Category Archives: Film

The Spectre of another bad Bond

As you may have noticed the countdown is now on. We are only a few weeks away from the big day and everyone is getting rather excited. Shops are filled with merchandise, adverts are all over the TV and people can’t stop talking about it. Christmas? No I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about possibly the most anticipated film release for a decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But while plenty of enthusiasts and fanboys are flocking to cinemas on 19th December to get a first glimpse of what will no doubt be a huge spectacle, I am more interested in the most recent addition to another famous film franchise, the latest James Bond film Spectre.

I’ve always been a lover of the James Bond series. I watched them with my dad, as a little boy. I experienced the humour of Connery, the chauvinism of Moore, the vaguely ridiculous but still rather charming Lazenby, the streetwise Dalton and then the gentleman Brosnan. At university I studied film, and even wrote my dissertation on Bond, and when I left university in 2006 Bond returned from a four year hiatus with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. It is safe to say that Bond has always fascinated me. I love to get immersed in the spectacle of the films but I also enjoy looking at how the films have evolved and how each film mirrors our contemporary society in some way, in almost every facet; the plots, the sets, the villains, the henchmen, the cars, even Bond himself. And as a purist Bond fan, seeing the reinvention of Bond in Casino Royal and then the other Daniel Craig films, was both interesting and largely disappointing.

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond films saw a shift in the approach to our favourite spy. The films felt more like a version of a Jason Bourne film than a James Bond film. The Daniel Craig bond films had to be different and draw a line in the sand. Towards the end of the Brosnan era things had gotten a little silly. The previous outing for Bond, and last for Brosnan, was the rather farcical Die Another Day film, which lost the plot a little with supercharged weapons, laughably unrealistic gadgets and a storyline that was clearly more focussed on getting spectacle into the film than grit and interest. Die Another Day, it is safe to say, probably brought the Bond franchise as close as it has ever come to ending. Certainly many people were suggesting maybe it was time for Bond to retire the Walther PPK and take a well earned beach holiday. So when Daniel Craig burst onto the scene in Casina Royale, in a paired back film that had grit, determination, panache and action abounding, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a modern interpretation with intrigue and plot twists, relying on the complex and in depth script and characters rather than gimmicks to make it a great film. But there was a problem, and one which has persisted in all the Daniel Craig films to date…it just wasn’t quite Bond.

I won’t dwell on the previous films now, I’ll leave that for my book on Bond (which I may write one day). Instead lets look to Spectre, a film that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. To frame this particularly episode in the Bond series and particularly in Craig era, Sam Mendes returns as the Director following Skyfall in 2012 – a massively disappointing Bond film in my opinion. This film features the mysterious organisation Spectre, who have popped up many times over the 53 years Bond has been appearing on our screens, as the villainous  opponents. As the focus for a storyline it is one that has been screaming to be made for sometime and finally it has been done. The film completes a story that they have been developing over the four films since Casino Royale and wraps up a number of plot strands and ties everything together in a neat bundle. Or at least that is the intention.

The major criticisms levelled at Bond since Craig took over are that it is not true to the James Bond we know and love. It has lost the quintessential nature and character of a Bond film and has been dulled down into just another action film – Jason Bond/James Bourne. For fans there are some defining things that set Bond out as different and these things seemed (in part) to be missing:

  • A dry British wit, poking fun at his adversaries and making light of the situation he is in
  • Grotesque / Unique / Freakish henchmen/women
  • A culturally significant super villain
  • Beautiful and desirable Bond girl(s)
  • Gadgets
  • Q, MoneyPenney, M, Felix Leiter
  • A villains superbase / secret lair
  • A race against time
  • A chase (often car chase)
  • Set piece confrontations and fight scenes
  • Above all else, a storyline that is contemporary (although not always entirely believable)

The argument for the new Bond is that it needed to change and modernise otherwise it would fade into nothing and become an unappealing relic of the past. But the problem is in modernising they lost the heart of Bond, and as much as I liked Casino Royale as a film it just didn’t feel like a Bond film. And nor did Quantum of Solace or Skyfall. Great films yes, great spectacles, but not great Bond films. I could spend ages focussing further on the reasons for this, or the criticisms about Bond going back to anti-feminist ways with Skyfall etc etc, but that is not for now.

So we get to Spectre. And with much trepidation I went and saw the film. My trepidation was mainly because Spectre as a concept is up there with the very best Bond plots. To make it badly would be to miss the biggest opportunity in the Bond franchise and with the relatively poor outing that was Skyfall, and hearing some criticism of Spectre generally, I was not convinced the film would be any good. But to my surprise and utter delight, what I watched was Bond back at its best. In fact I would venture so far as to say it lived up to all my expectations. I would even go so far to say that it surpasses most other Bond films. It is excellent (with a couple of caveats).

But why? Why is this film so good where arguably all of the previous Daniel Craig Bond’s have failed to hit the mark? Well without giving any spoilers – quite simply because it has reintroduced every one of the facets of Bond that we have come to know and love. The film re-establishes Bond as the witty character that pokes fun at his situation. It re-establishes the working dynamic between him and his surrounding contributors (MoneyPenney, Q and M). It puts Bond back in the environments we want to see him in; real cities and locations. More significantly though it has a storyline that is contemporary and that we can all relate to, which is being enacted by villains that are characterised in the Bond way; they are outlandish, bigger better and stronger than the norm, they are sinister and believable in the power they establish and wield and intimidating in their menace. Where the previous films have been almost comic book in their characterisation, these characters return to the principles that created henchmen like Jaws, OddJob and Rosa Klebb and super villains like Dr No, Scaramanga and Ernst Stavro Blowfeld. And the story is as complex and involved as you would expect from the best Bond films, rather than the sometimes paper-thin stories such as that of Skyfall – which frankly could have been from any Bond / Bourne / Mission Impossible film, to name but a few. But maybe it was necessary to have those rather soft films before. Without giving anything away, Spectre draws upon all of those three previous films and makes you suddenly realise what was actually going on there, which in some ways goes against the Bond principle of standalone films with standalone story lines, but is something that actually I don’t mind.

For me Spectre finally delivered on the promise we have know Daniel Craig has as a modern Bond. It stayed true to the modern elements he brings to the character; a daredevil action man, more solemn and detached than those who came before him. A somewhat lonely and unfulfilled / lost individual searching for answers for his inner demons. But what they have finally done is wrap that up with the wider James Bond surround that we expect. The film has huge and spectacular set piece action sequences, subtle and realistic gadgets, great car chases, a seemingly unstoppable and freakish henchman, a sinister super villain who has a classic villain superbase, a plot that twist and turns and keeps you riveted a beautiful Bond girl and a dashing MoneyPenney, a clever and resourceful but rather despairing Q and a dynamic and demanding, but ultimately supportive M. It even has a race against the clock with an actual timer and of course, some great interplay and intense staring between Bond and his arch enemy. In short it has everything you would expect, want and need from a Bond film.

Any down sides? Well a couple. There is one strand to the storyline which is unnecessary in my view. It reveals an existing relationship between Bond and the villain that borders on the cheesy and the film would have worked quite happily without it. It works with it as well but the consequence of the extra complexity is a film that is 30mins too long and left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. But I can accept that for all of the positives. So in answer to all the critics, this time I think they’ve done it. This Bond is not just a great film, it is one of the great Bond films.

So where does this leave us? Sam Mendes ends his association with Bond at this point. This also presents a convenient opportunity for Daniel Craig to hand over the reins to another actor. He’s already said that the role is very physically demanding on him but he is contracted for one more film. The other consideration is that he has been Bond for 10 years. A lot has changed in that time and the one thing we do know about the man who inhabits that role is that he has to be current. He has to be a Bond for the people of that time. Is Craig’s time done or can his dynamic Bond live on for another couple of year? Will he retire the Aston and the PPK or will he continue? That is a story for another day. Only time will tell, all we know is that Bond will return…and I can’t wait!

I’m a celebrity, let’s exploit a penguin!

It’s Christmas season again. You can tell this not by the fact that advent has begun, which it hasn’t yet, but because every major retailer in the country has released their Christmas advert. The reality TV shows are also everywhere, counting down to a Christmas finale of no doubt epic proportions, where an idiotic Irishman will declare that someone who is tone deaf is the greatest singer since Arion, two little Geordie’s will crown a non-celebrity king or queen of the five star jungle and some moody blokes in black ties will say that a dance that none of us have heard of was sequin-tastic.

And whilst I am trying to control my undoubted excitement and hoping that Santa Claus doesn’t fall out of his sleigh, I will change the channel in the hope of finding something more educational for my daughters to watch. My hope will be to find something that is more stimulating than the mind-numbing anti-entertainment that now makes up weekend prime time programming. Of course my daughters won’t care, they will only have eyes for the iPads, browsing for the toys we haven’t bought them for Christmas and then not talking to us for a week because we clearly don’t love them.

Every year is the same. Whilst the rational people use advent as the earliest opportunity to even start thinking about Christmas, the rest of the world starts to get ready just after Halloween. This is the reason I can now read my book at night by the light of my neighbour’s Christmas lights, which could also double as the approach lights for Heathrow. I can hear the whirring of the electrical meter from down the street. But on the plus side Southern Electric shares are going up in price by the hour. We’ve got to get out of this recession somehow. I’m fairly sure though that he has paid for the lights with a Wonga loan!

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Christmas, I like to ‘do’ Christmas and have a merry old time. I like my children to think Christmas is magical and all that, because those memories will stay with them forever. But what I don’t like is that it seems to last for three months now, it is shoved down our throats from all angles and that underneath all this false merriment everyone is basically miserable and moans about everything.

Take TV adverts. John Lewis has for years now been producing high end adverts especially for Christmas. It has become a spectacle that people wait for with baited breath. And on the day the advert appears social media goes mad for it. Last year’s was a touching animation about a bear, accompanied by a mediocre Lily Allen cover of a well loved Keane song. The year before was an equally heart wrenching tale of a snow man and snow woman. The nation universally shed a tear for a wonderful piece of storytelling. This year’s is no different. Monty the Penguin is a visual masterpiece that cost them £1 million to produce and tells the lovely story of a boy’s lonely Penguin in desperate need of more penguin companionship.

But this year John Lewis doesn’t have the monopoly, almost every major brand has cottoned on to the ‘Christmas Epic Advert’. They want a piece of the action and so the marketing boffins have been scratching their heads since Easter to work out what story they can tell that’ll get us all crying. No doubt they’ve been out experimenting, taking candy from babies and poking dogs with sticks to see what is most touching. Well maybe not, but it would seem that Sainsburys probably should have done that, as they wouldn’t have got as much backlash as their Christmas advert seems to have stirred up.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, they have produced an advert that dramatizes the legendary Christmas Truce that took place in 1914. Their treatment is a sensitive, understated and yet very thought provoking tale of two soldiers, one German and one British, who venture out into no mans land and meet in the middle to offer seasons greetings. A football match ensues and there is much merriment, until the idyllic scene is shattered by distant gun fire. The advert ends with the German having a blue wrapped chocolate bar from the Brit, and the Brit a biscuit from the German. But barely had the advert finished than social media was going mad with complaints of outrage. How dare Sainsburys exploit a conflict where millions died in order to make profit? OFCOM say they have received hundreds of complaints about the advert.

So let’s put this into context for a moment. Sainsburys has worked with the Royal British Legion for over 20 years, and made this advert in conjunction with them. Bearing in mind the significance of the anniversary on which this has been released, it is unlikely this wasn’t discussed in some detail on more than one occasion over the last year or so. During that period of planning, which would have been quite in depth for a production of this level, one presumes that some of the members of that organisation, who are uniquely qualified to have a view on such things, might have mentioned if they thought this advert was in bad taste. Presumably no one did because Sainsburys went ahead with it and have also released additional footage about the making of the film as well.

And yet they are apparently exploiting the memory of the war. And yet funnily enough I don’t remember seeing British soldiers strolling across no mans land with hands full of supermarket products. Or the hun coming in the other direction armed to the teeth with toiletries and wearing orange overalls. One assumes the same people who are throwing these accusations around on social media were quite happily chuckling away when they were watching Blackadder, or taking their photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London, which has no doubt enjoyed increased revenues as a result. Exploitation? No. The only product Sainsburys actually displays in its advert is a retro styled chocolate bar in a blue wrapper and, whilst plastering the advert with “Live Well for Less”, their motto, would have been a gigantic an error of judgement, all I remember is simple logo on black of equal weighting to that of the Royal British Legion. Those who are mortally offended that they are peddling their retro chocolate bar in this manner may like to know that the proceeds of the sales of those particular bars are going to the Royal British Legion as well and not into the pockets of Sainsburys executives. No wonder everyone is so annoyed, they really do have a nerve don’t they? How dare they donate money to a veterans charity at Christmas!

The problem is that at Christmas these sorts of stories come out because this is the time of year when we start to take stock of what we have. Lets get one thing straight and do away with the naivety here, all adverts are exploitative. They are designed specifically to make you do something that you would otherwise probably not consider doing, that is the point. This is the reason that in Sweden advertisers are banned from showing adverts during childrens programming. So what is worse, emotionally manipulating someone year on year and dressing it up as a sweet little story about penguins, or showing a well put together and rather touching dedication to those brave men and women 100 years ago, whilst raising money for that charity? If that is exploitation then exploit away because those charities need all the help they can get.

And for those who feel the need to sling accusations at the morally corrupt big wigs at these companies, I ask you to do this. Drag yourself off the crumb encrusted sofa for more than a few seconds, block out the sounds of the morally extinct, obese wastes of oxygen on I’m An X Factor Get Me Dancing and look a little deeper at what is going on. The reason you consider this exploitative is because you feel the need to defend something that you only have a passing attachment to, so that you can take a moral high ground. Your complaint is that a company has produced something for profit, using imagery of something abhorrent. But what they actually did was show a moment of compassion that highlights an extremely important and under discussed moral issue of the war. That both sides were human. They did this as a dedication to those who fought, on the 100th anniversary of a war that we all pledge we will never forget. And they did it to sell the only product they actually feature, for which the proceeds go to help a military charity. Of course they are trying to make profits but so are all businesses. I’m sure if this had been produced as a short drama you’d all love it, but that production company didn’t do it for free either! Or of course you could just sit back on the sofa and smile at the little boy playing with the toy penguins and forget all that morally important stuff. Now where are my ten million watt Christmas lights, I want to be seen from space!

Video like a pro?

My background is in video, that is what I did my degree in and what I have been dipping my professional toes in and out of since I graduated. I have worked as a freelance, producing and directing music videos and private projects working with seasoned professionals. I have also worked on the commercial side of things, commissioning and producing videos for major global companies. I have even setup and run a full video proposition for a major WPP agency. Throughout my work in the various avenues of video, one of the challenges that my colleagues and I have had to face is a lack of understanding about the skill and discipline that goes into making video and how this is pivotal in creating a good video rather than a poor one. Which is why my heart sank when I saw an article describing Moovly as allowing people to “Create Animated Content like a Pro”.

Firstly I will caveat my thoughts by saying that products like Moovly are a great thing. They enable people to make videos, in this case animations, in an affordable way and with video being one of the stickiest content types on the web this can only be a good thing. But I think it is important to draw a line of distinction between tools like this, which no doubt produce decent looking end results, and the work produced by professionals.

One of the biggest problems for people working in video is getting the uninitiated to understand that it isn’t simply a matter of getting a few mates together with a good idea. It is a discipline and a good video requires the skills of good planning, writing, storyboarding, graphical design, editing…the list goes on. This assumption of simplicity is the same stigma suffered by top digital designers or copywriters, or even developers by those who think that a good website can be created using outofapacketwebsite.com style online wizard tools. Well the end result is almost always something that is below par.

So how do you make a good video then? When we were running the agency video proposition we created a hybrid project management / video production approach:

  1. Initiation
  2. Pre-Production
  3. Production
  4. Post Production
  5. Release

This took the standard stages of the normal production process and added and before and after stage, recognizing the commercial aspects that are required to get a project going and the technical requirements in implementing the content after it is completed. Even if you aren’t undertaking a commercial project, I believe this process is still valid for anyone to go through.

In the Initiation stage we establish the need for the video. What is the purpose? Who is it for? Where will it be featured? What are the actions we want to elicit from watchers? The last question is doubly important if your video is going to sit on a website as ultimately it is a marketing tool seeking to engage your users. But once they have finished watching it you want them to do something and if you don’t consider this as part of the planning then it could be an investment down the toilet. So this stage is mainly about the business case and expected outcomes of the project. It is also about establishing the required investment (time and money) and again this is important. Setting out how much you are willing to spend will set your limits for the length of the video, quality of designed elements, time in potentially expensive facilities like studios or editing suites. Even if your project is with mates you will need to factor in transport, locations, equipment, calling in favours, how much beer you owe…it will all add up. This stage is about focussing your mind on what you are trying to achieve and how you can do that within your means.

Once you have established the focus of the project then the real hands on work begins. Pre-Production is where the creative work starts. The most common mistake with video projects is that people rush this stage and don’t fully plan the requirements for Production. This is probably because Production is considered the exciting part, but actually I really enjoy Pre-Production as well. During this stage you will need to be doing the following:

  • Plot key narrative points
  • Write a script (or key script points)
  • Storyboard the key action
  • Plan the production shoots and sessions required
  • Rehearse (if required)
  • Casting and Crew Recruitment

At this point the Initiation stage will start to prove it’s worth. Without a focus and key aims and objectives for the video and its outcomes it is easy to end up going off on a tangent. But with all of this set out from the outset and timelines / budgets keeping you focused in your planning, you should be able to streamline the process and make sure you are making the key important choices for the project.

Production is the stage where all the planning and Pre-Production comes into its own. The only way you can run a good Production phase is knowing exactly what each scene is supposed to look like, but more importantly to know what the scene’s function is. It is this intention that will drive how the scene is directed. Without this in depth understanding you cannot hope to get all the footage you need and will most likely be left leaning on the editor to save you, or having to reconvene for further shoots (and risk the continuity demon popping up its ugly head).

If your approach to the project has been to go renegade and not both planning you also risk not knowing what you have recorded and what you need. A good Producer / Director relationship is the only way to go, with one in charge of running the shoot and one in charge of arranging everything and keeping it running smoothly. When I was doing this I had an excellent colleague and we were able to run like two sides of the same coin. But I have also worked with hopeless Producers who hadn’t done any planning and as a Director this made it almost impossible to get the footage and even harder in the edit suite.

Anyone who knows anything about video will tell you that the real magic happens in the edit as part of the Post Production stage. It is what will make or break a video and is where the skills that take years to learn come in to play. There are so many little tricks of the trade, from the pace of an edit to the after effects applied to it, that make a good editor worth their weight in gold. At this point it is looking back at the intended outcomes that will guide an editor in how they construct a scene. Just looking at comedic re-edits of ‘The Shining’ and others shows you how wrong an edit can go if the intention of the video is not fully understood. This is where the storyboards, narrative plot, script, aims and objectives and the creative vision all come together…not to mention a thorough understanding of the website branding. You don’t want a video that uses after effects that aren’t on brand…little things like this matter! Ultimately if you want a video to represent and work hard for your brand then you want it to mirror your brands look and feel and the tone of voice. Why? Because if the video is features someone other than your own website then you want it to instinctively reflect your brand a not someone else’s.

So then there is Release. This is the stage that most people completely forget but in many ways is the most significant. At this point in the process we would undertake user testing with focus groups to see whether the video is eliciting the responses we want, whether it is enjoyable and holds attention and most important whether it makes sense. This is the last line of defense for your video so if you don’t have a large budget then get your friends around and show them…you can’t afford to find out once your video is live that it isn’t doing the job.

Once you have a video created, re-edited it after feedback, then you need to play it somewhere. This is something that should have been planned in the Initiation stage of the project and there are many ways of doing it. You could use YouTube or Vimeo and embed their player on your website (but you can’t brand their players and you don’t control the end screen and what is linked to – remember, you want to keep people on your message, not send them off to watch other people’s video). You could host the video yourself and use the in built browser players, but this requires a bit of developer know-how. You could have a custom player built, allowing you to track who watches the video and how long for. Another problem with hosting your own video is performance – if you don’t have a streaming ability and the file is large then it may not be a very good experience for viewers and stats show that if a video stutters people are likely not to watch. It would be very annoying to go to all the effort to make a video and then no one watch it. Do you you want a holding slate design so the video looks professional? These are all questions that you need to know the answers to. You also need to think about support – if you want your videos to play in all browsers and devices then you need to have more than just the standard MP4. Think about .FLV/.SWF, OGG and WebM to cover your bases.

So, back to my original point. Moovly and similar tools are all well and good. They will no doubt allow you to put together a half decent video…but this is not a tool that will turn you into a pro videographer over night and if you’re using anything with ‘off the shelf’ parts then your video is not going to be unique anyway. Creating videos is not an easy process. It requires skill and years of experience to get it right…so hats off to all videographers out there.

My advise to anyone who wants to make a pro level video and doesn’t have the background? Take your time. Plan it thoroughly, follow the process above and if you know people who have done it before then ask for advice and help. Assess the tools that are out there as well. Moovly will no doubt provide some of the animation editing you may require, but see if it is right for your project. There are plenty of other tools out there as well. Ultimately, we can all bake a cake by following a recipe and using a mixer…but we aren’t all going to open bakeries tomorrow because we aren’t all Mary Berry…apply the same logic to video!

You’re in High Definition Demand

Back in July last year I wrote a blog article about the concept of on demand film and television and my view that it won’t be that long before the model of delivering entertainment to us will shift from a schedule basis to a on demand basis. It is interesting that only 6 months on from that blog article the shift has already started. Anglo-Yanky Kevin Spacey has recently announced a USA remake of the ‘House of Cards’ TV series, the political drama that was so popular in the 1990’s in the UK. But what is significant about the announcement is that it is intended to be released, at least initially, via Netflix online rather than via a television network. The show, which premieres on 1st March in the US, is a typically modern television feast with big budgets, big names and no doubt big expectations for success. So it is either a daring experiment or a Sky Atlantic style marketing ploy that it is being launched on the online subscription service, rather than on an open TV network. Either way, what is assured is that the entire TV industry will be carefully watching how this show does to see if on demand, online, is the way forwards.

What is very interesting is the prominence of services like Netflix and LoveFilm, to name but two of the brands avaialable. Having watched Blockbuster recently demise it is clear that the way we want to consume films and television has changed. Take my household as an example, we bought a new TV at Christmas to replace the behemoth old thing in the corner with a shiny new flat screen HD LED, with 3D and more significantly SmartTV. We are fans of LoveFilm and use their DVD by post service, but this new television now means that instead of waiting for the DVD we can simply login through the television and pick from thousands of films and television series to watch there and then. We don’t have to wait until the following week for the next episode because they are all avaialble and a lot of the films are very recently released. As we have children and are in the middle of the recession we don’t often go to the cinema so instead we can wait just a little longer and watch the film on demand, without having to pay £5 for a packet of Maltesers!

Blockbusters failure to see the power of online, and more importantly that TV’s would move online, was their own doom. But it appears that some of the leading lights in TV and Film are already beginning to embrace this, with the backing of the production companies. And that is, I believe, the key point and what will ultimately be what leads to the shift towards on demand being the norm. Once the production companies and re-sellers see the potential and start to focus on the online, on demand market rather than the showcase of cinema and scheduled television then things will change rapidly.

There is a lot of talk, plenty from me as well, that 2013 will be the year of mobile but by the looks of things it could also be the year of on demand as well. Watch this space!