Thursday, January 31, 2013

My new hobby

Ever since I was a kid, writing has been my hobby. Until I won a competition to get a short film made. Suddenly, it was a chance at achieving my dream, and everything changed - I had to treat it like a career. Once I got my agent, and sold my first film script, it became my job. Don't get me wrong, I love writing, even more than ever. But it used to be my distraction from my dayjob, the thing that I did to relax.

When it becomes your job, it still *feels* like a hobby, because it's fun (well, when it's going properly, anyway). And because it's fun, you work longer hours, then you start working at the weekend, and then you're working non stop. I've always considered myself a lazy person, until I started writing full time, when I became the sort of frenzied workaholic I'd always assumed didn't really exist. I love doing it, so I'm happy to do it non stop. And that's a bad habit to get into. You need breaks now and again.

The thing is, it's still work. So you end up working yourself into the ground without realising. Take a break?! But I'm writing! This is fun! This IS a break!

So last year, I decided I needed a hobby. A replacement hobby. Something I could do to force myself to take breaks from writing. I'd been thinking about it for a while, and dismissed various ideas. I still play videogames, but that feels more like I'm being entertained than doing something.

And then, for some reason, I thought of getting a ukulele. I still don't know why. Maybe because I've never, ever been able to play an instrument (I took violin lessons as a kid, but had no interest in it, it felt impossibly difficult and weird). Ukuleles seemed fun, unthreatening, and a lot easier than guitars. And they sounded pretty damn cool in the hands of people like Amanda Palmer and Eddie Vedder.

I've always had a good musical ear, and used to recreate my favourite songs in ProTracker on my Amiga. Sometimes I'd make my own simple songs. But I've never had an actual musical instrument, something that required skill as well as patience and a good ear.

I got all excited over the prospect of it, but then thought maybe I was just being silly. Would I really take the time to learn it, or just get bored after 5 minutes? And ukuleles are probably way more difficult than I realised. Maybe it'd be better to just leave it. And so I talked myself out of it. But I kept thinking about it, on and off.

Then, later, Christmas morning arrived, with my main present from Jodie (who is the best person in the world, and always knows what I really need at any given time): a beautiful Mahalo ukulele.

I picked it up, strummed it - even out of tune, without playing a chord, it sounded lovely - and was utterly thrilled. I spent the next couple of hours not letting go of it, learning some simple chords, playing them over and over and over. It was fun, easy, and very forgiving of my clumsiness. Strumming a chord was relaxing, it made me happy.

A while later, I could play a (very simple) song, using four chords. Simple as it was, I'd never had that feeling before, of getting a tune out of a musical instrument. It was fantastic, such a joyful glow.

I don't expect to ever be brilliant at it, but that doesn't matter. It's a creative thing I can do purely for the enjoyment of it, which I think is really important. I don't *have* to be any good at it, there's no pressure, it's just for fun. Art for art's sake. But I'm definitely going to put in the time to learn more chords, to practise, to get better.

Because it's my new hobby.


Note: I found this website with its free e-book incredibly helpful for learning chords and figuring out what to do. They have song chords, links, videos and lots of resources for free, so if you're thinking of getting a ukulele, or have just got one, go and check out the site.

Monday, January 28, 2013

CvsZ screening in Canada on 2nd and 3rd February

Canadians! Fancy seeing Cockneys Vs Zombies on the big screen? Well you can. This weekend, on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd February, CvsZ is screening as part of the Great Digital Film Festival, in cinemas all over Canada.

It's slightly embarrassing actually, as all the other films showing are classics - Jaws, The Matrix, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, and many more. All of which I'd love to see on the big screen. But hey, I'm happy to be included!

The movies are all listed here, and the list of participating cinemas is here. CvsZ is on at midnight on Saturday, and 9.50pm on Sunday - if you click on the dates in the list of movies, you can type in your nearest city to find out where it's showing. It's a feelgood horror comedy, and is even more fun with a big crowd, so go along if you can.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tower Block Sitges award photos

Back in October 2012, Tower Block screened at the Sitges film festival, and walked away with the award for best in competition feature film in the Official Fantàstic Panorama Selection. It's a pretty damn respectable award, so we were all pretty excited about it.

Today, I got to see the award itself. There's only one of them, and it's being kept on neutral ground (SC Films), as if any one of us got to keep it, it'd be unfair on all the others. So I took some photos. Here it is, in all its glory:

Pretty fancy, eh? And yes, it's based on the robot Maria from Metropolis. Here's a closer look at the detail on the figure:

Here's the plaque:

Here's me holding the award, looking reasonably sensible:

And here's me looking all thoughtful and awards-worthy:

Thank you again, Sitges, for such a lovely award.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Snow short films

Yesterday I challenged you to make a simple short film using the free snow that landed on some of the UK. You can read the post here if you haven't already.

And here are all the ones I've been sent so far - keep them coming, and I'll add them here:

  • Stuart Laws was so excited, he made one the day before I'd even set the challenge, proving that he's quick *and* psychic. It's a tender, heartwarming musical, and you can watch it here!

Don't forget to leave links in the comments if you want to be added here, or send them to me on Twitter.

And I didn't want to miss out on the fun, so I made a quick short too - I say "quick", it was quick to film, as there's not much to it, but it took all day to find the right additional free footage online, edit it, get the right sound effects, tweak, etc etc. But blimey it was fun. It's called "Signal Lost", and you can watch it here, on YouTube.

Update: The short has a Creative Commons License - Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike. For details on what that means, read this page. Basically, it means you can use it, remix it, do what you like with it, as long as you credit me, don't use it for anything commercial, and release what you do under the same license. I've used this license because half of the short uses existing stuff, and I want to pass it on.

Here's how it happened: I was staring out the window after breakfast, and thought "why the hell don't YOU make one, tough guy? Talking tough and telling everyone else to make one?! Go on!" So I did. I spent another ten minutes thinking what I could do, came up with a rough story that wouldn't need dialogue or actors, realised I could use free stock footage to make it work, and got to work.

I filmed for about 5 minutes in the back garden, then searched for the right sort of footage from, hunted down some appropriate sound effects from, edited it all together, and spent the day tweaking and fiddling with it, adjusting the speed of the space clips, getting the timing right, etc.

The two zooms into a city are into Munich, and the final zoom into snow is a shaky-cam shot of the back garden from my bedroom window, with a digital zoom added. I stopped the Munich zoom before it became obvious that it was, er, Munich. But yes, the galaxy is the Milky Way, I couldn't just use *any* old galaxy, after all. I was going to use some snippets from this NASA launch, but didn't need them. That website has tons of other videos you can use, too, though check their usage guidelines before you dive in.

I also threw in a tiny audio sample of me playing my new ukulele at the end, because I needed royalty free music of a specific duration and didn't want to go searching again. I finished around midnight, but it look longer to encode the video, as I'd messed up the aspect ratio and had to export it all again.

These are the videos I used parts of:

And these are all the sound effects I used:

I thoroughly enjoyed making it, and it was a great way to spend my Saturday! I'm looking forward to seeing what you all come up with.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Make stuff with snow

We had some snow today, in the UK. You may have noticed it. This afternoon, I tweeted this:

By the way, if you have snow, good time to make a quick, simple short film with phone/etc. Free production value!

The short I was thinking of was this one, called Switch, from 2010, written and directed by the stand-by art director on Cockneys Vs Zombies, Melanie Light. They hadn't planned on snow, but decided to go ahead anyway, and it gives the film a whole extra dimension.

Once I'd tweeted that, Alex Richardson sent me this short, filmed the last time they had snow - all filmed in one hour, according to his tweet! Again, the snow gives it tons more atmosphere and production value.

On New Year's Eve, I tweeted these words:

Whatever you do in 2013, make some art. Write a story, sing a song, do a video, start a blog. Just give us some of YOU.
There is not enough art in the world. There can NEVER be enough. So make some more. It's fun!

So here's the challenge: if it snowed today in your local area (anywhere in the world), go and make a short film tomorrow (Saturday 19th January). Using the free snow.

Just something simple. ANY length, but try and keep it under 5 minutes. No short is too short, if you can do it in 5 seconds, cool! Don't worry about fancy gear, use whatever you have to hand - phone camera is absolutely fine, preferable in fact, as it'll be easier to carry. Got housemates, local friends? Use them. Live alone and nobody to help? Do it yourself, be the star (prop the camera on a bag, walk in and out of shot, edit accordingly). If you have a fancier camera, use that.

Editing? If you have a Mac, use the free iMovie software that comes with it. If you have a PC, use any of these free programs.

Sound effects? Free ones here (and many more just a Google away). Music? Royalty free (non-commercial use) tracks here (or use your own work, or Google again).

Do it all in one day. Write a short script (something achievable, with a beginning, middle and end), go outside, film it until you run out of daylight, come back indoors and edit it. Stick it on Youtube or Vimeo or any other free service. Give me a link (in the comments here), and I'll do a followup post linking to ALL of them.

Why? Why not? You never need an excuse to make some art, but the snow is a great excuse to do something fun on a Saturday. You can do it all for free, there's no barrier to filmmaking now. If the short is rubbish, who cares? You made something, and you learned something - if you're a writer, you saw the challenges in filming your own script, and figured out how to shoot, edit, etc. And doing it all in one day means you have to discipline yourself with time and resources.

Go! And have fun.

UPDATE: some people are doing it on Sunday instead of Saturday. One did it Friday, without knowing about the challenge. Some are using Saturday *and* Sunday. This is ALL good. Just make something! And send them in!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Tower Block screening in Stockport

Stockport people, and people adjacent to or within reasonable travelling distance of Stockport - Tower Block will screen there on Saturday 26th January, in a double bill with new horror movie Hollow, at 7.30pm in the Stockport Plaza. I'm also doing a Q&A beforehand, from 5pm-6.30pm, with Matt Holt, the writer and producer of Hollow. Tickets for the double bill get you into the Q&A for free.

If you live there or can get there, you'll be able to see it on the big screen, before the DVD lands in February. It's really worth seeing at the cinema, and it's only £8 for both movies, which is a bargain in anyone's language. Except the alien species of Expensivum, who find *everything* expensive, and have no word for "bargain". But who cares about them??

It's part of the Grimmfest series of screenings, and they're regularly organising cool double bills in addition to their main festival, so check out the website for more details.

Selling out, and writing for yourself

There's an interesting article about writing for money versus "selling out" over on io9, by Charlie Jane Anders - and a follow up post by John Scalzi at his blog - which got me thinking about my own process.

Writing is my job, but I enjoy it and treat it with respect. It's an odd mix of two seemingly incompatible things - I'm doing a creative, arty thing, in exchange for money. Sometimes bringing money into the equation can be a scary thing for a writer. And sometimes it makes people think that you're not as creatively pure as people doing it "just for the love". Thing is, I do it for the love - but I need to feed myself and pay bills, so I'm very glad it happens to be my job. It's all I'm good at. I've been writing since I could hold a pen, since I was 3 or 4, and never thought I'd ever get paid for it.

But thankfully, I *do* get paid for it. I like seeing my stories get made into films and TV shows, because then I get to entertain other people. Stories are meant to be told, after all. And I like to think that my stories are ones that only I could tell in that particular way. That's what I advise new writers to do - write something only *you* could tell, something you'd love to see on screen, something nobody else is doing. Write from the heart, not what you think the "market" might want.

A while ago, I got some angry feedback about a TV show, and tried to explain how I write. I said that it's not a democracy, the audience don't get to vote on the plot, the only person I need to please is myself, and the only thing I need to serve is the story. Now, in my youthful naïveté, I foolishly thought that people would react to what I said, not what they thought I said. But some of them decided I'd said something like this: "I hate you! I don't care if you all hate my work, as long as *I* like it, that's what matters! HAHAHAHA! Suckers!" Which is a bit of a distortion, but I can see how they got there. I probably could have phrased it better (I was quite angry at the time...)

What it meant - and still means - is that I am the only audience member whose mind I can read. I have *no* idea what you like, what you want, what you need. None. You all want different things, so if I figured out what some of you like, and wrote to please you specifically, then the rest of the audience would feel left out, and probably stop watching. If I ask 100 people what they want from a TV show, a movie, a story, I'll hear 100 different things. If I try to please all of them, I'll fail, obviously, and end up with a terrible mishmash.

And even if I could write something that pleases everyone, why would I do that?! Why give you something that's exactly what you want, something that holds no surprises or tension? You may as well write it yourself, I'd just be transcribing what's in your brain. I want to give you *some* of what you want, but I want to surprise you, to scare you, to make you laugh, to make you gasp. Because I love it.

All I can really do, is try to write something that *I* like, because then I'll know if I'm doing it properly. If I'm happy with the story, if I feel I've done my best, then I can release it into the world, and hopefully other people will like it. Not everybody will, but that's just how it works. Nobody likes everything. Obviously I have an eye on the potential audience for each particular story, and there's usually a producer, script editor, etc, I don't just write in a vacuum - so I'm very mindful of who might end up watching, and write for them. But that's only in a general sense, as I can never predict what people will like. And I want people to like it! Of course I do. But I'd rather try something different and interesting, than just go for the easy option. Even if that means risking failure.

As for being creatively pure, have I done projects just for the money? Sure. I need to eat, after all. Sometimes I have to take jobs for the money. I try to pick ones that will be creatively satisfying as well, and always do the best I can. Am I a sellout because of that? I don't think so, any more than a plumber is a sellout for charging more at the weekend - we all need to pay our bills. I've always joked that if I ever got offered a high paying sellout job, I'd take it - but it's not really a joke, I would take it. That job would mean financial security for a while, and I could take some time to work on my own stuff afterwards.

But I've also declined to work on things that didn't feel right, that would have made me uncomfortable. I've detached myself from people I didn't trust. And I'm sure I'll do it again. I love everything I work on - I have to, otherwise I can't do my job properly. So even if/when I do sellout (if I haven't already), I'll still write it with integrity, with passion, and tell the best story that I possibly can. I'll still be trying to please my harshest critic - me. Hopefully I'll surprise him, and you at the same time.

By the way, in completely unrelated news, look out for my new film, Zombie Cheerleaders On Drugs Who Are Also Nuns With Machine Guns Or Something. In 3D! Don't worry, it's all done in the best possible taste.

Friday, January 04, 2013

VS Comics Issue 1 out now

Yes, the long awaited (by me and anyone else who was waiting) first issue of VS Comics, the anthology monthly comic from me and Mike Garley, is out now!

It features an ongoing tale I've been dying to tell for ages, called Day and Night, about a group of work colleagues who stumble across some proper, nasty, evil vampires, and have to go on the run. It's gory, bloody, scary, and features amazing art by Patrick Walsh, colours by Nadine Ashworth, and letters by Mike Stock. Here's a tiny taster:

That's Lloyd. He doesn't like you. He doesn't like *anyone*. But he likes blood.

Full details are here at our website, and you can buy it there and then, ELECTRO-MAGICALLY. It's a bumper, packed issue, for only £2, and the monthly issues will only be available digitally (though collected print versions of each story will probably happen at some point).

Update: Amazon Kindle, iBookstore, Facebook and Graphicly versions are available now! Go get them at this very link here.

There's a great review of Issue 1 here from The Reluctant Geek, and another one here from Geek Native, so go and see what they have to say. You can also see a free prelude to the story Eponymous here at the VS Comics site, with some amazing artwork by Martin Simmonds. Now go and buy it, or else!

I'm really excited to unleash our mutant, evil baby on the world, and hope you all enjoy it.