Monday, 19 October 2015

Diary of a Game of Thrones addict

Diary of a Game of Thrones addict

Game of Thrones is back! Again! After all the hullabaloo surrounding the Red Wedding, Joffrey’s death and Tyrion’s escape, fan fever is at an all time high for a series that simply refuses to disappoint. But how devoted are you? Are you merely a casual viewer or does it go deeper than that? Are there any House Stark coffee mugs in your kitchen cupboard? Are you regularly locked in fierce online debate as to John Snow’s true parentage til dawn? Ever contemplated a tattoo? It is a world that is all too easy to get lost in. How far gone are you? Follow Time Out’s seven-step guide to Game of Thrones fandom and find out…

The Time Before Reckoning
You never thought it would happen to someone as worldly-wise (read: lazy and sarky) as you. It might, as Huey Lewis always assured us, be hip to be square these days, but isn’t Game of Thrones the preserve of block-quoting nerdlingers in egg-stained Red Dwarf t-shirts and earnest girls who’ve had too many packed lunches and henna tattoos. We’re none of us strangers to the box-set/Netflix-dump/dodgy download, but whereas The Sopranos was cask-aged in gushing claret and ‘family’ values and The Wire made us feel Legit and Word and Street, this is surely just an excuse for B-list English thesps to mess around in the Lord of the Rings dressing-up box. And yet. And yet… You’ve heard rumours that there’s the occasional flash of skin and that someone is graphically deprived of a limb/head/loved one/codpiece every ten minutes. So it is that you find yourself happening across a random episode whilst flicking around during the ad breaks in Family Guy. Maybe just give it five minutes. Can’t hurt, can it?

A Song of Vice and Ire
It’s three weeks later. You‘ve steadily caught up on all those precious episode you missed. You’ve dabbled online. You’ve casually sounded out which people at work are safe to approach on the subject. You find yourself in increasingly animated debate over Friday-night drinks with colleagues you’ve never really bothered with before. The depth of knowledge exhibited by your fellow Throneheads (your term) makes you realise how little of the Seven Kingdoms you have explored. There’s nothing for it. You need to learn more. This means reading the big, thick source novels. This means reading. Crikey. Yet this is the path you have chosen. George Martin’s original books may be staggering in both imagination and scope, but they are also stodgier than mammoth pie in places. Long chapters filled with aimless trudging or dream sequences. Dream sequences, for fuck’s sake! Yet you plough through them. Then, one day, you find yourself pricing up a full-size replica of Sean Bean’s sword (by now you know the sword is named ‘Ice’, but you’re still forcing yourself to call in ‘Sean Bean’s sword’) on the Forbidden Planet website. If anyone were to walk in on you right now you’d prefer to lie and tell them that you were surfing mammy-ramming porn than what you’re actually looking at. It’s a fad, that’s all. A craze. It’ll soon be out of your system.

A Cat of a Different Coat
While it passes, you might be well served by picking out a House with which to ally yourself. In real life you are most likely a blurry whirl of showbiz gossip, sweaty ‘pits and wanky little coffees, but the high tables of Westeros offer a chance to better yourself. A bit. Do you perhaps fancy yourself a Stark or a Lannister; a grimly-heroic, flinty-eyed martyr or a golden-haired, glory-shitting warmonger? You settle on House Targaryen and now everything from your hand towels to your Oyster Card wallet has a dragon on it. And it is here that we meet the pointy end of fandom: to tattoo or to not to do a tattoo. Maybe just a little one, yeah? On that same shoulder blade where you got the dolphin or that Chinese symbol for… something… back in the ‘90s. While you’re deciding, you immerse yourself in oddball fan fiction on websites with names like and Starknado. You’re skipping engagements, letting your friends down and neglecting work. You’re in trouble friend, and going back doesn’t seem to be an option.

Beards, Barrels and Bellies
You eventually go for a little tattoo of the Targaryen crest on your ankle, but what does the rest of your general lifestyle say about your devotion to the cause? If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then it’s time to hoist the nutty flag and hang some bunting from your mental buttresses. You look into the legal ramifications of re-naming your house Winterfell. You grow a beard (ladies, you’re just going to have to do your best here), burn all your Ikea crap on a pyre on the front lawn, fill your home with animal hides, church candles, barrels and hang billowing muslin drapes in your uPVC conservatory. You now eat only pies, which you call ‘pie’. You also call beer ‘ale’ and have your own pewter tankard behind the bar of your local. The local children have a song about you and former drinking partners fall into a respectful hush every time you enter the pub. Such is the price of majesty.

Sex & Violence 
It isn’t just your appetite for pie, ale and sheepskin apparel that has increased. You’ve stopped going to badminton club, cancelled your membership at the gym and enrolled in a six-week fencing class at the local leisure centre. It’s hardly broadswords at dawn, but it’s a start. You’re the oldest person there by some margin and one of your classmates’ mum’s has already given you a telling off for calling her daughter a ‘vile strumpet’ during the heat of battle. By the end of the course you’re the only one there. Even the instructor fails to turn up. You are reduced to whacking at the pommel horse until someone turns the lights off. And it’s not just your bloodlust that’s up! Sex used to be a furtive, lights-off experience after Match of the Day was over. Now it s a wine-drenched bacchanal! You roister and bellow and gorge amid flickering torchlight beneath an old-timey parchment map of Dorne. If only there was someone there with you.

This time, it’s war! Sort of.
You now have friends all over the globe. A bloke you’ve been Skyping with in Germany has invited you over to hunt wild boar with him. You both know you’ll never go, but it’s nice to chat about it. A woman in South Africa keeps sending you erotic poems in which Jaime Lannister’s severed hand features prominently. It’s all very safe and remote and cosy, but deep down you yearn for the gore-streaked camaraderie of war. Of friendships borne out of iron and blood. Of marching shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women who would walk through dragonfire for you. So it is that you find yourself recreating the Battle of Blackwater in a car-park in Woking. You’re screaming foulmouthed death-or-glory allegiance to Stannis Barratheon into the face of a portly traffic warden from Balham and it’s not even lunchtime. Yes, you’re using broom-handles for swords and all the arrows have suckers on the ends, but the Westeros Reenactment Society is as close as any fan can get to pageantry and fury of battle. You have risen through the ranks to Master of Coin (i.e. making sure that the hot-dog van has enough loose change), but it is real power you crave. Bide your time. 

You’ve bought a what?

You’ve finally gone the whole hog and bought a actual wolf. A mangy looking thing purchased at auction in a Latvian zoo foreclosure, it patrols your semi-detached house with barely disguised malice. The police have been round a few times, it’s eating you out of house and home and the downstairs bathroom is a complete right-off, but you have now ascended to the very pinnacle of GoT fandom. All the tattoos and tankards in the world cannot compare to this. Leave the masses to their box-sets and pub quizzes, for your devotion to Game of Thrones cannot now be surpassed. Unless… You don’t happen to have a brother or sister, do you..?

Are You Seeing This?

Are You Seeing This?

On January 31st 2007 the city of Boston, Massachusetts was brought to a virtual standstill when a homemade battery-powered LED device was spotted attached to a freeway flyover. Immediately concerned that the item was an improvised explosive a patrolman put in a call. The emergency services were mobilised, the bomb squad called in and highways and bridges were closed. TV helicopters were soon buzzing overhead and the news of the panic was swiftly spread across the net.

But this was no terrorist attack, rather a piece of guerrilla marketing for the movie version of Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force - think SpongeBob SquarePants aimed even more directly at stoners - that had gone most spectacularly wrong. 

Or had it? No doubt the idea was wrong-headed and clearly distressing to many, but it was clearly effective. Everyone from Fox News to The Colbert Report subsequently featured coverage of the event and though the studio behind the film had to pay some millions of dollars in damages, the placement of a small few plasticky gizmos around Boston had garnered national exposure. Was this, then, simply an ill-advised/deranged stunt, or an extreme example of a movie marketing campaign ‘going viral’?

“The problem with the term ‘viral marketing’,” says Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, the agency behind the viral campaigns for The Dark Knight, Tron: Legacy and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, “is that there is no clear consensus on what it means. For some it means viral videos, for others it means guerrilla outdoor activities, and for others it means everything combined.” 

And while more and more of them are being produced to announce new movies, what is agreed on is that viral campaigns are born out in the wild woods, not concocted in the lab, “Campaigns can only become viral if an audience responds to them after they are created and launched,” says Steve Wax, Partner at creative consultancy Ladies & Gentleman. “What increases the chances they will go ‘viral’ is not marketing's version of Viagra – Facebook - but instead a careful concentration on the fans of a brand, where they like to hang out, and what they're are interested in and entertained by.”

Movies and viral marketing would appear to be a perfect match. Viral campaigns are free to take advantage of many of the aspects unique to movie production – from borrowing actors for splinter projects that expand on characters’ backstories and flesh out the fictional world to making use of footage that didn't end up in the finished picture. So what makes for a successful viral movie marketing campaign? Why do some movies forgo them? Do they ever run the risk of over-exposing a film? Are they merely preaching to the converted and, ultimately, do they even work at all?

A campaign that has certainly caught public attention and made the leap from movie websites to the broadsheets is that for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the belated prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror Alien. Whilst undeniably benefitting from the boon of existing audience knowledge of Alien movie mythology, there is no denying the quality and consistency of the viral clips and trailers that have teased us up to the release of the film, nor the innovation with which they have been presented over various media.

Whether it be Guy Pearce as grandstanding Steve Jobs-meets-Kerry Packer techno-mogul Peter Weyland speaking at the 2023 TED Conference or the chilling ads hawking the Weyland Corporation’s new emotionally aware android David 8, played with sycophantic naivety by Michael Fassbender, the campaign has made us want to know more, to tell our friends and – the holy grail of viral marketing! - to get involved. 

Both of these campaign films were devised by Scott and co-writer Damon Lindelof, and directed by Luke Scott. The filmmakers worked with Substance, the London-based company charged with the online publicity, marketing and social media strategy for Prometheus. “We design and build digital projects such as video, websites, apps and games. This gives us the capability to offer a holistic digital strategy for releasing a film,” says Sam Corry, Senior Digital Publicist at Substance. “If we take a look at the most recent trailer launch for Prometheus, which aired on Channel 4 during an episode of Homeland, viewers were invited to interact with this exclusive reveal by sharing their thoughts via Twitter using the hashtag #areyouseeingthis. During the second ad break these responses were aired live on screen for all Homeland viewers to see. This is a great example of how offline advertising can create a much bigger impact and pull in a wider audience by incorporating a digital element.”

It’s tempting to already view this elegant, restrained campaign as a copper-bottomed success, yet Billy Donnelly of isn’t wholly certain as to the true potency of the Prometheus virals. “I don't think it's caught the public imagination so much as it's caught the geek imagination. I'm still not convinced the general public knows exactly what Prometheus is yet, nor do they have any ideas about its connection to Alien. Remember, if it isn’t referencing something made in the last 10 years or so, this younger generation seems to be in the dark about it!”

“We don't know if the Prometheus campaign has been successful or not yet,” adds Matt Bochenski, editor of film magazine Little White Lies. “It's been noisy, sure, but has your mum or dad heard of it? I'm excited for Prometheus but I actually think the viral campaign has been annoying as fuck - it's a self-anointed Movie Event, and I kind of resent that.”

We’ll have to wait and see as to Prometheus’s eventual success, but one campaign over which there can be no debate was also the first to make digital media central to its marketing strategy – that for 1999’s Blair Witch Project.

Dan Myrick, one of the film’s co-writer-directors says that the filmmakers had little clue how persuasive the ‘found footage’ viral videos that preceded the film would be. “I don't think we would have made such a splash at Sundance had it not been for so much pre-awareness generated by our web campaign. We felt we had a compelling premise and an interesting way of conveying it, but we had no real way of knowing how big it would become. Beyond a certain point, the film took on a life of its own and we were just along for the ride.”

In 2008, The Dark Knight was promulgated by a breakout campaign that greatly expanded the mythos of the Batman movies with a vast alternate reality game (ARG) that incorporated real world scavenger hunts. Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment outlines the campaign’s appeal. “Participants got to be a citizen of Gotham City and all the complexity that entailed - being part of the Joker’s growing army or working in support of Batman. We created over 35 weeks of interactive fiction that played out the story and world between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Almost 11 million people in over 75 countries actively engaged for several hours on average. Key film assets were released through the viral campaign on the strength of community collaboration and the passion of fans. It’s that give and take between the studio/filmmakers and the audience that fuels the growth of participation exponentially.”

Perhaps even more impressive was the viral campaign for 2009 South African sci-fi sleeper hit District 9, which couldn’t call upon the Caped Crusader’s brand recognition, but instead utilised a wide range of viral sites, real-world guerrilla marketing tactics and ARGs to propel the film’s profile from backwater curiosity into blockbuster territory. Somewhat ironically, however, the filmmakers have denied approval for the creative agency behind the campaign permission to speak to CR relating to any and all ‘marketing activity’. The same kind of static surrounded inquiries into Watchmen, the campaign for which forms a textbook case study of an excellent viral shot being let down by a mediocre film. Viral publicity is not, it seems, a two-way street… 

Nor is not one long roll call of triumphs. As well as Aqua Teen Bomb Terror there was the ill-conceived apocalyptic scaremongery of the campaign for Roland Emmerich’s 2009 end-of-the-world rollercoaster 2012, which caused so much confusion and alarm amongst the public that NASA set up an Armageddon FAQ page on its website to assuage people’s fears. The campaign for Samuel Jackson’s irony free winkfest Snakes on a Plane (2006), meanwhile, created such a hurricane of early viral activity that interest in the film had blown itself out long before its eventual released.

But even disregarding the clunkers, there is some considered scepticism toward the worth and efficacy of viral movie marketing. Some feel it’s a case of singing to the choir. “Some movies are so highly anticipated that it doesn't even matter,” reckons Dan Koelsch, Executive Editor of “I'm surprised The Dark Knight even had a viral campaign. They obviously spent a good amount of money on something for people who were already going to see the film.”

Marc Berry Reid, Regional Director of digital communications agency Way To Blue, concurs. “The big question for me is how can viral campaigns break out of just appealing to the core audience. They are typically adopted by the 'fan boy' audience who, it could be argued, are going to see the film anyway. Avengers Assemble is a good example of a movie that, even though it screamed for one, had no elaborate viral campaign. Did the lack of one impact the movie? The box office so far doesn't seem to suggest so.”

Robert Marich, contributor to Variety and author of the book Marketing to Moviegoers has harder evidence. “It's absolutely shown by interviewing American moviegoers that the most impactful marketing is the in-theater screening of trailers and TV commercials. Online comes after. That's unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.”

So is it ultimately simply a case of throwing it all against the wall and seeing what sticks? The immaculate, award winning campaign for Tron: Legacy failed to put bums on seats, while James Cameron’s Avatar had no viral campaign to speak of.

But with the success of Prometheus already looking assured and the viral campaign for box-office sure-thing The Dark Knight Rises steadily ramping up, you can be sure that a good viral campaign will be deemed central to successful movie marketing for some time to come.

Hollywood loves a winner.

Better than the film?

Better then the film?

There’s a sidelong query trotted out – in the memory at least - by every other sub-Seinfeld late-Eighties stand-up ever to grace open-mic night as to why they don’t build the aeroplanes out of the same stuff they use to make the black-box flight recorders. It’s a fairly flatulent line of reasoning, but some refined stylistic variant of this disingenuous horse-sense flits through many people’s minds every time they plonk themselves into a cinema seat.

Movies today are more market-conscious and committee-led than ever, with your average blockbuster pandering to every demographic and regularly pleasing none. But one area of filmmaking that has maintained and steadily developed a level of artistic integrity and audience appreciation is that of the opening title sequence.

The title sequences for many – if not most – movies are not tackled by the feature director, but farmed out to design houses and graphic artists who are charged with setting the mood for the subsequent film or filling in something of the movie’s backstory. While ‘show-stopping’ and ‘scene-stealing’ are not compliments that credit sequence directors are keen to hear about their work, so many feature films these days are so contemptuous of their audience and so staggeringly inept in their execution that the economy and craft of many opening sequences usurp the films they precede. So why, to flog the flight recorder analogy, do they not let the title designers loose on the entire film..?

Eye-popping opening montages are, of course, nothing new. The dazzling name-in-lights credits of lavish MGM musical ‘The Great Ziegfeld’ (1936) and Saul Bass’s many collaborations with both Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock offered sumptuous entrees to some wonderful films. Later, Maurice Binder’s wildly iconic work on the first James Bond outing ‘Dr. No’ (1962) not only introduced 007’s trademark gun barrel intro, but the ultra-modern electro-gimcrackery that accompanied the credits proper announced to audiences that had – in Britain at least – endured the grim fortitude of the post-War Fifties that the future had most definitely arrived. Animated title sequences also had their day, with Bass’s lightly unhinged opening for ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963) proving a perfect prelude to cinema’s finest madcap ensemble treasure hunt, while the insouciant feline anti-hero of the titles for 1964’s ‘The Pink Panther’ was such a hit that he even snagged his own freaky-deaky Saturday morning cartoon series.

Pablo Ferro, title designer for groovy Steve McQueen vehicles ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and ‘Bullitt’ (both 1968) - and hailed as a genius by no less than Stanley Kubrick – explains some of the basic ground rules of the discipline. “Everything has to be part of the movie. No matter how eye catching it is, if it doesn’t fit the movie you have to throw it out and start over.” The success of this approach is evidenced in Ferro’s seamless work on Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). “The B-52 refueling in mid-air looks like it was done when the movie was shot. Actually it was found at the last minute. Also, the long, thin lettering allowed you to see the screen and the lettering at the same time. It all fits perfectly.”

Films, of course, mirror their times and the close of the Sixties saw the likes of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967), which recalled a nation torn by the Great Depression of the Thirties as badly as it was by the turbulence of the Sixties. It also featured a stark, documentarian title sequence featuring bedraggled and oppressed country folk that mirrored the photojournalism coming back from Vietnam. Later, Charlton Heston-in-a-safari-suit sci-fi chiller ‘Soylent Green’ (1973) served up the last word in dehumanisation, and was preceded by an excellent sequence tasked with nothing less than charting the entire evolution of human technology.

The Eighties threw up very little in way of truly memorable title sequences, but the smash-and-grab ninety-minute blockbusters of the time were straightforward and direct affairs, and the back-alley conception of most VHS fodder left little time or money for notable production design. It would be the Nineties that ushered in something of a renaissance for the art of the title, with two wildly disparate sequences that reveled in squalor and glamour respectively; Kyle Cooper’s grungy, crepuscular and – watching it again – all too brief credit sequence for David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ (1995) and Saul Bass’s glitzy, fatalistic opening for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ (also 1995).  

‘Se7en’ was a real landmark in movie title design, and the attention to detail that makes it work so well is almost tangible. “That’s where the fun is,” notes Kyle Cooper, “looking at something over and over again, finding ways to improve it, finding new solutions to the problem; tweaking the aesthetic, the timing, looking at a piece frame by frame and making it beautiful. That is how the best work gets made, and that is the work I would always choose to be measured against.”

Garson Yu, whose contribution to 2003’s ‘Hulk’ was a clammy microscopic maelstrom that prepared us for Bruce Banner’s cellular meltdown, has nothing but praise for Cooper’s work. “When ‘Se7en’ came out, it brought a new approach and look to feature films. Film is conservative compared to commercials and music videos in terms of a visual look. ‘Se7en’ at that time was edgy and it was new to the movie-going public.”

Not quite as edgy, but equally eye-catching, was Bass’s wondrous credit montage – his last before his death – for ‘Casino’, in which Robert De Niro, blown sky-high by a misfiring car-bomb, tumbles through a gaudy inferno of Vegas neon. Yu seems to be in a reverie when recalling what is already a distant, bygone age. “They were not done digitally but were all in-camera optical double exposures,” he says of Bass’s kaleidoscopic overlaps. “Beautiful colour montages. The look is different. We are all looking for a groundbreaking technique and look in title design. When that came out, it was mesmerizing.”

David Fincher is just one big-name feature director who appreciates the values of a well-drawn opening sequence. As well as ‘Se7en’ and the circuitous delirium that fronted up ‘Fight Club’ (1999), Fincher opened his claustrophobic yuppie-flight polemic ‘Panic Room’ (2002) with a stately aerial tour of a Manhattan hung with ominous, floating credits that foreshadow the emotional distance of the film. William Lebeda, proud recipient of both the ID Forty’s 2003 Best Title Designer award for ‘Panic Room’ and their year’s worst equivalent for M. Night Shyamalan’ ‘Signs’ (2002), details the process. “Fincher had a rough idea of placing type around the buildings,” he says, “but no one knew how to arrange it or what it was going to be when it was all done. We met with him and thoroughly discussed the potential and then went back and brought it to life for him. In many ways it is a visual effect sequence more than titles. Visual effects with words, really.”

As might be imagined, the realm of title design is a small one, but not, it appears, in any way vicious. My initial request for an interview with Mr. Lebeda was incautiously cut‘n’pasted to him bearing the name of a direct competitor, but he was more than willing to look past it. Similarly, I was invited to get in touch with Kyle Cooper by his putative rival Danny Yount. It is heartening to know these things go on under the Hollywood sign, no?

Yount, the design muscle that brought you the stripped-down vector assault of the ‘Iron Man’ credit sequence as well as one of the few good things about Guy Ritchie’s ‘RocknRolla’ (both 2008), is winningly self-deprecating when he describes his role in the Tinseltown process. “A title sequence is as important to a movie as a good cover is to a novel. Creating the first moving visual statement of a film is huge and delicate responsibility - I am invited by the director to set the tone of the film in the most expressive manner possible.”

If the director does not have a clear vision as to how he opens the film, he will, like any other area of design world, take pitches for ideas. This can take place at any point in the film’s development and can mean that prospective designers often have very little to go on. Pamela B. Green of PIC Agency, producer of many arresting montages such as that for Peter Berg’s overlooked Saudi actioner ‘The Kingdom’ (2007) elaborates. “Every film is different. When we worked on ‘The Kingdom’ all we had was the script, the same on ‘Van Helsing’ [2004]. With ‘Twilight’ [2008] we saw the whole film, but on ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ [2007] we only saw third. And sometimes we get nothing.”

Such last-minute breathlessness, however, can provide cover for some under-the-radar excellence. As Kyle Cooper says, “the title sequence becomes a side project for the director, almost like another little film, with a whole different set of concerns. So if we're lucky, we can stay fairly independent - and can usually get away with doing something good.” Naturally, modifications are often necessary, but Laurent Brett, designer of the titles for joyous French spy spoof ‘OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies’ (2006) and middling Bruce Willis payday ‘Hostage’ (2005) embraces the challenge. “I would say it is less case of revision, but rather a logical progression.”

The best sequences tend to stem from true collaboration between director and titles designer, and Gareth Smith of Shadowplay Studio worked especially closely with the director of precocious fertility fable ‘Juno’ (2007). “We generally prefer to work with people who specifically ask us to make a proposal or who have seen our work. The ‘Juno’ title sequence was just such a collaboration with director Jason Reitman. He was interested in the idea of a sequence that was somehow animated and featured the main character” What emerges is a savvy, winsome sequence that puts the inexplicably popular indie-flavoured dramedy that follows it to shame. 

So why, to yank everything back to the initial analogy, do the powers that be not hand over the blueprints to the entire moviemaking behemoth to the designers of these wonderful sequences? “Huh,” snorts Garson Yu. “If they made planes out of the black box material, they wouldn’t fly. Maybe the same is true for films.” It’s a fair point – after all, the demands of modern filmmaking mean that having a nose for a good story and an eye for detail are nought compared to possessing the hide of a rhino and a stomach for battle. William Lebeda expresses it a little more eloquently. “I think it’s a bit like asking a poet to write a novel. The tools are the same, but the style is so profoundly different. And as title designers, we gravitate toward poetry.”


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