film Archives - Forest Friend Creative Projects

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Never Let Me Go

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If you have never seen the film “Never Let Me Go,” based on Kazuo Ishiguru’s novel of the same name, GO WATCH IT NOW. Yes, right now. I’ll wait. If you are my mother, bring a box of Kleenex. Okay, maybe two.

I love this film so much. SO MUCH. I’ve watched this thing over and over again because I love everything about it: the story, the emotion, the tension, the lurking metaphors, the set dressing, the costumes, the entire aesthetic. Certain critics called this film “hipster sci-fi” (which, as far as epithets go, is basically a compliment). And sure, the very subtle sci-fi alternate history plot, intercut with attractive twentysomethings exchanging longing gazes, having general angst and wearing thrift-shop clothes could easily be written off as a cheap play to that particular demographic.

But actually, it’s not. And what is so interesting about the production design of this film is that Ishiguru’s novel contains very few specific visual details of character and setting. The aesthetic choices that the production team made on this film were bang-on — eerily beautiful visual details to captured the tone of Ishiguru’s chilling first-person narrative, creating a film that actually looked as believable and heart-wrenching as the book felt. The fact that the result was not only stunning but also pretty fashionable was coincidental.

~~~~~~~~~~~~SPOILER ALERT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So what is this film about? The premise is this: in the 1950s a singularity occurred. That singularity was the development of human cloning, and thereby the end of disease. The characters in the film, who start out as children in the mid 1970s, are clones who are being raised to donate their organs before the age of 30. They live at a pleasant boarding school called Hailsham where they are taught reading, writing and arithmetic like all children. They do role-playing exercises to learn how to interact with the outside world. And they are encouraged to express themselves artistically, for the faculty of Hailsham are interested in more than simply the care and feeding of clones: they wish to discover whether the clones have souls.

The premise is horrifying and chilling, and becomes even more so as the story progresses because it remains virtually undiscussed, tainting every moment of the characters’ lives. The story is not a revelatory thriller: the characters know their fate and they do not try to escape it. It’s like Logan’s Run… except nobody runs. And there is nowhere to run, just like there is nowhere for any of us to run when it comes down to the end of our lives.

But this film addresses something more specific than the universal anxieties of existence and death. The generational aspect of the film is hard to ignore: the older generation cannibalizes the younger. And this is precisely the direction that the world is taking, albeit in less visceral and more insidious ways. Health care systems are becoming more and more overburdened as older generations live longer. Pension funds are being drained, not only because there are fewer young workers to pay into government pensions, but because those young workers face fewer opportunities, lower comparative wages, higher prices and less job security than their parents and grandparents did. And perhaps worst of all, governments like Canada are stripping the very institutions and organizations dedicated to preserving the integrity of our society and environment for future generations, and investing in military might, unethical and unsafe industrial development, and a political climate of secrecy and control.

So let’s look at some of the ways these profoundly unsettling themes come through in the visual details.

1. Secondhand clothes The children of Hailsham do not have matching uniforms. The boys and girls all wear grey shirts and sweaters and jackets and pinafores, but they are all different, as if they had been color-filtered out of a big bin of secondhand clothes. Now, all schoolchildren, public or private, wear matching uniforms in Britain, so this styling choice highlights two very important plot points: 1) That the students of Hailsham are seen by government (which funds the institution) as second-rate, and 2) That the faculty of Hailsham look at each child as an individual. Even when they grow up, the characters wear clothes just like you or I might find at the local Salvation Army. No one is investing in their future; they have no future, and their lives are simply a means to an end. Why waste valuable resources on them when a bare minimum will do?

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2. Living spaces in disrepair The cracking plaster in the Hailsham dormitory, the uninsulated Cottages and the old, dusty furniture inside reinforce the lack of responsibility that the government feels towards what is really their most valuable commodity. It also indicates that a paradigm shift is taking place. Barely hinted at in the film (and only slightly more in the book) is the fact that Hailsham is unique: there are other homes, referred to as “battery farms”, where conditions are supposedly much more unpleasant. Hailsham’s closure later in the film intimates that the practice of treating clones like real people is to be replaced by cheaper, more efficient methods.

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3. Found objects It has been documented that children who grow up in un-rooted, high-stress environments (ie. orphanages) tend to collect and hoard small objects, in an effect to exert control and create for themselves a little nested life amidst the fear and confusion of their worlds. The children of Hailsham are treated to occasional “bumper crops” — the delivery of small secondhand items which they can exchange for tokens garnered for good behavior. Sad little broken dolls, used crayons — the cast-offs of the outside world — become to them sacred treasures to hold and keep for all time. These intrinsically worthless items are carried with the children as they leave the school and spend their few short years living adult lives. Though they are never allowed the responsibility of owning expensive things, they prove that they are worthy, sensitive beings.

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4. Reading books The result of a decent education and artistic encouragement are young adults who are thoughtful, articulate and intelligent human beings, who (just like many young university students) read and learn without any guarantee of future opportunities to put their knowledge to use. And for the clones, their future is to be butchered and used only for their organs, throwing away all the inherent potential that never has time to blossom.

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Five Iconic Notebooks in Film

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I am a highly non-linear notebook user. I usually have several on the go at once, for different purposes. I write on scraps and sticky notes much more often than is good for me. And I have a terrible habit of folding a letter-size sheet in half, writing on one side and then the other, and then opening it and writing on the inside, leading to a completely nonsensical succession of pages that spell nothing but trouble once I haul it out of a damp ass pocket, moulded into a semicircle, and try to transcribe it (provided it hasn’t gone through the wash).

I’m also totally, shamefully susceptible to trends in note-taking. I was about 19 when I snapped up the first Moleskine I ever saw in a Halifax shop, and I rode that bandwagon like I thought it was heading straight to a hazy, idealized version of 1960s Paris, like in that movie with young Michael Pitt and incestuous siblings and labyrinthine apartments with bathrooms as big as my kitchen. I abandoned the halfsize hardcover Moleskine as my standard a few years later, due to its severely unmalliable cover but I still use the full-size, soft-cover cahiers. And I swear by Moleskine planners. The x-large, soft-cover, 1-week-per-page, 18-month agenda changed my life: with a whole page of note space for each week, I don’t feel like I need to haul around a whole other book to put my grocery lists and doodles in.

For all you other notebook junkies (I’m looking at you, Mr. Hiltz!), here’s an excellent review and critique of major notebook brands. And here’s a blog called “Notebook Stories” by a self-described notebook addict who posts on all things notebook-related. (For the record, my notebook of choice is MUJI’s kraft A5, which is not sold in my unadventurous, backwater country.)

And here, as promised, is a list of iconic notebooks that have appeared in film that have not only piqued my trend antennae, but have actually changed the way I write in my own notebooks. (And nobody comment that I forgot to mention the film “The Notebook”, because I haven’t seen it and I don’t care.)

Also: spoilers ahead.

1. Harriet the Spy.

If you have not seen this film, go watch it right now. This film still influences my style — only last year, I spent months searching through thrift shops for the perfect yellow rain coat without quite knowing why, as if the Nickelodeon production team were piloting my brain, turning me into a pawn of the lamest and most inexplicable plan for world domination. Anyway, the most iconic part of this underrated and very iconic film is Harriet’s classic marble notebook with “Private” written on the cover. In this film, notebooks store secrets and Harriet’s secrets lead her to a confrontation of who she is, what she is capable of and what it means to grow up.

The marble notebook was never part of my elementary school studies (we had these), but when I found one in a dollar store soon after I watched the film, I was once again at Nickelodeon’s mercy. Nowadays, I find the rules on the page too far apart and am annoyed by the sadly inflexible cover. But I pick some up whenever I find them, because the Mr. loves them and doubles up his rows of cramped and scratchy penmanship between the lines like some sort of crazy person…

2. Se7en.

The most disturbing of David Fincher’s films (with, perhaps, the exception of Gross Reverse-Aging Brad Pitt) features the same marble notebook as in Harriet the Spy. Except there are hundreds of them. And they are filled with doubled-up rows of cramped and scratchy penmanship, written by a psychopathic sadist serial killer. In Se7en, the notebooks do not store a secret so much as a manifesto, something meant to be found. But they also serve to ground a faceless, nameless evil within a human being, rendering the killer even more terrifying. That an eerily cool homicidal maniac would inscribe his canon of madness within the pages of a child’s copybook is a contrast played to great dramatic effect, and only one of many such excellent demented touches in the film. (Go watch this one too. Except you, Mom. You should maybe watch “The Notebook.”)

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The wear and overuse of a decades-old notebook, its pages saturated with dried ink and dust, leaves crammed with scraps and souvenirs, is something that I think would be pretty hard to fake. But the production team did a whopping good job of it with the Grail Diary in this film. The notebook in this film is a record, a chronicle of a lifetime of work, a hoard of esoteric knowledge jam-packed with drawings and notes on age-stiffened paper, the covers pockmarked and the spine creased so that it lies open on its own (a very necessary virtue for a notebook). It looks like the type of old-school, hard-wearing book manufactured in the last century that Howard Carter might have had in his saddle-bag when he discovered Tut’s tomb.

(At around age 12, I discovered a notebook of similar consistency in an Asian gift store in the Penhorn Mall. And you better believe I scribbled a stylized map of the Valley of the Crescent Moon, stuck a golf pencil in there, slapped an elastic around it and carried it with me wherever I went. But that was NOTHING compared to French artist Fabien Palmari’s page-by-page reconstruction of the Grail Notebook.)

4. Amelie.

Amelie is about overcoming the fear of engaging in the unpredictability of life. So there are tons of examples of notebooks and note-taking buried within the film, and all represent the anxiety of those people who would rather record events in life, second-hand, than deal with them. Amelie’s landlady pines for the man she imagines her long-lost husband to be, wallowing in his old letters. An old man, coming home from the funeral of his best friend, erases his friend’s address from his address book. Joseph, the man in the café who dates Georgette the hypochondriac, habitually mutters into a tape recorder, afraid that Georgette is having an affair. Amelie tasks her stewardess friend with photographing the garden gnome around the world and send the photos (visual records) to her father to encourage him to travel. L’Homme de Verre paints Renoir’s Luncheon over and over and makes video mix-tapes. And of course there is Nino’s scrapbook, where he compiles found photos of people he doesn’t know. And happiness is only found for the characters of the film when they come out from behind their notebooks and photographs, risking disappointment and failure for a chance to participate in the joys and trials of life.

5. Memento.

The notebook in this film is, of course, Guy Pearce’s (sexy, sexy) body, upon which he tattoos important information about his life to compensate for his lack of short-term memory. In Memento, the “notebook” not only functions as a means of keeping record, but also as highly visible art. For most of us, the contents of our notebooks are hidden, private and not anywhere near beautiful enough to inflict on the public. But this is not the case with American conceptual architect Lebbeus Woods, whose notebooks are veritable works of art and have been displayed in exhibitions.

 

 

Notebooks of Lebbeus Woods. I wonder what brand they are?

If there’s any lesson I’ve learned about keeping a notebook, it’s that no topic, no subject is too insignificant to record, and to record beautifully. But it takes self-discipline and patience, two virtues dependent on method and organization towards which I am baby-stepping, one mangled to-do list at a time.

 

 

Hey readers (that’s right, all five of you)! If you think of any other examples of iconic notebooks in film, post them in the comments!

Interfaces in Sci-Fi Films: a study in user experience

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When we talk about style in film, it’s not just wardrobe and set. An important part of production, especially in sci-fi films, is interface design. For the technologically impaired, an interface is what allows a user to interact with a system or a machine — your internet browser, the buttons on your tv or computer, even the drive-thru window at a fast food restaurant are all examples of interfaces. The tone and style of a sci-fi film are reinforced or even defined by the visual means through which the characters interact with technology.

Voigt-Kampff Machine, Blade Runner

For example, the gritty future-noir tone of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is reflected in the grimy screen of the video-phone and the minimalist, hard edges of the Voigt-Kampff machine. Contrast this with the sexy, ethereal gestural apparatus of the PreCrime headquarters in Minority Report (2002), set in a world so smoothly organized that every crime is prevented before it can happen.

PreCrime interface, Minority Report

The meaning that interface design brings to a film can go very deep. A major theme of The Matrix (1999) is the blurring of boundaries between user, program and interface: at the beginning of the film, Neo is unaware that he is actually interacting with a system through the huge, complex interface of the world around him, or that he himself is simply a small part of another system being used by the machines. Throughout the film, he cuts across these divisions, from watching the Matrix on the operator’s multi-screen interface, to plugging into the Matrix through the Construct interface, to actually being able to see the code flowing while still inside the Matrix.

But the significance of sci-fi film interface design doesn’t end there: user interface designers regularly take lessons from sci-fi on how to improve — and how to screw up — user interaction and experience. A panel at 2011′s SxSW conference discussed both the role interface has with film narrative and how on-screen interfaces might translate that into real life (listen to audio here.) One of the panelists, Chris Noessel, has collaborated with renowned user experience designer Nathan Shedroff on a book called “Make It So: Interaction Lessons from Science Fiction.” In the book, which is slated to come out this year, Shedroff and Noessel examine interface design from the past 100 years of sci-fi film and explain how film interfaces have been inspired and developed, and how designers learn from on-screen examples to develop real-world user interfaces. Their presentation at MacWorld 2011 is engrossing and fascinating — it can be watched here.

And for those of you interested in the pure visuals of film interfaces, check out accessmaincomputerfile.net for screenshots of screen-based interfaces from tons of sci-fi films you’ve seen and plenty that you’ve never heard of. (Also, is that a Netscape favicon they’re using? Holy timewarp, Batman!) Also interesting — and spot-on — is Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10 Film UI Usability Bloopers.

Video and computer game interfaces are a related topic and a study thereupon may lead to some startling insights (like how websites for the military/armed forces tend to mirror the visual tropes of military games like Call of Duty). Perhaps my husband, who is a game UI customization junkie, will be interested in writing more about this!

For now, I’ll leave you with some screenshots of my favourite sci-fi interfaces:

Esper photo, Blade Runner

Since the age of 12, I have seen Blade Runner about 50 times. The gritty, dirty, clunky, subtley Rube-Goldberg nature of the technology onscreen reflects the cultural mish-mash and environmental decay of dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019 (only seven years from now!). The interfaces in the film are harsh, minimalist and utilitarian.

Bridge of Battlestar Galactica

What I love about the production design of Battlestar Galactica is that they didn’t take for granted any of those “space ship” tropes. There are actual telephones attached to cords in the walls. Buttons aren’t simply lights on an LCD screen; they’re knobs and switches. And even though there are display screens on the bridge, they’re not necessarily interactive — Adama and his crew actually carry around folders and clipboards and paper (all hexagonal, of course).

LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System), Star Trek TNG

PADD (Person Access Display Device), Star Trek TNG

We watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a family when I was young, so part of my love for it is nostalgic in origin. The LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) is beautiful, though — colourful, functional, responsive to the lightest touch of a finger. And I tell you, if I ever have $500 lying around, I will totally get an iPad just so I can sit back with a cup of Earl Grey and pretend I’m Captain Picard in my ready-room. Nerd fantasy, engage!

Got any favourite film user interfaces? Share them in the comments!

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