Saturday, March 19, 2005

Steamboy: Rule Brittania!

Went with Mike and a whole gaggle of other friends to see Steamboy at our local Landmark theater. I knew nothing about it going in except that it was of the steampunk genre, which is always interesting, and that it was the latest from director Katsuhiro Otomo, which is even more interesting. I enjoyed it immensely. It was a wonderful film, full of action, adventure, and a bit of comedy. It had a clear but simple message that was well-handled. So I kind of wondered a bit at the somewhat negative reactions the film has been getting from various critics and animation fans. I'm not going to review the film itself- that's for you to do, and I'm hoping all who read this have either seen it or will go to see it- rather, I am going to poke a few holes in some of the sillier arguments I have heard against this film.
Argument One: The message- "Science must be used responsibly."- is old hat.
My Response: In the Victorian Era- the one in our world- humanity was in the middle of a bitter crisis. Ever since the Renaissance, science had been encroaching on the world of the spiritual. By the time of the industrial revolution, science had truly transformed the advanced nations of the world, and certainly not all for the better. The phrase "Dark Satanic Mills" really does sum up the smoke-belching factories that nontheless churned out the gifts of science to the betterment of many, at the expense of many. Beyond the social goods and evils, however, was the nagging philosophical question of whether playing in God's domain was really a good thing to be doing. Science and religion had clashed before, of course... but now, science was obviously winnning, changing the world as it went. We are experiencing the same thing again today, as science explores genetic engineering, genetic manipulation, and cloning. We have gone from being able to harness the forces of nature to being able to change the very nature of our being.
So, not only is the question relevant today... it was THE main philosophical challenge of the era portrayed in the film. For this reason, it is not old hat- it is a lens into the past, a portrayal of the philosophical challenges faced by an earlier generation.
There is a little scene, seemingly a throwaway, where Queen Victoria sits in the Crystal Palace while an Anglican priest says a few words. What the priest says is significant, however- something along the lines of "We lay these offereings of science at the foot of God Almighty and hope for His approval." This kind of thing really happened- there was an obvious discomfort at what was happening to the world, even as humanity rushed headlong into it.
Argument Two: There isn't any character development.
My Response: This one is easy. Steamboy is not a character-driven film. It is a genre film. It's main "character" is the setting. The entertainment comes from the world that is created- the characters exist to show us the world. Not to mention that there was indeed character development... Ray grows up, going from being a boy that follows everyone's orders to being a young scientist with a mind of his own. Scarlett goes from self-centeredness to concern for others and, by fits and starts, concern for humanity as a whole. Ray's father and grandfather change their views on their inventions and the role of science several times during the film when confronted with new experiences and evidence... a sure sign of growth.
Go see it. If nothing else, it's a fun film that will entertain you- I guarantee you won't walk out of the theater feeling you've wasted two hours of your life.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Do you ever wonder...

...if we, meaning humankind, will ever actually get off this rock, or are we doomed to be stuck here forever, looking up at the stars and wishing?
Time to start looking upward and outward again. The private sector is getting into the chase, which is good (more folks taking the idea seriously, entrepeneurial cash drives the world) and bad (The Golden Arches on the McMoon). The Cassini Mission was a resounding success. The space elevator is clearing hurdles. There's a lot to look forward to.
On the other hand, space is becoming commonplace... and, as with any formerly new thing that becomes commonplace, the novelty wears off and it becomes just another part of life. Plus, to some folks, it can be hard to justify looking up when we've got so many problems down here...
But hey, I'm an optimist. We need new horizons. If we don't get them, we stagnate. Earth is pretty much tapped out, as far as exploration goes. Going to space is no longer a big deal... but as far as what we have seen and what we understand, compared to what there is yet to see... I can't come up with a comparison, frankly. A teardrop in the ocean doesn't do justice to the vastness of space.
The next logical step is up. We go up, or we stagnate, continue acting stupid, kill each other, and die off. I think humanity is built to survive. It's only a matter of time before we get out and go.
I hope.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A few images of Detroit, circa 2005, awaiting its 2042 makeover

I thought I’d drop in and post some images from the two location photo scouts of Detroit we've done thus far. There are so many photos that I only selected a few here for now, not even the most impressive either, though I think the fisheye Guardian shot is rather cool. I feel very much the same as Jeff does about how Detroit has gotten an awful rap, much undeserved, by media and America in general. Sadly I have to admit I even fell into that mode of thinking, in the past and I live here... well the burbs north of the city. Detroit, central heart of it, has some incredibly impressive examples of architectural beauty and some of the countries most incredible examples of art deco (The Guardian building) you’re going to set eyes on and much of this is not a part of the American consciousness, few think Detroit when they think of a city to check out.

Sadly I can understand this thinking as there is a great deal of decay surrounding the city and even within the heart of it where much of what makes Detroit interesting actually is. No question the city needs help, it needs a makeover in the places that need it and it needs to SAVE the architectural treasures that are in danger of destruction at the hands of half-baked corporate ventures, gambling anyone, a new bland-o-tecture shopping mall or corporate headquarters? Let’s just level the whole city and make it a big-ass parking lot and mega-mall… right. Progress is fine but destroying the culture, art, and beauty that founded this city (such as the destruction of the historic Hudson’s Building) and making it into another bland homogeneous corporate venture that likely will generate far less outside interest in the city (tourism folks we could use some) is a foolish road to travel.

As Jeff pointed out, many films have been set in Detroit, a few filmed here, but all too often they never actually feature the city in any visible way. Not much chance of generating interest in the city if you never actually SHOW it. Well, although this is an animated series proposal set in a future, nobody will know the visual landscape of until we get there, we actually WILL show the city with as much detail and respect as possible. Going out and shooting photos of the city and looking at it from this angle gives one a new perspective on what’s actually there. Detroit is a city in trouble for sure, financially and in many ways culturally, but it’s a city that deserves a chance and an honest portrayal. If “Cricket Song” gets the green-light, that’s what we plan to do, show a fascinating city, different in the future for sure, but still distinctly Detroit.

A Photo of John King Books from our first photo session. This simple looking building is probably going to be the most important location set in the story. As Jeff and I began discussing the “Cricket Song” project he decided he’d like the main characters to live in John king, sounded cool to me. That decided Jeff went to John King and ran the idea by John King himself (the owner obviously) of the store being a location set for a sci-fi animated TV project, Mr. King was genuinely excited and gave us full access for future photo shoots. Once Jeff, Davecat, one of Jeff’s friends Simon, and I actually went there for the first photo shoot I was sucked into all the little details that are so unique to the building, it screams personality and will look fantastic as BG paintings in animated form. It’s an old building, a glove factory from 1912 as Jeff pointed out, and as such has all these fantastic touches of that era that adds to it’s unique atmosphere, let alone the fact that it’s a bookstore, an interesting thing in itself. As unassuming as this building looks it's loaded with more character than I imagined it would be. The rough CG concept art of John King Books I posted last month was rendered before the photo shoots so it’s not anywhere near what my final designs for the futuristic version of the store will be. Overall it will remain the same with many subtle and obvious additions that will reflect the changing times up until the stories date of 2042. Posted by Hello

A shot of the city taken from the People Mover. We took a LOT of images and I must say, although I do live in the tri-metro area even I didn’t really take in how impressive this city is until we began this project in earnest. I suppose the fact that we are now looking at everything under an artistically visual microscope you tend to pay closer attention. This, and the above photo, both being low quality digital shots, were taken using an older Sony Mavica camera. Funny, it’s not that old, per se, but is now sort of an antique in digi cam terms, the march of technology never rests.  Posted by Hello

A 35millimeter Fisheye shot, taken by Jeff, of The main hall in the spectacular art deco building The Guardian (click the link folks for the official sites, it's well worth a look). This building’s utter sense of grandeur is so overpowering when you are actually inside it that looking at any photo, no matter how good, simply can not do it justice. If you live in Detroit, and never checked it out, do yourself a favor and do so. The tour really was something, can't wait to go back for a future photo shoot.

Posted by Hello

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Detroit Don't Get No Respect... Even From Michiganders!

Continuing what I started yesterday... one of the problems Detroit has is that its suburbs are cut off from the city. If you look at the great cities of North America, they all have good public transport into downtown from the suburbs and vice versa. Chicago, New York, Toronto... the list goes on and on. Detroit doesn't have a rail system... or a subway... or even efficient, logical bus service from the suburbs to downtown. As a result, downtown struggles to build and market itself because it needs suburban money, but the suburbanites don't have any way to get there except by car, which they then drive aroudn in circles looking for a place to park. This isn't a death knell in itself, but the city sure doesn't make itself inviting.
Everyone is familiar with the movie "8 Mile", and in that film the significance of that street is explained... it is a physical dividing line, a barrier, a divided highway difficult to cross except by automobile. I live in Ferndale, a suburb just north of Detroit, about half a mile north of 8 Mile. As I head down Woodward Avenue, the old highway that runs from the northern suburbs all the way down to the riverfront, I encounter a monstrosity at 8 Mile- a huge, ugly bridge that goes over it, impassible except at great peril to pedestrians, effectively cutting the city off. On the Detroit side of 8 Mile, just east of Woodward, lies the State Fairgrounds, home to the Michigan State Fair, which everyone in Ferndale, despite the fact that they can see it right across the street, has to drive to... because otherwise, they take their lives in their hands. Examples like the Woodward Dream Cruise are also telling- every year, folks with classic cars bring them to Woodward Avenue and cruise up and down the road for three days. Last year the event drew over 30,000 classic cars and one million people... yet the course ran from Pontiac in the north to... 8 Mile in the south. In other words, an event celebrating the best products of the Motor City does not actually enter the Motor City. Not that there's much to see on Woodward south of 8 Mile until you get to the New Center area, anyway...
The division is as mental as it is physical. I went to the pharmacy today to pick up the photos from yesterday's field trip. The photo clerk told me she loved my photos, with all of the interesting buildings, places, etc. She then asked me "Where is that? New York?" My jaw hit the floor. The place we were standing was literally only about ten miles from where all of the photos were taken! "No... Detroit." I said. She looked shocked. The unspoken words were, of course, something like "Really? I had no idea Detroit had all that cool stuff in it."
Wow. While a tourist boom would be nice, it would be equally effective if folks around here knew about the coolness that is right under their noses.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Detroit Rocks!

Mike, the inimitable Davecat, and myself went on a little field trip today... into the heart of downtown Detroit, on a photo-gathering mission for use on another Vulne Pro project that we will be unveiling in the next few weeks- the same one Mike posted about, the one connected to the pic of the flying Hummer.
Our first stop was John King Books, the largest used bookstore in Michigan (750,000 titles), which entirely fills four floors plus the basement of a 1912 glove factory. We also visited the Guardian Building, one of the most insanely beautiful art deco structures ever built, filled with incredibly ornate details and workmanship. Our thanks to the incredible concierge, Christopher, who took the time to give us a grand and informative tour. We rode the People Mover, also known as Coleman Young's Folly, after the former mayor of Detroit who ruled with an iron hand and apparently had a thing for building his own full-size train set. Actually, it is a fun little monorail... even if extremely limited in range- and a great moving platform for photography. We went through the weird concrete bowels of the Renaissance Center, now GM world Headquarters, an interesting if rather soul-crushing 70s corporate design. We had a blast, in other words... and I wondered, as I often do, why it is, exactly, that Detroit seems to have such a bad rep in most places?
Sure, Detroit isn't as big as Chicago or New York, not as sheek as L.A., or as hip as Seattle. But we have a lot of things going for us here, a lot of beauty and interest, a lot of cool stuff that has not been seen around the country... not just the obvious stuff that has been beaten to death by our own PR people (The auto industry, Motown, etc.) When was the last time you saw the History Channel come to Detroit to do a special on the many excellent examples of art deco architecture Detroit has? Detroit grew from a fairly small city in 1900 to the fourth-largest metropolis in America by 1930... and as the people and industry flowed in, so did the money, and boy, did they use it to build some cool stuff. There's also the fact that Detroit sits on an international border. Right across the river, spanned by the Ambassador Bridge and the Windsor Tunnel, stands the city of Windsor, Ontario. It is one of the only places in America where you have to drive south to get to Canada... and it's kind of cool to look across the Detroit River and see into another country, little more than a stone's throw away.
All of these grand buildings, this unique location, this historical importance... all has been overshadowed for years in the media by the tired old saws of the Detroit riots, white flight, murder capital, etc. Why? I'm sure none of the other cities in the country are free from crime, strife, or political incompetence... at least, for every problem you hear about, you hear three or four good things. How about giving the Motor City a fair shake? Something more than setting a cheeseball flick like Robocop here... but filming it in Dallas.
This new project... we hope... will address this imbalance. It is a comedy, a slice-of-life drama, a SF romp... set in Detroit. The real Detroit... warts, beauty, and all.
More to Come...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Antelope Question

People have asked me if I believe in alien abduction phenomena. I guess the question is natural, seeing as how I write a comic strip parodying the subject. My answer, though, will satisfy no one... I don't know. I've experienced some weird stuff. I've read about weirder stuff happening to others. After all that, I still have to sit on the fence.
However, I will say this... it is an intriguing possibility. And I have little patience with those who outright dismiss the suggestion of it. Many people whom I otherwise admire seem to have their blinders on when it comes to this subject... a good example is SF and science fact author Rudy Rucker. An intelligent fellow by any definition of the word, a funny, interesting, and engaging writer (author of the Software / Wetware / Freeware cycle), and seemingly brimming with ideas, dismisses the idea and even ridicules it in a certain book of his which I will not mention here. He does so for most of the same reasons that seem to be trotted out, including the "physical impossibility" angle... the Earth is too far, too many light years away, there is no propulsion system that can bridge the gap, etc.
He may be right. That very well may be true... but he really shoots himself in the foot when he complains that it is ridiculous to believe that alien beings would brave the rigors and distances of space to come to our planet just to study our genitalia.
Oh, really?
Imagine, if you will... a researcher in California. She kisses her husband and child goodbye, takes her suitcase and lab equipment, and catches a plane to New York. There, she meets with her mentors and finalizes a plan. She takes control of a wad of cash and takes a plane to Nairobi. From there, it's into a smaller plane to a smaller town, and from there into a jeep, and from there to an airstrip where she takes a helicopter out into the savannah. She spies a herd of antelope and tells the pilot to fly low. She fires her rifle and darts one. The pilot lands, and she hops out. She weighs the animal, takes a blood sample, and gathers other information. She fits it with a radio tag and leaves. The animal wakes up and bounds off to join its fellows.
Now... we have a human being who has taken a month or more out of her life, travelled a ridiculous distance (especially when we consider the natural pace of human locomotion), spent a lot of money and resources, endured hardship in travel and camp life, and all for... studying an animal's genitalia. What the hell for? Why do it?
Let's consider the same thing from the antelope's perspective. This thing dropped out of the sky. Vague memories of being handled... then I'm awake again. If you could communicate with the antelope and tell them that this creature, this human, had come from the other side of the planet (a distance too vast to imagine) by way of a flying machine that flies six miles in the air and travels 20 times faster than you can run at full speed (a concept beyond belief), wouldn't the antelope call you crazy?
How about going to the moon? We spent how much money? We spent ten years of the best work of how many of our best scientists? How long, how many years, did those astronauts train for? Three of them died in training, three more nearly died en route. They endured weeks of isolation in a pair of tiny tin cans, ate tasteless goop from tubes, pissed and shat in plastic bags, risked their lives, and all for what? Bringing back a pile of rocks?
Of course, the researcher's expedition to the savannah and the moon landings meant much more than the sum of their parts, and reap dividends far beyond the simple knowledge that they acquired. So why would studying a green planet, teeming with life, NOT be of enough interest to other civilizations to spend the time, money, and sweat to get here? Why is it that Rucker, like so many others, finds it impossible to believe that other civilizations would have the same rabid scientific curiosity that we have... and go to roughly equivalent lengths to fulfill it?
One mistake, as Michio Kaku has observed, is thinking of alien civilizations as being a couple of hundred years or so more advanced than we are. In the scale of the time the universe has existed, though, this is kind of ridiculous. Why wouldn't they be thousands of years ahead of us? How about millions? In other words, their mode of transport is to ours as ours is to the antelope... A million years ago, early man was not getting around in 747s... we were walking, swimming, perhaps paddling on logs. The very idea of a flying machine that could haul hundreds of people at 600 miles per hour with a range of over 6,000 miles was nothing more than the purest fancy a hundred years ago, to say nothing of a million.
Let's just say that I don't believe that we have yet discovered the fastest way to get around in space... and to think that we have, and that all civilizations forever will be limited to puttering around in chemical or atomic rockets is a little naive. Sure, there are fundamental physical laws to be considered... but do we really understand physics all that well? We know far less than we think... which is a wonderful thing, because there is so much cool stuff left to discover.