Filming Science Fiction Short Stories

Over at Rusty Keele got an email from a film director asking him about which science fiction short stories would make great 10-15 minute films.  Go by and post your suggestions.  I suggested “The Menace From Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein, even though it would have to be cut down some to meet the time limit.

I remember the science fiction stories from the old Twilight Zone series that started back 1959.  Those short films had tremendous impact, so it is possible to tell a gripping story in 25 minutes, but I think it’s going to take a special kind of tale to work in 10-15 minutes.  Maybe it will be flash video fiction.  However, limiting the length of the film makes it much easier for an amateur film maker to produce, and with people watching videos on YouTube, Hulu, and on their iPods, making short science fiction films might be a great idea.

Since I’m always wishing for more people to discover the wonders of the science fiction short story, and support the dying science fiction magazines (F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog), I’d especially love to see short films based on recent stories from the magazines, and use those films to promote the science fiction short story market.  Even though those markets are dying, they still have 15,000-30,000 readers, so that’s a ready audience for the films.  I wonder if some kind of marketing synergy could be attained by tying several small enterprises together.

Could we see a film opening with the flashy logo graphics marketing A SFSignal Production partnered with Asimov’s Science Fiction Films of a John X Smith film …, and maybe backed by money collected from online fans from genre entrepreneurs like those great Broadway producers Max Blaylystock and Leo Bloom?

The trouble is getting people to see the short films.  Every year at the Oscars when they present the award for short film I always wonder where to do people see them.  It’s a shame theaters can’t replace those annoying trivia shows and commercials they torture their patrons with while they wait for their movies to start with good short films.  SFSignal has become a great place to catch a short video.  I wonder if short Flash based films on the SF/F magazine sites would get them more subscribers?  Macromedia Flash based films have evolved into high tech ways of watching videos online.

Most great science fiction short stories are more suitable for film length productions.  I wish movie makers would audition the genre mags every month for potential films to make.  Hollywood movie makers are obviously short on material when they have to make Terminator movies over and over and bring back Star Trek for the nth time.  I mean, when was the last time you saw a really innovative SF film?  There are way too many classic SF novels from the 1950s and 1960s that Hollywood has never filmed for them to be wasting their money on remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Another good game to play, would be to list which great classic SF novels would make mind blowing films.  Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
  • Women of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

I could go on and on.

JWH – 2/26/9

Biblical Documentaries

I’m not religious, but I’ve been watching a lot of TV about the Bible lately.  National Geographic Channel, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and even PBS have been showing some fascinating shows about the Bible in recent years.  Last night I watched “Jesus’ Tomb” from the National Geographic Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible series.  Mysteries of the Bible is an entertaining series, but their episodes are no match compared to “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” that appeared on PBS’s NOVA a few weeks ago.  All these documentaries vary greatly in quality, and that’s what I want to talk about.

It’s hard to discuss shows about the Bible without ruffling religious feathers.  I love science and history shows, and these biblical documentaries combine archeology and anthropology with history, to explain the origins of western civilization.   So, when I analyze these programs, I’m not dealing with the related spiritual issues, and for the most part, that’s how the documentary makers work too.  They often try to compare what is written in the Bible with what we know from historical research and from scientific studies.

If you watch these shows you’ll learn a lot, but if you hold certain religious beliefs dear, some ideas presented might annoy you.  Don’t get me wrong, I think religious folk are the intended audience, because atheists who like Bible history, like me, are not that common.  But I’m guessing most of these shows try hard to walk the razor’s edge when it comes to controversial issues of faith.

When watching any documentary you have to analyze the producer’s motive.  Many filmmakers start with a cherish idea of their own and do all they can to document the proof of their belief.  Others pick an interesting mystery and try very hard to be impartial.  One way to judge a film is if it examines the obvious questions that come to your mind while watching.  Last night’s show, “Jesus’ Tomb” avoided several issues that popped into my head while watching.

Another way to measure the quality of these TV documentaries is track how often they repeat images or ideas.  These one-hour shows actually have about 45-50 minutes of show-time versus the remainder of an hour to fill with commercials.  Some shows are stretched by constantly repeating material both visually and verbally.  I don’t know if it’s because the show’s producers don’t have enough content, or they think we’re stupid and their viewers need constant reiteration to actually comprehend their discoveries, or they figure most viewers are channel surfing and they want to make sure those drive-by watchers get hooked with the high points.

If repetition is because of the channel flippers, I hope TV producers stop that practice quick.  It’s not fair for the serious viewers of their shows to have to be bombarded with sing-song phrases, and psychedelic video flashbacks.  I don’t mind shows repeating a complex concept in different ways to help people to understand, but to flat out say and show the same words and pictures over and over again is just damn annoying.  One reason PBS documentaries often seem head and shoulders above the documentaries on all the other channels is because they don’t have commercials to interrupt their flow, so PBS shows don’t do that say it five times song and dance crap.

Another thing commercial driven channels do is spend too much of their times before and after commercials presenting teases for what’s to come.  Last night’s one-hour show, “Jesus’ Tomb” could easily have been a nice 30-minute documentary.  If they had put in 20 more minutes of genuine content, it would have been a very good hour show even with commercials.  And all my criticisms could have been answered in those twenty minutes too.

One thing I love about these biblical documentaries is they show video of where historical events took place.  Seeing all the various kinds of tombs cut out of rock in last night’s show was a great way to illustrate the Bible.  The filmmakers interviewed scholars about Jewish burial practices of the time, checked with what archeologists were finding, quoted related biblical verses, and showed how various beliefs came down through history in stories, paintings, and religious beliefs.  Last night’s show did a pretty good job of exploring why and how Jesus might have been put in a nearby tomb, but I was left with a bunch of questions for the filmmakers, even at their simple level.

How common was it to put people in those small tombs cut into solid rock?  If it was very common, wouldn’t there be millions of them in Israel?  To the spiritually minded, the important issue is the resurrection of Jesus.  For that story to work a tomb is a good stage, but would a common criminal be buried in a tomb?  (That’s what the Romans and Jewish leaders thought of him.) The show spent a lot of time exploring how and why Jesus’ body could have been removed from the tomb, but they didn’t explain two ways that popped into my mind.

Could some his followers have removed him and buried him elsewhere, not telling the women who found the tomb empty the next day?  And were there no grave-robbers in that time, even Romans who wanted to get rid of a martyr’s body?  Of course, for the spiritual story to work, Jesus’ body had to disappear, so does it really matter how?

And here’s the part of the show that the filmmakers avoided, but I wanted explored.  In the early parts of the Bible the concept of afterlife is missing.  The show did interview one scholar that said Jews of the time believed in the resurrection, and wanted their bodies gathered in ossuaries, but they believed all people would be returned to their bodies at the end of time.  For centuries Christians believed something like this too.  So when did the idea of dying and immediately going to heaven come about?

The point of Jesus’ tomb story is about resurrection.  Why couldn’t the show’s filmmaker spend twenty minutes on the history of this idea rather than repeating so much of the other information.  At what point in the history of mankind did people start thinking about living after death?  And is the story of Jesus and his tomb the pivotal point in history when this idea was born?  I’m not asking the filmmaker to state whether resurrection is possible or not possible, I just want the history and archeology of that idea.

Many of the biblical documentaries are quite timid on exploring the depth of an idea.  They love to bring up startling ideas, like another show that dealt with apocryphal stories of Jesus, including one where Jesus killed a child when he was a child himself.  They are not afraid to have National Enquirer headlines, but they don’t want to have scholarly expositions because that might bore people.

On the whole I find these shows very entertaining because of they usually give me a good deal of history I haven’t known about before, along with some nice video of archeological digs, science labs pursing arcane mysteries of ancient evidence, and interviews with fascinating scholars.  However, sometimes I think they throw in some interviews with wild-eyed theorists and fanatics too.

Studying the Bible is like studying the founding fathers of America, but the people of the Bible are the founding fathers of Western civilization.  So far these Bible documentary makers examine artifacts and compare them to Bible stories.  What I’d like to see is for them to examine the history of the mind of the people.  A history of psychological development.  Please show a history of the common ideas that arose during biblical times.  The NOVA show, “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” is a step in the right direction.

Understanding the early history of mankind is like researching our childhood to figure out how we came to be who we are.  Every age interprets the Bible anew, reinventing religion.  Most people ignore that or never knew that, and assume that current religious beliefs have always existed as they do now.  I want these biblical documentary historians to show how beliefs were different century by century and how the people were different because of their beliefs.  Some Christians hate the word evolution, but all the concepts we hold in our head are a product of evolution too.

God, Satan, Heaven, Hell, sin, redemption, charity, faith, etc., all started out as tiny one cell ideas in the mind of man and over the centuries have evolved into the dinosaur ideas they are today.  This season’s shows about Bible history barely touch on this, but I expect the biblical documentaries to evolve too.

JWH 12/17/8

SnagFilms Film Widget

I’m testing out the new service called

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This is just a test of a new online service that promotes documentary films that I heard about on the edition of the Wall Street Journal.  Watching the films at their site is slick, but I’m not sure about the snagging part.  Basically, you watch a film, and if you like it and want to promote it on your blog you hit the snag button and SnagFilms logs into your blogging site, creates a post and puts a graphic advertising the film and allows you to tag it with a little comment.

I would prefer how I put YouTube videos online, using commands within WordPress that embeds the video player in my post.  SnagFilms’ method is more viral, pushing people to their site.  But it doesn’t allow me to write my blog and introduce the video.  I’m writing this after the fact, so the initial RSS feed will just be icon for the video.  In the future I won’t use the snag feature and just post a link.

The current selection of documentary films at SnagFilms is small, but high quality.  There’s a review process, so you can’t just upload your masterpiece like at YouTube.  The video I’m testing is from PBS and narrated by Brad Pitt.  It’s a fascinating story about how China works to be environmental.  The film quality has been excellent so far, and the aspect ratio is HD.  Annoyingly, the second line of the subtitles for the foreign speakers and people identification is covered up, at least for this film – so parts are meaningless because all the interviews with Chinese speakers are missing half the translations.  Of course, they are in beta.

SnagFilms makes its money by playing a commercial before the film starts, and between each video segment, and the segments are about 15-25 minutes long.  You can also order a DVD from the site, and part of the money goes to the film maker.

I love documentaries, but most documentaries do not get wide distribution.  A few famous ones are shown in the movie theaters, and some of the rest get spots on TV, but many are only seen in art houses or on college campuses.  SnagFilms hopes to make documentaries more easy to see, which is a good thing., another video distrubtion site, has some documentaries, but mostly TV shows.  I’m getting to like watching video online because I can put one up in a window and watch while I’m working at my desk paying bills or other light duties.  Both of these sites have nice size videos that are smooth playing and have good sound.

Online videos are good for sharing with other people, and great for catching a missed episode of a favorite show.  They are starting to get good enough to bypass the old TV set.  Damn, I bet we all end up like the people in Wall-E – fat slobs reclining 24×7 in floating lounge chairs with our face always in a video screen.


Confessions of a Television Addict

I have been a television addict for over a half-century and seen more fantastic visions than Thomas de Quincey ever did as an opium addict.  I’ve always planned my schedule around TV viewing and although I think of myself as a bookworm, I spend far more hours watching rather than reading and probably should consider myself a tubeworm.

On a number of occasions throughout my life I’ve tried to go cold-turkey from the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison used to refer to television.  I’ve never succeeded for long.  My wife and I have two DVRs, each capable of recording two shows at once, and there are times when I want more.  We have a 56″ high definition television that we stare at for hours and hours each week, and our cable bill is $120 a month.  (This doesn’t count the $80 my wife spends at her M-F apartment out of town with a third DVR.)  Every evening after work I look at TV Guide’s excellent online grid schedule to plan my evening’s fix – juggling the hours to watch and record.

Since I can’t watch as fast as I can find good shows I want to watch my DVR is always near full and I’m constantly forced to offload shows to my DVD recorder.  Mostly I prefer documentaries, but I do love movies on TCM, and a some regular TV shows like Lost, ER, Gray’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, Survivor, Masterpiece, and a few others.

Unfortunately, this means all my best free time is taken up in front of the boob tube, although I prefer to think of it as my sixth sense that watches out over the world and universe.  My high definition channels PBS, Discover, National Geographic, History, keep me well educated about what’s going on beyond what I can see for myself.  Sure there are plenty of nights when there is nothing on, but I don’t ever complain that television is a vast wasteland.  It’s a cultural fire hose.

Even though I value television immensely, I often feel I should cut back on my watching, or even give it up entirely for stretches at a time.  There is more to life than vicarious living through video.  I tell myself I need a balance.  More and more I find it grating that my cable bill is $120 a month.  On one hand I couldn’t get anywhere near that much entertainment value for my buck elsewhere, but on the other hand it seems extravagant.  Now that I’m thinking about retirement and living cheaply, it seems like a big expense.

I’d also like to live a more varied lifestyle, put more of my off-work hours into other hobbies and exercise, so I’m toying once again with cutting back on my television addiction.  And I’ve thought of a simple solution to try.  First I’d give up cable TV completely and buy an antenna for my HDTV.  That would reduce hundreds of channels down to four, and force me to live without DRVs.  Through my Netflix account I can make up for TCM, HBO and other premium channels.  And through the Internet I could supplement my television diet with and other online video sources.  I could maintain my addictive lifestyle and save $1500 a year, but that’s not the ultimate goal.

To tell the truth this solution still leaves me with too much choice.  What I’d really like to do is spend all of my extra time on writing fiction, web development and blogging – activities that are a bit more mentally demanding, but I see this plan as the first steps of weaning myself off my TV addiction.  I don’t want to give up TV, but get my use under control.

To tell the truth, I loved the way television was back in the 1950s and 1960s when there was little choice and most people watched the same shows.  I enjoy Survivor now because it ignites so much conversation between people I know.  Ditto for Lost.  I wouldn’t watch Survivor if it was only me, but I like Lost enough to watch it if I had no one to share with, but I enjoy it best when I get to jabber with other fans.

I’ve been seeing news stories about our lives being too full, and that we try to multitask too much, and that some people get more done by doing less.  I think this current urge to cut back on cable TV coincides with that national trend.  It is fantastic that cable television can offer so many types of shows, but this diversity of choice has negative attributes too.  As we get more choice my wife and I find less to watch together.  As I get more choice I find even more to watch.  What I would really like is the discipline to only watch one show a day – be it an over-the-air TV show, Netflix movie, or a DVD documentary.

I couldn’t pursue this experiment if my wife lived at home during the week – she’s a worse TV addict than I am.  She’s agreed to let me follow my abnormal inclination until she gets to move back home.  I think part of my drive to explore these changes in lifestyle is because I’ve been thinking so much about retirement.  I figure if I’m not going to work then I need to be more active.  TV is okay if you work hard all day and want to come home and relax, but I worry what TV would do to me if I had all day and evening to watch.

This reminds me of a book I once read called Positive Addiction.  It was the author’s belief that to get rid of a negative addiction you needed to substitute it with a positive addiction.  I’m hoping I’ll get addicted to writing and web programming, as well as more exercise and yard work.  Hell, I might even lose my coach potato paunch.

My plan is to turn in my cable boxes next Saturday unless I lose my will.  I’m sure whatever happens will lead to another post.


Magazines v. Web v. Newspapers v. Television

    Yesterday I sat down and read through the latest issue of Time Magazine. I am an information junky, but I don’t read magazines as much as I used too, not since the web. Reading the web is an exciting way to take in data – I can start with Slashdot and follow a link to MSN to an article entitled “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen,” read it, and from there start googling the concept for more information. It could lead to an hour of diversion and maybe even a couple hours of blog writing. The casual way to read a magazine is to start with the cover, flip and read until you reach the back cover. With magazines and newspapers you read by picking and choosing what you like, but they are self contained because they don’t have hyperlinks. Television is a horse of a different color altogether. If you discount channel surfing, picking a show and watching it from start to finish, means being a captive audience. If you count channel surfing, then television is more like web surfing, but not quite the same because a couple hundred channels is nothing to the billions of web pages.

    What surprised me yesterday while reading Time was the quality of the experience. I seldom sit and read a whole magazine anymore. I read the letters to the editor, the small and large pieces. Towards the end I started skimming more, but I tried to take in the magazine as a whole. It felt like I got a small snapshot of what was going on in the world this week. If the web didn’t exist magazines would be my web. The world through a magazine eye felt distinctly different than the world I see from surfing the web or watching the television news or reading The New York Times.

    The cover story intrigued me, “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School” by David Van Biema. So did another story that was the cover story in the Europe, Asia and South Pacific editions, “The Truth About Talibanistan” by Aryn Baker. I’m an atheist but I find the study of the Bible fascinating. I’ve often wondered why it isn’t taught in school. Of course the way I would teach it by linking it to anthropology, history, language, psychology, sociology, grammar, etc., is very different from the way it is being taught. While reading the article I was itchy to click and research. Then reading the article about the Taliban I was reminded of seeing a documentary on Frontline about the same topic, “The Return of the Taliban.” They didn’t tell the same story, but that’s not the issue I want to get into.

    Seeing the Frontline story on HDTV had far greater impact than reading the article in Time, but the magazine article had more to think about. This brings back the old issue of television journalism versus print journalism. Right after reading that issue of Time, I went and watched “Arctic Passage” on NOVA on HDTV about the mysterious and tragic Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. While watching that show I was struct by how much richer the experience of learning was through the 56-inch HDTV than reading and seeing photos in a magazine or book.

    The magazine was about ideas in my head. I read many exciting bits of information that made me think and want to write and research. The show about Franklin was rich and educational in the best way and I was satisfied with the subject when it finished. I have read about the Franklin expedition before, and the NOVA site has more reading material, but the show left a sense of completeness. Given its fifty plus minutes, the documentary makers summed up the issue in a very satisfying way. I then selected from my PVR, “Monster of the Milky Way,” another NOVA documentary.

    The impact was fantastic. I read a lot of astronomy magazines and websites, but the 56″ astronomical photos and videos they showed were stunning. The animations were gorgeous and awe inspiring and totally filled me with a sense of wonder. The trouble is NOVA only comes on once a week with maybe 20-25 new shows a year. What if every topic I wanted to study had a 55 minute NOVA quality documentary to present the information – would that be the best way I should take in information? I don’t know. Maybe? It certainly feels more real than reading.

    Newspapers, magazines and the web are great for taking in mass quantities of informational tidbits. The web excels at ready access to information, but I’ve got to wonder if NOVA made a documentary about “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen” it would blow away the reading experience of the piece. What if the web was surfing a vast library of high definition videos and our computers had 24-inch 1980×1200 high definition screens? What value does the written word have over the spoken word with visuals?

    I buy courses from The Teaching Company and I always agonize over whether to get the DVD option, the audio edition and whether or not I need the print supplement. Their DVDs aren’t hi-def, and just contain photos to supplement the lectures, but often those photos have great impact.

    Do I prefer the NOVA shows because hi-definition television is as close to reality as any media can get? When I attend lectures I hate PowerPoint presentations and videos. I want the speaker to say something interesting and be engaging. I just finished a very rewarding book, Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers. I have to admit that if that book were presented as a long mini-series on PBS it would probably be my favorite way to study Twain. Photos and videos just have too much impact to ignore. Maybe that’s why YouTube is so successful on the web. But would I learn as much about Mark Twain, or remember as much?

    Where does that leave me as a writer? Should I add photos to my blog? Should I go into video blogging? Should we all become documentary makers? Blogs tend to be of lower quality writing than professional magazine writing, and video blogging is a far cry from PBS documentaries. However, what if communication between people becomes more visual in nature? Cell phones with cameras are getting popular. People email me digital photos all the time. How soon will it be before I start getting personal videos? I already get joke videos. What if the video we got were high definition?

    The question I started to write about today is: What’s the best media or method for getting a feel for what’s going on in the world each day? Television is like having extra eyes that rove the planet. Blogs are like getting to read people’s diaries. Newspapers and magazines are like getting letters from well traveled friends who are great writers. Communication speeds are so fast now that news delays range from hours to weeks. In the nineteenth century it took weeks or months and sometimes years to hear about things going on around the world. Of course reading non-fiction books is like getting the news centuries late, and with cosmology the news is a billion years old.

    Slowly high definition televsion is coming to news programs. Watching The Today Show or The Tonight Show in high-def on a large screen has a very real immediate feel. The disadvantage of television over magazines is details. For me, seeing details in print are more memorable than hearing them. I can study them and reread easily. It’s much easier to quote a magazine than to quote a television show. And I tend to think print is more philosophical than the visual media. But most of my book reading is through audio books, mainly because I have more time for them that way, and the fact that I think I experience novels better though audio than though my eyes. That’s because I listen to books at a conversational speed, but speed read them with my eyes, often skimming words. But to study them for a test I’d need to see the printed page.

    What I’d really like is to combine high-definition television with computers and the Internet. The PBS sites are doing something like what I’m thinking about. You can get a transcript of their shows for study and quoting, you can link to videos to show friends, it stays on the web for reference and it has hyperlinks for more surfing, but I need to see the videos in high definition on my computer screen. When will that happen?

    Imagine a Wikipedia entry for every topic no matter how tiny, and each entry had links to all the media related to that topic. So for the Franklin expedition there would be links to all the documentaries, the primary research, secondary research, articles, essays, photos, diaries, etc. Also imagine this Wikipedia’s front page with news streaming in about what’s going on in the world in current time. I picture a map of the world with a visual interface that helps spot new and interesting events. Other tools could track with keywords and photos. Let’s say the idea of teaching the Bible in school becomes newsworthy in this interface and catches my eye. Wouldn’t it be fun to follow a link that takes you to cameras in the classroom? What if one teacher calls up a documentary about translating the Bible in different times and places, and I could fall out of real time to watch it?

    A lot could happen in our future when it comes to information.



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