Monday 25 July 2016

Cosplay Central: Festival of Costumes at the San Diego Comic-Con

I've spent the past four days at this year's San Diego Comic-Con International. 

It's HUGE - attended by 130,000 people over its duration. And at times it feels like those 130,000 people are all in the same queue as you, lining up hours in advance to enter a room for a popular panel.

I'll be writing more about the convention later for one of my usual outlets. 

In the meantime, direct from the Comic-con press room where I'm currently hiding from the hordes, here's a random selection of some of the cosplay outfits I've seen over the past four days.

Let's turn it into one of those ever-popular online quizzes. Do you know who all the characters are in the following photos? (I must admit, I don't; though I think I know most of them) 

I've lettered each one from A to J, so have a stab at naming them in the comments field below, and we'll all end up better informed. [Warning: Some may simply be flights of fancy of the costume designer, rather than established characters.]











Can you guess who all those characters are? If so, you're doing better than me. Please add your answers labelled A to J (or just whichever ones you actually know) in the comments field below.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Lights! Camera! Burbank! The Warner Brothers Studio Tour

I was a guest of Warner Brothers on its studio tour, and was assisted by Discover Los Angeles on my LA visit.

In Los Angeles once again, I was keen to join the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. 

I'd been on it once before while researching a story about four LA studio tours, and was curious to see how its new Stage 48 section had developed over the past year. It would also be an opportunity for Narrelle Harris to see it with me. She's just as much a movie fan as I am, so we were looking forward to the experience.

Stage 48 had opened just before my 2015 visit. The finale to the traditional tour of Warner's back lot and front lot, it's a facility which takes visitors through all the stages of film-making. 

To my mind, it makes the WB tour the best of the studio tours for those interested in the process of movie-making, as it adds content to the glamour. 

The tour starts in Burbank, which I had previously learned via a taxi voucher drama is not actually in Los Angeles; it's technically a separate city. 

Arriving by Uber this time, I saw Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (my favourite Looney Tune) waiting in the forecourt, not far from the famous water tank with the Warner Brothers logo:

After an introductory video, tour members boarded a cart which took us through the back lot. These make-believe streets and neighbourhoods stand in for various locations via deft changes to signage and the odd spot of CGI. 

This 'jungle' is perfect for tropical scenes; though Jurassic Park was filmed in Hawaii, one or two additional scenes were filmed here:

What's more common on the back lot are mock urban streets, which feel a touch creepy via their lack of people and the absence of signage on their buildings (which is added as needed):

Midway through the tour we were taken to an exhibition building with two floors: one exhibiting Harry Potter costumes and props, the other devoted to superheroes. 

Last year the ground floor had featured Batman costumes and items from the then upcoming Batman vs Superman movie. This year it was preparing the ground for the upcoming Justice League movie via a DC Universe display, with each character featured above an original comic book containing one of their earliest appearances:

Beyond this was the excellent Wonder Woman costume as worn by Gal Gadot in Batman vs Superman:

Further on was a series of large portraits (along with some props) from the upcoming Suicide Squad movie, about a pack of DC villains forced to operate as a team. 

I'd read the comic book back in the 1980s and liked the concept; a team of villains was always going to have some entertaining flaws. And I loved this glimpse of the costumes, which indicated the designers at least have caught some of the anarchic humour and drama of the comic book:

We then toured another building full of Batmobiles, and had a look at the set of a TV show currently being shot (at which we were forbidden from taking photos).

At the conclusion of the tour, we were deposited at Stage 48 and told we could spend as as much time as we liked there.

It was great. Taking our time, Narrelle and I wandered through the initial section devoted to screenwriting, casting and costuming, where Narrelle took the opportunity to design her own customised lemon-coloured Batmobile:

Then we passed the original Friends set to find an exhibition of Mad Max: Fury Road costumes...

... into the more technical area which covered such techniques as green screen, forced perspective, CGI and motion capture:

One of the best exhibits was near the end of the tour. Visitors sat within a separate room with a big screen, viewing four versions of a short scene from Gravity with different aspects of its sound added. It was a great overview of the complexity of sound in a big motion picture.

The tour was fun and we'd learnt a lot. All that remained was to collect our Oscars for Best Tour Member in a Supporting Role:

We only hung onto the statue briefly, but it was a real Oscar. Heavy too, around 4 kilograms in weight. It'd make a great paperweight on one's award-winning writer's desk.

Read more and book tickets for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour by clicking here. For more about the attractions of LA, visit Discover Los Angeles.

Friday 8 July 2016

Cheers! Bathing in Czech Beer

Beer! Who doesn't love it? Especially Czech beer. A few years ago I visited the Czech city Olomouc and actuallly bathed in the stuff.

As my article about that experience has since disappeared from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

I glance around to check that no-one is watching, then bend over the large wooden tub and scoop up a handful of liquid.

I swallow some of it, then lick my lips and smile. It really is beer that I’m about to have a bath in.

I’m in the small city of Olomouc, well away from the tourist hordes of other Czech destinations such as Prague and Český Krumlov.

Above me at ground level is Svatováclavský Pivovar, a small brewery with a good reputation for its house-brewed ales, produced without pasteurisation or filtration.

However, the most intriguing part of its business is a fairly new installation in the cellar – a beer spa.

When I first saw this written on a leaflet at my hotel, I thought perhaps I’d misunderstood what was on offer.

But no, this tub is full of beer, a weak 2% version with some added oils to make it smooth on the skin. The plentiful froth in the bath isn’t from soap, but is the head on this vast serve of ale.

Immersed in the brown foamy liquid, I can smell the faint aroma of what seems like wheat beer. Or a light pilsner.

But the beery fun doesn’t stop with immersion; included in the entry fee are two large steins of the real stuff from the brewery above, a cold full-strength brew which I sip while soaking in the tub.

There’s beer inside and beer outside, and I’m feeling fairly mellow in the warm oily bath.

The Czech geniuses who designed this spa have definitely figured out how to make wellness seem appealing to blokes.

When I later ask the attendant who are their best customers, she says "Couples." It seems that soaking and sipping in beer make a romantic night out in Olomouc.

It’s certainly a pleasant environment – a quiet room with dimmed lighting, walls painted with vineyard scenes and two big wooden tubs. There are several sets of these his-and-hers baths, I’m told, and one double-sized tub for two people.

Personally, I’m quite happy soaking alone on a quiet weekday afternoon, with the faint aroma of hops drifting around my head.

Afterward, I recline on a couch in the relaxation room which is decorated to resemble an old village tavern. And, on cue, the second stein of beer arrives at my elbow. I could get used to this.

Upstairs, the Svatováclavský Pivovar’s dining room is a good place to sit and eat while sporting the soft skin of a man who’s been soaking in an alcoholic beverage.

Timber tables with checked tablecloths are arranged around big copper-coloured vats in the centre of the room.

I’m feeling in the mood for a snack, so I order the potato cakes stuffed with the local matured cheese.

Heavy, but tasty, and perfect with a beer. Of which there are seven on the menu, including a dark beer, a wheat beer, and even a cherry beer.

With all that alcohol on offer, it’s lucky that Olomouc is easy to navigate on foot.

The historic Old Town is focused on the main square, featuring a statue of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, said to be the founder of the city.

In the centre of the square is the town hall, pretty in white with its Renaissance-era architectural exterior.

What’s stunning, however, is the astronomical clock on its north side. This was once a collection of elaborately carved wooden canopies and little angels who moved when the hour was struck.

After World War II, however, the damaged clock was completely redesigned by the new communist authorities.

Its various faces are now flanked by a mechanic and a scientist, and at noon a bunch of workers parade above: blacksmiths, farmhands, bricklayers and so on.

Another reminder of Cold War Czechoslovakia is the daily tour of a civil defence shelter, designed for a nuclear or chemical attack.

Its blocky concrete entrance leads into chambers embedded beneath the 18th century city wall.

My guide Jan, a young student who leads tours on the side, unlocks the entrance and takes me through stark corridors with huge metal doors.

It’s the type of environment in which you’d expect to find a Bond villain holed up, with escape hatches, a huge generator and air-pressure gauges still in place.

After the tour I buy Jan a beer at Moritz, another popular local brewery on the other side of town. It has a beautiful beer garden next to an elaborately decorated stone gate dedicated to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.

I order the Moritz 12° beer, a smooth lager brewed onsite. Jan insists we also order quargel, a tangy sour milk curd cheese which arrives on pieces of bread topped with onion and a paprika sauce.

He’s right – eating it in the warm sunshine, with beer in hand, is the perfect way to end a day in this attractive Czech town.

For more about Olomouc, visit its tourism site.

Friday 1 July 2016

Architectural Oddities of Warsaw, Poland

I visited Poland courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

On my recent trip to Poland, I spent a day exploring architectural curios of the capital city, Warsaw.

In Jazdów I saw a neighbourhood of Finnish huts, built after World War Two. The effect is of a country town right in the middle of the capital.

Though recently threatened with destruction, there have since been moves to preserve them for use by various NGOs. In fact I met someone from a beekeeping organisation here, which has hives across Warsaw.

On the southern outskirts of the city, in Ursynów, I was shown a model public housing project of the 1970s, in which the communist authorities experimented with placing more parks and greenery among staggered housing blocks:

In the north of the city, past Warsaw's beautiful rebuilt Old Town, I was shown around the attractive 1920s and 1930s buildings of Żoliborz, which largely survived the war intact.

Among them was this striking new mural, a tribute to David Bowie and his brief 1976 visit to the district which resulted in the song Warszawa (taking the Polish name of the city):

The most remarkable architectural highlight of the day, however, was the Keret House, named after Israeli writer Etgar Keret. This tiny house which hosts resident writers is found in Mirów, a district that was part of the Jewish ghetto during Nazi occupation.

It's a very curious residence, occupying a gap between two buildings which tapers from 152cm at its ­widest point down to a very narrow 92cm. Into this slot has been built this fascinating building, symbolically wedged between prewar and postwar structures:

Entered from the rear via stairs which swing down to the ground, it's just large enough for a writer to live, rest and work in, with levels containing a bed, kitchen, bathroom, beanbag and desk:

It's an intriguing space, a modern writer's garret that occupies both a physical and mental space between the new and the old.

As for the story of how it came about, I'll leave the explanation to the project's founder, Jakub Szczęsny:

Suffice it to say, I would love to do a writer's residency here one day. The strange energy of central Warsaw resonates across time and space, and would be more than enough to power a novel.