Double Bill: Annihilation and Arrival

This is a double bill that happened by accident. I was keen to watch Alex Garland’s Annihilation purely because it was new: I don’t get to the cinema much lately, so I tend to catch up with films only when they reach Netflix, or Prime Video. Being produced by Netflix, Annihilation was available to me on all my local devices less than a month after its US theatrical release. I’d heard good things about it, too, but the main reason I chose to use a rare command over the living room TV to watch it (my wife having started a new novel in earnest), is because I was a bit sick of missing out on the latest movies.

The following evening, my wife not having finished her novel (despite her prodigious reading speed) afforded me a second shot at the main TV, and giddy with the power, I considered many of the films I’d been meaning to catch up with for years. The Martian, The Intern, Arrival, The Founder, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight. Of these Arrival was the one I most wanted to see, but I had to overcome my suspicion that it was very similar to Annihilation in tone and subject matter. I didn’t know the half of it.

They both start with (apparently) recently-bereaved women giving lectures to university students, before being picked up by the military because of alien lifeforms arriving on earth. They both have a solemn tone, that The Economist’s review of Annihilation describes as, “tightrope-walking the fine line between open-ended, mind-expanding mystery and lethargic, pretentious twaddle.”  They are both adapted from recent, award-laden science fiction literature: Annihilation from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel; Arrival from Story of Your Life, a novella by Ted Chiang. Their similarities are so many that it only accentuates their differences. In fact, they are in entirely different leagues.

Amy Adams in Arrival
Bereaved academic
Natalie Portman in Annihilation
Bereaved academic

Annihilation is full of wonderful things. The peerless cast, the gorgeous, refracted visuals (justified and necessitated by the plot) and a heap of terrific ideas all lead me to believe, at the halfway point, that it was either going to be incredibly scary or incredibly mind-blowing. Alas, ultimately, it was neither.

Arrival, on the other hand, while classy, initially seemed to be slightly less spectacular, both in its visual palette and its ideas. As it progressed, though, the simpler ideas only got more delicious as they were explored and developed, like the themes of a sonata, whereas Annihilation had simply tossed in more exposition and ideas, many half-baked. Crucially, the personal loss element of the back story, common to both, unfurled in a way that was far more intrinsic to both the plot and premise than Annihilation’s.

On finishing Annihilation, I considered reading the source novel as an intellectual exercise, see if it produced the same mild disappointment, or whether it had depths the film had failed to translate. The following evening, while the credits still rolled on Arrival, I had already bought the Kindle version of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, out of hope it would give me another dose of the pure euphoria of the movie, which I can’t wait to see again.

macOS Sierra Counts in a Human Way. Oh, no!

While working in Final Cut Pro X tonight, I noticed something: it was arranging my Events in the correct order, even though the first difference in their names (from left to right) were numbers, and some of those numbers had two digits.

I’ve always written numbers in a list with leading zeros to make sure they’re ordered correctly when alphabetised (if I knew we’d eventually be counting in thousands, I’d begin at 0001, 0002… etc.). When writing the date in filenames, I always use ISO 8601 (so today is 2017-01-02) for the same reason. That is, unless I’m working somewhere where the house style is set as something like 020117, in which case I go along with it, as a professional, and just silently seethe the whole time.

At first I thought this was a magical Final Cut Pro thing. But then I wondered why they’d so something that seems so simple, and yet apparently so difficult, in one app, when they could do it across the board. I renamed two old files in the Finder that should’ve been deleted long ago, and found that they, too, were correctly ordered without the leading zeros.

How long has this been the case? I’m amazed. I’m impressed. I’m… scared.

I liked the way I’d learned to behave a bit like a machine when interacting with machines. It gave me security in knowing I would be understood. It’s like altering your vocabulary when talking to a young child, nothing wrong with it. Except now there’s this kid who’s a genius and doesn’t like to be patronised, and the danger is I’ll forget to make allowances for the other kids.

I still use Windows machines, you see. Because I exist in the world. Will I forget my best practices because Apple’s a smarty pants?

There is precedent here, and it’s that old seductress, Final Cut Pro X. It doesn’t need to save, you see. You don’t have to keep hitting Command (or CTRL on the Dark Side)—S every 30 seconds, and the result is I don’t anymore. Years of training out the window. When I go to the BBC and work in Avid, it only saves when I render something (because I know to have it set to do so). I don’t manually save at all, unless I’m about to do something that I suspect will lead to a crash. This is like forgetting to look both ways when crossing a 6-lane motorway. I’ve become a danger unto myself v4qadop.

So it is with this whole “getting numbers in the right order” thing. It’s unnatural. It’s grotesque. Dealing correctly with numbers is something that computers were never meant to to.

Save us!

Rogue One review, with spoilers

Rogue One poster

Having not thought much of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and feeling like I was adrift in a sea of praise for it, I was sceptical about Rogue One, despite the positive reaction. The trailers didn’t help, in that I simply didn’t feel they made the film look much good. I feared that what I’d liked about Star Wars (loved, actually) obviously wasn’t what everyone else did.

I’d started to feel that way with the prequels (1999–2005), but for opposite reasons: though I could see their flaws as well as anyone, they didn’t bother me. I enjoyed those films, and still do. It’s a lonely feeling.

Plus, it’s an offshoot, a side-story. Surely the stakes would be so much lower that any of the main sequence films, where the fate of the galaxy is at stake. More like one of those Expanded Universe novels that I’ve never had the slightest interest in.

I dragged myself to the cinema anyway, and while I took a wee while to warm to it, I came round, and found myself on the edge of my seat. Also, quite moved. After Force Awakens, this is much more like it.

It’s ‘offshoot’ status actually helps it dramatically in two ways: stylistically and structurally. This is Star Wars unshackled by the usual house style: no silly wipes, no opening crawl, and planets can be identified in a subtitle rather than having to be super-distinctive (desert planet, forest planet, snow planet). It walks a line between how much of the usual business it wants to avoid and still stay part of the family. The score is its own beast, for example, though it flits around the familiar themes (it’s central motif is most like Attack of the Clones’, strangely).

Also, it’s story plays out fully, to its own end—when it’s done, it’s done, which is almost unheard of these days, and a genuine relief. Not that you could just watch this one—you need to see, at least, the original Star Wars for this to make any sense at all, but there’s no Rogue Two in store for this one to drop irritating hints about. After a bit of that in the prequels and dollops of it in Force Awakens, that’s very refreshing. (The original 1977 film remains the only one that can stand completely alone if it needs to.)

One of my worries from the trailers was Felicity Jones as the lead. I thought her performance was at odds with how the character was presented (a psycho hard nut, basically, while Jones was, well, a bit posh). I was misled. Some of the lines which I thought were rubbish (“This is a rebellion, isn’t it? That’s what I do: rebel.”) don’t appear in the film at all. Others work beautifully in their rightful context. “Rebellions are built on hope,” for example, made me cringe in the trailer, but in the film she’s quoting for effect, and it’s great. She’s great.

The whole cast is magnificent, in fact. Diego Luna (who’s always seemed to me slightly overshadowed by his best friend and Y Tu Mama Tambien costar, Gael García Bernal) has grown into the world’s most dashing man. His Mexican accent is like music, and he’s nuanced enough to more than earn the moment when the blind Îmwe (Donnie Yen, also wonderful) has to ask, “Does he look like a killer?” and Malbus (Wen Jiang, also wonderful) responds, “No, he has the face of a friend.”

Forrest Whitaker: great. Mads Mikkelsen: great. And while Jimmy Smits’ part is about the same size as it was in Revenge of the Sith, he’s good here, where he was wooden and uncomfortable in the prequel. It’s also marvellous to see Riz Ahmed among Hollywood’s most fêted.

It helps that they have great writing to perform. Like the first 40 minutes of Force Awakens, it’s lean, potent stuff. There are many characters on each side, hero and villain, and we care about all of them. Perhaps the most dazzling piece of introduction—a late swelling of the band of heroes by a small army for the final act—is presented with a short, simple speech, delivered by Luna in that knee-jellifying accent, that gives us instant understanding of, and belief in, the motivation, dedication and worthiness of these new comrades. Character design and make-up, too, help us identify, and identify with, what should’ve been a random bunch of nobodies. There’s one who’s so pug-ugly that you love him immediately. It’s a bit like the genius in Episode IV’s final attack of having a fat X-Wing pilot called Porkins—still beloved by fans, some of whom are incensed that he found no place in this story. Some of his fellow X-Wingers from 1977, you see, get to make an appearance, which is neat, but leads us to another issue.

An aspect of the prequel trilogy that does bother me is its shoe-horning in of familiar faces unnecessarily. It’s a cheap, lazy way to tap nostalgia, and makes this supposedly expansive galaxy seem very, very small indeed. Rogue One flirts with this, but thankfully not too much.

When it comes to bit players, there’s one egregious example of pointless galaxy-shrinking near the start (“Watch it!”), but for the main everyone we meet is where they ought to be. When it comes to Artoo and Threepio, their four-second cameo actually helps clarify why they ended up on the Tantive IV with Leia (which the prequels made seem like a stupid coincidence).

Of more significance are Vader and Tarkin. The latter is a big talking point, obviously, for featuring the very dead Peter Cushing. How they got round the Crispin Glover BTTF2 rule, I have no idea. I mean, who’s permission did they get, exactly, to use his likeness? Anyway, his first scene was over when I realised I hadn’t listened to a word that had been said for scrutinising “him”. He’s imperfect and impressive at the same time—a bit like Gollum in the Two Towers. Gollum, though, was his own thing: animation, design and performance were open to interpretation. This, on the other hand, has not only a real actor to impersonate, but one in a role known back to front and up and down by the target audience of this film. It’s a big ask, and a big triumph that everyone’s basically happy with the result. I assume Cushing’s estate is happy, too, and has been duly compensated, so I’m just left with the hope that they’ll redo it for later home releases once the tech becomes better and cheaper, they way they did with Episode IV’s Jabba in 2004 (though that’s still crap).

Vader is done perfectly. He’s introduced without his suit, what’s left of his organic form suspended in a tank, rhyming with Luke after his wampa encounter in Empire Strikes Back. I couldn’t help but look for signs of Hayden Christensen in the mangled form. This a beat where the prequels really help. When we see the fully suited Vader striding towards a nervous Ben Mendelsohn, he’s bona fide scary again, and the fact that little Annie Skywalker has utterly vanished makes him all the more so.

A big hats off to director, Gareth Edwards. I haven’t seen any of his other pictures, but I’d heard he operates a lot of the camera himself, often improvising and trusting that the edit will shape the unplanned moments he finds. When I read that, I feared for Bourne-style shakey-cam, but the action, both the hand-to-hand skirmishes and the aerial battles, is nimble, deft and clear. There was also a very pleasant sense that the actions of the pilots in live action cockpits related perfectly with the motion of their craft in the CG exteriors, which sold the FX and leant a reality to the dogfights. There was also a unity to the style, in contrast to the prequels where the CG animators created dynamic sequences in a modern style that never quite knitted with the Kurosawa-inspired static tableaux that Lucas would film with his actors.

A lot has been made of the fact that this is the war-iest of the Star Wars. I was worried that that would just mean callous violence. At first, I thought my worries were justified—lots of innocent bystanders, lots of offhand, execution-style killing (from the heroes). But in the mid-Act II climax, the sense of war was conveyed much more deeply, more Full Metal Jacket, with crossed wires, confusion and panic that results in the Rebellion accidentally stuffing things up with a poorly judged airstrike. In the aftermath, the Rebel Alliance errs, frustratingly, on the side of caution. Mistakes here are very, very costly, and the outcomes of any action almost impossible to predict. There’s something Adam Curtis-y about this idea that the situation is more complex that you think, and simple, reassuring narratives being insidious enemies.

This, for me, is the spirit of George Lucas: a philosophy. As the upcoming Episode VIII’s director Rian Johnson wrote in a tweet, “the prequels are a 7 hour long kids movie about how fear of loss turns good people into fascists.” However badly they were executed, they had (like Videodrome) a philosophy. (Force Awakens, in contrast, was as soulless to me as many have accused the prequels of being.)

All that said, the skepticism I brought to it wasn’t entirely to blame for its slowness to win me over. It’s taut in the second half, but there is some flab early on. The brain-sucking creature, for instance, could be cut right out since it does neither of the things it promises (verify the defecting pilot’s story and driving him mad in the process), but at least gets far less screen time than the comedy octopus that Han’s smuggling in Force Awakens. And Forrest Whitaker keeps the sequence watchable, channelling Paul Darrow in the last episode of Blake’s 7 (“You………have betrayed………me?” —Fabulous.)

So this is much, much more like it. It actually has some weight, some heft. Heart and balls. It’s a side-story that genuinely enriches the main one, even the unimpeachable Episodes, IV and V. What a thing to pull off, what a dance to perform!

In short, it’s restored my faith in The Force™.

New CV now available.

Today’s lesson: if you’re going to do something yourself, rather than pay someone to do it, then do it!

This blog doesn’t get the attention it should, but I had no idea of the mess I had left the CV portion in. My email signature directs people to, so I assumed that no one would ever visit the bare That was just a silly old page I made in iWeb (remember that?). Unfortunately, some people might have gone there directly, probably deducing that my email domain would have a corresponding website. And aside from being a rubbish bit was web design, it had a link to a very, very old CV.

I don’t know how many jobs I’ve lost because of that old CV, but I know that some directors who have asked for me specifically have run into trouble from their production teams who question if I had the necessary experience. The matter was always cleared up when we discovered they were referring to that old CV, but I never found the source. I assumed some HR department somewhere was sending it out, trying to be helpful. Now it turns out that if you go to my self-hosted website, it was I, myself, distributing the damned thing.

So, I think I’ve fixed it. That old landing page has gone, replaced with my most recent blog posts (in a WordPress template that I paid for rather than try to design myself). If you click the plus sign in the header on the right it should reveal a menu that will link to my latest CV. I’ll send it out to HR departments of my regular clients, too, and hopefully the world has seen the last of that accursed old CV.

Just in time for my career winding down, but that’s for another post…

Farewell to Editworks

Like a fool, I forgot to hand my security pass back in on my last day of the Puffers edit. Editworks was our (well defended) home for six weeks as Liam and I hammered out the show, and it was a delight to be back there.

A couple of years on the trot, I did months-long stints there on CART, and they’ve always been a lovely place to work, with a seamingly infinite supply of coffee, biscuits and Avid support.

I hope it’s not long until I’m back.

Finishing Puffers & #Dieselgate

Finished up on Scotland’s Vital Spark: the Clyde Puffer (as it’s now called) last Friday. Everyone was happy with it, including me. It’s a lovely show that’s equal part history and heart. It’ll be straight onto the Career Highlights section of my CV.

I haven’t updated that yet, though, nor have I my LinkedIn profile. The reason: baby #2’s only a fortnight away and I have so much to do it’s not funny. (This post, as you can imagine, is pure procrastination.)

I did get a fair amount done yesterday: 3 items on my wife’s list of 10. Not bad considering my I got a notification at 1030 that traffic was light to the Free Vehicle Health Check I’d booked two weeks before (and rather hurriedly, as I was mid-edit and wanted to get them off the phone). You’ll be glad to hear my car’s fine.

More of the same today. By way of an offering, though, here’s a video that struck me. It’s Red Dwarf actor and Scrapheap Challenge presenter, Robert Llewellyn’s Fully Charged, a web series he does about cleaner car propulsion. In this mini-ep, he’s having an impassioned rant about the recent news that VW have been fiddling their emissions tests. What stuck me in particular is his hatred of diesel. I currently have a petrol-fuelled car, but the two before that were diesel, and I paid extra for the the very last one because I wanted the diesel over the identical petrol model. (It also had 19″ alloy wheels, which may have been a factor.) The point being that I considered myself a “Diesel Guy”. I thought it was clean and economical (don’t laugh). Well, Mr. Llewellyn can rest assured that he’s changed at least one mind.

Other People’s Eyes, and why Kubrick’s last film is, I think, unfinished

An editor will prepare a cut in near-isolation. It would be total isolation if it wasn’t for the director (or Edit Producer, who does the director’s job in the cutting room, but wasn’t involved in the shoot) and the handful of producer’s who drop in to make sure you’re not making Ishtar. Both the editor and director will become very close to the material, and their particular presentation of it. There’s been much written about the importance of accepting notes in a dispassionate and professional way (here’s an article by Chris Jones, for example, with which I couldn’t agree more), but there’s another aspect of presenting a late, hopefully very close-to-finished version to a person or group who have little knowledge of your process, that’s extremely beneficial: as well as gauging their reaction (which they’ll be all too happy to tell you about), you’re suddenly aware of, and often surprised by, your own.

Continue reading “Other People’s Eyes, and why Kubrick’s last film is, I think, unfinished”

Final Cut Pro X 10.2: New Masks

The new mask capabilities of FCPX in 10.2 were immediately a godsend: the video I was working on at the time immediately benefitted, and in that respect it was as helpful as the arrival of Libraries in 10.1. (Ripple Training have a great overview of the new masking features.)

The video was this little campaign message for my local Green Party candidate, Moira Crawford:


I knew when I filmed Moira that the porch behind her would blow out, but as each set-up was locked-off, I could film some under-exposed footage to mask in.

Moira Crawford underexposed
Under-exposed shot for the benefit of the porch background


Whereas earlier versions of FCPX were limited to a four-point mask (unless you installed 3rd-party plug-ins), I could now mask out the window and play with this shot underneath.

Comparison between final comp and unaffected footage of Moira
Comparison between final comp and unaffected footage of Moira


Whether or not you like my grade (I made it quite flat to distinguish it from the B-roll, which was quite contrasty), it’s surely an objective fact that the porch blowing-out wasn’t ideal.

Previously, I’d have either done a less satisfactory mask in FCPX, or sent everything to Motion, which is a pain.

These enhancements to the default masking capabilities are most, most welcome.



Slow Train Through Africa

I did a wee bit of work on Slow Train Through Africa with Griff Rhys Jones. When I came in, some of the episodes had been entirely finished, but the one assigned to me just had a few tweaks before final sign-off.

I was immediately impressed with the show, and knew that it was the kind of thing I’d watch even if I’d had nothing to do with it. Essentially, Mr. Jones travels round the continent of Africa by train, exploring the strange history of its railways, the colonial powers who built them (often against incredible odds) and, most importantly, the people whose lives were affected. And because it’s GRJ driving the engine, there’s plenty of humour.

So what I did were tweaks to episode two, where Griff visits Kenya and Tanzania, but I like to think I made the sequences I worked on (I didn’t touch much of the show) pop. Hope so, anyway.

The final product is well worth watching regardless. The first run starts this Friday, 10th April on ITV in the UK.

Stunning aerial photography combines with observational travelogue to produce a fresh portrait of Africa through Griff’s experiences on and off the train. On each epic trip across five episodes, he discovers how the railway reveals a great deal about the places he travels through.  Griff uses the train to get to unexpected places in deserts and forests, villages and cities, learning stories of their past and finding out how they are used today.

Link to announcement.