Wednesday, April 20, 2016

2016 First 1/4 Stuff

Here it is, mostly done with April, and I haven’t done a blog-thingy once this year! 


First off, yes – I live – which makes me happy. And, yes, I’m still working, which makes my landlord and the Nakano Tax Office happy. Speaking of which, I moved out of Shimokitazawa last year and am now a resident of Nakano. To be honest, I was getting sick of Shimokita. I’d been in the same room since 2001 (well, I moved to the room next door once because it was a little bigger) and the neighborhood had turned into a real bore. Despite those ridiculous websites that cite Shimokita as the coolest neighborhood on planet Earth, it’s basically just a collection of junk, sneaker, and clothing shops. I suppose Shimokita is cool enough, and it is certainly a better place to live than my old neighborhood in Nishi-nari Osaka where I’d pull drunken homeless guys passed out in the street to the safety of the sidewalk, and where people would openly clip finger nails in cafes without a second thought as to where their clippings were flying, and where the #1 newspaper of choice was the track results. Still, as much as Shimokita has going for it, I’d reached my limit. Besides, I’m living with my girlfriend now, and that’s what life’s about.

I entered my fifth year writing for Eiga Hiho magazine this month. My space in the mag remains a solid full page and I’m proud to say I’ve never missed a deadline. Even if in the middle of a movie shoot and have to set my computer on a rock, I’ve always managed to bash something out and get it to Yoshiki in time for publishing. My past few columns have been fun to write. The current issue has a piece about my favorite goof-ball show of the ‘80s: “Double Trouble,” with a telling of my being at the MTV 1985 New Year’s Eve party where I met star Liz Sagal after a performance by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The upcoming issue (out this week) sees me go off on why I hate the vampire genre, with the exception of a few titles, such as “Fright Night” and “The Night Stalker.” Well, “hate” is a strong word. More like, how the vampire genre went from cool (‘20s – ‘80s) to romance fodder for women wanting to get their bad boy rocks off.

Eiga Hiho also had its year-end round-up issue, and, as usual, I had a tough time coming up with ten movies from 2015 that I actually liked. For Best I picked “Ash Vs Evil Dead.” I know it’s not a film, but man, I love the show! I have a great time with it, something I find harder and harder to do (especially with overblown crap like “Avengers 2” being what passes for genre cinema these days) as I lose touch with the (de) evolving sensibility of “young people.”

For Worst, maintaining my TV theme, I picked “Fear The Walking Dead.” For christ’s sake, have you watched the show? I could hardly make it through the first episode. These days, TV plays to the stupidity of the audience. I don’t mean that they (“they” being the producers) dumb down shows, I mean that they make sure the audience gets it before the characters do. Nowadays, TV shows are stocked with dimwitted characters who take forever to go from point A to point B. TV characters today think about it (“it” being whatever crap is happening on the show), pontificate about it, overly worry about it and how it affects their FAMILY, whine about it, go into a state of denial over it, and then FINAL do something about it. Basically, it’s a story milking method. And seeing how TV's one episode / one story style has been abandoned, milking things with soap opera like cliff hangers once reserved only for a season finale has become the norm for each and every episode of each and every TV show. Personally I would rather watch “Dawn of the Dead” for the 279th time than watch “Fear The Walking Dead” again.

Also this month in Eiga Hiho I have a set report for the upcoming movie, “Scanner,” directed by Shusuke Kaneko. As I’m sure I wrote in some previous blog, I shot stills on the film. The movie opens on April 29th in Japan. I’m excited to see the theater booklet as Toei did a good job with the press pamphlet. The shot above is a peak inside the press pamphlet, and the one to the left is a fake lobby card I made for the hell of it. OK...some of the fonts are a little off...

Director Kaneko is going around Japan now promoting the film so we haven’t gotten together for beers in a couple of weeks. Also, I was supposed to do stills on his next film, but that got pushed back and it looks like I’ll be working on a TV drama next month.

Since the last time I blogged I’ve subtitled a few features: Twisted Justice, Dokumushi: Toxic Insects, Mischievous Kiss: High School Days, to name a few. All fun jobs and all full of neat linguistic challenges. I also have some writing on kaiju cinema being published in something being released by the Udine Film Festival out of Italy.

I did have a bit of excitement with my MacBook. It’s not a year and a half old and already the HD died once. Then it was acting weird for two months. Finally I dropped it off at the Ginza shop for a week but they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. After I got it back it died an hour later. So, back I went to the Apple Store. Those dorkwads, even though it was just 4 months out of warranty, they charged me 35,000 yen to replace the motherboard. I picked it up once it was "repaired," went to a café to finish a subtitling job and it freaking died again. I took it back to learn that that motherboard was dead too. I think that’s when I hit the roof, pulling my Surface out of my bag and saying, "Maybe I'll just do my work on my Microsoft Surface, which has never freakin' broken down!" They replaced the motherboard again and gave me my repair charge back. Really, if it weren’t for Final Cut I’d buy a Dell.

Ugh, did I really share my Apple horror tale? Well, the interesting thing about this was that when Apple would call me they spoke in English. When I went to the shop they spoke in Japanese. I’m not sure what that’s all about.

As all work and no play makes for a grumpy Norman, I did a day trip with my super good buddy Ed G and my super talented girlfriend Miyako. We went down to Kurihama to the large garden park they have there called Kurihama Flower World. We mostly went because we wanted to check out their large Godzilla statue / children’s slide. It was a considerable walk from the station, but the day was nice and the Godzilla slide turned out to be better than expected. Ed and I must have shot about 1,000 photos of the aging thing. I’m not sure why, but it probably has something to do with how there is no way in hell we'll go there again, which is why we ended the trip with a walk over to Perry Park, the spot where Commodore Perry landed in 1854 and forced Japan to deal with the rest of the world. Doubt I'll ever see that place again.

The photo above of the flowers is from the park and the one on the shore is Miyako doing her best Commodore Perry imitation

Okay… That’s enough for now. I’m not writing anymore.

Until next time…

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

End of Year Goeth / New Year Cometh

It’s the end of the year and I suppose I should type something out so anyone who has been reading my blog doesn’t think I’ve turned into worm fodder…although by being in Japan, I guess that when I do pass on I’ll be cremated, as per the law. So even if I do up and die, I won’t be in any “the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out” situation. Just up in smoke, as they say.

Hmm… Now that’s a rather odd way to start an end-of-the-year blog entry.

In a lame attempt to make up for being so morose, I submit  the top photo on this entry for public consumption. It's something I took at Wonderfest over the summer. It might well be my favorite of all the photos I've taken this year.

With that said, things have been going well work wise and 2015 has shaped up to be my biggest year since I set down the path of Japanese cinema related work. In a nutshell, I did stills on two feature films and subtitled around twenty full-length movies. Lot of other things too…none of which are coming to mind now, but I’m grateful for all the work I’ve received and already have a number of things lined up for 2016.

I took a trip to Kyoto earlier in the month and that was a lot of fun. I visited many of my favorite temples and Kyoto spots. Even though I was there right after the 2011 Earthquake, which was a sort of panic trip and did give some filmmaker thingy-event speech there during the shooting of the film “Danger Dolls” in 2013, it was my first time to really visit the city in almost sixteen years. Best of all, the weather was immaculate. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect two days. I even chowed down on some Yudofu, which I hadn’t eaten since the ‘90s.

I added 30 or so photos I took to my photo website if anyone wants to have a look (Click the photo, OK?):

As it’s the New Year, one of the biggest holidays in Japan, I went to a number of bonenkais. As always, the best one was given by director Shusuke Kaneko. I go to his every year and for some reason this year’s was one of the best. It was jam-packed with people, nearly all of whom I know, and everyone was in super high spirits. I’ve got one more to go to tomorrow (more like a private “countdown” than party) and after that I’ll take it easy and just focus on work.

In any case, this nothing of a blog entry is simply here to wish everyone and no one in particular a happy new year.

Oh, yeah, and to brag a bit, I managed to watch every single Rankin / Bass Christmas special before Xmas hit. Even the idiotic Little Drummer Boy! How’s that for dedication!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

2015: That Was The Summer That That Was.

My summer of work has finally come to pass! 

Well, even though it has, it’s not like things have slowed any, and several nifty gigs rest yonder on autumn's horizon. But, as far as the summer of 2015, is concerned: The jobs are done, the bills are out, and all's ancient history!

To recap, my main gig over the summer was shooting stills at Toei Studios for a film called “Scanner.” Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Scanner” stars Mansai Nomura, Hiroyuki Miyasako, and Hana Sugisaki, (and others, of course). A big budget (by Japanese standards) film, it was an intense, almost two-month long shoot that was often fun, largely manic, and as is usual for film productions, always exhausting. But I’ll get to this one shortly.

I’ve been subbing like nuts since the last entry. One cool movie I did is “Litchi Hikari Club,” which for argument's sake can be described as “Lord Of The Flies” meets “Robocop.” It’s based on a manga from the 2000s, which in turn is based on a stage play from the 1980s. Although somewhat low-budget (like everything coming out of Japan these days), it is skillfully shot, deftly directed, and very well acted. I highly appreciate its condemning take on fascism, especially given how the government in Japan seems hell bent on going down that tired path one more time. We need all the films we can that expose fascism for what it is: A form of government that turns nations into a playground for egotistical nationalists. (Unfortunately enough, I believe that the garbage film "Attack On Titan" tried to do this same sort of thing, but failed miserably in its attempt.)

Here’s a subbed teaser trailer for the film:

Another film I subbed was Hideo Nakata’s upcoming “Ghost Theater.” Nakata films are always enjoyable to work on because of how basic they are. By "basic" I don’t mean “simple.” I mean something more along the lines of “visceral,” something more connected to one's basic responses than higher intellect. Subbing horror is much more difficult than one would think as the slightest stupid word can snap the audience out of their frightened state. I feel that subtitles tend to make film slightly less scary too, so it’s important to thin them out as much as possible.

Anyway, here’s the trailer for "Ghost Theater," although it doesn’t have subs yet.

I subbed a couple of other films too: “Ju-on, the Final Curse” (Dir: Masayuki Ochiai), “Nowhere Girl” (Dir: Mamoru Oshi), “Love of Love” (Dir: Sion Sono), and some others I can’t recall just now. Nothing much to say about them other than I highly enjoyed subbing them. I take each gig seriously. Even if it's a film I personally don't care for, I know that somewhere out there is someone who's going to love it. My sole responsibility is to help that non-Japanese speaking person get to the heart of the film. It's what I'm hired for.

My work at Eiga Hiho magazine goes well. Despite being in the middle of the Toei shoot, I managed to not miss a deadline (two of them). In fact, after three years of writing for Hiho, I’ve never missed one column! But, really, when in the midst of a shoot this can be rather tough. Sometimes I have to literally sit on a rock in the woods with the set in sight as I bang away on my laptop. Once a setup is ready to rehearse (most stills are shot during rehearsal), I drop my laptop and race over hoping I didn't miss a good photo op. My latest piece in the current issue is a tribute to director Wes Craven...pretty upsetting to see him go so suddenly like that.

And speaking of magazine work, I did my first print story for Fangoria in, like, a coon's age. It's a retelling of the work I did on Takashi Miike's "Yakuza Apocalypse." The cool thing about the article is that my editors let me do it in first person, which they are usually fully against. But because it is a story about working on a Miike film from a staff POV and not the usual "reporter dude goes to set and jots down what they've seen and heard" article, I got  away with it. Awesome cover too. Who doesn't love Elvira? It's the current issue, in case anyone reading is interested.

Anyway, back to the Toei shoot... The job went well, although the pressure was pretty much full-on the entire time. And despite what anyone might think to the contrary, it’s not all that easy being the only non-Japanese on a Japanese film crew (although there was a PA of mixed blood, he seemed to have been born here, whereas I’m still pretty much locked into my New York ways). 

First off, studio films in Japan are run like military outfits. They are highly regulated and there is a kind of weird hierarchy that makes me think I've walked onto the set of "Full Metal Jacket." Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but there is enough of this to make me pull my eyes in tight every now and then and think, "WTF?" The crew makes the most of it, but they do so almost like privates making the most of boot camp. But like anything, there is a good side and the Japanese set's good side being that it’s pretty predictable and run like clockwork, which on a long shoot like this is very much welcome.

The shoot circled around three locations, one up in Yamanashi, one down in Chiba, and sets at Toei Studio. The Yamanashi location was pretty much a drag due to the humidity, but the set was well dressed and it was enjoyable getting photos in such an unlikely place. The Chiba location was fun, with a great view of Mt. Fuji. (The photo at the top of this blog entry was taken on that location.) Here, we exploded a house and did some other destructive things, which is always a good way to spend one's working hours. And of course Toei Studio is a lot of fun to work at. While not as big as Toho, it's a decent sized studio with access to lots of stores in the surrounding area. 

Right in the middle of the shoot we had a "moral boosting" party in Studio 7 that was a lot of fun. Tons of food, and gallons of great beer. As I can't really run photos from the film, the two shots above are from the party (the one below is one I don't think the studio will mind since it's just AD Murakami, Kaneko at his monitor, cameraman Kugimiya in his Batman shirt and his assistant Yuka pulling focus). In one, Kaneko is giving us some sort of pep talk (in his ugly yellow shirt), and the other is one of the few shots I have with me in it. This one is with the awesome camera crew. 

But if I can complain for a moment, the really annoying thing about Japanese sets is the food. Unless you like 80% of your intake being rice, you are going to have a hard time filling up. Some days the food was better than others (on good days we got nice, large portions of juicy salmon) and I could skip the rice and fill up on everything else. The worst times are when we were in the middle of nowhere and I couldn’t slip off to a supermarket or convenience store for something to supplement the lack of what I consider real food. Also, the coffee on Japanese sets is of the instant variety with no milk or sugar to be had! WTH is that about? HOWEVER, this was made up for by the ice filled cooler brimming with premium beer at the end of each and every day! Even if I was dead tired, at the end of the long day I'd climb on the upper staff bus and pop one of those suckers open, take a few sips...and then fall fast asleep.

Japanese sets also get lots of “sashi-ire,” which are food gifts brought by sponsors and visitors. The best was when the star of the film, Nomura Mansai, hired a coffee van to come up to Yamanashi from Tokyo and treat us to as many lattes as we could stand. That was a moral booster for sure. Thanks, Mansai-san!

All in all, I'm super happy with the stills I took on set. With each job I do I see improvement in my work and a deeper understanding of the craft. However, it's still a very difficult job because of the limited space on the sets. Also, there are always those on the crew who simply look down on the still photographer. So, while it's a fun, challenging job, sometimes the challenges are more like hindrances. I mean, at least 1/5 of the time I am leaning sideways from the hip with my neck twisted up trying to keep a very heavy camera centered in a tiny space between the camera operator, his two assistants, an AD, and the boom operator. In fact, I had to go to the hospital one day near the end of the shoot having screwed up a back muscle. So, if anyone thinks this is an ideal situation for taking quality photos, then be my guest and give it a try. I'll send you a box of tissues following your mental breakdown one week into the production.

Anyway, I have another still gig coming up in November, a horror film with a US director. That's sure to be a freezing set, but I'll break out my heattech and I should be fine. Also, as it's an American director it should be a whole new experience for me, although it is still basically a Japanese crew. 

Well... Until next time.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Summer of '15

Work has been coming my way fast and furious, preventing me from updating ye old blog. In the time between now and the last update I’ve subbed lots of films and crafted their English PR text, something I find a lot of fun to do. Well, not swimming and hanging out on a pristine beach with a Piña colada buzz going kind of fun, but fun as in challenging, enjoyable, and if everything goes well, highly satisfying.

That Miike movie I worked on, “Yakuza Apocalypse,” opened some two weeks back (6/20/2015), along with two other films I slaved away on: Ju-on: The Final Curse, and Torakage. I celebrated the same-day opening of three films I worked by not seeing any of them. Instead, I had a beer with Ed G, one of my best friends in this whole crummy world, and my girlfriend Miyako, while looking out on the full-sized Godzilla head in Shinjuku. It was a lot of fun to just gaze over a huge, decapitated Godzilla head thinking, "If it hadn't been for the success of the US Godzilla film, this cool as bunk bust wouldn't be here." I'll drink to that!

It doesn’t matter much about going to see films I worked on anyway since I find those opening day events with actors and directors a bore. The people on stage always talk about the same thing: How tough the set was. How cold or how hot the set was. What ungodly hour of the day they had to wake up at. How hard everyone worked. What a genius the director is. Blah, blah, blah. Most of the time it's a pack of lies. So, I’d rather my seat go to a fan who eats this sort of nonsense up.

“Yakuza Apocalypse” had its international premiere at Cannes Film Festival recently, and I’m pleased by the reviews of the film. As a subtitlest, it’s always a good sign when you find lines of dialogue quoted in reviews, which pretty much means “mission accomplished” in my book. In fact, my favorite review of the film comes from Indie Wire, in which the reviewer kindly writes, “the subtitles are pretty hilarious throughout.”

You can find that review here, if you like:

Indiewire: The Playlist

And, in return, the review is pretty hilarious throughout as well.

A fun thing I did recently was a Bigfoot show following a screening of “Exists,” the Bigfoot movie directed by Eduardo Sánchez. Being a semi-well known Bigfoot enthusiast in Japan, I was contacted by the releasing company here and asked to put on a show, which I was happy to do. I gathered a bunch of odd Bigfoot related photos to detail the history of Bigfoot in America (and Canada). Best of all was getting to project the Patterson–Gimlin film onto a large screen. One of the audience members thanked me for this afterward, saying they never thought they’d ever get to see it projected that large. Yeah, that was a fun show. Bigfoot rules.

And, so, yeah...despite what I said above about after screening shows, I always do my best to make them visually interesting and truly informative. 

I also did a short stint in the first episode of the upcoming Ultraman TV show. Not like I’m any great fan of Ultraman, but it was nice to help my friend Taguchi, the director of the episode. I think it’s going to be broadcast this month in Japan. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take photos, not that I really would have anyway as it was all pretty standard fare for me. But it was nice to be able to take Miyako over to Nikkatsu and show her the studio and give her a taste of what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years in Japan.

Well, subbing and all that aside, my big news is that I got the still job on a major film out of Toei Studio. Shooting starts in the middle of July and will gone on until early September. At the moment I’m busy gathering shots that will be used as props in the film (ID badges, photos on walls, family portraits, etc).

I have to say, it’s entirely enjoyable to be working on a real studio film with a fairly large (by Japanese standards) budget and not those cheap quickies that have mind-numbingly short shoots that end just when you're starting to get a feel for the whole thing. Also, by being a studio film, it means I don’t have to deal with emotionally disturbed people, which is the bane of almost all of the B-movies I’ve worked on in Japan. But I do so love B movies...

Oh, and my Eiga Hiho writing has been going great (more news on this later). The publisher even tapped me to write a set report on “Yakuza Apocalypse,” which is currently on sale in bookstores in Japan in a mook called, 『別冊映画秘宝 世界鬼才映画監督列伝』, which my friend Matt Alt deciphered as meaning, "Eiga Hi-Ho Supplemental: Legends of World-Class Genius Directors." Yeah, his Japanese puts mine to shame.

Anyway, that’s it for the time being.

Oh, and yesterday I began my 23rd year of living in Japan. Let's see how things go from here... Have a great summer!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Final Ninja Comments

A couple of more shots from that ninja film have been released by the production company. I think this is the last batch I’m going to comment on since I’m kind of ninja'd-out now and I did finish working on the film at least six months ago.

Anyway, this one is one of my favorites from the production. It features actors Masanori Mimoto and Nana Seino. These two were probably my favorite characters to photograph during the production since they were always making interesting expressions, especially Mimoto, who always takes his roles to heart.

This one was shot on the grounds of Iga Castle on one of the bigger days of the production. There were about a hundred extras (maybe more, maybe less, I didn’t count) and the art staff had built a long stretch of traditional looking stands selling this and that.

This is another one of Mimoto and is one of my favorites taken during the entire shoot (yes, I seem to have a lot of favorite shots). For this scene, we were shooting in some strip-mining place (don’t ask me where, I had to get up at 5am and just climbed into the bus, waking up when we arrived, wherever that was in Iga prefecture).

Near the end of the day the shoot split into two groups, with the action director dealing with Mimoto and Nana fighting a bunch of angry ninja. The action director shot the scene as one long take so all non-essentials had to hide behind rocks, but I got behind him and when I could, snapped away, hoping to god I could take good photos and stay out of the film camera’s way. I mean, he was spinning that thing this way and that! This one caught my eye right away and when I showed it to Mimoto he literally hugged me.

One actress I enjoy working with is Eihi Shiina. She’s always got a smile ready and is pretty much just a calm, happy person. Torakage marks the fifth time I’ve worked on-set with her. This photo was taken after the production returned to Tokyo. It was taken in a small room at a wonderful home tucked away in some woods above Tokyo. It was insanely hard to get because there were so many of us packed behind the film camera. Although it was the only useable shot from this scene, it’s a beauty (in my opinion). All it really takes is one good shot per scene, you know.

Well, that's about if for me and Torakage. I did my work and got my pay. Hippity hip hooray!

In other news, I finished up two big jobs. One the Takashi Miike film “Yakuza Apocalypse”. I had a bunch of English writing to polish off for the studio so they could close their files relating to my work on the production. I still have to write a set report for Eiga Hiho and Fangoria magazines, which I’ll do that later this month. I'll mention the other one when I have the strength and when things are cleared by the studio. 

I’ve started work on a few other films too this month. More on them at some future point, I suppose.

Until then…

Friday, March 27, 2015

Another One...

Here’s another “Torakage Ninja” photo I shot that has finally made it through the intricate approval process of Japanese actor management and distribution companies. Hoorah! 

On the day this photo was shoot - the first day back to shooting after the 10 days in Iga - we went out near Mt Fuji to work. The ground was a complete swamp of dry, yellowed grass stalks and mud. Actor Takumi Saito had the no fun job of running back and forth while being followed by the camera crew in a truck. As there wasn’t room in the truck for me, I pretty much just stood on the sidelines hoping to get something usable with my zoom lens. Didn’t though… But when we repositioned ourselves elsewhere I was able to get this shoot, which I’m pretty happy with. A little less hair in his face would have been better but it's fine, I feel. Actually, I hate perfectly posed shots of actors...although Japanese production companies love those staged looked photos.

Oh, and the trailer for the film was just released. 

In other "happy" news, I wrote a teaser article for director Miike's "Yakuza Apocalypse" that was upped to the Fangoria site about 2 weeks ago. I'm penning a longer piece now for Fangoria (and one for Eiga Hiho) but am unsure when and where it will appear (on-line or in the magazine). 

Here's the link. 

Oh, and I'm not so thrilled with these Miike set photos. I've got better ones on their way. I had to get them approved ASAP. I guess they're OK... Fuck it.

I also just finished writing a screenplay that will be shooting in the Philippines from next week. Not my story, but I had to write all the English dialogue. I finalized the script with the director and producers yesterday in a grueling 7 hour script meeting. Actually, it was a lot of fun and it's nice to work with people who don't micro-manage you. That is, sometimes you work for people (i.e. piece of shit creeps) who need to put their dumb-ass fingerprints over everything simply because they want to say "I did that". 

So, yeah, it's nice working with professionals who understand the nature of cooperative creation, which is what filmmaking is, and don't do juvie shit. Jesus, even director Miike let me do what I wanted on the set of his film when it was my turn up at bat (so to speak). 

I digress...

Until next time.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On The Subject Of Set Photography...

Small update to share three photos I took on the "Torakage" set. These were put up by a film festival screening the movie so I guess it’s OK for me to run them on my blog.

I’m pleased with how my photos turned out on the film and hope the distribution company will place more on-line in the near future.

As for when the film will be given a wider release, I haven’t the foggiest clue. My job was set stills and English subs. 

This one was a lot of fun to shoot. I'm a big fan of "heroes assembling for the final showdown and walking calmly to meet the enemy" shots taken with a long lens. For this one I snapped my 200mm onto my D800 and set the depth of field as shallow as I could. Then I got as far back as I could without bumping into DP Shu G. Momose, as he was going for the same effect. After the shot was complete, the two of us got a kind of sappy, happy look going and we could tell we were both on the same wavelength over this one. Although actress Nana Seino is loads cute and I always want to show her face, I choose this shot because I felt it diversified the picture by showing her struggling to get over the ridge. It also shows off that cool ass weapon on her right hand.

This was kind of a tough one to get and out of the hundred or so I took for this scene it's the only usable one. This is because all the actors were running at the film camera, making it hard to get the right focus, or else lead actress Eihi Shiina was blocking actress Miyuki Tori, or else the actresses had odd expressions on their faces as will happen when people are screaming like banshees and running wildly. After I sent this shot to Eihi for her collection, she wrote back to say she thinks this is the best photo of her ever taken and that I captured "the Shiina look". Yeah, I was happy to hear that.

This was an extremely difficult shot to get as the actress was standing on a platform, had a blanket wrapped around her waist to stay warm, and the crew was massed around her. Basically I had to hold my camera over my head and pray. I guess the gods headed my plea as it came out fantastic.

I guess it's obvious that I truly love taking set stills. Give me a mike and I'll talk till the end of time on the subject. 

Until next time...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Long Time No Whatever

It’s been months since I did any sort of an update on el blog-o (bet you didn’t know I speak Spanish!). That last blog entry about Buck Rogers probably doesn't even count too. (Come to think of it, I should make that a separate blog/webpage.)

Thing is, I make a living writing and a blog doesn’t generate the kind of monetary return that keeps my landlord from kicking in my door and throwing me out onto the spit stained streets of Shimokitazawa. However, as someone who suffers from chronic something-always-on-the-brain, a blog is a good way to calm my nerves when normal writing work offers no solace.

Like now… I did a script translation for a studio in Japan over the New Year and thought that was that. They contacted me two weeks ago and asked for a re-write because the Japanese script had been re-done.

“When do you need it?” asks I.
“This month,” says studio.
“No, this month, February.”
“But it’s the 26th!”

Somehow I managed to make all the changes AND go to the Setagaya Museum of Art with my friend Ed to catch their Toho exhibit. It was a pretty comprehensive show detailing the history of the studio. Of course, given the vast amount of films Toho has made it would be impossible to cover everything, but I felt it did a good job showing the Herculean efforts the generations of Toho staffers have put in over the many decades. It was also interesting to see the various stylistic changes as they developed over the years. 

Interesting too, however, is how Toho considers its two crowning achievements to be 7 Samurai and Godzilla ('54). Of course they are both great films, but they also happen to be the two films most embraced by the west. I wish Japanese could see the value in their own work and not be swayed by their desire to be accepted by the west. I know...I shouldn't wish for the impossible.

Well, much of my time over the past several months has been spent working on a selection of films. Mostly subtitling. I did a still job on a low budget film that played at Yubari Film Fest last month, but that production was nothing to write home about. OK, it wasn’t Tomomatsu disorganized, but… Most of the staff and cast were people I’ve worked with on bigger productions and that made the several days I put in on the shoot tolerable enough. However, every single day I showed up to the location it was a “where the fuck is everyone?” situation.

A call to an AD was always met with a, “Oh, we decided to move to XXX location at the last minute.” The worst was dragging all my camera gear to a location one early morning only to find no one there and calling to learn the shoot was pushed back 5 hours. When I got to the set that afternoon, the first thing the cinematographer said to me was, “So, did anyone bother to call you to tell you about the change?” Cue one eye roll from me and lots of hahahahas from the staff.

Honestly, after years of this, I’m thinking it best to divorce myself from low-rent productions. I’ll work on professional productions no problem. But I’m pulling down the fadeout lever on my participation with so-called indie films. It's just not worth it.

I went to Ikebukuro to see a screening of the Shusuke Kaneko film “Danger Dolls”. They had a big display that featured the girls’ outfits and a large selection of my set photos. It was fun to watch people taking photos of my photos with their phones. Even Rina Takeda was taking photos of them.

“Uh, Rina… I gave you copies of most of these.”
“I know, but I want to take photos of them on the wall!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t so happy with the selection. The shots used were ones that focused on the girls behind the scenes. You know, stuff to appeal to otaku fans. I would have preferred shots from within the world of the film, god knows I took enough good ones to fill a couple of photobooks. This is really up to the people promoting a film, so all I can do is provide them with various kind of set photos and let them use them in the way they feel is right. Still, it was fun to see my work so prominently displayed and right next to Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" display. (No behind the scenes of smiling actresses on that one, 'natch.)

Well, I finally finished my work on the Takashi Miike directed “Yakuza Apocalypse”. It took 3 passes to work the subtitles into a form I liked. The movie has a lot of yakuza posturing and it was a real effort to make their very unique culture accessible to those in the audience unfamiliar with the yakuza way. All of us who worked on the film went the extra mile, so I’m indebted to the wonderful Nikkatsu staff. All in all, it was a highly satisfying film to work on.

And as a film, it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever worked on. No matter how many times I watch it I find something new, or I just enjoy its great performances and bizarre situations. It was also a very good set, and I have a ton of wonderful memories associated with it.

I was over at Imagica the other day and finally got to see the film on a big screen. It looked even better. The movie has a film-ish quality to its look, giving it a kind of '70s sheen. I went with Tei, who plays one of the bad guys in the film. Tei's dialog was all in English (I wrote his lines and did on-set dialect coaching for him and Yayan). He was nervous before hand, but his lines came out great. All that relentless drilling during shooting really made the difference. Sure, he doesn't sound like he's from Brooklyn or anything, but he is understandable and the native nuances are there. All told, Tei was happy with his performance and it was satisfying for me to see him satisfied. “Yakuza Apocalypse” is a fantastic film and I highly recommend it. 

I’ve worked on a couple of other films too, but I don’t want to talk about them as they mostly sucked. *sigh*

I went to Wonderfest too. What can I say about that? It’s always the same thing. I think I’ll take a break next year unless any foreign friends come out for the show. However, I did bump into a lot of Godzilla staffers and got to shoot the breeze with them. Most notably, Makoto Kamiya, who I don't think I've seen in 5 years or so. I really owe Kamiya a lot for putting up with me near daily on the GMK set. I think he's sick of hearing me thank him, actually.

Check out the weird ass English on that sign. When I see stuff like this I feel good knowing I'll always have a job in Japan.

One super fun thing I did was to see Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time in a theater since 1977. My buddy Yoshiki is a big guy in Rocky Horror fandom here in Japan and even translated the film and its lyrics for more recent stage performances. In fact, before the screening there was a large band (at least 10 piece) and a live cast that performed about 8 pieces from the film. The sold-out screening was a blast, and Yoshiki and me were probably the most vocal. I surprised myself with how much I recalled of the audience participation stuff.

After the screening, a bunch of us climbed on stage and joined in for a couple of raucous numbers. It was actually a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be.

Speaking of Yoshiki, the night Leonard Nimoy died we went out for dinner (with his genius artist partner Yuko a.k.a. Utomaru) to remember Trek and just talk about how completely awesome Nimoy was. Our mantra for the night was, “I don’t want to live in a world without Spock!” For the next issue of Eiga Hiho I was planning to write about The Blob, but have since changed that to Leonard Nimoy. It truly is saddening to think he’s just not in this world of ours. I always admired his mind, his dedication to his craft, and his overall maturity. He was truly a good and honest human being. 

I was interviewed by the rock magazine Rock Jet about being a Kiss fan in the 70s. The article came out great. It's pretty long too, 7 pages in total. It was fun to recall all those years of taking hell for liking Kiss in the mid to late 70s. 

Oh, and a Greek website did an interview with me, in case anyone at this point hasn't had enough of my  ceaseless chatter. It's in Greek at the top and English at the bottom.

Well… until whenever I find the time to write something.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Critical Analysis of the Final Freeze Frame of Every Single Episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Making TV a much more cozier place for sci-fi fans, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century had its television premiere on 09/20/1979. As part of the Star Wars aftershock, Buck could be said to have been a cash-in of the times, as producer Glen Larson was well known for porting over the premises of successful films to the small tube. However, that Buck dates back to the 1920s and has been part of the sci-fi collective since its creation muddles the merits of this accusation. The same can’t be said for the producer’s bigger sci-fi show, Battlestar Galactica, a show I prefer to Buck, but in hindsight realize is not as much brainless fun as Buck. All in all, Buck was an enjoyable hour of nonsensical science fiction, cranked out by the Universal Studios production machine with no claims to being anything more than what it delivered.

Each episode followed a similar formula: Buck (played to perfection by actor Gil Gerard) meets a beautiful woman in a fix and rises to the occasion to rescue said woman. It being the late ‘70s, any kind of sexual relationship between Buck and these women was ambiguous. Sometimes these damsels in distress had boyfriends or fiancés and Buck was merely helping the young lovers overcome whatever it was that was keeping them apart. Other times it seemed as if Buck was together with the women, with the stress on the word “seemed”. Buck’s connection with women was further complicated by the ambiguous relationship he shared with show regular Lt. Wilma Deering (the wonderful Erin Grey). It was never clear what was going on between these two. At some points their relationship was sibling-like, at others lover-like, and at its weirdest Wilma coming on to Buck with Buck responding to her advances with a dismissive, “That’s nice.”

When Buck went into re-runs in the 1980s I would watch it with Geoff Notkin, the bass player of my then band “Proper iD”. (Geoff currently hosts space science shows of his own, such as Meteorite Men and some other stuff that we don’t get in Japan (where I live now) so I’ll have to take his word for it). The two of us being sci-fi fans, we would gather in my room (as a band, we lived together in a large band house) and watch Buck re-runs.

One day, one of us noticed something odd about the show. For arguments sake, I’ll credit Geoff with the discovery since it’s not something that’s going to be written on either of our tombstones.

Following an episode, our conversation went something like this:

Geoff: Have you ever noticed how at the end of each episode of Buck it freezes on a shot of his smiling face?

Norman: You sure? I mean, yeah, this episode did do that, but all of them? That would be too weird.

Geoff: Seems to me they all do.

Norman: Well, let’s put it to the test with next week’s episode.

Sure enough, next week’s episode ended with the same kind of bizarro head-and-shoulders shot of Buck smiling like he’d just hit the lottery while high on Nitrous Oxide. As each re-run proved Geoff right, the two of us would prepare ourselves for that final, glorious freeze frame, striking our own versions of Buck’s maxed out whatever-it-was-I-dreamed-of-getting-in-life-I-just-got-in-spades smile.

With it being the New Year, a time when I try to do one off-the-wall bit of writing, I submit to the cyber community an analysis of the final shot of each episode in the first season of Buck Rogers. Not included is the pilot episode / theatrical release, “Awakening,” because it didn’t follow the same weekly constraints of the show. Also not included is the second season of Buck because, alas, they changed the format and ruined all the things that made Buck the awesome hour of TV it was.

Without further ado:


Episode: (1,03 & 1,04) Planet of the Slave Girls
Obviously, being an early episode, it hadn't yet occurred to the creators of the series that each episode must end with a medium close-up of Captain William "Buck" Rogers smiling in cornball bliss. In this episode's final shot, while Buck is smiling in cornball bliss, he is sharing the final frame with co-star Erin Grey and guest star David Groh, otherwise known as Rhoda's husband. Thus preventing us from really feeling the power of Buck's frozen smile. Rating: 2 out of 5

Episode: (1,05) Vegas in Space
The show, still in its infancy, hadn't yet hit on its winning formula as, for some odd reason, we only get a profile shot of Buck. It seems that with Wilma in the last shot of this episode and in the one from the previous episode, the producers were thinking of treading a more Wilma / Buck balance. Fortunately, this was the last of that and Wilma never appeared in another all-important final freeze frame. Rating: 2 out of 5 (It would be a 1, but Wilma's a dear, especially when wearing blue spandex.)

Episode: (1,06) The Plot to Kill a City, Part 1
Getting there... While this is a perfect medium close-up of Buck, he isn't smiling like a spoiled kid on Christmas morning. This can be explained, however. The Plot to Kill a City was a two-parter and as a two-parter it was required to end on a cliffhanger. This means Buck has to be in a predicament strong enough for audiences to remember to tune in the following week, which translates to no wacky Buck smile at episode's end. Rating: 1 out of 5

Episode: (1,07)  The Plot to Kill a City, Part 2
We have arrived! Although Buck's head is turned to the right a bit more than I'd like, here we have the very first instance of what I call "Smilin' Freeze Frame Buck". He's also sporting a kind of vest outfit similar to the one seen by Han Solo in Star Wars, giving it an of-the-times look. And lots of chest hair. A rat's nest of chest hair. Rating: 3 out of 5

Episode: (1,08) Return of the Fighting 69th
Again, while not exactly centered and exactly not the kind of smile I like to see on Buck's face at the end of an episode - the kind of smile that will keep me going until the next episode - we do have a shot of a happy Buck, chest hair, and a color reversal of the vest / shirt seen in the previous episode. Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,09) Unchained Woman
Because Jamie Lee Curtis was a big star at the time, it's natural that the producers would let her share the all-important final freeze frame with Buck. Guess it can't be helped. And Buck's seen in a profile shot here. And it's kind of too dark to really get that "You are so cool, Buck" feeling. Still, he's sitting next to Jamie Lee and that's kind of right on. Rating: 2 out of 5

Episode: (1,10) Planet of the Amazon Women
This is more like it. We have a good, near centered Buck, which I approve. However, it's more an ironic smile than an actual, "Oh my God, I'm Buck Rogers and you're not" kind of smile. But he is in uniform and that's neat. Rating: 4 out of 5

Episode: (1,11) Cosmic Wiz Kid
Here we are again in the situation where a star, this time Gary Coleman of that Diff'rent Strokes TV show (featuring the goddess Dana Plato), carried enough weight to warrant he be seen beside Buck in the final freeze frame. At least Buck has a good smile going. And they are touching. Rating: 3 out of 5

Episode: (1,12) Escape from Wedded Bliss
This one would be perfect if it weren't for the crummy lighting on Buck. Also, Buck's smile is more like a snicker. And his shirt seems a bit too much off-the-Sears-rack to really give it a sci-fi feel. Same thing with that lamp behind him. What's up with that? Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,13) Cruise Ship to the Stars
Who can forget Dorothy Stratten, the starlet shot down before her time? It is entirely far-out that she graced an episode of Buck. But as a final freeze frame this one is a little ill-conceived. Still, the background is cool and Buck looks like he's having a good time, although a bit more of a "Holy crap, I'm sitting next to Dorothy Stratten!" grin would be more appropriate. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,14) Space Vampire
This one is weird. Good points first: We got Buck almost dead center. Always a good way to end an episode. But it's a spooky episode, somewhat horrific, and it took all the ingenuity of the writing staff to make it end on a high note. So, considering that, while Buck's non-toothy smile doesn't give up the goods, it does fit the episode. Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,15) Happy Birthday, Buck
This one has a lot going for it: A great my-denist-is-better-than-yours smile and a full Buck head shot. However, the frame suffers from blur as it was caught in mid-movement. What the hell? Rating: 2 out of 5

Episode: (1,16) A Blast for Buck
Now this is one fantastic ending freeze frame! While not only a solid, "Until next week, broheims" smile, Buck is holding a bottle. An honest to God glass bottle! And check out that blue background. Blue lends itself well to sci-fi, at least it did in the '70s and '80s. Not really sure what happened to the yellow in Glen Larson's title. It's all faded and not that strong radioactive banana yellow in other episodes. Rating: 4 out of 5

Episode: (1,17) Ardala Returns
Now we're getting somewhere! We have Buck giving his best thinned out upper-lip smile, wide collar against ugly vest, and a slightly unfocused background. A little blue behind him would have made this one perfect. Rating: 4 out of 5

Episode: (1,18) Twiki is Missing
This one... It had all the makings of perfection, but where is the smile?!? Goddamnit! Where is the smile, Buck? The fact that it has blue in the back gives it a point up. Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,19) Olympiad
This one rocks...almost. We have a great shot of Buck, smiling away like he just made the last train with a second to spare. And there is mandatory blue in the background. However, the shot is too high and someone's arm and shoulder are sharing precious screen space with what is supposed to be Buck's moment. Rating: 3 out of 5

Episode: (1,20) A Dream of Jennifer
Ah, perfection thy name is "Smilin' Freeze Frame Buck"! We have the blue, we have an outfit that looks futuristic, and we have Buck displaying his piano key smile like tomorrow will never come. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Episode: (1,21) Space Rockers
This is the kind of final frame that makes any Buck fan take to their feet, throw their fist up in the air, and scream, "All hail the mighty Buck!" Its slightly low angle gives us the full glory of Buck's uninhibited smile. And look at all that gnarly chest hair! Buck is so happy and confident that he doesn't even care if you like chest hair or not. Man, I wish I was Buck (minus the chest hair). Rating: 5 out of 5

Episode: (1,122) Buck's Duel to the Death
This one is more a causal smile than an actual the-forces-of the-universe-congeled-to-make-my-awesomeness smile. But it's solid all around. Strong smile, square jaw, some blue in the back. The series really knew what it was about at this point. Rating: 5 out of 5

Episode: (1,23) Flight of the War Witch
Sadly, the final episode of the first season ends with a mixed bag of a freeze frame. It's a perfectly framed shot of Buck, but the lighting isn't happening. And Buck's smile has a tinge of insanity. I suspect actor Gil Gerard was getting a bit worn out from a season of smiles by this point. Rating: 3 out of 5

(This page is dedicated to my buddies Geoff Notkin for being a good Buck pal and artist Bob Eggleton for being super cool and buying me the Buck DVD box set several years back.)