Travelling Light to Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo photograph by Stephanemartin via Wikimedia Commons

Saint-Malo photograph by Stephanemartin via Wikimedia Commons

The best flight I ever had was in a Cessna light aircraft only slightly larger than the car I’d driven to the airport to catch it. We flew roughly 300 miles, from Nottingham to Saint-Malo, and we had big grins on our faces pretty much all the way.

The “we” in question was a group of four theme park designers from Farmer Studios, the company I worked for at the time. We were attending a meeting at the Grand Aquarium de Saint-Malo, which we were due to deck out with all kinds of fancy themed displays and animatronic goodies. When we first heard we were going, we assumed we’d have to get the train across the English Channel, and book an overnight hotel. But no. Nick Farmer, our team leader and company boss, had something else in mind. “It’s too expensive to book travel and accommodation for four people,” he told us. “I’ve chartered a plane instead.”

Once we’d stopped laughing, Nick told us he wasn’t joking and showed us the numbers he’d crunched. Sure enough, the cost of chartering a Cessna from our East Midlands Airport was cheaper than getting us all to France and back by more conventional means. It was there in black and white, plain to see.

Almost as plain as the happy-little-boy expression on Nick’s face.

On the day of departure, we turned up bright and early and made our way to a remote corner of the busy airport. The sky was clear and the little aircraft waiting for us on the apron looked like something I might have built out of plastic as a kid. We were greeted by our captain for the day and his smiling co-pilot, and invited to climb aboard.

I should probably say “squeeze” aboard. The Cessna had just enough cabin space for four big men, two facing forwards, two facing backwards, with our knees interlocked in companionable fashion. Several inches away in the cockpit sat the two dapper uniformed fellows we were trusting with our lives.

Before we took off, Nick told us that for many years he’d been afraid of flying. However, the first time he’d gone up in a little plane like this one, his fears had left him. “You can see how you’d get out if it crashes,” he explained, pointing to the quick-release latches on the doors. “It’s not like being trapped in an airliner. In a plane like this, you feel as if you’re in control.”

I’ve never been afraid of flying, but as we took off on that clear sunny morning, I understood exactly what Nick meant. We could see, hear and feel everything. We sensed the exact moment when the wings gripped the air and the tyres detached from Mother Earth. We heard the rush of the wind past the canopy glass, the soft ticks and creaks of the control surfaces. We observed our pilot’s every little nudge of the controls, and felt the little aircraft’s instant response.

Oh, and the view …

I don’t recall what altitude we reached as we proceeded south. But I do remember that England looked very green and very fine, with fields and forests and towns and roads wholly visible in a way they never are from a big jet. Surrounded by glass, we were low enough to observe a thousand little lives proceeding below us, and high enough to see, it seemed, forever.

Best of all, somewhere over Oxfordshire, our smiling co-pilot handed round the dinkiest little airline breakfast trays you ever did see.

Nick’s happy-little-boy face returned as we approached the south coast. Obeying instructions the rest of us were unaware of, the pilot banked low over the Isle of Wight, circling the visitor attraction at Blackgang Chine to give us all a good view of the work that the company had done their years earlier. Fibreglass dinosaurs stared up at us, clearly bemused.

Tummies full and curiosity satisfied, we settled in for the cross-Channel leg of the journey. We crossed a vast, calm sea and landed smoothly on a tiny airstrip on the outskirts of Saint-Malo. Clearing customs comprised smiling at the sleepy-looking chap sat in the doorway of a large shed beside the runway, in whose company we left our crew while we proceeded on by car to our final destination.

The meeting at the aquarium went well. We conducted business with our client, ate lunch, and admired the fish. Secretly, I think we were all just waiting to get back on the plane.

We arrived back at the airfield towards the end of the afternoon, whereupon our pilot clapped his hands and asked us if there was anywhere we wanted to take in on our way back. He could arrange to fly over Paris, for example, although that would add considerably to our journey time, since he’d need to file a flight plan that avoided bumping into airliners.

Somewhat tired, we declined. We were content simply to repeat our outward journey, this time without the dinosaurs.

The sea was less calm on the way back, and so was the air above it. I spent a solid hour gazing meditatively at the far horizon, convincing my stomach that it really did want to retain possession of the dinky breakfast and the business lunch. To my relief, the turbulence subsided once we were back over Blighty, and as the sun went down we all relaxed deep into our compact seats and allowed our knees to jostle companionably.

Our pilot had one more treat in store. As we passed into Leicestershire airspace, he asked everyone in turn where they lived. One by one, he steered the Cessna low over our neighbourhoods. As the only passenger from Nottinghamshire, my own house was considerably further north than the rest and significantly out of our way. What’s more, night had fallen, so I suggested we head straight for the airport. Nobody protested.

Driving home after we’d landed, I experienced a brief moment of confusion. Just for an instant, I was convinced that if I pulled back on the steering wheel, the wheels would leave the tarmac of the road and my car would carry me back into the sky. I may even have tried it, I don’t really remember.

But I do remember smiling as the thought crossed my mind.

When Dragoncharm went to Hollywood (almost)

Dragoncharm movie flyerSome years ago, my novel Dragoncharm was optioned for movie production. I’ve mentioned it briefly on my blog here, but enough people have shown an interest to convince me it’s worth talking about at more length. Besides, it suits my current nostalgic mood.

Dragoncharm – a fantasy adventure novel with a cast made up exclusively of dragons – has been optioned twice to date. The first time, the rights were bought by a production company in New York. They were considering a TV adaptation using Muppet-style characters. I’m not aware of any serious work being done on the project during the twelve months they held the rights … and in hindsight I’m rather glad. Foam-rubber dragons were not what I had in mind when I wrote the book.

Second time round it was a UK outfit called Dandelion Distribution. Their concept was to adapt the novel as a thirteen-part TV series, which would also be condensed into a two-hour theatrical or (more likely) TV movie. The director attached to the project was Bob Keen, which immediately made the whole thing an exciting proposition.

Bob Keen made his name in make-up and animatronics. He worked with Stuart Freeborn on both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (he was part of the team behind Yoda and Jabba the Hutt). He’s perhaps better known for creating the effects in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and its sequels. His company Image Animation operates out of Pinewood Studios and, at the time I met him, he was just beginning to establish himself as a film director in his own right.

Fortune - animatronic headOnce we’d agreed the sale of the option, my publishers Voyager Books (in the delightful form of Jane Johnson and Cresta Norris) accompanied me to Pinewood, where we spent a happy afternoon talking the project over with Bob and his team. The Image Animation premises was a real Aladdin’s cave, complete with a full-size mannequin of Pinhead waiting to greet you at the top of the stairs.

Bob showed us all sorts of goodies – including an animatronic tongue they’d just built for a charming little Spanish film called Killer Tongue – but the thing that sticks in my mind is the Hellraiser folding box. Actually, it was lots of boxes, all of different sizes, each one designed to collapse or spring out in a particular way for various cuts in the movie. The workings looked like random jumbles of bent wires and elastic bands – real low-tech movie magic!

Bob explained that his idea for Dragoncharm was to put animated dragons into live-action environments. The environments would be a combination of real-world footage and model sets. The character close-ups would be achieved using animatronic dragon puppets, while the wider shots – walking and flying scenes – would be done with CG.

Cumber - animatronic headBob’s a big bear of a man, immensely likeable, and his obvious enthusiasm for the project was infectious. He showed us some early concept art and talked about his various concerns about designing dragon characters. For example, they’d need to have relatively short snouts, otherwise mouth articulation for lip-sync would be a nightmare. The design work, I believe, was undertaken by David Bonneywell. We talked about ways to distinguish between the two races of dragons in the book: the charmed dragons have colourful metallic scales, while the natural dragons are dull and earthy. We also talked about voice performances, and how we might use regional accents to differentiate some of the characters.

Then Bob showed us the sample footage he’d put together. It was a four-minute trailer – a proof-of-concept really – featuring the three animatronic heads they’d built, married with CG animation by Rory Fellowes. The first scene shows CG dragons flying over and around a waterfall, before fleeing fireballs raining from the sky. There’s a cut to the hero animatronic puppets of Fortune and Cumber escaping into a whirlpool, followed by a gentler scene with the puppets on a beach at night, in which Cumber breathes fire and introduces Fortune to the pleasures of cooked food.

Wraith - animatronic headWe then see bad guy Wraith – another animatronic head – speaking threatening dialogue through a sheet of fire. This is followed by more CG dragons, this time flying through underground caverns, before the trailer wraps up with a CG Fortune trying to outrun what looks like an exploding sun.

I could see the potential in the trailer – and the animatronic heads looked great. A bit Muppety round the mouths, maybe. The CG was of variable quality, but with some nice touches (a dragon scratching its back leg in mid-flight, for instance). It represented Image Animation’s first baby steps with what was, for them, new technology. And, to put it in context, all this was happening back in the mid-nineties. Jurassic Park had only just been released, and it was a huge leap from the mere six minutes of CG in that movie to the scale and level of animation we were talking about for Dragoncharm.

Crucially for me as an author, Bob had a good handle on the story. He understood it was full of emotion as well as action, and that the characters were the key. And, like me, he was passionate about making the dragons real.

Cumber, Fortune and the whirlpoolIn a later meeting, I visited Bob and his wife Sheila at their home (Sheila was writing the screenplay). We talked more about the story and Bob showed me a load of reference video. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the reel he’d put together on backgrounds and environments – a lot of it was from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, all those grand aerial shots of the American West, which was exactly what had been in my head when I’d been writing the book. We were clearly on the same page.

Bob’s touchstone for the CG was Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children, which had just been released. He showed me a sequence with a computer-generated flea which had got him excited not only because it looked great, but because it hadn’t taken a Cray supercomputer to render the damn thing. He was looking at using SoftImage running on high-end PCs – a similar set-up, I think, to the one Pitof used in City. The bottom line was the kit had suddenly got cheaper both to buy and run, and Bob was confident he could get the work done within a reasonable budget.

CG dragons in flightSo where did it all go wrong? The short answer is there’s no one reason. These things happen. A lot of books get optioned but very few make it on to the screen. And, even after the green light’s lit, films can still end up in production hell. I suspect Dragoncharm was just too ambitious. A high-action fantasy adventure featuring large numbers of photo-real dragon characters? Dream on! The technology’s matured enough to make it achievable now – given a healthy budget of course. Back then it was probably madness to even contemplate it. But madness of the very best kind.

Spaceships with thousands of tiny windows

Foundation triptych by Chris FossWhen I was a kid looking for my next spaceship fix, there was no better place to get it than the local bookshop. All those covers! A riot of hardware! It was glorious, all the more so because the bookshop was pretty much the only venue you could see such things. Yes, I’m talking pre-internet, those distant days before you could log on to the conceptships blog, when the ships you saw at the movies were made mostly from egg boxes and the games you played on your home computer loaded from a cassette tape. The bookshop was an art gallery and the admission was free.

Back then, Chris Foss was the man for me. His paintings were a dream come true. I still treasure my old copies of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy – you know, the Granada editions with the Foss covers that join up like a jigsaw. I vividly remember standing and gawping at them in WH Smith … and having no choice but to buy the damn books.

I tried to copy Foss’s style. I never got on with the airbrush but I did develop a kind of fine stippling technique that emulated his smooth blends – or so my young mind thought at the time. I made my spaceships asymmetrical, just like Chris’s. I laboriously painted on thousands of tiny windows. When I started writing my own stories about interstellar derring-do, it was Chris’s ships flying inside my head. Years later, when I read Consider Phlebas for the first time, I got the feeling Iain Banks had them buzzing around in his too.

Despite the nostalgic tone, I don’t want you thinking this is a piece bewailing the current state of SF cover design. Far from it. There’s never been more talent, variety and ingenuity on display than there is today (all right, and canny marketing too). Just browse the shelves – real or virtual – if you don’t believe me. I’m just pointing out where my roots lie.

In many ways, things are better now. I read somewhere that the trailers for Roger Corman movies always used to feature an exploding helicopter, regardless of whether the explosion appeared in the actual film. It used to be the same principle with SF covers and, yes, those old Foss-wrapped paperbacks were guilty as charged – if you read it, you’ll find Foundation has an awful lot of talking and not much in the way of big gaudy spaceships. I think SF cover design’s grown up a lot. These days you stand a better chance of the cover actually reflecting the content. But the good news is, the artwork still looks way cool.

Here’s three of my recent favourites. What are yours?

The Bookman, The Scar and Boneshaker


>Beneath the Loch video

>Some years ago I worked for a company that created theme park rides and visitor attractions. While there, I wrote a multimedia “history and myth” show called Beneath the Loch, aimed at families and children. The show used triptych video, surround-sound and animatronics to tell the story of a young otter who embarks on a quest into the depths of Loch Lomond to find the lost village of Camstradden. On the way, the otter plunges through a whirlpool of history and myth, finally discovering the Guardian of the Loch, who collects “all the stories that run down the glens and into the loch”.

I’ve just put a page about the show on my website here. I’ve included links to some of the many people who contributed to the project, which was led by Nick Farmer. If you were part of the project and I’ve missed you out, feel free to comment on this post and I’ll remedy the situation!

Meanwhile, you can watch a complete video of the show on YouTube here!

>Get your free comic strip here!

>I thought I’d kick off the New Year with a free gift.

Digging around in my bookshelves over Christmas, I turned up a copy of Colossus, a science fiction comic strip magazine I self-published with my friend Andy Wicks way back in 1985. After leafing through it in teary-eyed nostalgia, I thought it might be fun to scan one of the stories and make it available online.

I’ve posted some background on the story on my website here, but if you want to cut straight to the chase and read the damn thing, just click on the link right here (PDF file).

All I ask is that you’re gentle with it. After all, I was only a student …

>Talisman and Dome

>My appreciation of Stephen King started with the 1979 TV version of Salem’s Lot, which had us all talking in the school playground about how we hadn’t slept a wink after watching David Soul go up against Mr Barlow. After that initiation, my first reading experience wasn’t that great. As a teenager I borrowed Pet Sematary from a friend and thought it was all a bit overblown up to the point where the resurrected kid gets hold of the scalpel. Then, at the age of eighteen, I read The Talisman …

I read The Talisman at lightspeed, consuming the entire second half in a single sitting one wet Sunday afternoon. Jack Sawyer’s adventures just blew me away. Years later I loved the sequel Black House nearly as much, for entirely different reasons. I’m not here to review these books, only to tell you to read them, and to say how great the new comic adaptation of The Talisman looks. (I have a particular interest in this as it’s drawn by Tony Shasteen, who produced a couple of awesome illustrations for two short stories of mine.)

Since then I’ve visited Castle Rock and Derry on a regular basis. I’ve trekked through Mid-World with Roland and his buddies. I’m a true fan. When Mr King writes his introductions dedicated to his Constant Reader, I know he’s talking to me. So am I excited about his new novel Under the Dome being published next month? You bet your boots!

>Opening the 8mm archive

>As threatened, here are a couple of bits of animation from those scratchy old 8mm movies I used to make back in the ’80s. Since taking these first tentative steps I’ve had the joy of producing rather slicker pieces of work using pixels rather than plasticene. But hey, we all start somewhere!

First up is the epic opening shot of Matt Line Tidies Up the Universe, as detailed in my earlier post 8mm planetary approach

… followed by the previously mentioned demonic dressing gown from Fever.

>Dig the demonic dressing gown

>One of my earliest adventures in fantasy film-making was the epic Fever, made in collaboration with my long-time buddy Phil Tuppin. It was a four-minute horror movie made with a Standard-8mm clockwork camera and entered for the BBC’s Screen Test Young Film-Makers of the Year competition. And, yes, it actually got broadcast in the Highly Commended category, although they censored the second half for fear it would “give younger viewers the heeby-jeebies”!

The key special effect in this epic is a shot of a demonic dressing gown crawling across a boy’s bedroom floor, shortly before throttling said boy (who’s lying unconscious in bed with a fever) to death. We did it using good old stop-motion animation. Each frame, I extricated myself from behind the camera, picked my way across the room without disturbing any of the artfully-arranged props, moved the gown the requisite inches, then clambered back out of shot ready for Phil to click the shutter. Our rudimentary lighting apparatus meant all this was done under the searing glare of bare 200W bulbs positioned close enough to our faces to act as sunlamps. Back-breaking stuff, but so rewarding to see it all come to life when we got the processed film back from Kodak a fortnight later – yes, this was pre-video and definitely pre-digital.

Most of the other gown shots were puppeteered with garden canes taped into the arms. But that hero shot of the thing crawling across the floor was a real winner. Once again, sadly, I’m posting before sorting out screen grabs from the DVD transfers of these ancient movies (see my previous post 8mm planetary approach), so stand by for a bumper crop of stills soon!

>8mm planetary approach

>I’ve always been into visual effects in the movies. I have whole shelves full of ”Making Of’ books and a pile of Cinefex magazines that may soon collapse under its own gravity. What better place to recall some of my own humble efforts at emulating the FX masters than this blog?

I made my first SF spectacular as a teenager – along with my good friends Phil and Andy. Called Matt Line Tidies Up The Universe, it was filmed using the miracle of plasticene animation in glorious Super-8mm. The opening shot of Matt Line shows our hero’s spaceship (constructed by yours truly out of left-over Airfix kit parts) approaching the planet on which the beautiful Princess Arriflex is being held prisoner by the Evil Lord Multiplane.

In true Cinefex style, I’ll tell you how the shot was achieved. We waited until after dark to get a true blackout, then hung the ship on black cotton out in Phil’s back yard. We lit it with a single 200W bulb and shot it in the top half of the frame with a slow, steady zoom out. We then (a terrifying process this) took the film cassette out of the camera and wound it back using a temperamental cranking device. Next step was to point the camera at a previously-prepared photo of the Earth from an astronomy book, only we put a red gel over the lens to make it look all alien and, well, red. By positioning the planet in the bottom half of the shot, we made sure it didn’t overlap with the ship.

So there you go. A simple double exposure. Stationary planet, judicious use of zoom to give the ship the illusion of movement. Bingo!

I don’t visit YouTube much but when I do I’m amazed at the technical skill of some of the amateur film-makers out there. However, nostalgia dictates that I should call the old 8mm generation to arms and celebrate the good old days. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my share of animation using CGI software and non-linear editing. I love the new ways. The joke is that half the rigs I’ve built in 3DSMax are virtual replicas of the kind of string-and-sealing-wax affairs we used to build in the old days.

More 8mm FX memories to come include the Demonic Dressing Gown, Tyrell Corp Homage and What Bleach Does To Kodachrome. If you’re lucky, I’ll dig out some stills!

>Masquerade remembered

>For all of you who, like me, once tried to fathom the secrets of a book called Masquerade by Kit Williams, check out this story on the Guardian website. Masquerade contained elaborate picture puzzles with a trail of clues leading to buried treasure. Apparently, Kit’s finally been reunited with the golden hare that captured the world’s imagination thirty years ago.

For trivia fans, a few years ago I had the pleasure of working with an extraordinarily talented artist called Steve Pearce, who was the winner of Kit’s second book-based competition. This time the challenge was not only to find out what the title of the book was (the cover had a blank space where the title should have been), but to represent it in as creative a way as possible. Steve built a beautiful mechanical contraption to do just that and walked away with the prize. There’s a picture of it here.

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