the “Un” part of that seemed more to do with the subject matter – werewolves, flying saucers, conspiracy theories and so forth – than the actual structure of the event itself.  ScotGovCamp Blog

An Unconference, then was a conference without a fixed agenda.  Attendees would shout out topic suggestions at the beginning and then everyone would sit in on the topic and chip in or not depending on their disposition.  Oh, and it was also a GovCamp which is for people working in and around government; in this case government in Scotland.

And just like starting making Star Trek Fan Films back in 2003, I got involved because I had a video camera.

This was going to be different from amateur film-making, not in the least because I don't get an opportunity for a second take.  Given that I wasn't actually in control of anyone, I might not even get a first take.  And since the whole event was essentially an experiment to see how it went, I had little idea of what would be happening and where to position myself for capturing footage of the sort that I didn't know what it would be.

ScotGovCamp specifically was about digital Scotland, and drew together a wide range of people from local government, commentators on social issues, self-proclaimed geeks, librarians and civil servants.  My impression was that the subject matter was nebulous, but that was perhaps just me who felt to be a bit of an outsider.  Shooting was straightforward to begin with, before anyone had really arrived.  A handful of people turned up and before the actual event kicked off proper, there was a lot of setting up to do.  This was the easiest to film as I only had to wander around and point the camera at anything which looked interesting, such as setting up a display stand or people wandering past the Eduardo Paolozzi art installation.  I had some fun filming transitions, panning from the roof down to the group standing round the registration table, filming the flashing lights on one of the walls or panning from the sculpture to people just arriving.  I had no idea if I'd use them, it was just in case.

It was obvious early on that there was no way I'd be able to capture everything which happened on the day, given that it lasted much of the day and was split into three discussion rooms named Hume, Brown and Ferguson after Edinburgh University Alumni – Lesley's idea – and not after three varieties of quark particle  - strange, bottom and charmed – which I was pushing for.  But when everyone was still together in the atrium, I had a straightforward area of focus, Lesley and Dave Briggs giving the pep talk and assembling the agenda from the suggested topics.  It was immediately before this that something unexpected happened.

When I'm either directing or doing camera for amateur fiction, there is a script and what transpires is known and accounted for.  A live events means having to be responsive to things as they happen and when Dave asked everyone to introduce themselves and give a one-word response as to why they were here, something ever so slightly extraordinary happened.  I pointed the camera at whoever was talking, including myself after only three or four people (whilst failing to understand the concept of “one” word) but them I found myself following the “focus” as each individual in turn gave their name, and their one word.  Instantly it was one of those slick adverts, all soft-focus and warm fuzzies, selling you an emotion and a desire for something that you still don't understand.  And I was in the centre of it.  This was how I imagine a religious cult would indoctrinate me.  (I'm good at making spurious connections.)

This remained a highlight, since it was obvious how to make a neat little video – only  a couple of minutes long – from that part of the day.  Actually putting it together of course is something I'll still have to sit at the video editing suite (desk in corner of living room) to do.  Now a neat little video is something that is more problematic for something which represents the entirety of the day.  Not being able to film everything means that I need to convey the flavour of it and do so without dragging.  This is something that I'm still trying to figure out, since their wasn't a grand overarching scheme to begin with.  In any case, once the preliminaries were over with, I wandered in and out of the various conversations which were taking place, trying to get as many angles as I could, concentrating on whoever was speaking at the time.  What became obvious was that it would be extremely difficult even to cover a single train of thought form the participants.  Self-organising seating favoured a circle which meant that often a dialogue was being held where I filmed one person but could only get the back of the head of the other.

Even putting finished video clips of a continuous minute or two minutes on the web would lack context enough to make sense of what was being said.  Halfway through the day I was mooting the possibility of getting someone to provide a voice over in conjunction with any conclusions.  In other words, I'd given myself a bunch of work by volunteering to film and would be giving myself even more work (another thing I excel at) the more I thought about it!  And just dumping the whole two and a quarter hours worth of footage to the web would not exactly make for riveting viewing!

So what I have ahead of me is an exercise in transitions, crossfades, categorisations, titles and wishing that the video would self-organise too.  But failing that, the classic fallback position is to stare at the clips until a moment of inspiration occurs, and hope that being on holiday doesn't derail me too much!  But seriously, now it's just a matter of piecing it together.