Annihilation

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“It’s making something new.” So says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) about the alien infestation occupying an area of coastal swampland in Annihilation. ‘Something new’ is exactly what writer-director Alex Garland has delivered, in his adaptation of the acclaimed science fiction novel by Jeff Vandermeer.

I read the novel a few years ago, shortly after it won the 2014 Nebula Award and some time before it was announced that a film was in the offing. In his strange tale about a party of unnamed scientists exploring Area X, a restricted zone that may or may not have been contaminated by an otherworldly presence, Vandermeer serves up a banquet in which every dish is full of extraordinary flavours, yet somehow you’re never quite sure about what it is you’re eating. You’re grasping, constantly, for a meaning that always eludes you, yet somehow this is never frustrating. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s the only meal I’ve ever eaten where I’ve ended full to bursting, yet hungry for more.

Annihilation posterIf you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said the novel was unfilmable. To my delight, Alex Garland has no truck with that notion. Structuring the human stories in  way that’s accessible to a movie audience, he’s mapped a narrative course that provides the sense of resolution that the novel deliberately avoids, without losing any of the tantalising weirdness. Right at the end, there’s even a suggestion this film is but one facet of the growing body of work that Garland began with his cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina.

Portman leads magnificently, but her co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac are as immersed in their roles as their characters are immersed in Area X. However, it’s with its visuals that the film shine – often quite literally. I frequently couldn’t tell where Rob Hardy’s caustic cinematography left off and Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects took over. From the soap bubble glare of the ‘shimmer’ – a kind of barrier that conceals Area X from the outside world – to the bizarre flora and fauna beyond, Annihilation brings you the very best kind of sights: those you’ve never seen before.

Best of all, Alex Garland isn’t afraid to celebrate the strange. The film’s climax builds around a decidedly peculiar encounter with something that almost makes sense, yet which you know is just a tantalising glimpse of something ineffable. Throughout, Garland allows his camera to linger on some of the most intriguing images I’ve ever seen in cinema. Even after just one viewing, I’m convinced Annihilation belongs among the sci-fi greats. Am I overstating it? I don’t think so.

It’s a shame the film didn’t get a theatrical release outside the U.S., where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Everywhere else it’s on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is fine, and my TV screen was big enough to give me a reasonable sense of what it might be like to venture into Area X. Still, given Garland’s penchant for holding the camera back and offering long, wide views of remarkable things, I’d love to see Annihilation on the big screen.

“Alien: Covenant” Crew Remembers “Alien”

The xenomorph returns in Alien: Covenant

While researching my upcoming Cinefex article on Alien: Covenant, I spoke at length with supervisors in the visual effects, creature effects, and special effects departments. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question:

“What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?”

As a long-time fan of the film, I had a hunch that most people just can’t shake off the effects of early exposure to Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi horror movie. We never forget what we see in the shadows as a kid, right? As for those darned facehuggers … they do have a tendency to cling.

Was my hunch right? Head over to the Cinefex blog now and wallow in the reminiscences of visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, creature effects designer Conor O’Sullivan, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and many, many more.

The Picture Strikes Back

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Rummaging through the attic, I came across this half-finished painting. I started it in 1983, but despite an initial youth-fueled burst of enthusiasm, never summoned the energy to complete the damn thing.

If you’re a movie buff or science fiction fan, you’ll see immediately that it’s a hodge-podge of ships and characters from popular films including Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, oh, and many, many more. The idea was to grab all my favourites of the day, and crash them together in an imaginary spaceport setting.

As with its predecessor The Picture, this concept allowed me to create all kinds of amusing juxtapositions, like King Kong trying to climb aboard Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge, or Darth Vader queueing in line between snake-dancing replicant Zhora and Flash Gordon (strolling in black-and-white among his Technicolor companions). The giant departure boards promise trips to destinations ranging from Alderaan to Krypton, Golgafrincham to Riverworld. The night sky is crowded with flying vehicles fighting for airspace, from the USS Enterprise to the Discovery … and is that really an Arrakis sandworm rearing up in front of the Tyrell Corporation’s pyramid headquarters?

If I did ever take a paintbrush to The Picture Strikes Back again – an unlikely prospect – the hard part wouldn’t be picking up where I left off. Nor would it be correcting some of the distinctly dodgy figure work. It would be resisting the urge to add in all the memorable characters and funky pieces of sci-fi hardware that have popped up in the intervening years. Believe me, that’s a long list. No, I think my only solution would be to complete the painting as it stands – as a kind of nostalgic time capsule locked in a bygone age.

My biggest fear is, if I did finish it, I might then feel compelled to start a third piece of artwork, just to bring things bang up to date.

Return of the Picture, anyone?

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Wasteland Transaction

"Wasteland Transaction" by Graham Edwards

This sketch is called Wasteland Transaction, but I’ve no idea what the transaction actually involves. Is the woman who’s rolled up in the crazy off-road vehicle handing something up to the guy in the post-apocalyptic lookout post? Or is he handing something down to her? What exactly does that ornate-looking box contain anyway? I don’t know, but I have narrowed it down to the following shortlist:

"Wasteland Transaction" work in progress

“Wasteland Transaction” work in progress

  • The dusty remains of two very small stone tablets
  • A map showing the way to Shangri-La
  • A list of nomadic warlords slated for assassination
  • The driver’s lunch

Whatever’s in the box, one thing’s for sure. I wouldn’t have drawn this had I not recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road on Blu-ray.

Lana in Orbit

"Lana in Orbit" by Graham Edwards

Sometimes when you sketch you screw things up. This was meant to be a drawing of a ship called Liana, which features in a half-abandoned manuscript that’s currently gathering dust on my hard drive. Just before finishing the sketch, I decided to print the name of the ship on those pod-like things running down the side, only to find there were only four pods. So I changed the name to Lana. Actually, I like that more. Call it serendipity. Or a flagrant disregard for continuity.

"Lana in Orbit" work in progress

“Lana in Orbit” work in progress

That propeller-like thing on the back is the ship’s star drive, by the way. In the story it’s called the “twister”. I daresay it’s a name that’s been used before in science fiction, but I like the happy collision of it being an accurate descriptor (the propeller-thing spins like a demon when the star drive kicks in) and a thinly-veiled reference to The Wizard of Oz.

“Alien Outpost” – Cinefex Blog

Alien Outpost

This month on the Cinefex blog, I interviewed filmmaker Jabbar Raisani about his feature directorial debut, the low-budget sci-fi thriller Alien Outpost.

Filmed in South Africa on a budget of under $5 million, the movie is a mock military documentary chronicling the fortunes of a squad of near-future soldiers as they mop up the planet after an alien invasion. In the article, Raisani talks about the genesis and production of the project, as well as revealing some of the secrets behind its special and visual effects – a cunning blend of digital artifice and traditional monster movie techniques.

In this extract from the article, Raisani describes how the design of the alien “Heavies” evolved:

Production designer Eddie Yang was responsible for the overall look of the film, from the run-down Outpost 37, around which much of the action is centred, to the alien Heavies and their associated technology. For the Heavies specifically, Yang worked hand-in-hand with Steve Wang, who led the Stan Winston Studio design team behind the iconic alien hunter in Predator.

Yang and Wang turned to a number of reference sources for the aliens, including video games and films, as well as nature. “We looked at a lot of reptilian photographs,” commented Raisani, “particularly turtles and lizards – they were a big inspiration for the Heavy.”

While the designers explored a number of radical body shapes, the final Heavy design was a more conventional, lizard-like biped. “We tried something with multiple legs,” said Raisani. “We even had one whose bottom part was a snake. But ultimately I knew I wanted a guy in a suit. I come from a practical effects background, so I know that doing it that way is very cost-effective in the places where you can get away with it. Also, if you have the suit there in the plate, it’s perfect lighting reference.”

Initial Heavy designs took the form of sketches in both 2D and 3D, with the designers working primarily in Photoshop and ZBrush. From there, the team at Alliance Studios – a creature and make-up effects company newly set up by Yang and Wang – sculpted the creature in clay and took moulds. “They pulled foam rubber suits from the mould, and then airbrushed them,” Raisani explained. “The suit had a self-actuating jaw, which attached directly to the jaw of the suit performer, Doug Tate. When Doug opened his mouth, the mouth opened; when he closed his mouth, it closed.”

Interstellar – Film Review

Interstellar

Make no mistake, Interstellar is a big film. Big ideas, big images, big heart, all driven by the big ambitions of writer/director Christopher Nolan.

Interstellar takes what might, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, have been a too-familiar series of science fiction tropes (doomed Earth, maverick ex-pilot, the perils and wonders of space) and spins them into a galaxy-spanning epic that delivers not only eye-popping visions of interstellar travel, but profoundly moving moments of human emotional truth.

Did I say “big”? Strike that, this film is immense.

The sequences set in space, or on alien planets – and there are a lot of these – are breathtaking. Dramatic and beautiful, and oh, thank god, Nolan is ready to let his camera linger on that beauty. Forget the era of fast-cut shaky-cam. Here at last is a filmmaker who’s happy once more to say, “Look at this, and be awed.”

Don’t take the word of a self-professed science fiction geek. My wife, whose eyes usually glaze over when I tell her the film has spaceships in it, was wowed by Interstellar’s panoramic visions of Saturn and all that lies beyond. That the film spoke with equal power to someone like her, and someone like me, is remarkable.

The same is true for Interstellar’s human dimension. Each of us each made powerful emotional connections with entirely different aspects of the narrative. My daughter connected with something different again. I’m talking real tears here, myself included.

So never mind the spectacle. Never mind the extraordinary, redemptive qualities of the film’s closing twenty minutes, which justify all the harrowing – and frequently desperate – drama that precedes them. Somehow, Nolan has managed to forge a film that speaks to many hearts, on many levels, simultaneously.

Are there gripes amid all this gushing? Well, there are always gripes. There’s a major plot point that simply isn’t adequately explained. Being a geek, I pieced it together readily enough but a little extra exposition wouldn’t have gone amiss. And I can’t decided whether the frostiness between two of the leads was deliberate, or down to a lack of chemistry. Knowing Nolan, it was almost certainly the former, but I’d have like to see a few more sparks flying.

These are tiny things. Raise the bar as high as Nolan has, and you’re going to make it wobble as you clear it. But clear it he does. In any case, the tiny things don’t matter.

Because this film is big.

Doctor Who – Behind the Scenes on the Cinefex Blog

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You can always rely on Doctor Who to serve up ambitious special effects. So far this season, the long-running BBC TV show has featured clockwork robots, running space battles, a telepathic alien and a 200-foot T-Rex rampaging through Victorian London.

I recently went behind the scenes on Doctor Who for the Cinefex blog, to talk with Rob Mayor of Millennium FX, who provide the creature and makeup effects, and Will Cohen and Murray Barber of Milk VFX, creators of the show’s visual effects.

Here’s a brief extract from the article:

The Half-Face Man was realised through a combination of prosthetics and visual effects.

“We all quickly realised that he was going to be a mix of CG and practical prosthetics,” said Rob Mayor. “Obviously, to see right inside the head, we couldn’t just utilise prosthetics on the actor — who was the brilliant Peter Ferdinando — so we created a textured foam latex version of the metal framework. Over the top and around the edge of this we applied a silicone appliance to give the appearance of ripped skin. Milk then used the framework as a rough starting point for the internal elements. These elements were sculpted by Reza Karim.”

Tracking markers on Ferdinando’s face and hat allowed Milk artists to line up their CG model with the prosthetic-enhanced face of the actor. The mechanically-operated eye was animated by hand to match Ferdinando’s real eye.

“It’s just a very lovely visual concept, to be able to see through to the other side of him,” Will Cohen observed.

The VFX of “Snowpiercer” – Cinefex Blog

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Just published on the Cinefex blog is my Q&A with Eric Durst, Visual Effects Supervisor on Snowpiercer. In this science fiction film directed by Bong Joon-ho, a giant train circles an ice-locked, post-apocalyptic Earth on endless tracks. Its carriages contain a highly stratified society of survivors, from the working classes at the rear to the privileged bourgeoisie at the front. It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution.

In this short extract from the Q&A, Eric discusses the stunning underwater environment of the train’s Aquarium Car:

It was an interesting lighting challenge, with the water environment on one side and the window looking out on the frozen landscape at the other. Director of Photography Alex Hong had light travel through water trays on top of the aquarium structure. These refracted the light spilling on the actors, replicating the way light would react in an actual aquarium environment. This became a wonderful base to work with so the CG tank and fish could become integrated. Light streamed through the window in the Sushi Bar area, reinforcing the look of the ice and cold outside.

Mark Breakspear and his team in Vancouver really took on the challenge of creating this world, with many visits to the Vancouver Aquarium to study the fish, the lighting environments, the way the light refracted through the water and glass, along with how it distorted the fish as they passed. Many, many iterations of fish animation were produced to get the right quality of movement, along with the reactions of the fish to their surroundings and the humans observing them. Plants and greenery in the water swayed as fish passed, while an underlying vibration suggested the movement of the car over the tracks.

Birotech – “Limb”

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Here’s another of my Birotech doodles. Why “Birotech”? Because I draw them with a Bic biro.

It’s called “Limb” for no other reason than that it looks like some kind of robot arm. Maybe. The truth is I’ve no idea what it is, any more than I knew what my previous drawing in this series was: Station. All I know is, on the rare occasion I get a Sunday afternoon to myself, I’m slowly rediscovering the simple satisfaction of drawing for no other reason than to please myself.

Below are the work-in-progress snapshots. I tweeted these as I went along, inviting people to guess at the strange mechanism’s purpose. Among the answers I got were: Portable Microwave Weaponry; Hover Vehicle-Mounted Lighting Rig; and Fully Operational Death Dustbin!

Anybody got any better ideas?

 

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