Master Kreng Versus Jet Li!

July 20, 12

Check out this high-octane two part interview with Master Kreng … Crunch!

Part I:

Part II:

“Minute with the Master” interview with John Kreng #4

February 06, 12

Bruce Lee

1) Do you rehearse moves differently for motion capture than for live action?

Yes, the emphasis on the moves are much different. When you perform live it’s one take and it has to be effective so that the person in the bleachers will react as strongly as the one in the front row.

With Mo-Cap, you have to figure out all the possibilities for each character and what they would do because the results are non-linear, quite different from what we would get traditionally in a film or in front of a live audience.  Mo-cap is much more strenuous than doing stunts for film or TV- usually because of all the options each character has to go through in a game as opposed to the definite ending a character has on a show.

2) What do you use to stay current on the best upcoming fight films?

I don’t advocate illegally downloading movies for several reasons: (1) Right now it is killing Asian cinema because of the rampant pirating that’s going on in Asia, (2) You also do not know what version you are getting — you might be getting an editor’s work print that is not final with all the bells and whistles and that takes the magic out of it, (3) You also never know the quality, and if it’s been censored or cut.

I usually go to websites like and to know what’s out there.  I also have a region free player to stay on top of things that plays DVDs from all over the world and is not locked to one specific region.  When I was writing my book I had a healthy collection of over 3000 (yes, three thousand) DVDs at my disposal.

I do not wait for a foreign film to be released domestically because it takes way too long to get picked up and often times it’s edited and/or poorly dubbed.  It can take 2-3 years (or even longer) to get a film released here domestically.  By then it’s already old and we’ve already moved onto the next big thing.  Look at BATTLE ROYALE.  It came out in 2000, and has never been officially released here for various reasons (mainly financial) beyond our control.  If it came out now, it might make an impact, but the core audience already has a bootleg or foreign copy of it.

What I love about living in Los Angeles is I can get imported DVDs from almost all over the world by just getting in my car and driving into different ethnic burrows around the city.  In one day I can go to Little India and buy the DVD of KRRISH.  Then go to Thai-town and get the latest Tony Jaa DVD and catch some chicken curry while listening to a Thai Elvis impersonator, then in 10 minutes be over in Koreatown to get their latest and greatest.  Then dash over to Alhambra/Monterey Park and get the newest films from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  Or, I could go to a block of Russian stores near West Hollywood and get their newest films. Then to top things off, I would go to Amoeba Records and be a scavenger and try to find  some DVDs on sale.

Sometimes, when hunting down these movies they won’t have subtitles, but sometimes they do.  It’s that sense of going into places you have never gone to and exploring something outside of my normal comfort zone that excites me.  Call me the Lewis and Clark of DVDs.  I’m not the only one that does this either.  I have a few friends who do this too.

Currently, I am jonesing over getting my grubby paws on a copy of BANGKOK KNOCKOUT.  The new movie by Panna Rittikrai – who trained and choreographed Tony Jaa in Ong Bak.

You might ask why I am doing all this?  As a stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, I feel you have to see what everyone else is doing so you don’t copy someone’s else’s work and also stay ahead of the curve by seeing the trends and what everyone else is doing.  I don’t mean domestically, but globally.  I have discovered there are always new and cool ways of expressing how we fight, because it is a cultural thing and is different with each culture, along with each individual filmmaker’s statement of how they see/interpret violence or action.  Generally, in the West, we are obsessed with power and it shows in our action films!  One punch or kick knockouts, huge explosions, etc.

3) How do you decide which posters to go after in your collection?

If I can afford it and it’s got great art, then it has to be mine.  Also for me, personally, there has to be some kind of exploitative element to it.  It can be the movie’s title, catch phrase, and/or enticing artwork that makes you stop dead in your tracks and want to go into the theater.  It’s as if the movie poster wants to reach out and grab you to pull you into the theater. Most of the movie posters today, generally play it safe and lack any real style and don’t have that P.T. Barnum or William Castle style of salesmanship.  It’s just a poster of the lead actor done with photoshop.  B-O-R-I-N-G!

For some odd reason, I do not always look for old posters that are in mint condition.  Mind you, if I found one in mint condition and it was something I wanted for my collection and was affordable, I’d get it.  But there is something to be said about a tattered poster from the 60’s and 70’s that shows it has been around for a while.  There is a certain personality the poster takes on.  It’s done it’s job, been around the block, and has seen many things over the years.  If only those posters could talk.

4) If you loved Inframan, what’s the next movie you should see?

Hmmm.. that’s a tough act to follow.  But I say go back to the original.. the 1966 Ultraman TV series.  I still love that series.  Even though it’s formulaic and the characters are very archetypical, but for me… it still works. If that does not float your boat, try FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, and/or WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.  BUT.. if you want something really cheesy, I suggest MIGHTY PEKING MAN!

5) Describe you and I watching a fight between Bruce Lee and Jose Canseco…

You would have to get me to constantly shut up because I’d be laughing so hard at how inept Canseco would look trying to attempt hitting Bruce. Let’s think about this…. What would be Jose’s game plan going into the ring?  “Duh, I’m bigger and stronger than him and I would just man-handle the little f**ker!” Yeah, great idea, Jose!  Just because you are a professional athlete does not mean you are a bad ass.  All it means is that you are VERY good at a certain skill set.  Hey, but ya gotta give him applauds for having the courage to get in the ring.  I think every celebrity has beaten him already.  Who’s next for him?  Gilbert Gottfried?

6) Would you cut a hole in YOUR roof to let bamboo grow?

It would depend on where I lived and if it was a “money tree” or not!

7) Do you remember when you tried to give me a boob twister but I jumped over a bicycle tire without spilling a coffee?  Am I now worthy of training with you?  sheeez.

Yes, and you did it without the assist of wires.  Yuen Woo Ping would be proud of you.

Interview with David Borden

February 19, 11

I was privileged to get a chance to meet with David Borden, a guiding force in American electronic music.  What follows are a series of questions I hope you’ll find helpful in learning more about early electronic music forms.

1) How did counterpoint work its way so strongly into early minimalism?

I don’t think counterpoint as a whole ever did. The emphasis was on simple, harmonically static repetitive cells. Early pieces like “In C” by Terry Riley and “Piano Phase” by Steve Reich were canons, but I doubt if either composer thought of them in that way. Terry’s was a ‘free’ canon in that every entrance was timed by the performer, not the composer, and Steve’s piece emphasized phasing with one player gradually edging ahead of the other thereby creating a different canon out of the same material. Other pieces like Phil Glass’s “Music in Fifths” was structured along rhythmic cells and the constant open harmonic sounds of perfect fifths. His direction in general has always been in rhythmic and harmonic areas. Later pieces like “Koyaanisqatsi” were more contrapuntal, but basically Phil has never engaged in the more complicated contrapuntal forms.

My own “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint,” (TCSOC) a series of pieces that takes six hours or more to perform in its entirety, came about after reading one sentence by Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s last publication Synergetics (1975) had a definition of synergy, a word not generally known or used at that time, that influenced my whole approach: “Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.”  That sentence is the catalyst for my approach to counterpoint in general and TCSOC in particular.

Ironically, in counterpoint, traditional contrapuntal forms, especially canons, parts taken separately do predict the behavior of whole systems. For instance, the riddle canons from Bach’s “Musical Offering” composed for Frederick the Great. His majesty was a fan of Bach’s and a music lover, so after an evening of improvising with him, Bach sent him these canons for him to decipher. By supplying only one voice, or just voices with hints on where the next entrances were, by using different clefs, repeat signs etc., one could eventually figure out how the music was supposed to be constructed: 

Crab Canon

Crab Canon
Modulating Spiral Canon


Seek and Find Entrances (Canon)

As for me, I chose to bypass traditional contrapuntal forms (for the most part) and use Fuller’s synergy definition as a starting point.

I combined several distinct lines in repetitive cells. One cell may last for 37 beats, but each player’s part was divided differently according to meter. While each player had 37 beats, one would have 7+7+6+5+5+7 while another may have 4+4+4+4+5+7+9 etc. Also, they were composed from modal scales which implied tonal harmony, but the melodic lines came first. The language avoided chromaticism and atonality. This was note-against-note for the fast moving notes while a much slower counterpoint was going on with long notes that overlapped. All in all, three players played a total of six lines (one for each hand). Four were fast moving and two were slow moving. This formula changed over the course of the twelve sections of TCSOC, but was the starting point and is true of six of the twelve parts. If you take one of the parts out of context, you will know the length and modality of the other parts, but not the specific pitches. In fact I often composed the separate parts without listening to the other ones. Sometimes I composed one person’s part all the way through, and then added the other two parts module by module without first listening to the other part(s). All of this was done before the terms ‘layering’ and ‘minimalism’ were used to describe the process and the genre of this kind of music. This technique is sometimes called ‘successive composition’ and was used in both the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That is why there are more part books than scores from that era. There were no scores for TCSOC until several years after they were composed, only parts.

2) What influenced the founding of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co?

Two things:

1. When I became Composer/Pianist for Dance at Cornell in 1968, I found that there were no concerts of avant garde music. So, I organized Mother Mallard to fill the void. In 1969 Cornell’s Music Library had no music by Morton Feldman. When I pointed this out, the head librarian was so embarrassed that she ordered everything Feldman ever composed. We performed music by Bob Ashley, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Dan Lentz, Jon Hassell, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and some things from MEV. We did Piano Phase with two Moog Synthesizers with Steve’s blessing with the understanding that we would call it “Synthesizer Phase.”

2. After working on my own at the Moog Company’s studio in Trumansburg from 1967-1969 I began to realize that since I was doing so much music using synthesizers that I was not satisfied with tape, but wanted to do my own work with live performers. So I invited Steve Drews to compose for the Moogs, and then later, Linda Fisher. After that, we played our own music and not as in the beginning, music of our contemporaries. Of course, the catalyst of the whole venture was Bob Moog who gave us access to his studio, then lent us equipment to take out to concert halls, and then eventually sold us three modulars and three minimoogs for a little as possible when he had to move to Williamsville in September 1971 in order to save his company from bankruptcy.

3) How did you approach composition for Mother Mallard, was it different than your counterpoint solo work?

I never really did any solo counterpoint stuff.

4) What are you working on now?

My next piece will be a string quartet. It’s a commission from a physicist friend who lives in Cambridge Massachusetts. I’m getting back into writing for acoustic instruments, but mostly in conjunction with electronic ones. I would like to compose a concerto for MalletKat and orchestra and also maybe a concerto for Minimoog Voyager and orchestra or wind ensemble or chamber orchestra.

Mother Mallard has become an ensemble of four keyboardists playing keyboards attached to laptops via USB cables. I’ve been performing using Apple Computers running Reason. This enables me to pre-program exact sounds and also change the mapping of each keyboard in a second or less simply be pushing the down arrow on the computer keyboard (or, depending on the music keyboard and future improvements to Reason, to simply push a button on the keyboard controller). So far, I have composed music for two evening length programs in this new way. Soon, the entire TCSOC will be programmed to be performed with this setup.

I’m also newly engaged in a synthesizer duo improv project with Josh Oxford, a Minimoog virtuoso who is also a member of Mother Mallard.

A very special thank you to David!

Please be sure to check out this recent interview  with David and listen to Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. 1970-1973 and The Continuing Story of Counterpoint Parts 1-4+8 (Complete)

“Minute with the Master” – Interview with John Kreng #3

November 13, 10

Read Part 2 and get caught up!

Now settle deeply for our next visit with the Master…  

Tom: In general, which Asian sci fi films (or sci fi influenced) are we (Western audiences) missing out on?

Probably the most controversial is BATTLE ROYALE, (at the time of it’s release) one of the highest grossing films in Japan.  This is not your safe generic fantasy sci-fi meant to please the masses with lasers, aliens, and spaceships.  Rather it is a very sobering, dark, and cynical view of the near future when the Japanese economy has collapsed with double-digit unemployment. 

As a result, the Japanese social structure breaks down and to keep order with the rebellious and disillusioned youth, the government creates the Battle Royale act – a random lottery – where a select group of teens are annually sent to an island where only one will survive. It’s essentially LORD OF THE FLIES meets the reality TV show SURVIVOR. 

If this film was to be released here in the U.S., I am sure it would create a lot of controversy about how the teen violence is depicted on screen in a post Columbine era.  The violence in the film is very graphic and could easily receive a hard R or possibly an NC-17 rating.  Many feel the film is more of an exploitation rather than an examination of teen violence.  I feel it is both. 

The exploitation is pretty much a given.  The examination of the violence is in the subtext where the audience has to feel the actors emotions and reactions as the students are “forced” to take deadly action on their friends or die.  By doing this, the film asks the audience to feel and experience along with the unwilling participants, which can be very uncomfortable for many audience members who may not want to go to that place for “entertainment.”    

Rumor has it that it has not hit our shores because of the extreme violence in the film in a post Columbine era.  However, the real reason why it has not had an official release here is because of the hefty asking price Toei Pictures (the Japanese studio who owns the film) is asking for from US distributors.  I feel the core audience have already bought it as an import DVD or have already downloaded/watched it online.  I consider this film to be the modern day CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  Unfortunately, it was director Kinji Fukusaku’s last complete film.  He died while making the sequel. 

I also highly recommend SWEET RAIN aka ACCURACY OF DEATH (Japan) where the Grim Reaper (Takeshi Kaneshiro) spends a time with a human and has to decide whether it’s their time to die or not.  He meets up with 3 different people in different stages of life and we see how the value of life changes as we get older.  It’s a blend of the MEET JOE BLACK and CITY OF ANGELS (or WINGS OF DESIRE) but not a rehash of any of these films.  If you want creatures and monsters… try watching THE HOST (Korea)Usually you see CG creatures in sections and usually at night or darkly lit scenes so you do not see any flaws in design and rendering of the computer effects.  But in THE HOST, the creature is believable in it’s movement and design and you can see it clearly, mostly during day scenes and in well lit interiors.

The story does not insult the audience, nor make you want to yell at the characters for doing something really stupid, while also not taking itself too seriously.I have also heard about and really want to see THE CLONE RETURNS HOME (Japan), TIME CRIMES, STALKER (Russia) 2046 (China), LA JETEE (France), MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (Argentina).

Tom: Which Star Wars film fight sequence did you enjoy most?

Without a doubt- the final fight between Darth Vader and Luke in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  There was a lot of tension and suspense in that fight that kept you on the edge- even in-between the breaks when they were not fighting.  It had a very dark and ominous feel to it that was pretty eerie and very effective.  Bob Anderson did a great job on that one.   Also the final fight in Return of the Jedi between Darth, Luke, and Emperor Palpatine was well done too and takes a solid second place in my opinion.  It was much darker than the fight in EMPIRE.

Tom: What do you identify as the main influences for Super Inframan?

Definitely the ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER series, and other Tokusatsu (a TV drama that features superheroes and special effects), Kaiju (monster), Henshin (to change or transform the body) TV shows that were prevalent in Japan during that time. The difference was they combined acrobatics and kung fu into their action scenes which is what you see in the SUPER SENTAI TV series (localized for US audiences as the POWER RANGERS).

Be sure and check out Master Kreng’s latest book Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue!

“Minute with the Master” – Interview with John Kreng #2

September 08, 10

It’s time again Master Kreng!  Stop reading that Gold Key issue of The Funky Phantom!   

Read Part #1 HERE 

Master Kreng:  Are you talking to me, Tom? I was never into The Funky Phantom.  I felt the show was a weak re-hashing of Scooby Doo.  When I was growing up I was more into Batfink, Speed Racer, Gigantor, Ultraman, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp (where’s PETA when you need them?), and The Amazing Chan & the Chan Clan.  

Amazing Chan was an animated cartoon where Charlie Chan would solve mysteries with his 10 kids (Yes, Charlie was “busy” in-between solving mysteries and definitely did not believe in birth control!).  On the show, I had a “cartoon crush” on Suzie Chan, the svelte daughter who was drawn much like Daphne on Scooby Doo, and played tambourine with the family rock band!  She was smokin’ hot eye candy!  The animators at Hanna-Barbera must’ve had a serious Asian fetish! LOL!   

Okay Tom, fire away!  

Shirley Hemphill (R.I.P.) with Master Kreng!

TomDoes “play” relate to improvisation in doing stand-up?  Do you think improvisation in comedy is a form of play?    

Master Kreng:  I feel play is an important state of mind to have when you are doing ANYTHING CREATIVE.  One of the reasons is that when you do anything creative there has to be a playful childlike curiosity with what you do.  There’s also “serious play” too.  

A great example of that is when I work as a stuntman or stunt coordinator.  There are lives at stake so you have to be serious about what you are doing.  However, the element of play is still underlying because you are in a mode of creating something from nothing.   

Tom: Why do you think some games seem to entirely forget the play factor these days?  

Well, personally, I feel the games industry has become too “corporatized” and has lost it’s creative innocence that it had in the 16 bit Super Nintendo/ Sega Genesis days.  The games during those times were very creative and were not afraid to push the envelope.  You will never see games that have so much ingenuity and creativity these days because I feel the titles are so “railroaded” into a specific genre, killing any type of creativity or originality. 

My favorites games that I still own on 16 bit are Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Ecco: The Dolphin, Rock & Roll Racing, Mega-Man X, Super Bomberman, Super Metroid, and Earthworm Jim.  The 16 bit era was much like American film was in the 70’s- individualistic, inspired, and creative.   

This was when video games first made more $$ than the film industry, so corporations took notice and decided to take part in it.  I felt this was the beginning of the eventual demise of the originality and creativity of videogames because the ones in control were not creative types but more profit oriented.  

The funny thing no one really talks about is the reason why videogames make more than movies is the price for the games.  In comparison, it’s a completely different experience for the viewer/gamer and most importantly they also charge two times (or often more) the amount of a movie ticket.  

Tom: What’s new in your poster collection? The latest in my collection are Super Cops (Gordon Parks’ film starring Ron Leibman and David Selby.. not the Jackie Chan film), Hooper- The World’s Greatest Stuntman, Kung Fu Executioners, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Return of the Master Killer, and Dynamite Brothers.  I am still looking for Mystery of Chess Boxing, Rolling Thunder, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Shogun Assassin, I Spit On Your Grave, Nightmare on Elm Street , and The Hills Have Eyes.  

For those of you who do not know me… I was an illustration and advertising major in college and I collect exploitation movie posters from the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s because artwork in the posters during that time really leaped out at you when you walked past the theater, creating a strong curiosity drawing you into seeing the movie.  

Often times the poster art was much better than the actual movie was.  Today, movie poster art really bores me to death because the emphasis with the promotion is very star oriented and they simply just paste the face of the actor on the poster.  Because of this, I feel movie poster art today lacks any real creativity and ingenuity to attract the audience to see the film.  There are only a few guys still painting movie poster art these days like Drew Struzan, but he’s a rare exception. 

Tom: What are the gwai lo movie picks of the month ..Ok… I am listing obscure stuff you typically cannot find at a Blockbuster.  You might need a region free player to play some of these DVDs. 

  • Attack the Gas Station ( Korea 1999) One night a bored gang re-robs a gas station they hit the night before.  The gang holds the employees hostage when the owner pleads he does not have much money to hand over to them since last night’s robbery.  The gang decides to pose as the employees to get money from the customers and we find out how and why each member got to where they are today.  Funny and thoughtful.
  • Battle Royale (Japan 2000)- A movie that will probably never get an official release in North America because of the violence and the money that is being asked by the movie studio that owns the film for proper distribution in America . Google this title and you will see a lot of conflicting reviews and blogs on this movie over its graphic depiction of violence.  Arguably Asia’s equivalent to A Clockwork Orange .
  • A Bittersweet Life (Korea 2005) An emotionless Mafia Enforcer is asked by his boss to look after his girlfriend while he is out of town and is ordered to kill her on site if she is found to have an affair.  His life falls apart when he catches her with another man and he decides to not take action.  This is a combination film noir and modern day high octane action film.
  • Buster Keaton: A Hard Act To Follow ( U.K. 1987)- A British documentary that shows you behind the scenes of the art and craft of comedy and stunts that made Buster a cinematic genius.  This guy influenced Jackie Chan and you can clearly see why here in this documentary.
  • A Century of Light & Shadow 1905-2005A visual and narrative history of Shanghai/Hong Kong film history throughout the decades. 
  • The Fastest Sword (1968 Hong Kong)A Wu –Xia film based off  Henry King’s classic Western The Gunfighter (1950). A great “swordfighter” learns humility and peace after he is defeated by a master martial arts monk. But his reputation always precedes him, leading him to challenges, death, and destruction until he lays his reputation to rest.
  • The Foul King (2000 Korea )A Korean comedy where a nebbish bank clerk aspires to be a “heel” in the pro wrestling ring.
  • Jackie Chan: My Stunts (1999 Hong Kong)- Great for anyone who is the least bit curious about the art of fight choreography, but required viewing for anyone in the film industry who wants to create an effective fight scene.  The “Master Class” is worth the price of admission alone!
  • Super Inframan (1975 Hong Kong )- a combination of Power Rangers and Ultraman, with acrobatic style martial arts.  This was one of Roger Ebert’s favorite guilty pleasures. 
  • Vengeance (1970 Hong Kong )– Arguably one of David Chiang’s best performances.  A dark and simple revenge film with rough kung fu brawls and brutal knife fights.  An extremely visceral film that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

Tom: Do YOU think you were a taoist gate guardian in the 13th century? I do. Don’t use that form of mental magic on me. Are you referring to the joyous grin I get on my face when I am about to publicly humiliate someone AFTER that person has tried to con me with their b.s.?  As a martial artist, you are taught to set your B.S. meter on high.  Also as a stand up comedian, I‘ve been taught to cut you off at the knees when an audience member tries to take control of my show by heckling me.  It’s a honed instinct that I often times don’t think about.

Saucy, Master Kreng.  Thank you!

Interview with Lawrence Kim – #1

August 17, 10

Lawrence Kim is a multi-award winning designer whose diverse career choices in design have led him from Architect and Design Professor in Asia/Europe to a design professional currently working as a Production Designer/Art Director on independent feature films and television projects in Los Angeles. 

He was the former Deputy Councilor in the Asian Region (V) for the Union of International Architects (UIA) and international delegate to the 2002 UIA Congress. 

He was a former recipient of an International Ambassadorial Fellowship to London where he earned his Masters degree in Architecture. He is also a graduate fellow (MFA) of the American Film Institute in the conservatory program for production design. 

We worked together recently on a “yet-to-be” published Xbox Live Arcade title as designers. Here’s a brief series of questions I asked Lawrence when we met over lunch.

Tom: What is playful architecture?  

Lawrence:Playful Architecture’ could mean three things: 1) Architecture that is visually enticing and engaging on a visceral level… in other words, the viewer swiftly imagines himself an active participant in and around the structure as there is an immediate level of interactivity on a visual level; 2) an architectural construct that is uniquely different from the merely anonymous construction of spaces (emphasizing more than just function and square footage…) and conveys a considered manipulation of shapes, masses and voids that gives the participant time to pause and ‘read’ a building, and finally; 3) under specific programs it could mean exactly that – the idea that ‘play’ is the key programming requirement and is readily visible in a fun and unassuming manner… take for instance a playground, a jungle gym, a water slide and so on. These are constructions that are at the essence of ‘play,’ where the mind and body can comfortably engage in the exercise of play.  

Tom: And the idea of ‘play,’ could you elaborate?  

Lawrence: The more complex the society, and its regulations for operating in that environment, the greater the need for the simplicity of ‘Play’ within that system. The term is not meant as the antithesis to say, ‘work,’ or, ‘function,’ but a concept that is more akin to a symbiotic response to repetition, routine and rigor in a mechanical fashion. In that sense, ‘play’ is by its very nature a spontaneous and somewhat unregulated exercise in a myriad of expressions. Frank Lloyd Wright was its greatest proponent as he owes his design processes to an early introduction to childhood building blocks.  

Tom: What can game or level designers learn from other ‘visual’ designers?  

Lawrence: Production design is about satisfying a story and a narrative structure. It has to be simultaneously evocative, memorable, and cogent… and yet it cannot overwhelm the setting where the drama takes place. It cannot be superfluous or be a fanciful exercise in style and fashion… unless that is part of the brief. Production Design / Art Direction at its best is the environment that creates a ‘sense of space and place,’ without taking away from the focus of the visual story. You could even say that we are the most visibly in-visible part of a film, if you know what I mean. In the end, the designs must serve the narrative and create a believable reality within the program parameters. Therefore, game designers should try and view the design of a game as a dynamic story – a visual tapestry that is to be woven by the elements of the game program in a time, a space, and a place.  

Tom: What did you like about the game development process?  

Lawrence: I respect the collaborative nature between art, design and engineering bounded by a commercial goal at the end of the exercise. Subsequently, I would say that the process of design is essentially the same; we try our best to celebrate the ‘human condition,’ and the fruits of our labor, whether they are in architecture, film or games, are the penultimate ‘expression’ of our imagination and need to create something within a set of strict parameters (in whatever field).  

One should never forget that even if the program is bounded by limits, our imagination is not, nor should it ever be. It is the task and the calling of a designer to push the invisible boundaries of imagination within our real world needs.  

Tom: What are you working on now?  

Lawrence: I just wrapped a feature film this summer. It was shot on Kodak 35mm Black and White stock and is considered the very last of its kind. It’s an homage to the classic films of yesteryear, replete with a retro 50s and 60s look at Americana, wrapped in a science fiction/musical called, ‘The Ghastly Love of Johnny X,’ due out in 2011. I’m working on the early stages of another feature film, this time a contemporary suspense thriller.  

Thanks very much for taking the time to chat, Lawrence!
(Interviewed on Friday, August 6 2010, Los Angeles, CA)

Interview with Andrew Holdun – #1

August 09, 10

Andrew Holdun is an extremely versatile and talented artist with a track record of making hit games for developers like LucasArts, Disney, THQ and many others. 

His work can be seen in Jedi Knights, Shadows of the Empire, and Disney MMOs to name just a tiny few of the titles he’s worked on.  He received a B.A. in Architecture from Pratt Institute.


Tom: Is getting ready for the game industry the same as preparing for a bullfight?

Andrew: I read a lot of Ernest Hemingway… and drank a lot of tequila.  Before you knew it, I had a cape and a hat with these stupid furry balls on it, and I was running for my life from a ton of mean steam-snortin’ mammals.

Tom: Nice!  How is previsualization usually done? Is it important?

Andrew: I think that previsualization is becoming more and more important in all aspects of the computer graphics area — from movies and TV to web and game development.  In fact, I think that it has trickled down from movies and TV commercials as a descendant of storyboarding.  While storyboarding has been accepted for a long time in those areas, it’s taken a while for that to seep into games.  As games have become more cinematic and more complicated, there has developed a need to use devices like storyboarding to express what is happening — for both the creators and the producers of the content.

While I was at LucasArts, the majority of the artwork was conceptualizing what was going to go in the game… the character’s look .. the appearance of the environment.  A lot of the timing was in the script of the game and worked out as a trial-by-error function.  Not really previsualized or even storyboarded that much.  To be fair, I believe that there was not even a lot or any previz going on at movie studios at the time.

Then with digital tools, people started to cut apart storyboards and have them become digital visualizations of the action in the moive or commercial or game.  As movie studios like ILM started using previz more, they went from cut-up storyboards (animatics) to rough 3D visualizations of the movie/commercial/video.  The benefits are numerous. 

Before committing large resources to the project, one can save a substantial amount of time and money and also try out numerous avenues of story, and look before committing resources.  With the increase in production costs, this has become almost a standard in production rather than the rarity it was just a few years ago.

This has all trickled down to games.  As the costs, complexities, and cinematic quality of games has increased, so has the acceptance of previz.  In fact, it’s almost become a necessity with tighter production cycles.  Previz is usually done by going from script to storyboard and then converting that storyboard to a 3D re-creation.  Characters can be rough geometric shapes as can be the environment.  The important thing is to create an understandable feel for what the project will be.

If you can make a rough previz exciting, then the rest (adding materials, higher quality models, environments, lighting, audio) will just be icing on the cake.

Tom: What’s the best way to build up visual reference for environmental work?

Andrew: Photographs from the web as well as such great sources as National Geographic are my favorites.  Also, it’s good to just troll the library and bookstores for interesting material, such as the book: Dead Tech. A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow

The other key resource is using your phone’s camera anywhere.  You never know when you’ll see a grain silo or a rust covered tank that will excite your imagination.  One should also always have a sketch book/pen handy … so you can draw what you see and play with variations on a theme.

*Excerpt from Ultimate Game Design – more to follow soon!

“Minute with the Master” interview with John Kreng! #1

June 29, 10

I recently did a “Minute with the Master” interview with my buddy, John Kreng.

Here’s a quick summary of John’s bio followed by the interview:

Martial arts expert and aficionado John Kreng has been training since he was a child, earning him black belts in Tang Soo Do and Te-katana Ju-Jitsu,  These skills, along with his lifelong passion for action cinema, have led him to a dynamic career as a stuntman, fight choreographer and stunt coordinator, working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, David Carradine, Jet Li, Tsui Hark, and Yuen Cheung Yen and Roger Corman.  He also arranged and choreographed all the action for his industry peers as the Stunt Coordinator of the 2009 Stuntwomen’s Awards.   

Over 25 years of martial arts and filmmaking expertise has finally led him to write the ultimate primer, Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue, published by Cengage. The only textbook of its kind in the history of cinema, Kreng finally reveals the secrets to the true art of how action scenes are created.  The reaction to the book has led him to world acclaim, already gaining Kreng a cult following in Europe as well in his native China. 

The industry respect for this book, along with his vast knowledge and extensive work in the action film genre, recently led to an appearance on A&E’s BIOGRAPHY: STEVEN SEAGAL, where Kreng commented on the action icon’s film career.  Kreng and his book have also been featured in BLACK BELT, MA TRAINING, INSIDE KARATE, and IMPACT (UK) magazines.

Tom:  How have fighting games missed their true potential?

Master Kreng:  I feel the majority of fighting games have not changed since the 8 bit days as far as strategy and complexity.  Sadly, I feel that if you play one fighting game, you have played them all because I feel fundamentally, they are all clones of each other with only cosmetic and slight tweaks to call it their own.  Let’s be honest, there are much more similarities than differences between all fighting games.  Sure, you have different characters and techniques, but the style of play and approach to the game play is still the same and has not changed since the 8 bit days.  Sure, it’s more complex and the graphics are more detailed, but the style of play is still the same and that bores the crap out of me.  There are many more elements involved in a real fighting situation that producers and designers can extract and put into a fighting game to immerse a player that are missing in a fighting video game. 

Tom:  How does a non-fighter begin to try and understand what is behind a good fight setup or scene?

Master Kreng:  Simple.  My belief is you are only as smart as your last fight.  Take classes in different fighting arts, learn how to fight, then take fight choreography classes.  Your knowledge and experiences are what you bring to the game.  By watching most fighting games, I can tell most designers and producers do not understand the basic principles of fighting because nothing real is ever applied into a fighting game to help immerse the player into the game.  To me, it is completely fantasy-like with no real type of footing or the repercussions of real fighting.  It’s as if the creators last fight was in grade school and as adults they are reliving that experience as a fantasy because it was so long ago and far removed.  For example, in a fighting game there are no fakes thrown to draw an opponent and create openings.  Footwork and closing the gap between your opponent is not an issue.  The strategy to winning a fight is very simple and does not stress any kind of individualism or style with the player.  You also cannot visually tell the difference between a light, medium, and hard technique thrown.

Tom:  Your 3 favorite fight games and why?

Master Kreng:  I’m a retro gamer, so I will have to turn back the clock on this question.  First would be Street Fighter II on SNES.  The controls were sensitive and quick to the touch and I liked the visual aesthetics of the characters.  Each character had their own strengths and weaknesses and when you chose a certain character you had to understand them in order to win with them.  There are so many little things with that game that added up to make it so addicting for me and made it an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.  You can also say the same thing for Samurai Showdown II.  When I was working at SNK, I was an addict and played it almost daily.  Those guys knew how to make fighting games at the time.  I also thought King Of Fighters introducing the team fighting element is very original where you can pick your own set of 3 fighters to fight with.  I was never a Mortal Kombat fan.  I felt the graphics were pretty cheesy and nowhere close to being smooth, while the violence was too gratuitous.

Tom:  How can understanding how to construct a fight scene help you in other areas of staging a scene or planning a level?

Master Kreng:  Fight choreography is about constructing a fight scene that tells a story without the use of dialogue.  It’s filled with different emotions along with varying tempo and rhythms, much like a jazz riff.  Now, many people do not understand that concept and just put together a series of flashy moves.  That’s not fight choreography but being gratuitous and superficial.  If you do that the problem is you will always have to top what you just did for the next sequence and eventually you run out of ideas or techniques.  It’s a bad disease called cool-move-itis.  The techniques used for a character defines their personalities and traits, much like a pro wrestler has signature moves that differentiates themselves apart from the other wrestlers.

Tom: Favorite THQ game: Home Alone 2 or Swamp Thing?
(*Disclaimer – John and I had NOTHING to do with the development of these games …whew …)

Master Kreng:  You are bringing back too many traumatic memories of us setting up the QA helpline, Tom!  No question… without a doubt… none of these games have a thing on PIT FIGHTER… for  (drum roll sound)… Game Boy!  The Linda Blair puke green background and muddy brown images are SO REALISTIC I thought I was fighting alongside the characters!  I’ve gotta go back to therapy after this, because you brought up some buried issues that I need to resolve.  Thanks buddy.

Tom:  Six million dollar man Vs. Inframan — and the winner is?

Master Kreng:  No contest…The Super Inframan!  His skills were far more advanced than Steve Austin (not the pro wrestler).  Inframan could’ve grown to 30 stories high whenever he wanted and squashed Stevie like a cockroach!  Did you know that film critic Roger Ebert lists Inframan as one of his all time guilty pleasures?  I saw him at a book signing about 5 years ago and gave him a VCD of Inframan and his eyes lit up like he was a 5 year old kid on X-mas morning!  We’re all geeks at heart.  So don’t be ashamed of it, embrace it, and make it work for you by following your bliss in life!

Sweet.  Thanks very much, Master Kreng! (He hates it when I call him this …)