It's 1996, and I'm 15 years old. Back then, I spent all of my time dreaming up stories, and drawing, constantly drawing. I drew on envelopes, newspapers, schoolbooks, even exam papers. Iapetus arose on one of those exam afternoons.
It was an English exam, on a really nice sunny afternoon. The exam hall, imaginatively called The Green Carpet Room - even though the carpet was now blue - was huge and fairly empty. This day it was rather peaceful, with the sunlight streaming in through the oppressively high windows. I finished the exam early, and instead of leaving the exam hall, I stuck around and started writing out a story. By the time I was ushered out with the rest of the students, I had furiously scribbled out 3 foolscap pages, the examiner was confused when I left without submitting them with the exam.
When I got home, I typed up the pages and started expanding upon them. This was going to be a science fiction story, and the one thing that fascinated me was that it would be set in the distant future, thousands of years into the future. In this time, the Sun has started to 'break down'. Now, this was about 5 billion years too soon, but like Sunshine I didn't bother coming up with a good reason - the Sun just stopped working right. This was going to have all kinds of bad effects on the Earth and the inner planets, and the idea was to escape the dying solar system in some kind of ship. It's all very clichéd, but then, as now, I was more interested in the characters and the action.
I didn't have a title yet, so I dug out a battered old book on the Solar System, and started pouring through the index looking for interesting words. Iapetus was the only one I felt was pronounceable-ish, but obscure enough to not be basically just the name of a planet.
Even though I was intending to do a comic, I started writing out the story in a little notebook, the kind policemen use. I took it everywhere, and any chance I got, took it out and just kept writing where I'd left off. I typed it all up, all 20,000 words, and printed it out. Now it didn't make a lot of sense because I just made it up, in tiny 5 minute chunks in between class. In fact, it made no sense at all, but it did have some over-the-top violence that amused my classmates, so I had a small audience waiting for the continuing instalments.
I didn't think much about how to structure a comic, I just figured I'd draw the pages as I went along, one at a time, like this one:
I only managed to get a single page drawn though, because I had discovered 3D graphics, and I was already wondering how Iapetus would work as an animated film. It would open with a night-time attack in a vast cityscape. I began to design the centrepiece, a glass and steel skyscraper in the heart of futuristic Europe...
…I saw the trailer for C and I found it inspirational to say the least. Not only because it was an independent film, but because it had integrity and vision, and because its being made right now. I admire this.
Soon after seeing it, I wondered why I couldn’t do something similar for Iapetus, my own science fiction film concept. I set about writing a short screenplay and thinking about ship designs. I also decided to use miniature photography instead of CGI.
Some of the (film related) things that I remember most about my childhood were space sequences in science fiction. Sure I loved the whizzing adrenalin of a Star Wars dogfight, what kid wouldn’t? – but what I remember most was the Enterprise leaving dry-dock in Star Trek II, or similar sequences in Star Trek III. The scale and volume of the ship as the camera very slowly moved past it were awe inspiring, it’s reality seemed beyond question.
This has been lost in recent years with the proliferation of CGI. The hard limitations of physical miniature photography: physics, time, optics and budget, made sure that every shot was extremely well planned and executed. Here, the story was king. If a shot wasn’t helping, it was dropped because it was so expensive, and because it was relatively inflexible all the thinking went in at the start.
With CGI the focus seems to have shifted from story telling to shiny effects reels, perhaps because of the enormous flexibility. I still think Jurassic Park is the finest execution of cinematic CGI to date. It’s no surprise that they spent a long time studying animal movements. Walt Disney did the same thing for Bambi, bringing in all kinds of artists and experts to try to capture the natural movement of wild deer. What strikes me in both films, is that the medium was exactly that, a vehicle for the story, not the other way round.
Unlike the creators of C, I’m not adverse to using green screen or digital compositing for these effects, and in fact the approach I’m using demands it (more on this later). Next time I want to post some more detail about the film in it’s current format, as well as some test shots for the space sequences.
Its a good film, but its not a great film. I've noticed that some films are mirroring video games and going for the experiential "it's like being there" angle, I haven't seen it work yet (explicit first-person plots like Cloverfield excepted).
Like most modern high budget games, the set pieces are really impressive conceptually, but I never really felt like I got to appreciate them. Things move too fast, the camera whip-pans all over the place. I get the sense of driving quickly by an elaborate shop window display, I'm sticking my head out the window trying to get a better look, frustrating.
Oddly enough, in the action parts I was waiting for a character pause, and in the character pauses I was waiting for more action. Character pause is the right term here because that's literally what it is, stopping for a few minutes to exchange some dry plot-fuel before ramming instructions for the next sub-quest at the audience. Normally I'm ok with that, but here it's unsatisfying (see the postscript for why that is).
Thing's aren't helped at all by the accursed PG13 violence and language, which makes all the dialogue even more strained (forget believable troopers who don't swear like… well, troopers). There's no real sense of peril here, when you don't see any blood, you don't feel any danger.
I never really dropped out of my seat and into the world, I was always aware of being in the cinema. That's hard to get right, but isn't that really what you want when you go to the movies?
PS: This post really sums up one of the major flaws here, another expensive lesson learned for the cost of a ticket.