Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Darker Than You Think

Last Thursday the Darklight Festival 2007 began. It's been going eight years now and is a showcase for digital film and animation. Naturally I try to get along when I can and as I had the time and inclination I got myself a season ticket for the four days.

The first day was really a night and an excuse to get drunk with free drink circulating among the many student guests. In many ways my time has come and gone and no one there was a person I recognised, at least initially. I stood in the corner with one or two other billy no mates and drank my Krombacker. Luckily DATA - the Dublin 'something or other to do with technology' Association - was having a presentation on new projects and work by their members, so I got myself another bottle, installed myself in the downstairs auditorium and waited for that to kick off. Conor O'Boyle, a former classmate of mine then showed up, wandered around and then came back to sit by me. He didn't seem to recognise anyone either. Eventually things got under way.

The first presentation was by two artists commissioned to make some sort of virtual community/world for Kerry County Council. It was singularly uninspiring. Next was a networking site for sontemporary Irish artists. It did what it said on the tin, I suppose. The final presentation thankfully displayed some innovation. A French artist/geek, Benjamin Daulon, showed his many goofy projects including a shared community bin for digital assets that might be 'recycled' by artists; hooking a pc, dot matrix printer and paintball machine together for largescale graffiti; readapting the game 'Pong' for the facades of buildings; and a multiconsole musical instrument for techno/rap. It was as well his work was interesting as, like many an artist, his ego insisted on talking ad infinitum about everything he had ever done. When he stopped it was only to turn up the volume and invite 'crazy kid' audience members to come up and use his joystick keyboard to deafen themselves. I got out pronto.

This year's festival put less emphasis on screenings and more on the fora and workshops geared to workers in the multimedia industry. Friday was full of these meetings and I got myself up at 8 am (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to attend the first one at 10. It was geared at exploring the future of television and had two mobile phone specialists (from O2 ad Vodafone) and two commissioning editors (one from RTE and one from Babelgum). The beauty of Darklight's strategy in presenting so many of these debates was that even when the discussions were bad (as in this case), it gave you an insight into what people at the top are thinking (which isn't very much in this case). The emphasis somehow shifted on to mobile phones and television and never really went anywhere else. If there is one thing I know it's that the future of television is not on a mobile phone screen, no matter what the uptake on such viewing might be. The impact of the web on television, both from the interactive and added value aspects was neglected, and I wasn't the only one who came out of that forum feeling profoundly disappointed with the narrow-minded vision of the people in whose hands the future of Irish television apparently rested. As usual RTE showed themselves incapable of taking any real pioneering step in adopting the web, but unfortunately none of the others showed any vision either.

In contrast the next workshop by Brown Bag Films dealing with their new production 'Wobblyland' and their use of the animation software, 'Toonboom', was enlightening and encouraging. At least some people are just going out there and doing it. The children's show concerned looked really nice, and, with a wonderful voiceover by Geoffrey Palmer, was very reminiscent of 'Mr Men'. I wish them luck!

A hurried cornbeef sandwich in Gruel, a few shorts in the Arthouse lounge, and the discussions began again, firstly with the future of short films. Again the breadth of the discussion was far too narrow, and, plucking up my courage, I myself asked a question when audience participation was finally allowed. I just wanted to know if new media and platforms meant that production companies might have a future just producing short movies (something traditionally made as calling cards for those seeking features). Certainly with the kind of money Babelgum were offering this seemed very unlikely. Bablegum are a new online television outfit along the lines of Joost (in fact, exactly like Joost, at present anyhow). Although their commissioning editor was in attendance, he made it clear that they do not actually commission work, instead buying pre-existing content that falls 'somewhere between broadcast television and Youtube'. As hinted at above, the prices they pay are pitiful and surely will only be accepted by those who make their money in another medium and so see it as something better than nothing. Only a German, Friedrich Kirschner, a stand-in for another speaker who couldn't make it, showed any realism, pointing out the revenues made by merchandising associated with the popular Machinima series, 'Red vs. Blue'.

The next forum on animation and games technology included some graduates of Disney and Lucasfilms. It was lively enough and if 'Second Life', which played on a screen behind the speakers, didn't figure much, tales of George Lucas' future plans for pre-production film software caught the imagination. Here at least was a possible future for garage filmmakers. While the software that made 'Terminator 2' possible is now reasonably cheaply available (or something like it), future pre-production software could allow filmmakers nonplussed about the glossy results of Hollywood to create virtual sets, costumes, etc. to tell their stories. Again Kirschner voiced a firm conviction of my own, that good stories do not always need a polished production to capture the hearts of an audience and draw them along with the narrative.

As mentioned above, Kirschner replaced another specialist in Machinima who was ill and unable to attend. Machinima are films made by gaming enthusiasts who use the worlds and characters of popular multiplayer games, like 'Halo' (in the case of 'Red vs. Blue'), to tell their own stories, usually by rewriting the game's own rules, something many games, such as 'Unreal Tournament', allow the user to do. In the case of 'Red vs. Blue' there are nearly a hundred episodes where 'actors' dub their own dialogue over the game's action. As long as no direct profit is made from the movies so created, the games companies seem to be okay with this.

Kirschner's workshop followed the forum and revealed him to be passionate about his topic and highly inventive. His 'Milk Scanner', using a bowl of milk and a webcamera, was a bizarre but effective way to scan everyday objects to create avatars/actors for his movies. Adapting the customised joystick for a golfing game, he made 'strings' with which to manipulate his digital puppets. He even used a digital guitar to control a banjo playing commando in his game world. It was a funny and inspiring workshop and again I wasn't alone in believing that.

Phil, my friend from Munich, was home with his family, including my goddaughter, so I dropped into see them on my way home, then joined him for a drink in Lucan. Too much drink had been had this week already (I had met several work colleagues for drinks earlier in the week), and sad to say I continued such indulgence until late in the night, but it was a good session.

Next day the round table discussions took a back seat to screenings, or they did for me. Early in the afternoon, Joe Comerford, Western Plumbers and Philip Rowley showed some of their new work. Comerford had spent three years on his piece, 'Roadside', and still wasn't finished. He passed out blank pieces of paper beforehand and pleaded with the audience to make immediate written comments after the screening. I didn't. I believe in making constructive criticism if any and I simply couldn't on this occasion (I am aware of my own hypocrisy given what follows, but tough!). The intention, to convey his characters' backgrounds and states of mind with images, may have been laudable, but it is a dated and deeply flawed concept not helped by the a very shoddy execution. While I recognise what we saw was a roughcut, and apparently he really wants to make a fine film (he told us he had already solicited a film class' comments to arrive at this cut), there was nothing there to admire. Nothing. The story was trite, the dialogue (what there was of it) banal, the images corny (a spider in its web, anyone?) and the look of the piece (constant superimposition) revolting. I do not dislike the director. I once had him as a guest lecturer and found him helpful and pleasant enough. But he should know better. Inept.

To highlight the poverty of the work we had just seen, the next two pieces, 'Commonwealth' and 'Gravity Loops', by Paul Rowley, were sublime. Originally installation pieces, they nevertheless worked as beautiful pieces of animation, combining wonderful music with stunning visuals. The agenda by those pieces was far more complex than that of the previous film, respectively trying to fathom ideology (through a synthesis of Soviet Bloc images) and explore a concept of Time (that of quantum mechanics) that can incorporate gaps and arbitrariness. Whether it succeeded in these aims is debatable, but the pieces were still gorgeous works.

The final piece, an excerpt from what is intended to be a longer work, was a Borat style comedy (subtitled 'Democracy with Beards'), where the production group Western Plumbers, infiltrated political meetings during the last election and posed some embarassing questions. Embarassing for all the wrong reasons. Fine Gael, for instance, were questioned on their policy regarding dog poop, while an environmental group were treated to a graphic display of how erosion will destroy our country (the map was torn up until Athlone alone remained). It worked well, but is a comic piece of its time and suffered a little from the narrowness of the excerpt's scope. I look forward to seeing the finished piece.

Later we were treated to the best of four years of the Halloween Short Film Festival (soon to be the 5th London Short Film Festival). Patchy though some of the pieces were, overall the programme was an entertaining one.

The planned barbeque had to be abandoned due to the lack of fine weather. Let's face it Ireland's so called summer is a constant game of cat and mouse with the rain clouds. It stays dry just long enough to fool you into leaving the house without an umbrella, than wham! A monsoon descends! Coming back on Friday evening after running from one doorway to another I eventually bought an umbrella and I keep it with me now at all times. Of course, this is surely nothing compared to the flooding that is occurring in England right now, but it makes for a very disspiriting summer. Anyway the silver lining to this particular rain cloud was that food and free drink were now served in a nearby bar/restaurant. Chicken wings and multiple bottles of alcohol cheered me up a little, though for the most part I stood billy no mates again at the stairs. Eventually I did strike up a conversation or two and met another old friend from college, but when staff alerted us that a music concert was about to start back in Arthouse, I made my way back without a grumble.

Three acts played, the names of which I cannot remember. The first UK couple played with their laptops while the female member screeched and howled into a headset. Krombacker helped, me anyhow. Next two guys used empty water drums, dustbins, hubcaps on string, rusty springs and objects I will not even guess at to create a unique sound that wasn't entirely displeasing. My highlight anyhow. The next duo were comprised of a guy on laptop and another with a one string bow. This was not the monochord of the Chinese musicians though and there was such distortion and delay that it's hard to tell what the bow actually sounded like, if indeed we heard it at all.

Happily drunk, I dallied at Arthouse for a little while before going home.

Next day there was only one screening I attended, or rather two pieces in the one programme. 'Wavelength' and 'Zorn's Lemma' were two experimental works from the 1967 and 1970, neither of which was really digital or animation, but we'll let that pass. An old film buddy from college days, Marina, was along, so I was not alone in the experience and an experience was what it was. Consider spending 45 minutes staring at a room while the camera 'zooms' (remove all ideas of speed from this word) in on a picture on the wall. Meanwhile the soundtrack develops into a steadily more higher-pitched whine that threatens to make your ears bleed. What narrative there was consisted of people entering, leaving and even dying in the room, but character was very definitely secondary here. Sad to say, I could draw some worth from this and in the inevitable close on the picture with its promise of an explanation there were echoes of 'Moby Dick', 'Waiting for Godot' and 'The Crying of Lot 49' (especially that last). In comparison with the next feature though, 'Wavelength' was a Hollywood popcorn flick. 'Zorn's Lemma' took an hour to show repeatedly (oh, how it repeated) words beginning with each letter of the alphabet while gradually replacing each letter with a piece of arbitrary film. 'S' became rhinoceroses, 'B' a fried egg, 'Y' a wheat field. Each iteration I looked in hope for the next change to signal that we were one more letter closer to the end, for it could only end when every letter was replaced. It felt like the brainwashing sequence from 'The Parallax View'. I cheered then when 'C' finally became a flamingo, but cried a little when we cut to two people crossing a snow field while someone read from Pythagoras (that's what I thought; I have since learnt that apparently it is in fact 'an 11th century treatise, "On Light, or the Ingression of Forms", by Robert Grosseteste.' Ha!). This final scene went on for another five minutes while my dribble flowed off my chin. Sometimes people simply should not be let near film equipment.

The rest of the long day was spent in still more drinking with Phil and Nigel and I thank both of them for their patience.

Monday was a recovery day and what better way to recover than to see a good movie, and in 'Tell No One' I did just that. But more about that later.


At 3:18 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The description of 'Zorn's Lemma' has actually helped me understand why breakdowns actually occur! With or without the influence of alcohol. Phil.


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