Photos in motion

Here are a couple of examples of a very neat little program called Sqirlz, which makes water-related animations out of photos. In the first example, of Villa Sonsbeek in Arnhem, I tried to capture the slow swell of a breeze-blown lake. I’d give it 5/10.

In the second example, more appropriate for this time of year, I tried out the “snow” option, which is based on the “rain” option. I mention this because it is quite hard to generate a realistic impression of falling snow. In the program “Help” file, it states that speeds of under 1.0 will be jerky in the movie loop. The problem is that any speed over 0.6 is like a blizzard. As a compromise, I set the speed to 0.5, then when I saved the file as a Flash file, I set the frame rate to 10/sec, rather than the default 15, thereby slowing the movement.

What do you think? I’d give it 7.5/10.

For the eagle-eyed among you, this is the same tree-lined path that I photographed in autumn: Grimm Times and A walk in the woods.

Joggin’ in de sand in a Babylon land

At the recent Commonwealth Games, Jamaica chalked up a remarkable score by winning every single sprint event!

It was all the more impressive given the small size of the population (2.7 million). So how come there are so many fast runners?

Well, if you also look at Jamaica’s ranking in the murder per capita table, you might get a clue. Note that the data is very out of date (2000). Jamaica’s murder tally in 2005 was almost 1700, or almost double the number used in the table (887), leading some to speculate that Jamaica had jumped to the top spot in the murder league.

The source of the sprinters’ success then is that Jamaicans know from a young age and from much experience that at the sound of gunshot …

Dr Z

I imagine many people have a mental list of books they would like to read but never get around to doing so. Top of my list was Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. Somehow, each time I entered a book store or started browsing on Amazon, my mind would go blank and I would quickly be distracted by any book except those on my must-read list.

Now that my access to good books is more limited, geographically and financially, I was fortunate to come across a dog-eared copy of Zhivago in the kitchen of my children’s school. I borrowed it over Christmas and spent a week wallowing in beautiful prose. I have seen the film so many times that when I read the name Yuriatin, it was as if I had lived there myself in some distant past.

I was also struck by the more fast paced, modern style, compared with the earlier Russian greats who could draw out a duck shoot for a dozen pages with dense description and minimal action. Still, compared with contemporary fiction, Pasternak’s characters seem remote with their passionate, eloquent discourses on symbolist poetry or political theology. Are we capable of talking so intelligently these days? Can we hold forth without sounding like a professionally coached politician or sales advertisement? Is getting passionate about American Idol or David Beckham comparable with our forefathers’ concerns?

Answers: yes, possibly and no.

I was also intrigued by the crafting of the novel and the film. Both are masterpieces in their own right, but the changes made in the film allow us to see more clearly how the elements are employed to create great art. The plot is simplified in a number of ways: secondary characters are dropped and passages not directly involving Zhivago are either cut or else key visual elements are recuperated and slotted into the main plot (e.g. the officer shot in the barrel). The meeting of Zhivago’s daughter and his brother (Alec Guinness) opens and closes the movie (only occuring at the end in the novel), providing a neat frame as well as reassuring the audience that Zhivago and Lara do meet, even though they have to wait almost two hours before the promised great romance actually blossoms.

The screenwriter, Robert Bolt, was told by director David Lean to focus on the love story and downplay the politics. Lean’s instructions to Omar Sharif were to “do nothing”, in an attempt to capture the image of a poet observing life around him. Julie Christie probably got the same instruction because she plays Lara almost without words, conveying powerful emotions of determination and sorrow through her gritted jaw and clear blue eyes, usually carefully lighted or framed by a scarf or other device. This “lean” version of the novel works because what is sacrificed is replaced by some of the most haunting scenes in cinema.

Dr Zhivago was voted most romantic movie of all time in a Blockbuster poll in 2002. The most romantic scene of all time was voted to be in the ice palace when Zhivago begins writing his Lara poems. The scene is a wonderful example of the artifice of cinema because it was filmed in central Spain in temperatures of over 100°F, the surrounding fields covered with cloth and marble dust and the magical house interior created by throwing buckets of white molten wax then fixing it with cold water.

If Bolt and Lean cut out a lot, they also built up certain elements to create a greater cohesion than in the novel. For example, the repeated image of a candle by the window that melts the ice to allow us or Zhivago to peer through, or the close up on the bottle of iodine that Lara uses to clean Pasha’s cut face and the bottle’s later use in Lara’s mother’s suicide attempt.

The most striking change was the shooting incident. In the novel, Lara shoots Kornakov, an assistant public prosecutor who had persecuted a group of striking railway workers that included her fiancee’s father. I read the passage several times to make sure who had been shot. A woman screams, Koka, Kokochka! referring to Kornakov, not Lara’s wicked seductor, Komarovsky. It’s often hard in Russian literature to follow who’s who when authors seem to delight in inventing endless variations on a name. Dr Zhivago, for example is at turns Yurii, Yura, Yurochka, Yurii Andreievich or plain Zhivago. Pavel is also known as Pasha, Pashenka, Pashenga, Antipov and finally Strelnikov.

But there was no confusion. The movie cut off all the extraneous threads and kept it simple: Lara, the wronged woman, shot Komarovsky as an act of vengeance.

I could go on to write about how the real Lara was twice sentenced to labour camps as a means of indirectly punishing Pasternak or how radical publisher Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript out of the USSR for its first publication in Italian … but I fear I’ve already lost many readers. If you’ve read this far, here’s your reward.

Love in a cold climate gone in sixty seconds

The following photo montage was inspired by Woody Allen’s joke:

I took a course in speed reading, learning to read straight down the page. At the end of the course I could read War and Peace in twenty minutes.

It’s about Russia.

So here’s my tribute to Dr Zhivago.

Tech note: Big up to Willem for the Swish scripting.

Quiet night of quiet stars


The tilers have flung their final obscenity down at the labourers below, carried the tools back to their boss and climbed into the back of the dusty pickup. The labourers in turn insult each other’s manhood, dust themselves off and head down the hill to the less leafy suburbs of Kingston. Some have cannibalized mountain bikes; others ride hunched up on children’s BMX bikes. They freewheel slowly, zigzagging around the vicious potholes that would pitch an unwary cyclist head first over the front wheel. They join a steady stream of house helpers and gardeners walking to the bus stop in pairs or small groups. No woman walks alone. Everyone has heard the talk of the gun-toting rapist who dragged his victim into the vacant lot next to the construction site. And he gave her AIDS, ends the story.

Darkness comes on quickly, and with it the peeps and whistles of dozens of tiny frogs. To our urbanized ears, some of the peeps seemed so steady and clear that we initially could not believe that they were natural sounds.

<br /> <bgsound src="/wp-audio/FrogsCrickets.mp3" loop="true"><br />

We thought they were electronic alarm monitors. They took some time to get used to, and on more than one occasion, we wished there was an OFF switch. But now I know they’ll be one of the sounds I miss most when we leave.

The photo below represents a quiet night – squeaking, squelching frogs, an owl, a wood pigeon and a few dogs (frequently given to demented barking and howling).

Mouse over the photo and you’ll hear something resembling Saturday night, or Tuesday or Thursday, there’s no telling. When the wind blows hard, it’s impossible to tell where the noise comes from. Not that it matters. Most of the sound is transformed into groundshaking vibration and the bass is so sub- that it travels underground. So sticking the pillow over your head doesn’t help; you just bounce out of bed as if in a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

The legal cutoff time is 2 a.m., but enforcement is sloppy and is allegedly open to abuse (read here). In any case, the police seem to go easy on the streetside sound systems within our earshot, and I can sympathize. As Buju says,

What more, what oonu want de poor people do?
Every dance whe dem keep oonu mek it curfew


Tech note:

Is that it?

The hours spent splicing and trimming audio loops and rollover images, poring over Javascript to find out why the bloody music wouldn’t stop on mouseoff … it’s like slaving all Saturday in the kitchen to prepare an authentic Italian sauce, only for it to be sloshed out in 30 minutes without more than a passing comment.

Except I got the most incredible satisfaction when I did work it out. Oh yes.

Harumph! I see Internet Explorer has problems with this … Please all visitors, get firefox!

Bruno Bozzetto – Champion animator

Click to watch clip

This is Bozzetto’s hilarious take on how the Italians differ from the rest of Europe. I particularly like the cafe scene where you hear how many ways you can order your coffee. They know no shame in being fussy – on the contrary, it’s a sign of fine culture and good taste.

Un cappucco scuro senza schuima, Mario!

For those who want to know exactly what to order, here’s a helpful guide for beginners.

For another of Bozzetto’s masterpieces, this time on driving in Italy, see here.