Category Archives: Buy this!

Programming, animation, and the observation of nature

A reader of this blog, Nieh, has commented that s/he first learnt about inertia by playing Asteroids when s/he was young. I think this is a great example of how games can serve to some educational purpose. It is possible when playing games to get an intuitive feeling for the way things work. Bizarrely, they can teach you about the physical world around you in ways that are enjoyable and intriguing. It seems strange that virtual spaces should teach us things that we take for granted every day, but I think that it is precisely the lack of physicality in the medium that gives players perspective on the astonishing range of things that they take for granted every moment of their waking lives.

Sometimes it’s not always the times that the games are working perfectly that are the most educational either. I’m sure most experienced gamers have managed to get something stuck, suspended in mid-air at one time or another. I managed this very recently in the superb PS2 game God Of War (UK link US link) when I dropped a huge stone onto a statue then pushed the statue out from underneath it, leaving the stone hanging in the air. Rather than countering knowledge of the world, this kind of event encourages us to think about the reality that we live in and the way that things work.

Games are built on their own systems of logic. My Monkeys In Space game is built entirely of statements saying ‘if *this* is true then do *this*’, and all the action is defined by the complexity of the conditions by which the programmer describes those ‘if *this* is true’ statements. When you interact with a sufficiently complex game you often wonder ‘I know this would work in the real world, but will it work in the game?’ and it you are right you feel a burst of respect for the programmer, but you also have applied and tested your knowledge real-world physics.

Things jump up to a new level when it comes to creating games. Suddenly the world around you turns into a huge Newtonian arrangement of levers, gravity, and interia. You begin to work out how to use a sine curve to describe the motions of a knee joint, or analyse the distribution of branches along the trunks of different species of tree, noting the height they begin from the ground and the angles they take from the trunk. I’ve still not worked out fully how to simulate something dangling on a solid rod from another object in motion, but it’s something that’s ticking away inside my head and I’m sure I’ll work it out if I ever really sit down and think about the maths of it all.

The creation of games forces you to think about the maths of nature. Back in school I often would wonder when I would ever need to know about trigonometry, but now I find myself using it regularly for the calculation of distances between objects on a two dimensional grid. I’ve not tried three dimensional spaces yet; I have been tempted, but I’ve never been altogether happy with the different control systems…

Anyway, programming games really makes you examine the world around you and the processes that make one thing relate to another. Animation does this too, because you’re always trying to simulate a natural relationship between objects. This does not mean that the objcts themselves have to be natural, only that the connections between them appear logical. There is nothing that spoils immersion in an animation more than objects acting in ways that appear illogical. I’ve always tried to simulate natural movement in things to the best degree that I can in my animations. Of course, being able to do this for all objects all the time is a task that Flash is not suitable for; I couldn’t make the cloth dangle convincingly on every character, but I might be able to make a few things billow in the wind, or sway when coming to a halt. These elements are things that are recognisable from the real world and putting them into an animation conveys a level of realism that is beyond the normal limits of cartoon figures. As with anything, you can use these rules to make a joke, using a mouse to pick up an elephant is so unnatural that it becomes amusing, but, for the majority of the time, animators and programmers need to use the world around them to inspire them to work in ways that are instantly recognisable to users. By reflecting reality we can create scenes that are immersive beyond their media.

New Portishead Album!*

*not really.

I’ve been waiting ages for the long-rumoured new Portishead album, so in the meantime I’ve found an album from a couple of years ago by the lead singer Beth Gibbons and someone called Rustin Man. It’s called ‘Out Of Season’ and, while not being slow trip hop (drip hop?) like the Portishead songs, it certainly has some really good moments. Beth Gibbons’ voice is very distinctive and it’s nice to hear something from her that I’d not heard before.

UK link US link

Fiona Apple album finally getting released

My taste in music is generally quite bleepy, but for many years I’ve enjoyed the dulcet tones of Fiona Apple’s two albums, which have now been released in a combined set UK link US link. Her first album, Tidal, has many great tracks on it and shows a voice with great strength and potential. Her unusual style of instrumental arrangment is very distinctive and produces some beautiful riffs that linger in the memory. A slightly more mainstream release of hers was ‘Across the Universe’, which has been described as ‘the best Beatles cover ever recorded’, and can be found on the soundtrack to Pleasentville (which is also a lovely film, and features the Fiona Apple video on the DVD UK link US link).

Anyway, back in 2003 she completed work on an album called ‘Extraordinary Machine’ which was apparently deemed too uncommericial for release. Some say that Miss Apple thought that the album wasn’t really finished, but I suspect that we won’t hear the truth about it. Fast forward to now, the album has been leaked onto P2P networks and a campaign has been running for around a year to get the album released. Finally later this year it will come out with about two-thirds of the tracks re-recorded. I’ve got a copy of the unreleased ablum, and it continues her earlier eccentric sound and puts in a few new twists. It’s definitely worth a listen and I’m looking forward to the official release and to hearing the difference the recording has made.

If you like female singers and fancy trying something a little unusual then give Fiona Apple a try.

Here’s a more formal run-down of the goings on:

Naughty Origami

When I was a kid I learnt origami, and even had an exhibition at my (tiny) local library. Back in those days it was hard to find any decent books about origami, and the internet was only a twinkle in the US military-industrial complex’s eye (and a few universitys’). If you were lucky you could find an old copy of Robert Harbin’s brilliant books (US link UK link) but most books had about twenty basic models and not a lot else. To this day I still make little birds occasionally, and it’s very relaxing to be able to make something elegant from something as simple as a square of paper.

Today things have changed. There are loads of origami books, reprints of Robert Harbin’s work, and models that certainly didn’t turn up in the books that I was reading when I was a kid. Today there are whole books dedicated to naughty origami (US link UK link), modelling women’s and men’s anatomy in various configurations, which may admittedly be more entertaining than a flapping bird and may prove a good talking point over a dinner with a loved one but I wouldn’t suggest trying to get them exhibited in your local library unless you enjoy giving grannies heart-attacks.

On a more publically acceptable note, there have also been some developments in the frivolous side of origami too, again working with the art as a way of entertaining other people. US link UK link

New T G Browning book

Many of you won’t know that a while ago I did some cartoon illustration for a chap in the US called T. G. Browning. Now, T. G. has proven to me time and again that he really is a thoroughly decent man, and more than this he is also a very amusing author.

I worked on Caught Dead & Other Catastrophes UK link US link, but he has also written two other books: Wired UK link US link and his new one Red Tide UK link US link. I’ve not read it yet (because it’s literally only just come out) but judging by his other work it will also be a great read.

T. G. is a publish-on-demand author, and I know how hard he works on his craft. I really do hope that he’ll be recognised by a major publishing house because his style is very laid-back, idiosyncratic, and definitely a refreshing change from the usual authors. Sometimes individuals produce far more interesting things than mainstream authors. Anyway, that’s enough of me plugging the books. I’m really looking forward to getting my copy, but now I’ve brought it to your attention I hope you’ll give it a try.


I know I really shouldn’t be like this, but for some reason I can’t seem to help myelf… I confess that I can’t remember a film featuring Keanu Reeves that I didn’t enjoy. His acting style never really changes, he rarely emotes much more than stoicism, but for some reason he always gets away with it, even when he was Ortiz the Dog Boy, an uncredited and unrecognisable role in Alex Winter’s (better known as Bill Preston from the Bill & Ted films) film Freaked (UK link US link ). Rumour has it Reeves was covered in fur as a joke about his success being based on his pretty-boy looks while Alex Winter’s career didn’t follow the same path… But anyway…

So here’s another big film with Reeves being stoic, very cool, and saving the world. Yes, I know I shouldn’t but I really enjoyed Constantine. Some people just have style, and Reeves is definitely one of them. UK link US link

The fastest way to learn Flash

Sorry… But there is no ‘fast’ way to learn Flash, only the ‘fastest’. This is just my opinion, but I think that the Foundation Flash series published by Friends of ED is second-to-none when it comes to clear, practical, and easy to remember instruction on how to use the software. I just wish someone had been writing about them when I started!

US link UK link

Sham Bhangal, one of the main authors, has written loads of books for Friends of ED, and I really love his work. It makes learning much easier when the text isn’t as dry as the desert sands, and he hits the right balance between fun metaphors and information.

Yes, I know this sounds like a big advert, but I get people asking fairly often about how they can learn and so I thought I’d put my best suggestion online. I know it’s not as much fun to be told to read a book as having a personal tutor, but these really aren’t nearly as dull as most computer books, so it’s actually very easy to get useful information from them. I really do think that if I person goes through that book from the beginning to end then they will probably know more about the software than many people who’ve been working with Flash for years. If that’s not the fastest way to learn then I don’t know what is.

The precedence of authorial comments

This week I managed to pick up The Matrix box-set (UK link) (US link) for a very good price indeed. I’ve not got the second and third films before, despite really enjoying them, partially because of the price, but also because of the lack of commentaries.

I really like director’s commentaries, they really convey a lot about how the creator views their work. John Carpenter tends to give terrible commentaries that are nonetheless quite entertaining, the Lord of the Rings commentaries are very good… Anyway, a good one will usually give you some insight into the ideas that a director was working with.

For the Matrix films the Wachowski brothers in the box-set didn’t do the commentaries themselves, instead they get two philosophers (who like the films) and three film critics (who don’t) to do two commentaries. Their reasoning for this was to give a balance of interpretation. They say that when they talk to people about what they think that the films mean that those people then accept that interpretation unquestioningly. Maybe that is the case for most people, but not for an academic.

Why should the creator have any more of a valid view of their art than a theorist? Certainly they know what they were intending to do, but art is an act that manifests itself through the expression of countless levels of the conscious and unconscious mind. It may be that the imagery that gives a painting, film, music, or game such cultural resonance is something that the artist only casually included as background detail or for the sake of style.

For example, next time you watch the Charlie’s Angels movie (UK link) (US link), look at the use of rubber, shiny outfits, and blood. Rubber and reflective black materials are associated through Freudian symbolism with the eroticised feminine, specifically excited reproductive organs. Blood carries similar symbolism, indicating menstruation. Now look at the film and watch the points at which the bad guys are defeated. Their outfits become dusty or they have only at that last moment begun to bleed. For a film that is supposedly about feminine empowerment it seems odd that it is at the point of indication for barren femininity or extreme feminisation that the characters become vulnerable, suggesting that the apparent feminist discourse is undermined by a wider patriarchal symbolic structure.

It’s highly unlikely that was intended and the director would most likely tell you that it’s not there, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a valid view. I would have loved to have heard what the Wachowski brothers thought they were doing so I could compare it with my own ideas of the cultural resonance of their imagery, but instead we get the interesting, but distanced, views of philosophers, and the babble of film-critics who demonstrate how jaded they have become with things that are just fun (it might sound like I’m saying they’re jaded just because I like the films, but try listening to them and see if you don’t think it too!).

What’s the difference between a cliché and a knowing observation of filmic principles? It’s all a matter of perspective really, so I just wish we could have heard what the brothers would have said, because at least that would have given us the opportunity to ignore them if we wished, rather than currently where we don’t have that choice.

Partying like 1999, music, and books.

It’s amazing how a piece of music can really remind you of old times.

In 1999 I went to The Burning Man (warning: link may contain images of nudity!) festival in Nevada. It seemed that almost every camp there was playing a track with a wonderful soaring string section. I found out that it was a band that I’d barely even heard of at the time but who were huge in America, The Flaming Lips. Last year The Flaming Lips finally made it into the public consciousness when ‘Yoshimi Battle the Pink Robots’ (UK link) (US link) eventually got some more coverage.

A few days ago I tracked down their album ‘The Soft Bulletin’ (UK link) (US link) and so many memories of that trip came rushing back to me. I wonder where the people I met then are now?

I’m also making new memories. I’ve been listening a lot to VNV Nation‘s new album ‘Matter & Form’ (UK link) (US link) . It’s got some great thumping tracks on there; I especially like ‘Chrome’, but I still think that for stomping industrial dance their second album is the best, ‘Praise the Fallen’ (UK link) (US link) .

I’ll do some more recommendations in the future, but here’s a quick book suggestion before I go:

If you like sci-fi, especially in a post-Blade Runner/cyberpunk/ultraviolent style then you will absolutely love ‘Altered Carbon’ by Richard Morgan. In Morgan’s book people can be digitally backed-up, so that if they die they can be ‘resleeved’ in a new body. The body way to really kill a person it to destroy their chip, and the rich make automatic back-ups every day, so when an immensely rich man apparently destroys his own chip before back-up his resleeved-self wants to know what happened. Enter Takashi Kovacs, a highly trained agent capable of incredible focus and self-control. He’s also a complete sociopath who is not averse to killing and destroying the chips of every person in the building. Frankly, it’s brilliant. Almost certainly one of the best books I’ve read for years, and the novel and its sequel has been optioned for a film so read it now before Hollywood destroys it completely! (UK link) (US link)