Diagnosing a Pharma Hack

wordpress-bloggingToday’s post is not about filmmaking, but I hope it will be of use to other WordPress bloggers who have been the victims of so-called Pharma Hacking.

A few weeks ago I started to notice strange things happening on this site.

The first thing was that I couldn’t log in. At the top of the login screen there would be an error message similar to this one:

Warning: Cannot modify header information – headers already sent by (output started at /home/trustjho/public_html/blog/wp-content/themes/adspress/functions.php:74) in /home/trustjho/public_html/blog/wp-login.php on line 302

I googled the message and found various suggested solutions, but in the end the only one that worked was to reinstall WordPress.

The next issue was that the media gallery wouldn’t load. When I tried to upload a new image for a post it wouldn’t work, and I couldn’t see any of the images I’d uploaded previously. I tried all the usual WordPress troubleshooting – deactivating plug-ins and themes, which did nothing, and again reinstalling the core files. After the reinstall the problem went away for a little while, but soon came back.

The third thing I noticed was line breaks appearing after links in many of my posts. I checked the html code of the posts, but couldn’t see any reason for this behaviour.

Fourthly, and most worryingly, I started coming across a couple of weird sentences at the bottom of several blog posts – sentences which I didn’t write. It was always the same:

“Here what I remember even at that time when I sleep it Cialis Dosage which has to be fixed and can’t be. Cialis dose it is an important element of reception. Which it is necessary to remember.”

Both instances of the word Cialis were hyperlinks to a site selling the drug.

After hours of googling I figured out that I had been Pharma Hacked. Pharma Hacking involves uploading rogue code to your WordPress site which then inserts text and links into your posts. It also inserts javascript into the posts which renders the text and links invisible to human viewers, while still being visible to search engines. The result is that the linked drug site rises in search engine rankings because all these invisible links to it have been maliciously inserted into unsuspecting WordPress sites. Because the text is invisible, readers of the victim’s site and even the owner of the site may be completely unaware that it has been hacked.

When I looked at the infected posts in the ‘text’ view mode (as opposed to ‘visual’) I could see two additions, one at the start of the post:

<script type=”text/javascript”>// <![CDATA[
function get_style6610 () { return “none”; } function end6610_ () { document.getElementById(‘database6610’).style.display = get_style6610(); }
// ]]></script>

And one at the end:

<p id=”database6610″>Here what I remember even at that time when I sleep it <a href=”http://cialisdosage.biz/index.html”>Cialis Dosage</a> which has to be fixed and can’t be. <a href=”http://cialisdosage.biz/index.html”>Cialis dose</a> it is an important element of reception. Which it is necessary to remember.</p>
<script type=”text/javascript”>// <![CDATA[
end6610_();
// ]]></script>

Together the two pieces of javascript ensured that the text and link were not displayed. I’m still not sure why I was able to see the text on some of my posts when viewing my site’s front end, but it was lucky that I could otherwise I might never have diagnosed the problem.

After some more googling I downloaded Wordfence, a plug-in that scans your site for malicious code. Wordfence identified around eight or ten malicious files, which I immediately deleted. Straight away the media gallery started working again and the rogue line breaks after links disappeared.

Unfortunately Wordfence isn’t able to remove the text from your posts. I googled around for something that could, and in the end used a plug-in called Search and Replace. This was able to delete all instances of the sentence “Here what I remember….” and its hyperlinks, which turned out to be in over 900 of my 1,100 blog posts. I can’t remove the javascript, because the ID number in it (6610 in the example above) changes with every post, and I can’t find a search and replace plug-in that can handle a wildcard like that. However, without the text and links the javascript does nothing.

I still don’t know how my site got infected in the first place, but apparently the most likely route would have been through one of the old, out-dated plug-ins I was running. Evidently it is very important to regularly update not just WordPress but all of your plug-ins to make sure there are no security loopholes. And I will be performing regular Wordfence scans from now on to check for anything slipping through again.

Diagnosing a Pharma Hack

Why Make Films?

Mini-DV
Shooting Mini-DV in 2003

When I went freelance at the end of the last century, it felt like anything was possible.  If you had the talent, you could go out there and make a great short that could win awards at festivals and get you a good agent, or you could go out and make a feature which made the industry sit up and take notice and hire you on a fully-budgeted production. Call me old and cynical, but that now feels like a ridiculous pipe-dream.

15 years ago, the Mini-DV revolution was just kicking off. Since then we’ve had the DSLR revolution, not to mention the collapse of expensive celluloid as the only accepted acquisition and distribution format for “proper” movies. The technology has removed every barrier to entry, and now the world is swamped with filmmakers.

This is great, but it has had two highly destructive side effects.

Firstly, as a filmmaker, it’s virtually impossible to stand out any more amongst the thousands of micro-budget movies that get made every year, short-form and long. Would I get coverage in The Guardian today for making a fantasy feature on £20,000? I think not.

Shooting on a DSLR in 2013
Shooting on a DSLR in 2013

And although there is now a huge number of film festivals around the world, there are so many people entering them, that the odds of getting in are tiny, and the odds of winning awards even smaller. So once you’ve made a film, what do you do with it? Putting it online is the only option left. Except there are so many films, and other forms of video content, on the internet that you have to be incredibly lucky to get any reasonable number of people to watch yours.

Secondly, as jobbing crew, though there are plenty of productions to work on, most of them are unpaid. Because there’s no more money to go around than there was 15 years ago – it’s just more thinly spread. When I started out, unpaid work was something you did for a couple of years until you could get enough paid work to live on. Now it’s entirely possible to do unpaid gigs for decades without it ever leading to enough paid work to quit your day job.

In a nutshell, the industry has become a farce.

Which brings me back to my question, “Why make films?”

The only answer left, and perhaps the only one that ever truly mattered, is, “Because I love it.”

Do not become a filmmaker because you think you can break into Hollywood. Don’t do it because you want to get rich. Don’t expect to see your work on cinema release, to win Oscars, or to work with the stars. Don’t even expect to reach wide audiences or make a good living.

Just do it because it’s the only thing you want to do with your life, and be happy with that. I know I am.

Why Make Films?

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects

My 4K Blackmagic Production Camera
Blackmagic Production Camera

One of the big benefits of the Blackmagic cameras is their ability to shoot raw – lossless Cinema DNG files that capture an incredible range of detail. But encoding those files into a useable format for editing can be tricky, especially if your computer won’t run the processor-intensive DaVinci Resolve which ships with the camera.

You can usually turn to the Adobe Creative Suite when faced with intractable transcoding problems, and sure enough After Effects provides one solution for raw to ProRes conversion.

I’ll take you through it, step by step.  Let’s assume you’ve been shooting on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and you have some 2.5K raw shots which you want to drop into your edit timeline alongside 1080P ProRes 422HQ material.

1. In After Effects’ launch window, select New Composition. A dialogue box will appear in which you can spec up your project. For this example, we’re going to choose the standard HDTV resolution of 1920×1080. It’s critical that you get your frame rate right, or your audio won’t sync. Click OK once you’ve set everything to your liking.

step1

2. Now go to the File menu and select Import > File. Navigate to the raw material on your hard drive. The BMCC creates a folder for each raw clip, containing the individual Cinema DNG frames and a WAV audio file. Select the first DNG file in the folder and ensure that Camera Raw Sequence is ticked, then click OK.

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3. You’ll then have the chance to do a basic grade on the shot – though with only the first frame to judge it by.

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4. Use Import > File again to import the WAV audio file.

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5. Your project bin should now contain the DNG sequence – shown as a single item – along with the WAV audio and the composition. Drag the DNG sequence into the main viewer window. Because the BMCC’s raw mode records at a resolution of 2.5K and you set your composition to 1080P, the image will appear cropped.

step5

6. If necessary, zoom out (using the drop-down menu in the bottom left of the Composition window) so you can see the wireframe of the 2.5K image. Then click and drag the bottom right corner of that wireframe to shrink the image until it fits into the 1080P frame. Hold down shift while dragging to maintain the aspect ratio.

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7. Drag the WAV audio onto the timeline, taking care to align it precisely with the video.

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8. Go to Composition Settings in the Composition menu and alter the duration of the composition to match the duration of the clip (which you can see by clicking the DNG sequence in the project bin).

step8

9. Go to the Composition menu again and select Add to Render Queue. The composition timeline will give way to the Render Queue tab.

step9

10. Next to the words Output Module in the Render Queue, you’ll see a clickable Lossless setting (yellow and underlined). Click this to open the Output Module Settings.

step10

11. In the Video Output section, click on Format Options… We’re going to pick ProRes 422 HQ, to match with the non-raw shots we hypothetically filmed. Click OK to close the Format Options.

step11

12. You should now be back in Output Module Settings. Before clicking OK to close this, be sure to tick the Audio Output box to make sure you don’t end up with a mute clip. You should not need to change the default output settings of 48kHz 16-bit stereo PCM.

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13. In the Render Queue tab, next to the words Output to you’ll see a clickable filename – the default is Comp1.mov. Click on this to bring up a file selector and choose where to save your ProRes file.

step13

14. Click Render (top far right of the Render Queue tab). Now just sit back and wait for your computer to crunch the numbers.

step14

I’ve never used After Effects before, so there are probably ways to streamline this process which I’m unaware of. Can anyone out there suggest any improvements to this workflow? Is it possible to automate a batch?

Converting Blackmagic Raw Footage to ProRes with After Effects

Physical vs. Digital: Moving Day Musings

image
Part of my DVD collection, packed ready for the move

I blogged recently about my upcoming home move, and how I was throwing out my Mini-DV tapes. Moving to a smaller place forced me to consider what’s important to me and what I can live without, and it’s interesting how the march of technology affects those decisions.

A few years back I got rid of my CD collection, choosing to use just iTunes for listening to music. More recently I considered doing the same with my DVDs. After all, how could I justify having 100-odd DVDs on my shelves, when they could all fit onto a hard drive the size of just one of those cases? If I could just import my DVDs into my iTunes library like I did my CDs, I would have done it. Movies on physical media would be no more for me. But of course you can’t do that. You have to buy all your films again as downloads. Or rip them all using Handbrake, which is clumsy, tedious, and unreliable, but nonetheless maybe I’ll do that some day soon.

The decision is harder with films than music, because – to be perfectly honest – I was always a bit embarrassed of my CD collection. I had no regrets about losing their physical presence from the shelves where all could see them. Ironically, in recent months I’ve acquired a turntable and a small vinyl collection, which I’m quite proud of.

image
All hail the Boss

There is definitely something, then, about physical media and its packaging that appeals to me. As a kid I would always make packaging for stuff – drawing covers for my amateur films, making boxes for Lego kits of my own creation. Packaging, that physical presence, is deeply engrained in me, and perhaps my whole generation. It’s telling that, when I first considered dumping my DVDs, I planned to have a noticeboard onto which I would pin a postcard or magazine cutting image of each film I owned as a download, to proudly display my virtual movie collection.

And then there are books. I love books, and my personal library constituted a significant proportion of my stuff on moving day. A small memory stick, at an infinitessimal fraction of the size and weight, could store all of these tomes; many of them would be free to acquire digitally, as they’re out-of-copyright classics; and many of them, in all likelihood, I will never read again. Yet still I can’t part with them. Perhaps because the book is a centuries-old invention, that does not rely on a compatible device to play it, that never runs out of batteries, that shows its history in every crease and grubby fingerprint. Particularly with those classics, I feel connected to everyone who has ever read that story down the years, even if the copy I’m reading is brand new.

One thing that did go, however, was my TV. Again, a deeply engrained part of my life, but one which no longer feels necessary or relevant. (Conversely, radio increasingly connects with me, but that’s probably just because I’m getting old. Ken Bruce rules.) There is rarely anything I really want to watch on, and if there is then the best use of my time is to save it for my next train journey and download it to watch on my iPad. So both of my TVs and DVD players departed, along with my TV license.

I also said goodbye to my printer, which I pretty much ceased to use once I got my iPad – my new means of taking documents out into the wild. And my landline, which saw most use recently as a means to contact BT telling them I no longer need their services. If only Alanis Morrissette understood irony this well. (And now you start to see why I was embarrassed by my CD collection.)

IMG_2096
Just before the removal van arrived

Phone, printer, TV, CDs. Not so long ago, life without those things seemed unimaginable. Who could have predicted I would ditch these things, yet retain records and books? Vinyl sales are on the increase – is this a sign of a wider backlash against the intangible realm of the digital? Will 35mm projectors make a comeback in the homes of movie connoisseurs? OK, probably not.

And this is the final paragraph, where I wrap these musings up into a nice, tidy point. Sorry, there isn’t one. I just wanted to put down some of the thoughts about the transience of media and technology I’ve been having. What media is important to you? Is the medium itself important, or is it only the content that matters?

Physical vs. Digital: Moving Day Musings

Blogging Tips

wordpress-bloggingI recently passed the milestone of my 1,000th blog post, and many people have asked me how I have the discipline to keep writing posts week in, week out. I think the key is to see it as an opportunity, not an obligation: an opportunity to connect with and help others in your field; an opportunity to promote yourself; an opportunity to marshal your thoughts and solidify things you’ve learnt by communicating them to others. Sometimes I see my blog as a giant virtual notebook – I’m just keeping my notes publicly – and I often refer back to my own posts to remind myself how I did something or what mistakes I need to avoid this time around.

“But I don’t have anything to write about,” is a common refrain. I doubt this is true. I’m constantly surprised that I manage to keep coming up with ideas for posts, but there is nothing special about me. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Here are some suggestions.

  • Whenever you do something you’re at all proud of, or which someone else compliments, or where someone enquires about how you did it, consider this a potential subject for a blog.
  • Read other blogs, not necessarily on the same sort of subject as yours. Look at the types of posts they do and think about how you can apply those formats to your own area of expertise.
  • Posts like this one, which consist largely of a bullet-pointed or numbered list, are easier to write, and more digestible and less daunting for a reader than a big block of solid text. (Here’s another example.)
  • Review books, films or other websites. (Example)
  • ‘Top ten’ posts can be a quick way to generate content, being a sort of cross between brief reviews and a numbered list. (Example)
  • Write about projects you’re working on and what you’re learning from them. (Example)
  • Break down the steps involved in creating something – a lighting set-up, a prop, a poster, whatever it is you do. Illustrate the steps with photos. (Example)
  • Write about trends you have observed in your field, and what readers could do to buck or conform to them. (Example)
  • Discuss your mistakes and how you plan to avoid making them again. (Example)
  • If you witness someone doing something badly, it can be tempting to write a blog about how it should be done. It’s advisable, however, to let some time elapse first, and you should never name names. (There are examples on this site, but I’m not going to point them out!)
  • Be aware of what’s in the news and what’s trending on social media. Could you blog about your take on these issues? (Example)
  • If the written word isn’t your thing, consider video blogging, or podcasting, but be careful not to ramble. (Example)
  • If you’re really convinced you have no useful knowledge to share, that in itself could be the basis for a blog: your quest for knowledge. You could do posts such as:
    • re-blogging material from other sites (but get permission first) (example);
    • interviews (example);
    • guest blogs, where you ask someone else to write a post for you (example);
    • embedding an interesting video you’ve seen, and summarising the tips you gleaned from it. (Here’s an example on NoFilmSchool.com.)
Blogging Tips

2015: The Future on Film

BTTF2-2015We’ve finally caught up with Doc Brown and his flying DeLorean, and arrived in 2015. (Alright, technically we haven’t caught up with him until October 21st, but go with me here.) Inevitably this has led to a number of articles comparing the 2015 of Back to the Future Part II with the reality of today’s world. While this is fun, it misses the point.

It’s not the job of sci-fi filmmakers to predict the future, just as it’s not the job of period filmmakers to present the past with slavish accuracy. It’s the filmmaker’s job to present an environment that is believable within the context of the story, and, crucially, that is thematically appropriate for the story.

The low-tech FX behind those self-lacing Nikes
The low-tech FX behind those self-lacing Nikes

The Back to the Future films are comedies first and foremost, so they made the future fun. Writer-producer Bob Gale realised that he would fail if he genuinely tried to predict the future. “We decided that the only way to deal with it was to make it optimistic, and have a good time with it,” he says in the official behind-the-scenes book of the trilogy.

Production designer Rick Carter notes how the optimistic 2015 mirrors the rose-tinted 1955 portrayed in the first film. “In Part I the 1955 square had a beautiful, grassy park. In the ’80s it was paved over for a parking lot, and in 2015, once again, we have this serene park and pond – with 75 shops underneath.”

"Don't talk to anyone, don't touch anything, don't do anything, don't interact with anyone and try not to look at anything."
“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anything, don’t do anything, don’t interact with anyone and try not to look at anything.”

Flying cars and hoverboards don’t exist in the real 2015, but if they hadn’t in BTTF’s fictional 2015 then we would have been denied the brilliant tunnel sequence at the climax of Part II. (“Manure, I hate manure.”) It was important to the story that the future was different from 1985, that skateboards and cars had leapt forward so that sequences from Part I could be revisited with a futuristic twist, rather than simply being repeated with ground-based skateboards and cars.

Back the Future Tunnel2
That car won’t be so shiny in a minute.

“We just modified ordinary, everyday conveniences,” Gale continues. Kids watched too much TV in the ’80s, so he envisaged a future in which this was taken to a ridiculous extreme, with kids wearing their TVs as glasses. Microwave meals had begun to compete with home cooking, so Gale invented another leap forward with the pizza-inflating food hydrator. As is inevitable and right, yesterday’s vision of tomorrow tells us more about yesterday than tomorrow.

In the end, it’s not 2015 that looks ridiculous to the modern BTTF viewer, it’s the ’80s. 1985 is portrayed bleakly throughout the trilogy, with its rundown Hill Valley square, its Libyan terrorists, its graffitied high school, the materialistic fawning over shiny black Toyotas, and the decadence and corruption of the “Biff-horrific” 1985 seen in Part II. Explaining why he built the time machine, Doc Brown soliloquizes: “The intent here is to gain a clear perception of humanity, where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls, the possibilities, the perils and the promise.” The filmmakers clearly believed that the ’80s were a pitfall, but the future had promise. And that optimism is still as appealing today as it was in 1989.

Plus flying DeLoreans are cool.

"Flying DeLorean? Haven't seen one of those in… 30 years."
“Flying DeLorean? Haven’t seen one of those in… 30 years.”
2015: The Future on Film

The 10 Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time

In today’s films, if a character is not human, chances are it will be created digitally. But in the latter half of the 20th century, as increasingly sophisticated audiences demanded more than a man in a suit, the art of puppetry blossomed in Hollywood. Artists like Stan Winston and Rob Bottin brought this art to its peak in the 80s and early 90s, before being usurped by computers. Today I’ve compiled a list of what I consider the ten greatest achievements of movie puppeteering. Some of them hold special places in my childhood memories; somehow, I can’t imagine that the digital creatures of today’s cinema will be cherished so fondly by the next generation.

10. E.T. (E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, 1982)

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Evolved out of an abandoned sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. was the highest-grossing film of all time until it was outdone by another Spielberg movie which can be found later on in this list. Like those in Close Encounters, E.T.’s alien was designed and built by Carlo Rambaldi, who also brought H. R. Giger’s eponymous Alien design to life for the 1979 sci-fi classic. Although he may appear to be a cross between a pretzel and a dog turd, the inexplicably cute E.T. was actually based on the faces of Albert Einstein and writers Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg. While the head was animatronic, the body was generally occupied by one of two little people, or by Matthew DeMeritt, a twelve-year-old with no legs who walked around with his hands inside the creature’s feet. A miniature puppet was employed for at least one shot, as seen above being adjusted by ILM’s Dennis Muren.

9. Humongous (Labyrinth, 1986)

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I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times I’ve seen this movie, and I love it every time. The imaginations of Brian Froud, Jim Henson and Terry Jones make for a potent combination of fantasy, wit, invention and silliness. Not to mention David Bowie in obscenely tight trousers, a treat for all the family. There are brilliant puppets throughout – the helpful worm, the brave canine Sir Didymus, the Wise Man’s mouthy hat, sundry goblins, and the mischievous Fireys (choreographed by Star Trek: TNG’s Gates McFadden and partly voiced by Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules, fact fans). But my favourite is Humongous. Having finally reached the Goblin City, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and her friends are faced by huge metal doors which slam together to form a hulking, axe-wielding, giant robot. Special effects supervisor George Gibbs designed a hydraulically actuated skeleton mounted on a boom arm on a dolly track hidden behind the creature. The limbs and head were operated by a single puppeteer in a telemetry rig that translated his movements to the puppet. A bit like Avatar, only the avatar in question was a real, 15ft tall character. James Cameron’s film seems pretty lame by comparison, huh?

Ghostbusters198416_zps626ab9868. The library ghost (Ghostbusters, 1984)

Despite only getting three seconds of screentime – the majority of the sequence using actress Ruth Oliver as the ghost – this puppet makes a big impact. As a kid I loved Ghostbusters for its sci-fi/horror elements; as an adult I love it equally for its comedy. The first act library sequence perfectly sets up both aspects, building up the suspense even amongst great lines like “You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.” Richard Edlund and his team at ILM built a waist-up puppet which could transform from a likeness of Oliver to a monstrously distorted apparition. It’s the movie’s first big scare and is quickly followed by one of its biggest laughs, as the proto-busters leg it unceremoniously. “That was your whole plan, ‘Get her’?”

the-thing-prtical-effects7. Spider-head (The Thing, 1982)

When making his sci-fi horror classic, John Carpenter was determined to avoid the “man in a suit” approach which had marred the movies of his childhood. To design and build the myriad puppets which would depict the titular thing in all its many guises, Carpenter hired Rob Bottin, who would go on to make the iconic Robocop suit and various exploding Arnold Schwarzeneggers for Paul Verhoeven. In The Thing’s most iconic – and most revolting – scene, the chameolonic alien is disguised as the prone form of Norris (Charles Hallahan). After munching off the arms of the doctor trying to revive him, the Norris creature’s head splits off from the body and falls to the floor. It then sprouts eight arachnid legs and two extra eyes on stalks and scuttles off across the room. In one of cinema’s great understatements, David Clennon’s Palmer deadpans, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”

6. The giant squid (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1954)

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a much-loved Disney classic from that era when every Jules Verne adaptation seemed to star James Mason. Probably the largest puppet ever made for a film at the time, the giant squid still impresses today. Its climactic attack on the Nautilus was originally shot at sunset with a calm sea, but the wires holding up the tentacles were too obviously visible. Walt Disney himself allegedly suggested the reshoot in dark, stormy conditions and the result was a much more dramatic and convincing sequence.

5. The alien queen (Aliens, 1986)

Say what you like about James Cameron, his understanding of and invention in the field of special effects is remarkable. Above is the proof-of-concept footage for the alien queen in his all-out-action sequel. As per Cameron’s idea, two stuntmen are hung from a crane, each operating one extended outer arm and one vestigial inner arm. The legs are moved externally by rods and the head of the finished creature would be hydraulic, operated via steering wheels from a nearby operators’ station. Built by Stan Winston Studio, and also directed in second unit photography by Winston himself, the queen takes the Alien mythos to a whole new level. What blows my mind is how Cameron and Winston were able to hide or frame out the rods, rigs and cables in an era before digital wire removal. Certain wide shots, notably in the egg chamber and the climactic battle with Ripley’s power loader, were realised as quarter-scale miniatures. These were puppeteered by a combination of rods from beneath the model sets and cables running to a bank of levers off camera. (I also love the miniature alien puppet that was used in Alien 3 which moved beautifully but was ruined by terrible compositing.)

4. The T-rex (Jurassic Park, 1993)

Inspired by the 40ft hydraulic ape built for John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong remake (which would probably be on this list if I’d ever seen the film), Steven Spielberg embarked on Jurassic Park hoping to use full-size animatronics to realise all of his dinosaur shots. This of course proved impractical, and we all know about the ground-breaking CGI that ultimately supplied the wide shots of the animals. But the majority of the dinosaur shots in the movie were indeed full-size animatronics built and operated by Stan Winston and co. The main T-rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally preprogrammed, the prehistoric monster was generally puppeteered live. Winston and his crew built a three-foot T-rex armature packed with sensors; when this armature was moved, the full-size Rex would duplicate the movement in real time.

3. Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980)

Yoda-PuppetRanks so highly in this list Yoda does, because of his cultural impact. Terrified that audiences would reject a muppet character in a live action film, George Lucas, producer Gary Kurtz and director Irvin Kershner were. Brave enough to try it had they not been, attempted The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth might never have been. (Go on to produce The Dark Crystal, Kurtz would, while exec produce Labyrinth, Lucas would.) Sculpted by makeup artist Stuart Freeborn, Yoda was, and bears a distinct resemblance to him, the puppet does. Help build the puppet, the Jim Henson Company did, around a cast of performer Frank Oz’s arm. The puppetry to accommodate, built four feet above the floor, the Dagobah set was. For voicing and performing Miss Piggy, most famous Frank Oz was. Intend to replace Oz’s voice Lucas did, but work so well with his puppetry it did, that remain Oz’s voice did.

2. Audrey II (Little Shop of Horrors, 1986)

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Aside from E.T., Audrey II is the only puppet on this list that properly lip-syncs – not just flapping its jaw, but actually forming the correct mouth shapes for each syllable – a fiendishly difficult task for a puppet. Animatronics expert Lyle Conway, a veteran of The Dark Crystal and the Muppets franchise, came on board to design and build the five iterations of Audrey II, ranging in size from a few inches to over twelve feet. Conway then hired a trio of lip-sync puppeteers fresh from Return to Oz (another great puppet movie which narrowly missed this list) who rehearsed for three months. They were joined by additional crew – as many as 70 for the largest plant – to manipulate the vines and control the gross body movements. One of those puppeteers was concealed inside the head, but the rest worked via five-foot-tall levers hooked to cable controls in a sweaty space beneath the set that resembled a manic convention of railway signalmen. So exhausting was the operation of the larger puppets that a physical therapist was hired by the production, and only a few lines of a song could be shot each day. Check out the film’s awesome original ending below.

1. Everything (The Dark Crystal, 1982)

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For me, filmmaking is all about imagination, and by that measure The Dark Crystal must be the greatest film ever made. In recent years there have been horrifying rumours of a 3D sequel mixing puppets and CGI, but mercifully this abomination seems trapped in development hell. There is something so very satisfying about a world which has been realised entirely through hands-on, physical means – you can feel the blood, sweat and tears. The performers of the creepy Garthim, for example, had to be hung on racks to rest at regular intervals, so heavy were their costumes. Skesis puppeteers went around all day with one arm extended above their heads (inside the puppet head and neck) and video monitors strapped to their chests so they could see what they were doing. A Swiss mime was brought in to choreograph certain characters, and to train the team of performers before the shoot, building up the physical stamina they would need. Directed by the two greatest movie puppeteers in the world, Jim Henson and Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal is a monument to the art of puppetry and remains to this day one of the most unique films in cinematic history.

The 10 Greatest Movie Puppets of All Time

Looking After Your Cast and Crew

The cast and crew
The cast and crew of Stop/Eject

On a low budget shoot, it’s all too easy to overlook the welfare of your cast and crew in the push to get your story in the can. I’ve been on both sides of the equation, and I’ve put together a list of suggestions to keep morale high and leave your cast and crew with warm feelings about working on your productions. These things are especially important when you cannot afford to pay people much or anything. I’ve got all of these wrong at various times in the past, sometimes several at once. I’m trying to do better though.

  1. Be polite. Compliment people’s work whenever possible, thank them frequently and apologise when things go wrong. If people feel appreciated, they’ll go that extra mile for you.
  2. Feed them well. I was on a shoot recently where we were served hot, home-cooked meals every lunchtime, followed by delicious homemade desserts, followed by a pot of tea. Amazing! Sadly, I’ve also done shoots where there was neither lunch break nor lunch itself – we were all expected to just keep on going. It’s essential to feed your cast and crew well to keep up morale and energy levels.
  3. Let them see the rushes. The heads of department may all be buoyed by the creativity they’re getting to express, but what about the assistants and runners? Let them see the monitor while you’re shooting, or screen some rushes of an evening, and they’ll feel much more valued and engaged with the project.
  4. Try to stay on schedule. When you’re not a Bectu/Equity shoot, it’s easy to take advantage of the lack of regulations and power on through that scheduled wrap time. But you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because everyone will be more tired and work more slowly the next day. And don’t forget that some crew members – the DIT, for example – still have work to do after you’ve wrapped, and people may have a long commute to get home.
  5. Reward them. When the shoot’s over, do something to show you valued and appreciated everyone’s hard work. Throw a wrap party, or buy people little gifts, or send “thank you” cards.
  6. Keep them in the loop. Postproduction often drags on and on when you have little or no budget, but don’t forget your production crew. Keep them up to date, and if they need material for their showreels, get it to them as soon as you can. A cast and crew screening, even if it’s just at your house, will always be appreciated, as will a DVD or Blu-ray copy if you can possibly afford it.
Looking After Your Cast and Crew

My 10 Most Popular Videos

Right now there are 120 videos on my YouTube channel, most of them behind-the-scenes featurettes. They range from video blogs and on-set reports – like this one on lighting a tavern scene in The First Musketeer –  to in-depth “how to” guides – like The Dark Side Guide to Building a Set. Here are the top ten most viewed:

1. 10: Cumbersome (Benedict Cumberbatch as Max)

Part of a series of fifteen podcasts covering the making of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s demo scenes, this episode focuses on the challenges faced by Benedict Cumberbatch in portraying the germophobic Maximillian Clarke. With nearly 70,000 views at the time of writing, this is far and away my most popular video. I wonder why this could be? 😉 Lots of women seem to be appreciating Benedict’s little dance at 1:37. If you want to know what Sherlock himself is like to work with, the fact that he put up with being in this suit without complaining tells you all you need to know.

2. Soul Searcher trailer

I still bump into people who know of me from following the Soul Searcher blog all those years ago, so maybe that has something to do with this trailer’s popularity.

3. The Dark Side Guide to Miniature Effects

This is one of four “Dark Side Guides” I posted during 2010 and 2011, giving detailed advice about stuff I learnt the hard way while making The Dark Side of the Earth‘s demo scenes. They’re my most polished behind-the-scenes videos, and at ten minutes long each, some of my most in-depth as well. This one focuses on the challenges of shooting miniatures, including choice of scale and lenses, and how to combine them with full-scale footage. A budget breakdown at the end reveals all the costs that went into creating Dark Side’s miniature shots.

4. A Message from Georgina Sherrington

Demonstrating the power of a star name, this video was posted during the second crowd-funding campaign for my short fantasy drama Stop/Eject, to promote a new reward we were offering to sponsors. Read my crowd-funding evaluation to find out how this helped our campaign.

5. Stop/Eject trailer starring Georgina Sherrington

We promoted this combined trailer and pitch video very heavily during the seven months the postproduction crowd-funding campaign was running. Note how this video, along with others in this top ten, has the actor named in the title to maximise the chances of it coming up in a search by one of her fans.

6. Stop/Eject tape #7: Make a Sandbag

Stop/Eject’s costume designer Katie Lake demonstrates how to make a sandbag for weighing down lighting stands. This video’s popularity was given a huge boost after it was featured on Indy Mogul’s Moguler Made.

7. Soul Searcher

Soul Searcher is a fantasy action film about an ordinary guy who is trained to be the new Grim Reaper. It was picked up for distribution by a small UK company, who sold it to several territories for DVD release. When my contract with them expired, I posted the whole film on YouTube. It’s quite possible that, with 3,699 views to date, the film has reached more people this way than it did through the formal distribution deal.

 8. The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate

When making The Dark Side of the Earth’s demo scene, which was shot on 35mm, I struggled to find a single, reliable source of information about the DI process. This inspired me to start the Dark Side Guides and to make this guide in particular. It takes you through the whole process, covering all the decisions you’ll have to make and the issues you might encounter, and concludes with a budget breaking down all the costs.

9. Editing Stop/Eject

Another one that was boosted by appearing on Moguler Made, this is a brief but effective demonstration of the big impact that relatively small changes to an edit can have. It shows how I addressed issues that were raised in test screenings to make the narrative clearer.

10. 3: Suit You

This is another in the original series of Dark Side podcasts, going inside the workshop of FBFX to see how they constructed the germ suit which would be worn by Benedict Cumberbatch. Kevin Giles, seen modelling the suit and remarking on how comfortable it is, has been stuck with the nickname “duvet” ever since.

If you’re hungry for more, I’ve compiled the following list of all my videos, organising them by topic in roughly the order those topics crop up during the making of a film.

General

Writing

Development

Fund-raising & Budgeting

Pre-visualisation

DIY Builds & Rigs

Casting/Acting

Costume & Wardrobe

Scheduling

Production

Camera & Lighting

Stunts & Action

Sound & Music

Special & Visual Effects

Editing & Post-production

Distribution & Festivals

Miscellaneous (i.e. not behind-the-scenes videos)

My 10 Most Popular Videos

The Visual Effects of The Abyss

It’s time for one of my occasional asides celebrating the world of traditional visual effects – miniatures, matte paintings, rear projection, stop motion and the like. For a film using all of those techniques, look no further than The Abyss (1989). Arguably James Cameron’s most underrated film, it can also be considered his most ambitious. Whereas Terminator 2 had bigger action scenes, Titanic had a bigger set and Avatar had more cutting edge technology, these concerns all pale in comparison to the sheer difficulty of shooting so much material underwater.

The hour-long documentary Under Pressure makes the risks and challenges faced by Cameron and his crew very clear.

The Abyss won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and is remembered chiefly for the then-cutting-edge CG water tentacle. But it also ran the gamut of traditional effects techniques.

The film follows the crew of an experimental underwater drilling platform, led by Bud (Ed Harris), as they are roped into helping a team of navy divers, led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), investigate the sinking of a submarine. Underwater-dwelling aliens and cold war tensions become involved, and soon an unhinged Coffey is setting off in a submersible to dispatch a nuke to the bottom of the Cayman Trench and blow up the extra-terrestrials.

When Bud and his wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) give chase in a second submersible, a visual effects tour de force ensues. The following methods were used to build the sequence:

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  • Medium-wide shots of the actors in real submersibles shot in an abandoned power station that had been converted by the production into the world’s largest fresh-water filtered tank, equal in capacity to about eleven Olympic swimming pools.

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  • Close-ups of the actors in a submersible mock-up on stage.

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  • Over-the-shoulder shots of the actors in the submersible mock-up, with a rear projection screen  outside the craft’s dome, showing miniature footage accomplished with….

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  • Quarter-scale radio-controlled submarines, shot in a smaller tank. These miniatures were remarkably powerful and, due to the lights and batteries on board, weighed around 450lb (204kg). In order to see what they were doing, the operators were underwater as well, using sealed waterproof joysticks to direct the craft. The RC miniatures were used when the craft needed to collide with each other, or with the underwater landscape, and whenever the audience was not going to get a good look at the domes on the front of the submersibles and notice the lack of actors within.

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  • One of the custom film projectors inserted into the miniature subs
    One of the custom film projectors inserted into the miniature subs

    Where a more controlled camera move was required, or the actors needed to be visible inside the subs, but it was not practical to shoot full-scale, motion control was used. This is the same technique used to shoot spaceships in, for example, the original Star Wars trilogy. A computer-controlled camera moves around a static model (or vice versa), exposing film very slowly in order to maintain a large depth of field. The move is repeated several times for each different vehicle under different lighting conditions, before compositing all of the “passes” together on the optical printer in the desired ratios, to achieve the final look. For The Abyss’s motion control work, the illusion of being underwater was created with smoke. In shots featuring the submersibles’ robot arms, stop motion was employed to animate these appendages. But perhaps the neatest trick was in making the miniature subs appear to be inhabited; the models were fitted with tiny projectors which would throw pre-filmed footage of the actors onto a circular screen behind the dome.

The sub chase demonstrates perfectly how visual effects should work: mixing a range of techniques so that the audience never has time to figure out how each one is done, and using an appropriate technique for each individual shot so that you’re making things no more and no less complicated than necessary to tell that little piece of the story.

My favourite effect in the sequence is near the end, when the dome of Coffey’s sub cracks under the water pressure. This was filmed over-the-shoulder using rear projection for the view outside of the dome. But the dome was taken from a real submersible, and as such was too thick and too valuable to be genuinely cracked. So someone, and whoever he or she is is an absolute genius, came up with the idea of using an arrangement of backlit sellotape on the dome to create the appearance of a crack. A flag was then set in front of the backlight, rendering the sellotape invisible. On cue, the flag was slid aside, gradually illuminating the “crack”.

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Now that, my friends, is thinking outside the box.

The Visual Effects of The Abyss