Cinefex Diaries – Up Against the Clock

I often find myself chatting with visual effects supervisors during the frenzied weeks just before their final delivery date for some new blockbuster movie. I always feel guilty about keeping them from their work, and I’m always grateful that they take time out of their busy schedules to do the interview.

Just before Christmas, the wheel of karma turned to the point where I found myself (almost) in their shoes. With the holidays looming, I had just a few short days to put together a Facebook promo video for Cinefex 156.

I usually base these little videos around the cover story, presenting iPad edition pages in what I hope is an entertaining way. In the case of our December 2017 issue, that story was Thor: Ragnarok.

My first notion was to create a shiny gold iPad and launch it through a Bifrost-like tunnel to land with a crash in the middle of a vast metallic city, with Cinefex pages swiping across its screen all the way. One glance at the ticking deadline clock was enough to restore my sanity.

Keeping the essence of the idea, I built a quick model of a baroque-looking iPad and flew it over a flat plane mapped with a basic reflective water texture. I threw in some golden architecture assembled from 3D primitives and backed the whole thing with a stock photo of mountains at sunset. When I was halfway happy with the result, I hit the render button and hoped I’d left my poor groaning laptop enough time to crunch through the gigabytes before the time came to post the damn thing on Facebook.

Cinefex 156 Promo Video

The finished video does the job, although I’d love to dig back into the model and fix all the things I didn’t get to fix first time around. The simplistic buildings are a little too simplistic for my taste, and the whole thing is crying out for some atmospheric haze. The main thing I don’t like is the water – the waves are static (although the camera’s moving so fast that you don’t really notice) and there’s some nasty chatter as the high-frequency ripple texture falls away into the distance.

On the plus side, I had the luxury of being both client and vendor on the project, which meant I didn’t have to schedule cineSync review sessions in the middle of the night and the only eyeballs I needed to satisfy were my own – even if they ended up not entirely satisfied.

Best of all, I met the delivery date!

Cinefex Diaries – 2018 Starts with a Splash

Cinefex 156 - The Shape of Water

Every New Year kicks off with movie awards season, and this year the film that everybody’s talking about is the romantic fantasy The Shape of Water. Regular readers of this blog will already know how much I enjoyed covering this film for the winter issue of Cinefex – I blathered on about it in this earlier post – so suffice it to say I was thrilled to see director Guillermo del Toro pick up the award for Best Director at both the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards this month. Also at the Critics Choice, War for the Planet of the Apes won the award for Best Visual Effects. Stellar work there by Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon and the Weta Digital team. Nominations for upcoming awards – not least the BAFTAs and Academy Awards – are stacking up even as I write, and I can’t wait to see who wins what.

 

Now, I had planned to start this year by telling you a little about my Alpha article, which I was working on during the run-up to Christmas. As often happens, however, Hollywood has thrown us a curve ball by shifting the release date of this stone-age survival story from March all the way down to September. So we’re now planning to move coverage of the film from February into our autumn edition.

 

Not to worry. Image captions aside, my work on Alpha is done and the article is safely in the bank ready to be dusted off later in the year. Our February issue is already jam-packed with fantastic stories, including the one everybody will want to read – my colleague Joe Fordham’s in-depth look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Right now, I’m deep into my assignments for the April issue. I submitted the first of these to editor Jody Duncan last week, and we’ve just locked the copy ready for production. Without saying too much, I can tell you it’s not a typical Cinefex article. I’ve been working on it on and off since August 2017, getting input from over 70 visual effects professionals in order to create something rather special.

With that assignment off my plate, I’m now hard at work covering one of the first mega-movies of the year. As often happens, my copy deadline coincides almost exactly with the film’s final delivery date, which I fear casts me in the role of “complete pain in the neck” with all the poor effects supervisors I keep chasing for information, when all they want to do is finish their damn shots! Sorry, guys, you know it’s in a good cause!

3rd Strike Reviews “A Kingdom Rises”

A Kingdom Rises is the third and final novel in my Crown of Three fantasy trilogy for younger readers, and was delighted to discover the review site 3rd Strike has given the book a healthy 8.5/10 score. Here’s an extract from the online review:

“J. D. Rinehart (Graham Edwards) does a great job keeping the young Game of Thrones vibe intact … The conclusive part of the Crown of Three trilogy offers the same qualitative and exciting storyline as its predecessors … the characters still evolve, the story remains entertaining for young and old and you’ll get a satisfying ending.”

As the review also points out, the book is definitely big on battles, so if you’re in the mood for action on a grand scale, this is the one for you!

Cinefex Diaries – Issue 156 Hits the Streets

Cinefex 156

Cinefex 156 is hot off the press and due to land on newsstands this week. I’ve talked already on this blog about my two articles this issue – the first on Marvel’s epic Thor: Ragnarok, and the second on Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite The Shape of Water. Also in our winter edition, Joe Fordham writes about Wonder Woman, and Jody Duncan delves into It and Only the Brave.

As the only Cinefex staff member living in the UK, I’m always the last to get my copies of the print edition, so I’m yet to sniff the ink and fondle the pages. Luckily for me, the iPad edition launches this week too, so my first sight of the finished thing is likely to be a digital download. No hardship there – the iPad edition has loads more photos!

I’ve already submitted my article for Cinefex 157, though I’ve yet to write the image captions. It’s on Albert Hughes’ Ice Age survival story, Alpha. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it turned up a few hidden gems and proved to be one of this year’s more rewarding assignments. I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.

Cinefex 156

Right now, I’m working hard on my next assignment. This one’s for Cinefex 158, our April issue, and it’s a big one. My copy deadline is February, but knowing how people tend to scatter to the four winds over the holiday season, I’m trying to get as many interviews as possible done before Christmas. I’m off to a good start, having had a lengthy chat with the production visual effects supervisor, and my diary is booked solid for a bunch of vendor interviews through the rest of this week.

As a matter of fact, I probably shouldn’t be writing this blog. I’ve got far too much transcribing to do!

Cinefex Diaries – In With the New

 

Behold the desk of a Cinefex scribe

Hurrah! Today I finished the final draft of my next Cinefex article. I won’t reveal what film I’m covering just yet, but I will say that my research steered me in a few unexpected directions and resulted in interviews not only with the usual raft of movie effects professionals, but also with an animal trainer and an archeological expert from The British Museum.

I know what you’re thinking. With my article for the February issue in the bag, now’s the time I get to kick back and relax. No such luck. My desk is already starting to buckle under the weight of my three articles for April which, due to our long lead time, are due for completion just a few weeks after Christmas.

The first of these is not a regular Cinefex article in that it doesn’t cover just one film. I’ve actually been working on it since before the summer, on and off, talking to the effects crowd and steadily gathering material. This phase of the operation is now mostly done, which means it’s time to for me to try and make sense of the research, and work out just how to format it all into an article. That’s a slightly terrifying prospect. But I don’t think I can put it off any longer.

I’m on more familiar ground with my second assignment for Cinefex 158 – a soup-to-nuts article on the making of one of 2018’s big movies. I’m about ready to set the ball rolling by requesting permission from the studio to interview everyone involved. The timing of this one should be interesting. Not only does my copy deadline coincide with a major production milestone, but we also have the holidays slap-bang in the middle of it all. That means I’ll be trying to arrange interviews precisely when everybody is more concerned with preparing to party, partying, or recovering from the party of the night before.

The third story is … well, frankly it’s a bit of a long shot. It’s something that all of us on the editorial team want to make happen for issue 158, but right now we’re not entirely sure if it’s achievable. All I can say for now is: watch this space.

I know, I know. All of the above is terribly vague. If my evasiveness irritates you, I apologise, but remind you that everything I do for Cinefex is bound by strict rules of confidentiality. Sometimes that makes writing a diary a little difficult. Rest assured that, once we’re in a position to reveal the contents of these various future issues I keep teasing, I’ll open the floodgates.

Until then, mum’s the word.

Cinefex Diaries – Writing for the iPad

Cinefex iPad Edition

I woke up this morning fully intending to work on my draft article for Cinefex 157. My email inbox had other ideas, containing as it did all the resources I needed to write the iPad captions for my two articles in Cinefex 156. What’s that saying about best-laid plans?

With any magazine issue, writing iPad captions is my final editorial task, and by the time it comes around the production department is usually rushing towards its deadline with steam pouring from its ears. That’s why I like to jump on it right away. So the next article will just have to wait.

Cinefex iPad captions serve the same purpose as the captions in our print edition – namely describing the content of the images while at the same time delivering a condensed summary of the article as a whole. A lot of the time I can simply duplicate the print captions, but there are two important differences that mean it’s not always that straightforward.

Firstly, we publish a lot more pictures in the iPad edition. The print versions of my Thor: Ragnarok and The Shape of Water articles contain 24 and 19 images respectively. On the iPad, those numbers go up to 48 and 40. That’s around double the content.

Secondly, I have to obey some slightly funky iPad formatting rules. When our publisher Gregg Shay does the layout, he assigns a code to each caption. There are nine different codes, each corresponding to a slightly different page design. Using a specific typeface, point size and line length, I have to make sure my text conforms to the maximum space allowed by each code – this can be anywhere between 4 and 8.5 lines.

Writing the iPad captions is therefore a mix of straightforward copying from the print edition, editing the print captions down to make sure the new versions conform to the required line length, and writing completely new captions for pictures I’ve never seen before. It’s not as big a job as doing the print captions, but it has its own unique quirks. The most entertaining of these is trying to cut a lean-as-it-gets 100-word caption down to half its length, without losing any of the essential meaning.

Anyway, the work is now done, which means my work on Cinefex 156 as a whole is done. My print caption word count for both articles combined was about 2,500 words. For the iPad, I’ve written just short of 3,300 words. Looking at those numbers, a thought occurs to me: the word count for Cinefex picture captions alone exceeds the word count of most internet articles you’ll read on the same subject.

Just saying.

Cinefex Diaries – The Rhythm of Captions

Cinefex 156 Captions

There’s a rhythm to life at Cinefex. No sooner do you get your teeth stuck into a new assignment than the previous one comes knocking at the door again.

The new assignment in question is my article for our February issue. The movie I’m covering won’t be released until next year but my copy deadline is early December, so right now I’m trekking through my interviews and trying to bludgeon the material into some kind of order. If you’re wondering what the movie is, sorry, mum’s the word.

The previous assignment – two assignments, actually – is back because it’s time to write the picture captions for the print edition of Cinefex 156. That might not sound like a big deal, until you understand that Cinefex captions doesn’t just describe what’s going on in the pictures. In fact, they’re almost a mini-assignment in themselves. The idea is that, by browsing the captions in sequence, the casual reader gets a highly condensed overview of the main article.

My first job when writing captions is to study the collection of amazing images that our publisher, Gregg Shay, has selected for the article. Typically these include film stills, behind the scenes photographs and visual effects before-and-afters, all approved by the studio for publication.

Next, I’ll try to give the image context in terms of the film’s narrative, and write copy that explains the picture contents. If space allows, I’ll provide extra contextual detail that helps to illuminate things further. All this means lifting content from the final draft article, editing and rewording to present the information in fresh, compressed form. I have just 100 words to play with for each caption, so it’s a meticulous process where every syllable counts, and some captions cover more than one picture. My print edition article on The Shape of Water has 19 pictures and 11 captions; Thor: Ragnarok has 24 pictures and 19 captions. For the captions of both articles together, I’ve written about 2,500 words.

Occasionally, Gregg will throw something at me that demands additional research. Maybe there’s a photo of a bunch of sculptors in a creature shop, with no indication of their names (when people appear in the photos, we always try to credit them). Even when I do recognise faces, I always double-check – the camera does sometimes lie you know. Or maybe there’s a gorgeous-looking visual effects shot that didn’t specifically get discussed during the interview, or that was mentioned only in passing. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it prompts a hasty call or email to the supervisor concerned, something along the lines of: “Help! I have to write something intelligent about this shot and I have no idea what I’m looking at!”

My Cinefex 156 print captions are now done and dusted, but I’m still awaiting the pictures for the iPad edition. We always include more images in the iPad articles, and the rules for formatting the captions are slightly more complicated. No doubt those will land when I’m neck-deep in the final draft of my current assignment.

Like I said, there’s a rhythm to life here.

Cinefex Diaries – The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in "The Shape of Water." Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

We’re exactly a month away from the December 8 theatrical release of The Shape of Water, the latest offering from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Billed as an ‘adult fairy tale,’ this R-rated fantasy tells the story of mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who encounters a mysterious amphibian man (Doug Jones) in the secret government facility where she works.

The first Guillermo del Toro movie I ever saw was Pan’s Labyrinth. Instantly enchanted, I tracked down his previous films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and have followed his career with enthusiasm ever since. This summer, the stars aligned and I found myself researching and writing a lengthy article on del Toro’s new aquatic fantasy, which you’ll be able to read in our next issue, Cinefex 156.

In many ways, The Shape of Water was the perfect partner to my other article for this issue, Thor: Ragnarok. My list of interviewees was much shorter, for one thing. Whereas my Thor story was all about multiple visual effects vendors working together to forge a monumental epic, the much smaller scale of Shape allowed me to focus on just two companies – Legacy FX and Mr. X. Yet through both stories ran a common thread – collaboration.

"The Shape of Water" theatrical posterThe more I talked with the teams at Legacy and Mr. X, the more I understood that the story I needed to tell was the story of how they had joined forces to bring the amphibian man to the screen. It turned out to be a pretty great story, one that celebrates the happy marriage between Legacy’s beautiful creature suit and makeup effects, and Mr. X’s subtle digital craftsmanship. At a stroke, it debunks the tiresome argument that inexplicably rages about the relative merits of practical and digital effects. From the top down, the filmmakers chose simply to use whatever technique best served the shot. The result is a seamless blend that defies you to work out how it was done.

When you’re writing about a Guillermo del Toro film, it isn’t enough just to speak with the artists involved. You have to get the man himself. An accomplished artist himself, del Toro is the driving force behind every creative decision on the films he makes. Luckily for me, he also reads Cinefex. Thanks to his support, and the tireless work of the Fox Searchlight publicity team, I ended up chatting with Guillermo on the phone for around 40 minutes. He was just as charming and insightful as I’d hoped, and his voice comes through loud and strong in the final article.

Another interviewee was special effects supervisor Warren Appleby, who delivered on-set gags and a wealth of atmospheric effects. Unusually for Cinefex, I also spoke to one of the actors. If my story was all about bringing the creature to life, how could I not interview the guy inside the suit? The guy in question was Doug Jones, currently playing the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery and the man behind many a movie monster from the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth to Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. Doug was an absolute delight and – what do you know? – turned out to be yet another reader of our magazine.

I’ve already confessed that I’m a big del Toro fan, and having seen The Shape of Water I’d have to rate it as one of his best. That I got to see it while writing my article was a tremendous help. Again, that’s down to the Fox Searchlight team, who arranged a screening for me in central London – just me, one other journalist, and an affable security guard who sat at the back of the otherwise empty theatre making sure we didn’t whip out our phone cameras and point them at the screen. The only downside was that I had to suppress my enthusiasm when the time came to put down words on paper. At Cinefex, objective reporting is the order of the day. We don’t offer reviews or opinions. We just give you the facts, ma’am.

You’ll be able to read the full story of how Guillermo del Toro’s amphibian man made it to the screen in Cinefex 156. The magazine will be on newstands December 15, just a week after the theatrical release of The Shape of Water. Also in this issue is my article on Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Jody Duncan’s stories on the horror smash It and firefighting drama Only the Brave, and Joe Fordham’s report on the runaway success Wonder Woman.

Humble Bundle With Added Horror

Humble Book Bundle - Night Shade Books

Humble Bundle is selling a great selection of ebooks from Night Shade Books. For just $1.00, you get to download six digital titles including Best Horror of the Year Volume 1, edited by Ellen Datlow, which includes my Nebula Award-nominated novelette Girl in Pieces. Pay $8.00 to boost your booty to 13 books, and for $15 you can round it up to a massive haul of 20 books! All the books are DRM-free and available in multiple e-reader formats.

Those prices are minimum amounts, by the way. If you want to, you can pay more. Why would you do that? Well, for every book sold, Humble Bundle will make a donation to this month’s chosen charity. If you want to choose your own charity, you can do that too. At these prices, and with the added bonus that you’re donating to a good cause, it’s the perfect way to sample a batch of fiction that might otherwise pass you by. Who knows? Maybe you’ll stumble on a new favourite author.

The Night Shade Books collection is available at Humble Bundle until 14 November 2017.

Cinefex Diaries – A Little Homage to Blade Runner 2049

Each time we publish a new issue of Cinefex, I produce a short promo video showcasing the magazine’s cover story, and share it on Facebook, Twitter and whatnot. The videos are frequently (sometimes deliberately) homespun. For issue 148, I got my daughter to paint her hand green and swipe her way through our Star Trek Beyond article. A few issues later, I donned a pair of rubber gorilla hands and pawed at the Kong: Skull Island issue. For other editions, I messed about with some simple animated graphics.

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When issue 155 came along, with its Blade Runner 2049 cover story, I decided to push things a little further by embedding pages from the iPad edition into the cockpit of a flying car on its journey through a futuristic cityscape.

The 3D model of the cityscape was based on simple repeating shapes.

The 3D model of the cityscape was based on simple repeating shapes.

I built the city from fairly basic geometry in Strata Design 3D, dressed up with a few high-tech bits and bobs culled from the built-in shape library. The city layout is really minimal – I only built what was visible through the camera. Honestly, if you zoom out from the model, there’s hardly anything there. I modeled a super-simple flying car and mapped on a bunch of sci-fi panel textures.

The geometry for the flying car was equally primitive.

The geometry for the flying car was equally primitive!

When it came to lighting, atmospheric haze was a must. Strata’s volumetrics are a little bit on the funky side, so I used naked spotlights to sculpt the more intricate bits of architecture, and planted a pair of volumetric point sources in the path of the camera – these two lights alone created the murky glow I was looking for.

I rendered the flying car’s four probing searchlights as separate passes against black. Likewise the two vertical shafts of light in the far distance. That enabled me to control their density when I composited them in HitFilm Express; at this stage I also added the cockpit, which I’d modeled and rendered as a separate element. The lens flare from the car’s engines is an out-of-the-box HitFilm effect, tracked manually frame by frame. The final touch was to layer in some stock footage of driving rain splashing past the windshield.

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The end result is a far cry from the extraordinary images created for the screen by the Blade Runner 2049 effects team – or indeed by any of the tireless artists we interview on a regular basis for the magazine. Making it was a humbling experience, actually. Those guys really know what they’re doing, you know? Me, I’m just fooling around.

Cinefex 155 promotional video emulating "Blade Runner 2049"

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