Harry Potter in Space

I’m intrigued by high concepts. Especially in film. I don’t understand the film industry but in my mind there’s corridors of suited execs at Warner Bros, Fox etc babbling away in an extremely clipped vocabulary all of their own.

I also want to imagine that they are similar to the waxy haired execs in American Psycho. All chisel-featured and clad neck to toe in Armani. Referring to one another by their surname and proudly brandishing their latest business cards.

Tossers, in any other language.

Thoroughly uncreative, bean-counting tossers who can only process their corporate life by way of their adopted language rich with its buzzwords and bullshit.

A typical executive corridor at Warner Bros

“Hey, Jenson. Did you hear the latest?”
“Hey, Bradowski. Which latest is that?”
“They took a new concept in late last night.”
“I heard, what was it again? Had a late one at Brown’s last night. My head’s a little west right now.”
“Harry Potter…. in SPACE!”
“Jesus, that rocks. Who’ve they got earmarked for that one?”
“Well, funny you should mention it but they put my name forward…”

It’s as sickening to read as it is to write.

So after watching the short but highly satisfying Lights Out the other evening, I thought about high concepts that are purely in video form.

Lights Out was originally conceived as a short film. A concept piece. Just a few minutes long and pretty creepy. Everything you’d want to see in the full length film was portrayed right there.

And here it is.

http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/File:Lights_Out_2013

Easily the creepiest 3 minutes I’ve seen in a long time.

If you were to present this to a studio I’m pretty sure you’d be met by a couple of distinct reactions.

  1. That’s pretty awesome
  2. How in hell am I gonna stand in the corridor and talk to other suits about this?

I like the concept a lot. It inspires me to think differently about a story. It also encourages me to go back and look at stories that I’ve enjoyed to see if I can condense them into 3 minutes of film.

There’s more to the Lights Out movie than just flicking the light on and off. But not much more. It’s wrapped up in backstory of mental health and experimentation-gone-wrong. But essentially it’s all about keeping the lights on at all costs. I find that very attractive as a writer.

Lights Out Movie

So I relaxed with a glass of red and a movie last night. My intention was to switch off but instead I found myself making notes as the film unfolded. The film in question was last year’s Lights Out.

It’s a short film at just over 80 minutes. I don’t think it needed to be much longer than that. Everything that needed saying was said well enough in that time.

What’s more there’s really only a handful of characters to cling to. This I liked.

Maria Bello

Sophie (played by the always lovely Maria Bello, whom I recently saw and enjoyed in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) is the central character. Her troubled childhood and constant struggles with her mental health form the backstory and provide us with our antagonist, Diana.

Diana, only visible in the darkness

So it’s Diana that gives us all the scares and provides us with an intriguing hook. What I liked here was that the initial events in the film gave me something to immediately care about. Albeit in the form of ‘what the fuck is going on?’

Diana is a malevolent spirit that has latched onto Sophie. Sophie is very much alive, Diana isn’t.

The backstory explains how Diana came to be the dark spirit and involves experiments and rare skin disorders. Since this was 80 minutes of research I found myself noting down rather a lot of backstory. Perhaps the whole kid-with-a-skin-condition thing could have been implied somehow. I don’t know. It seemed to occupy a fair bit of screen time evaluating how Diana came to be.

Regardless, it was effective and we are left with a suitably shifty and sinister ‘bad guy’.

So Diana can only be seen and can only be active in the darkness. If confronted by said spirit, simply flick a light on.

All too easy, right? Wrong. Diana appears to have some sway over the power situation and can disable the lights. Even lighting a fire doesn’t appear to work for too long.

Whatever, the point of the scare dynamics is that dark = bad, light = good. It makes the film uncomplicated and easy to watch.

Because the cast was pretty light I found myself actually caring about them all. Rebecca, Sophie’s daughter, and her brother Martin seem to be always in the thick of it. Naturally looking out for one another whilst trying to ‘fix’ their mother.

Rebecca’s boyfriend Bret plays his role, also.

But Sophie has problems. She has serious mental health issues. Always has, by the looks of it. When she’s taking her meds Diana doesn’t trouble anyone. When she’s off the meds, Diana causes havoc.

A simple dynamic. Stay on yer meds, Mother!

But of course Sophie doesn’t want to be the nutcase. She wants to be clean and free of the meds so occasionally lapses. She’s weak. Ultimately that weakness tells as she sacrifices herself for the sake of her children. With Sophie gone, Diana is gone. Apparently.

So after 80 minutes I was left feeling reasonably satisfied by the story and suitably buoyed into adding a little more to my own creepy ghost story.

The dynamic of weird shit existing in the darkness only to vanish with the lights on isn’t terribly original. But it was quite satisfyingly executed.

It felt a lot like a college film. An independent kid’s project that had received some Hollywood funding. It also echoed the creepy turn of the century Japanese horror that gave us Ring and Dark Water. No bad thing.

I think the point (if there needs to be one) that I’m trying to arrive at here is that you don’t need buckets of dollars to make an effective movie. You just need a captivating story and the ability to communicate it while the camera’s rolling.

 

How To Relax And Stay Sane With Writing

I am utterly hopeless at relaxation.

There is always something right there in the back of my mind to chip and chip and dig away at me. I’ve tried everything, except class A drugs. Still, I’m haunted by this spectre of anxiety.

Part of the problem is that I both need and reject routine.
Routine works in that it helps to achieve the basic task of completing the day.
But I hate it. I hate predictable.

The turmoil that this presents to me is unimaginable.

Something that I used to enjoy was the early morning routine of waking, coffee and writing. That is one routine that I found rewarding and cathartic. I’d often wake with an idea for something; a seed. Something that I could run with for an hour. I could easily write a couple of pages of rough copy.

If I had a plan for a story I could write pretty clean copy. If I had the characters well defined in my mind I could sail through the hour and resent having to shower and leave the house.

So, for me, sanity and relaxation comes in the form of being constructive with my creativity. Art and drawing work but they aren’t nearly as rewarding to me as writing.

There are things that I can ‘say’ with such condensed writing that I’d struggle to get down with a drawing.

So, with my head geared toward making some subtle life changes, I intend to write more. I am a huge fan of journaling; the merits of which are well documented. Writing both deeply personal and more expressive copy are to be a welcome (re)addition to my daily schedule.

The fact that I then shower, dress and leave to work as a web developer for 6 hours is a minor annoyance. But having had that moment to write and reflect my thoughts before the sun rises is valuable to me. No distractions, just words.

I’ve kept a journal for a couple of years. I write everything in there. It’s private and contains things that are a spewing of my emotions. There’s anger, love, frustration and creativity in there. There’s a ton of stuff in there. I just write it out.

Every once in a while I re-read certain elements of it. But I never delete it.

Some days there’s little to discern the personal journal from the prose I’m attempting to write.

So my morning routine, such that it is, will now be wake, coffee, write, bathroom, work.

The ‘write’ part is key to establishing my mood for the day.

I will ask myself the question ‘how do I feel?’

The answer to this will most likely be another question – ‘what do I want to achieve today?’, ‘what did I achieve yesterday?’, ‘how can I be amazing today?’

What I don’t want to focus on is the misery, the anger, the frustration.

 

Just Writing

I’ve been looking through some past writing projects over the weekend. It’s great to re-read shelved material with fresh eyes several months or even years down the line.

A couple of projects stood out. They weren’t finished but were certainly in a great place to be picked up and fleshed out.

Writing is an entirely different discipline to illustrating. At least, it is for me. When I’m writing there’s no music and no distractions. Library conditions all the way.

With illustration I can happily have the music at volume 10, the TV on in the background and the kids running around the house.

So the best time in the day for me to write is first thing in the morning, which is usually 6:30am. Minutes after waking up I have a coffee prepared and the Mac fired up. I tend not to be a note taker. I’d much rather try and keep an idea alive in my mind. If it sticks then I’ll write it. If it doesn’t stick I generally assume it wasn’t such a great idea.

This morning I started writing. I took the first dozen or so pages of a previous project and started from there. Pretty much continuing the story with no regard for what was already written. An extremely valuable exercise.

After an hour I stopped writing. I didn’t read through my work and won’t until tomorrow. Then I picked up another unfinished project and did the same. I wrote for an hour (or thereabouts) and stopped. The stories are quite different but because my mind was in author’s mode, it was really quite straight forward.

I guess the thing I struggle with the most, even with silence and a clear head, is finding my voice. There’s little worse than having some great ideas and not being able to articulate them in a readable or professional style.

It’s not writer’s block. That’s just a severe drought of ideas. I have plenty of ideas but don’t, perhaps, have my brain switched on to be able to write them ‘cleanly’.

Once upon a time this would have meant ‘down tools’ and come back when I’m able to write in the correct way.

But now I just write it. As I’m writing I may be aware that what I’m writing is badly presented, but the content, the actual story is exactly what I want to say.
This is a huge thing and having that luxury of being able to revisit work a little further down the line means that I can then adapt the writing to better fit my ‘voice’ or ‘style’.

There’s a lot to be said for ‘just writing’ and worrying about the style of the writing at a later date.

 

Vikings and Ragnar Lodbrok

I’m gripped by the History channel’s Vikings. As a nerd for Norse mythology it’s right up my street.

There’s something about the blend of characters that works just great for me. As with Game of Thrones, the central theme is control.

Though Ragnar himself is a fine and battle-hardened warrior he shows great empathy and cunning. As a farmer his natural instinct is toward land ownership, but he is also fascinated by foreign cultures. Something that lands him in a head-to-head conflict with his trusted (and balmy) friend, Loki.

What I love about this show is its grittiness. Like Game of Thrones it offers some fairly engaging battle sequences, though we tend to pull away from the pointy end making contact with somebody’s neck just moments before the ketchup gets spilled.

In many respects it’s Game of Thrones Lite.

The Vikings’ story is not nearly as intricate as the spaghetti threaded storylines of Westeros. But that’s no bad thing. Essentially it’s a story of family, pride and loyalty with the tantalising prospect of exploration and wealth from distant shores. Something that it shares in abundance with Game of Thrones.

Through the eyes of the central character, Ragnar, we see a different world to the world that we may automatically assume to be the one in which Vikings lived.

Ragnar is clever. Where most hot-headed Northmen may shoot (or swing) first and ask questions later, Ragnar thinks several shots ahead. An astute warrior with remarkable intuition and a strong sense of leadership. When his fighters have their backs against the wall and run out of options, he brilliantly conspires to rescue the situation. (Season 3 – Paris)

This depth of Ragnar Lodbrok’s character is exciting for a writer. While all around him is potential chaos, he sees a certain clarity that allows for smart and often informed decisions. His attachment to the gods fades over time thanks to his acceptance of a key figure from his first raid. This intrigue with foreign cultures that are alien to his inherent beliefs serves him well despite those amongst him taking great issue.

As a writer and keen storyteller the Vikings premise is a strong one. There’s plenty of conflict and plenty of character growth, but there’s also a healthy amount of intrigue and exploration.

The protagonists venture far beyond their comfort zone with no apparent fear of failure. The gods have their back and for those that die in battle, Valhalla awaits. Indeed this lack of fear for death (“for death has already been decided, so fight well”) is what gives the Northmen their edge. Whereas their enemy is often clad head to toe in steel armour, the Norse raiders wear hard leather and furs. The best form of defence? Don’t get hit. (C) Mr Myagi :)

I’m up to the first episodes of Series 4 just now. I recently read that the 5th series is in production with 16 planned episodes.

 

How does Stephen King write so many books so fast?

So this video on YouTube caught my attention.
It’s a great hour of TV where Stephen King and George RR Martin talk about their books, their lives and their work in general.

The time flies by and the interview (no audience participation here, just a conversation between these two guys) reveals a healthy amount of information.

But it’s the final question from Martin that captures my attention the most.

Martin – “How the fuck do you write so many books so fast?”

King’s response is perfect and probably underlines why, compared to Martin, he is so prolific.

It essentially boils down to a strong work ethic.

King reveals that he targets 6 pages a day. He’ll work for 3 to 4 hours every day and get those pages done and ‘clean’. I reckon clean means there’s little to go back on and play around with. He’s happy with the writing and the tone.

So, as King himself outlines, a 360 page manuscript would take him around 2 months.

60 days, 6 pages a day = 360 pages.

I wanted to think about this a little more.

6 pages could well be as much as 1,500 words.

You really have to know a) your craft and b) your characters and plot to achieve this to a high standard.

My follow up question to Stephen King here would be ‘how much time do you typically invest in research and planning for a 360 page novel?’

A generalised question, for sure, but one that may yield an answer worthy of repetition.

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a few years old just now but reveals a huge amount about the man, his life and his love for his craft.

stephen king photo

Stephen King

King is clearly an accomplished and gifted writer. But lordy he struggled early on. But persist, he did. And that persistence paid off. Once Carrie had landed things took off. But things also took a dive.

Drinking and a healthy amount of leaf intervened. The guy was off his box throughout the writing of Cujo, for example. As he himself confesses he pretty much doesn’t recall writing it.

Misery was written right around the time he was drinking and smoking morning, noon and night. Kathy Bates’ character (for the movie followers) a handy metaphor for the effects it was having on the writer.

But despite this King continued to hone his craft and create some memorable fiction.

What I glean from all of this is that Stephen King takes his inspiration from anywhere – his own life, somebody else’s life, a snippet of knowledge, something he’s seen – and crafts a story out of it.

Carrie is still my favourite. The payoff in the prom hall is not just exquisite prose but lent itself beautifully to the big screen. Both versions.

The key to the story was in King’s learning that sanitary towels are offered free to vend in the girl’s locker rooms in high school. That pivotal passage where the girls taunt Carrie White during her first period with the unforgettable ‘plug it up’ as they hurl tampons at her, was forged from that one snippet of information offered by his wife back in the early 1970s.

He used that knowledge to write a massively important part of a superb story. Crucially he’d defined with some clarity at least four of his key characters.

Carrie, the vulnerable, naive victim.
Chris, the vile ringleader and primary antagonist.
Sue, the popular but apparently human cheerleader and friend of Chris.
Rita, the gym teacher who empathises with Carrie and casts out Chris.

You just can’t sit and write this stuff on a whim. King absorbs knowledge and appears to let it sit in his head long enough for it to stick and mean something. If it’s a strong idea it’s too big to fall through the sieve with all the other tiny, rotten ideas.

My own writing has no discipline compared to what I’ve learned from Stephen King. Something I want to address.

I keep notes and snippets of information everywhere. I’ve probably lost or forgotten most of them.
But you know what, the good ideas, the ones I really give a damn about, they’re still there in the forefront of my mind. I can recall them and probably spend a good few hours fleshing them out.

With enough preparation I could probably write a couple of pages worth. Maybe 3 or 4. Do I really need to keep so many notes?
Probably not.
Just use my imagination, think a lot, think big, think different, see new stuff, stimulate the brain, experience shit (literally the shitty stuff) and remember it.

Thoughts on writing terror using Jaws and Alien as reference

I’ve been doing more writing than drawing lately.

Though I thoroughly enjoy writing for children I also have a keen interest in ghost stories and more adult literature. As a reader i’ve loved the works of King, Barker et al. When I was younger I read Koontz and Herbert. All contemporaries and a huge influence on my creative style.

My own writing style leans more toward that of Lovecraft or M.R. James. Writing in the first person is something I find more comfort with. But I also love the idea of building tension around a concept that places the reader firmly in the point of view of the protagonist.

I drew these earlier.

witch3witch1 witch2

There’s a story here. An old woman, accused of witchcraft, burned at the stake. But she had the last laugh and returned to claim her accusers as victims.

A familiar formula for a horror story but something I wanted to add my own spin to.

So I found myself with a simple concept and a ‘monster’. But how to make that monster most effective? How to build terror without actually revealing the monster?

I looked to film and chose Jaws and Alien. Popular films classed not necessarily as horror but unmistakably horrific in their execution.

Both had similarities – victims falling to an attacker that is considerably more comfortable in their environment than their prey. I loved this dynamic.

In order to defeat the shark in Jaws the protagonists had to enter the shark’s domain; the ocean. Worse still the shark is the most adept killer on the planet and the Great White shark the ultimate deep sea predator. There’s an enormous sense of mystery about the shark and the sea provides that perfect barrier between ‘us’ and ‘it’.

Above the waves we stand a chance but once we’re in the water our chances are reduced considerably.

The Xenomorph in Alien presents a similar threat. A perfectly adept predator shrouded in mystery. Not only can it hunt with tremendous efficiency it also has a pretty handy defence mechanism – acid blood.

The alien stalks the cramped corridors of the Nostromo with ease. When it needs to it can also navigate its way through the ventilation chambers. As with the shark it surprises its prey and dispatches them quickly and brutally.

Both films give us clues both visually and audibly.

In Jaws we have the inevitable dorsal fin cutting the waves and, of course, the remarkable soundtrack. In Alien we have the clever dynamic of the motion sensor which gives us both a visual and audible representation of the alien’s location.

Reacting and fleeing from both scenarios seems futile. Rather a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ you are going to be attacked. But crucially it’s the ‘how’ you’re going to be attacked that presents the biggest chill.

In both cases you’re attacked by teeth. The shark in Jaws is essentially an enormous mouth of teeth that swims. In Alien the attack comes from a ludicrously telescopic maw. Horrendous.

For my own story I’ve taken some of these dynamics and interpreted them. The predator’s environment is a dark place. The predator’s eyes were burned out such that her sense of hearing is perfect. If you make the slightest sound she’ll be onto you. If you’re unfortunate enough to fall into her lair you’ll need something to light your way or tripping, stumbling and making a noise are inevitable.
Of course the predator is blind so shining a light is no problem. But that also allows us to get close to revealing our monster without there being any threat. That in itself is chilling for one wrong move and the protagonist becomes the prey in an instant.

The nature of the attack in my story also involves teeth. But it doesn’t leave the victim fighting for their life. It merely blinds them. This is where I can introduce the potential for a secondary threat – dogs. Rabid ones at that. With no sight the victims are easy prey.

I like the notion of this two-tiered threat. One hunter paralyses you and the other finishes you off.

The former attack I’d likely reveal but the latter may be purely dealt with as suggestion. It is after all far more horrific to the modern audience to be attacked and blinded than to be devoured by animals – a ten-a-penny shock.

So this writing continues. I take myself away for a well earned short break next week where I’ll be putting more work into the story.

 

 

 

 

 

Concept art for a children’s picture book about a pet dinosaur

I’m currently working with a children’s author to bring a fantastic story about a young boy and his pet Tyrannosaur to life. I’ve used Mischief to form the concepts and Corel Painter to produce the finished work.

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Book cover concept drawn with Corel Painter

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Concepts created using Mischief

I think it’s fair to say that some of those pieces won’t feature :) Great fun creating them though.

I used the T-Rex from Jurassic Park as reference for the more detailed / less cartoon-like shots. I guess if you’re going to have a dinosaur as a pet you really should have the most fearsome of all!

We’re hoping to have the work completed and self-published for christmas.

Stanley and his pet T-Rex

The wonderful thing about writing stories is that you can be ridiculous.
My son is a proper livewire and has no apparent sense of danger. So it makes perfect sense that he should befriend a T-Rex from baby to fully grown terrifying carnivore.

Imagine the fun that could be had if such a friend went to school with him :)

Here’s a quick concept sketched using Mischief.

concept