Second Life’s STÖMOL: a review

From STÖMOL

Warning: if you have not seen STÖMOL, be aware this article does contain spoilers! So if you don’t want your experience spoiled, I suggest you click this link and catch it before you read any further!

Friday, July 24th, 2020 saw the official public première of STÖMOL, a feature-length science fiction machinima filmed entirely in Second Life. Written, directed, edited and produced by Huckleberry Hax, the film also stars Hax in the titular role of Epi Stömol, a private investigator / hunter, with Caitlin Tobias as Waarheid (and who also serves as the film’s assistant director and publicist), Ylva as Verity Certain, Boudicca Amat as Istinito Tatsache, Anthony Wesburn as Adevaru, and Mich Michabo as The Quill.

Set some 40 years into the future, the film combines elements of the graphic novel with those of noir-style films to unfold a tale framed by the search for two missing coders, and which folds into itself questions on the nature of truth and reality in a world impacted by climate change and the control of conglomerates.

On the surface, the story appears straightforward enough: attractive, mysterious woman hires PI / Hunter to locate her missing adopted son. Along the way, the PI encounters another hunter, Waarheid, who is looking for her missing niece – and both boy and girl appear to be two halves of the same puzzle: coders called The Eye and The Quill respectively, who could unlock both the reason for the climate catastrophe impacting the Earth – and also could hold the keys to both reality and our perception of the truth.

“It is an intimate thing to kill someone, especially when you get to see them taking you in with their eyes in that final second of life, knowing it was you who has just taken everything from them. There is nothing you can see that come even close to seeing that” – Epi Stömol. Screen caps from STÖMOL.

Agreeing to seek the girl if Waarheid attempts to locate the boy, Stömol sets about his task, a shadowy, helmeted figure tracking his movements. Whether he is aware of this or not isn’t clear, but Stömol does find the girl – and has an initial encounter with the helmeted figure in the process. Opting not to inform Waarheid of his find, ostensibly to prevent her from ending her search for the boy, Stömol has a further encounter with the mysterious helmeted one, confirming him to be Adevaru. Attempting to strike a deal, Adevaru reveals the true value of the two coders – giving Stömol  pause for thought.

Keeping to the bargain, Waarheid, informs Stömol she has located the boy, who is being held against his will. A rescue attempt is made, only to apparently fail, a kidnapper escaping with the boy. This set the film up for a sharp plot twist that is genuinely surprising and unexpected, in the process moving us to the final denouement, which in turn brings the story full circle to connect neatly with the opening sequence.

All very easy to follow. However, this simple sounding narrative actually lies within a much more complex story, one that might be summed up in asking the question just what is truth?

Waarheid. Screen cap from STÖMOL.

This is exactly what Stömol does as the film opens, mulling over both that and the nature of reality.

Stamp your feet on the ground; down three fingers of whiskey; put a cigarette in your mouth and light it. Is any one of these things real? Is any one of these things “the truth”? Or is truth just a story we create so that things seem to make sense? The line that joins the dots up into a picture that we can understand. We think each dot can only lead to one other; but what if every dot leads to a thousand others, and a million different pictures can be drawn?

– Epi Stömol

Presented in terms of the action that follows these ruminations – the dispatch of an unknown individual carrying an automatic weapon – it’s easy to simply view Stömol’s words as merely reflective of that action; indeed, with a nice slight of narrative, we’re encouraged to do so; but the fact is with this opening statement the film’s focal point is set – and, again, indirectly, a hint is given about Stömol himself.

This element of “truth” being at the core of the film is revealed in other subtle ways as well. Take the names of the principal players Stömol encounters: Verity Certain (itself a play on words), Istinito Tatache, Waarheid – all are words for “truth” and / or the state or quality of being true in their language of origin (English, Croatian and Dutch). Even Adevaru would appear to be a play on Adevărul, Romanian for truth. Similarly, The Eye and The Quill are not randomly chosen names for the two missing coders: the eye is the organ that sees the truth, whilst the quill is the tool by which the truth can be recorded.

It is this layering of elements in which STÖMOL is lifted above being a”simple” tale (although it can still be enjoyed as such), giving it more of a novel-like feel. Similarly, the broader production values evident in the film also help to present it as more of a motion picture than a machinima. Good use is made of framing – over-the-shoulder shots, cutaways, close-ups, all provide depth to STÖMOL.

There are subtleties in approach that give the film added richness. As noted, the twist towards the end of the story is presented in a manner that is so entirely unexpected, I doubt anyone could see it coming. There are also ambiguities scattered throughout that add a certain edge to Stömol. Take the outcome of the rescue attempt: did it really fail, or did Stömol allow the kidnapper to escape with the boy so he might remove Waarheid as a potential rival and thus leaving open his path to having sole control over the Quill and the Eye? And what of the comment about making a gift to the man killed in the opening sequence, is not a new light on this cast within the film’s ending and Stömol’s comments about controlling the truth through The Quill and The Eye?

An encounter with Adevaru. Screen cap from STÖMOL.

However, it would be remiss to say STÖMOL is not without its warts. Whilst relatively few, they do jar when they happen – such as the fight scene with Täuschung (another clever name – this time meaning “deception” or “to deceive”; a shame it didn’t go anywhere). It appears to have been included because it had been shot before the core of the story had been settled, and the fight couldn’t be readily re-filmed to better fit the narrative. Thus we’re left with a character that pops up and dies without saying a word and without serving any other purpose than to facilitate a fight.

The narration can also be unsettling. Delivered without cadence, it is peppered with unnatural pauses in delivery that can grate to the point of spoiling enjoyment. A case in point: early in the film Stömol walks the streets in a 4½-minute segment during which he delivers less than a minute of voice-over in total. This is painfully drawn out across the 4½-minutes with clumsy, mid-statement pauses up to 20 seconds in length. It’s a sequence that could have been edited to around 90-100 seconds without losing any of its dramatic edge whilst facilitating a far more fluid narrative delivery.

Elsewhere, the film offers ome nice hat-tips to its major sci-fi influences: Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. These range from the obvious – the use of Zee9’s Drune designs  (Bladerunner) plus the atmospheric effects (aka Blade Runner 2049) – through the the more subtle: watching the robotic major domo march into Verity Certain’s pool area ahead of Stömol, I couldn’t help but think of Sebastian’s robotic playmates greeting him on his homecoming. Stömol’s use of a noodle bar also sits as a nod towards Deckhard in Blade Runner.

Overall, STÖMOL is a creditable first outing into feature-length filming in Second Life. Yes it has some faults – name me a film that doesn’t, and technique can always be polished. Certainly, the warts don’t prevent the film from packing a satisfying punch at the end whilst achieving what it sets out to do: entertain.

Oh – and when watching, make sure you do so through the credits: there’s an MCU-style tag scene that offers a hint of what might come in the future.

Here’s the link for the film again.

Premièring on July 24th, 2020: STÖMOL a Second Life Machinima

STÖMOL publicity image

Update: due to some last-minute changes, the public première of  STÖMOL is now slated for July 24th – details at the end of this article.

STÖMOL is an ambitious feature-length science fiction machinima filmed entirely in Second Life and due to première on You Tube on Thursday July 23rd, 2020.

Written, directed filmed and produced by Huckleberry Hax, who also takes the lead role of Epi Stömol, a private investigator. Also appearing in the film are Caitlin Tobias as Waarheid and who is also the film’s assistant director and publicist; Ylva as Verity Certain, Boudicca Amat as Istinito Tatsache, Anthony Wesburn as Adevaru) and Mich Michabo as The Quill.

Stylistically, the film is very much shot in the style of an animated graphic novel – think of the likes of Sin City and you’ll get the idea – that grew out of Hax’s writing and Second Life photography. In all it has taken some 18 months to produce, and involved filming in more than 15 regions around Second Life. These include Zee9’s evolving Drune builds, which I’ve featured in these pages on a number of occasions (see: Drune IV: an Aftermath in Second Life, and Drune: a further visit in Second Life, for example), and the (now sadly passed into history) Kun-Tei-Ner by Lotus Mastroianni and Fred Hamilton (see: Kun-Tei-Ner: a water world in Second Life) and Huntington Beach, designed by Jade Koltai, although it has also since passed into a the pages of history (see: A trip to Huntington Beach in Second Life).

Described as being about “history” in the form of climate change and “truth” – topics that should both resonate with an audience, given the current geopolitical situation in the modern world – STÖMOL  is framed around the search for a pair of missing coders, a boy and a girl called the Eye and the Quill respectively, who may hold the key to unlocking the truth about Earth’s current situation- or perhaps they represent something else.

Official history tells us the sky turned red after an asteroid hit the planet and a trillion particles of dust got blasted into the air. But some people say that’s a lie. They claim we did this to ourselves.
They can’t prove any of it. From 1990 onwards – seventy years of history – there’s official conglomerate media only. Systems today don’t recognise the file formats from back then. ‘Digital Hygeine,’ they tell us.

– From STÖMOL

Despite these focal points within its narrative, STÖMOL is a film that came together somewhat organically, rather than building from a set story. Discussing the development of the idea during a segment of Lab Gab, Hax noted the the filming of scenes would take place as locations in Second Life were identified, with the structure of the story not emerging until some 50% of the filming was completed, the actual script / dialogue then following from that.

This is, to say the least, an unusual approach to shooting a film, and appears to be borne out of Hax’s experience with the National Novel Writing Month, an event that takes place globally every year and in which writers are encouraged to write a 50,000 novel across the 30 days of novel – but not to edit or revise as they write, instead allowing the story to shape itself.

Which should not be taken to mean STÖMOL  is in any way haphazard. Quite the reverse; the film demonstrates a high production quality, with many considered creative choices. It is also a film that carries with it a certain twist at the end (although the clue is there from the beginning – will you spot it?), whilst offering a certain amount of hat-tipping to the likes of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 without ever feeling at all derivative.

However, while I’ve been able to see the film in advance of its release, I’m not going to go into further details here, as I have no wish to spoil the public première, the details of which are:

I’ll also have a personal review available following this public première. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek, and you can catch more on the STÖMOL website.

The Virtual Black History Museum: Made in SL and more

The Virtual Black History Museum

Thursday, February 20th saw the release of the latest in the Lab’s on-going video series Made in SL. Subtitled History in SL, it could also fit into the category of Learning In SL, given its subject,the  presents a lesson in both history and education: the Virtual Black History Museum, which has re-opened for 2020’s Black History Month is the United States.

Founded and curated by AbriannaOceanside, the museum traces the often uncomfortable history of African Americans from the days of slavery through to modern times, as well as offering featured exhibitions on African American history and the civil rights movement, with the February and March feature focusing on the Unsung Female Heroes Of Black History – women who may not be as famous as Rosa Parks, but who have nevertheless played important roles in the shaping of African American history in the United States.

Abrianna Oceanside

The museum is split between two min buildings. The first, located alongside the landing point, has within the foyer area a complete reproduction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August 28th, 1968, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.

Through a clearly arrowed door facing the panels bearing Dr. King’s speech, visitors are invited to walk through African American history in America, from 1619 through to the 1960s.

It has been argued that the history of African slavery in America actually dates back almost a hundred years further, to the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape (which also saw the first documented slave rebellion). However, 1619 is not an unreasonable place to start a museum like that, as it was then that a ship privateered by British seamen arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, carrying some 20 African slaves to what might be regarded as the nascent United States as we know it today. Which is not to say Abrianna is in any way ignoring any earlier history of African American slavery in continental America, as I’ll come back to in a moment.

From this point, the museum, through a series of information boards, offers a chronological flow that commences on the ground floor and progress to the upper. This charts the unfolding history of slavery and subsequent matter of segregation, the Jim Crow laws, and the civil rights movement.

The boards can make uncomfortable reading for some, but they do chart a period of American history that forms an important part of the country’s heritage. Currently, they stop at 1965 and the assassination of Malcolm X, and the Watts riots that took place later that same year; but there is a reason for this, which also links back to the use of 1619 for the start of the exhibit, as Abrianna shared with me, as well as revealing some of the future direction for the museum.

At the time I originally set up the museum [2017] I intended to have a build that went into depth as far as what led us to 1619. But a sudden change in real world priorities meant I never had the time for the projects that I now do.

My long-term vision has always been to dig deeper into the “how”; not just a series of events, especially now that I have a more giving volume of space to work within, but also the focus. I want to include an exhibit on modern day issues, like police brutality/high profile cases, the prison system, institutionalised racism in general; it’s a wide topic that would be great for discussion.

– Abrianna, discussing the Virtual Black History Museum and its future

The Virtual Black History Museum

Meanwhile, the second exhibition hall is currently home to the Unsung Female Heroes Of Black History, set to run through to the end of March as noted above. Within it are a series of information boards focusing on nine women noted for their roles in civil rights, LGBTQ issues and as role-models for African American women. These provide an photo of the subject, and a brief outline of her life and work, and are in the process of being updated to direct visitors to a web biography of each woman when touched.

That exhibitions in this building will change around every two months means that visitors to VBHM have an incentive to make return trips to the museum and witness future exhibitions. In this, it forms a part of much wider plans that Abrianna has for public engagement.

I’d love to engage people interactively as well. One example of this would be to stage iconic or significant scenes from the civil rights era that allows visitors to become a witness or participant in them; the Freedom Riders, some of the sit-ins, and Selma.

– Abrianna, discussing the Virtual Black History Museum and its future

The Unsung Female Heroes of Black History

Some of this work will be dependent on Abrianna receiving support – and she is always willing to hear from anyone willing to offer practical assistance; she can be contacted via note card or through the Virtual Black History Museum’s Facebook page. Suitable events are also welcomed at the museum – with the potential for music and arts events already in the planning stages, with Abrianna already looking towards educational opportunities as well – school visits, and similar. So again, those who would be interested in holding a related event at the museum, or who would like to help Abrianna in providing space at the museum as an events venue, should drop her a line.

At a minute and forty seconds, the Made in SL video forms an excellent introduction to the museum, and as excellently narrated by Abrianna, as well as being superbly framed by the use of the famous instrumental version of Billy Taylor’s I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, adopted as the unofficial anthem of the US Civil Rights Movement, with a version with lyrics recorded by Nina Simone. Once seen, a visit to the museum is highly recommended.

SLurls and Links

Taking wing with Made in SL

Marianne McCann gets a little Top Gun as she discusses aviation in Made in SL

The latest Made in SL video launched on Thursday, January 23rd, with a look at the aviation scene in Second Life, and featuring Second Life long-term resident, aviation enthusiast and SL historian, Marianne McCann providing the commentary.

Second Life aviation is a genuinely broad and layered subject to try to cover in under three minutes, but thanks to Marianne’s expertise in the subject, Aviation Made in Second Life packs a huge amount into its brief running time. We get a brief peek at SL history, with names like Garth FairChang and the legendary Cubey Terra rightly popping up, (Cubey actually got me into SL skydiving, which is kind-of related to flying 🙂 ), as well as touching on the range of aviation communities and flying-related role-play in SL by touching on the Passengers of SL group (a good way to get flying with the many airlines and charter flight operations that offer point-to-point services in SL) and a look at the work of the Second Life Coast Guard (SLCG) role-play group that combines airborne and marine vehicles and role-play in places like Blake Sea and its surroundings (I’d personally note that the Get The Freight Out community also encompasses flying – see: An inside look at Get the Freight Out in Second Life).

Also given the short time frame of the film, coupled with the breadth of aircraft content available in SL, Marianne wisely focuses on just a couple of options for getting into the air at the controls, pointing to Sherwood aviation – an ideal for those who wish to have a high degree of simulated realism in their flying – and to Arduenn Schwartzman’s Warbugs, which have been design purely for fun and to allow single-region air combat (I actually wrote about Warbugs back in 2012 in Bitten by the (War)bug, but I confess I’ve not flown my own Warbug “seriously” for about 3-4 years).

Flying in SL takes many forms and includes many different aircraft and aircraft styles. I don’t really have any good examples of “unusual” flying machines, but the Piaggio Orion autogyro is both fun (and challenging at times!)

However, given the range of aircraft is so vast, getting to grips with what to buy can be difficult. Hence, Marianne points to some of the more popular or bigger airports, many of which have vendors offering demo versions of aircraft. In this, places like Hollywood Airport and Hona Lee Field can be particularly helpful, as they sit on the edges of the wide open skies of Blake Sea, where having to compete with skyboxes occupying the same piece of sky as you is removed. Many aircraft makers also have their own airfields where demos are offered, so when parsing the Marketplace for ideas, allows be sure to click any link to an in-world location and go see what demos might be available and give them a go.

As a keen aviator in SL myself, I’d probably also add to Marianne’s thoughts by saying those seeking to ease themselves into SL flying and want to have fun without worrying too much about things like instrument flying via Mouselook or having to learn the correct start-up sequences and so on, might want to try the likes of DSA (available at Hollywood Airport, noted above) for fixed-wing light aircraft flying (I’ve covered several of the DSA aircraft in these pages, and as I noted back in A look at my most-used SL vehicles (thus far!), one of them remains one of my preferred aircraft today; while for rotary flight, the likes of Spijkers Aviation & Marine (just across the channel to the west of Honah Lee Field) offer a range of helos that are pretty easy to master and are a good way to get started.

Airports like Hollywood Airport and airfields can be found throughout the Second Life continents and along the interconnecting waterways and places like Blake Sea and its surrounding private estates

Of course there are some drawbacks to flying (like any other form of SL travel), such as region crossings. However, and like everything else, the best way of dealing with these is by practice and gaining familiarity with the grid’s behaviour. Certainly, fear of region crossings should be a reason to put you off.

All told, a great promotional / introductory video.

Art Made in Second Life: FionaFei’s fabulous shuǐmò

Fiona’s Reflection, as featured in Art Made in Second Life

FionaFei is a relative newcomer to Second Life and its art world, but she is someone who has made an enormous impression on those who have witnessed her art. I’ve personally had the delight in discovering it, and in writing about it on two occasions (see: Captivated by FionaFei’s art in Second Life (May 2019) and FionaFei’s shuǐmò Reflection in Second Life from November 2019).

As such, it was a joy to see that Fiona and her work are the subject of the first video (embedded below) in the Second Life series Art Made in Second Life (itself a further branching of the Made In Second Life video collection).

FionaFei (via Art Made in Second Life)

Fiona specialises in reproducing shuǐmò ink wash painting as 3D sculptures and setting within her appropriately-named Shui Mo gallery space in Second Life.

Also called shuǐmòhuà (suiboku-ga in Japanese) shuǐmò, uses different concentrations of black ink to create an image. Found throughout East Asia, it first emerged in Tang dynasty China (618–907), before spreading to Japan (14th century), Korea and to India. Beside the use of black ink in place of colours, it is also marked by the emphasis of the brushwork being on the perceived spirit or essence of the subject, rather than directly imitating its appearance.

Through her installations, Fiona marvellously brings the entire essence of shuǐmò to virtual life. In doing so, she allows the spirit of this ancient art form directly inhabit us, by making our avatars part of her work by virtue of our presence within it, whether we participate through direct interaction (as with the umbrellas in the “foyer” area that sits between the pieces referenced in the video (Reflection and Rising) or through our entry into, and exploration of, Reflection itself.

Within pieces like Reflection and Umbrella Landscape, and before them Wo Men Dakai (about which I wrote in Captivated by FionaFei’s art in Second Life), Fiona offers a combined celebration of this ancient form of art, a means of reflecting on her heritage, and an opportunity to present her own philosophy on life, as she notes both through the video and in her own writings.

As a Chinese American who immigrated from China at a young age, I created the Shui Mo series as a way of connecting with my ancestry and celebrate centuries of art from old masters who painted using traditional Chinese ink brush style….

…I see life and my journey as a painting. It can be forever an evolving piece … At any given time, you think you’ve reached the end of it, but you can always add to it, layer it, and change it. In a sense, each brush stroke is like a footprint.

– Fiona discussing her art and her world view

Three of Fiona’s traditional Chinese scroll painting – which are actually 3D sculptures, the centre on animated

What is particularly attractive about this short video (running to just under 2 minutes) is the manner in which it reflects the emphasis of shuǐmò. Rather than dwelling at length upon Fiona’s art, or presenting an in-depth look at her life and how she came to Second Life, it provides broader – dare I say  – brush strokes of both. Thus, and like shuǐmò, it captures the spirit of her work and presence hear, rather than more directly presenting the appearance of both, leaving us with the opportunity to discover more by visiting Shui Mo and Fiona’s Flickr gallery.

For my part, I cannot emphasise the sheet beauty and alluring appeal and depth to Fiona’s work, and urge anyone who has yet to witness it to both watch the video and take the time to visit her gallery in-world and fully immerse themselves in her art and vision.

Additional Links

A video of home in Second Life

A look at the new house design, inspired by the Sky Tower from 2013’s Oblivion, (see More on a Sky Tower home in Second Life) as I get back to updating my video capture and editing capabilities.

Once again, Ramin Djwadi’s music from the Westworld series formed the basis for the video, this time the hauntingly beautiful Take My Heart When You Go, from season 2, and which comes courtesy of an arrangement via Lunar Black.