SEEN BY ANOTHER SENTIENT Bitter Lake and Beautiful World

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Bitter Lake Beautiful World

ROADSIDE ROMEO movie poster
Title: Bitter Lake
English, w/ subtitles in English, French, German
Screenplay: Shay
Cast: EZwolf, Forfaox, Rin, StoelBank (fursuit actors); Dylan Nagel, Lucy RedPanda, Shay (voice actors)
Crew: Shay (director); EZwolf (producer, editor); Fox Amoore (music)

EZwolf and Shay in association with Euroference (Aug. 2011), 41 minutes

reviewed by Dronon
©2011 Dronon

   Bitter Lake is a short film that premiered at EuroFurence in August 2011. Primarily the work of furries in the Netherlands, this 41-minute medieval drama is acted in fursuit, and is the most ambitious video project made within the fandom to date.
   Lengthy, non-book storytelling is still a pretty rare thing in the fandom. Currently, the longest rehearsed presentations are the EuroFurence pawpet shows, which can run for over two hours. Not that I’m ignoring the Funday Pawpets, whose four-hour shows have been broadcast for over 10 years—but I discount them because they specialize in ad-libbing and short sketches, rarely taking the next logical step to scripted, practiced, long-structured performances, despite years of practice. Outside of that, there’s the occasional video skit prepared for furry conventions, or the rare indy project that pops up like Xoflow Films’ 12-minute short, Raccoon Daze. Some podcasts are also getting into storytelling, like ActFur On Air’s serialized comedies. (“I will communicate with the other side!” [Everyone gasps.] “You mean… she’s going to talk to 4chan?” “I think she means the dead.”)
   So while I wouldn’t call Bitter Lake a watershed moment within the fandom, I think it’s a good sign that similar productions are possible and will hopefully follow. Shay, EZwolf, their collaborators and crew did an excellent job on (I assume) a small budget. The finished video isn’t at the level of film-festival shorts, but neither is it an amateur production. In the 23-minute ‘Behind the scenes’ bonus material (which includes some adult humor), you can see they had good camera and sound equipment, lighting, costume and set decorations, post-production software, and the dedication and enthusiasm to put it all together.
   (I should note here that I’m reviewing the European, all-region PAL release of the DVD, not the North American NTSC version that FurPlanet intends to release.)
   The back-story of Bitter Lake is that after the king of Valanor was assassinated, its four provinces vied for power and plunged the kingdom into twelve years of civil war. Now, however, the populace desires a truce, so each province has sent an envoy to negotiate on neutral ground at Bitter Lake, and little do they realize there’s another political hand at work. Saying anything more would result in spoilers, since the plot is pretty basic. Suffice it to say that things don’t turn out well for them, and that for a story with four primary characters, there’s a very high body count. And wait to the end of the credits.

Belora dan Winters

Careth Dale

Prince Arden

Colonel Raden Drraer

   In terms of production, a lot of people have been curious as to how the dialog in fursuit would be done, without sounding muffled. What they did was to pre-record the speech in English; use fursuits with articulated jaws; then lip-sync the words in each scene, adding the pre-recorded speech back in post-production. The next problem was that fursuit heads without animatronics lack facial expression. The solution to this was emotive voice acting, and what any fursuit performer knows: Clear and slightly exaggerated body language.
   Of the main voice actors, Dylan Nagel did two characters; Colonel Raden Drraer (the horned black wolf), and Careth Dale (the fox). Nagel did a really excellent job with the Colonel, while at the same time I found his voice for the fox was a little over-acted. Shay’s voice for the Prince was decent, and Lucy RedPanda’s voice for Belora had the right attitude but felt a little less polished. For the physical actors wearing the fursuits, the main four all did a really good job, with EZwolf’s performance as the Colonel being the strongest. So great work all around!
   There are some things about the production that don’t work so well. It’s important to start off strong, and the opening shadow-puppet exposition did this perfectly. But this was followed by a minute and a half of opening credits with dull visuals, which really killed the momentum; it should have been much shorter, or replaced with more interesting shots of the various characters converging on their destination. Suspension of disbelief was lost briefly with someone writing a letter on a scroll… printed with a monospaced font. (And using ‘Valanor’ as the name of the kingdom is also distracting for anyone who’s read enough Tolkien.) Then, some of the first body language we see in full-fursuit—the figure panting at night at the top of the ridge—is the weakest in the film. Not only is his physical acting rather cartoonish in comparison to the rest of the film, his panting goes on for 15 long, boring seconds until the music catches up with him.
   When I watched the film for the first time, I was with six other furries and there were points we where all wanted things to go a bit faster, even taking into account the short attention span of the otters in the audience. The opening negotiations take up one-sixth of the film, and while it sets up the four main characters and how they relate to each other, by the end of it we were impatient for something to happen, preferably violent. Curiously, when I watched the film again by myself for this review, I felt less impatient about that scene, so it may be a rather subjective experience.
   Still, there were other scenes that felt overly long. Creeping through the hut looking for Belora took a full minute. Almost two minutes of slinking through the building with the drapery. Five minutes with the bad guy monologuing at the end, with only minor interruptions. The dialog was fine, but parts of it needed to feel tighter. The same went for the swordfight—I understand that it’s hard to choreograph when your costume gives you limited vision, plus being in an enclosed space, but it lacked speed, tension and sharp edits. Still, even Hollywood has trouble pulling off a good swordfight, so don’t worry too much about that!
   The film’s screen resolution is 16:9, and the sound on the DVD is in Dolby stereo (ac3 format). When our group started to watch it, we assumed it wasn’t going to be in English, so we turned on the subtitles. Once we heard them talking, we turned them off. Then the music started getting really loud and made it hard to hear what they were saying, so we turned the subtitles back on for the rest of the film. This was while using digital sound output to my 5-speaker-plus-subwoofer system. Strangely, when I switched to analog sound output for my two little desktop speakers, the balance between music and speech was just fine. So before I wrote this review I really hated the sound balance, and now I think it might have just been my speaker setup, which is somewhat quirky.
   The English subtitles, should you choose to use them, are timed very well. However, there are a few spelling mistakes (for instance, envoices instead of envoys), and there are eight lines of dialog missing, some from mid-sentence. All the apostrophes appear as huge, crossed-out rectangles, which is really distracting, yet the apostrophes look fine in the French subtitles, which appear to be a good translation.
   Pacing issues aside, there are lots of other details to commend. Fox Amoore’s musical score adds the right feeling to each scene without being distracting. The lighting is excellent throughout, not forgetting the night shots with the fog and Belora’s eyes. Really nice locations were chosen without having to build extravagant sets, and were well-decorated. A good map of the kingdom was made. Whoever directed the photography and camera work, I liked how you framed the shots. The fursuits from Clockwork Creature Studio were top-notch, and the clothing and armor looked great. Finally there was a lot of post-production put into this, especially working the color balance to add atmosphere, both indoors and outdoors. Good DVD design.
   Overall I’d rate this a 7.2 out of 10 (up from 6.5 when my speakers made the music louder than the speech). Definitely worth a watch, if you don’t mind a simple story and a few slow scenes. I hope the group who put this together produces more work like this; it shows lots of potential and proves that live-action fursuit films are within the capability of the fandom.

   Related resources: Official web sitetrailerFNN InterviewWikifur page

Bitter Lake Beautiful World

Cover of Item 1
Title: Beautiful World
Author: Kristina Tracer
Publisher: Kristina Tracer, Jan 2011
ISBN: 1935599720
212 pp, USD $19.95
reviewed by ANTIcarrot
©2011 ANTIcarrot

   Beautiful World is a near-future story set in and about a virtual world called Irokai, and deals with the AIs who evolved there, the humans that visit via full-immersion simulators, and the former-humans who have emigrated via brain-uploading. Irokai is largely a paradise, but an expensive one. If you keep your membership fees up, great; but if you can't, the company shuts down your account. If you complain too loudly about the terms and conditions, the company shuts down your account. If either of those happens and you're an uploaded resident, the company shuts down your account, then shuts you down, then mails your stored mind to your relatives on a hard disc.
   So there's trouble in paradise, and it probably won't surprise anyone that there's a secret resistance movement hell-bent on overthrowing the evil corporate empire, and bringing some kind of democracy to Irokai, along with an end to state executions for failing to pay tax, and removing some of the draconian locks on creativity that the company imposes. With all the pieces in place, the scene is set when the resistance goes too far and seriously endangers the very world they're trying to save.
   On the good side, this is a great story, in a wholly original setting, with likable and believable characters. The details, construction and limitations of a virtual world are well told, and aspects will be instantly familiar to anyone with a technical background. The uploading process is honestly described as genuinely creepy, as we go along with one of the characters as they’re euthanized so their brain can be cut up into razor-thin slices so their neurons can be scanned. On the other hand, the last half is essentially a disaster film, and relies on some very sketchy logic once we find out the company intends to solve the problem by wiping the entire database and restoring from a two-day-old backup… committing digital genocide in the process.
   Outside of Irokai, not all humans are enthusiastic about uploading, and fears about souls are mentioned—but the author makes it crystal clear that the US government considers uploads to be people who are fully entitled to civil rights. And yet the plot flatly requires that none of the characters ever remember this! It takes most of the book to remember that anyone from outside might be able to help them. Call me a cynic, but I find that a bit of a stretch.
   I'm sure we can all think of real world corporations that do horrid or stupid things—Microsoft; Apple; Fox; Ford (yes, Ford. Google the story behind the Pinto. It's quite horrific)—but how often do these companies deliberately go out of their way to kill people? Not put lives at risk, not release products that increase the statistical likelihood of people dying, but actively break into hospitals and turn off life-support equipment. Anyone think of any examples? Yeah, neither can I. Fantastically large multinationals are usually so rich and powerful because on average they have a form of collective intelligence, and realise that breaking the law so obviously will get them into trouble.
   That issue aside, there are a few other problems. Every avatar in Irokai, without exception, is an anthro. Literally anthros. No humans, no taurs, no hybrids. Nothing else, either. There is a remarkably creative scene set in a transformation fetish bar, but for all the strange insides and surface textures, the outsides are all still animal shaped. (This might have been simply another draconian measure imposed by the company, but if it was, none of the characters complained about it.) There are a few sex scenes, which are a little superfluous. Some character motivation gets really confusing towards the end, and is never explained. And the author writes each chapter from a perspective of one of five different characters; which can get confusing.
   Overall, it's a bit of a mixed bag. However, it's free online—and it has a complex plot, which automatically puts it head and shoulders about 99.99% of everything on and FA, and 90% above everything else online. If you want to know if you'll enjoy it, James Cameron's Avatar is probably a good litmus test. If you could enjoy the fantastical and extremely well presented elements in that film, despite the paper-thin plot and cardboard cutout characters, then you'll probably find this a good read.

Bitter Lake Beautiful World

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