Posts Tagged With: ashes to ashes

The Doctor of Oz

OK. Watch this first. Better yet, watch it and then go to the YouTube page and click the ‘like’ button. God knows I could use the hit count, and I’d rather get it fairly than resort to artificial inflation.

The Wizard of Oz is one of those films that has followed me round for most of my life. You may remember, some months ago, that I blogged about our household’s first video recorder and the many viewings of Ghostbusters that followed. The Wizard of Oz may have been the fourth or fifth pre-recorded tape we bought. I’d already got through the book and wasn’t quite prepared for the glossy Technicolor buoyancy that followed. It would be years before I learned about the mythology that sprung up around the film, with the in-fighting amongst the cast, the problems with Garland’s breasts, the near-omission of ‘Over The Rainbow’ and the urban legend about the dead Munchkin.

I was saying to sj only the other week that the interesting thing about The Wizard of Oz on film is its utter trashing of the ending. While it takes a number of liberties with the book, with many characters dropped and many adventures abandoned, the biggest thing that happens is the solidification of Dorothy’s Kansas life, giving her a reason to come home. But it’s more than this: the very end of the film is a direct reversal of the very end of the novel, in which Dorothy arrives out of nowhere and lands on the grass outside the house that her parents are rebuilding. In the film, the entire journey to and from Oz – and, crucially, all the inhabitants therein – are seemingly¬†imagined constructs, with friends and nemeses taking on counterpart roles when she and Toto set off along the Yellow Brick Road.

In other words, in the film Dorothy doesn’t actually go to Oz. She only thinks she does. The novel – and its many sequels – establish Oz as a real place that’s not on any map, but which anyone can visit (and indeed, Dorothy and her Aunt and Uncle eventually uproot and take up permanent residence there in one of the later books). In the film, she gets concussion during the cyclone and wakes up in her own room some hours later none the worse for her ordeal, with no one willing to believe that she’s been gone for days. This isn’t revealed until the very end of the film, unlike, say, Life on Mars – a show that was in many ways a direct homage to Oz – which featured a protagonist who spent most of his time trying to work out whether he had in fact time-travelled or was merely trapped in his own subconscious. The show’s sequel, Ashes to Ashes, explained everything (and nonetheless posed as many questions as it had provided answers), but perhaps the best explanation to this conundrum came from Albus Dumbledore near the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which he reassures our eponymous hero that “Of course it’s happening in your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean it isn’t real?”.

And I’m rambling.

This all started with the scarecrow. I picked him up in Cancer Research one Friday evening for a bargain price. As I snapped the lid on the plastic tub that contains the Doctor Who figure collection, making a mental note to do another photo-shoot some time, I noticed that if you were to team him up with one of the Cybermen, and – ooh, I don’t know, the Werewolf from ‘Tooth and Claw’, you’d have the three sidekicks from The Wizard of Oz. And after that, all you really need is Dorothy and Toto.

Casting was the real joy here. Pantomime is a big part of Christmas – at least it is in this country – and The Wizard of Oz is on every holiday, so I took the approach of the Who figures staging their own amateur dramatics production, sort of like the characters in Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation. There was no question of who to cast as Toto, and with that in mind there was really only one choice for Dorothy (unless I can find a Leela or Romana figure, anyway). Sarah Jane’s a bit long in the tooth here, admittedly, but so was Garland.

The Wizard of Oz features an amusing turn by Frank Morgan, who not only plays the Wizard himself (and his real-world counterpart, Professor Marvel) but also the Emerald City gatekeeper, the cab driver and the weeping sentry outside the Wizard’s inner sanctum. It’s the sort of multi-role casting that Eddie Murphy now seemingly does in every single movie he makes, but in 1939 it worked beautifully – and when it came to casting the Wizard (which obviously has to be the First Doctor, who looks the part), it made sense to cast some of his other regenerations in these supporting roles. The wish-fulfilment scenes of John Barrowman getting run over by the pirate ship / eaten by Joshua’s Playmobil clam were something I stuck in at the last minute when I realised I really wanted to feature Jack, without having anything for him to actually do. (Those familiar with musical theatre will have worked out that he’s singing – or attempting to sing – ‘The Doctor and I’, an adapted version of ‘The Wizard and I’, from Wicked, itself an unofficial prequel to Oz. I love joining up those dots!)

MGM are notoriously hot on copyright when it comes to The Wizard of Oz. They allow for short scenes on YouTube, but will block certain iconic moments (like Dorothy’s arrival in Munchkinland) and I read of several people who had seen videos deleted or audio disabled because it infringed copyright. So I took no chances and stuck instead to a four-minute summary of the entire film, in short bursts that tell the story (sans music) without ever telling too much of it at once. The result is a video that jumps all over the place, but it works, more or less.

I shot this over an evening and a morning, and then it was just a question of synching the photos with the narrative. I didn’t feel confident enough to venture into stop motion on this occasion, so you’re stuck with the pictures, but they do – wherever possible – mimic the positioning of the actors in the film. The sets are dreadful, of course, but I was working with Duplo and Playmobil. Likewise the lighting is second-rate – if I’m going to start doing this properly I really ought to invest in a decent studio area with spot lamps, but at least you can see it.

It’s the credit visuals I’m quite pleased with. Here they are again, without all those words getting in the way.

The scarecrow, as a friend of mine pointed out, is a surprisingly good breakdancer. Who knew?

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Darth Gene

Masked characters are, for obvious reasons, very easy to redub. The better known the original voice, and the deeper the contrast, the more effective the result. Darth Vader is thus ripe for lampooning, being one of those few instances where the voice arguably supersedes the appearance of the character – in other words, as many people could tell you what he sounds like (usually in the form of awkward, barely recognisable impressions) as they could describe him visually. Thanks to James Earl Jones’ delivery, Vader’s voice is an integral, inseparable component of his character, to the extent that removing it means he’s simply not Darth Vader (cf. the end of Revenge of the Sith – you’ll know what I’m talking about). You do have to wonder how they cope in the foreign releases.

A glance over the internet finds any number of Star Wars parodies, many of which involve Jones, using dialogue from The Lion King and any number of other pictures that starred or featured him. For a bit of comic relief you could also do a lot worse than look up the original dialogue as recorded by Dave Prowse while he was stomping around the sets in character. The result is Darth Vader as performed by the Wurzels: a slightly effete pirate captain, perhaps. (There’s an urban legend that says that Prowse genuinely thought his own voice would feature in the final cut. I wish I could believe that.)

But it was the reuse of dialogue from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch – specifically the primary antagonist, Brick Top – that resulted in one of the funniest videos ever to hit YouTube. I am not including a link to it here, simply because Snatch Wars (go on, look it up if you must) is basically funnier than anything I’ve ever done and anything I’m likely to do. As redubs go, it’s the pinnacle, Everest, the holy grail. It’s where we’re all trying to reach. I was ambivalent about even mentioning it in this post, but I have to, simply because it was so influential.

The last videos I posted – i.e. the two Ashes to Ashes ones – were constructed while I was leafing through footage for this, almost as a side project. The idea of taking the hardest copper in Manchester / London and sticking his voice onto Vader the Grand Inquisitor was so obvious I couldn’t believe no one had done it before (I eventually found out why, but more on that later). Hunt is blessed with so many classic, instantly quotable lines throughout his forty-odd television appearances that this seemed as natural as breathing. So I rented the DVDs, ripped out the audio, and sat down at the computer.

And it took the entire summer.

All right, I was away for three weeks, here and there. But even leaving that aside I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into. For a start, there was so much dialogue. I had to abandon my original idea of actually listening to every episode, and instead opted to read through transcripts for both shows, which I’d helpfully found online (although one is no longer available), and then skipping through each audio file to find the appropriate dialogue passages. Even then, a lot of stuff had to be ditched – lines and sequences which looked great on paper were, as it turns out, entirely unusable as they were undercut by music or background noises that meant their inclusion in Star Wars would have jarred completely. There were tears over some of the stuff I had to cut. Actual tears.

Even once you have enough dialogue – and there was enough, even with the net losses – actually putting the thing together was fiddly and problematic. The Dalek Zippy video had been much easier because I rarely had to contend with any sort of musical background; the score is minimal and where it did pop in I could remove it completely, because the Daleks were mostly speaking to each other. This doesn’t work in a film where half the time the character you’re dubbing has to react to dialogue from other characters, which means putting their lines in, and finding that you have to paste the appropriate part of the score back in underneath the dialogue you’ve inserted. And whatever section of the trilogy you happen to be watching, there is usually something playing in the background. Half the time I found I didn’t even have the right segment on what I’d assumed were fairly complete CD editions of John Williams’ music; even when it did exist I had to contend with the PAL DVDs of the trilogy, which were marginally faster. Have a look at the scene on the Death Star between Darth Vader and Moff Jerjerrod (yes, I looked that up; even I’m not that geeky) at 7:39 and you’ll see what I mean. It hangs together, but only just.

After all the technical stuff was done I had to sequence everything and come up with credits, and it was then that I had the idea of a little ‘next time’ preview at the end, which is worth watching even if you don’t watch the rest. And out of consideration to those of you who don’t really have sixteen minutes to spare, I have contracted the best of Darth Gene into its own two minute trailer, originally so that I could submit it to The Trailer Mash, but I found I liked the trailer even more than the full edition. What was strange was that I’d expected the whole production to be, like Dalek Zippy before it, a mixture of random moments and nothing more. I wasn’t expecting to tell the story that eventually took shape.

A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this, and that’s why the subsequent YouTube embargo – related to Fox’s ownership of the material – really sucked. I should have thought about it at the time (although copyright infringement isn’t really a reason not to do something like this, you just have to be careful about where you put it). It’s a bit of a downer to find that a video that was months in creation has been blocked worldwide. I tried unsuccessfully to contest it under not-for-profit fair use (which I think is a reasonable argument) but after weeks of non-response from Fox I gave up and uploaded it to Viddler instead, where it is left undisturbed but largely unwatched. (The subtext behind this? Please pass this on, if you like it. The more exposure the better.)

It is occasionally patchy, and a little rough around the edges, and could probably do with some trimming in the Jedi sequences. But it remains, perhaps, my favourite of all the videos I’ve done, simply because I learned so much from the process – how not to do it, as well as how to do it – and it may be a while before I attempt anything of this magnitude again. And may the Schwartz be with you.

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Walk in silence

Today’s video is the televisual equivalent of bubble and squeak, in that it consists of leftovers that have formed something new and hopefully quite appetizing. Watching it again this morning, though, with a view to putting together a little accompanying text, the one dominating thought I’m carrying is “Good grief, doesn’t Gene Hunt drink a lot?”.

This one came about while I was cutting together the ‘Cars’ video I featured last week. One thing I noticed during the third season of Ashes To Ashes, in particular, was that some of the cinematography is first rate – Hollywood standard, really, thanks to a fantastic team of cinematographers (Adam Suchitzky and Balazs Bolygo, who handled most of series three, have worked on Primeval and Doctor Who respectively, along with Simon Archer, who did most of the second series). The swooshing and panning I can take or leave, as it always seems fairly generic, but there is a lot of very stylised work going on that people tend not to notice: creative use of shadow, or soft golds that bleed into the darkness (representing, somehow, Alex’s determination to cling to life, whatever it takes), and lots of other trickery. Watch an episode without sound – force yourself to see – and you’ll get what I mean, if you don’t already. There are several sequences in the prison episode (season three, episode six), featured quite extensively in this video, which owe an awful lot to the Bradbury scenes in Blade Runner, with dim blue lighting reflecting off puddles in decrepit, echoing corridors.

It struck me as unfortunate that when I was finding clips for ‘Cars’, I had to leave all these out because they didn’t fit. And the only way to make them fit was to put them in something new. The trickiest part, on this occasion, was finding music: I went through the entire soundtrack and couldn’t find anything that wanted to convey the sombre, melancholy mood that I think is epitomised in that final episode. There are plenty of great songs, but nothing that seemed quite right. Then a friend suggested Joy Division (“if you want to be miserable and depressing”), and ‘Atmosphere, which, like ‘Cars’ before it, didn’t feature in the show, was an obvious choice. Then it was a question of scanning through each episode and finding stuff that looked nice. My favourite shot in the entire series was arguably the immaculately-framed tower block conversation at 2:55, but they filmed a wealth of great stuff – the slow motion car explosion that climaxes the first series, the shadowed discussion between Alex and Gene at 3:36, and Alex’s wordless contemplation in the bar at 1:05.

A few months down the line, I’m still not quite sure about the end result. It seems a little static in places, and rather amateurish. On the other hand I think it tells a coherent story – one that, like the Andrew Gold Doctor Who montage, I didn’t intend on telling when I put it together. It just sort of panned out that way. But there were few images in the show as bittersweet as the moment in the final episode that closes this montage – a reminder of everything that’s been gained and lost, and the price you pay for finding out who you are. And having seen it again just now, I am reminded of how much I miss Gene Hunt. But more of that next week.

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Fire up the Quattro

I know Gene Hunt is a right wing anti-hero. I know he’s a poster boy for the Daily Mail. I know he’s “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding”. If he were to exist in real life, he would be repulsive. As a fictional construct, I adore him. He was Jack Sparrow to Sam Tyler’s Will Turner, or Arthur Fonzarelli to Richie Cunningham: the intended comic foil who became the focal point of the show. He got the best lines, the most interesting scenes, the fancy cinematography. The camera loved him, and so did we.

Life on Mars explored Sam’s fish-out-of-water dilemma, and its outcome – be careful what you wish for – was fairly predictable, if brilliantly executed. Its follow-up began in the same way, but our inside knowledge of Alex’s situation would have made for less interesting television had the writers not sensibly decided to switch focus to Gene. The third series is almost entirely about him, with hidden pasts unearthed, old wounds re-opened, and as many questions rewritten as answered. Come the end of the show we know more or less what’s going on, but the revelation that Gene Hunt is <WHOPPING GREAT SPOILER> doesn’t actually resolve very much at all besides give us only the vaguest idea of how this all works. For instance, why did Sam <SPOILER>? How is the <SPOILER>? Does everyone <SPOILER>? And if that’s the case, what about Shaz and <SPOILER>?

Ultimately there were so many questions asked because if you examine it, the whole construct was far less watertight than it may have been. There are all manner of loose ends and inconsistencies. Put simply, it just doesn’t work, at least not under scrutiny. And yet the nature of the show’s resolution (which I will not give away here) somehow allowed for a certain suspension of our disbelief – we were prepared to let certain things go because stylistically it fitted. It’s a far cry from the conclusion of the US version of Life on Mars, which included an interesting (if highly derivative) twist that nonetheless seemed to completely undermine everything that had gone before. (Look it up. Your jaw will drop, and not in a good way.)

The point is that Emily and I devoured every episode: it was compulsive television for both of us. As I’m sure I have said before there was comparatively little that we would watch regularly, with the exception of Doctor Who and 24. Never mind audience retention; I watch so little TV that to even make me want to switch on in the first place a series has to offer something pretty special. Life on Mars had John Simm, whom I remembered from Human Traffic (which I loved at the time, but now can’t stand) and 24 Hour Party People (in which he plays a convincing Bernard Sumner). Eagle-eyed viewers over the age of twenty may also recognise him from his ad for Cellnet.

Many people preferred Mars to Ashes. I love both. Mars is all muted browns and greens in the style of seventies cop shows that never really existed except somewhere in our imaginations. Ashes is stylistically as bold and brassy as the decade it lampoons – those who criticised the ridiculously OTT approach of the first episode have missed the point that this is (more or less) taking place inside Alex’s head, and is therefore ripe for pastiche – from a certain point of view, it’s a very, very long dream sequence. Likewise the critical mauling that Keeley Hawes received after her first episode was completely unjustified – Alex was incredibly irritating for her first few stories, before she settled down and started to enjoy herself, but the people who felt it ruined the show would do well to go back and watch the first episode of Life on Mars again, and see if they didn’t find Sam equally tiresome.

There is a Who / Ashes mashup waiting to happen, if it hasn’t been done already. This is not it. (When the first series aired, I did have the idea of Sam Tyler coming out of his coma only to wake up in the TARDIS wearing Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket, with Rose Tyler looking down at him and saying “Doctor? Are you feeling alright?”. In a slightly warped fashion, I almost got my wish.) No, this is another music video. Part of the joy behind Ashes was its soundtrack – a song selection that seemed to lean heavily on the New Romantic side of things, perhaps at the expense of other innovative material that was being produced at around the same time, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it suited the show.

And it did. It really did. Look at the opening episode and its use of the Clash, as Alex and Gene bomb through London to the strains of ‘I Fought the Law’ . Or episode 1.6, in which Glenister shoots out the window of a restaurant, stepping over the glass in slow motion as ‘Vienna’ plays in the background. Or the gypsy birth sequence that’s scored to ‘Come on Eileen’. Or pick your own. There are so many. But there are other songs I wish they’d included, such as ‘Cars’, which has always been one of my favourite driving anthems. Or Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’, which is coming next week.

Assembling this was easy: I just went through each episode, ripped out anything that involved driving (and there’s a lot of that), and spliced them all together. The source material was so good there was a wealth of stuff to choose from. There’s a little speedup on the car explosion and the clown morph, but aside from that it was a simple cut-and-paste job. Fandabbydosey.

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