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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Emma to M

I've long held the theory that Judi Dench's M is actually Emma Peel in later life, after something awful happened to Steed.

It works. Nobody argue.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Pan and Scan

Okay, it's a leap, but talking about Pan Books in the Sam Peffer post reminded me of something that's all but disappeared with the advent of widescreen TVs; the 'panning and scanning' of movie prints for TV broadcast.

We've reached the point where the 4x3 Academy Ratio TV set is only ever seen as a prop in period dramas, but for over fifty years it was the standard. All programming was made in that almost-square format; anything that wasn't had to be fiddled to fit.

In the early days of widescreen cinema, studios saw TV as the enemy. Going bigger, wider, and more spectacular was the response, and it's said that some would even go out of their way to ensure that their images would play badly on the small screen. It was a shortsighted view; TV was to extend the earning potential of any feature way beyond its original release window.

Regular readers of the blog will know that one of my earliest jobs was in the Presentation Department of a commercial TV company. On the rare occasions when we broadcast a print in full widescreen with 'black bars' above and below the image (aka 'letterboxing'), the Duty Officer's phone would ring off the hook with viewers' complaints. Even when our Telecine engineers attempted a compromise, zooming slightly to lose the edges of the image and minimise the letterboxing, viewers were unhappy. It was like they wanted their screens completely filled up with picture on principle.

Letterboxing of films was rare on ITV. You'd find it more often on BBC2 or Channel 4, in the arthouse slots. Mostly we'd be provided by distributors with special TV prints of studio features, already adjusted for the shape of the screen by the process known as panning and scanning. The prints came with every scene reframed and optimised for TV. This involved losing anything up to one-third of the picture detail, along with all original sense of composition.

Panning and scanning could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a scene could be selected and enlarged to make a closeup from a medium shot, for example. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them, playing editor. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. But it used to be quite common.

Those calls of complaint seemed to persuade my bosses that no one out there really cared about quality. Or at least that they only cared for a Philistine's version of it - fill up my screen, crank up the colour until every face is orange, and nothing in Black & White, thanks very much. It was an assumption that persisted well into the Home Entertainment revolution, despite the fact that the revolution was driven - as all revolutions are - by a desire for something better. One of the great annoyances of being an early adopter of widescreen TV was that of finding that the DVD you'd just paid top dollar for had been mastered from one of those 4x3 television prints.

(Ipcress File, I'm looking at you. A crappy Carlton release which I've since upgraded to Network DVD's superior issue.)

Now all TVs are 16x9 and while that ratio doesn't correspond exactly to any theatrical format, it lends itself to less noticeable compromises. When I began shooting my own stuff the viewfinder on the film camera included an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so that the operator could ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information would fall within the frame and the shot would always make some kind of sense. Now such information's more commonly found on the video assist monitor. If you see a movie where you can make out the edges of the sets, or the microphone dips into shot, then it's probably not being shown in the ratio for which the operator framed it.

In Presentation now, everything's been turned on its head. It's old ('vintage') 4x3 material that causes the negative audience reaction. People shy away from 4x3 the way they shy away from Black & White.

In this case the choice is between seeing vertical black bars to either side of the image (pillarboxing) or zooming to fill the frame, losing the top and bottom of the picture and, once again, bolloxing the composition. The results are just as ugly as Pan and Scan - uglier, if anything, with exaggerated grain, noise, and visual clutter in images that were low-resolution to begin with.

Then there are those directors who shoot a digital frame, then add letterboxing to mimic a Panavision effect on a 16x9 screen.

To which one can only say, Dream on.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Glen Orbik

I'm saddened to hear of the early death of artist and illustrator Glen Orbik. This is the piece, one of many retro-pulp covers that he painted for Hard Case Crime, that first blew me away.

Free Stuff

I've two promo codes left for the Mean Streets StoryBundle (see below). While the book bundle's offered on a pay-what-you-like basis, the cost with a promo code is zilch.

Drop an email with STORYBUNDLE in the header to storybundle@brooligan.co.uk for a shot at one of the vouchers. We're in the bundle's last hours, so don't hang around.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

StoryBundle Sale - The Final Hours

The StoryBundle crime sale has just two days left to run. Somewhere along the way it's picked up two extra bonus titles, making a total of thirteen books that include Clive Barker's Cabal, Savile and Lockley's Jack Stone, and David Morrell's The Brotherhood of the Rose.

There's a countdown counter clicking away on the site - it's here - and it's pretty hypnotic.

When the offer's gone, it's gone.

This has been my first involvement in this kind of deal, and it's been a terrific experience.  You can download the bundle as DRM-free files or have it delivered straight to your Kindle or other device in the usual way.

The weird part is, there's no set price. You pay whatever you think the bundle's worth. There's a low minimum (which is, frankly, chump change) and a threshold beyond which the bonus books are released, but it's the buyer's choice. It's counter-intuitive, but it works. Sales have certainly exceeded my expectations. The people running this know far more about online marketing than I ever will.

And three charities benefit. Everybody wins.

Plus Jack Stone by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley, and The Crazy Case of Foreman James by David Niall Wilson.

Friday, 8 May 2015


A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Peffer at one of the annual UK Vintage Paperback and Pulp Fairs held in a hotel in London's Victoria. Peffer, who signed his work Peff, was one of the UK's foremost paperback cover illustrators of the 50s and 60s. Later on he'd turn to film poster and video sleeve design but it's his hyper-realist, melodramatic cover paintings, many of them for Pan Books, that define an era and appeal to modern collectors in this relatively low-cost hobby.  It was Peff's cover art that graced the early paperback runs of Ian Fleming's novels, before the ad-land minimalism of Raymond Hawkey took their design onward into another era. Between 1956 and '68 he produced 168 covers for Pan alone.

(This is one that I picked up just a few weeks ago, by a writer who deserves to be better-remembered. Mackenzie was a former criminal who wrote character-driven thrillers. The more of his stuff I read, the more I tend to think of him as a British Charles Williams.)

Sam Peffer died in 2014, at the age of 92. You rarely see his original work on sale and when it does hit the market, I imagine it's at one of those pulp art sales by one of the major auction houses where bidders are international and prices climb through the roof.

Let me say right out, I'm not one of those high-roller collectors. Not even a collector, as such. I've just got a few pieces and posters, all of them with some personal meaning, all picked up at bargain prices. A Jim Mooney Spider Man page that I found in a Manchester comic book shop in the 70s, and for which I paid seven quid. Ron Embleton's cover art for the first Robin Hood annual I owned, spotted on eBay. An American circus poster that I stole from a notice board in Wyoming, the day after the circus left town.

When I saw this piece in the listings of The Illustration Art Gallery for around the price of a modest bookcase (just to keep it in perspective), I dithered a bit and then I fell. I thought I recognised it from the Mackenzie book, then realised I didn't.

It's a completely-finished gouache, not a rough. And while concept and composition closely resemble those of the Moment of Danger cover, the individual details differ. The large portrait head is more 'finished' on the cover; the foreground woman more detailed and accomplished in the artwork. Different model, different pose. A moorland chase in one, a gothic mansion in the other.

The gouache isn't signed, and my guess is that it's either a demonstration piece or an unpublished or rejected commission that Peffer did over for a different job. Having recycled such a close take on the idea, he couldn't use the actual painting again.

But take a look at this cover, for Edgar Wallace's The Valley of Ghosts. Peff worked from photographic reference, sometimes using models, often family members or even himself to get poses and lighting right. In this one he clearly used another shot from that original studio session - same model, same coat, same belt, and a variation on the pose. That creepy house in the background is looking familiar, too.

The look is more commercial, the level of finish not so high. The art director who rejected the original in my imagined scenario was probably right. The woman in the painting is a palpably real person in a way that the women on the published covers aren't... they're visibly fictional, one a femme fatale, the other a fleeing victim.

It's a context where too much honesty would jar. So for more than fifty years the painting has languished... somewhere, I don't know where.

But Peff, wherever you are, let me assure you... it's being appreciated now.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Lonely Undertaker

He wanders through the covers of historical novels, forlornly seeking his missing hearse...

Serious point. Nothing makes an author's heart sink faster than the realisation that the work they sweated to make original is to be marketed as an also-ran to someone else's. In this case I believe the imitation stems from The Alienist, but I'm willing to be corrected.

Here are a couple more designs that I admired on sight, whose less-fresh offspring I'm now seeing everywhere: