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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Unseen Westeros is a cool exhibition in Berlin for GAME OF THRONES and SONG OF ICE AND FIRE fans

Some of the concept artists from HBO's Game of Thrones have put together a new exhibition showcasing 50 locations from the wider world of Westeros and Essos that haven't appeared in the TV show (and, in some cases, the books).


The exhibition runs from 23-27 January 2019 at the Umspannwerk Reinickendorf in Berlin. The exhibition is free, but the organisers are running a Kickstarter to assist with covering costs.

The images used in the exhibition are striking, including images of Volantis, Braavos and a version of Harrenhal that's somewhat more epic than what we got on TV. There's also this cool map:


If this maps looks familiar, it's because it's based on the (definitely non-canon) world map I created for my Atlas of Ice and Fire blog a few years back. Although the map should not be taken as definitive, it is cool to see it redrawn by professionals like this.

The exhibition looks really interesting. Hopefully we'll see the artwork in another venue for a wider audience (a book featuring the artwork is part of the Kickstarter, hopefully that will get a wider release later on).

Friday, 21 September 2018

Telltale Games closing down, second GAME OF THRONES video game series (and others) cancelled

In surprising news, Telltale Games, the studio behind the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Wolf Among Us adventure game series (among others), is closing for good.


Telltale was founded in 2004 by ex-staff from LucasArts, the formidable studio that in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s had created some of the greatest video games ever made, from Monkey Island 2 through TIE Fighter to Grim Fandango. The studio's goal was to bring back the adventure game (a narrative-focused game where puzzle-solving and conversation is key to completing the game, rather than combat and explosions) from the abyss, overcoming issues with long development times by breaking their games into episodic "seasons" with each 2-4 hour "episode" released a few weeks or a couple of months apart. Their early games were patchy, with Sam and Max Save the World (2006) and Tales of Monkey Island (2009) - both direct sequels to LucasArts games - being moderately successful but games such as Back to the Future (2010) and Jurassic Park (2011) having a much more mixed reaction.

The studio's fortunes had a massive boost with the release of the first season of The Walking Dead in 2012. A massive critical and commercial success, selling over 28 million copies of the five episodes, The Walking Dead was praised for its focus on characterisation and storytelling over violence, especially given its zombie apocalypse setting. Telltale underwent a major expansion and its next game, The Wolf Among Us, was even more critically praised, although it did not sell as well.

However, internal dissent at the studio soon saw much of the creative team behind The Walking Dead leave and set up a rival adventure game studio, Campo Santo. Their debut game, Firewatch (2016), was an even bigger critical success than The Walking Dead and their sales were extremely strong.

Telltale released what can only be called a glut of games over the next few years: The Walking Dead - Season 2 (2013), Tales from the Borderlands (2014), Game of Thrones: The Adventure Game (2014), two seasons of Minecraft: Story Mode (2015), two seasons of Batman (2016) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2017). Although some of these had a strong critical reception, sales were somewhat disappointing for all of these games bar the Minecraft adventure titles. In early 2017 four of the studio's design leads quit simultaneously, creating a leadership vacuum that was never filled.

The studio's commitment to releasing a lot of product also alienated gamers. First, the sheer quantity of material released saw many gamers giving up trying to follow it all. In addition, the studio insisted on using the same, increasingly decrepit game engine for all of their titles. The engine was looking a bit creaky already when The Walking Dead was released, but the strong writing and voice acting overcame the problem. However, with the transition to the X-Box One/PlayStation 4 generation, the fact that the games weren't looking any better than on the X-Box 360 or PlayStation 3 irritated a lot of fans.

The release schedule also caused enormous problems in the studio. Most video game studios develop games over a period of 2-4 years, entering a period known as "crunch" in the final 3-6 months leading up to release where a lot of overtime is necessary to get the game out of the door. With most studios, the release of the game allows for a rest-and-regrouping period of at least a few weeks before work has to begin on the next title in earnest. Telltale's release schedule meant this was not possible and the studio existed in a state of "permanent crunch", with no downtime for developers to regroup before making the next game, leading to a spate of departures.

Telltale's closure means that several announced titles have been cancelled. These include second seasons of The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones and an ambitious Stranger Things tie-in and co-production with Netflix. What is unclear is the status of The Walking Dead: The Final Season. The first episode was released a few weeks ago, a second episode is due next week and several more beyond that. A wrapping-up crew are still working at Telltale for the next couple of months, but it is unclear if they plan to finish the season or not.

The closure of a video game studio with the resulting hundreds of job losses is always sad news, especially one that had done much to resurrect a beloved, half-vanished genre. However, the company's toxic work environment and the pressure to keep delivering quantity of content over quality appears to have helped run it into the ground. The good news is that many other companies are already snapping up Telltale developers via a Twitter campaign, and with Valve (and their formidable financial resources) recently buying Campo Santo, one wonders if they could have plans for expansion there.

Gratuitous Lists: Ten Great SFF Title Sequences

The job of a good title sequence is to hook you into the story straight away and also keep you watching whilst the contractually-mandated right names are ticked off at the bottom of the screen. For a while it looked like title sequences were going the way of the dodo, with some TV shows preferring very brief title cards (the likes of Lost and Heroes), but the rise to fame of premium cable and streaming shows, with variable episode times, has made this less of an issue. Here then - not in numerical order! - are ten great title sequences from genre TV shows.


American Gods
(2017 - present)

The most recent show on this list has an unusual, dreamlike title sequence and musical score. The title sequence mixes traditional religious imagery with modern-day objects, a clear homage to the theme of the old gods versus the new. So we have a Hindu-like statue surrounded by modern drugs, the internal combustion engine and the space shuttle being treated as religious icons and, dominating all, a somewhat threatening version of the American eagle. An impressive work of art in its own right.


Babylon 5
(1993-98)

J. Michael Straczynski's space opera magnum opus was supposed to be the TV equivalent of Lord of the Rings or Dune, a vast epic story set in a thoroughly-realised setting, with each season acting as a separate book in a series of novels. In that sense he was thoroughly successful. This required each of the show's five seasons to have a different title sequence, each setting up an increasingly complex story. Composer Christopher Franke also had to come up with not just one, but five different theme tunes (he did cheat a little and repeat some motifs to great effect). The result is a title sequence and theme tune that sets each of the five seasons apart and adjusts to the changing tone of each season, moving through the worsening situation and outbreak of war in Seasons 2 and 3 to the hopeful, post-conflict tones of Season 5.


Batman: The Animated Series
(1992-95)

There have been several Batman TV series, ranging from the 1960s camp-fest starring Adam West to current crime-fighting odyssey Gotham, but the finest remains this animated series from the early 1990s. Drawing on the Tim Burton movies, the animated series is Batman in arguably its purest and most distilled form: the Caped Crusader (with occasional allies) taking down criminals mundane and super-powered. The show's art deco-inspired title sequence may be the greatest summary of what the character and his stories are all about.


Blake's 7
(1978-81)

This cult British space opera show was far, far ahead of its time (and way ahead of its budget). An adult, dark and bleak vision of the future (albeit one with fantastic hairstyles and bizarre fashion tastes), the show was about a band of freedom fighters trying to bring down a despotic government and all too often drifting over the moral border into terrorism and murder. The ground-breaking title sequence mixes live action, animation and electronic elements to depict the mix of Orwellian future dystopia and star-spanning adventures. It was revisited several times as technology improved over the course of the show's four-season run.


Cowboy Bebop
(1998)

Generally praised as one of the greatest animated series of all time, Cowboy Bebop ran for just one season and 26 episodes back in 1998, the creators at Sunrise Studios keen not to milk the product by promptly walking away and never looking back. In those 26 episodes the crew of the Bebop got involved in everything from farcical comedies to nail-biting dramas built on suspense and even horror, all to a funky soundtrack from the obscenely-talented Yoko Kanno. Okay, let's jam.


Doctor Who
(1963 - present)

Unsurprisingly - since it has run for 36 seasons across 55 years - Doctor Who has had more title sequences than any other genre show in history. No less than 17 title sequences and variations on the theme tune have introduced the show since it's began. It's more remarkable that these sequences have carried forward the same certain motifs - the chaotic swirl of the Time Vortex - even since the first one. The 1980s version notably becomes a bit more electronic and the 1987-89 version (during the Sylvester McCoy era) introduces a new recurring idea, that of the TARDIS flying past the camera, which remains a key part of the sequence into the new era. Next month we'll see the 18th version of the title sequence and music to usher in the Thirteenth Doctor, and it'll be interesting to see what they do with it.


Firefly
(2002)

From the longst-running show on the list to the shortest, Firefly ran for only 14 episodes back in 2002. Fox TV didn't understand Joss Whedon's vision, was confused by the mash-up of SF and Wild West ideas and prematurely canned the series (eventually realising their mistake when the DVD box set sales came in). The title sequence combines spaceships, action, horses and an Old West-style theme song to perfectly nail the show's atmosphere.


Game of Thrones
(2011-19)

HBO was understandably nervous before launching Game of Thrones in 2011, their first foray into fantasy fiction. Based on the most critically-acclaimed epic fantasy book series since Tolkien, with a pre-launch hype that has not been matched since, the show was clearly going to do well. But having one of the most striking title sequences of all time certainly helped, along with Ramin Djawadi's incredible theme music (which is definitely going through your head right now).


Star Trek
(1966-69)

The original Star Trek title sequence may be the most iconic in television history. Pretty simple and straightforward, with Captain Kirk telling us this is going to be a journey to the final frontier and lots of shots of the USS Enterprise flying quickly past the camera. Star Trek: The Next Generation remixed this title sequence quite effectively before Deep Space Nine brought in a new, more stately approach.


True Blood
(2008-14)

True Blood won't be fondly remembered as one of the great genre TV shows, but it did have a pitch-perfect title sequence which combined Southern Americana, religious fundamentalism, blood and sex, setting the tone of the TV show perfectly. The choice of theme song (Jace Everett's "Bad Things") ties in with this very well as well. This intro set up the show (more specifically, its first three seasons before it became a self-parodying soap opera) perfectly and may be the most HBO of all of HBO's title sequences.




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RIFTWAR TV series in early development

Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Cycle has been optioned for television by production company BCDF Pictures. Kurt Johnstad (300Atomic Blonde) is writing a script based on the first novel in the series, Magician, which would presumably serve as the first season of the series.


It should be noted that there is no director attached and no studio has picked up the project yet. BCDF Pictures has mostly succeeded in getting low-key, low-budget movies made like Liberal Arts and Higher Ground, so this would be quite a departure for them.

The Riftwar Cycle spans 29 novels (divided into ten smaller series), 3 short stories, a novella, a companion book and two video games, all published between 1982 and 2013. The series was based on an earlier series of roleplaying game products from Midkemia Press, released in the late 1970s. The series has sold more than 25 million copies to date, although the first novel, Magician, is by far the biggest-selling and most popular individual book in the series. Raymond E. Feist wrote 23 of the novels by himself, co-wrote 3 novels with Janny Wurts and 3 more books were written by other authors based on Feist's ideas. There have apparently been multiple attempts to option Magician over the decades, but Feist has rejected them because he found them not to be faithful enough to the series.

Magician tells the story of the Kingdom of the Isles, a nation on the world of Midkemia, which is invaded via dimensional portals by forces from the Tsurani Empire, located on another world. Later books in the series expand the setting to bring in demons, dark gods, chaos magic and other elements. Presumably no TV series would try to adapt all 29 books (especially since the latter half of the series was pretty much phoned in compared to the first), so it'll be interesting to see what the masterplan is for the project.

More news if it develops.

Luke Cage: Season 2

Harlem is in the grip of a crime wave, with councilwoman-turnged-gangster Mariah Stokes Dillard orchestrating things from behind the scenes. The police can't touch her and all Luke Cage can do is put out fires and try to fight crime on his own (whilst dealing with his own social media fame). Events take a turn for the worse when a Jamaican criminal named "Bushmaster" arrives, hellbent on vengeance against the Stokes family.


The first season of Luke Cage may rank as the weakest of the Marvel/Netflix collaborations so far (despite strong competition from the first season of Iron Fist): an excellent first half, with a strong villain (Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth) giving way to an absolutely awful second half with a weak antagonist (Erik LaRay Harvey channelling William Shatner levels of ham in his one-note performance as Diamondback), with maybe seven or eight episodes' worth of plot stretched over thirteen hours.

Season 2 of Luke Cage, annoyingly, manages to take these problems and magnify them. The season is far from a complete write-off, with the actors all being great and some of the storylines and character arcs having promise, but none of it cohering very well. The villain problem is at least alleviated, with the always-splendid Alfre Woodard stepping up as Mariah and Mustafa Shakir (The Night of, The Deuce) giving a charismatic performance as the ridiculously-named Bushmaster. The show also adds some good new acting talent in the form of Reg E. Cathey (The Wire) as Luke's father. Sadly, Cathey passed away shortly after filming of the season was completed.

But the negatives are huge. This time around there are maybe four episodes' worth of plot stretched across thirteen hours. Not just entire episodes, but entire blocks of episodes simply exist to spin their wheels and take neither the plot nor the characters anywhere. It doesn't help that the writers seem to not be on the same page as one another: in early episodes Luke apparently has an anger problem, but this immediately vanishes and is never mentioned again. In another episode recurring secondary villain Shades (Theo Rossi) appears to have genuine remorse (to the point of crying about them) for the deaths of innocent civilians he's caused, and in the next is gloating maniacally about them. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is just dropped from the season when the writers run out of things for her to do. The first episode has a great joke about villains always trying to shoot Luke when they know he can't be hurt, which is undercut by the same thing happening again and again throughout the season. There's also a team-up with Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) which is surprisingly great, but then Rand just disappears from the story with no explanation.

There's a lot of frustration here, mainly because the actors are great when they're given good material to work with, but all too often they're left going round in circles and talking about things we already know about ad infinitum. As a 4-6 episode mini-series, the second season of Luke Cage (**) could have been excellent. As a 13-hour season, it's an all-too-often soulless grind, with bright moments separated by hours of tedium. Easily the weakest season of the Marvel/Netflix collaborations to date. The season is available now on Netflix.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Dragon Prince: Season 1


The humans of the Five Kingdoms and the elves of Xadia have long existed in an uneasy peace, their lands separated by a river of lava guarded by the King of the Dragons. Now human assassins have slain the Dragon King and destroyed his last surviving egg. Elven assassins have been dispatched to slay King Harrow of Katolis in retaliation. But one of the assassins, Rayla, finds herself forming an alliance with Crown Prince Ezran and his half-brother Callum when they make a discovery that could avert war and restore peace to the continent.

Image result for the dragon prince

The Dragon Prince is a Netflix original animated series that comes with an impressive pedigree. Written by Aaron Ehasz and directed by Giancarlo Volpe, two of the main creative forces on Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Dragon Prince is aiming for that same action-adventure vibe with a cast of colourful, complex characters and a story that both adults and children can enjoy.

In this respect the first season is a near-unqualified success. It’s funny and serious by turns, the voice acting is excellent and the characterisation is first-rate. The villains – if they can even be called that – are treated as human characters with their own foibles and strengths (and a sense of humour) and a firm belief that what they are doing is right. Even secondary characters, like the deaf General Amaya, are well-fleshed-out individuals. The show also has great music and effective worldbuilding, albeit of a slightly more traditional nature than Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.

The show does have two issues. The first is that the series employs a curious mixture of 2D animation and 3D CG graphics. The two styles don’t mesh entirely well, resulting in somewhat undetailed faces for some characters. Due to technical issues, some shots have also had to have their frame rates reduced, resulting in distractingly jerky animation. Fortunately this is only an occasional issue. At other times, particularly anything involving fast action or magic, the animation is gorgeous.

The second issue is that nine 25-minute episodes is barely enough time for the show to clear its throat. The story is only really just getting underway, there’s a startling plot twist in the finale and potential new regular characters Ellis and Ava have joined the party, and suddenly it’s all over. Hopefully Netflix renew the show and put a second season on the fast track, because this is a more-than-worthy heir to Avatar: The Last Airbender, although it is not quite on the same quality level just yet.

Season 1 of The Dragon Prince (****) is available to watch worldwide on Netflix right now.

Disney planning Loki and Scarlet Witch TV mini-series to launch new streaming service

Marvel and Disney are looking at two limited-run mini-series starring popular Marvel characters to launch their new streaming service.

Image result for loki and scarlet witch



Disney have been developing their own streaming service for some time now, planning to launch it in late 2019. The new service, as yet unnamed, will compete directly with Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, but will have a lower price point. The current plan is to have both original content on the service as well as providing customers with access to the formidable Disney back-catalogue of TV series and films, including material produced by American network ABC. When Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox is completed, this will also allow Disney to transfer Fox’s colossal back-catalogue of TV series and films to the new service as well. This will be a long-term process, however, as many of these shows and movies are currently licenced to Netflix and other services, and will only be able to be moved as those deals expire.


Disney are planning a big-budget Star Wars TV series, to be helmed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, to launch on the service in 2020. A live-action version of The Lady and the Tramp is also being planned for the service, and a TV version of the popular movie series High School Musical. Disney also promised new shows featuring Marvel characters to run on the service.

The first and higher-profile project under discussion is a limited-run series which will see Tom Hiddleston reprise his fan-favourite role as Loki, which he has played in five of the Marvel movies (all three Thor films and The Avengers, where he was the primary villain, as well as a brief appearance in The Avengers: Infinity War). It is unclear if the series will be set before or after the events of Infinity War.

Disney and Marvel are also considering similar a limited-run mini-series for Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who has appeared in four movies to date (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War and The Avengers: Infinity War). If successful the format could be expanded to characters who are not big enough to headline their own film but too big to appear in an ongoing show. Presumably characters like Falcon, Bucky/Winter Soldier and Iron Machine could fall into that category as well.

Meanwhile, the long-term fate of the six TV series that Marvel produces with Netflix remains unclear. These shows – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders – are produced by shot and produced by ABC but are funded by Netflix and air on that platform, which Disney is planning to directly compete with.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Netflix greenlights AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER live-action TV series

In a move that redefines the word "unexpected", Netflix has greenlit a live-action TV adaptation of the classic animated fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which aired between 2005 and 2008 on Nickelodeon. Alongside the announcement, they have also released a piece of concept art depicting Avatar Aang and his flying bison, Appa.


Original showrunners Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are also serving in that capacity on the live-action series, which will be a co-production between Netflix and Nickelodeon. There was a previous attempt to translate the story to live action, resulting in the movie The Last Airbender (2009) by M. Night Shyamalan. The movie was rightly reviled for its awful writing and direction and the controversial "whitewashing" of the core cast of characters (who hail from a mixture of Tibetan, Inuit and Asian analogue settings). DiMartino and Konietzko throw shade at the movie in the press release for the new show, confirming that the ethnic makeup of the original characters will be maintained.

The new Avatar: The Last Airbender will enter production in 2019, presumably for a 2020 debut on Netflix. This marks the networks's second major epic fantasy project, following on from The Witcher (which starts shooting next month for a late 2019 launch). According to Netflix and the producers, they have been planning this project for a long time.

Netflix is also producing a new animated series, The Dragon Prince, by Avatar writer Aaron Ehasz and director Giancarlo Volpe, with Season 1 released last week. I'll have a review shortly.

BLADE RUNNER TV series in development

A Hollywood gossip column has suggested that a Blade Runner TV series is currently in the works, although it lists no studio or creative talent as being involved.


According to the column, the producers of Blade Runner 2049 were disappointed by the film's poor box office performance, but were buoyed by the blanket critical acclaim so are moving ahead with a continuation on the small screen, apparently focused on the characters of Deckard, Ana Stelline and K escaping the situation at the end of 2049.

The creative team behind Blade Runner 2049 are unlikely to return: Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford will be too expensive and director Denis Villeneuve is currently prepping his two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.

With no creative talent or studio attached and the movie not being a huge success financially, I think this project sounds very unlikely to come off, but you never know.