Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2024

Space Hulk

I still have a battered copy of the second edition of Space Hulk, a £40 big box boardgame from the 1990s that now sells on ebay for around £200. Set in the grimdark sci-fi universe of Warhammer 40,000, the game is unfolds aboard huge spacecraft adrift in the depths of space as hulking power-armoured Space Marine Terminators fight off packs of ravenous aliens in tight corridors. The game draws heavily from the Alien franchise — this included the Genestealer design inspired by H.R. Giger’s iconic xenomorph as well as the tension-elevating mechanic of using of “blip” tokens to represent swarming dots on a radar screen. Although the box contains 20 Genestealer models, they are only placed on the board when within line of sight of the Terminators. Until then the tactical decisions must be made based on unknown numbers at each blip. I do love asymmetric knowledge at the game table.

When I collected the box from my parents’ house, I found some of my early attempts at miniature painting inside, probably circa 1998. In this post, I put them side by side with new examples of identical models from the box. Let’s (hopefully) see some progress.

My original attempt was actually pretty faithful to the box art, with the bright red armour of the Blood Angels chapter. With the new Blood Angel and Ultramarine I felt free to experiment, particularly as they did not need to fit in with a larger army. These older models are also a good example of my previous comments that less detail can allow greater creative interpretation. I wanted to produce much richer armour, which I built up through multiple layers of different contrast paints — successive layers were darker but increasingly watered down, and the topmost layer was mixed with a wash to change the flow properties to gather more in the recesses. The result of that layering is a pearlescent finish to their ceramite armour plates, most visible on the Ultramarine’s blue shoulder in contrast to the matte black of the Blood Angel. The lighter helmets draw attention to the faces (initially a happy accident as the red armour became a darker hue than initially intended, so I avoided the face with the final coat) as do the glowing eyes. The glazed red on the Ultramarine is more obvious but I prefer subtler object source lighting on the Blood Angel, the green just catching the raised edges of the cheeks. As a photographer, OSL is definitely something I am interested in exploring more.

Interestingly, there is no gold paint used on any of these models. The aquila on the 90s paint job is a yellow not even trying to mimic gold. The gold details on the new models have been underpainted in silver then layered with a translucent yellow and then darker washes. This approach allowed for very different tones to the warm gold of the Blood Angel (with a red brown wash) and the colder tone of the Ultramarine (using a wash of brown and blue). The plain black bases are because they are going to be replaced entirely with new ship corridor bases in the future.
Work in Progress: Terminator arms
There was failed experimentation along the way. Initially I had intended to use non-metallic skulls and a black aquila on the chest in the style of newer Blood Angels imagery. However, with the darker armour the black aquila just did not work, looking unfinished, so I abandoned it in favour of the more classic gold. That in turn made the aged bone colour of the shoulder honour badge and other skull motifs feel too weak, so I reworked them in a more stylised gold and bleached bone. Since that proved successful, the same approach was incorporated into the Ultramarine paint scheme from the start.
Again I think the original attempt was relatively faithful to the box art if a little too dark in the purple skin and too light in the blue carapace. The colours are extremely flat with very little layering beyond the bone of its claws. And shout out to those old school green bases. My first new paint job from the Space Hulk box was the middle Genestealer, which is probably closer to how I have always pictured them. Saturated skintones in unusual hues are great for aliens. Continuing my previous comments about seeking varied skintones, I found a lore-consistent approach with the inversion on the right side. When separated from their brood, Genestealers lose their colouring and shift to the traditional blue and purple appearance that aids with concealment in corridors, so some adopting a dark purple carapace with blue skin seems equally plausible. Sure, an in-universe justification for the appearance of fictional characters isn’t strictly necessary, but I enjoy that aspect of worldbuilding anyway.

Rule #32: Enjoy the miniature things

Few current readers are likely to know of Palace of the Phoenix King, one of the first websites I created at the age of around 12, dedicated to my recently discovered hobby of fantasy tabletop gaming, specifically Warhammer Fantasy Battles and its dungeon-crawling sibling, Warhammer Quest. The site took its name from the monarch of the High Elves of Ulthuan, who shared the “Phoenix” moniker I used online. Sadly, nothing remains of the site (which collated fan-created content from around the world) or its broader successor, Palace of the Phoenix.

As a teenager I became a modestly capable miniature painter, though never hugely proficient. As a hobby, it fell by the wayside when I departed for university. Several years ago, playing D&D with friends gave me an excuse to paint a few miniatures, and I still found it enjoyable to engage in a creative endeavour which resulted in something physical that I could hold. At the start of this year, I found myself returning to the painting side of the hobby in earnest, fuelled in large part by experimenting with a newer style of acrylic paints: highly pigmented but suspended in a thinner medium that pools in the recesses whilst leaving a translucent layer on the surface. Combining these with traditional acrylic layering and washes has provided some fresh creativity to old skills. I also learned some new techniques for photographing miniatures, and will share the results here.

I dug out some of my old greenskin models at my parents’ house, stripped them with isopropyl alcohol and repainted them from scratch. These old metal orcs were simple but expressive and I kept them fairly classic. When painting at this small scale, increased contrast is necessary to improve readability. However, I have never really been a fan of the Games Workshop signature style of stark edge highlights across an entire model. I much prefer the results from zenithal highlights (undercoating based on light hitting from above) or volumetric highlighting (breaking down a model into basic geometric shapes). A subconscious decision, I found myself varying the skintones across the models I have been painting even within a species like the greenskins — why should they all be an identical shade of Goblin Green? Having noticed, I now think the variety is important. I also started experimenting more with bases, beyond the flock and static grass of old, using coconut coir (crushed coconut shell fibres) for more irregular, organic ground coverage.
When visiting Downing in April for a 20-year anniversary, I may have wandered into a Warhammer store a few doors down from college and come away with a box of ogres (or “Ogors” as Games Workshop now calls them in a desire for everything to be trademarkable). I have always liked the characterful ogre models with their exaggerated proportions, and their larger size made them ideal as a first subject when learning how to photograph miniatures. The large bases also allowed me to experiment with more advanced basing materials like texture pastes, grass tufts and leaf litter.
A lot of the models I have been painting recently are the undead rather than my prior staples of elves and greenskins. I happened to have some boxes of Mantic’s skeletons and zombies that I bought several years ago (intended for D&D) as these models were more threatening and considerably better priced than their more cartoonish Games Workshop equivalents. These are some of the first models I painted this year and there is some noticeably chalky texturing that is far smoother in later models. The coconut coir is on full display here, though I am tempted to rebase them: the zombies rising from mud and the skeletons on dungeon flagstones.
Given my love for Warhammer Quest, I had to pick up the recently released Cursed City. For infamously overpriced Warhammer products, the 60 models in the £100 box were surprisingly good value. Comparing these to the models above provides a stark demonstration of the “detail creep” in modern miniatures, accelerated by computer-aided design. I was not initially a fan of the Deadwalker Zombies which felt overdesigned with their coffin lids and headstones on their backs; that was until I realised that the inhabitants of the vampire-influenced cursed city of Ulfenheim must have been impaling corpses after burying them in order to prevent them from turning, only for the dead to be raised as zombies instead. That storytelling through visual design won me over and these are now some of my favourites pieces to date, even if the level of detail provided less room for interpretation through painting. I have also tried to tie the models to their bases through weathering (like the muddied hems of dresses).

There will definitely be more from the Cursed City box to share in the future. Next time, however, my revamped models from the 1996 edition of the Space Hulk board game.

Unplayer One: Prince of Persia (2008)

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

In 2008 the storied action-platformer series Prince of Persia was rebooted with, to my mind, its best entry — a sadly underappreciated gem that was unceremoniously rebooted almost immediately for a cash-grab tie-in with the now-forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal movie. Unlike many 3D games from the era, Prince of Persia’s cell-shaded art style provides visuals that hold up 15 years later, and its vibrant colour palette looks exquisite on modern OLED displays like the Steam Deck I used to replay it.

Set in the disintegrating ruins of a desert city, the Prince is a scoundrel who finds himself dragged into Princess Elika’s battle to prevent a great evil breaking free from a thousand years of captivity. Ahriman’s evil power has infected the land, visually desaturating it, with his corrupted lieutenants each guarding four regions connected by a desert temple. The semi-open world allows players to choose the order in which they tackle accessible areas. In each location players locate a “fertile ground” which Elika’s magic can heal, restoring life and colour, and populating the space with the collectable orbs of power that enable progression. Healing all fertile grounds in a region grants access to the lieutenant’s tower for a showdown.

Unusually the Prince begins the game with the four combat skills he will use throughout the game, mapped to the controller’s four face buttons. Player progression is instead by way of Elika unlocking the ability to interact with various magical plates embedded throughout the world, allowing the pair to access new areas whilst free-running — the joy of traversal is the game’s strength.

Elika’s ability to catch the Prince whenever he falls was derided by some as too much of a concession to casual players. Yet, by returning the player to the last stable ground, the game still forces you to complete each platforming challenge — as they increase in length these can become memory tests, particularly when an unruly camera obscures what lies ahead. Meanwhile combat variety comes from learning the corresponding move to negate certain enemy defensive stances with variety added through environmental hazards into which the Prince can lure enemies. It may lack depth but it is sufficiently engaging for a dozen hours.

Having a companion throughout the entire game, it is vital that Elika and the Prince banter believably. He quips like Spider-Man but she is unconvinced, perceiving the depth he hides behind shallowness. There is an attraction but they are evenly matched. Each time Elika heals a fertile ground, it is clear that the act is exhausting. Usually the Prince helps her up. When he does not, she notices; sometimes she avoids his hand. Their relationship develops in bursts and feels organic.

“You had to pick this religion? You couldn’t have picked one where all the evil creatures were, I don’t know… slightly angry sheep?”

The Prince

After defeating Ahriman’s lieutenants, we return to the desert temple to find Elika’s father possessed by Ahriman. Following a prolonged battle, her final act of restoration is to rejuvenate the trees that had imprisoned Ahriman. Depleted, she callapses, and as the Prince carries her lifeless body the credits begin to roll. He lays her down on an altar before the temple (an image that may seem familiar to those who played 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus). A vision of Elika’s father flashes and we realise he too sought only to save his daughter. At this point, the game returns control and gives you no direct prompt, although the newly restored trees glow invitingly. The player could turn off the game, the Prince presumably retreating back into the desert a changed man. But those trees are an innate lure, silently encouraging us to to approach and do The Wrong Thing.

One by one, we cut them down restoring life to Elika but releasing Ahriman in the process. “Why?” she asks as we pick her up. It turns out that we — the Prince — are just as selfish as Elika’s father in our determination for a good ending. A similar act would not have the same weight in another medium: only in a game are we actively choosing to unravel all the progress we made over the past 15-odd hours of healing the land, all to save one person. The game ended abruptly here, although downloadable content added a further sequence in which the pair hunt down and defeat Ahriman, frustrating players that this ending was locked behind a paywall.

Yet I rather prefer the original ending. It may not be triumphant or cathartic, but its surprising nihilism feels more meaningful. Not everyone gets to be a hero.

“The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. Unaware of the world around it. Whirling on the breath of the Gods, at the mercy of the storm that engulfs it. What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?”

Narrator

2023: A Year in Film

Continuing from last year, I am again composing a top ten list of films (a week later than intended). Some readers will know that I have reduced my day job to four days a week, which has given me more time to watch and review films this year. That led to a considerable increase with 114 new QuickViews this year, of which 64 were new releases in the UK (that is the qualifying criterion for this list, although QuickViews identify films by year of first release worldwide). There are a few omissions, most notably Killers of the Flower Moon, but at almost three and a half hours long it is clear that Scorcese no longer cares whether people see his films in the cinema rather than streaming — and if he doesn’t care, why should I? Other potential contenders which I have yet to see include Fallen Leaves, R.M.N., and Godzilla Minus One. Last year compiling the list was straightforward: it consisted of all the films I had rated 9 or 10, with a single 8 in the #10 spot. 2023 has seen a noticeable decline in quality at the top end, in part due to various releases being delayed to 2024 as a result of the strikes in Hollywood. However, the overall average has remained at 6.8, suggesting a general tendency toward the middle. The year’s worst was body switching catastrophe Family Switch, followed closely by Rebel Moon, Luther: Fallen Son, Mindcage and Ghosted. That gives Netflix an ignominious three spots in the bottom five as its content quality continues to flounder in favour of quantity.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This year’s list is again dominated by writer-directors, that level of control tending to allow the most auteur creativity. If I were to identify a single theme running through most of this year’s list, it would ambiguity, in both truth and relationships.

10. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Although I was aware of Nan Goldin as a photographer, I was not familiar with her work going into this documentary. Whilst documentaries about artists can provide important background to understand the individual, it is rare that they provide a fresh lens through which to view their art. Laura Poitras achieves this by exploring Goldin’s childhood and her embrace of the LGBT community and sex workers in response to it, all which informed her photographic series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. By contrast the coverage of her protest activism against the Sackler family becomes repetitive even though it was the film’s primary selling point. This is a documentary for the art lover, not the protester.

9. The Creator

I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ latest sci-fi excursion more than most, primarily for its world-building. It is always a delight to experience a well-realised new sci-fi world and Edwards’ eye for grounded visual detail is always sublime. Stories about AI uprisings are nothing new but — by comparison with Zack Snyder’s mere sci-fi pastiche of other works in Rebel Moon — Edwards provides novel context through humanity’s politically divided approach, the looming physical presence of the West’s orbital strike platform a colonial threat of violence to enforce their view on eradication of AI. The Creator was undermined by its clumsy, exposition-laden script, but its world will stay with me.

8. Return to Seoul

Having just reviewed it, I don’t have a great deal to add about Davy Chou’s film about an adoptee’s search for identity in the country of her birth. Notably this was Park Ji-min’s first acting role — in some ways that may have benefited the performance in Freddie’s disconnection with the culture and people of Korea. The result is raw and effective without the artificiality that can come from an overly considered performance that seeks to evoke a specific reaction from the viewer.

7. How To Have Sex

This is truly a breakout year for Molly Manning Walker with her excellent directorial debut alongside being the cinematographer on the well-received Scrapper. Her own film is really how not to have sex — a coming-of-age, loss-of-virginity story that stands apart through its female perspective. It allows the viewer to understand why Tara’s insecurity manifests in passivity, and how that leads to bad outcomes. How To Have Sex should be a breakout role for Mia McKenna Bruce too, her performance wordlessly communicating vulnerability and shame.

6. Oppenheimer

“Barbenheimer” was the year’s biggest (and most unexpected) mainstream cinematic event — the kind of viral concept that could only arise organically, much as marketers spent the rest of the year trying to find the next one (I don’t think many people did “Saw Patrol”). I enjoyed Barbie but found Oppenheimer to be cinematically superior, though it was not without issues — primarily its structure, which made its last hour feel repetitive and overlong. However, it also demonstrated the kind of creative flourishes that make Nolan’s work stand apart, like the disconcerting drumming roar that seemed to envelop Oppenheimer’s concerns about The Manhatten Project, a sound that is only later revealed to be the stamping of feet as Americans celebrate the successful test. Oppenheimer is suitably haunting about the danger of destructive invention, even if I wish it had been more direct in dismantling American propaganda about the need for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

Some of the best French films of late reveal an obsession with the idea of uncertainty over past events, demonstrated by The Accusation, The Night of the 12th, and now Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s script is the most meticulous of the three: it is half investigation, half courtroom drama, unfolding largely from the perspective of the accused, but without providing the audience with a definitive sense of her innocence or guilt. It directly addresses the unreliability of witness evidence through the changing story of her son. As our understanding of memory advances, this is becoming an increasing issue within the legal system in general.

4. Tár

Todd Field’s third feature-length film — his first in 15 years after a string of unrealised projects — is a magnificent examination of power and its abuse. I still find its “cancel culture” labelling to be reductive, since it tackles identity as well as the conflict between power and public perception. Cate Blanchet is on top form as the embattled conductor Lydia Tár (a very different performance to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein). Field also deliberately distances his film from the #MeToo movement by making both perpetrator and victim women, though Lydia is undoubtedly coded with sterotypically masculine characteristics.

3. Close

Lukas Dhont’s second feature might be the year’s most heartbreaking. Newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are as impressive as Frankie Corio in last year’s #1, with no awkwardness to their warm and tactile friendship. It is peers rather than parents who disrupt their relationship and I defy viewers not to be moved by Dambrine’s wide-eyed looks of guilt. Its rural vistas are beautiful, but it is the simplicity and focus of Close — free of extraneous sublots — that renders what is on screen so memorable.

2. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-verse

As the relentless superhero movie juggernaut of the past 15 years continues to collapse, Across The Spider-verse serves as a reminder to studios that audiences are still excited by artistic creativity and human storytelling. Into The Spider-verse featured a loose animation style that deliberately broke rules, like animating Miles with half the number of keyframes than his spider-brethren, creating a barely perceptible sluggishness until he comes into his own in the climax. Across The Spider-verse expands this playfully with the anarchic Spider-Punk, who appears to be cut out from print and with stilted animation on every third frame leaving him deliberately out of sync with the rest of the characters. I mention this as just one example of the attention to detail that is crammed into this joyous work of art which might not be registered consciously but which elevate its impact. Across The Spider-verse was not just the best animated or superhero movie of the year, but one of the year’s very best films.

1. Past Lives

Like last year, the standout by some margin is a debut from a female writer-director. Celine Song’s Past Lives is an inversion of Return to Seoul, a woman who was similarly plucked out of Korea as a child but finds her past catching up with her in New York rather than travelling back to Korea. If Aftersun captured the sense of a fading memory, Past Lives captures the longing for a moment which never occurred. I said at the time that “Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised”, a haunting, heady concoction that I have not tasted so potently distilled in the two decades since In The Mood For Love.

"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2024 Priyan Meewella

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