An experiment with an A.I. to create The Shrike

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

As a fan of the Mortal Engines book series, I was recently playing around with OpenAI's Dall.E, an AI system that generates images from textual descriptions.


My focus was on one of the most intriguing characters from the series, the Stalker known as Shrike. I was excited to see what Dall.E would come up with based on my description of this mysterious character. 


At first, my prompts were not specific enough and I was disappointed with the results. But after a few tries, I finally managed to give Dall.E more descriptive inputs and I was blown away by the results. 


The images that Dall.E generated were exactly crazily close to what one could imagine the Shrike may look like for a book reader. 


My initial chat prompt was "the shrike creature from mortal engines with green eyes". It would seem the AI interpreted the definition of Shrike as the bird:

 

So I updated the prompt to make it clear I was talking about a man / robot:

"the shrike man  / robot AI from "mortal engines" book with green eyes"



I then focused on what The Shrike's face could look like:

"the shrike man  / robot AI from "mortal engines" book with green eyes - scary and ugly face"

skrike mortal engines concept

shrike concept


shrike imagination

shrike AI look face


I then tried out:

""the shrike" from the "mortal engines" novels. He is a man with a robot body. Evil green eyes with a nasty looking face. whole body image. His hands have knives for fingers. He looks haunted and hours away from death."



shrike AI look

shrike AI look

shrike AI look


These works were pretty cool and in a sense will give concept designers a run for their money. Still, nothing beats Nick Keller's original Mortal Engines concept art!
















How the Mortal Engines movie is different from the book

Saturday, January 28, 2023


How the Mortal Engines film is different from the novel


To get a movie of a book made and onto the silver screen, the narrative of the plot more often than not needs to be changed.

This is for reasons of time, storytelling and pacing.

Because let's face it books and films are very different mediums and while people can get really upset that their favorite parts of their most favorite books don't get included in the movie, the reality is most changes are necessary.

Some characters get cut out of the script completely (Think Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings ) or two or more characters get morphed into one. Even whole endings can change, such as the Watchmen's Giant Squid ending being changed to Doctor Manhattan talking the fall.

Scriptwriters Philipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, having won an Oscar for their adaptation of The Return of the King, know a thing or two about taking original works and getting them up on the silver screen.

For instance, the character of Faramir in The Two Towers had to be altered.

Here's what Boyens had to say about it:

"If you're trying to up the tension, you don't have your main characters captured by someone who sort of interrogates them, but, not really, who then offers them a cup of tea and says, 'I'll do anything I can to help you.' It's death on film. And it's not just the effect that the character out of the book has on Frodo and Sam's journey, it's the effect that character has on the Ring.

You've just been desperately trying to establish that this is the most evil thing ever created, it's tearing apart the mind of your main character, it's reduced this other character to this miserable creature Gollum, and now you come along someone who says, 'I would not touch this thing if it lay on the highway.' You've just stripped the Ring of all its power."

Which should demonstrate she knows what she's doing.

The movie, of course, retains plenty of similarities with the book and indeed we're sure that many an English teacher will ask her students to do an essay which compares and contrasts the two mediums. Hey kids!

And so it is with Mortal Engines that the movie had to change a few things in the book.

Here's a few of the key changes and why they were necessary.


Hester's facial scar change


Let's start with the most 'cosmetic' change.

Hester Shaw is not ugly!

In the book she is described as "" whereas the movie softens this dramatically. Yes, Hera Hilmar sports a scar but it's nothing so horrid as one can imagine that Hester wears.

She even has two working eyes!

Anna Fang


Anna Fang’s (played by Jihae) introduction is considerably more action-packed than the novel. She has considerably more on screen time in terms of her 'book pages' time and she is more involved in the final stages of the film - she even dies on London.

Tunbridge Wheels


To help streamline the story into a cogent 2 hour film the pirate town and what happens to Hester and Tom is cut from the film.

Dog

Katherine Valentine's dog called DOG is not in the film.


Of gods and banana?


Look carefully for modern artifacts in the Museum and keep an eye out for the Minions! They are in a section called "Deities of Lost America".

In the novel the humans have mistaken Mickey Mouse for a god. Due to ownership rights, the Minions have been subbed in.

The characters are older than portrayed in the novel


What's that saying about making movies, never work with kids and animals? This big budget movie needs to appeal to a broad audience, and while the novel is Young Adult, Christian Rivers needed to make his movie appealing to a mass audience. So while Tom and Hester are young, the actors playing them are not.

Jackson said of this change "We've changed the book a bit in places. We've aged it up. The book is written for quite a young audience, to some degree, you know? And I just don't think anybody wants to see another teenage dystopian movie any time soon. So, it's one of the reasons why we've aged it sort of up, and we cast it a bit older. Tom and Hester in the book are younger... We had made it a little bit more adult."

Captain Khora and Nils Lindstrom, Yasmina 

The book has small roles for these two friends of Anna Fang yet they have been fleshed out in the movie to give Shrike more time to beat them up!

Magnus and Thaddeus


In the novel Magnus Chrome is the overarching bad guy where Valentine does his dirty work. It would seem that Hugo Weaving's character looms larger of the film than Magnus Chrome.

In the film, Valentine seizes control of London by killing Chrome. In the novel, they both die in the same room as London explodes.

Airships


Airships now have jet propulsion, because it makes for a better spectacle. 

Guild symbols


It would seem the movie characters do not have their respective guild symbols permanently attached on their foreheads like they do in the novel. Instead it appears they show their demarcations by use of symbols on their clothing.

The Ending


A vastly changed ending for the movie which works well.

Tom does not kill Shrike, He's effectively taken down by the Anti-Traction League and a few well placed shots by Anna Fang flying the Jenny Hanniver. This serves as an opportunity for Shrike to forgive Hester for leaving him, freeing him from her promise (the concept of him turning her into a Stalker was still at play from the novel).

Valentine is not killed on London, he is killed by London after he crashes on the 13th Floor Elevator which was shot down by Tom. The wheels of London crush him just as he thinks he's survived his final clash with Hester.

Anna still dies at the hands of Valentine but it is on London.

Katherine Valentine - well played as a character but went simply nowhere in terms of plot, like you could cut the character (and Bevis) and have no consequence to the ending of the movie, which is completely different to the ending of the novel. In the novel, Katherine dies, in the book, she leads the people of London to the shield wall.

Other points of difference


How the opening of the Mortal Engines film is basically the start of Star Wars

When I was a young lad my dad brought home a copy of a film called Star Wars.

I knew nothing about this movie and I had no idea what I was about to see.

As you probably know, the film famously starts with a chase. Darth Vader's Star Destroyer is chasing Princess Leia's Tantive IV in a bid to regain the plans to the Death Star.

It was amazing and left a lasting impression on myself and many a viewer due to the size of what was been shown - the ship was massive in comparison to the smaller ship.

I could not help notice how director Christian Rivers appears to have made an homage or reference to Stars Wars in the Mortal Engines trailer. We, of course, are assuming the trailer is the start of the movie, based on the first page of the book (and its famous first line)

Here's how the Star Wars opening plays out:






The trailer for Mortal Engines is also a chase, one that mirrors the iconic Star Wars start in that the traction city of Salthook is framed by itself, wheels blazing just like the lonely Tantive IV.

Then, the city of London, slowly but surely comes into screen, showing that the chase is on, consuming the entire screen, just as it wants to consume Salthook.








Sure there are some differences between the ME film trailer and the opening of Star Wars such as the two eyed Hester Shaw inter-cuts but the concept and referencing or homage is absolutely there!

Mortal Engines itself is no stranger to Star Wars - the character of Anna Fang was in part inspired by by Han Solo! 

↠ What are 'Stalkers' in Mortal Engines?

Saturday, January 21, 2023

What are the Stalker Soldiers in Mortal Engines?

CAUTION: EPIC SPOILERS BELOW FOR BOTH BOOK AND FILM


The Stalkers of Mortal Engines are a kind of 'universal soldier' combatant that can be programmed for warfare and assassination.

Stalkers and their variations play various parts in each of Philip Reeve's Quartet of Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain.

What are the origins of the Stalkers?


Stalkers originally were designed as mechanisms for humans to transfer their consciousness from one body to another, thus defeating death. The human mind could literally be saved to the hard drive and then transferred into the body of another human.

It was long after the events of 60 Minute War that 'old technology' was adapted to make Stalkers into emotionless monsters to serve at the whim of their masters.

Often referred to as 'Resurrected Men' Stalkers were originally built by the Nomadic Empires that battled each other across the volcano maze of what was once Europe long before the Traction Cities Era began.

The Nomadic Empires built Stalkers by recovering dead bodies from the battlefields, placing them in laboratories and then bringing them back 'life' by using 'Old Tech' machines that were physically connected to the dead body's nervous system. 

This practice continued on to the Traction City Era.

The bodies were also operated on so internal organs were no longer necessary. The designers also would graft on a metal carapace to the body. Weapons could be implanted into the body and the use of claws was a common feature. 

In the film, Shrike did not have claws, whereas he did in the novel.

The best subjects were taller specimens and they looked a scary sight with their glowing green eyes that all Stalkers had.

Stalkers are generally considered emotionless automatons, only acting at the will of their Masters.

Once a dead human is resurrected as a Stalker, they have no feelings, displays no emotions and they will not have any memory of who they were before they died. Any past memories are jumbled messes and lost glimpses of their former life.

In Mortal Engines, the City of London manufactures its own Stalkers.

The London Guild of Engineers builds new Stalkers from dead prison convicts at their experimental prison in the Deep Gut. These particular Stalkers are not considered as refined as the infamous 'Shrike' due to the use of less sophisticated stalker-brains, the devices used in the brains and nerves of Stalkers.

The origins of these Resurrected Men, begin to be explained in the first prequel in the Mortal Engines series, Fever Crumb. Scrivener's Moon expands on the details as well,

shrike grike mortal engines
Shrike was played in the film by Stephen Lang.


What is the Shrike in Mortal Engines?


The 'Shrike' was the first Stalker to be mentioned in the original Mortal Engines book.

His character was under the control of the Mayor of London Traction City, Magnus Chrome. Chrome used the Shrike to find Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy and he was ordered to kill them.

At face value, this seemed a straightforward plot point however it was later revealed that The Shrike had once looked after Hester in a past life.

Due to his emotionally retarded state, his own goal in life was to turn Hester into a Stalker like himself, so they could live together forever.

In terms of memory retention, Shrike appears to be the exception to the rule as was able to recall his past life as 'Kit Solent' shortly before his death at the hands of Tom Natsworthy by the sword. Kit Solent's tale and how he became a Stalker of the Lazarus Brigade was covered in the prequel novel, Fever Crumb.

In the film Shrike is played by veteran actor Stephan Lang - you may remember him as the evil general in Avatar.

>> Stuck for yeast when making beer? You can ferment your beer with baker's yeast! <<

Are Stalkers invulnerable?


Stalkers are heavily protected by their armour but vulnerable to small arms fire and hand-held weaponry.

Due to their 'programming' they do not feel any pain as their nervous systems are rendered. This means they are pretty handy in hand to hand combat as even if their opponent is able to stab them or cause injury, they will not feel it and be able to continue to fight and thus increasing their chances of winning.

In Mortal Engines, Tom Natsworthy did manage to kill the Shrike Stalker with a sword by impaling it through his neck. The Shrike was however suffering from some performance issues as he'd actually been run over by a Traction City!

hester and shrike

But there's a reason Stalkers are known as Resurrected Men....

Anna Fang as a Stalker in the sequel novels


In Mortal Engines, Anna Fang was Tom and Hester's rescuer from the Shrike when he originally caught up with them on Airhaven.

Despite her heroics, Fang was ultimately killed by the dastardly Thaddeus Valentine in a sword fight.

In Predator's Gold it was revealed that a splinter group of the famed Anti Traction League called Green Storm had recovered Fang's body and applied the Stalker Resurrection techniques to it.

Green Storm had intended that the revived Anna Fang would lead them in battle against the remaining Traction Cities.

Eventually, the resurrected Fang stalker would take part in many battles and features in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain where her character wreaks some pretty spectacular havoc using the ODIN device.

The Shrike concept art from Mortal Engines
Shrike fan art


Extra for Experts (spoilers):

What is the MEDUSA weapon in Mortal Engines?

Friday, January 7, 2022
medusa being fired from London

BOOK AND FILM SPOILERS BELOW

How does the Medusa weapon work in the Mortal Engines books?

MEDUSA.

In Mortal Engines, MEDUSA was the ancient Old-Tech super weapon that the Mayor of London city, Magnus Chrome tried to use to breach the Shield Wall.

Magnus intended to use the Medusa weapon against the Walk so that he could take London City through to the fertile hunting grounds beyond the wall.

But what exactly is the Medusa and how is it used?

Does it make you turn to stone if you look at it too long?

MEDUSA is a 'ground-based' weapon.

It is stated in the Mortal Engines novel as taking up the whole of the inside of St Paul's Cathedral, where the Guild of Engineers had rebuilt it under complete secrecy.

Philip Reeve described as having a huge, metallic hood shaped 'like a cobra's hood'. It fires a beam of energy (either sourced from outside the real universe, or the cities generators), resembling a "cat-o-nine-tails", at targets up to two hundred miles away.

The firing coordinates are input via a control panel at the base of the firing mechanism.

In the Mortal Engines novel, the Medusa was never actually used as intended.

It was accidentally destroyed by Katherine Valentine who was mortally wounded during her noble attempt to sabotage it. She succeeded somewhat - the Medusa was unable to be fired by Magnus Chrome but it did over heat, blow up and destroy the city of London with it.

The resulting explosion killed most of the thousands of people living in the city, many of them innocent.

Medusa weapon concept art from Mortal Engines
A concept idea: The Engineers prepare Medusa for firing

So where did the MEDUSA  weapon come from?


The weapon was originally deployed in America during the infamous Sixty Minute War, the one which turned planet Earth into a post-apocalyptic wasteland from which the traction cities eventually evolved from. This is not to say the Medusa was the only weapon used that caused the destruction. The satellite systems known as ODIN  also wreaked a fair amount of damage.

Many thousands of years after the great War, London secretly made archeological expeditions to the Dead Continent and gathered the pieces of Medusa from an old Brothal base and re-assembled it inside the St Paul's complex.

In a key plot point which echoed a generation,  Thaddeus Valentine (working for Magnus Chrome)  had years before the events of the book, sort to obtain the computer control system of the Medusa. A fabulously complex item of technology even by the standards of scientists from the pre-war era,

Valentine tracked it to being in the hands of Hester's parents, found them and killed them. During this horrible moment, he also scarred Hester with his sword, both physically and of course mentally.

So what is the plot of Mortal Engines in relation to Medusa?


Katherine Valentine spends most of the first part of Mortal Engines trying to figure out what MEDUSA is. Then, when the city of London is being chased by the city Panzerstadt-Bayreuth the roof of St Paul's Cathedral lifts up and destroys the predator city with a blast of pure energy from the weapon.

The successful use of the weapon serves as proof of concept to Magnus Chrome and it further adds to his resolve to breach the Shield Wall.

Magnus' plans are ultimately foiled when MEDUSA system overloads with energy and explodes, obliterating most of London with it.

The movie version plays out quite different - Medusa is actually fired on the wall before it is destroyed by Tom.

Here's some points on how the book is different from the movie.

Concept art of Medusa being opened above Saint Paul's Cathedral by Jaekyung Jaguar Lee. Medusa firing art design by Peter Yea.

5 ways the Mortal Engine film borrowed from Star Wars

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Star Wars was a key influence on the Mortal Engines movie


When doing promo work for Mortal Engines, director Christian Rivers spoke of how the movie was pitched when they shopped it around the studios.

What does it look like they asked?

Rivers said this:

"I drew a triangle on a piece of paper, and the three points of the triangle were Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Mad Max. It is in our future after an apocalypse. But we don't want it to be all rusty, and f***ing grim and bleak. We wanted to have a technology and a scale that sort of could be Star Wars-esque. But we also wanted it to have a sort of a charm and a sort of cultural character to it that could be like the Harry Potter films."

After seeing the film (here's our glowing review), we think that triangle might have been lopsided in favour of Star Wars because Mortal Engines is quite strong with the Force!

Here are a few key references and plot points that the Peter Jackson production borrowed from George Lucas's films.

SPOILERS

  1. Valentine's big reveal to Hester that he was her father was during a duel where the stakes were life and death is straight from the playbook of The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader reveals he is Luke's dad.
  2. When Tom Natsworthy becomes an 'aviator' and flies into the heart of the engines of London and fires a blast at a key part of the engine, well he would make Lando Calrissian proud because he and Wedge Antilles pulled that move destroying the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi.
  3. The whole, racing against time to destroy London before it fires on Batmunkh Gompa's shield wall is basically the plot of the last third of Star Wars: A New Hope. i.e. Destroy the Death Star before it destroys the Rebel base. Admittedly, Star Wars was inspired by the Gregory Peck film, The Guns of Navarone for this idea. 
  4. The opening chase where London runs down a smaller, fleeing traction city, is a retread copy of the opening of Star Wars when Darth Vader's Star Destroy is chasing Princess Leia's Correllian Corvette, the Tantive IV.
  5. The author of the novel, Philip Reeve freely acknowledges he based Anna Fang on Han Solo

Don't get us wrong, just as George Lucas borrowed from a million movies to make his own sci-fi film, it's fine for Mortal Engines to do the same of Star Wars! All that was missing though was Jabba The Hutt!

↠ What is the best order to read the Mortal Engines series of novels?



Should I read the Mortal Engines prequels before or after the orignals?



What Star Wars film did you see first?

Was it The Phantom Menace or A New Hope? Did you follow the order they were released?

For the many it was Star Wars IV, V and IV in that order and then years later the prequels came out and we learned how Anakin became Darth Vader.

If you watch the prequels first you miss out on the epic twist that happens in Empire Strikes Back when you learn of Luke's true parentage.

And that's the issue with the reading order of the 7 Mortal Engine novels (8 counting the Anna Fang short stories book!).

We are talking about Stalker Shrike here and a couple of other plot point surprises.

If you read the prequel series you get the full story of Shrike and how he came to be the Shrike. As you read on to the original novels, there's no big mystery, no awe as you first encounter him with Tom, knives out wanting to do nothing but kill....HESTEERRR SHAWWWWW!

But if you've read the prequels, you know exactly who this abomination is before he even takes his first step towards Tom and that kind of ruins the mystique.

Think of the first time you saw the Star Wars scene when Vader boards the Tantive IV (Leia's ship). If you knew him as the whiny pod racing kid from The Phantom Menace, the effect of his entrance would not have been the same.

But, just as there is with Star Wars, there's a kind of cheat you can do which is similar to the popular Machete Order that some Star War fans recommend.

In terms of Star Wars, it's often suggested that you watch A New Hope and then Empire so that you can enjoy the twist. You can then read the prequels and get the full back story, and then hop back to Return of the Jedi and go from there.

And so you can with Mortal Engines.

Read that first novel first so that you get the main story, exposure to the concepts such as Municipal Darwinism and that you meet the Shrike.

You can then turn the pages of the prequels starting with Reeve's Fever Crumb and then on to A Web of Air and the most excellent Scrivener's Moon.

Once you've knocked those bastards off, you can read the three books that follow Mortal Engines. And they are damn good reads with A Darkling Plain proving an excellent and satisfying end to the saga.

But what do we know?

What is Philip Reeve's take on the reading order of his own novels?

He's actually been asked this before and he's on record as saying:

"It’s up to you, of course, but I’ve always thought they’re best read in the order they were written."

And despite what we have suggested, that's not a bad way to go.

Here's why.

The thing about Philip Reeve is he became a better author as he went on with the Mortal Engines series. As he progressed from one book to the next his stories seemed to flow better and form a more cognizant whole. I personally enjoyed the last two novels more when compared to the first. That said, those novels were 'standing on the shoulders of giants'.

But Reeve's also gives a hint of caution about the prequels:

"It’s a different setting in many ways – there are, for instance, no airships and no mobile cities.

I think the books have a slightly different tone, too – the heroes of the Mortal Engines quartet are always zooming across continents and oceans, but Fever Crumb’s adventures all take place in London or in the island city of Mayda, until Scrivener’s Moon, when Municipal Darwinism finally begins to take off and there is a certain amount of charging about on ramshackle motorised fortresses."

The choice, dear reader, is clearly yours. But when you've done that, it's time to move on to Railhead...
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