Friday, May 16, 2014

Best thing since

I thought we had this one. I thought, in this raw decaying whirlwind of America, amidst the evolution deniers and the texting drivers and the vaccine conspiracy theorists, that there was one thing that we, as a society, had down pat. We'd figured it out; everyone could agree. I found comfort in that fact when I could find comfort in no others.

These are two adjacent slices from a loaf of Arnold's Whole Grain Country White Bread. They are not the same width. I haven't seen the Whole Grain Country White Bread episode of How It's Made, so I can't begin to guess how a technology I thought had been tuned to a cinnamon hum might have slipped its gears. I wouldn't have guessed that independently adjustable slice width would even be built into the machine that cuts the loaves, or, having been built in, that it might be misadjusted without anyone noticing. But it was, and it was, and here we are, making a sandwich with unmatched slices of bread.

Way to go, America.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My reaction to the Episode VII cast announcement

Yesterday, announced most of the main cast of Episode VII. In addition to the six returning regulars (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker), they named seven new cast members: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow. A lot of fans greeted this announcement with disappointment, chiefly because they announced only one new female lead. I understood that response, but I didn't share it — not because I don't share the desire for more female characters in the Star Wars universe, but because I didn't see quite the same announcement they did. In fact, I saw the possibility of an excitingly diverse cast and a cause for celebration (yub-yub), not outrage.

Before I explain, I should point out that an incomplete cast list is a terrible way to judge the diversity of a film. What matters much more is how the characters are used. If you were to look at the cast list for Alien without knowing anything about the script, you'd see a sausage-fest of six men and two women; you'd have no way to know that Ellen Ripley would dominate the story — and go on to become one of the most iconic heroines of science fiction to boot. My advice would be to wait until more information is available before giving in to disappointment (or excitement, for that matter). Failing that, read on.

One bit of information that got lost in the excitement of the cast announcement was the fact that casting is not complete. The official casting call included "a second young female, also late teens, tough, smart and fit" — and, unofficially, biracial — which is probably the part Lupita Nyong'o and Maisie Richardson-Sellers were/are in consideration for. After the irked response to the casting announcements, sources clarified that this is indeed still an uncast role, which fits with reports from a few days ago that Abrams still had casting duties to finish before filming begins in a couple of weeks.

Taking this as gospel, that leaves us with six original cast members and eight newcomers. Abrams had little to no control over the genders of the original cast, so let's leave them alone and make some guesses about the newbies. Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is King of Motion Capture; we can guess that he'll be playing a CGI alien of some sort, which could make the question of his gender and ethnicity approximately as relevant as Mayhew's. It's been widely speculated that Adam Driver will play a villain, which is also a likely bet for Max von Sydow, who could be following in the distinguished footsteps of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. If true, that gives us two white dudes as villains, and leaves us with five likely heroes in the core cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and an unnamed biracial woman.

That's a black dude, a white woman, a hispanic dude, a white dude, and a biracial woman as the five core heroes of a Star Wars movie — maybe. Leaving aside my excitement about the specific actors cast in those roles (and I have a lot of excitement about John Boyega after Attack the Block) that looks to me like a laudably diverse main cast. (Boyega is getting top billing, too, if that means anything.) If we go on to consider that Ridley's character is rumored to be the daughter of Han and Leia (which nails down her ethnicity pretty tightly), and maybe toss in my pet theory that von Sydow is a holdout Imperial officer (which means old white dude), it looks to me like Abrams chose diversity where he could, and where many directors would not have.

Do I know that all of my guesses and inferences are correct? Of course not; there's still plenty of room to be disappointed. And there's no way Abrams will get all the way to equal gender representation, which is the ultimate goal. But I suspect, when the first trailers are released, we're going to wonder what all the fuss was about, and either give Abrams a thumbs-up for expanding the diversity of the Star Wars universe or find something new to complain about.

(I know where I'm putting my money.)


Friday, January 31, 2014

The default

So: Alex Dally Macfarlane wrote a post on in which she suggested that science fiction maybe might stop defaulting to a gender binary. (Go read that essay first if you haven't; it's pretty good, and the first in a series.) Presumably she looked at the world around her, saw that lots of people aren't happy checking the "male" or "female" tickyboxes anymore, and began wondering why she couldn't look around, say, the Enterprise and see the same kind of variety. Predictably, I guess, various people, including a successful writer of testosterone-soaked formula urban fantasy, replied, "OO ARG WHY ARE YOU KILLING SCIENCE FICTION?!?" (I know he is successful because he makes a point of telling us in his response.) Jim C. Hines then interlinearly lampooned Brick Hardmeat's response, and Mr. Rockgroin re-lampooned him, and then I got dizzy and had to sit down for a while.

My one small, unremarked contribution to the conversation, which I left in the comments on, was to suggest that maybe the "OO ARG!" apeshitters, like Mr. Hardcheese and the fellow on Tor's Facebook page who called Macfarlane an "idiotic woman who thinks everyone should put more 'genders' in their SF or else," don't actually understand what Macfarlane meant when she used the word "default":

Some people seem to be reading this fairly modest proposal as more radical than I think it is. If I can attempt an analogy without putting words in Alex's mouth:

Once upon a time, "white" was the default in science fiction. (Some might say it still is, but that's a different discussion.) Despite the fact that the world at the time was filled with people of color, when people imagined the future the default assumption was that the characters would be white. Not everyone, and not every work, but that was the default assumption, and if you did something else people would likely say you were doing something different or daring or radical. Nyota Uhura was a big deal.

If someone had posted, on the hand-mimeographed blogs of the day, "I want an end to the default of white people in science fiction stories," would any of us, today, find anything the least bit objectionable there? I hazard that "white folks should be the default for science fiction" sounds outmoded and offensive to everyone here. It's not a suggestion that nobody should ever write about white people, or even that there shouldn't be lots of stories about white people; just that, given the existence of people of color in the world of yesterday, it's pretty foolish to imagine that they'd be so darn hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow.

Today, the world is filled with vocal and visible intersex, genderfluid, trans, agender, genderqueer, and pangender people. It's pretty foolish to imagine that they'll be hard to find in the worlds of tomorrow—and yet they are. When we do find them, the author is often marked as doing something different or daring or radical, because the default state of the future, in contrast to the actual state of the present, is dual-gender.

Suggesting that we should rethink that default is not radical or mean or weird. It's not a call to reject every cisboy-meets-cisgirl story anyone writes in the future, or burn every book that fails to include an intersex person. It is—and again, I hope I'm not putting words in Alex's mouth—just a call to look at the world around us and question why today's actual, observable, awesome reality is not reflected in our predicted tomorrows.

That was all I wanted to say, but I figured I'd say it here as well.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Found fragment

Apparently I wrote this about seven months ago, then completely forgot about it. I wish I could remember what I was on.

fractious glittering of the sharded chandelier, gloaming red light puddling in canned-cranberry lumps in every corner. He was small like a sowbug, could have edged-muddled himself through the jungley ashed carpet to the crack beneath the door as she closed it, but he was pinned through the thorax by her perfume, wet and reeky. What webs were woven into the black flocked velvet wallpaper and the crocheted afghan? Her hair, that she curled around the fingers of too many hands?

"Welcome," the word pushed out between carmine teeth by a thick black liquid tongue. "I am the Decade."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Austin from Austin

Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist) sums up for me how I can appreciate derivative works and remixes and mash-ups while still finding very little to like in fanfic:

In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My buddy Burtt

Ben Burtt is one of my heroes. Apart from popularizing the Wilhelm Scream, he did sound design for all of the Star Wars films. He gave us Artoo's voice, Vader's breathing, the footsteps of AT-ATs. By embedding Lucas's fantastic, alien visuals in an organic bed of sound, he made the Star Wars universe feel real in a way no other fantasy world ever had. R2-D2 didn't just beep and bloop; he spoke, and his fans whirred, and his servos whined when the sands of Tatooine got into them. Ben Burtt gave Artoo life.

I wanted, in my own fumbling way, to honor Burtt in my Empire Uncut clip, so I did all of my own sound recording — no downloaded clips, no computer-generated sounds (though I did edit them electronically). Kat looped her own dialogue for Admiral Piett, since her face is visible on-screen, but everything else was me:

  • Vader's voice was my voice, slowed incrementally and filtered a bit.
  • Threepio's voice was my voice speeded up slightly. (Threepio was one of the first impressions I ever tried to do, when I was wee. "Artoo Detoo, you found a cigarette!")
  • Boba Fett had my voice as well, processed to sound like it was coming through a speaker.
  • The Executor's bridge hum was the whirring of my iMac.
  • Vader's breathing was me breathing through a snorkel, trimmed and spliced to match the timing of Vader's actual breathing.
  • The Star Destroyer's blasters started life as water in a steel bowl, struck by a spoon, with a lot of layering and flanging and whatnot. (Probably my least successful SF/X. I had high hopes. Ah well.)
  • The explosions were layered "bssh" mouth noises.
  • In the shot between Dengar and IG-88, there's a mechanical clattering in the right channel that I took to be IG-88's mechanisms. I replicated them with mouth noises.
  • I added a couple of subtle bloops for IG-88's "voice", which were really reversed kazoo noises put through a flanger.
  • When the Falcon is hit, the crash you hear is a slowed-down sample of some art supplies and rolls of tape pushed onto the floor.

It took hours of nudging and tweaking to get things sounding more or less right, and I'm sure I could have spent hours more. My first mix was overwhelmingly noisy; I had to dial back all of the background noises to 12% or 20% to make the ambience feel more or less natural. To make Piett's off-screen voice come out of the left channel, I had to export the audio to GarageBand and tweak it there, because iMovie doesn't handle channels (what, really?!?). But I'm very proud of the end result; listening to my clip with headphones will enhance the experience, not detract from it.

I spent the night before sound editing editing the video tracks, which went pretty smoothly — except for the green screen compositing. For the other five shots, it became clear quickly which take I wanted to use, and iMovie's clip editor made it easy to fine-tune the start and end of each clip. I just measured the frame count of each shot in the original, and made sure my shots had the same number of frames (although I extended the circular wipe a smidge, because it looked too fast otherwise). I have a continuity mismatch or two around Vader's movements, but (don't tell anyone) one of them's there in the original, too.

The green screen cockpit, though, was a nightmare. I had "hot spots" of light on the screen, which were washing out the green, and enough green on my actors to create artifacting on their heads. If I adjusted the color balance in iMovie to correct the problems, my asteroid field began to wash out, and eventually vanished altogether. Even worse, the camera I was using didn't have an exposure lock, so when everyone leaned out of frame the exposure compensated, changing all the values. The desaturated, blurry, noisy cockpit scene I have in the final cut — it looks like the Falcon is driving slowly through a blizzard — was the best I could achieve after about three hours of tweaking.

But that is part of the fun, isn't it? Making the best of the shots you have, no matter how meager, and calling the result good. After three nights of editing, I was ready to upload.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"The possibility of successfully filming a scene with these resources is approximately 3,720 to one!"

On Sunday, I whipped up a batch of ice-cold bantha milk, and my cast and crew got down to the business of making movie magic. We had a hoot and a half — maybe three quarters!

A communications snafu waylaid my Boba Fett (Trish), so we shot the cockpit scene first. I'd had a lot of fun assembling found objects to make something that would read on-screen like a cockpit — a soldering iron, some Christmas lights, a big military decade box, a couple of plastic pen carriers, and (as a nod to the Satellite of Love) a couple of spray paint caps. We wrapped my C-3PO (Herbert) in aluminum foil, dressed my Leia (Kat) and Han (Kendra) in their color-coded jackets, and convinced Rosie to lie on the floor and shake the Wookiee. ("I always knew my film debut would be on my back," she said.) They all crammed themselves into the cockpit and did their best Star Trek lean as the Falcon "was hit by lasers" and "avoided asteroids."

(Those two hot spots of light on the green screen will come back to bedevil me during editing. Live and learn.)

Boba had arrived by the time I got my shot, so we all trooped downstairs to the "Super Star Destroyer bridge" I'd turned my living room into, and my long-suffering actors suited up. Vader (Rosie) wore a black zentai hood and sunglasses that made her nearly blind; Dengar (Yossi) strapped a baking pan to his chest and stood on a rickety stool; the Imperial Trooper (Will) wore a bowl on his head. Boba Fett (Trish) and Admiral Piett (Kat) had less onerous costumes — though Boba did get cardboard pieces duct taped to her chest — and Herbert played puppeteer for IG-88.

Everyone did a bang-up job. Vader hit her mark every time, despite being unable to see. IG-88's head turned just like it was supposed to. Boba Fett slouched to make Vader look taller. Dengar really stepped up — literally, since he had to stand on a stool to make it look like he and IG-88 were looking down from a raised walkway. (It's a shame that only his midriff appears in the scene, since his costume was surprisingly successful.) Imperial Trooper Will, apart from having the perfect slightly confused military-stern expression of an Imperial Trooper, offered deep insights into Star Wars character motivations. Admiral Piett held Vader's train as IG-88 presided over her marriage to Boba Fett:


I spent most of the shoot standing on my coffee table, directing people and framing up shots in the viewscreen of Kat's little camera. (My camera doesn't shoot HD video.) I learned I'm better at building things to go in front of the camera than I am at standing behind it — I don't worry about foam core and duralar getting impatient with me. But I got all four of my shots, and even though nobody drank the bantha milk the peanut gallery seemed duly impressed: