Do you remember 2017? That was the year when, among such momentous world events as the start of Donald Trump’s Presidency, North Korean nuclear tests, Article 50, etc., I wrote an article for The Spectator on the immensely productive decline of DVDs. Whilst preparing for that article, I spoke to Michael Brooke, a film historian, journalist and home video producer, as well as a very decent and knowledgeable guy. Here, for anyone who’d like to read about the inner workings of one of Britain’s most valiant industries, is a transcript of my conversation with him.

PH: How would you describe what you do?

I’m a freelance producer. Basically, I’m responsible – either on my own or with a colleague – for going from that concept that ‘we would like to release such and such a film’ to the final physical product. This involves a number of things along the way, whether it’s finding archival materials or commissioning writing for a booklet. Above it all, you’re trying to keep everything more or less on schedule.

MB: What’s the first step in putting together a DVD? It is clearing up the rights?

Rights is stage one, obviously, because without rights you can’t do anything. With an individual film, this can take hours or it can take months – it really depends on the film and on the stance of the rightsholders. Sometimes, you might be able to do some sort of package deal.

For example, with Powerhouse at the moment – not forever, but at the moment – they are exclusively releasing films from the Sony catalogue.1 I think there was a licencing deal whereby Powerhouse got access to 100 titles, give or take, from the Sony catalogue. Obviously, you can’t get everything. You’re not going to be able to get the main cash cows, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but, clearly, they were prepared to let us have things like the Ray Harryhausen films, which was a pleasant surprise.

It’s all a mixture. There’ll be the stuff that’s commercially attractive and the stuff that we very much want to do that may not be commercially attractive. An excellent recent example of the latter is The Reckoning (1970), the Nicol Williamson movie that’s been undeservedly forgotten.

So, after the rights?

Stage two is materials and, in a lot of cases, it will be an existing high definition master that was created for another reason – perhaps a Blu-ray release elsewhere or for television, which is quite common for major studio stuff.

In extremis, you have you to create your own master, which adds enormously to the cost of the project. Powerhouse has not done their own transfer from scratch yet. We’re getting there with the Hammer titles we’re doing, because Sony’s masters are the US versions of the films, so we’re creating the UK versions by accessing prints in the BFI National Archive, scanning the bits that we want, and then sticking them on to the Sony versions – which seems to be working pretty well.

Because of the cost and time, full-on restorations from scratch are off-limits for many labels. For example, I think the last time that Eureka – who have one of the best reputations – did it was for the The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), five years ago. The BFI does it because they have in-house facilities and they have an archival remit, so there’s that imperative as well. But, on the whole, it is quite unusual for a label to do a lot of their own film restorations. Continue reading ‘Physical obviously has benefits.’ An interview with DVD producer Michael Brooke

Read more

Trends can’t always be trusted. Take the subject of my latest article for The Spectator – DVDs. All of the trend-lines show that DVDs are on the way out, to be replaced by downloads and streaming. And yet, thanks to the efforts of wonderful distributors such as Arrow, Eureka and Second Run, they’re on the way in-in-in to my over-stuffed folders of discs. As I write in the article:

Strangely, the decline of physical media is helping to sustain these distributors. There was a time — sometimes referred to as ‘the Golden Age of DVD’ by weirdos like me, who have collected thousands of discs — when the big studios brought their archives to home-video wholesale. Universal Pictures released dozens of old science-fiction movies, right down to Monsters on the Campus (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960). Warner Bros. printed box set after box set of films noirs. Fox went all out on Charlie Chan. But then the economics changed. The studios are now concentrating on digital, and leaving their archives to the specialist DVD publishers.

A case in point is Arrow Video’s forthcoming edition of The Thing (1982). Several years ago, Universal wouldn’t have dared to loosen its grip on one of John Carpenter’s most popular films. Now it is allowing a boutique British label to release a new restoration on Blu-ray, and collectors are shivering with anticipation. Arrow is known for the care that it puts into its releases. Its edition of The Thing is overflowing with behind-the-scenes material and has sublimely illustrated packaging. There’s a sense of luxury about it, as though the Golden Age has become the Platinum Age.

All proceeds from the article will go towards funding my habit.

Read more

Happy Halloween! And an especially happy one for me, as I’ve just had my first article for The Paris Review published. It’s on a suitably spooky subject: the literary past of the Ghost Club, which counts Dickens and Yeats among its former members.

My favourite part of the article isn’t actually something that I wrote. It’s a quotation from Brenda Maddox’s very fine book Yeats’s Ghosts, which I included in this paragraph:

Yeats’s contributions to the Ghost Club are connected, in some intriguing ways, to his poetry. During the years of his membership, and with the help of his wife Georgiana, he redoubled his experiments in automatic writing. She would hold a pencil to a piece of paper and, while in a semiconscious state, scrawl down the words of invisible messengers. At first, she did this as a trick on her husband (as Brenda Maddox observes in Yeats’s Ghosts, “the messengers seemed at times to have been reading Marie Stopes’s Married Love, a highly popular book that stressed the husband’s duty to give his wife sexual satisfaction”). Later, she would claim, she did it sincerely. Yeats ended up telling the Ghost Club of the “lessons in Philosophy he had received from a group of beings on the other side.”

You can read the whole article here.

Since it’s Halloween, and since I’m linking to my stuff, you might also care to read this old Spectator piece of mine on horror movies.

Read more

I enjoy gaming because, well, I enjoy gaming. But I also enjoy it because, as a relatively young art form, it’s constantly defining and redefining itself. Other art forms do this too, of course – but the pace and extent of gaming’s self-discovery is hard to match.

I’ve written about one aspect of this self-discovery for The Spectator. The short version is that gaming is taking greater care of its own history. Whether it’s the release of retro consoles such as the SNES Classic Mini, or of remastered, revamped titles such as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, gaming’s past is no longer fading away with each successive console generation.

This is a very good development, but it could have some tricky ramifications. To discover what they are, you’ll just have to read the article, dammit. You can do so by clicking here.

Read more

My first piece for the TLS was about Fighting Fantasy. My second piece is about Jack Kirby, on the occasion of his centenary. This, my marketing team would tell me, if I had a marketing team, is me remaining firmly on brand. After I went through the taste-acquiring phase that many people seem to have with his work, and after I read his Fourth World saga, Kirby became one of my greatest heroes. He should be one of yours too.

I’ll be writing more about Kirby and his comics in the not-too-distant, on this very website. In the meantime, here’s a thought from my TLS article:

No one can match Kirby, and, in a sense, no one should try. According to his biographer and friend, Mark Evanier, Kirby didn’t have much sympathy for artists who hoped to continue comic-book titles in his tradition. ‘The Kirby tradition’, he would say, ‘is to create a new comic.’ That is how he ought to be remembered, 100 hundred years after his birth: as an artist who always wanted to go beyond.

Or you can just read it all.

Read more

My recent article about Fighting Fantasy for the Times Literary Supplement contained a few quotes from Ian Livingstone. Along with Steve Jackson, Ian is the man who started Fighting Fantasy some 35 years ago, and he’s the author of a new book in the series, The Port of Peril, to mark that anniversary. He’s also behind some of the biggest developments in British gaming: Games Workshop, Tomb Raider… the list goes on and will, indeed, continue to go on. He’s even planning, as per this recent New Statesman article, to open a school.

Anyway, those quotes in my TLS piece came from a conversation with Ian that I enjoyed in July. So that you can enjoy it too, I figured I’d publish a transcript of the parts where we talked about Fighting Fantasy. Here it is. Press on, brave adventurer, to hear about algorithmic thinking, rejection letters, and a potential return to Port Blacksand in future.

PH: Fighting Fantasy returns in August with a new publisher and a new book. I know it’s the 35th anniversary, of course, but I still want to ask: why now?

IL: Well, as you say, it’s the 35th anniversary. We celebrated the 25th anniversary with a hardback edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. We celebrated the 30th anniversary with Blood of the Zombies. So, clearly, we had to celebrate the 35th anniversary with a new book!

But, more importantly, we’ve seen a resurgence in the genre. People who enjoyed Fighting Fantasy back in the 1980s have now had their own children, and are passing the baton. Normally, children reject out-of-hand anything that their parents suggest could be cool or fun, but I’m delighted to say that Fighting Fantasy resonates with Generation Z in much the same way as it did with previous generations.

These are books in which you, the reader, are the hero. They’re branching narratives with a game system attached. They allow children to make their own choices and decisions. Linear books are a passive experience, whereas Fighting Fantasy is an interactive experience giving control to the reader. Choice is empowering. Working out the optimal way through the books is algorithmic thinking in many ways.

You mention algorithmic thinking. Does Fighting Fantasy reflect the experience of clicking around Google, for example?

No. Fighting Fantasy is a game in book format where you’re trying to find the optimal way through the adventure with the least damage to yourself and the most treasure found. You’re trying to fulfil an objective to win through the book.

There are all sorts of tricks and traps around; leading readers down what seems like a very safe route, only for them to fall on poison spikes. Designing them is great fun.

And we put in anti-cheating devices. But, of course, we don’t mind if children cheat. It’s like peeking around the corner.

There are multiple ways to play Fighting Fantasy, and there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Again, that is where modern-day minds are. Algorithmic thinking, computational thinking, is all about having multiple solutions to problems. Readers are invited to work their way through the books in different ways without being told ‘you are wrong’, and feeling like a failure. Continue reading ‘For £1.50, I can fly!’ An interview with Ian Livingstone

Read more

I’ve been thinking and writing a bit about nostalgia recently. And then – whaddyaknow? – the world conspires to give me a massive hit of the stuff. It turns out that this year is the 35th anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was a huge part of my diet when I was younger. Not only that; one of the series’ founders, Ian Livingstone, has written a new book, The Port of Peril, to mark the occasion. I felt that old yearning to be the hero, all over again.

And so I devoured The Port of Peril. And then I wrote about it, and gamebooks in general, for the Times Literary Supplement. The TLS! It’s my first ever piece for them, so I’m kinda excited. You can read it here, but here’s a taster:

Potted histories of gamebooks tend to mention, for example, B. F. Skinner’s investigations into linear programming, or the birth of the Oulipo group in 1960s France – and not without reason. After all, one of the principal texts of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, is a collection of ten sonnets that allows readers to interchange the lines, allowing for a hundred thousand billion combinations. Which is to say, you are the poet.

There is also something Oulipian about the way in which Fighting Fantasy authors write within a set of self-imposed constraints. According to Livingstone, the main challenge is ensuring that all the winding paths don’t wind so much that they become closed loops, and that they reunite with each other when necessary. But there are also a hundred other considerations: ‘You’ve got to do the gameplay balancing, so that the monsters aren’t so tough that readers can’t get past them. You’ve got to make sure the economy is right, so there are enough gold coins, but not so many that readers can just buy their way through the adventure’.

To which I would add: go buy some Fighting Fantasy books, whether for your kids or for yourself. Alongside The Port of Peril, Scholastic are republishing some of the classics – and they all show how a normal book, a collection of pages between two covers, can be turned into something strange and wonderful.

Read more

When I flicked on the switch for this website, and watched all of its Strickfaden machinery come to life, I remembered what Colin Clive said in Frankenstein (1931): ‘Now I know what it feels like to be God!’

I guess that’s the act of creation for ya, and what a thing I have created. There’s a blog for which I will write posts about film, books, comics and culture in general. There’s a section to keep track of the cultural writing I’ve done elsewhere (which I’m still filling in). There’s a bit about me and the site. And there’s a contact form so that you can, well, contact me.

And then I remembered another of Clive’s quotes:  ‘One man crazy. Three very sane spectators.’

Welcome, all three of you.

Read more