Somebody Get This Guy a Budget

We open on two civilians waiting to board a train. To their left stands a SWAT cop in riot gear; to their right, a battered drone right out of Blade Runner hovers menacingly at heart level. Glances are exchanged, though no words are spoken: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Slowly— making no sudden moves— the civilians climb aboard.

Welcome to the Special Economic Zone. You’ll like the shops, if you like to sweat.

*

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie.  Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko tribute.

That is not a Donnie Darko hoodie. Then again, it could be a Donnie Darko shout-out.

When Jim Munroe was first starting out, he broke up with Rupert Murdoch. He turned his back on conventional publishing after a successful debut with Harper-Collins, choosing instead to go indie. Of course, they didn’t call it “going indie” back in the final year of the twentieth century. They barely even called it “self-publishing”. What they really called it was career suicide.

But damned if he didn’t make a go of it, years before Howey and Weir and all those other late-comers jumped on the bandwagon. Novels were only the start; Munroe branched out into games, graphic novels, lo-fi movies. His first web serial, Infest Wisely, had a budget of about twenty bucks and looked it. Its most expensive prop was a mock-up of an ATM (or possibly, an actual ATM boosted from the local 7-11 à la first-season Breaking Bad. Jim’s resourceful that way.)

postopianHis second outing was a mockumentary purporting to be a Chinese human-interest piece set in 2045, tut-tutting about the poor white underclass that had emerged following America’s bankruptcy (and subsequent repossession of the Cloud) way back in 2016. Android babies and human spam figured on-stage; the giant mutant spiders, in deference to budget reality, stayed out of frame. Ghosts With Shit Jobs weighed in at a still-meager budget of $4K and 7,000 hours of volunteer effort— constraints which didn’t stop it from showing at festivals from London to Beijing, and two dozen cities in between. It got a shitload of rave reviews and took home the Best Feature award at Sci-Fi-London in 2012. Ghosts looked significantly better than Infest— largely because Toronto’s Dundas Square makes a pretty shiny SFnal backdrop for free— but the shoestring, while thicker, remained.

Third time out, though, Jim graduated from shoestrings to bootstraps. He got 150K from the Independent Production Fund, so he could pay his crew. He raised another 25 grand on Kickstarter to cover post-production. The result is an eight-episode web-series (or, if you prefer, a 70-minute movie) called Haphead (here’s the trailer, here’s the fb page)— still made for an infinitesimal fraction of your typical movie, but still forty times richer than last time.

It shows. It premiered in Toronto just last Thursday and it’s already picked up its first nomination (Best Score, out at Vancouver Webfest). I rather expect more will be coming.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century.  Look into her eyes: that's the Aster*sk corporate logo. It washes out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

A Clockwork Orange glower for the 21rst Century. Look into her eyes: that’s the Aster*sk corporate logo. It scrubs out the inside of your head every time you boot up.

Haphead is a story of the near future, set in Hamilton’s “Special Economic Zone”— basically an industrial ghetto, liberated from such anticompetitive woes as the minimum wage, or safety standards. Our guide is an assembly-line grunt named Maxine, who makes a marginal living slapping together brain-game interfaces for overseas markets. The device clings to the base of your skull like a leech, bypasses your sense organs in favor of writing input directly onto the sensory cortex (I’m guessing some kind of TMS or targeted ultrasound, although we’re never told). Maxine isn’t allowed to use them herself; the tech hasn’t been approved for domestic distribution. But she steals one anyway, uses it as a passport into a virtual game world that— well, imagine Skyrim inhabited entirely by bipedal sapient kick-boxing ninja bunnies.

No, really.

Max spends a lot of time there.

The thing is, this interface is immersive. It doesn’t just fill the senses, it works out the body. Spend enough time fighting killer rabbits in fantasy-land and you develop moves— not to mention improved stamina and muscle tone — back here in meatspace. Which comes in handy when someone close to Maxine dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances…

Haphead is way better than it has any right to be. Little gems of technosocial extrapolation glitter throughout Munroe’s screenplay: upscale malls with perky automated security systems, apologetically refusing entry to consumers with “mixed-income backgrounds”; insurance companies with their own paramilitary SWAT teams to go after false claimants. The plot itself— at first glance a straightforward lefty bit of capitalist-bashing— takes turns you might not expect. People are not always who they seem to be; the victims aren’t always who you might think (or if they are, they might be a bit less deserving of sympathy than they first seem). Star Elysia White is a real find; whether Max is mourning or raging, pondering some mystery or cracking wise, her performance is spot-on throughout.

You're in good hands with Allstate.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

It’s not a perfect film. The extrapolation’s a bit sloppy in places, the narrative occasionally inconsistent. I love, for example, the face-recognition specs that flash your net financial worth to any mall cop who crosses your path— but I’m skeptical that a social infrastructure with that level of casual surveillance would also let you extract two million dollars from a corner ATM by dragging an unconscious account-holder up to the keyboard and smushing their fingerprint onto the ID pad. And after seeing a security drone break up an after-hours Fight Club on the factory floor mere moments after it starts, I gotta wonder why none of those bots show up when Max gets into an extended knock-down-drag-out with an actual supervisor in the same building.

It’s important to note, though, that when I find something wanting in this series— something that can’t be obviously forgiven as a budgetary artefact— the fault I’m finding is that Haphead occasionally descends to the quality of Hollywood productions with Hollywood budgets. If the dialog is clunky now and then— as when a couple of generic bad guys loom and spout threatening clichés in the first few minutes, before fading away to make room for the main story— it’s still no worse than much of the dialog I’ve endured while catching up on “Person of Interest”. If some of the secondary characters don’t always hit their marks acting-wise, they still look pretty good next to some of the performances in a cult favorite like, say, Babylon 5. The only reason I grumble about them at all is because I hold Postopia Productions to a higher standard, teensy budget notwithstanding.

Personally I would've preferred Catworld. but to each his own.

Personally I would’ve preferred Cat World, but to each his own.

And in fact, most of the nits I’d pick pretty much do come down to budget. It’s impressive enough that Munroe’s modest funds were sufficient to render a high-altitude zoom from jet stream to worktable in a single continuous shot, or anchor a futuristic CGI shopping mall onto a real-world industrial park; I shouldn’t complain just because there weren’t enough customers in the parking lot. Ninja Bunny World looks curiously retro for a 2025 game environment, and a plot-critical piece of biotech seems a bit too advanced for the world we see on screen— but this is the price you pay for rendering macro concepts with modest funding. For me, the choice between rich-but-dumb vs. smart-but-poor is a no-brainer (granted, the existence of Michael Bay makes it pretty obvious that mine is a minority view). Still. Wouldn’t it be great to have that third option? Wouldn’t it be awesome to live in a world where smart-and-rich came along more often than a solar eclipse?

Wouldn’t it be great if this guy got some serious money behind him?

From troposphere to Table in one smooth shot. I would've built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn't be bothered.

From troposphere to tabletop in one smooth shot. I would’ve built an animated gif showing the sequence, but I couldn’t be bothered.

 

Munroe continues to do wonders with the means at his disposal. Every time he’s up to bat, he hits the ball further. I don’t know what his next project is going to be (beyond, hopefully, another season of Haphead). I don’t know what kind of budget he’ll manage to put together. But the trend is unambiguous. One of these days— sooner rather than later, I’m thinking— Jim Munroe is going to hit it right out of the goddamn park.

Just like that battered menacing drone at the train station, I’m going to be watching him every step of the way.

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Saturday January 24 2015at 11:01 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

33 Responses to “Somebody Get This Guy a Budget”

  1. Heh, namedropping B5 are we?

    Anyways, this reads like something to look into further.

  2. ‘Ninja Bunny World’ is an existing game called ‘Lugaru’ (and the HD version at that), so that’s another place where they saved on money.

  3. Not very smart perhaps, but I like the mid-budgeted space film europa report from ’13. If you like footage from iss/mir etc this is a real gem.

    I feels like lower-midrange should be the most interesting, enough money to make interesting things but not so much that the ones with the funds demands it to be played overly safe/least common denominator. This doesn’t seem to be the case, I not aware of much interesting scifi from mid range budgets (but maybe I’m just not paying attention)

  4. If only there were something like the IPF in the states! I think I’ll rent it this week, but it sounds like it kind of just turns into an actioner after episode 2. Not that that’s the worst way to spend 70 minutes, but is there more meat to it?

    Markus,

    There’s very little out there I think. From what I understand, most of the money and eyeballs in the film industry are on ultra low budget “general interest drama” and of course the ultra high budget spectacles that can be exported globally (since they’re filmed in the lingua franca of T&A, lasers, and explosions). That’s what it looks like down here in steerage anyways.

    Though considering what Munroe has done with less than 200k, I suspect even a paltry million would do amazing things in his hands.

    @Peter: I know you’re trying to cut down on watching TV, but have you checked out Black Mirror? A neat BBC scifi anthology. On the upside, it doesn’t lend itself to binge watching…

  5. Black Mirror is kinda meh, IMHO.

    03 kinda likes it, and another very close friend of mine basically swears by it, but I found the show to be a desperate outer-limits wannabe, somewhat angsty, pretentious and annoyingly moralizing (I did like most of “Be Right Back” and definitely “White Christmas”, though the latter seemed to try to do way too many things with way too many neat ideas at once, so the show has its moments for me, too).

  6. I watched the first black mirror, the one with the pig, haven’t got around to watching the rest. I get the point, but I’m too old for this shit, I think.

    Lugaru, that’s where I’d seen those bunnies before! Ha ha, I played that years ago when it was an early demo.

  7. Our guide is an assembly-line grunt named Maxine, who makes a marginal living slapping together brain-game interfaces for overseas markets

    Assembly line grunt – now there’s an anachronism 😉

    Hmm. The concept sounds neat, but makes about as much sense as Firefly.

  8. Black mirror definitely lays it on thick, but none of the fumbles turned me off completely… We’ll see how s02 goes. It’s nice just to see scifi moving pictures where there’s more to it than a couple minutes of an interesting looking spaceship moving across the screen to justify the sticker price.

    I might have to pick up haphead just to check out the machinima.

  9. I’m still catching up on “Person of Interest”, but I’ve heard enough good stuff about the newer episodes that I’m looking forward to it.

  10. Keith Gaughan:
    ‘Ninja Bunny World’ is an existing game called ‘Lugaru’ (and the HD version at that), so that’s another place where they saved on money.

    Nice spot. But this game is “Overgrowth” — the sequel to Lugaru and name-dropped in the show. The game is still in development. The alpha version is moddable and has a map editor. A definite plus, if the show’s creators desired to shape their own game world.

    Lugaru HD

    Overgrowth

    I’m surprised at how similar this is to eXistenZ. Perhaps using ‘real’ gameplay with ‘retro’ graphics is just one way of distancing the two works. Doesn’t look as if there will be any potential for frisky port sex. 😉

    Also, did anyone notice the pigpen cipher in the title and on the Father’s jacket?

  11. Markus: Not very smart perhaps, but I like the mid-budgeted space film europa report from ’13. If you like footage from iss/mir etc this is a real gem.

    I liked Europa Report well enough, although I thought the ending was a bit weak. I also seem to remember having a technical objection to the whole abandoning-the-contaminated-guy-in-space sequence, but I can’t remember what it is right now.

    Matt: have you checked out Black Mirror?

    I have loved Black Mirror from day one (and interestingly, it was Jim Munroe who first introduced me to it). I didn’t really buy the premise of “White Bear”, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would need a Human-level sapient AGI to keep the smart-fridge stocked in the Christmas Special, but those are relatively minor quibbles.

    Y.: Hmm. The concept sounds neat, but makes about as much sense as Firefly.

    Yeah, I had problems with Firefly’s basic premise too. The problem, of course, is that creating an utterly plausible future doesn’t cut much ice if it doesn’t serve an engaging story— and unfortunately, we’re wired to accept conventional environments as “real” and truly futuristic ones as “cheesy” and/or alienating, simply because convention is what we’re used to.

    The hope— unfulfilled in Firefly, but hopefully not in Haphead— is that the more stories told in this world, the greater the opportunity to explore (and hopefully rationalize) the anachronisms. The best example I can think of is the Galactica reboot, which served up a plausible explanation for why a starship with ftl capability would have a bridge tricked out like a 20th-century aircraft carrier.

    Ken Kennedy:
    I’m still catching up on “Person of Interest”, but I’ve heard enough good stuff about the newer episodes that I’m looking forward to it.

    We’re into the second season now, and starting with the last couple of shows in Season 1 we started getting glimpses of something worth sticking around for. I’d say by this point there’ve been maybe 2 or 3 episodes I’d describe as good overall, with maybe another half-dozen showing hints of substance in the flashbacks. That’s a pretty feeble hit rate, given that we’re closing in on 30 episodes watched— but when the show is good, it really makes me prick up my ears.

    WASP: But this game is “Overgrowth” — the sequel to Lugaru and name-dropped in the show. The game is still in development.

    Ohhkay! I guess this is just Jim calling out to his buddies over in the game-building wind of his persona.

    WASP: Also, did anyone notice the pigpen cipher in the title and on the Father’s jacket?

    I noticed it, but I had no idea what it was until you provided the link. Thanks.

  12. Peter Watts: I liked Europa Report well enough, although I thought the ending was a bit weak. I also seem to remember having a technical objection to the whole abandoning-the-contaminated-guy-in-space sequence, but I can’t remember what it is right now.

    I could have done without the last 20sec and some of the horror movie tropes. But I’ll swallow that for some near-future and overall-reasonable space film any day :).

  13. @Matt, Peter

    My problem with BM is that, besides the angst and being preachy in a certain, hard to pin down annoying manner, it also all to often takes interesting (if not always original) ideas in utterly banal directions.
    Like, say, take the “The Entire History of You” – it takes an interesting, though not entirely novel, premise (what if humans had “black box” units) and takes it in the entirely banal direction of sexual infidelity drama, and towards an entirely too predictable conclusion.

    I guess I liked “Be Right Back” because it managed to do a wicked 180-degree turn while executing this particular formula, and went from “banality of futuristic technology” to (very mild spoiler) “batshit loco”.

  14. Matt,

    Actually, you’ll find that the Hollywood action style stuff he’s talking about is only a small element. It’s very satisfying throughout.

  15. 01,

    Agreed. At least with an anthology, there’s no opportunity to get bogged down in that kind of stuff. After 48 minutes, it’s time for a new story.

    Jonathan,

    Sold! I’ll make a night of it.

  16. Incidentally I watched oblivion recently (Cruise seems to be having a kind of 70s Charlton Heston sci fi phase) and the interaction with the antagonist gave me some Blindsight vibes, “it’s a chinese room”, I thought to myself.

    Not that the rest of the movie is up to scratch but it is very pretty.

  17. Oblivion has its moments.

    I guess the sheer precocious contrivance of the plan the alien AI (AI?) concocted, together with how sweetly uncanny it reuses phrases spoken by others (I especially loved the ” (not) an effective team” schtick ) does manage to arouse the sense of wrongness and weirdness that’s absent from most holywood aliens.

  18. 01: Like, say, take the “The Entire History of You” – it takes an interesting, though not entirely novel, premise (what if humans had “black box” units) and takes it in the entirely banal direction of sexual infidelity drama, and towards an entirely too predictable conclusion.

    I demur. At least I think I do, assuming “demur” means “disagree”. I never really looked thatup.

    Anyway, I thought the banality of the application was the whole point. One of SF’s raison-d’etres is to explore the social impact of changing technology— which I think this episode did on a very small-scale, intimate level. Too often we see Big Brother variants on the surveillance society; this shows the little sibs going at each other, petty and small-minded as we always are. Domestic SF is not something that gets a lot of time in the sandbox.

  19. Maybe being rather poly-ish and rather open-relationship favoring dude just makes it hard for me to relate to that particular scenario, but “The Entire History of You” just failed to intrigue, surprise, or amaze me. Also, we already have a technology for determining the biological origin of human offspring, so that particular application wasn’t even socially “impacting” in a meaningful way.

    “Be Right Back” was “domestic” in its scale too, but it was surprising and creepy. Maybe even a little bit scary in its most batshit parts. And by virtue of all that, it was rather good.

    Hah, well, tastes differ, I suppose.

  20. I have not seen any reasonably or significantly budgeted Hollywood film concerning the subversion of humanity by external actors (aliens) since the “They Live” and “The Arrival.” Perhaps “Species” and “Ghosts of Mars,” among other titles, warrant consideration, but subversion and outright hijacking — body snatching — are two different concepts.

    “Oblivion” is the most recent example I have seen. However it stands apart in the fact that the xenos make no physical appearance. There are artifacts — the drones, cloud station, vehicles, harvesters — which allude to their presence, but is only realized after the plot twist. What is witnessed, however, is simulated video of real-time interaction. It is unknown what exactly is on the opposite end. This is similar to the modus operandi of lurkers on web cam sites/channels who wish to conceal their identities (whilst misleading those they interact with). It works in real life and it works in the movie.

    What is truly interesting about the artifacts is the aesthetic choice: sleek, minimalist, futuristic, but undeniably human. Either the xenos are humanoids with posh taste or they have plumbed the depths of the human brain in order to conceive advanced ergonomic designs and aesthetics to please the discerning human. Or perhaps it was all a director’s ruse in order to subtly coach the audience for the plot twist.

    Additionally, playing individuals against one another a la child corps/red guard/McCarthyism was an interesting touch which I like to think revealed that the xenos had some understanding of human group psychology.

    I like to imagine the ‘xenos’ to be alternate dimension humans from a ruined future who have ruthlessly attacked their alternate kind — now eco-lovers — to exploit the natural resources of another Earth. It is even more fun to imagine which role we would inhabit in reality.

  21. I, perhaps somewhat charitably, explained the Oblivion antagonist’s lapses in judgement in terms of nonsentient intelligence, like the scrambler is smart enough to counter your visual system on encountering it but is blindsided (ha!) by the fact it can’t pull that trick on two opponents at the same time.

    In Oblivion, the AI is smart enough to detect Jack is lying to it and threatens him but then it completely ignores the semantic content of his reply when he tells it the truth and grants him passage after he basically implies he is coming to destroy it. That does scream chinese room to me.

  22. Dropping this here as it seems like it could feed a good story or plot point

    Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says

    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/july/voices-culture-luhrmann-071614.html

    “Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann found that voice-hearing experiences of people with serious psychotic disorders are shaped by local culture – in the United States, the voices are harsh and threatening; in Africa and India, they are more benign and playful. This may have clinical implications for how to treat people with schizophrenia, she suggests.”

  23. @DanielK:

    Interesting stuff. Now imagine you’ve been traumatized and/or exposed to whatever E. Fuller Torre and other St. E’s alumni think the pathogen for schizophrenia is and the “voices” get hijacked by the folks who brought you hummus butt-feeding and mefloquine pharmacological waterboarding:

    https://mccoyote.wordpress.com/v2k/

    SONY ultrasound toy

  24. I assume you’ve seen this thing posted in the last few days on artificial tornadoes generating power?

    http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/384905/how-to-build-a-tornado/

  25. @DanielK: I wish I could drop a cite but I can’t. I do however recall that SF has on at least one occasion explored the notion that a “properly trained schizophrenia” might act as a reference library, as it were. In some story I barely recall, a sort of JOAT has such an ability. Confronted by novel situations or problems, his “voices” serve up the results of a quick internal search (so to speak). Rather than making threatening or ridiculous remarks, his “voices” hand him pointers to things to research for dealing with the problems.

    One might ask, how does this differ from most experts recalling something deep in memory which might have bearing on a problem? Well, just the personal experience, I guess. But I seem to recall that in the story, once the “voices” had emerged and taken on that separate “personality”, in the story it turns out that they could be far more and better educated than most “normal” people, wit hthe appropriate use of drugs, of course. Just a story… but your cite to cultural influences makes me wonder. What if madness were seen as a gift rather than as a curse? And indeed, in the cultures you mention, that may moreso be the case than in the Western world where the “voices” utter threats and bring chaos.

  26. @Mr. Non-Entity

    Lament not having saved the link but I recall someone {01?} posting a few years ago about some aboriginal tribe choosing warriors or such who have a specific way of thinking. Having trouble recalling the specifics, but think it was regarding how people can be divided thinking primarily in words or pictures. Anyone recalling that at all? Seem to recall the warriors were pictures folk.

    This also sounds a lot like the monks in Echopraxia, gang of four and Siri to an extent in Blindsight. “Two heads,” or four, better than one?

    Bonus link: 1997 Microwave News on USAF contest to see where it’s going. Matrix-like “How do I defuse this thing?” sort of answers possible to be beamed into ones head, though the writer was thinking of training beforehand. Fascinating stuff. :)

    http://microwavenews.com/news/backissues/j-f97issue.pdf

  27. Mr Non-Entity,

    That reminds me of something, a novel I read once about a bunch of weird astronauts, one of them had multiple personalities that could each work on problems separately and had specialized skills, what was it called? Bind flight or something like that…

  28. Thanks for this post. I had never heard of Jim Munroe. Now I’m going to drop him into a periodic Web search list.

  29. Europa Report was a weird flick, like ALIEN if the Company had cleaned up the footage and released it as an advertisement. Worth watching, definitely.

  30. Heads up, one of today’s Amazon.ca (and .com) Kindle Daily deals is “Beyond the Rift” – can get it for $1.99 for those who don’t have it already!

  31. i love haphead here in peru

  32. […] getting some pretty sweet responses like this one from Hugo-award winning author Peter […]

  33. I just watched this and love so many things about it.

    like the way the QA people are treated in the game industry and how a lot of the interactions there mirror how this happens today. today people start in QA hoping to work their way up to a development role. And they get looked down on for not being real developers. and developers can be sexist assholes like the fulltime staff there. oh, and tell someone outside of a shiny company like google and they are impressed and think you are lucky, but what happens on the inside? these socioeconomic ingredients from the software engineering world are excellently done.

    I love how the story worked with my prejudices then slowly warped them — I sympathized with the dad so much, but then I start to see the generational divide — I started sympathizing more with the characters who decided to work in the factory rather than focusing on the dislike of the dystopia and on pity for a society where those kids are forced in to those roles. I went against my parents. I do things they wouldn’t agree with or find moral. I like stories where my prejudices are thrown back at me.