Vanishing Point

I’ve been wanting to watch Vanishing Point ever since I saw it listed as an inspiration for Activision’s Interstate ’76, waaay back in ’97. I finally got around to watching it this week, and I’m still sorting out my feelings about it.

(I’m going to spoil the movie now, so if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading!)

Vanishing Point (1971) is about Kowalski, a loner working as a car deliveryman. At the beginning of the movie he bets his friend/drug dealer that he can get a car to San Francisco in record time. Then Kowalski drives, and drives, and drives. Along the way, he meets lots of weird characters who want to help, stop, rob, or have sex with him. There’s also a (semi-telepathic?) blind DJ who tries to guide him to safety.

Despite the movie poster’s claims (“THE ULTIMATE CAR CHASE MOVIE!”) there’s not that many car chases, and they’re not that exciting. We’re definitely not talking Bullitt here. Mostly, Kowalski drives across the desert really fast.

Kowalski is something of a cipher. We get some glimpses character through some short flashbacks. His girlfriend drowned in a surfing accident. He’s an ex-cop, -soldier, -racer. But we never see the sequence of these events, and how they all tie together.

I won’t say the movie was boring. It was certainly slow-paced and even monotonous at points (“Oh. Another long shot of the car driving across the desert.”) but I think that was intentional. Kowalski’s last-reel suicide is telegraphed from the beginning of the movie (we see everything but the impact at the start).

In the end, Vanishing Point is pretty much a mood piece – you feel sorry for Kowalski but you can’t really empathize with him because you can’t get close enough to him. Still, I’m glad I finally saw it and would recommend seeing it at least once.

I haven’t seen the 1997 remake starring Viggo Mortensen, but I have heard it is awful.

Final note: I realized too late that I had returned the DVD to Netflix without watching the UK cut, which apparently restores some cut scenes. D’oh!

September 30, 2005 | Posted in: Movies | Comments Closed

EVE Online Followup

Gamasutra has a good interview with Nathan Richardsson, senior producer of EVE Online. He discusses his “Power to the players” philosophy:

Nothing compares to a player that is enabled to affect the universe. We create tools for players to create content. For example, a massive alliance of corporations – our versions of guilds – with real, legendary players, leading them, controlling large areas of space and building up infrastructure is truly awesome content. We can never create that, but we can create the environment and tools enabling to happen.

He also responded to some players’ concerns in a SlashDot thread.

I Like Short Songs!

This year I saw the next-to-last show on Guided By Voices‘ farewell tour (although Bob continues on).

This morning I decided to play myself a rock block of Guided by Voices. I selected all the GBV songs currently on my iPod, and iTunes replied with this statistic –

82 songs, 2.6 hours

– which breaks down to an average of 1:54 per song. (Shortest song: “Cigarette Tricks”, 0:18. Longest song: “Over the Neptune”, at a shocking 5:45)

That’s what I like about their stuff – they get in, give you the idea, and get out.

Star Wreck Interview

I was so impressed by what the Star Wreck team had pulled off, I contacted the director, Timo Vuorensola to hear more.

Grumpy Robot: How many people are in the cast? In the crew? On the effects team?

Timo Vuorensola: The movie is made by mainly 5 guys, but the entire crew consists of about 300 individuals. The effects are done by the producer Samuli Torssonen, who’s also playing the main role of emperor Pirk. There are also about 10-15 modellers around the world who have contributed their models to Star Wreck.

GR: How did you find the people to work on the movie? Are you all friends, or did you advertise somewhere
looking for cast and crew?

Timo: The main crew is basically gathered from friends and friends of friends, but there are also people who we’ve contacted and asked to work with us. Also, lot of people – actors and crewmembers – we’ve got from over the internet, by asking via our message board from our fans.

GR: What equipment are you using to shoot?

Timo: Mainly we’ve shot with various types of DV-cams and mini-dv’s.

GR: What software do you use for your CGI? And for bluescreen?

Timo: The CGI is made with Lightwave 3d, and bluescreen composition software is Adobe After Effects.

GR: What software are you using to edit the film?

Timo: We’ve done the edit with couple of different softwares.

GR: Have you had any legal problems come up?

Timo: No. Star Wreck is a parody, and it gives us a lot of freedom. Also, the main release is done for free over the internet, so we are not working for monetary profit with this film. We see Star Wreck: ITP mainly as a ‘business card’ which we can present and show people that we are able to do this stuff with no financing – imagine what we can do when we can get some money to work with also.

GR: Is the DVD available for shipping to the United States?

Timo: I’m sorry, we are not able to ship the movie to United States because of the legal issues – there, the laws are a bit different from Europe, but the download is available for U.S. citizens from 1.10. from our website as well.

GR: Are you glad to be finished with the film, or will you miss working on it?

Timo: I think we all are very happy with the movie, and we’ve received so much of positive feedback, that we can’t be anything but happy. Of course there are things for each one of us we’d personally like to fix or change, but we all agree with the main lines. I can’t say I miss working with Wreck, but I miss working with an actual movie, there is a big empty hole to fill right now – and we’ve started to fill it. Of course there’s a lot of stuff going on with the release, we did a small tour in finland with the movie and it went through unbelieveably well. But yes, I miss a movie to work on right now, but we’ve been gathering ideas and start to work on a new one pretty soon, that’s for sure! And this time, it’s gonna be as big leap as there was between star wreck 5 and the new star wreck: in the pirkinning

GR: What will your next project be?

Timo: If I knew, I’d tell, but I can’t because there hasn’t been anything we’ve decided ultimately yet. We’ve been toying around with ideas for a scifi series for TV and internet, but also on a new movie. Most likely we’ll stick to sci fi, and there will be some humour involved, that’s for sure – maybe we’ll go a bit darker, even, who knows.

GR: Thanks a lot for your time!

Timo: No problem.

European fans can order the DVD now from the Star Wreck site. Elsewhere, visit the Star Wreck site to download the complete movie.

Finnish Sci-Fi at Its Finest

For six years, a group of Finnish filmmakers have been working on an independent sci-fi parody film. In that time it has grown from a 15-minute “special-effects clip” to a full length film: Star Wrek: In the Pirkinning.

Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning begins with Captain James B. Pirk of the starship Kickstart shipwrecked on the 21st century Earth with his crew. Originally from the distant future, Pirk and his crew travelled back in time to save the Earth from hostile aliens, but lost their ship and became stranded. Things are not looking good for our heroes. Pirk’s daily routine consists mainly of stuffing his face at the local fast food restaurant, and he is finding it difficult to convince the ladies he is, in fact, an intergalactic space hero from the future.

As the prospects for humanity’s conquest of space look increasingly bleaker, Pirk comes up with a questionable plan to save mankind’s future…

The title and premise are goofy, but if the trailer is indicative of the quality of the finished film, we are in for a treat! The special effects, props, and set design are all far above the average “fan film”.

If you’ve ever wondered how Starfleet ships would fare against Earth Force and Mimbari ships, it looks like you will find out in October when the movie becomes available for download from the site.

Homebuilt Robotic Sentry Gun

You’ve seen them in Aliens (well, the Director’s Cut anyhow), in Half-Life 2, and in Team Fortress – but this guy built his own robotic sentry gun at home.

Using an airsoft P90 replica, a webcam & PC, and some servos, he built a very impressive, functional turret:

Most of the testing involved me directing my little brother in front of the turret, him getting shot, and then running away. Polo shirts, not surprisingly, offer very little protection from BB’s that are prone to leaving little welts. When I originally wrote the software, I added code so it would use the Microsoft speech API to say “Freeze” and offer various instructions to a target that it had acquired. At the end of 5 seconds, if the target moved 20 pixels in either direction, it would fire.

The test video is well worth watching. It gives you an external view, a cam view, and a software view of the targeting and firing in action.

How to Survive a Robot Uprising

How to Survive a Robot Uprising is along the same lines as the popular Worst Case Scenario series. I like this one better though, because a) it is written by an actual roboticist, and b) there are interesting stories of actual robotics scattered throughout the survival advice.

This book gives you the know-how to defeat all manner of robot configurations, weapon systems, and sensor methods. Recognizing humanoid robots is covered (“Follow your nose. Does your friend smell like a brand new soccer ball?”).

It also gives a handy timeline for how the Robot Uprising is likely to progress, and what to do afterward.

I guess my only complaint is that the How to Reason With a Robot section does not cover the classic method of “acting really wacky until smoke comes out of the robot’s ears.”

We all know that it’s only a matter of time (see Turing Test 2005) before we are kneeling before the robot overlords, but this book will help put it off as long as possible.

Turing Test 2005

A British AI chat program named George has won this year’s Loebner Prize.

In 1990 Hugh Loebner agreed with The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies to underwrite a contest designed to implement the Turing Test. Dr. Loebner pledged a Grand Prize of $100,000 and a Gold Medal (pictured above) for the first computer whose responses were indistinguishable from a human’s. Each year an annual prize of $2000 and a bronze medal is awarded to the most human computer. The winner of the annual contest is the best entry relative to other entries that year, irrespective of how good it is in an absolute sense.

Note that the gold medal has never been awarded (yet). While the programs are not too convincing (sample transcript from 2004 competition), it’s an interesting goal for AI researchers to work toward.