Moving to the Cloud

Posted on October 6th, 2016 in Technology | No Comments »

Well, hello again.

With my new life as a podcast producer, I seem to have next-to-no time available for blogging, and since the Oscars have been and gone (although they are coming up again soon) and we have no new series of Doctor Who this year, nothing has been drawing me towards the keyboard.

But, here’s a quick update regarding my digital entertainment.

We’re currently doing-up our loft, and planning on moving the TV upstairs and converting the existing TV room into a dining room. This means that there will be much less room for DVDs but of late I have found myself very reluctant to pick a DVD off the shelf, or even to buy a new movie on DVD. Buying on iTunes, or watching on Netflix just seems so much more convenient. Imagine having to get up, find a box, open the box, fish out the disc, open the drawer of the DVD player, put the disc in – Christ, it’s like the dark ages.

Surely, the right thing to do is to convert all of these existing DVDs to digital form and then play them back through the Apple TV…? Well, yeah.

Let’s look at what I wanted to achieve doing this.

  • Have copies of movies and TV shows I’ve bought on DVD available on my home network.
  • Preserve extra trailers, outtakes, documentaries.
  • Preserve commentary tracks, trivia subtitles and other elements in the main feature itself.
  • Be able to put all physical DVDs out of sight, out of mind, knowing I have high quality digital versions available on-demand.

Assuming disc space is no object (more on that later) one obvious solution would be to rip complete copies of the DVDs to .ISO files, maybe throwing away features I’m certain I don’t want, but preserving complete copies of the whole disc structure. This would mean that I definitely wasn’t trading down in terms of quality and the handful of discs which use wonky things like seamless branching would be viewable, but I don’t have an easy way of viewing those files with my current set-up.

Some time ago, a lot of my TV-watching was via a Windows Media Centre PC, connected to a NAS drive, and one reason why I didn’t jump to upgrade to an Apple TV was that this device had no ability to move files, even MP4s, from a NAS to the TV without going via a PC running iTunes, which firstly sounded a bit more Rube Goldberg than I wanted and secondly never actually worked whenever I tried it.

Acquiring the new fourth-generation Apple TV, with its emphasis on apps, also meant that much of my TV watching was via iTunes, Netflix or Hulu (since my Apple TV is firmly of the opinion that it is located somewhere in Delaware). So, I only fell back on downloaded files sent to my NAS when I couldn’t find the show or movie available to purchase or on a subscription anywhere. When this situation did arise, having tried a few different options, I settled on an app called Infuse which seemed very adept at not just playing back all sorts of files but downloading artwork and meta data too. However, Infuse is not at all willing to play back .ISO files (and in any case, part of the joy of this virtual library would be freedom from elaborate menus and unskippable copyright warnings) so some other system was going to be necessary.

When I asked Facebook friends what I should do, the most popular answer by far was Synology plus Plex. I had played around with Plex at the same time as I first installed Infuse, but it suffered from the same problem as the old Apple TV. Since my WD NAS drive is a fairly limited device, it can’t run the Plex software itself, which means I have to run Plex on my PC and then hook the Apple TV up to the PC and blah blah blah. Having looked into this further, the Synology plus Plex option does seem like the best choice, but fairly expensive; probably north of £500 (depending on the capacity and RAID option). I wanted to see if I could at least get started with what I had: my WD NAS drive and Infuse.

This brings up the issue of how to rip the DVDs and how to preserve all the features I wanted. Some years ago, when I regularly ripped DVDs to watch on my iPad (instead of downloaded content from iTunes) I remember having to choose exactly which audio and subtitle track I wanted (resulting in “burned-in” subtitles on the ripped file) but these days, it’s much easier to create MKV or MP4 files with multiple audio and subtitle tracks built in, and Infuse has no problem switching between these, so that part seemed covered. The final choice was whether to re-encode or not.

I downloaded Handbrake, which I’d used many times before, but always found it rather cryptic and awkward, and gave it Tim Burton’s Batman to play with. My laptop coughed and whirred for a very long time before eventually spitting out a very watchable 2Gb MP4 file complete with optional commentary track, which Infuse was delighted to display on my Apple TV (or indeed my iPad).

I then tried a much simpler-looking, although no less powerful, product called MakeMKV which has a very simple interface and which seems to chew through DVDs of all makes and stripes without a murmur. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t attempt to re-encode the video data on the DVD, it just pours it into the MKV container (again with whatever audio and subtitle tracks you want or don’t want). This results in a larger file, but also means that with my fairly inexpensive HP Envy laptop with its new USB3 DVD drive (twenty quid off Amazon) can create a movie file in about 20 minutes instead of the two hours it took Handbrake.

And now that Virgin Media have upgraded my equipment, and I have Wi-Fi through the whole flat instead of just within twenty yards of the router, throwing big files across the network is quick-and-easy too. It seems to work much better to rip the movie to my local disc and then copy it to the NAS, but the copying only takes an extra ten minutes and can be done while the next movie is ripping. I make folders on the NAS for each movie and add the special features that I want to the same folder and on Infuse, I can see the movie and the appropriate extra features all on one screen. Nice.

So, the process is underway, with a few caveats. Firstly, the movies I’m ripping are now around 4Gb in size (blu-rays can stay on the shelf for now) and my NAS is only 2Tb. So I may very well run out of space before I run out of movies (I have around 600 DVDs, many of which are box-sets, and that doesn’t include my complete set of Doctor Who DVDs). Buying a second similar NAS would be fine and inexpensive, but I would have to have some sensible way to decide what went on what drive because Infuse will not merge the two libraries.

Secondly, one NAS (or even two) and no RAID means no redundancy and no back-ups. If there’s a drive failure or a flood or a power surge, then all my work could be undone. Of course, I’ll still have the discs, but ripping them all is going to take months, maybe a year – not something I want to do twice. So, the long-term plan has to be some kind of Synology box or similar, but for now I’m just going to see how long it takes me to rip my current collection, while they are still conveniently close to hand.

Finally, ripping without re-encoding has generated a few special features which look nastily interlaced when played back via Infuse, but so far I’ve been able to deal with these by running them through Handbrake and it hasn’t affected any main features yet.

There will no doubt be Oscar reviews and previews soon.

UPDATED TO ADD

At the time of writing, I have got to H but that leaves out a lot of TV show box-sets, all the Disney animations and all the Doctor Who DVDs as well as the ones already downgraded to an overflow shelf, but things are going smoothly. It would be a huge bummer to lose all this work of course, and my new 6Tb WD MyCloud is still not a RAID system, so I currently have no back-ups save the discs themselves. However, in theory Amazon Drive offering literally unlimited cloud storage for £55pa is the answer. I say in theory because in practice, as soon as I began the back-up process, my Virgin router immediately killed my internet connection, even when I was throttling the upload bit-rate to a stupidly low level. The solution eventually became a new router (this one) with the Virgin “Super Hub” demoted to modem only. Now slinging big files around the network is even quicker, with the process of moving the 600Gb or so of files already ripped from one NAS to the other achieved overnight with Windows Explorer (definitely not the fastest way of doing it). And testing the upload to Amazon, it seems stable, but I’m going to focus on ripping for now, and make the uploading a separate (no doubt months-long) project.

Review of Watchmen

Posted on April 5th, 2009 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

I thought I’d break from my musings on screenwriting and storytelling and give you a review of Watchmen from the point of view of someone who is familiar with the original graphic novel, but is neither an insane proselytizing zealot, nor someone who regards still pictures plus dialogue as beneath him (whereas moving pictures plus dialogue is high art).

This review is basically spoiler-free, but if you want to know nothing about the movie before you see it, then read this – and any review – when you get back from the cinema.

In 1985, Watchmen was an extraordinary achievement from writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and comics company DC who let them tell this story. The premise was very simple: what would America look like today if in the 1940s, maverick crime-fighters actually had started running around in spandex tights, instead of this merely being depicted in what were fairly simplistic comic books for children? From this basic premise, Moore and Gibbons spun a tale which not only included its own roster of memorable “super” heroes (almost none of them has superpowers, only fancy costumes and tenacity) but which added to that mix a glowing blue godlike man, a terrifying form of detente, a pirate tale-within-a-tale and of course an gigantic alien psychic squid.

The comic was a sensation, and in the wake of the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, a movie was swiftly mooted. But it’s taken 25 years and a revolving door of directors and screenwriters before Zack Snyder’s movie version has finally made it to our screens, basically fairly faithfully, with some easy-to-swallow compressions and elisions, some minor updates and the substitution of the original’s most outré (and tentacled) element with something rather more mundane in conception, but equally devastating in effect.

But the world has also changed in the last 25 years. In some ways, this is immensely to Watchmen’s benefit. Can you imagine how hokey a 1987 version of Dr Manhattan would have looked, perhaps played by Charlie Sheen, slathered with blue make-up and covered with hand-drawn rotoscoped sparkles? We had a lucky escape there.

But superhero movies have also changed. It’s a cliché to say that directors like Zach Snyder use the original comic as a storyboard, and here it’s clearly untrue in the strictest sense, since one of the comic’s most notable features is that almost every page is divided into nine tall-and-skinny frames, none of which would be suitable storyboard illustrations for a 2.35:1 widescreen movie. But while the individual compositions may have vanished, it’s impossible to watch the movie and then read the book without each reflecting the other very strongly. Snyder takes his lead from Gibbons again and again and again, in terms of pacing, angles, lighting and even the expressions and hairstyles of the actors.

However, Snyder adds to this his own CGI environments and impossible tracking shots, speed ramps, fast cutting and explicit gore. The Watchmen of the comic are highly realistic and grounded compared to other comic-book heroes of the day – but the crimefighters depicted in Snyder’s film are every bit as preternaturally fast, sturdy, hyperaware and impervious to pain as the most ludicrous of their modern day cinematic brethren. And so this is the second change which the twenty-five year gap has wrought – we know what comic book movies are supposed to look like now. After the twin false starts of Superman and Batman, an established cinematic style has been established for this kind of movie – never mind that Watchmen was never intended to be this kind of movie!

And this lack of real-world grounding is added to by the fact that this is now a period piece. This, the third gift of the quarter century gap, is the one that neither Snyder nor Gibbons nor Moore could really do anything about. When the comic was published, Moore was writing about an alternate now, but the movie is a period piece set 25 years in the past. So everyone looks weird, because they’re wearing old fashioned clothes and hairstyles, and even those don’t look quite right because it’s an alternate 1985 of course, and so it’s much less of a jolt when people start putting on costumes. The sporadically funny, but ultimately badly flawed Mystery Men actually does a better job of showing you what putting on a costume and fighting crime would actually mean today.

This stylisation in design, costume, lighting, camera and so on is all just part-and-parcel of the comic book movie of course, putting off mainstream critics like The Observer’s Jason Solomons, who took one look at the trailer and made Xan Brooks go and see it for him. It’s interesting to note how stiff and CGI-ish Dr Manhattan looks compared to the different ages of Benjamin Button. If anything, replacing Billy Crudup with an entirely computer-generated character is an easier challenge than affixing a CGI puppet Brad Pitt head on to the shoulders of a clutch of differently-sized stand-in bodies – but Benjamin Button can’t afford a second of less than total photorealism, whereas nothing in Watchmen looks remotely real to begin with.

So – the opportunity to make a real Watchmen for a new audience has gone, but what does Snyder’s film leave us with? Well, actually quite a lot. Once I gave up any expectations that I’d be seeing anything remotely resembling the real world, or anyone who remotely resembled a real person, and gave myself over to the movie, I quickly got caught up in it. I deliberately didn’t reread the comic until after seeing the movie again, and while I recalled the rough outline of the story, much of the detail I failed to remember. And it is a very faithful retelling of the tale, which is where it really succeeds. All the actors, but particularly Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, work hard to chisel out their own little pieces of humanity from inside the whirling, kinetic visuals, and Alan Moore’s story, darting nimbly back-and-forward in time, never abandons its narrative drive, and delivers the viewer to its shocking yet inevitable conclusion.

Moore, by now playing the mad genius role to the demented hilt, has had his name taken off the movie, leaving the bizarre credit “Based on the comic book co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons”, which is an intense pity. Because to the extent that Watchmen works, and for all my carping, that’s a great extent, it’s largely due to his controlled imagination, expert storytelling and crisp dialogue, which has been lifted almost wholesale for the movie version. Whether or not you’ve read or intend to read Watchmen in comic form, if you like the movie, tip your hat to Alan Moore.

 

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

The real value in a “High Concept”

Posted on March 22nd, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

What makes people go to the movies? Briefly: stars, spectacle and story. If your movie stars Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, a certain number of people will turn out to see it come what may. There are also (a few) star directors like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, and star “properties” like Batman or Harry Potter. Put that name or that face or that logo on the poster and you’ve already sold your first million tickets.

Next comes spectacle. If you can promise a rollercoaster ride, if you can promise jawdropping images, if you can dazzle your audience, you’ll pack ‘em in. Spectacle has meant different things in different eras: from Fred Astaire’s flashing feet, to the stunts and carchases of the 60s and 70s, to the CGI wonders of the 90s, and now it means Bourne-style “realism” more often than not. Advertising these things is not quite so easy, but you can certainly depict them on posters and they make good clips for TV shows and wonderful trailers.

Lastly comes story. A movie lacking stars and low on spectacle may nevertheless find an audience if the story is compelling – but how do you sell the story? You can’t give all the details away, so you have to just give a piece of it and hope that will be enough. The bigger a piece you have to give, the harder it is to communicate that simply and easily in the marketing. And that’s why High Concept is such a winner. High Concept means that your basic story idea can be a) summed up in a single short sentence, b) sounds exciting and c) has never been done before. High concept means a movie with no stars and no spectacle can still be sold on its story, and a movie with stars and/or spectacle has a third marketing route to help ensure that all that money spent on stars and spectacle won’t be wasted.

So, it’s easy to see why high concept is the darling of the money guys, and a millstone around the neck of a struggling screenwriter. I want to tell this intricate, complicated, heartfelt, truthful moving story. I don’t want it reduced to half-a-dozen snappy words. Well, maybe you should.

Conventional screenwriting wisdom breaks screen stories into three acts, and my feeling is that this is nothing more than reflecting an innate quality of stories, which in turn reflects an innate way in which human beings process information. A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs a set-up, a crisis and a resolution. The most prescriptive screenwriting manuals will give you page count targets for these things, and again they generally make sense for typical stories. If your screenplay is 120 pages and it takes you a lot more than 30 pages to set your story up, your story is all set-up and no action. If your major climax comes more than about 15 pages before the end, your story will feel like it fizzles out.

So, if you have an idea for a story, very often you know how to start it, so those first 20-30 pages can almost write themselves. And either you know how the story will end, or you know you won’t know how it ends until you get there, so in either case there’s no point worrying about those last 10-20 pages. Act one – no problem. Act three – no problems. It’s the 90 odd pages of act two that come in between, that’s your problem.

And that’s the real value of high concept.

A high concept idea gives you act two.

Let’s briefly compare two well-known supposedly high concept films: Tootsie and Indecent Proposal. Both films made money, because both were sold on their starpower and their high concept, but Tootsie made quite a lot more (adjusted for inflation) and was a critical success, whereas Indecent Proposal was critically derided and is now largely forgotten.

Let’s look at their high concept pitches. Tootsie: An actor with a reputation for being difficult to work with dresses up as a woman to land a role. Indecent Proposal: A billionaire offers a married couple a million dollars for one night spent with the wife. Do each of these fulfil the criteria outlined above? Both can be summed up in a single sentence. Both sound exciting, variously bringing with them secrecy, ambition, sex, money and power. And both are reasonably unique; if anything, Indecent Proposal is fresher, since cross-dressing comedies have long existed.

What then is the difference? The difference is that the Tootsie high concept gives you act two. But the high concept in Indecent Proposal isn’t really a high concept at all. It’s a high set up. When you put the face or name of big stars on the poster, you’re promising exciting performances. When you advertise the spectacle of your movie, you’re promising exciting visuals. When you use your high concept to sell your movie, you’re promising exciting situations. What exciting situations are you promised by the logline of Indecent Proposal? None. It’s a single moral dilemma, which can only really be resolved in one way or the movie really would die.

So, it plods through an interminably long act one, finally getting Demi Moore on board Robert Redford’s yacht after an awful lot of talking, and then finally getting them into bed together (although we don’t actually see this). And then the consequences of this are… not much. Demi Moore wavers rather pathetically between Harrelson and Redford, there’s some dull talk about foreclosures, finally Harrelson gives away the million bucks and Moore comes back to him. The story lacks structure and feels arbitrary.

Now, look at Tootsie. This too spends a while getting Hoffman to the point where shaving his legs and putting on a dress is a viable option, and is working towards the moment when his true identity will be revealed (at which point the film will be over) but once she/he lands the part, the set-up itself gives you the following situations…

·         Sustaining the charade in the dressing rooms

·         Trying to pursue a romance with another actress who doesn’t know he’s really a man

·         Dealing with the advances of sexist men

·         Dealing with the sincere advances of genuinely nice men

·         Seeing the world from a female perspective and questioning his own behaviour towards women

The high concept gives you the whole of act two, which is what a high concept should do for a screenwriter. If it helps someone else later down the line to sell your screenplay, or even – glory be! – gets audiences to come and see your movie, great. But as a screenwriter, value those ideas which give you act two. Because act two is a bitch.

Ask yourself of each sequence: could this sequence exist in any other movie? When you have an idea for a movie, ask yourself: what unique sequences does this idea give me? If the answers are “no” and “lots”, you may be on to a winner.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.