Monday, March 7, 2022

Night Land

For ages and ages, I've been planning to do an adaptation of William Hope Hodgson's epic novel "The Night Land." There's nothing like it before or since in pop culture. It's teeming with weird monsters and it's copyright free -perfect for my purposes. Also, it's mostly about just a single character wandering like a knight errant through a wild wasteland, just waiting to be Photoshopped together using various strange textures. So, why haven't I gotten around to adapting it? Well, mostly it's about boiling down 584 pages of verbose narrative and archaic prose to something that could be told in around 20 minutes. But there is actually a solution for that because there's a shorter version of the novel, which I'll get back to shortly.

Let's talk briefly about the background of the book. It was the last work written by hunky Victorian fantasy author Hodgson, who had been a sailor in his early years and was one of the first bodybuilders in the UK, but the first of his books that were published. Hodgson would go on to join WW1 and eventually be blown to smithereens by an artillery shell at Ypres, cutting a career of completely original horror fantasy tales tragically short.

Above is my edition of The Night Land, published in the 1970s by Ballantine books in their Adult Fantasy series (edited by Lin Carter). They split it up in two volumes, as you can see. To protect copyrights in the US, Hodgson boiled down his 200 000+ word epic to a shortened 20 000-word novelette, published in the USA as The Dream of X, thus establishing, kind of, his novel as having a copyright status and protecting it against pirate publishers. However, the risk of someone stealing and publishing the enormous The Night Land was slim indeed, but there you have it. I actually read The Dream of X in a Swedish translation before I could get my hands on The Night Land. 

In short, the premise of The Night Land is that the story is set on Earth millions of years in the future. The sun has died but the desolate landscape is partially illuminated with fire and lava from the ground and from mysterious lights sometimes appearing. The remnants of humanity are huddled together in a gigantic pyramid called The Last Redoubt. Around this fortress is the Night Land shrouded in perpetual darkness, but teeming with monstrous lifeforms. Some are huge as mountains and loom threateningly along the horizon. Others are man-sized and quite human-like. A blue flame of mystical earth currents surrounds the pyramid and keeps the nightmarish vermin at bay. Futuristic knights each armed with a "diskos", a sort of spear ending with an electrically charged razor-sharp rotating disc, guard the refuge. 
However, one such man receives a telepathic distress call from a Lesser Redoubt, that nobody in the great pyramid has heard of. Our hero sets out alone to rescue the inhabitants of The Lesser Redoubt, since their earth current is failing, and travels across the bizarre world of the Night Land, encountering mysteries and fighting monsters.

The Dream of X tells the same story but pretty much snips out almost all of the travel bits. There's also a bizarre framing story set in the 1600s concerning a narrator who dreams the whole tale but is convinced it is a true vision of the future. This narrative device is enthusiastically presented at the beginning, even providing a romance for the narrator, but it's all soon forgotten when we leap millions of years ahead in the story.

For a few years, I've been contributing illustrations to Graeme Philips' excellent fanzine Cyäegha, but he's also published other collections pertaining to the "Lovecraft Circle" of writers, as well as peripheral authors. Included in the collection Forbidden Dreams is The Carpathian Codex, written by Cardinal Cox. It's a collection of poems inspired by the writings of Lovecraft and others. Among these poems is Night Land, a text summarizing the set-up for the plot and concept of Hodgson's The Night Land. I figured that would be a fun way of tackling the world of the Night Land and doing a very compact meditation on the subject rather than tackling that big project just yet. I got permission from Cox to adapt his poem, and off I went.

If you've followed my YouTube videos the past few years you know that my preferred filmmaking style is to use still images, adapt them in Photoshop, and use those as backgrounds/foregrounds. For the Night Land landscape, I used images of lava fields from Iceland. Digital effects like animated smoke, fire, and lightning were pulled from various open-source CGI clips.

The Great Redoubt pyramid was made from a single stock CG image found at duplicated many times and arranged as two sides of the pyramid. I wanted a tile-like texture, inferring that the pyramid is a patchwork of generations worth of repairs. The small pinpoints of light were added in Photoshop with the drawing tool.

The skies were made from more stock images of CG clouds, animated with distortion tools in After Effects, and also with altered colors.

The monsters of the original novel are too numerous to give a due appearance in a short video, but I picked a couple of favorites. "The Yellow Thing" is a four-armed humanoid creature the hero encounters and fights at one point when he's lit a campfire. "The Humped Men" are a race of squat creatures that seem to be very populous, so I figured I'd better include one of those too. I included a scene where a Yellow Thing tries to catch a Humped Man.

As I usually do I sculpted the head and torso as a single piece in medium grade Monster Clay, adding a couple of plastic pearls for the eyes.

I made the puppet's armature slightly disproportionate and irregular. I wanted to imply that the Yellow Thing is some kind of mutant abomination, not something that evolved with a symmetrical body.

For the arms and legs, I used exclusively cotton dipped in latex and thin polyurethane soaked in latex to shape very sinewy muscles.

The rest of the body was padded with thin polyurethane foam to achieve a knotted, but softer muscle look.

I cast patches of latex skin from a variety of old plaster skin texture molds, again to try and achieve a varied, deformed look to the body.

The head only has a single aluminum wire loop for the mouth. I retained the pearls from the sculpture as eyes. The skin was painted in a dirty yellow using tinted latex and touched up with numerous passes of airbrush colors. The teeth were tissue paper dipped in latex.

I decided the Humped Man would be symmetrical, but anatomically different from humans in many ways. It sort of came out looking a bit like a hairless Ewok.

Very simple padding on this puppet. I wanted a softer, chubbier look to the body.

For some reason, most of the photos taken with my phone turned out blurry, but hopefully, you can see some details. Like the Yellow Thing, the Humped Man only has articulation in the jaw regarding the face. Both these puppets make very quick appearances and weren't required to do much. The Humped Man was only painted with tinted latex.

I'll talk a bit about my plans for making a longer Night Land adaptation at the end of this post, and if that comes to fruition I'll re-design these monsters and make puppets with more articulation.

I also built a puppet that doesn't have a direct analog in the book. I just wanted to include a creepy monster with humanoid features, and this is what I came up with. I wanted the critter's eyes to be grown shut and the neck to have a tumorous texture.

Basically, this creature has the look of a human spider or insect, so the legs were made to be long and spindly. Cotton dipped in latex was used to shape muscles and tendons.

The latex head was attached to a long neck made from a single aluminum wire wrapped in soft yarn. I used a paper ball dipped in latex to prop up the back of the head. The snaking tongue is just a very thin aluminum wire wrapped in sewing yarn and painted with tinted latex. A couple of nails joined together with thermoplastic make up the center of the body.

The bulk of the body was shaped with two pieces of dense foam plucked from a package I got a while ago. Whenever I get useful package material it goes into the handy-to-have-some-day box.

The finished puppet was dry brushed with tinted latex, with mottled effects being applied using a toothbrush and acrylic airbrush paints. The wispy hair is simply a tuft of crepé hair (sheep's wool) glued on with a few drops of liquid latex.

A prominent monster character in The Night Land is The Silent Ones, so I felt I had to include those. They are a group of hooded beings who emerge from The House of Silence and travel on the few roads still remaining. It's very bad luck to encounter a silent one. It's never really revealed who or what they are, but the reader gets the feeling that they are among the top power players in the Night Land. For my Silent Ones I found a stock image of four hooded capes. I cut them out in Photoshop and added a few other changes before importing the images into After Effects and keyframe animated them to glide over the crusty ground. I added a CG animation of a wiggling squirmy shape in a layer under each cape, so you can just see something nasty peeking out under the cloth.

I wanted to focus on the actual Night Land landscape, following the text of Cox's poem, so the people of the pyramid are only glimpsed briefly. There is a version of an old Italian "peplum" or sword & sandal movie called The Giant of Metropolis, which is in the public domain. I used still shots from the movie where people are dressed in various retro-futuristic costumes, cutting out the people and adding them in layers in After Effects. The raging thunderstorm outside the pyramid is CG stock footage and the inside pyramid "set" is a modified stock image from Depositphotos. I made it a keyframed tracking shot, having the various elements in layers move a bit as the "camera" tracked in.

There is a bunch of so-called watchers in the Night Land; huge mountain-like monsters that move so slowly that the observers of the phenomena need millennia and generations to track any movement at all. One thing is certain, though -they're all moving towards the Last Redoubt. I use two old puppets to portray a couple of the watchers, each with its own characteristics. I took two photos of the puppets and 2D animated them. My idea was to show the monsters finally bearing down on the pyramid, making -for them- very quick movements.

Even the brave knights of the pyramid were still images. Again, I found useful material on Depositphotos and created the spinning diskos using a Photoshopped image of a glowing wheel with lots of spokes, animated to rotate very fast.

And that's about it for my Night Land video. I did the narration myself and used music by YouTube composer Sir Cubworth, who offers a collection of his work among the free YouTube resources.

Will I do another version? Yes, that is the plan. I want to basically do The Dream of X, but with more monster encounters, so it'll be a mix of the two versions of the story. When I'll be able to do it is up in the air for the time being.