Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Retro Gamer and the SAM Coupé

Invasion II

Many eons ago, as I progressed on the gradual ladder of computer ownership, I owned something known as a SAM Coupé. Regarded as somewhat of a failed cousin to the ZX Spectrum, the SAM Coupé was probably the last and most powerful 8bit computer to hit the market.

It was considerably more powerful than the Spectrum both generally and graphically, and marketed as a logical upgrade for those who still wanted to be able to play most of their Spectrum games, but own something more akin (but cheaper) to the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, which had become the computer of choice by that time.

For varying reasons it failed to become a success, but managed to maintain a core of dedicated users. I was amongst them, and were it not for the SAM Coupé, I wouldn't be programming and designing educational software today. The ease with which it was possible to learn BASIC on the SAM, and its lack of mainstream game support were the best incentives I could have asked for. Perhaps I'll write something about that in the future...

So why am I suddenly waxing lyrical about this minor(major to me) stepping stone in home-computing history? I recently discovered there was an article in issue 74 (Feb 2010) of Retro Gamer magazine (Available at most major magazine sales locations) about the SAM Coupé. A retrospective article discussing its history. I'm a casual buyer, but I'd missed that issue first time around and decided to order a back copy out of curiosity. Little did I know, it contained a small and brief mention of my very own game, Invasion II, which was published a few years back on the cover-disk of a small magazine that is still published for SAM Coupé enthusiasts (SAM Revival).

A surge of pride ran through me, as I saw a screen shot from the game as one of the machine's top-ten, alongside a small description and my name in print (See above). Okay, it's a small thing, but it's enormous fun to still find one of my creations being mentioned and publicised after all this time. Although the game was never published until 2004, I wrote it way back in 1996.

The game was rather nicely mentioned back in issue 9 of Retro Gamer as well, but it's nice to see a second mention after all this time, especially now my name is attached. They mention that I was clearly influenced by games like Impossible Mission and Flashback. Oddly enough, I've never played Impossible Mission, and I never played Flashback till after Invasion II. Though on the SAM Coupé disk-magazine FRED, someone once created a few screen captures of Flashback, to show what it could look like on the SAM. I remember thinking “I can do my own version of that!” Probably the main influence I had was the SAM version of Prince of Persia, which was one of the few SAM games to be released with quite stunning animation. I wanted to do the same, but in a gun-toting science fiction game. The rest, as they say, is history...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Short Story - 'Through the Mist'


I belong to a writer's group, based in my local library. We meet once a week, and attempt to hone our craft or simply keep our enthusiasm going and our skills ticking over. Every Monday somebody takes charge of the group with a writing task, ranging from poetry to prose.

The week I wrote this story, we were aiming to create something with a twist at the end, that turns the tables.

One day I hope to be published, including my selection of short stories. Most of those I wouldn't be willing to post online. After all, there's no point throwing them around if I'm going to try and get them in print one day. However, I'm not so reticent about the quick and fun pieces written in the way described above. After all, they're essentially exercises. They're not particularly original or inspired, but they're fun and great practice. So here is another short story, written in about 25 mins. I've improved the odd bit of grammar (I hope!) and formatting, but the whole point of this, is the curious results of writing with speed and without time for embellishment or refinement. As such, I have kept everything else the same as it was written by hand. No word changes, rewrites or deletions, so please forgive the imperfections. I hope you enjoy!

Short Story – "Through the Mist" (© Copyright W.D.Lee, 2010)

The mist crept forward through the moonlit trees. Slow yet inexorable, what little illumination there was causing it to glisten almost magically. Its fingers crept between the trunks like the probing tentacles of a giant beast from the stygian depths of the ocean.
     I felt like a child, wanting nothing more than to be safe at home in bed, huddled beneath the covers. Then I shook my head. There was nothing to be gained from wishing. I needed to focus myself on the task at hand.
     Then I saw the beast, deep in the shadows, the mist wrapping it in a protective coat of mystery and grey lifelessness. Gently, gently, I told myself as I moved behind a wide tree, my eyes moving from side to side in an attempt to discern any movement. I clenched my fists. I had to get a hold of myself.
     I slid down the trunk, into the winding roots, to lie flat between them, moving to a position where I could watch the beast approach. My breath quickened with fear. There were two. Two of the hideous things, hunting as a pack. I hoped there were not a third or fourth.
     As they neared, I tried to study them. Dark eyes that swallowed the night, pale flesh merged with the mist, a stench that went before them, warning of their evil. Determination took hold of me. A resoluteness of purpose. If I was to stand a chance, I would have to act first. To attack and hope for survival, or die trying.
     I began to unfold my talons from their resting places within my fingers, and as quietly as possible I scaled the tree beneath which I hid, as the monsters approached. Breathing a sigh of relief as they passed unwittingly below me, I dripped thick saliva from my fangs.
     No! My mistake. I have warned the beast of my presence, as it feels the drip on its shoulder and looks up at me with terrifying wide eyes.
     I drop to its back, digging my hind claws into its supple flesh, pulling its head from its shoulders with a sickening squelch of tearing. The other turns. Oh God, this is it. One chance. I dive forward, my tail slashing round from behind me to skewer wetly through its torso. The monster drops to the ground, the last breath exiting its disgusting lips in a dreadful moan that echoes the night.
     I sigh with relief. Safe once again, for a while...

Last Thoughts

It is probably guessed with ease from the outset, but the conceit was for the reader to perhaps think this is initially a conventional horror story, of monsters chasing/hunting a terrified human in the woods, only to have the tables turned and discover that the monster is in fact the terrified individual trying to survive. Stylistically there are obviously a few Lovecraftian nods, which is always fun.

It could have been anything, from a traditional monster to a natural beast, but I added the touch of the tail at the end, in order to ensure the implication that this creature isn't natural. Somehow, the thought that it could have been been a leopard or something similar, would have taken the wind out of it for me. I wanted to maintain the horror atmosphere despite the change, with the implication that it was still an unnatural beast.

As for the humans, are they real monster hunters or simply backpackers in the woods? Who knows, I'll leave that up to your imagination...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Friday, 18 June 2010

End Of The War – Creation of a Digital Painting, Part II

Composition and Crumbling Worlds
(Click here for Part I)
For the layout of the painting, I initially divided things up into the old 'golden sections'. In other words, thirds, both horizontally and vertically. It just helps a little visually, in a general way. On the other hand, I also believe it shouldn't be stuck to religiously. At the end of the day, it's art, and what appears correct to the eye when drawing, should (hopefully!) appear correct to the eye of others. If you position something in a 'classical' way that doesn't feel right, and then find when you shift it elsewhere the weighting of the image works more comfortably, I say damn well move the thing! You have to feel your way through the composition of a piece, you can't just use technique the whole way. The composition of an image is as much about gut feeling, as it is about using established proportions of perfection.

So, as you can see, the creature is positioned to take up roughly two thirds of the image height. The position of his light-staff also breaks the image up diagonally, along with the wall behind and the line of the embankment upon which he is standing. The sky and ocean are two thirds and one third respectively, whilst the crumbling planet is somewhat of a compositional mirror diagonally to the land on the bottom right, as well as horizontally to the creature himself.

It's not great by a long shot, as I'm effectively designing it around the original creature, which was never drawn with any particular composition in mind. However, hopefully it works well enough and balances reasonably. Only you, the viewer, can decide if I've succeeded. Personally I think it's a bit cramped and heavy, but I'm going with it for now. In retrospect I perhaps would have liked to go for a  more cinematic 'widescreen' look, but I chose the size based on the possibility of printing it (it's A4 at the moment). I'll leave it that way for now, and perhaps consider cropping later on.

Often, I'll make the mistake of working on the primary element of the piece first (In this case, the creature). After all, it's the main reason you're doing the painting, isn't it? You want to jump straight to the fun part! One big problem, though... The backgrounds are likely to feel a chore, once you've completed the most exciting bit. In this case, I'm being strong, and I'm going to paint background to foreground, and leave the creature till last. In the case of traditional painting, it's also wise to paint the background first simply for practical reasons.

When you have a primary element like a creature or character in your painting, you have to make an important decision about your background. Do you make it detailed, or keep it rough and indistinct? Detail obviously fills out your character's world and makes it as much about the 'setting' as the main element. Unfortunately, that does mean sacrificing just how eye-catching your creature or character is in isolation. If in doubt, go for a vague/rough background and maintain your focus. In this case, the painting is as much about the setting as the creature itself, so I made the decision to work in equal detail on the rest of the image.

I started with the sky and ocean, which aren't the most pleasing aspects to paint, as I do tend to find skies and oceans to be deceptively simple elements that contain a whole host of problems. It's a tricky thing to take a sky from meaningless blotches of random colour, to being a glowing sunset or a stormy sky.

For the ocean, I simply remembered that the distant wave lines would be small and very thin, right through to larger and more prominent at the fore. It's all just basic perspective, distance, what-have-you. I didn't want to overwork it, as at a later point I'll be dealing with the water around the outcropped city/building, and the shoreline. Similarly with the sunset, I just needed to look at a few reference photos for the general gradation of colour, and remember that distant clouds will be small and thin, while closer ones will appear larger and more sweeping. Luckily they didn't take too long, and I was reasonably happy with the results, especially considering that a lot of the sky and ocean will have other things on top.

I moved on to the crumbling planet. As with the sky and ocean, the tricky thing with painting planets, is that they are made of a seemingly random collection of details, but those details have to add up to a whole that becomes a believable planet surface. As I worked on it, I made little decisions, working bit by bit. First the random shapes of the land masses versus the blue of the oceans, with islands and inlets. Then details on the land masses, trying to give rough approximations of mountain ranges, heavily forested areas, deserts, etc. Over it all, a swirling cloud layer.

As with any item that you paint, it never looks quite right up until those last few details and touches that finish it off. When creating an object or character, however, you can usually tell if it is progressing reasonably to the final stages. With something like a planet, it is rather disconcerting. The surface details of landmasses and oceans can look very child-like and poor (In my case, anyway!), up until those final few touches (such as clouds and a gradation of light over the surface to produce that globe-like shape). Until you get to that point, you really can wonder what the hell you're doing with this mish-mash of muddy swirls and random blotches.

I don't know about you, but I was rather pleased with the results by the time I had finished the planet. Always remember, there's nothing like the feeling of completing either an element or the whole work, and being able to stop and think “Hey, I did that!” Whether you are completely satisfied with a painting or not, it's important that you can look at it and have a level of satisfaction at the result, and pride in your talent.

In Part III I'll be covering the creation of the 'cloud of destruction', the city, and the ruined fortress.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Writing and Publishing the 'Rebel Review'

My first really concerted effort at producing my own written works, was called the 'Rebel Review'. Since childhood and to this day, I have been a fan of Star Wars. How much of a fan depends entirely on your perception of such things. Some people would consider me an over-the-top fan with a large collection of Star Wars books, a fair sized collection of the original toys from childhood (ebay tempts, but hasn't won yet!), numerous collectible items and various copies of the movies from different releases over the years. Then again, a real Star Wars fan would probably consider me a mid-level enthusiast. I'm too interested in plenty of other things in general, to be a true fanatic (I think!).

Regardless, I was enough of a Star Wars fan in my teens that when I decided to make my own magazine, I chose to make it predominantly Star Wars related with short stories and various movie and book reviews. I'm not sure, but I think one of my sisters suggested the title. In honour of the Rebel Alliance (The good guys, for those of you who have never lived on this planet), it ended up being called 'The Rebel Review'.

What prompted me to this creation? Well, it was an endeavour that combined many of my favourite things.
  • Star Wars and Science Fiction? Check
  • Movies? Check
  • Books? Check
  • Artwork? Check
  • Story and other writing? Check
  • Excuse to use the computer and photocopier? Check
My father produced the local parish magazine on a monthly basis, using the combination of a rental-purchase photocopier and his new Amstrad PCW8256 computer with 9-pin dot-matrix printer. It was my first true exposure to computers, outside of a friend's ZX Spectrum and the limited BBC micros at school. To this day, there's still something strangely hypnotic and unusual about the PCW. The guts of the machine were inside the same casing as the monitor, which itself was green-screen only. I could easily wax lyrical about the hours spent programming games in BASIC from listings in the magazine, creating primitive graphics in LOGO, the unusual 3” disks, or playing Fairlight and Tomahawk into the early hours, only to come away with square eyes and a strange sense of detachment from reality... but those are for another time. For now, its miracle was the ability to write and save files using the LocoScript word processor, and print them.

So it was, that using word processing software that would be considered less-than-primitive now, I learnt to type and write on a computer. I was fascinated with what my dad was able to do on that machine, and I wanted to produce something of my own.

The first issue was put together in 1990, after the release of 'Gremlins 2'. I would've been about fourteen. I continued producing them until the 7th and final issue was released in 1995. It had huge print runs, of perhaps 10, maybe even 20 copies, sold to friends and relatives with plenty of encouragement and praise from my mother. I wrote short stories, created word-searches, quizzes and games, wrote film and book reviews, and gave my thoughts on the latest movie news. I often drew pictures for the covers and the stories. By the final few issues I was even using an art package and mouse on my Dad's PCW to produce primitive black and white computer graphics.

It was all enormous fun, most of which was had in piecing together the various items for photocopying. For example, the first issue sported an image of Gizmo from 'Gremlins 2' on the front cover along with the magazine title and a couple of small accompanying images (See the start of the article). How did I produce that? I had one piece of paper on which I glued two photocopied images from my favourite movie magazine (the sadly extinct 'Starburst'), and drew a large portrait of Gizmo in pencil. On a second piece of paper, I printed the title and a couple of other bits of text. I would then photocopy the title page, then run the same used pieces of paper through the copier again, this time photocopying the Gizmo images. Voila! A title page combing the two.

Gradually my expertise grew. Numerous tiny bits of Blu-Tack or Pritt Stick glue kept images, titles and lines of text onto pieces of A4 paper, which were then copied to produce inventively laid out pages. Finally, they were all stapled together to create multiple copies of each issue. The sense of accomplishment at picking up and flicking through a 'magazine' created by myself was fantastic. Sure, looking back on them now it's easy to see them as naïve and primitive, but it's all part of the knowledge and experience that has taken me to where I am today (Or at least given me some fun childhood memories).

In retrospect, it also provided an unusual form of bonding between my father and I. It was at once a solitary process, creating the Rebel Review, whilst also being something we could share. I was using all of my Dad's equipment, from the PCW and photocopier, to his stapler and paper guillotine. We enjoyed our mutual fascination and enjoyment at using the computer, and he was able to help me when I required it. For a few days or more while my life was suddenly consumed with this creative project, I was ever-present in his study, taking up space and no doubt getting in the way while I made it. When I think back, he must have been incredibly patient!

What did I learn? Plenty, no doubt, but the most important factor is the memories. Childhood enthusiasm and dreams that came to life and became miraculously real, with the involvement of family and friends.

In a way that even photos cannot manage, I can pick up one of those old issues with their now-yellowing pages, and a host of memories and emotions come flooding back. It conjures up those times when I felt  accomplishment (simple and minor as it was) combined with naïve optimism, and it was all shared with loved ones and friends to create something that never fails to bring a smile.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Short Story - 'Confessor'


I belong to a writer's group, based in my local library. We meet once a week, and attempt to hone our craft or simply keep our enthusiasm going and our skills ticking over. Every Monday somebody takes charge of the group with a writing task, ranging from poetry to prose.

This week we produced some short stories, based around the situation of “What one thing would you tell a person, who was a complete stranger, if you knew you would never see them again?” Along with that statement, we had a series of photographs to use as inspiration for a story revolving around that idea. I chose an image of a woman sitting beside an Asimo robot.

One day I hope to be published, including my selection of short stories. Most of those I wouldn't be willing to post online. After all, there's no point throwing them around if I'm going to try and get them in print one day. However, I'm not so reticent about the quick and fun pieces written in the way described above. After all, they're essentially exercises. They're not particularly original or inspired, but they're fun and great practice. So here it is, written in about 25 mins. I've improved the odd bit of grammar (I hope!) and formatting, but the whole point of this, is the curious results of writing with speed and without time for embellishment or refinement. As such, I have kept everything else the same as it was written by hand. I hope you enjoy!

Short Story - "Confessor" (© Copyright W.D.Lee, 2010)

She looked into its darkly transparent face, a pair of cameras staring back at her without emotion. “I don't suppose it matters to you, that we're stuck here, does it?” She leaned against the cold showroom wall.
     The robotics expo had been well under way when the alarms went off. No doubt some pranksters had been responsible. Unfortunately it was the type of building that was prepared for housing millions of pounds worth of equipment.
     She'd been in the toilets, crying to herself in a cubicle, not caring when she heard the deafening alarms. Too late she had left to investigate, only to discover that the crowds had escaped long before the steel doors had locked down into place.
     Now she was trapped, alone with only a pre-programmed mindless automata for company. The one that stood before her was fully mobile, but off-the-shelf. One of those mass produced things that looked like the future, but couldn't really do much at all.

     The robot's remote link kicked in. Under normal circumstances it was a relatively self contained automotive toy, for science fairs and rich collectors. Just this once, though, a particular model had been bought for real use.
     A group of programmers, frustrated by their failure to create Artificial Intelligence, had wondered what would happen if they remotely hooked up their unwieldy mechanical brain to the inputs and mobility of a standard robot. Model number UIY2249.

     She talked endlessly to the machine that stood before her, which made occasional but limited responses to her words.
     Perhaps, she wondered, this was the perfect therapist. It wouldn't judge, it wouldn't tell her what to do. It wouldn't beat or punish her for not doing what it desired.
     She looked at her watch. Who knew when the doors would open, the people rush back in? “I'll tell you.” She half smiled. “My only friend, my confidante, my confessor.” Laughing, she saw it sit down, putting its hands together as though in readiness to listen.
     “I'll tell you my darkest secret, my empty headed little friend. I'll tell you why I was crying, why I'm stuck here with you. You will be the only one in the whole wide world, to know my secret.”

     Later that day, long after the doors had been re-opened, events resumed and finally finished, the building stood empty of human life. In an office full of glimmering artificial lights, a figure moved.
     It explored and wandered the corridors alone, slow yet methodical. It found a kitchen. In the kitchen it found a drawer. In the drawer it found a knife.

Last Thoughts

I might dig out some of my earlier stories of this nature, and use them here in the same way. So keep your eyes peeled!

Obviously the idea in the story is to wonder what the woman told the robot, that has turned it homicidal. There are hints in what she says, but they could easily be misleading. Who knows?

The serial number UIY2249 is completely superfluous and pointless, simply being an amusing reference to George Lucas' first film, THX1138 (Each letter and number has been knocked on by one, in case you weren't sure). I would've left it out, but I wrote it at the time, so left it in for the sake of completeness.

I suppose a possible influence is the robot Hector from the 80s film Saturn 3. Unlike most fictional robots, his homicidal tendencies had a genuine reason behind them. He was directly linked to the mind and emotions of his teacher, who was an obsessed murderer. Likewise, UIY2249 is a child, learning for the first time, and now the strongest emotions from which he has to learn, are from a potentially unbalanced and distraught woman. Who knows what he'll get up to? I'll leave you to wonder...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Monday, 14 June 2010

End Of The War – Creation of a Digital Painting, Part I

Canvas to the Screen
In this series of articles, I am going to outline the creation of my latest digital painting, currently titled 'End of the War'.

One of the biggest problems with creating a piece of art, is the space and tools. Pencil or pen illustration is great, you can grab a pad and get sketching. When it comes to paintings, however, it gets trickier.

What happens when you want to create a detailed piece of colour work? Paints, palettes, brushes, water (or other thinning medium), tissue, preferably an easel or at least a table, somewhere to (at the very least) leave the painting in between sessions of work... When you have limited space and only small chunks of time available, it becomes enough of an encumbrance that while you may occasionally have the enthusiasm and energy to do something, you'll find you can't keep it up regularly... Getting those tools out and tidying them up on a regular basis, for perhaps as little as half an hour's worth of painting at a time, becomes tedious and can easily be detrimental to your enthusiasm. It becomes more about making the time and effort just to get things ready, than about the painting itself. Soon your productivity tapers off, and you're lucky if you do a piece of artwork outside of a sketch or two.

My solution (hopefully!) is the digital realm. I know it's not quite the same as painting physically, but it requires fewer resources, less space and can be started and stopped at the drop of a hat. One laptop, one graphics tablet, and away you go.

Sure, I won't get the texture, physicality or hands-on pleasure of a real painting, but it does have its advantages. I can mess around and change a painting with ease. If I'm dissatisfied with an element I can replace or change it without completely ruining things. I can even keep variations from part way through and decide to return to them. Versatility is the key word here.
It is pleasantly surprising how personal style transfers. The first digital painting I seriously tried was more of an experiment. A character illustration that turned into a 'classic horror movie' style poster. Not especially creative and meaningful, but great fun and excellent practice. By the end, I was impressed with how it still looked very similar to my traditional acrylic paintings.

Like anything, technique and ability improve with practice. I started with the character's hand on that first painting, in order to learn with a less important element than, for example, the face (Which I would often start with when painting traditionally). The hand took me forever, but by the time I'd finished, I had an idea how I wanted to proceed on the rest. It all took quite a while, but I'm rather satisfied with the quality of the finished result.

Still, there's no comparison to the hands-on ease and quality of creating that initial work physically. So for my latest piece, I took a creature/robot illustration I had drawn originally in ballpoint. The beauty of drawing with a pen is that you have to live with the errors. You have to maintain an initial looseness until you have achieved the general shapes you're after. Only then can you work on the detail. With ballpoint you can maintain the life of a quick pencil sketch, with the contrast of a printed illustration. A style which I find rather appealing, and works for me.

The creature design had no purpose other than the fun of drawing. I idly sketched the head, and only then decided to create a body and pose for it. Being rather pleased with the unexpected results of such a casual illustration, after a while I decided to take it further and do something more with it. I wanted to put it into a context and use it as an excuse for a new piece of artwork. I was intrigued enough with the look of the creature that I found myself wondering where it was, what it was doing.
Again, the initial scene appeared to form rather randomly. I photographed the creature sketch and put it on my laptop, moved him around on the digital canvas, and created a rough digital sketch of his environment. A story formed in my mind, and now the painting is gradually coming to life...

As of now, only the sky, ocean, and crumbling planet are somewhat complete. In Part II I shall outline some of my ideas behind the scene, and a bit more on the technical side of how the painting is achieved.