Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Bomarzo, Monster Park II: Kodak Ektachrome

"Rah! I'm a monstah!"

Last month I went off to Bomarzo in Italy to see the Parco dei Mostri, an attractive park dotted with monstrous stone sculptures created in the late 1500s. I took along my Fujica Half half-frame camera and some Kodak Pro Image film, and also some Kodak Ektachrome that expired a long time ago.

Bomarzo is an awkward day trip from Rome but entirely doable by public transport. I have done it myself, and now I can look myself in the mirror and say "I know de way", like Ugandan Knuckles. Do you remember Ugandan Knuckles? All the way back in January 2018 it became fashionable amongst young people to gatecrash a set of virtual communities with an avatar that resembled Sega's popular Knuckles character, but deformed, while delivering quotations from Who Killed Captain Alex?, a low-budget Ugandan action film. Thus Ugandan Knuckles. The fad flourished briefly in the first month of 2018. Two months later I almost feel nostalgic for it.

Uganda has a surprisingly productive albeit underfunded film industry, which seems to have embraced the audience participation elements of Rocky Horror and DJ toasting etcetera. Ugandan film-makers don't have access to much money, so inevitably they major in exploitation films, violent action and horror, and what's wrong with that? I grew up watching violent action and horror films on videotape, especially if they had nudity, such as for example The Howling or Lifeforce, and there's nothing wrong with me.

The mouth has a surprisingly big table inside. I changed film on the table.

Sadly the Ugandan government isn't keen on the other thing and has funded an anti-pornography committee to the tune of half a million dollars, which is probably more money than the total budget of all Ugandan films made in any given year. I learn that the Ugandan government has spent almost ninety thousand dollars importing a pornography detection machine from South Korea, which is ridiculous given that teenage boys will eagerly do the job for free.

As a consequence of this Uganda is badly underrepresented on Pornhub, indeed half of Pornhub's returns for "uganda" are actually Ugandan Knuckles uploads, which aren't even porn. I maintain that it's not government initiatives that bring people of different creeds, colours, and religions together, it is instead pornography and drugs and rock and roll and Counter-Strike and so forth. "We are two of soul".

The mainstream media was convinced that Ugandan Knuckles was bad because it was racist, and so if I do decide to look myself in the mirror and say "I know de way" I will make sure that no-one is watching me. History will look back at a time when Western society decided to ban a cartoon frog and wonder what went wrong.

After visiting Bomarzo, which I have described already and I'm not going to do it again, I returned to Rome, but the light was fading. There are continual rumours that what remains of Kodak is going to reintroduce Ektachrome - the company discontinued its entire slide film range several years ago, leaving Fuji as the world's sole remaining manufacturer of slide film - but I'll believe it when I see it and I won't rejoice all that much. Ektachrome itself was okay, essentially a budget alternative to Kodachrome that was easier to develop. When it was a thing it was often criticised for being a bit flat and pale, and when Fuji inroduced the dense, hypersaturated Velvia in 1990 landscape and advertising photographers switched to that instead. Kodak attempted to compete with "high saturation" versions of Ektachrome but it was too little, too late, and of course it was ultimately for nothing because the problem facing Kodak wasn't weak slide film, the end

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Running Unreal Tournament 1999 on Windows 10

A while back I had a look at The Long Dark, a fascinating survival game that takes place in the snowy wilderness of Canada. You are a man, or a woman - sadly the game others transfolk - trapped in Canada after the electricity has failed. The temperature is minus twenty degrees centigrade and the wolves are very hungry.

I played the game during a cold winter here in the UK but I never thought I would experience it for real. However over the last month Britain has been devastated by almost three inches of snow on two separate occasions, with temperatures in the south of the country dipping as low as minus figures. The north has been affected as well, but they're used to it.

Conditions have been so bad that I had to go out to the shops on several occasions to buy some food. Indoors I began to suffer from cabin fever until it dawned on me that I have a television and the internet and a computer and indeed everything that I normally have.

In The Long Dark you can only pass time by sleeping or playing cards with yourself, but I have Unreal Tournament 1999. Or rather, I used to have Unreal Tournament 1999.

Everybody remembers CTF-Face, "Facing Worlds". The modelling is minimalistic but the scale is impressive and it's great fun. The music probably did more to introduce the US audience to drum'n'bass than anything else. Unreal Tournament dates from a time when computer games depicted women as fantasy sex objects; how times have changed.

In the nineteen years since I bought the game I seem to have mislaid the discs. Back then there was an arch-rivalry between the two leading first person shooters. In the blue corner was Id Software's Quake, which was fast-paced, uncomplicated, action-packed, but visually very drab. In the left corner Unreal, which was a visual and aural feast but boring to play.

Unreal was an awkward mess, with some clever ideas and a few memorable setpieces marred by a perfunctory storyline and gameplay that mostly consisted of running around large empty maps for ages shooting one or two baddies every few minutes. At the time I remember thinking that it was a great demonstration of the underlying game engine but not a great game, and indeed the Unreal engine is still very successful today, and has essentially outlasted the Unreal franchise.

The music was actually written by Michiel van den Bos. I've always assumed that Unreal's use of Soundtracker / MOD / Demoscene musicians was just a cost-saving measure - other games had "real" music - but the soundtrack remains one of the game's most memorable features.

As a single-player game Quake also had problems, but it was a huge success as a multiplayer title. The compact levels and uncomplicated gameplay lent themselves to quick bursts of action, and it seemed for a while that single-player games were old fashioned and that multiplayer games were the future. Quake and Unreal both had multiplayer sequels; Quake III Arena was extremely popular at the time, but I greatly preferred Unreal Tournament. It had masses of diverse levels, plus bot AI that felt more natural than the cursor-tracking-through-walls bots of Quake III.

I mention bots because I have never, to this day, played either of those games against other human beings. Back in 1999 I didn't have broadband internet, in fact very few people did, and I wasn't prepared to drive my tower PC across north London to attend a LAN party. Furthermore there was no way a contemporary laptop - affordable or otherwise - could play either game at a decent speed. Nonetheless UT was and remains an entertaining single-player experience, which is good given that there are very few servers around today.

What happened to Unreal? The single-player, story-driven Unreal begat an unimpressive sequel in 2003 and then died off. Unreal Tournament however remained popular for a few years after that, but faded away after the third instalment in 2007. The problem is that old-fashioned arena-style "twitch" shooters fell out of fashion - the Quake franchise also died off, at roughly the same time - and at the risk of opening a massive can of worms I have always assumed that games consoles had something to do with it, not least because publisher Epic Megagames seemed to give up on Unreal after the success of XBox cover shooter Gears of War.

In the 2000s games consoles achieved rough technical parity with PCs, to a point where games were often developed for the console first and then ported to PCs, which irritated PC gamers who suddenly found that their beloved PC originals (notably Deus Ex) had become streamlined and cut-down despite running on PC hardware. Furthermore console controllers were never any good for first-person shooters, and the big console FPSes were generally very linear. When I was young no-one spoke of games in terms of the hours spent to complete them. The thought of a game having a "twenty-hour campaign" made no sense - you could play Civilization for as long as you wanted. But console games tended to have very linear campaigns, with replayability encouraged not by the chance to explore new parts of the game, but instead by the chance to tick a few virtual boxes and unlock a special player skin.

Meanwhile the multiplayer components were aimed at ordinary, casual people who were not prepared to dedicate their entire waking lives to perfecting their mouse aiming skills and learning the optimal track to take through certain levels. Casual gamers. Filthy casuals. People who play games purely for entertainment. Eww.

I pity those people. As I sit here in 2018 freezing and alone in a damp-ridden bedsit, diabetes long having taken my ability to sustain an erection, my threadbare pyjamas exuding the ammonia smell of urine, I can console myself with the knowledge that I know CTF-Niven back to front. Unlike those saddoes who only play games for fun. They wasted their lives having fun and building relationships and learning useful skills; I invested my time wisely by studying CTF-Niven in UnrealEd so that I knew exactly where everything was, and by training myself to use the shock rifle's alternate fire consistently.

Still, after going through all of my old CD/DVD wallets and dismantling all the cardboard boxes and chairs in my house - I ended up with lots of tinder and reclaimed wood, and I found a rifle bullet underneath one of the boxes - I eventually gave up and bought the game again from Steam, for £5.99, two pounds cheaper than from Good Old Games. I imagine it's freely available via Bittorrent. £5.99 is a small price to pay to take my mind off the thought that the only people with whom I have regular social contact are the employees at McDonalds.

The ones behind the collection counter, not the tills; I use the self-service checkouts, because that way I don't have to interact with anybody. Diabetic people eventually start bleeding in the eyes, and they go blind and their feet rot off. I console myself with the thought that if I die my body will not go undiscovered; the people in the bedsit beneath me will smell my rotting flesh through the hole in the corner of the toilet area, besides which the next rent payment will fail anyway because I have spent so much money on computer games.

The Actual Point of the Blog Post
But anyway. Back in 1999 my PC ran Windows 98 SE, with an overclocked 32-bit single-core Celeron 300A, 512mb of memory, and a 3DFX Voodoo Banshee that used the Glide API. Probably at 800x600, or perhaps 1024x768 on a 4:3 15" monitor. Even back then I had given up hope of losing my virginity; neither a sustained relationship nor a random fling were ever going to happen, and I had neither the guts nor the money to pay for it. The Glide API is long-dead, as is 3DFX, but UT supports OpenGL and Direct3D as well. And software rendering! Which doesn't work.

Nowadays however my PC runs Windows 10, with a 64-bit quad-core i5-2500K, 8gb of memory, and a GTX 750. It says something about how times have changed that I don't bother listing CPU clock speeds. No-one cares about clock speeds any more. UT still works today, but at least when bought from Steam it requires a bit of tweaking, although surprisingly it doesn't seem to have a problem working on one monitor of a multi-monitor setup.

Firstly resolution. The game was made when 1600x1200 was extraordinary, and the main menu doesn't go up to 1920x1080. Pop open your UT directory, which is in Steam\steamapps\common\Unreal Tournament\System, but can more easily be reached from Steam by right-clicking on UT, selecting Properties - Local Files - Browse Local Files:

Now scroll down to UnrealTournament.ini and pop it open with Notepad. Say it loud, "I'm black, and I'm proud", and scroll down to the WinDrc.WindowsClient section, and change the FullscreenViewportX and FullscreenViewportY values to your native desktop resolution. In this example I have also changed WindowedViewportX and Y so that it runs in a full-screen-sized window:

Save the file and pop open User.ini. Scroll down to the Engine.PlayerPawn section and find the lines that say DesiredFOV and DefaultFOV. Off the top of my head they default to something like 90. Change it to 95, or 100, accepting that the weapon models might look odd. The reason for this is that UT was built for 4:3 monitors and looks zoomed-in with widescreen displays.

You can go mad with this setting. A value of 170 makes the game look like a defished fisheye image, which doesn't change the fact that you will not be saved by the Holy Ghost, or by the god Plutonium, in fact you will not be saved:

For comparison, a shot I took in the Vatican museum earlier in the year with a fisheye lens, defished.

There's something else. I find it more comfortable to run Windows 10 with a higher desktop scaling factor so that I can lean back a bit:

As you can see I have the desktop scaled to 125% normal size. UT gets confused by this and cuts off the right-and-bottom edges of its display. Pop open the UT folder again and find UnrealTournament.exe. Right-click it and select Properties - Compatibility, and tick the box that currently says "Override high DPI scaling behaviour", with scaling performed by the application:

At this point UT works. Or should work. Are there high-resolution texture packs? Probably, but I can't be bothered; I don't play UT to look at decals. You might want to go to UT's preferences window and tick font size - double:

And that's it. You can now play Unreal Tournament 1999. I'll probably pop it open and play it for an hour and then never again. Nineteen years further on I will look back at this blog post. The images will be broken; the text will only be available via an archive. I will be unable to comprehend the words, or recognise that my former self wrote them. I will reach out my hand to the screen and then violently throw it away, knocking my soup onto the floor, and when the care assistant returns she will be very upset. She will turn the computer off.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8

As a kid I remember being very disappointed with fantasy fiction. The possibilities were endless, and yet the books were all the same. For a genre born of the imagination the works of Terry Brooks and the Dragonlance series etc seemed surprisingly unimaginative. They were essentially soap operas with elves and paladins, and in the latter case Mormonism.

If the Dragonlance books had made a point of contrasting the arbitrary nature of fantasy fiction with the supposedly God-created tenets of organised religion they might have been edgy, but in practice the Mormonism was just a worldbuilding shortcut. Dragonlance wasn't even part of a sinister plot to brainwash people into becoming Mormons, it was just a Dungeons and Dragons project published because, in the words of Wikipedia, "[TSR's] marketing department felt they had enough dungeons, but not enough dragons."

As I grew older I realised that the situation was more complicated than it seemed. The world had no shortage of imaginative fantasy fiction, it's just that the local libraries and bookshops didn't stock it in the Fantasy section, they stocked it in the Fiction section under M for Gabriel García Márquez and E for Umberto Eco and C for Angela Carter and [insert more examples here; just google "magical realist top authors nobel" or something - ed].

Upper-case-F Fantasy fiction was part of a genre, constrained by convention just as Detective fiction and Star Trek tie-in novels were constrained; in contrast genuinely imaginative, grown-up fantasy fiction was just fiction, because it was free. Aren't italics wonderful? When I use them, I sound like an intellectual, as if I was having a conversation with you in a relatively quiet coffee shop. Every time I use italics imagine that I am gesturing with my hands while smoking a cigarette, and you're wondering if I'm going to drop ash into my meal or knock something off the table. In which case did I knock it off the table because I'm expressive, or was it a ploy to attract attention? And yet you are magnetically attracted to me because I am special.

"A crab with a skill for making pizza turns to his pizza-making coworker Taylor, but drops a tray of oversized party pizza, shattering his brittle legs"

Genre fiction has always been subject to a form of ghettoisation whereby anything that attracts favourable reviews by mainstream critics is no longer genre fiction, even if it is; instead it becomes allegory or surrealism or a phrase that hasn't caught on yet. Thus for a very brief period in the 1990s Anne Rice was not a fantasy author, or even a horror author, she was instead a credible mainstream novelist and people took her seriously, boop the snoot pitter-patter negative triangulation going to have a look at the Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8 because someone has to. A short look because it's an awkward lens.

The colours benefit from post-processing.

What is the Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8? It's a constant-aperture manual focus telephoto zoom lens from the mid-late 1970s stroke early 1980s. As with all Vivitar lenses it's a rebranded import; the original was made in Japan by Kino Precision. Vivitar sold two versions of the lens, one with separate zoom and focus controls and a later model with a single pushy-pully twisty-turny zoom/focus ring. Mine is the second model.

Physically and optically the 75-205mm f/3.8 is very similar to the Tokina-made Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1. My theory is that they were built to the same optical specification, and the only real difference is that the numbers on the nameplate are rounded differently; perhaps the Kino lens was Vivitar's Plan B in case Tokina couldn't deliver.

Vignetting wide open at 205mm and then f/8.

My 75-205mm is an Olympus OM lens, although I used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's decently sharp in the middle wide open from 75-150mm, dropping off from 150-205mm; it has oddly "gritty" colours; there's a bit of barrel distortion at 75mm and noticeable pincushion at 205mm. Although I didn't do any rigorous tests my subjective impression is that the Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8 I wrote about last year is optically slightly better, and of course much smaller. On an APS-C camera the 75-205mm would be a long 100-300mm, and I imagine it might be pretty good if you stopped down a tad but very hard to focus through an APS-C camera's viewfinder.

At least in the very middle sharpness at 205mm is decent, but marred by purple fringing which largely disappears at f/8. Not necessarily a problem given that this is essentially a fair weather outdoors lens.

The edges improve although are still far from razor-sharp, but then again I *am* shooting through a couple of miles of turbulent air, and this is a tiny crop. There's a bit of green-blue-purple CA.

The same crop as above, shot at f/8, but with CA correction and some sharpening in Photoshop. This was taken at ISO 400 with noise reduction turned right down. Let us not speak of the corners.

As was the fashion at the time the 75-205mm was sold as a quasi-macro lens. It doesn't have a special macro mode, it just focuses very closely, down to around 1:4 life-size. Just for fun here's my Mamiya C33 at the minimum focus distance, 205mm, f/11:

The 75-205mm is surprisingly sharp up close but suffers from purple fringing, and of course the depth of field is tiny, here shown at f/3.8 and then f/11:

I said awkward. It's a push-pull-twisty-turny telephoto zoom with a fairly loose focusing control. Autofocus was invented for telephoto lenses and basically killed off manual focus telephoto zooms; you can still buy manual focus prime lenses today, because they're classy, but no-one sells a manual focus telezoom any more.

For video use it's a non-starter for any number of reasons, not least because it's varifocal. Perhaps if you hanker for the desaturated, heavily vignetted, watery look of 1970s zoom lens cinematography it might work, but even then it's not zoomy enough to recreate the likes of Barry Lyndon or those lesbian vampire films with Brigitte Lahaie. Or those godawful films by Tinto Brass where he just zooms the lens in and out and cuts between shots at random. If you want to make a lesbian vampire film you'll need to get hold of a bunch of naked virgins and a castle, and that's difficult - in fact you'll have exactly the same problems that made life hard for real-life vampires.

Also fake blood. As a consequence the 75-205mm f/3.8 and its ilk are widely available cheaply on eBay and in second-hand shops across the land because no-one wants them. The 75-205mm f/3.8 was one of about half a dozen telephoto zooms sold by Vivitar with a similar specification; it appears to be less common than the others. Of course nowadays your digital SLR probably came with a decent-but-slow telephoto zoom lens and both Nikon and Canon will sell you reasonably-priced, very sharp, autofocus 70-200mm f/4 lenses with or without image stabilisation, the end. And also, yes, as a full-frame 35mm lens it will adapt for mirrorless cameras, but it would be incredibly unbalanced and I dread to think how you would hold it comfortably.