Category Archives: Journalism

Grave Formats

The other day I found myself in HMV while my parents visited in the run up to Christmas. As it was a festive occasion, my parents had suggested we purchase a gift, something they could enjoy wrapping and leaving under the tree for me before their return to France. Not being one to ever miss out on a present I gladly accepted and proceeded to rummage through a number of my mental ‘wish lists’ attempting to come up with something I’d like to physically obtain.

As I proceeded to leaf through the copious amount of Vinyl on offer I realised just how far HMV have evolved. December 2012 seems like a distant memory, but more tenured employees of HMV will remember the time well, as it spelt a certain end to the company. At the time, economists took great pride in appearing on news programs, telling us just how obsolete a store like HMV was in today’s marketplace. And yet, it remains. The store I was standing in, in Gateshead’s Metro Centre, had recently located to a more premier retail location and a new store, in Boston Lancashire, opens its doors in the very unit its predecessor was forced to close in March 2013.

In many respects, it’s hardly surprising that HMV has managed to remain, but commendable and worthy of praise all the same. It’s current business model meant that more high priced items like phones, electronics and games took a back seat; while shelves were recently filled with comics, collectables and even Vinyl. Having worked for the company briefly in 2009 and again in 2013, I defiantly experienced some of this change first hand. Vinyl itself presented something quite unique; as if we’d suddenly travelled back in time and embraced a format which should – by all rights – be extinct. Just as many analysts argue HMV should be.

Compact Disc has been a regular fixture in the marketplace since the late 80s, swiftly seeing off competition from Mini Disc, VHS and even Laserdisc; they even buried Vinyl considerably in an episode of Tomorrow’s World recorded around 1992. Whereas a lot of music fans have embraced the digital revolution a decade ago, retailers are limited in their selections, admitting that embracing MP3’s and Spotify subscriptions would leave them out of a job. So CD has found a bizarre and unchallenged equilibrium; until the return of Vinyl. Asides from their popularity with collectors, their physical appeal, their openness to customisation (who doesn’t love a good picture disc?) there’s also an exceptionally unique quality to Vinyl which makes it a more attractive proposition for retailers; it’s practically impossible to steal.

Consider for a moment walking into a store on a cold Christmas day and shoving a cassette tape into your pocket. Even a CD would fit snuggly into an inside pocket without much effort. Vinyl, on the other hand, presents twelve inches of self-resistance to petty theft; for both customers and staff alike, making it the perfect product. In 2017 HMV predicted its most successful year of Vinyl sales in almost 20, thanks in part to the efforts of mainstream artists like Ed Sheeran and Noel Gallagher embracing the format, with UK sales for that year topping four million.

In 2018 this trend continues, with the average purchase of Vinyl made by a consumer younger than those purchasing CDs, according to information from the website Kantar. According to their estimates, the overall value of the vinyl market in the UK for the latest quarter (in the 12 weeks to 1 July) was £25 million. 420,000 people bought a vinyl record in this period, up by 6.6% vs. Q1 (that is, the 12 weeks to 1 April). And this is despite the evident proof that not all collectors of Vinyl have the means to play them.

What might be even more remarkable is that this trend has led to a number of other ‘Grave Formats’ returning to the fold. Swedish band Ghost released their latest album ‘Prequelle’ as well as their live compilation ‘Ceremony and Devotion’ on Vinyl, but perhaps more surprising is their choice to release it on 8 Track Cassette. Although a limited release, initially available through the bands website and the result of Spotify giveaways, their operations are not unique to just cult bands – with Metallica remastering their classic ‘And Justice for All’ album and releasing a special cassette version; which is available to purchase through Amazon and was also stocked in HMV alongside a Nirvana cassette release earlier this year.

The introduction of the cassette tape by Philips in 1963 would lead to it becoming one of the most influential ways people consume music for over 30 years, and yet, it was somewhat ironically never intended never to rival the audio quality of the existing larger tape formats. Once Sony released a portable cassette player called the Walkman in 1979, such anti-taping arguments were more or less dismissed by the general public. Complete with portable headphones, the Walkman encouraged a generation of music fans to take their sounds with them wherever they went, and the advent of the boom box, which featured dual cassette decks, provided portability and seemingly encouraged music duplication through its design. By 1983 it was cassettes which outsold Vinyl.

And yet, as I made my selection that evening in HMV, my father looked on slightly baffled as to why – at 63 – it was his 33-year-old son who was purchasing albums on Vinyl, Cassette and 8 Track in 2018. Everything it would seem, has its place.

WWF/WWE Smackdown! – PlayStation One

WWF Smackdown!
PlayStation One

WWF Smackdown was a revelation. Now referred to as the grandfather of modern wrestling video games, its arrival in early 2000 changed the way we played these kinds of titles, as well as pushing the boundaries’ of what the Sony PlayStation could do. Developed by Yuke’s and published in a collaboration between the developers and THQ, Smackdown (also called Exciting Pro Wrestling in Japan) was based on the World Wrestling Federation and named after the companies Smackdown! Television program.

Retrospectively, it’s the little things that debuted in Smackdown which make the difference, such as the introduction of a more comprehensive Create a Wrestler and Season Mode which give replay long past it’s standard versus matches. You can, of course, have a lot of fun with a multi tap, some controllers and several friends yelling in your ear as The Undertaker Tombstones Stone Cold onto the canvass; but the real longevity in Smackdown is present in its Season Mode.

Pre-Season makes little sense, though allows you to shape your character, decide who he will align with and what he will say. After that you’re just replaying Season after Season (and this can easily go on for 100 years if you want). The absence of commentary makes this feel like a quieter game than virtually every other wrestling title, whereas its often humorous to see wrestlers (dressed in full stage gear) talking with no sound while their mouths move in bizarre cut scenes. Just why was Ken Shamrock casually walking from the Boiler Room like that, and what made Al Snow so angry; we may never know.

Choosing a wrestler, or creating your own, you fight for gold and glory; taking on the likes of Val Venis, D Lo Brown, Mark Henry, The Hardy Boys and even The Godfather. The plethora of mid card wrestlers is fantastic, and should you choose to play as Paul Bearer (for example), there’s something slightly amusing about watching him handing it to The Rock. Unlockable characters are always a big part of wrestling titles and Smackdown is, unfortunately, a little of an exception in that respect.

You do manage to get some unlockable characters, however, they come in segments; meaning that they avoid the legal complexities of actually featuring within the game, the player must choose to mould them together. This was a particularly useful tool, in retrospect, as it does let me legitimately create ‘Naked Mideon’ for his first and only (unofficial) appearance in a video game. Dennis Knight would be proud.

Graphically, this title has aged well, with the character designs looking less jagged and jaded than Attitude before it and Backstage Assault after it. Wrestling historians, however, will argue that the lack of more modern canvass and design coupled with a very dated costumes for some wrestlers (at the time of release, The Undertaker had been absent from programming from several months and would return in his Biker persona quite soon afterward) mean it was already aged before release.

It’s perhaps not surprising that, with a considerable roster improvement and updated content, the games sequel Smackdown 2 was released just eight months after its predecessor. Normally games need time to flourish, to expand, even (in 2018) add some additional digital content to correct the costume changes and thus expand the life of the title – but Smackdown was a rare example of where THQ acknowledged their successes and their criticisms in equal measure and then worked overtime to do something about it.

The X Files – PlayStation One

The X-Files (PlayStation, 1999)

I remember it well. Christmas 1999 and my grandmother had just come to visit our family in the new house. But I was a broody teenager and a couch moved into my bedroom meant I had the perfect setup to park myself up in the Parker Knowles (it wasn’t a Parker Knowles) and play the Christmas present I’d been dreaming about all month. Nostalgically looking back it’s amusing that The X-Files for PlayStation was released in January 1999, and yet it would be December before I’d manage to get my hands on it, those being the pre Internet age in my house and also with me being a huge X-Files fan.

In fact, I can distinctively remember (probably due to the setting of the game being somewhere in Spring 1996, or Season 3; that its first release on PC in late 1998 was a full two years after the events of the game had transpired. Looking back, and knowing how fast technology moves, it’s unlikely such things would ever be tolerated again. But I digress.

The X-Files also had one other huge distinction on PlayStation, something which made it rather unique, even more so in the European market. It’s use of full motion video technology (called Virtual Cinema) resulted in a “game” which is actually a large number of cut scenes, interspliced with decisions that a player can make to move the game in a certain direction. Some decisions, such as whether you want to give some loose change to a toddler seeking a gumball, are wholly optionally and only occur if you do a certain set of things in a specific order; most, on the other hand, follow the standard point and click type regime which we’ve come to know and love.

You play as Agent Craig Wilmore, FBI’s finest, stationed at their Seattle Field Office. You’re quickly recruited by your superior to report on a case of two missing Washington agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and quickly realise that this means you’re unlikely to meet them until the climax of the game. But life is a journey, not a finish line, so it’s Agent Wilmore’s investigation and cunning which lead you through an incredible four (that’s right, four) PlayStation discs. Unfortunately, this is where the game dips somewhat again, as four discs would normally mean hours of content and I ended finishing my first play through in a record three hours.

There’s not a massive replay element, although there are different paths you can take and relationships you can change, but ultimately the ending (the real ending) remains the same. Suffice to say that for such a successful program it’s unlikely as to whether the game would end with you having just killed Dana Scully and facing murder charges at a correctional facility. One particular Easter Egg is that an in game death leads to the revelation you are being watched by the cigarette smoking man; this is his sole appearance in the game and entirely optional.

Each disc contains an extended interaction with at least one supporting character from the franchise though, with AD Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) performing due diligence in the first disc. Of course, each will come up with a convenient excuse as to why they’re suddenly called away or not able to join you in person (see Lone Gunmen), meaning it’s unlikely the whole cast show up at a special birthday surprise for Wilmore organised by his estranged ex-wife. With that said, the technology present that made it popular to play as your favourite characters of the show, really impressed me at the time – and because of the video graphics being more aesthetically pleasing than the 3D sprites of some earlier PS1 titles, the game hasn’t aged all that badly.

Looking into the history of the game I’m surprised to see its production cost almost $6 million and last for four years, though that would explain a lot, even if it was filmed completely on Digital Betacam. Displayed at E3 in June 96 it was listed as having a release date the year after, but subsequently ended up taking considerably longer for the finished product to be released – and even longer for a PlayStation port.

That said, if you do get the game on PlayStation, it often gives a rare chance of using the PlayStation Mouse; the game is a real example – which people forget now – of how games like Discworld and Myst where once considered commonplace on the platform as a competitor to Sega Saturn and PC. Though, unlike Discworld and Myst, X-Files was too late to be considered for a Sega Saturn port (something that wouldn’t have worked, truthfully) though a Nightrap esque game on Sega Mega CD might have been curious. It shows you just how behind this game was.

That Christmas I played The X-Files to my heart’s content, a cherished Christmas gift I remember with fondness even now, from a time when that one present was enough to illuminate the broodiest of teenage kicks.

Top 10 Quick Tips for Voting

Top 10 Quick Tips for Voting – Sunderland One
Wayne Madden

Prime Minister Teresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election in April 2017 wasn’t entirely unusual, in fact, the last snap election occurred in 1974 and saw no less than two general elections in just six months. But as the law has changed since then, the Prime Minister’s recent action couldn’t have succeeded without parliamentary support, the following day’s resolution of 522 MPs to 13 in favor of the election meant a majority decision had been made.

Hot on the heels of General Election 2015, and a difficult “second album” in the form of EU Referendum 2016, 2017 will be the second major elections (after May’s local elections) held post Brexit in the United Kingdom.

For Sunderland, many will be looking at January’s result in the Sandhill by-election, when Liberal Democrat Stephen O Brien was elected to office with a swing majority that took the “safe” Labour seat as a potential sign of change to come. That Labour seat being vacated due to its incumbents’ failure to attend council meetings.

For many people voting in Sunderland this may be their first election in the region, general or otherwise, as each year we welcome newly eligible voters to the electoral roll, as well as those who’ve not exercised the right before and those thousands of students who join us from around the country for their University experience.

It is a common misconception that by virtue of your decision to live in the region, enroll at Sunderland University or the fact that you have grown up here that you are eligible to vote at all. Eligibility to vote in a general election is confirmed through the Electoral Register. You can register for free, and even register online, though there will be a deadline before the Election and criteria which you’ll have to meet.

To help you make an impartial, informed and correct decision, we’ve put together a list of the Top 10 Quick Tips for Voting ahead of General Election 2017:

1. Before the big day itself, make sure you’re actually eligible to vote. You must be registered to vote, be over 18 on the day of the election (“polling day”), and be a British, Commonwealth or Irish citizen. You must also be resident at an address in the UK (or be a British citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the last 15 years). You cannot vote in a general election if you do not meet these criteria, even if you are able to vote in a local election or referendum.

2. You cannot vote at just any polling station, and will be assigned a polling station based on the “district” in which you live. Information will be provided through the Polling Card you receive in the mail in the weeks prior to the election. Keep this safe for reference. If you do not get one, contact Sunderland Council’s Electoral Services to ask why.

3. You cannot vote more than once in a single General Election. Doing so is a criminal offence. If you discover you are eligible to vote at a University residence, for example, as well as your home address; you should only vote from one of these places. You should also ensure you do not ask anyone to vote on your behalf or assume your identity to vote at an alternative location, even with good reason, as this is also illegal.

4. Anyone else in your place of residence will be voting at the same station as you – if you’re going to be away from home on June eighth then making sure you register for a postal vote is essential as this means you will receive a ballot paper a few days before the election that you can send from any postbox in the United Kingdom.

You can also drop your sealed postal vote envelope and completed ballot into any Polling Station within your Council’s remit on polling day. So, for example, if you live in South Shields (South Tyneside) you cannot drop your postal vote into a polling station at St Peter’s (Sunderland City).

5. Under certain conditions, you may be called upon to act as a proxy for another voter, or ask someone to vote for you as your proxy. You will have to register in advance to do this with your local Council and your request will not always be granted.

6. The Polling Station is open between 7am and 10pm. This is a legal requirement of the vote and gives people as much potential as possible to reach their station on polling day and cast their vote. You must ensure you have entered a polling station and received your ballot paper before the clock strikes 10pm.

7. Regardless of temptation, do not take a “voter selfie” while casting your vote, as this is both an obstruction to fellow voters and also illegal. In fact, this practice can cause expulsion from the polling station and a criminal report, so avoid the opportunity to post your favorite voting face to social media or send privately to friends.

8. Remember the Polling Card? Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten, even at the polling station, as it is not needed to vote. You’ll be asked to give your name and address to confirm your identity and then issued with a ballot paper. In the event that someone else has voted in your place (known as voter fraud) you’ll be asked a list of prescribed questions and at the discretion of the Presiding Officer will be issued a ballot. Hopefully, this will never happen.

9. Dressing up as Donald Trump or wearing a T Shirt condemning the sitting Government might seem like the right behavior that morning, but such political material is banned from the polling station (albeit it International or not), this going for more obvious things like literature distributed by candidates, Rosetta’s and obvious political color coordination which may all be interpreted as signs to sway fellow voters in their decisions. Likewise you can only cast a vote for a candidate running in your constituency and your approval for another member of a party running will not be counted as a vote.

10. Having successfully followed instruction and cast your vote carefully fold your ballot paper and place it in the ballot box as instructed by station staff. You do not need to show your completed ballot paper to station staff and they will not always high five you once this has happened, but you can definitely feel a sense of pride as you leave the station having cast your electoral voice.

Whomever you choose to vote for and however you wish to cast your electoral voice this General Election, prepare to exercise your right with information and impartiality. For everything positive and impartial about Sunderland, make sure you’re picking up Sunderland One.

Revolving World of Colour

Revolving World of Colour
Wayne Madden

Even though Colour Television was a staple of the American diet from 1958, the

UK had to wait until John Newcombe won the Men’s singles at Wimbledon nearly a decade later, before the first colour images were projected onto European TV screens.

John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, first demonstrated colour television in 1927 but despite its popularity, high prices and the resulting scarcity of colour programmes, the format was not as widely used in its initial outing. As time moved on, however, cheaper alternatives and formats were created in order to make the expansion of colour film a reality for all mediums and budgets.

Barry Sandrew, PHD, an internationally recognized entrepreneur, digital imaging expert and visual effects pioneer invented digital colourization in 1987. “I invented digital colorization in 1987 at my company, American Film Technologies, as an alternative to the very poor quality that was being delivered using the initial analogue process.”

But new technology is not necessarily always greeted with Universal acclaim. Back in the mid-80s, there was a well-known and controversial campaign to colourise classic movies which led to heated public debate. Ted Turner (the media mogul and founder of CNN) spearheaded a movement in which he believed classic films, among them Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” and Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”, should be colourised for the benefit of future generations. He believed that classics such as these were being ignored by viewers in favour of colour film.

This is an argument that goes back to Thomas Edison, in the late 20th century, who colourised film by hand as he perceived that audiences would not enjoy his own black and white work. It’s a popular misconception; therefore, that colour film was a more modern cinema trait. Victor Fleming’s 1939 musical fantasy “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the most well-known pieces of the time to have been shot purposely in colour (using two tone Technicolor), although the basic technology had existed for almost 40 years beforehand, with the earliest examples going back to 1902.

Technology aside however, there were also plenty of examples where black and white films were colourised in pre-production. Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock created films in black and white, only to remake them in colour, citing both artistic and financial reasons.

Kevin Shaw is a colourist, with over 30 years’ experience in the industry. He believes there is some truth in the notion of a stigma towards black and white on film. “There is a feeling that black and white is “missing” colour rather than being seen as an alternative medium,” says Shaw, “and I believe this inclination persists today.”

Sandrew argues the very objections to colourization is what made it popular. “The fact that colourization was a “hot button” issue actually helped AFT become more popular with both clients and fans of colourization,” says Sandrew. “If people didn’t like colourization they didn’t have to buy nor watch it. Guess what…they did both!” Before Turner, there had already been a counter argument that colour film was damaging to cinema. French director Francois Truffaut argued that colour should not be used at all, making a statement in 1978 that “colour has done as much damage to cinema as television.

It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema; otherwise it’s not an art. From the moment that a film is in colour, it’s not cinema anymore.” Shaw agrees somewhat with Truffant’s statement. “A director has to have a good, artistic reason to use black and white, and that doing so invokes a particular meaning to the project, it is a genre in its own right so not appropriate for all concepts.” Certainly there are examples of this. Alfred Hitchcock shot “Psycho” purposely in black and white to meet what he felt was the required tone for the film, as did CBS Productions with Rod Sterling’s original “Twilight Zone” television series. In both cases colour was offered and refused as a medium.

In the 21st century, it’s perhaps hard to imagine a time when directors had such creative control over their own productions, especially productions with such important financial outcomes for their respective studios. Barry Sandrew agrees that films such as these are classics, which he says have been helped significantly by colourization. “The directors and actors were paid for their work,” says Sandrew, “that does not give them perpetual creative rights to the film. They do not own the film nor did they, in most cases, put up a dime to make the film. Colourization has actually served to subsidize the restoration and preservation of some of our most treasured public domain black and white feature films. In that regard, I believe that colourization has actually done a great service to these classics.”

Professor James O. Young, of the University of Victoria, wrote an academic paper entitled In Defence of Colourization in 1988 that stated once a work is modified it is no longer able to express its creators original intentions. His paper was written at a time when the first Turner produced colour films came under criticism, namely because low quality colourization, restricted by the technology of the day.
But Young still believes its possible colourization can have a negative effect on a film’s artistic merit. “Appropriation from earlier art ought not to be prohibited,” he says. “Artists frequently borrow from their predecessors in a variety of ways and do so (some of the time) with good aesthetic results.”

Shaw argues that, regardless of 21st century technology, the same rules of artistic filmmaking merit apply. “We design images to fit the concept, to be emotionally evocative and to be easier for an audience to interpret.
It is a creative decision that should be made at the creation stage.” It would seem that the image (and colour choice) of a film is therefore essential to its concept. Sandrew agrees with this up-to a point. “When I re-invented colourization in 2000 the film critics were no longer saying that the work looked shoddy or unrealistic. Instead they were saying that the colourization looked so natural. This raised a new concern from critics that the quality was too high and young people would never know what the film looked like in its original black and white format. So surprisingly, high quality colourization earned negative feedback as well!”

 

Ted Turner had the ability to spearhead a movement which, he personally felt, was of benefit to his consumer and made the business steps necessary to do this. But perhaps more ironically, as Young concludes, “the use of colourisation has increased the distribution of original black and white versions, since these are now often packaged with colour versions.”
Ironically, the greatest benefits come to those who feared their legacy might be jeopardized in the first place. While there’s no doubt life looks better in colour the facts seem to indicate that audiences would rather see them as they were originally intended, sparks of geniuses intact. Colourization, like everything else in Film, has its place.