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July 31st, 2009

Jake GyllenhaalI came across this picture the other day and I thought, wow this guy’s a mess, who is it?  It turned out to be Jake Gyllenhaal, I thought, wow what happened?!’  Apparently this is him in good shape!  He did weeks of working out with trainer to the stars, Simon Weston, for his role as a sword swinging warrior in the movie, Prince Of Persia : Sands Of Time.  Maybe he’s doing his own stunts I thought, well only if you call taking your shirt off a stunt.

It’s become quite the thing for serious actors to use that most enjoyable method of getting into character.  Eating.  Rene Zelwegger of course, Charlize Theron, George Clooney, and Robert De Niro.  Then there’s the actors who use the other enjoyable method of getting into character.  Not eating.

Michael Fassbinder lost 33lbs for his role as Bobby Sands in Hunger, much to the distress of his worried mother.  Christian Bale’s mother always Hunger the moviethought he was weird and didn’t blink an eye when he told her he was losing 63 lbs for his role in, The Machinist.  The only stunt he had to do was to remain standing every day.

But Bale and a number of other actors do do their own stunts and spend a lot of time getting fit for just that.  Bale did all his fights and a lot of stunts on the Batman movies, even though no one could see it was him.  Seems like his mum was right.  Shia La Boeuf did most of his stunts in Transformers, likewise Matt Damon in Bourne, Tom Cruise in MI and of course Daniel Craig in Bond…does those he can be seen in.  Most actors stand clear of the dangerous stuff though, like Hugh Jackman, I know this as I know his stunt double!

These days though, it’s harder to impress audiences, as in the back of their minds, they don’t see a 200 foot drop, they see a green floor.  So the trend is moving back to doing it for real. Indeed, Still from the movie The Great Escapebefore green screen, doing it for real was easier and cheaper though a little more dangerous, but that was kinda the point, it looked it.

Among the most talked about stunts by stunt people, is Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump in The Great escape. Or I should say Bud Ekins, McQueen’s friend’s jump, of 60 feet over a barbed wire fence on an old, heavy bike.  Seems nothing by comparison to the sewer jump in Terminator 2, but then the Terminator was held up by wires.

Stunts held audiences in awe in the silent days, it was their 3D, and it was probably in this period that stunt drivers discovered how fast your could crash a car before injuring yourself.  The stars of the day were Buster Keaton and Harold Harold Lloyd in Safety LastLloyd, who made sure their fans knew they were doing their own stunts.  In, Safety Last, 1923, Lloyd dangles above LA while holding onto the bending hands of a clock.  But, was there the roof of another building just below him, out of shot?

No tricks in Buster Keaton’s, Steamboat Bill Jr, 1928, when the whole side of a house falls on top of him, except for the open top window which falls around him exactly where he’s standing and he lives!  As risky as it looks, apparently there was only two inches between the window and Keaton’s shoulders. Phew.

Still from Crouching Tiger Hidden DragonThe most impressive contemporary innovation in stunts, was the introduction of wirework, known as ‘wire-fu’,  attracting audiences to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which took the martial arts genre into the fantasy genre as performers fought while flying among trees and over buildings. Also known for the remarkable swordplay featuring actress Michele Yeoh.  Hollywood of course, quickly hired the Chinese masters of the technique in an attempt to attract audiences to their own films, but it’s not quite the same.

Serious injury and death are not uncommon, most recently in John Woo’s, Red Cliff, during which one person died and six were injured during a major naval battle.  Indeed at this year’s Taurus World Stunt Awards, a grant was awarded to the stunt performer injured while doubling for Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.

Big action movies like Watchmen have a large list of stunt credits, over 60 in Watchmen, but you’d never recognise them, which is kinda the point.  And even Christian Bale and Jake Gyllenhaal are likely to appear in at least a few shots where their faces are turned away from the camera.


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UK Box Up

July 30th, 2009

Slumdog MillionaireMuch excitement as it’s revealed that UK cinema admissions in the first 6 months of the year are up 14.5% on the same period last year.  That’s 83.4 million admissions generating ticket sales of £503.4m.

The rise has been attributed partly to the number of family and children’s movies, including and Bolt and Monsters v Aliens being released in 3D, blockbusters like Star Trek and awards success for films including Slumdog Millionaire and Kate Winslet’s, The Reader.  Not a family movie but a Brit star.

Not surprisingly admissions peak around the school holidays and May alone saw just over 15 million people pass through the doors into the magic kingdom.  Similar results are hoped for the second half of the year, which will include the release of the latest Harry Potter and Ice Age 3: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs.

Spain hasn’t fared so well with local productions, though admissions have risen there too. 6.2% up on the first six months of last year generating sales of £238.5m. Interestingly though, with the exception of one film, all those in the six month top ten are Hollywood movies – if you include Slumdog Millionaire as a Hollywood movie.  Spanish auteur Pedro Almodavar’s latest, Broken Embraces, barely made the top 30.

Looks like the attraction of the cinema experience is a strong as ever.


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The Last Cinema In Guyana

July 30th, 2009

20090726astorA slight diversion from the hustle and bustle of the movie business as I discovered this remarkable story.  The last cinema in Guyana has closed, for the moment there are no screens.

The end of cinemas in Guyana has been blamed partly on DVD’s and partly on television.  There is no government control or penalties for DVD piracy and even renting legit DVD’s was a lot cheaper than a trip to the flea-pit. Which some cinemas literally were!  Most cinemas were single screens and weren’t developed to create a good customer experience. Distributor fees and fees paid to the censor and government, meant little was left for upkeep. There was also no control over TV stations showing movies as soon as they were released, so the cinemas were competing with TV for the same audiences.

Until the ‘90’s, a night out at the movies was big in Guyana and 90% of the cinema’s were owned by one man, Muntaz Alli, who also had sole rights to import films into the country – mostly Hollywood and Bollywood fare.  All films shown in Guyana came through his company and were shown, pretty much, at his cinemas.  Mr. Alli was a member of the PNC, the People’s National Congress, and the change of government in the ‘90’s is said to have had great influence on the rapid decline of his cinema business.

The Guyanese people loved the cinema experience and it’s generally thought that if a few modern multiplexes sprung-up across the country they would do very well indeed.


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i TV

July 28th, 2009

tf1s-vod-app-sTF1, the major terrestrial broadcaster in France, has just launched an app for the iPhone allowing users to view their live and on-demand TV programmes.

Following the recently launched apps by France 24, Sky News and MTV, content can be received via wi-fi or 3G, though unlike its compatriots, whose content is free, TF1 will be charging.  In May, TF1 put 450 programmes on iTunes priced around 1.49 Euros each and will charge iPhone users at a similar rate.

ITunes France already has a huge stock of a broad range of programming including, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and programmes from French channels including Arte and Dupuis TV.

Hope iPhone users still have time to tweet!


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Death Befalls Scottish Drama

July 28th, 2009

taggartWord is, drama production at Scottish ITV provider, STV, is on its final pages as long running series Taggart is yet to be re-commissioned by ITV.

With the recent sackings of Taggart’s producer and STV’s Head Of Drama said to be part of a restructuring plan, the new head of content at STV has echoed the company’s desire to keep the series going, but ITV is wanting cop series aimed at the more contemporary aud of shows like The Wire.

Dramas like Taggart, which began in 1983, employ around 100 people on a series and crews and production staff were once kept very busy on highland productions including Rebus, Hamish Macbeth and Monarch Of The Glen.  In recent times, Taggart was the only regularly returning series to keep people employed along with local soap River City.

With the gradual absorption of the regional broadcasters like Granada, Yorkshire and STV into the ITV brand, it appears the brand has become much more London centric in its thinking and programming, with Emmerdale and Corrie being the few indications that there is life beyond the southern borders.

A glimmer of hope though from the BBC who have committed to increasing productions in Scotland by 8.6% by 2012.  Let’s hope there’s still the local crews there to make them.


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Moon TV

July 24th, 2009

nasaHow many times have you growled as your mobile drops-out, and uttered those often repeated words, “How come 40 years ago, they can get TV from the moon and today they can’t even get a phone to work over a few kilometres?”  Well as this seems to be moon week, I thought I’d find out.

In 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the Americans were desperate to prove their technological prowess to the Russians and to the world.  They’d shown they could fly there and back but walking on the moon, and proving you’ve done it, was to be the next giant leap.  For TV, this was to be a giant leap into an abyss, and those charged with getting the proof of America’s triumph back to earth, were shifting nervously in their lab seats.  Three major companies competed for the prowess of being the one who shot the moon walk, Westinghouse, RCA and GE, and Westinghouse  got the job.  The question was, should they go for black and white, or push themselves for the next big thing, colour.

The spec for the camera to be used on the moon’s surface demanded a device that could be used in a vacuum and at temperatures from 250 degrees Fahrenheit down to minus 300 degrees.  It had to be light, use little power and be able to withstand the usual shocks, radiation and meteor showers expected on the moon.  It had to be able to cope with the contrast of a scene lit by direct sunlight with black shadows, and it had to be of point-and-shoot design for the inexperienced camera operator, Neil Armstrong. They decided to play safe and stick with black and white. It was simple, more robust and well understood technology, but even this took them five years and over a million dollars to make.  A colour camera was developed for the friendlier environment of the Command Module but it was black and white for the most important outside broadcast of the century.

Apollo 11 TV CameraThe camera weighed seven pounds, measured 11x3x6 inches, came with four fixed focal length lenses – wide,  two standard, one for day, one for night, and telephoto – changeable with gloved hands, and was built of highly reflective aluminium. It had its own manual of course. It had to run off the batteries on the Lunar Module so would have limited transmitter power, now the other problem was how to get the pictures 250,000 miles back to earth.

While they could feasibly send a standard 525 NTSC signal back from the Command Module with its extra power and large antenna, neither would be available for the moon cam. So, they came up with a whole new TV format. The camera was designed to shoot at 10 frames a second rather than the usual 30 and with a reduced the number of lines to 320, which made the picture of lesser quality, but  meant less information to transmit.  The Lunar Module had only a one meter antenna, it was planned that the crew would unfold an umbrella-like, larger antenna on the surface, but later decided it would be too time consuming and they wanted those pictures asap after touchdown.  So the receiver on earth would have to be a huge antenna to pick-up the tiny signal.

small_1960s_telescopeThis was assigned to three radio telescopes one at Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek, and Parkes in Australia,  the subject of Oz movie The Dish.  Each station tracked the moon and received the signals to be re-transmitted via satellite back to Houston. But there was a problem.  The non-standard TV signal from the camera had to be converted for use by the world’s TV’s. The solution was surprisingly simple.  The receiving stations would have the 10 frame per second pictures on their monitors, so they simply pointed a standard TV camera at the monitor then relayed the pictures from that camera onwards.

Now Parkes was standing-by to bring great prowess for Australia’s contribution to this moment in history.  The mission schedule meant they would receive and re-transmit pictures of the first walk on the moon. parkes radio telescopeBut Neil Armstrong decided to change the schedule and rather than resting before the moon walk, wanted to go straight for it.  This would mean the moon wouldn’t have risen over the horizon in view of the Parkes dish.  But the design of the suits meant it took Armstrong so long to get into it that by the time he was ready, the moon had risen and Parkes could see it.  NASA’s plan was to use the three telescopes and switch between whichever had the best pictures, as it turned out, Parkes’ better pictures were used for the whole mission, stamping their footprint on Apollo history.

Today, colour pictures from the International Space Station and Shuttle are commonplace, they can even mount cameras on various parts of the shuttle to give everyone a ride with it into space. No vibration or contrast problems now.  And Google Earth now bring you Google moon, with 360 degree views of the surface and those first footprints. As for mobile phone signals,  NASA hasn’t solved that one yet, though they did give us Black and Decker drills, I guess a satellite dish is the only answer!


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Make More Films

July 23rd, 2009

Stunning news from industry research company SNL Kagan. As money gets tight in Hollywood and lay-offs are reported on a regular basis, contrary to the studio’s solution of cutting back, Kagan’s say no, make more films, spend more money!Bruce Willis Are they crazy??

Well, maybe not.  They looked at 611 films released by the majors between 2004 and 2008 and broke them down into genres, – action, comedy drama etc. then they reassembled them as slates of five, ten and fifteen films.  They then anaylsed the mix of each slate in terms of probability of making big at the box, where action was high and drama low.

The result was, the bigger the slate, the more likelihood for profit. Where the five film slate made a loss of $94m, the fifteen film slate made a staggering $466.4m profit!

This was over a 12 year period of exploitation and included the usual revenue streams.

So the word is, make more to make more.  Simple!


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The Rich and The Poor

July 23rd, 2009

Mark ThompsonWhile we in the UK are concerning ourselves with the news that many BBC executives earn over £100,000, with Director General Mark Thompson, topping the list at £647,000, their counterparts in the US blow them right out of the salary pond.

CEO at CBS Leslie Moonves, made a whopping $31.9 million last year, followed by Disney CEO Robert Iger at $30.6 million and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes at $19.9 million.

All companies, ‘struggling’ to find the money to make programmes, but kinda puts the Brit salaries into perspective.

Now excuse me while I book my ticket!


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July 23rd, 2009

Poster for PIFFFWhile I have to admit by being taken by the anagrams in this story from Seoul, it does present an interesting market model that could be easily taken from the far eastern movie territories where production is big and audiences, huge and dropped into the UK and USA.

NAFF, the Network Of Asian Fantastic Films, has put together the three and a half day market to take place at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, with the intention of putting film makers together with investors and distributors.  But these are no unscripted, improvised meetings, for in the months leading up to the event, both sides had to submit credentials so that film makers and distributors and investors could be matched up with exactly the people they really wanted to meet.

It helped of course that everyone was there for genre films, and 19 projects were chosen with the likelihood of attracting most interest from investors and distributors.

Richard Jeffrey, Tokyo based exec for producer and investor, Distant Horizon said, “Many of the projects here are exactly right, they have low budgets, bankable cast attachments and strong concepts. A high percentage of them will actually get made”  And of the NAFF selection procedure he commented,  “They wanted to see scripts, not just synopses written on napkins…..but it was interesting then to be presented with real projects”

Such an organized market is obviously popular as this second year of the NAFF has attracted more potential buyers who know they are going to be presented with exactly what they’re looking for.


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Manchester Ununited

July 22nd, 2009

BBX ManchesterAs the BBC’s £240m plans to move some of its productions to Manchester progress, it’s been revealed that over half of the 1600 people meant to be moving have decided to take redundancy and stay home in the south.

The plan to move entire departments to Manchester, including sport, children’s TV and Radio 5, is to create a less London centric image for the corporation, but it’s been criticised as being a largely PC motivated plan as it doesn’t matter where these programmes are produced.   Indeed, sport takes place at locations across the UK and is one department where the location of its office is least important.  However sports producers and staff have little choice in the matter as there is likely to be few other job opportunities in the south once the BBC has left. The only other major sports producers being ITV and Sky, who are currently ok for staff thank you very much.

Incentives to move are substantial.  Homeowners will get up to £8000 in re-location expenses – including £3000 towards curtain and carpets!  Others who have to maintain a home in the south will get £1900 a month towards renting in the north for two years.

These large numbers of stay-at-homes, will cost the BBC dearly in redundancy payments, thought to total around £2m, plus the cost of recruiting more staff in the north.  So the BBC could be the first business to actually lose money by relocating from the south to the north.


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