Monday, 26 August 2013

The Birth of Project 2

Project 1, which the film titled "Once upon a Stormy Night" has been renamed to Rojak project, is drawn to a close with the appropriately "Dance Finale Shoot" took place on 16 June.

Well, the short film is actually still in post production. Our talented one and only editor is busying putting all the bits and pieces together. A Herculean task.

Despite the facts that we've yet to see the final cut. Because my absolute faith in Paolo, our Herculean editor, we can consider we've completed a film. Our 1st and hopefully many more to come.

Film editing screen grab
Screen grab of the film editor of Rojak short film

While Paolo is sweating over his hot computer putting together the jigsaw puzzle that we created, some of us already were preparing for our next project.

And the very 1st thing for our next project is of course getting script ideas.

Before the meeting to gather the ideas for our next project, I showed my synopsis of a murder mystery title "A Political Murder". It's a murder mystery done in a mockumentary fashion. In other words, it's a black comedy. I was kind of delighted with my effort. And when I showed it to Marrie, our executive producer and founder of Reel Frenz, she liked it too. She commented to others, "It's very CSI". My head swelled beyond my tall hat (if you speak Chinese, you will get another layer of meaning from "tall hat").

All seemed to be smooth sailing. Well, nothing in real life is ever so smooth. This is because I was still sailing in the harbour.

In any case, I should make a better writer than actor (even though that was my role in the Rojak project. I had only the minimal experience in acting). As for writing, just look at what I have been writing here in my blog. After writing more than 200 movie reviews  (at this point in time), I should have some ideas on how to write a story for a movie or two. At the very least, recognise if a story sucks more than the event horizon of a black hole.

We sailed into the rough open sea, which took the shape of a Arabic restaurant called Nabin's. This was where the meeting of "OPEN CALL - Discussion for Next Short Film Project" was held on 22 June. "Open call" = "open sea".

Sailing yachts in Sydney Harbour, Australia
Sailing in Sydney Harbour
All of us introduced ourselves to the new members. Some of us presented our story ideas. 7 people in all, and they include Marrie, Kit, Michael, and myself. There's also 3 new people I couldn't recall. I couldn't recall these new people because they never become old people. I've never met them or indeed heard from them since that meeting.

Marrie presents her story idea in Nabin's
I'm the furthest person from the camera on the right row
(if you care)
Dunno if the serious talk for the need of serious commitment scared them off. I think it's a good thing if it did. Better get cold feet early than later, saving both parties the time and energy, and avoiding disappointment.

Some people think that because it's only an amateur group, no commitment would be needed. After all, they donate their time for free, they should be able to quit any time. If all members have such attitude, no film will get made.

Besides, if one couldn't commit to this group, it implies one isn't passionate enough. Commitment should be proportional to Passion. Since passion is what binds this group together, without it, the group simply falls apart.

Of course, some would probably just turn up and had a looksee. Well, I take no issue with that.

At the end of the meeting, the most significant thing came out of it is this. Short films isn't a commercially viable option. As we don't have the resources, and experience to make a full feature length movie, a compromise would be an anthology or omnibus film. I.e. a feature length film that's made up of several short films.

I could think of the following reasons why having a few short films scripts are better than a single feature length script at our stage of development of our group:
1.  Several members can participate in any given activity. In this case, writing. So if we have several short stories, we have several opportunities for members who wish to write, and given us a sense of participation.
2.  Different writers would bring in different experiences and perspectives in terms of cultures, for example.
3.  Since we have no idea who are the good writers, whom do we give the tasks to? Having several writers would reveal their individual strengths and weaknesses. And most importantly, commitment level. Yes, we're back to that.
4.  Since more than one person are writing scripts, it means it occurs in parallel, shorten the script completion time.
5.  For a feature length script, it will take much longer to complete. What do we do at the mean time? Twiddle our thumbs? I can't do that because I'm all thumbs.
6.  Short films are quicker to produce, and we will see results sooner. This is important for newbies like us.
7.  While as much as we want to commit, sometimes it's simply out of our hands. The shorter the film production cycle, the lesser the chance of some members drop out in the middle of a project.

We can't simply throw a number of random short films and call it an anthology film. These short films have to belong together in some ways in order to get included into one single film. Perhaps, the different stories all have a common element that linking them together.

After some deliberation, and recalling some of the stories that were presented in the meeting, it occurred to me that at least 3 people presented stories in the supernatural theme. The 3 members are Marrie, Kit, and a new member.

So I suggested to Marrie that why don't we make that common element being the stories in the supernatural theme as there were already 3 members who have stories in that subgenre. This is a good suggestion for the group, but I basically shot myself in the foot because my story is a murder mystery (is it better to say I kill my own prospect of writing a murder mystery?). Me and my big mouth. There's time to speak, and time to shut the hell up.

See? No smooth sailing.

Thinking I'm out of the loop by this suggestion, Marrie suggested I should change my story by adding supernatural element into it. I didn't like the idea one bit. Luckily, I managed to stay afloat. The lifesaver came in the form of a story titled "The Gift" that I have been thinking about for a few months that happened to be in the supernatural theme. Maybe I 'm more cunning than I led on. Who knows? Not me.

Actually, it took me a couple of weeks to conceive "The Gift". It was going to be a story for a feature length film. And then along came a writer's block that ruined my plan. Since the block seems to weigh a tonne and refuse to budge for a few months, maybe the story is only 30 mins long.

Wollongong Foreshore Park, NSW, Australia
Visit to Wollongong Foreshore Park, NSW, Australia

In any case, I was back into the saddle.

So I wrote a synopsis for "The Gift". After reading it, Marrie gave me a greenlight to write the script. When she asked me the expected time of completing the script, I told her I have to visit my folks back in Australia the following week. And I would be away for a week. So it would be a month by my estimation. Little did she, nor I knew that while I was on "holiday" in Australia, I wrote the whole script with 2 days to spare.

Aileen sent her best wish that "my trip would be a fruitful one". She had no idea how well her wish turns out.

The script is 30 pages long. So using a rule of thumb, this translates into a 30 mins short film.

A few thing I've learnt after writing the script.

1.  A minute is a long time and a lot can happen in a movie (unless you don't care about dead space).
2.  The flight of fancy has to be grounded in real life budget and talent constraint of an amateur group.
3.  You spend 70% of the time developing the story, and 30% writing the script.

Regarding point 1. I read in a marketing book saying telling a story to sell a product within 2 minute isn't enough. I say it's plenty.

Some people have the bright idea that if you make an art house film, everything HAS to happen slowly. Ok, take my 30 minutes story, and bingo, you get a feature length movie. Don't get me wrong, I love art house films. Zhang Yimou is one of my favourite directors. Especially his early art house films.

As for point 2. The budget constraint is obvious, but the artistic and talent constraint isn't as obvious. If my story demands a nude scene, would an amateur agree to do it? Most likely not. Ok, let's take a less dramatic, but more realistic example. What about an intimate scene that requires some kissing or necking? What about action and stunt? Crying on cues? All these are things that needs to be kept in mind when writing budget films with amateur talents.

Well, point 3 at least applies to my current script. Some people, like my fellow member who just dives in writing the script. I guess everyone's method of writing is very personal.

Actually, the open sea is a bit rougher than I imagined. I also submitted 2 other synposis after "The Gift". This was becuase I was still holding on the hope to turn "The Gift" into a feature length film. One was a horror, which Marrie rejected out of hand, commenting that she woudn't want to do horror. The other story was too similar to the one she's writing. I guess the bottom line is learning to have rejections rolled off like water off a duck's back (easier said than done, I know). That goes for criticism of your works as well. Grow some thick skins. Don't take it personally. After all, we've the same goal, to see my work succeeds.

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Saturday, 24 August 2013

Enter the Void (2009)

Enter the Void (2009)I knew next to nothing about this movie despite it's being a few years old. I imagined it was about something that's quite different. Believe it or not, I didn't even know about its excessive sexual content (yes, I'm living under a rock).This is a good because I didn't watch it with preconceived ideas.

Sex, Drug and Tokyo would also make an appropriate title for this movie. Another alternative title might be Death and Sexes.

This movie is differentiated itself from others because of its extensive use of particular 3 story telling devices, or directorial techniques. They're narrative structure, POV (point of view), and ambiance or mood.

Narrative Structure
While its narrative structure isn't any where as innovative as Christopher Nolan's 2 masterpieces Memento (2000), and Inception (2011), it's far from simple and linear.

The film could be divided into 3 parts + finale (although I didn't consciously check the running time, but I suspect the 3 parts have the same length).

The 1st part is about the protagonist's life in his physical body. The 2nd consists of flashbacks of his life preceding the 1st part. The 3rd part is about his existence as a spirit/soul until the finale.

Even within the flashback of the 2nd part, it has sudden temporal jumps. Mainly it's done for the purposes of linking concept.

In most movies (99.9%), directors employ the fly-on-the-wall POV. Imagine that you - the audience - are a fly, and you can fly around, unnoticed by the characters - including the lead - in the story, and seeing everything from above, below, left, right and centre. Of course, the fly is where the camera is placed.

In this movie, the whole story is told from a character's POV. I.e. you're seeing what our lead Oscar sees. As we can't see our own faces, and neither could Oscar see his own face (unless he stands in front of a mirror).

Even though this movie only let us view everything from Oscar's character's POV, there're in
fact 3 perspectives from Oscar's character's POV.

The 1st perspective (or the front view) is all familiar to us, that we see only what's in front of my eyes (we can see thing behind us when we turn our heads. But we still only see what's in front of our own eyes).

Enter the Void (2009) pair of bloody hands
1st perspective, seeing only what's in front of his eyes
The 2nd perspective (or the top view) is similar to 1st perspective except it's an aerial perspective, or bird's eye view. This is because Oscar exists as an astral body or soul at this point of the story, and is flying or floating above, looking down.

Enter the Void - aerial view
2nd perspective, seeing from an aerial view
In the 3rd perspective (or the rear view), we see only Oscar's back. Since we only see the story through the Oscar's eyes, imagine you see only your own back! This situation will never happen in our own real life experience, but it's done to simulate the perspective of Oscar's soul seeing his life flashes in front of his own eyes.

Bear in mind that the word "flashback" has the word "back" in it. His life is being viewed from hindsight ("hindsight" literally means "looking from behind").

Enter the Void (2009)
3rd perspective, seeing only from Oscar's back in flashback

The 3 perspectives could also be interpreted as follows,
1st perspective or front view represents the present where time flows forwards, hence front view.
2st perspective or rear view represents the past where time flows backwards, hence rear view.
3rd perspective or top view represents the a third party looking downwards, hence top view.

The 1st two perspectives are metaphors for time. The last perspectives is a metaphor for space.

Mood or Ambiance
Not only the story is told in different perspectives according to the different Planes of existence (physical body, astral body, spirit), it's also shown using different moods according to the state of mind of our lead Oscar.

Enter the Void (2009) Childhood cene
Warm and soft brown sepia tone of childhood scene
again, only the young Oscar's back is being seen
When the flashback of Oscar's childhood is revealed, it's shown in predominately golden warm tone to reflect his loving environment before the car accident. All the scenes after Oscar becomes an addict is trippy. And the scenes in his teenage years but before he takes up hallucinogens is more prosaic.

Tokyo is chosen because of its well known blazing neon light in its red light district. Its dazzling neon lights could be described as psychedelic. That psychedelia would be enhanced with magic mushrooms and whatnot. Or is simply a visual metaphor for the drug underworld.

In addition to the eye searing neon lights, the Tokyo sex district is filled with love hotels. This is a venue for some of the scenes in this movie, especially towards the finale.

Enter the Void (2009) Tokyo Love Hotels
Psychedelic scene of a love hotel in Tokyo sex district
Since Tokyo is - to many Western mind - an exotic place. Exoticism and eroticism often mixes in Hollywood movies.

Last but not least, this oriental Buddhist country seems to tie in well - and jarringly clashes at the same time - with the whole Tibetan Buddhist philosophy regarding death. Director Gaspar NoĆ© has little problem in combining mind altering near death experiences, tunnel of lights, astral projection, etc with that of mind blowing psychedelic trips. At least from a visual impact point of view (no pun intended).

Oscar the male lead reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which to many scholars, it's essentially an user guide for the newly departed. This helps Oscar to get to know his way around the journey of the after life (always a good idea to read the travel guide for a given destination before a journey). The 3rd part of the movie spends on this soul roaming.

There's no coincidence that the Tibetan Book of the Dead and psychedelia are closely intertwined in this movie. Timothy Leary, the psychedelic guru, who believed Tibetan Book of the Dead is in fact an interpretation or depiction of LSD experiences. I've little doubt that this film is inspired by the works of Timothy Leary.

All the different techniques aren't innovative or revolutionary. They've been employed many times before. What makes this film unique is how extensive are these techniques being applied.

Take the 1st perspective character's POV. I'm sure moviegoers have seen this technique being used in many other movies before. For example, when a character in a film is being tied to their leg, dangling upside down, it isn't uncommon to see that the scene would be shown upside down.

So why it isn't used often? For one thing, if all directors would all use this 1st perspective character's POV, we would never see our hero/protagonist's face in movies (and we have to rely on them to look into a mirror to see their faces). This is obviously undesirable. When the audience buys a ticket to see their heart throbs, they want to see their idols' faces.

What about the actors themselves? They probably wouldn't want to appear in a movie when they actually not appearing. In fact, anyone else could play the actors as their faces are never being seen. They can have other actors play them, and do a voice over. Facial expression is one of the most important skill of an actor. Without seeing their facial expression, can we still call it acting? What about delivering dialogues? Well, the dialogues in this film is sparse. Not that this is a surprise. This is a very much a visual story.

Enter the Void (2009) looking into the mirror
One of the 3 scenes where the actor's face is being seen frontally
as he looks into a mirror.
As for Nathaniel Brown who plays Oscar. This is his 1st film, and a nobody before that. For somebody who should be more than grateful for given his film debut in a movie of this budget, was not going to dictating terms to a well known director.

As you can see, some techniques aren't often used because of various valid reasons (commercial being the most important one).

Actually, even in terms of extensive use of the character's POV in a movie, this isn't the first. Lady in the Lake (1947) - a film based on detective Philip Marlowe - is a much earlier movie that made extensive use of this funny POV. In fact, the director said he was inspired by it.

Having said that, the director made very clever uses of this POV in all possible manners. Far more sophisticated than that used in Lady in the Lake (1947).

Another shortcoming of this film is that it's too long. It runs for 2 hrs and 40 mins. You can easily edit out 30 mins without altering the story in the slightest, except making it shorter and sweeter to watch. You can cut out another 30 mins to simplify the story a little, and make it more bearable. I can't think of a single reason why it has to be so long.

Having said that, the movie is without a doubt experimenting what the visual medium has to offer. There's no question of its uniqueness of vision in the cinematic history.

If you try to watch it for messages, you would be disappointed. If you watch it as a visual tour de force, you would be more receptive. In other words, watch for its techniques, not for its content. Don't get me wrong. Its content is far from boring (it's the opposite), it's simply incoherent by trying to throw everything into it but the kitchen sink.

The exploitative slant of the film, which is typical of social nihilism that this director is an advocate of, reduces the film from reaching mainstream or gaining more respectability. Still, it's a visual and directorial masterpiece. But I wouldn't want to watch another movie like this. One such film is truly great and original. Two is one too many.

Monday, 19 August 2013

TOS - 2.10 - Journey to Babel

Star Trek - Journey to Babel
Tellarite ambassador: Ambassador Sarek, can you
tell me where can I buy those funny pointed ears?
Sarek: Only if you tell me where can I get that ugly
pig nose first!
Captain Kirk: Now, now, gentlemen! Or whatever
you're. There're enough pig noses, pig ears,
Andorian antennas for everyone in the Star Trek
Convention! Starfleet credits will be accepted.
Up until now, there was only one previous episode that dwelt into Spock's Vulcan culture. It happens to be the 1st episode of TOS Season 2 (2.1 "Amok Time") where various Vulcan cultural elements were invented and entered into the Trek lore.

One such invention was the Vulcan salute, which Dr. McCoy has problem doing it. I'm surprise at him as he's supposed to be a skill surgeon, who should be quite dexterous, and has little problem in performing it. Shame on him!

(OK, it took me a little while to master what I call the Vulcan 'V' sign. It also took me a little while to type on the keyboard using more than 2 fingers. I'm no surgeon).

Another surprise I have is that Captain Kirk has no clue that Ambassador Sarek is Spock's father, considering that he considers Spock his best officer and close friend. And Sarek isn't a nobody. Shame on him, too!

OK, let's blame that 2 little oversights on the Trek writers.

In Season 2, aliens are no longer looked on as something mysterious. In this episode, there's a galaxy of different alien races on board the Enterprise. This is reminiscent of the famous bar scene in Star War Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), where you got all these weird looking aliens in one place (mess hall or reception area in this episode  instead of a bar). I keep telling my readers, Star Trek TOS pioneers all sci-fi ideas.  I wish I have a dime every time I say that. I should be a millionaire by now. This scene predated Star War bar scene by almost a decade where we have the pig-faced Tellarite, pig-eared Vulcan, antennas sporting, green Andorian, and a few lesser known alien races munching on colourful plastics (see photo).

For the hardcore Star Trek fan, Mark Lenard, who plays a Romulan that we met for the first time in episode 1.14 "Balance of Terror". In this episode, he plays Sarek, the father of Spock. The TOS casting director must have thought that nobody wears the pointed ears quite like Mark Lenard.

Apparently, stubbornness isn't monopolised by earthlings. As illogically as it is, it's very much a Vulcan trait too. And not only it's a Vulcan trait, it's a genetic trait that passing down from Sarek to Spock.

This episode sees the debut of another Vulcan gesture, the two fingers touching. This is gesture to show affection between 2 individuals, in this case, that of a married couple.

While there's previous mentioning that Vulcan has green corpuscles coursing through their blood, this episode is the first time we see this green blood coursing through the tubes of the blood transfusion machine. It reminds me of peppermint tea.

The Vulcan blood cells are  green because it's copper based, instead of iron based like human blood. From an archaeologist point of view, Vulcan race should be - and indeed is - older than the human race because the Bronze Age is evolved into the Iron Age. Ok, just a little archaeologist joke. No, this is not a very old joke that I dug up from some where else with a team of student volunteers. You hear it here for the 1st time!

While there's only one previous episode that dwelt into Spock's culture, there's another, even earlier episode (1.16 "Galileo Seven") that shows Spock's dichotomy of his upbringing. In that episode, while Spock is shown of that dichotomy, but its human side is only revealed in a subtly way. Mostly the episode shows his Vulcan - meaning logical - way of doing things.

In this episode, Spock's depth of his dichotomy is being further plumbed by having his mother - Amanda Sarek - revealing his childhood to the crew (and to us). Thus with the presence of his visiting earthling mother, his human side is being brought forth like never before. His Vulcan father and human mother serve to amplify that dichotomy.

Quite naturally, in this episode, Spock is placed into a situation where his Vulcan and human sides are put into conflict. His Vulcan logical side says he should place the ship's duty ahead of saving his father's life (it's only logical, and his father would agree). On the other hand, his emotional human side says that he has a duty to save his father's life, and that should trump his duty to the ship (it's only a 'right' thing to do, and his mother would insist).

Of course, being Spock, the Vulcan way wins out. This episode reveals that Spock is tormented by that decision with a brief and subtle (yet unmistakable) body language that reflects the conscious concealment of his human side. With his human mommy around, such fleeting show of emotional softness is not only understandable, but is encouraged. He would never show such human 'weakness' - no matter how subtle it is - when his father is around. That's to be expected. They're like Captain von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music (1959), there's no question of their loves for Spock, just expressing it in their own unique ways. Remember, this delightful, and ever more popular musical was only made a couple of years before this episode. Who's to say the writer wasn't influenced by it at all, consciously or otherwise?

Spock's mother says to him that he's neither here nor there, neither quite Vulcan nor human, and always have difficulty fitting in. Well, that was just the very thing that I pointed out in my review of episode 1.16 "Galileo Seven". He represents anyone who has personal issues fitting into one's environment, may the issue be social, cultural, sexual orientation, political and whatnot.

At the end, it shows that even when Amanda Sarek (nee Grayson) is infuriated by the Vulcan logic from time to time, she still loves Sarek, and concludes that's just being human. Both Spock and Sarek laughs at her irrationality. But then if Vulcan is so logical, why would he marry such illogical creature as the human female? Well, the Trek writers are always suspicious of the so-called logical Vulcan mind.

Perhaps because of time constraint, otherwise it would be also interesting to show how nurse Christine Chapel (appearing in this episode), who's like Amanda Sarek, falls in love with a Vulcan. For nurse Chapel, unfortunately her love had never been reciprocated by Spock. Poor nurse Chapel. In real life, Nurse Chapel is played by Majel Barrett who's Gene Roddenberry's 1st wife.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

TOS - 2.9 - Metamorphosis

Star Trek - Metamorphosis
Let me just get a sample of this jelly.
One scoop should be enough for dinner.
Ok, another scoop for Jim.
When I make the big statement in my review of TOS episode 2.2 "Who Mourns for Adonais?" that all ideas in all sci-fi movies come from Star Trek TOS. I still don't think it's too far off the mark. What is even more close to the mark is when it applies to all Star Trek movies.

Here are some examples:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is derived from the story in TOS episode 2.3 "The Changeling" where a probe that was launched from Earth in 20th century has changed into something enormously powerful. With a might that could easily destroy earth, and in fact, on a mission to do so. And it's up to the Star Trek crew to save the day. There's also the mistaken identity. In episode 2.3, Captain Kirk is mistaken for Roykirk, its creator. In the Motion Picture, V. Ger isn't recognised as Voyager. Maybe all these are mere coincidences. Really?

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the infamous Khan Noonien Singh is created in TOS episode 1.22 "Space Seed".

This brings me to a well known character that enters the Trek lore: Zefram Cochrane. He's debut in this episode. He's yet another character appears in Star Trek movie Star Trek: First Contact (1996). Like many interesting characters and alien races that came before, Zefram Cochrane is created by the lesser known Gene, Gene L. Coon. He also created Khan and the most beloved of alien race the Klingons. If Gene Roddenberry created the skeleton amd muscular structure for Star Trek, Gene L. Coon created the organs. Or that Roddenberry created the Star Trek world, Coon populated it with peoples and cultures. Without this unsung Gene, Star Trek would be less interesting. At least, not how we know it today.

I'm not going to give a whole laundry list of such examples. I'll give more examples in future reviews when the need arises. These few should be suffice to make my point.

In more ways than one, the story of this episode shares many similarities with episodes 2.2 "Who Mourns for Adonais?" and 2.5 "The Apple".

These 3 episodes all could be described in general term as follows:
The superior alien provides human or humanoid (that almost identical to human) with all their basic bodily needs of food, shelter, safety, and even love, but neglect their higher emotional or spiritual needs. But the 'love' of these superior beings are love defined by them, not their charges.

The 3 aliens (and/or their machines) all have good intentions. But they demand the charges in their care without considering all their needs. Their 'children' are well looked after, but they have no freedom of individuality. In other words, these aliens are benevolent dictators.

This 3 episodes further reinforce the new trend or theme I suggested in the review of episode 2.1 "Amok Time" that in Season 2, the time of bashing of Homo Sapiens in Season 1, and revering more higher evolved alien beings was over. It's time to bash the alien races. There's no better example than episode 2.7 "Catspaw" where at the end, the audience see these "superior" alien as they really are, absolutely ludicrous. I couldn't stop laughing when I saw the bird-like puppets that the aliens really look like at the end.

Of course, as I repeat it like a broken record, the aliens in Star Trek simply represent different human groups, may it be cultural, anthropological, geogrphical, historical, racial, or ethnical. In Season 2, another distinct but related trend is to show that despite all our barbarism, and primitive urges and impulses, we have come a long way since. These flawed aliens represent those remote past (ancient Greek, Biblical societies, etc) that we have left behind.