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  1. When I first heard Sony was making an animated Spider-Man film, my first thought was, "Ugh. Really? Have they learned nothing from their past failures with Spider-Man? Why can't they just leave creative control of the character to Marvel, and take whatever money Marvel gives them?" Then, when I heard it would feature the Miles Morales version of the character (from the Ultimate Universe), I was even less interested. Even though I knew people really liked that character, I had stopped reading comics some 20 years before the character was created, so I had no connection to him. Peter Parker, as far as I was concerned, was Spider-Man. Then, after the second or so trailer, I thought, "This has a pretty cool look to it." Better than the typical animated comic book fare. Early positive reviews, and the fact that one of the co-directors is an alumnus from where I work, sold me on the idea of seeing it. So while I was on vacation over our winter break, I did. Now, I almost saw it in 3D. But 99% of the time, 3D is less-than-impressive to me. So since there were more 2D showings nearby, we saw it in 2D. In hindsight, maybe I should've seen it in 3D. But either way, I'm glad I saw it. Because Sony Pictures Animation (not to be confused with their live-action arm who made their other Spider-Man films), absolutely knocked it out-of-the-park. Into the Spider-Verse is a lot of fun. It also has totally unique, and at times breathtaking animation. It's visual style is incredible. It probably looks great in 3D. It's probably one of the few films that really could. The animation is difficult to describe - it's mostly CG animation, but with some traditional animation, and unique texture mapping that gives it a very distinct, illustrative look. This doesn't look like your typical rubbery/plasticky CG animation. This embraces its medium of origin: comic books. Not just embraces, but relishes, basks in, and fully celebrates comic books, using textures reminiscent of Ben Day dots, but in a way that works in CG, rather than on a flat, printed page. Besides the visual look, the animation itself is stunning. There's probably some performance capture mixed in there, but everything is so nicely stylized it never intrudes. There's also just some straight-up cartoony animation as well, and somehow, everything merges together into a cohesive whole. It's unlike any other animated film (or film, for that matter) that I've seen. Visuals are all well and good, but what makes this movie work, or outright shine, are the characters. Marvel made its name because when Stan Lee created characters, he brought to life characters that were interesting as people. Not just as superheroes. The people behind the masks made the characters compelling and relatable, and that's what Sony Pictures Animation has captured here so well. The film centers around Miles Morales and his origin as (one) Spider-Man, and if this is how his character is in the comic books, then I can see why people like him so much. He's his own Spider-Man, with his own family, backstory, issues, and apart from a similar set of powers, isn't derivative of Peter Parker's Spider-Man. They're as different as two characters, or two people, can be. Bound by a common accident, but otherwise completely different. The basic story of Into the Spider-Verse centers around Miles, and other Spider-characters (including Peter Parker's Spider-Man) who are brought together to fight a common foe (of course). Without going into detail, suffice it to say they're all very different characters than the Spider-Man you're used to. Some are more serious, some are played more for laughs, but each are entertaining and engaging in their own way. Stylistically, they're all very different too, as if the movie knows they were all pulled out of different genres of comic books, and is perfectly okay with that. The animation styles for each matches who they are. Given how different they are, it probably shouldn't work. In a live-action film it would be a hard sell. But in an animated film, you can get away with it. Everything is blended perfectly. Cartoons are a wonderful thing. There's great action, great humor, and genuine heartfelt moments. Some of the Spider-characters have less to do than others, but that's okay. The filmmakers knew who to focus on, and when. There's nothing wrong with having some comedy relief, and it's far better when a film like this uses it appropriately - as a break in the action, to lighten a moment, or just for sheer entertainment value - rather than overdoing it and detracting from a main character. Or worse still, using a sidekick as a crutch when the main characters are weak (I'm looking at you - Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Bug's Life, and more other animated films than I can count). The voice casting and acting throughout is excellent. There's not a weak link in the bunch (and Nicolas Cage was a particularly inspired choice). And the post-credits scene is my favorite so far of any movie. Period. Top that, Avengers: Endgame. I don't want to go into any more detail about the movie, other than to say go see it. Set your expectations aside, and just go. It's fun. The animation is a rare, unique treat. The characters are compelling. I'd recommend seeing it in a theater, for the sheer visual experience of it. Maybe even in 3D - and I rarely recommend that. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stands on its own, apart from any other superhero film, animated or otherwise. If you love comic books, see it. If you love animation, see it. If you just want to kill a couple of hours with a bucket of popcorn, see it. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gets a 10/10.
  2. I'm not even sure Ralph Breaks the Internet is still in theaters. I saw this back in November, but only now have had the time to write up a short review for it. Actually, I've got three movies to write reviews for, hence the need to keep them all short. What do you mean, you'll "believe it when you see it"? I don't always write needlessly long-winded, rambling, circumlocutory reviews. And yes, I did look that last one up - I felt there would be additional humor if I made a counterpoint to my own statement within the statement itself. Padding the beginning of this out implies to the reader, "Here he goes again" when in fact, I do plan on making these three reviews more concise. Mostly because I don't feel like writing long reviews today. I'm afraid this newfound (and temporary) brevity has less to do with giving readers a break, and more to do with my own laziness. The point is... I'll be brief. Right. So on with the first one. I really loved the first Wreck-It Ralph movie. Mostly because it was a loving tribute to video games, and more importantly, video arcades, which are now all-but-gone, and were the places I hung out with my friends in high school and college. It was a great nostalgia trip, and a funny movie. I saw Ralph Breaks the Internet at work, which may seem odd if you haven't read some of my reviews before (I work here), but being closely tied to the animation industry, we get special screenings there from time to time in our theater. In this case, co-director and alumnus Rich Moore was there to do a Q&A and introduce the film. Seeing an animated film with 120+ animation students is the ideal audience, since if it's a good film, their reactions are going to be really strong because of their level of appreciation for the work. That was the case here. They cheered, laughed, applauded, and really seemed to love the movie (particularly Gal Gadot's character). Being in that room, it's hard for their enthusiasm to not be infectious. But while I liked much of the film, a lot of it just sort of fell flat for me. It's certainly got its funny moments (including some choice parodies of Disney itself), but I just didn't connect with it like I did the first film, or as much as the students did. The reason? Well, this film wasn't made for me. It's made for the current generation who have grown up on (and are immersed in) the internet and its culture. Even though I've been on the internet since 1994, I don't live there. I'm not into social media. I don't keep up on memes. I don't do online gaming. So while I understood the humor in the film - I didn't connect with it. The students loved it. But I think the real problem I had with the film goes deeper than being generational. Wreck-It Ralph was a movie about Ralph being on a journey of personal growth. He had a character arc where he significantly changed over the course of the film. He learned what his true worth was, and went from selfish to selfless. Other characters had arcs too - Felix became more understanding of Ralph's feelings, Vanellope learned her true potential and realized her dream of being a racer, the Nicelanders learned to be accepting of Ralph, Calhoun moved past the hurt of her previous relationship and found love with Felix. The movie was packed with character development. Not so much in the sequel though. The movie focused almost exclusively on Ralph and Vanellope and their quest to go find something on the internet. It wasn't driven by character development, but rather a MacGuffin. And even though there is some character development with Vanellope, it's all very superficial. As a character, she doesn't really change. She goes through a journey of discovery of sorts, but it pales in comparison to the one she already went through in the first film. Ralph is largely wasted in the sequel, as, if anything, his character actually regresses in order to have some sort of arc forced upon him in order to learn something by the end of the movie. For the most part, he's just used as a point of ridicule where he ends up involved in various internet memes to propel the main quest along. Felix and Calhoun are completely wasted, get very little screen time, and are given almost nothing to do. It's not that Ralph Breaks the Internet is a bad film... it does have some really funny moments, and is generally entertaining and visually impressive. The ending is, frankly, sappy and overly sentimental. Considering the effort that they put into the climax of the movie, I had hoped they'd find a more exciting way to resolve it than what they did. Ralph Breaks the Internet is, if anything, a missed opportunity. Or rather, several. One thing they really missed, was an opportunity to bring in Tron as a side character. After all, Disney owns Tron. The arcade game makes a brief cameo, and Tron himself is called out by name, but seriously - couldn't they get Bruce Boxleitner to come in and even read a few lines for the movie? How much fun would it have been for Tron to be the straight-man in this film, accompanying Ralph and Vanellope through the internet? Discovering that outside of his game, his light disc only has the properties of a Frisbee? It would be a great running joke as his useless Frisbee repeatedly, harmlessly bounced off things, and failed to get them out of several jams. Finally, Tron would get fed up, and bring something over from his game that really worked: a tank! "I fight for the USER!" Go get 'em, Tron! (sigh) But the biggest missed opportunity, in my opinion, was to make the move about Felix. From the very first time I saw Wreck-It Ralph, one line stood out in Ralph's opening monologue that immediately jumped out at me as a film that I wanted to see: "So yeah, naturally, the guy with the name Fix It Felix is the good guy. He's nice enough as good guys go - definitely fixes stuff really well. But uh, if you've got a magic hammer from your father, how hard can it be?" That's the story I wanted to see. How did that happen? What's Felix's relationship with his dad? Does a Fix It Felix Sr. game get rolled into the arcade? Was Fix-It Felix Jr. more popular? Was Sr.'s game a flop? Is Felix embarrassed about his dad? Is his dad resentful about his son's success? Or was Sr. the popular game, and Jr. was only popular at Litwak's? What is the quest that they need to go on? Are they mending their relationship? Or maybe the game arrives without Sr. in it, and they have to go on a quest to find him for the game to be restored. There are so many possibilities here for really good stories, and Felix's story is the one that needs to be told - everyone else had their backstory told in the first film. Then Ralph and Vanellope could be the ones going on the side quest this time. A huge, missed opportunity. All that said (and yes, this counts as a "short" review, relatively speaking), Ralph Breaks the Internet was a bit of a disappointment to me, despite the enthusiasm of the audience I was with. Wait for it to show up on Netflix. Or the Disney Channel. Or rent it. Maybe you'll like it more than me, if you're more immersed in the internet than I am. Ralph Breaks the Internet gets a 6/10.
  3. Watch this teaser trailer for Pixar's Brave... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYg0VgPy6Uk Then this trailer... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEHWDA_6e3M Then this extended scene... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4EZULqhP2E Sounds like typical Disney fare, right? Where you have a girl with hopes and dreams, but has to break free of society's conventions and expectations of her to find true freedom and happiness. And probably some dude to hook up with. But then watch this trailer... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zzSqWUmlts Which film are we going to get? I'd much rather watch the one from the Japanese trailer, than the dumbed-down one aimed at American audiences.
  4. A few weeks back, I wrote about the death of animation news/opinion site Cartoon Brew, as one of its founders - Jerry Beck - left the site. Jerry returned to working on his own site - Cartoon Research - with several long-time contributors. Posting cool articles, oddities and rarities relating to animation history. But news? Not so much. I really didn't want to return to the smoldering corpse of Cartoon Brew, either. But now, Jerry & company have launched a new animation news and reviews website: Animation Scoop. For those of us entrenched in the world of animation, it's nice to have a place to call home again.
  5. Just to provide a balanced counterpoint to yesterday's post, there is proof Disney isn't entirely evil. (And of course, there's always Wreck-It Ralph. Now on Blu-ray!) They're producing new Mickey Mouse shorts, and by the look of the first one... they've actually got it right. A funny Mickey Mouse short... who'da thunk?
  6. So Disney bought Lucasfilm today for $4 billion. Lock, stock and Jar-Jar. I'll admit this took me by surprise, even though Disney and Lucas have teamed up in the past: Indiana Jones (the ride), Star Tours and all of its related merchandise, plus other more questionable crossovers like this: As a friend of mine who works for the Big D pointed out, Leia is now a "Disney Princess". (shudder) Anyway... the question is - is this acquisition a good thing or a bad thing? Well, let's take a look at the bad. Umm... Give me a minute here. Bad... uh... Well, I guess that the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties are now owned by a massive, heartless, entertainment conglomerate that cares more for marketing than anything else could be considered a bad thing. Except for that fact that that really hasn't changed. I mean c'mon... Lucas. Am I right? The Phantom Menace? Attack of the Clones? Revenge of the Sith? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Nuke-proof Refrigerators? A steadfast refusal to stop tinkering with beloved movies and release them in their original theatrical forms? Jar-Jar? Really... apart from The Clone Wars TV series, Lucasfilm isn't exactly batting a thousand lately. Or even crossing the Mendoza line. So would the properties that have already been (in some views) irreparably damaged fare any worse under Disney? I don't think so. In fact, I'm hopeful things might actually improve. Even though Lucas is going to hang around to give input to Kathleen Kennedy (who will be running the Lucasfilm branch of Disney), he isn't calling the shots anymore. And frankly, I think that's a good thing. I think George did great with Star Wars (the original film). But maybe he was more lucky than good. Empire was more Ivrin Kershner's film than George's. Return of the Jedi had more input from George, and look what happened to that big, Muppety Ewok-turd of a movie. And the prequels were, in my opinion, effectively a waste of six-plus hours of time. The Clone Wars TV series has, at times, been excellent, but those aren't directed by George. He's had input into them, but I think they've succeeded more because of other peoples' creative direction. Part of today's announcement was that there will be new Star Wars films, starting with Episode VII to be released possibly in 2015. Now, there's every chance that under Disney's guidance they could be just as big of stinkers as the last three Star Wars films were. But I don't think they could be any worse, and with George not directing them, I think that improves their chance of being better. (Not that Disney has any great track record in making films, mind you.) There are many, many things that could go wrong, of course, but I'm hoping they avoid enough of them to push the movie franchise in a positive direction for the first time since Empire. Had The Clone Wars series not reached some of its heights, I wouldn't be nearly as optimistic. Even then, it's a cautious optimism. As for any concerns that Lucasfilm is somehow "selling out", think about that for just a second. Star Wars has always sold out. From Darth Vader Underoos to C-3PO's breakfast cereal, the only franchise to shamelessly merchandise themselves as much as Disney - if not more - has been Lucasfilm. So I don't see much change there, except to see more merging of Disney and Star Wars characters. Nothing new there. Legos and Angry Birds have already been there, done that. George sold off Lucasfilm because he said he wants to see Star Wars continue on for future generations, and doesn't want to do it himself. Disney makes the most sense. They have the money, resources and marketing machine necessary to handle Star Wars. Nobody else does. Plus they had the money to buy him outright, so George can do whatever he wants to now for the rest of his life without worrying about any of it earning a dime or pleasing any fans. Before, he had to worry about Lucasfilm turning a profit, now he doesn't. Disney now owns Star Wars. All of it. All of the characters, licenses, movies, games, everything. Even the Star Wars Holiday Special. They also own Indiana Jones, Lucasarts, Skywalker Sound and ILM. Disney just bought themselves a big chunk of Hollywood. Frankly, I think $4 billion was a bargain. Disney owns The Muppets, Pixar and Marvel, and haven't made any major mis-steps with them. At least, no more than any other studio would have. (I'm looking at you John Carter and Cars 2.) They've had their fair share of hits and misses, but in the long run Disney is undeniably successful. Whether that comes with anything vaguely resembling artistic integrity or not is debatable. But again - Lucasfilm has done no better. If anything, they've had even more vehement vitriol heaped on them by their own fans over the years. Certainly, this all bodes extremely well for Disney. They've just added a huge new weapon to their already considerable marketing arsenal. I'm hopeful we might even see something fans have long-since written off as impossible: the original movies on Blu-ray. Unaltered. Disney has been doing this with their own theatrical shorts and films for years. This sort of thing is right up their alley. Besides, it'd be a great way for them to cash-in on their newly acquired intellectual property. Certainly, there are some concerns. Will they continue The Clone Wars on its current path, or try to make it more kid-friendly? When they took over Marvel, several ongoing TV series were canceled and rebooted, much to the consternation of fans. Although with Marvel, its various properties were scattered to the four winds and different production companies anyway. Disney has attempted to reconsolidate those properties under one roof. With Lucasfilm, everything has been under one roof the whole time. So we'll see if they stay the course. Hopefully, they'll leave The Clone Wars be. At the very least, I'm sure we'll see it move to Disney XD. There's also a concern about fandom. Lucasfilm is pretty lenient about letting fans make fan films about Star Wars. It's a very open universe, relatively speaking. Disney... not so much. So there could be a culture clash looming on the horizon. We'll see if Disney is smart enough to understand its newly inherited fan base and work with them, not against them. At any rate, it's all very interesting news. Fanboys are all at once rejoicing over the news of new movies, while at the same time lamenting the fact that Disney now owns everything. Others are glad that George is gone, and at the same time worried that Star Wars has lost its visionary. But was it really his vision anyway? Or has it actually belonged to the fans all along, and George was just along for the ride? Well, I guess we'll find out. Just please... no Ewok/Tinkerbell crossover direct-to-video movies. Because that would make me pretty-much throw up.
  7. Coming in 2013, from the makers of Robot Chicken... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yRNXFhboBI What's particularly cool, is that even though Robot Chicken's Star Wars specials were done with the permission of Lucasfilm, this is being created by Lucasfilm. More videos at the official website.
  8. Season 3 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars kicked off a few weeks ago, although I've been too busy to either a) watch all of the episodes or b) write about them, until now. Last season, the series really began to mature, and it grew on me quite a bit. The characters had more depth, the plots were better, and the production values and quality of the animation increased. Season 3 started off with more of a whimper than a bang, but it has already had some high points. The whimper was because the first episode - Clone Cadets - was basically a character piece about a group of clone trainees and how they needed to band together as a team to get through their training. However, since this was a flashback episode about a group of clones we saw waaaaay back in season 1, there was no real doubt about the outcome (admittedly, I'd forgotten about this being the same group, until I read about it online someplace). Still, while not exactly action-packed, there were some interesting behind-the-scenes revelations about how clones get trained and who trains them. And more so, what happens to clones that weren't left in the test-tube quite long enough. Does the name Quasimodo ring a bell? The second episode - ARC Troopers - was shown back-to-back with the first one, since it again featured the cloning facilities on Camino, as well as Quasimodo, and the surviving members of the squadron of trainees, most of whom got killed off in that other episode from season 1. (Oops... uh, spoiler alert! There.) Anyway, the droid army decided to attack the cloning facility on Camino (not Camano), since if they could take that out, then hey - no fresh troops to fight! What was interesting about this episode, was that they mentioned that since Jango Fett died, they were having to stretch out his DNA samples (insert your own joke here), and that some of the more recent clones weren't turning out quite as sharp as a result. So learning a little bit more about the background of the clones (and why eventually there weren't clones in the latter Star Wars movies) was kind of cool. There was also some nifty lightsabering between Anakin and Ventress and Obi-Wan and Grievous, although I think they tend to pace the fights a little too fast, and they aren't as fluid as they should be. The most impressive part of the episode (and the series) are the space battles. Seriously... they had battles in this half-hour cartoon that blew away anything in Return of the Jedi. It's really quite astonishing the amount of work all of that must take (although anymore, it might be just as well to write a video game that contained all the ships, and fight it out real-time on a PS3, and just show that on TV). The third episode - Supply Lines - brought more proof that George just can't be trusted with Star Wars anymore, as once again, Jar Jar reared his ugly head. For whatever odd reason, I was glad Ahmed Best came back to do his voice, because the only thing more annoying than Jar Jar's voice, is some other voice actor trying to do Jar Jar's voice. There were some more impressive battle scenes though, and some nice moments with Senator Organa. (Y'know, with all of his galaxy-trotting, he may not even have been on Alderaan when it blew up. Maybe he was just trying to get out of child support.) Anyway, they had to go somewhere and do something... save some of those blue tail-headed people by negotiating with some neutral planet to let them land for medical supplies and accordions or something. I don't know... I kind of tuned that part out. The fourth episode was Sphere of Influence. Okay, remember the cute blue girl senator from season 1? Well, her chubbier, less attractive sisters get kidnapped by Greedo, and so she teams up with Ahsoka to go find them. Meanwhile, her father and some other guy also go after the kidnappers, and eventually everyone is all happy. And Jabba the Hutt is there, and we get to see his little son, Quonset. I think. Anyway, it's all full of political dreariness intrigue. Something about trade blockades, or treaty violations or something. Whatever. Then, there was Corruption, which was a morality story about how kids having access to soda machines in schools is making them fat. Or in this case, dead. Y'see, there's (another) trade blockade of some sort, so there's a black market for soda ("tea") that's been diluted with antifreeze ("blavin" or something). Why didn't they just dilute it with water? Wouldn't that be cheaper than poisonous chemicals? I'm a Mooga, he's a Mooga, she's a Mooga, we're a Mooga, So of course Padme's on the case, because she's buddies with the senator on that planet, and together they unweave a web of corruption that goes to the very heart of the government of this planet that nobody really cares about - Mandalore. You know - it's where the guys that the Fett's stole their armor from are from. But none of those guys are in this episode. Just lots of talking, a bunch of kids getting sick on expired soda, and a warehouse full of antifreeze burning down. Seems to me the whole thing was just a missed opportunity to slip in a reference to Slurm. After that, we had The Academy - in which Ahsoka is back, and on assignment to teach the just-poisoned-but-now-better students on Mandalore what "Government Corruption" means. They need a 14-year-old to teach them that? Can't they just Google it? Anyway, after taking the lessons to heart, four of the kids go all Scooby-Doo, and go searching for said corruption, and find it. And of course, get into trouble, and have to be bailed out by Ahsoka, who manages to kick butt and save the day without the benefit of a lightsaber. It's actually a pretty good episode, overt educational content notwithstanding. Also, it brings up a point about Ahsoka. She's turning into an interesting character, even more so as the series goes along. In Sphere of Influence, she used a Jedi mind trick for the first time, and was able to levitate another character out of harm's way. So in a way, it's cool to see her turning into a more full-fledged Jedi. Plus, she's picking up some of Anakin's tendencies (and we're seeing more hints of his dark side as well), so it will be interesting to see how this all works out. George said in a recent interview that they have her story arc planned out (and therefore an end to it), but won't get to it for "hopefully a few more years". Will she turn to the dark side? Be killed by Anakin or someone else? Or does some other fate await her? We can only hope she won't turn out like Lindsay Lohan. I'll admit, I'm more engrossed in The Clone Wars than I expected to be by this point. The animation is much improved over the first season (although it's still rough in spots) and the locations, sets, design, detail and scale of everything is unparalleled in any made-for-TV "cartoon" (much less sci-fi in general). The characters are likable for the most part, and they've started to develop a decent roster of villains, too. The plots are often still hit or miss, but the series now has a good overall arc going, and it does add some much-needed depth and backstory to the prequel trilogy. Also, it's apparently bringing in a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, for whom this is Star Wars, because it's what they're growing up with - not the originals, not even the prequels. Man, do I feel old...
  9. The first Cars movie wasn't Pixar's best. Oddly enough, after playing the PS2 game, I began to like the characters more, and therefore, I began to like the film more. I don't think that's going to work this time. Cars 2 isn't Pixar's worst film - that dubious honor still belongs to A Bug's Life - but it's certainly their second-worst. After more thoughtful efforts like Wall-E and Up, and the funny yet emotionally touching Toy Story 3, Cars 2 is a huge step backwards for the studio. The entire time I was watching it, I felt like I was watching a movie made for 10-year-olds. This was a pretty big disappointment, knowing many of the people who work at Pixar (as a result of my time at CalArts, where a lot of the animation industry culls its talent from). I suppose I should've seen this coming, since a couple of years ago (prior to Up being released) a friend of mine there expressed his concern that Cars 2 was going ahead even though no story had been written for it yet. It wasn't just a slight concern either, it was more of a "the hammer is going to fall" concern. But Pixar had managed to pull bad films back from the brink before (Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille were basically gutted and re-made halfway through production), so I figured the same would be the case here. Not so. Cars 2 has potential, but never realizes it. The basic premise is that the now-four-time-champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is invited to race in the World Grand Prix, and somehow he and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) - his rusty tow-truck best friend - get mixed up in a spy adventure. Now, that sounds fun. Reminiscent somewhat of Speed Racer (the series, not the movie), and in Speed Racer, it was all about the racing. The exotic locales, the opponents, the challenge of overcoming adversity, and through it all was the undercurrent of some villainous adversary trying to do something that Speed had to stop. With Cars 2, I expected the World Grand Prix to be the focus. For there to be a lot of racing, and strategy, and exotic locales, and exciting action. Lightning McQueen as Speed Racer. That would work for me. But that's not what this is. After Cars came out, Pixar created a number of shorts called Cars Toon - Mater's Tall Tales. These aired on the Disney Channel, and of course, are available on home video. The premise being, Mater would start off telling a story like, "Why that reminds me of the time I was a famous stunt truck..." and then it would become a fantasy/flashback where Mater would be a stunt truck, and somehow Lightning McQueen was there, and hilarity would ensue. Then they'd be back to the present where McQueen would say, "That never happened", then something from the fantasy would show up to reinforce Mater's story. The end. And Disney could sell toys of Stunt Truck Mater. Entertaining enough as little short subjects, but that is basically what Cars 2 is. It's Mater's film. It's his spy adventure. Racing merely serves as a backdrop in the film, and Lightning McQueen has very little to do in the film (and his cohorts from Radiator Springs are all but left out of the movie). There's almost no time spent during the races, and the results are completely inconsequential. The bulk of the film is spent with Mater and two British spies - Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) - trying to stop a group of evil cars from sabotaging the race for nefarious and somewhat convoluted, yet utterly boring, purposes. Now this could have made for a fun film, but it didn't. The writing simply isn't good enough. The movie's not funny enough. The dialog isn't smart. There are way too many toilet jokes in the film. I don't care if it is a car, I don't want to see it sitting over a bidet getting water shot up its rear-end. I don't want to see it peeing its pants in public (yes kids - incontinence is funny). I don't want to see a bad guy dunked into a tank of raw sewage. I don't want fart jokes. If I wanted to see that kind of crap, I'd go see a DreamWorks film. Even without all of that, what's left onscreen simply isn't very funny, or entertaining, or emotionally resonating, or interesting, or engaging. It's just weak. I counted the times I laughed during the films, and I got four mild chuckles out of the whole thing. There was also something else in this film that really just bothered me though. The whole idea of a Cars world without humans. The first film mostly worked, since it was written and staged so that it didn't seem too weird that there weren't humans in it. You could give it a pass in that regard, if you didn't think about it. But in this film, humans are completely conspicuous by their absence. It's a world built for humans. There are too many things that only humans could do or would need that the world just doesn't make sense. And there are too many inconsistencies, too. Most of the time when cars eat or drink (which in itself is a weird concept), it's oil. They drink that through their mouths (although gasoline gets put in their tank directly). But there's a scene where Mater is going over to a food line, and there's a chef making sushi. Not car sushi... but actual sushi. The whole thing is meant as a way to get Mater to eat wasabi, and subsequently freak out, make wacky faces, and humiliate himself in public. The number of things that they simply gloss over in regards to how things are moved, built, assembled, held, or used by characters who can basically only move their tires and radio antennae is mind boggling. Maybe not to a 5-year-old, but for the rest of us, it's a pretty hard world to accept now. It's just gotten too complex to buy into. (Admittedly, if the film had been more entertaining, maybe I wouldn't have been dwelling on what the filmmakers probably considered insignificant minutiae.) Cars 2 seemed like a film made solely for two reasons: First, to cash in on the massive success of Cars merchandising ($2 billion per year). Every corner you turn in this film, there's a new character introduced that just seems to have "Buy me!" stamped on it. Cars is a natural for merchandising. Mix cartoons + cars and what 3 to 12 year old boy wouldn't want that? It's Disney Princesses for the male demographic (and girls like Cars too, judging by my nieces). Now, you add spy gadgets (and fart jokes) to the mix, and you have a merchandising gold mine. How many different versions of Mater alone can they sell? Normal Mater, Mater w/gatling guns, Mater with rockets, Mater with parachute, Mater with vampire disguise, Mater with bad-guy truck disguise, Mater with lederhosen, funny car Mater, Kabuki Mater, peeing Mater, farting Mater, Mater with removable air filter cover... and on and on and on. Then of course there will be different versions of Lightning McQueen, since he has different wheels and tires in different scenes (I figured out after the fact, that one set was supposed to be the equivalent of dress shoes). And then there's all of the other race cars. And all of the villain cars. And the good-guy spies. And planes. And boats. And on and on and on. The second reason for Cars 2 was that it seemed as if director John Lasseter saw what Brad Bird did with The Incredibles, and wanted to make a spy/adventure thriller of his own. It really felt that derivative, but yet completely lacking in everything that made The Incredibles such an awesome film. From the standpoint of how well the film is made technically, I suppose it's about as good as you could do with the material. It's a decent looking film, but lacks the visual punch of their previous efforts, and lacks the cleverness and visual impact of even the first Cars film (with its expansive desert vistas). They really blew the opportunity to make this a World Grand Prix. Instead, we see snippets of it, and frankly, it looks too much like our own world (again... where are the humans?). The animation is just fair, because there's not much you can do with cars with faces. And if anything, there are too many "cheats" in this film, where the cars try to do too much with their tires (McQueen and Mater do an elaborate handshake which was really stretching beyond anything established in the first film), or too much is left unexplained (too many small objects that would need to be manipulated). There is also one moment in the film where they seem to be poking a little fun at the Chevron cars, which instead just comes across as oddly disturbing and very much out of place (think "eye transplants"). Speaking of out of place, there's a fair amount of violence in this film. Now, probably no more so than a typical spy film, but when a living car is tortured to death on screen, that doesn't exactly seem very fitting for a movie aimed at little kids. In fact, there's some intense and loud action in the film, that was freaking at least one little kid in the theater right out. (Note to parents: you shouldn't be taking real little kids to screenings that start at 9:45 PM.) Cars 2 just wasn't the fun movie it should have been. The humor wasn't up to Pixar's standards. The story was weak. The characters were weak or under-utilized. There was bad casting throughout (the villain was completely forgettable, and while Michael Caine is great in live action, as a voice actor he's downright bland), and there just wasn't enough racing. Someone mentioned to me that he'd thought of it more positively after a friend at Pixar told him to look at it as if John Lasseter was playing with his own toy cars. Rrrright. The only one who has fun when they're playing with toy cars, is the person playing with them. For the rest of us, I guess we're left with the sight of a pudgy, balding, middle-aged millionaire in a Hawaiian shirt, making "vroom! vroom!" noises while pushing toy cars around on a carpet. That's just not worth the price of admission. Cars 2 gets a 4.5/10. (But only because Green Lantern was worse.)
  10. In a word - perfect. While Toy Story 3 was in production, a friend of mine at Pixar (who was sworn to secrecy) would only describe it as "like visiting with old friends". I have to agree with that sentiment. I was concerned that Pixar had an uphill battle in making a worthy sequel to two of the best-loved animated films ever, and the commercials that they've been showing didn't really alleviate those concerns. However, this is easily my favorite of the three. The sense of adventure in this film surpasses the previous two. There are a lot more unknown factors at work in this movie that have never been dealt with in the series before, which makes it more uncertain for the characters, and more engaging for the audience. There are also some of the funniest Toy Story moments in this movie - ever. The commercials, mercifully, haven't really spoiled anything (yet). But if I were you, I'd take no chances, and go see the movie before they let something critical slip out. There's a lot more to this movie than you'd suspect from the commercials, and quite a few things I wasn't expecting at all. They went places I wasn't anticipating, and there were twists I didn't see coming (although there were some things you could kind-of predict, but never quite knew how they were going to get where they needed to). Toy Story 3 felt exactly like it should. Like these are characters we've spent years with (because we have) and who have spent years together. Time hasn't always been kind, but it's all dealt with honestly. There are some tense moments in the film, which some critics have derided as "dark". Nonsense. These moments are essential to the emotional core of the characters and the story, and are more than counterbalanced by the funny and heartwarming moments in the film - and there are plenty of those. (Favorite moment: Mr. Potato Head's mission.) This was the perfect film to wrap up the Toy Story trilogy. Very emotionally satisfying, and extremely entertaining. Well worth the ridiculous amount of money I paid. The short that precedes it - Day and Night - is brilliant. It's very different for Pixar, and shows them being willing to take risks for the sake of making the kind of films they want to make. The only negative is the narration, which isn't really necessary. It seemed a little heavy-handed, and the visuals got the message across just fine without it. I saw it at a packed 10:05 PM showing in 3-D (stereoscopic, that is). The 3-D worked very well, especially in the short film where it was one of the cleverest uses of 3-D I've seen. During Toy Story 3, after awhile, I basically stopped noticing it, which I think is the best thing that can be said about it. It became non-obtrusive. The same can't be said though about the rest of the evening. First, the screen was dirty. This is especially noticeable when watching something in 3-D, since the crud is always hanging in space, in the same location, no matter what else is on screen. After awhile, I could mostly ignore it. Worse though, was the endless string of commercials they run while you're waiting for the movie to start. There had to be a half-dozen or so just for product tie-ins to Toy Story 3. Come on... I'm already paying $16 + snacks to see the movie! Leave me alone for a few minutes, can't you? Then, when the commercials ended, they had you put on your 3-D glasses. Great! Time for trailers, right? Nope. First they had 3-D commercials!! We had to sit through even more commercials, before we could even get to the trailers! I lost count of how many trailers there were. I do remember three things though: 1) there was no trailer for Tron: Legacy 2) Despicable Me looks hilarious, and 3) the Smurfs movie looks like it will be the worst film in the history of everything. Anyway, I highly recommend Toy Story 3. It's a real treat to visit with these old friends again. 11/10 (Okay... that's cheating slightly. But I really did have that good of a time.)
  11. Oh sure... you may love Anime, but do you love it as much as these people? Well, in that case, you've likely been at the 2008 Anime Expo. Even more likely, you're into Cosplay. And frankly, you're creeping me out just a little right now. That said, it's time to check out the Expo's Cosplay photo galleries, and play everyone's favorite game... Dude... or Chick? Play along at home! Just peruse the galleries below, and ask yourself whenever you see someone festooned in all their costumed splendor, "What is that?! Dude... or Chick?" It's not as easy as you might think. Have fun! Day one, part one Day one, part two Day one, part three Day two, part one Day two, part two Day two, part three Day two, part four Day three, part one Day three, part two
  12. I just went and saw Disney's Pixar's Ratatouille last night. Even though Surf's Up was a good movie... Ratatouille is a great one. It's an order of magnitude better than anything else out there. (Sorry, Jeff.) Pixar has set a new standard for animated films. Not merely CG animated films, but animated films, period. The animation is absolutely incredible, and would be, regardless of the medium. Computers do not make animation this good - people do. Pixar has the best animators, and in Brad Bird, one of the best animation directors working anywhere. This film is years ahead of the nearest competitors*. As with previous Pixar films (except for A Bug's Life, which I could have done without entirely, and Cars, which always felt like a videogame to me), I immediately forgot I was watching CG. I was just watching animation. And thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. The only times I remembered I was watching CG, were the times I saw something and was suddenly startled at how effortless they make it all look, when it is as far from effortless as you can get. The origin of the word "animation" means "to instill with life". Life! These characters live. They have emotion. Thoughts. You can see what they think and feel. That they are thinking and feeling. They don't merely move and blink and tell bad jokes. Too much so-called "animation" has been reduced to simple, lifeless devices for moving a film from one plot point to another. Ratatouille is what animation should be, and is at its best. It does my heart good to see a film like this come out of an American animation studio. It makes me realize we haven't completely lost what the Disney studio had once mastered 60 years ago, then seemingly forgot. Remy (left) is discovered by Linguini. Visually, the film is a treat. To be sure, there is some brilliant design work, and amazing visuals in the film, (they obviously had a wonderful time designing the food critic's office), but they never beat the audience over the head with it as if to say, "Look what we can do!" Rather, it all serves the story. Ah yes... the story. It's absolutely delightful. For more reasons than I can easily describe, nor would I want to for fear of ruining any of it, the story is wonderful. There is great humor, and great heart in this film. And perhaps most telling - I couldn't predict where it was going. Far too many films are completely predictable. Ratatouille kept making turns that I didn't see coming, and I never really knew how things were going to turn out. In hindsight, perhaps it's easy to see the path they were following, but while I was watching the film, they had me guessing. Wondering. Worrying. I really cared about these characters, and their relationships. Their futures. This movie has a lot of laughs to be sure, but it also has some very touching and poignant moments in it. And they come across as genuine. Not phony or forced. There is a fragility to the friendships in this film. When two worlds collide as they do in this movie, that's bound to happen. What surprised me the most, was the portrayal of the rats in the film. Without giving too much away - they are rats. They act like rats, and are treated as such. There are some scenes in the films where the rats made me feel slightly queasy, or at least uneasy, the way I would if they were real rats. And yet, they're also very likable - especially Remy (the main rat character). Oddly enough, the simple act of him washing his hands makes it seem that it's somehow okay for him to be touching food. And the food. Food is treated lovingly in the film. A lot of cooking terms are thrown around, and yet, it's still approachable. I must confess to watching the Food Network a lot. But besides following a handful of recipes, I can't really cook. I can't make up recipes, or have an innate sense of how to combine flavors. But the filmmakers managed to convey a sense of what some of these foods in the film must taste like. The amount of effort they put into making it look good (or awful in some cases) is impressive enough, but they found a couple of different ways to attach emotions to food in several scenes, one of which may be my favorite scene in any animated film - ever. (Suffice it to say it involves the food critic.) It's a moment of absolute joy to see a scene like that in a film, and it's one I instantly responded to. If anything, I probably relate to that sort of thing a bit too much... I could stand to eat less of the foods that I do. If food isn't your thing, however, don't worry. The film is first and foremost about the characters. Food just happens to be their passion. Well, one of their passions. I whole-heartedly recommend this film. To anyone. If you're worried about being in a theater full of kids, go to a late showing (I went to one at 10 PM, and there were no kids in the theater at all). Go to a matinee if you're short on money. I spent $10.50 on a ticket, and $10 for popcorn and a drink. Absolutely ridiculous prices, and one of the reasons I don't go to movies anymore. But this was worth every cent, and then some. I'll likely go see it again. I'll certainly buy the DVD the day it comes out. As a bonus, the new Pixar short Lifted that precedes the film is easily one of their funniest in years. Most of their recent theatrical shorts just seem like exercises in making cloth or hair or whatever work. But this one is genuinely entertaining. Several weeks ago, we had the privilege to have it previewed for us by director Gary Rydstrom at the college where I work. It was great fun seeing it again (especially for anyone familiar with audio mixing consoles). And if nothing else... if you've got weather like we've had lately, going to see the movie will get you out of the heat for a couple of hours. (Outside temperature on top. Inside temperature below.) * Note: There are many exceptionally talented animators, artists, story people and even a few directors at other animation studios as well. However, Pixar seems to have a knack for bringing out the best in their artists, or perhaps more accurately, allowing their artists to do what they're able to do best.
  13. No no no... Post Clone Wars is not a breakfast cereal. But that would be kind of awesome - a breakfast cereal where all of the pieces looked exactly the same! No odd-shaped ones or broken bits in the bottom of the box, because, you know... they'd be clones. Ummm... right. Where was I? Oh right, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. So, I used to blog about the show while it was on the air. Then Disney pulled the plug after season 5 without wrapping up the series properly - mainly because Clone Wars was running exclusively on Cartoon Network, which is owned by Warner Bros. Well... Disney can't have that, can they? Buncha jerks. However, that wasn't quite the end. A good chunk of season 6 was completed, and released this year on Netflix. I won't go into every episode and recap everything, but suffice it to say if you have Netflix, it's well-worth checking out. There were basically four main story lines: The first one revealed the origins of the Clone army, how Order 66 worked, and how close the Jedi actually came to discovering the plot. As with much of The Clone Wars, it really helped to fill in some of the plot points from the movies, and add some much-needed depth to them. The second one was about banking. Yay, banking. But it delved more into how the Emperor was manipulating everything behind the scenes. And also, we saw Anakin continue his slide towards the Dark Side. And then there was a story with Jar Jar. And his girlfriend, apparently. Yeccch. But as annoying as Jar Jar can be, the story itself dealt pretty heavily with some interesting elements of The Force™, which lead to... The final story, with Yoda going on a journey to learn more about The Force, including a pretty cool visit to Dagaboh. Some stuff from the movies gets explained in here as well - such as why some Jedi disappeared when they died, and some didn't. Some of it is pretty far out there, but still cool to watch. There's also a set of four story reels on StarWars.com of more unfinished episodes, although I haven't watched them yet. And finally, there were another two stories written - one about Darth Maul which was turned into a comic book, and another which will be released as a novel at some point. Despite this, the Clone Wars did come to an end without really bringing us up to SW: Episode III (although you could tell by the shift in the mood of the series and Anakin's growing conflicts that they must have been getting close), or resolving some of the character arcs like whatever happened to Ahsoka and so on. In the end, The Clone Wars was a really good series. It expanded the Star Wars universe, filled in some gaps, and was more often then not pretty entertaining stuff. But now... there's Star Wars Rebels. Airing on Disney XD (take that Warner Bros.), this series picks up between Episodes III and IV (seemingly closer to IV) with a group of new characters and the beginnings of the rebellion against the Empire. I've watched the first five episodes and so far it's quite good. Like The Clone Wars, it has a young lead character to bring a young viewing audience into the series. But also like The Clone Wars, it doesn't becoming cloying or annoying. The character (Ezra) borrows pretty heavily from Disney's Aladdin, but that's not so much a bad thing (at least he doesn't sing). The tone is generally lighter than The Clone Wars, but then, the Clone Wars are over, and have apparently been for some years. They seem to be trying to strike a mood more in keeping with the original trilogy, rather than the prequels. Although the war is over, there's still fighting going on, and there's still death that happens, so it doesn't treat the rebellion or the oppression of the Empire lightly, but there's a good mix of humor in the show, and the characters they've created seem pretty well thought-out. Two of the lead characters are strong, smart females, which is a plus, since Star Wars has always been a pretty male-dominated universe. It's encouraging to see them continue with that same spirit that Ahsoka brought to The Clone Wars. If I had any disappointment with it so far, is that they've created yet another lightsaber-weilding villain specifically for the show. Look... why not just have Vader in there doing his own dirty work? Isn't he supposed to be hunting down and destroying the Jedi around this time? Squashing the rebels would seem to be in his job description, too. Not that The Inquisitor is a bad character, but he just seems too derivative and frankly, unnecessary. The visual style is a bit different than the Clone Wars. Gone is some of the painterly look of the textures, and the animation seems more refined, but that should happen anyway as studios get more adept at producing CG animation for TV. Some of the inspiration for the look of the show came from Ralph McQuarrie's concept paintings for the original trilogy, and you can definitely see that here and there (one of the characters is based on Ralph's original concept for Chewbacca). The visuals are first-rate, and pretty amazing for what amounts to a half-hour cartoon show. Kids are so spoiled these days. I'm not going to recap the series like I did for The Clone Wars, but I'm definitely going to watch it. Hopefully they'll continue to make fun, interesting, and compelling new Star Wars stories. What with J.J. Abrams directing Episode VII, someone has to. Am I right? Hopefully though, some day, when they eventually end this series, how about a proper wrap-up next time, 'kay?
  14. Because there apparently aren't enough animated dinosaur movies out there already, and because Disney didn't learn their lesson from the last one of these that they made, we have Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. We had a screening of it at work the other week, and while none of the creative team were there to present it, the reps from Disney and Pixar who were there, felt under some obligation to tell us how "close to the heart" this film was for all of them, and how this movie was all about the "power of family". Now, when someone feels obligated to tell you what the underlying theme is for the movie you're about to see, you know you're in trouble. But then, The Good dinosaur has had nothing but trouble since its inception. It was pushed back from its original release date twice, had the original director and producer fired from the project, and with less than six months to go before its release, had nearly the entire voice cast replaced. I'm sure there must be some point at which movie studios see a train-wreck like this coming and it's still possible to stop it. But The Good Dinosaur passed that point, and kept on a-rollin'. Presumably, they got to some point where they'd spent so much money on it, that it made more sense to just try and shove it out the door in whatever state it was in and try to recoup some money from it, than ashcan it completely and try to write off the whole thing. You might have guessed by now that this isn't going to exactly be a positive review. The funny thing is, if you read many of the reviews for this film on Rotten Tomatoes, they all start off about the same way... "This isn't a bad film, but it's not one of Pixar's best," and then the reviewers inevitably find something about the film to praise (typically the visuals or animation), and end up giving it a begrudgingly positive review, as if the fact that it's a Pixar film somehow earns it a free pass. Consequently, the film has ended up with a much higher average score than it really deserves. Well, I'm not giving Pixar a free pass. The Good Dinosaur is, in fact, a bad film. It's borderline terrible. If not for Cars 2 (which will likely, and hopefully, stand forever as Pixar's worst film) this would be right at the bottom. It's so bad, it's really difficult to stick to my spoiler-free policy to accurately describe why it's so bad. While I still hate the idea of spoiling any films for anyone, the simple fact is, there's nothing in this film that's worth seeing in the first place. But I'll use Spoiler tags where necessary. First, let's get the one positive thing out of the way - the backgrounds in this film are astonishing. Even for Pixar, these are breathtaking visuals. They're hyper-realistic, to the point where you'd almost swear you were looking at a pristine, idealized natural environment. It's really next-level stuff, but it's sadly wasted here. I would have rather spent 90 minutes just watching the backgrounds, frankly. So, onto the movie. The premise for the film is that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed, and they continued developing into marginally more intelligent versions of themselves. The movie takes place when cavemen have appeared, so it's basically like a prequel to The Flintstones, except before the humans took over and enslaved the dinosaurs. The film centers around a family of agrarian dinosaurs whose farm is in jeopardy, because a caveman child keeps stealing all of their corn. Now, I'm not sure how a 50 pound kid is eating enough corn to risk starving out five dinosaurs, but there you go. The youngest dinosaur - Arlo, who was born the runt of the litter (see also: Finding Nemo) - is tasked with stopping the kid. Of course things go wrong and the two of them end up lost, and have to rely on each other to find their way home. Now, by this point the movie has already degenerated into a series of predictable clichés, and never manages to find a direction. It's a scattered mess as it jumps between being a family drama, a comedy, a coming-of-age story, an adventure, a buddy film, a western (I am not kidding - there are cowboy dinosaurs in this mess), a kid's movie, and pretty-much anything else you could think of to borrow from other, much better films. None of it is done well, either, as everything comes off as trite and half-hearted, and the characters are generally unlikable or at best unsympathetic. The only character that's remotely appealing is the caveboy (only ever refereed to as "Spot"), and he isn't even the titular character. This is supposed to be Arlo's journey, but as so often happens in animated films, the sidekick ends up being far more interesting than the lead, and this sidekick doesn't even talk. Besides the jumbled, random mess of a plot, I had a real issue with how Arlo's story is resolved. He's effectively bounced along from point to point by circumstance, and by the end hasn't really learned anything. At the end of the film, The ending doesn't get any better from there, either. But then again, by that point I really didn't care. Maybe apathy killed the dinosaurs. So the story is a disjointed mess, the characters are unlikable, and the writing is terrible. The few times the audience laughed at the film were due to it being embarrassingly bad (cowboy dinosaurs) or wildly inappropriate Finally, is the look of the film itself. Yes, the backgrounds were stunning in their beauty and realism. But the character designs had nothing to do with their environment, nor each other. The main dinosaur family looked like Gummi candy. The villains were ugly and indistinguishable from each other, the cowboy dinosaurs were heavily caricatured, and the humans looked like they were thrown together almost as an afterthought. The Good Dinosaur is an eye-roller. There's not a genuine moment in the entire film. It's movie making by committee at its worst, and a huge stumble for Pixar. They refused to let die an idea that nobody thought was working, yet nobody had the courage to just walk away from. Perhaps the biggest puzzler in all is this: why is this movie about dinosaurs? There's no reason for it. The fact that they're dinosaurs contributes nothing to the story. They could have been replaced by almost any other characters, and the movie would have been exactly the same. Maybe for the original concept it made sense, but there was never any payoff here. Maybe they figured they could still sell some cute dinosaur toys. The "Good" Dinosaur, isn't. It gets a 2/10. Go see The Peanuts Movie instead. Or a documentary on Wyoming. Sanjay's Super Team, the latest Pixar short, precedes the movie. It's an admirable and obviously heartfelt effort, but being such a personal film for the director (about being raised as a boy in America with a traditional Hindu upbringing), it felt more to me like a student film or an independent project, than a studio short subject. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and the film was certainly well produced, but for most of it, I just couldn't find a connection with it. Up next... a little science fiction film that some people have been talking about.
  15. So I went to see Frozen a few days ago. Opening week, Black Friday, afternoon matinee, packed house, tons of kids. Now I've been in movie theaters before with lots of kids, and if the movie doesn't completely hold their attention, it's a miserable place to be. They get restless and bored, never sit still, and never stop talking. If a movie is too complex for them to follow, they never stop asking questions. If it's too scary for real little kids (and the parents too irresponsible to recognize that their kids shouldn't be there in the first place) they scream and cry. For a film to be successful in that setting, it has to strike a tricky balance. That doesn't mean the movie has to be dumbed-down to the point of being agonizing for adults to sit through though (despite what movie studios generally think). Kids are a lot smarter than studios give them credit for. A movie should be able to entertain both kids and adults alike - just on different levels. The basic qualities of a good story and compelling characters should be able to entertain kids, and if the writing is smart enough, have enough additional layers to keep adults engaged as well. Going into Frozen, I can't say I was expecting much. It's had a rough life in production. After Disney's The Princess and the Frog failed to be the hit they were hoping for, Disney assumed people were done with princess movies, so they cancelled the ones that were in-progress, including an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. The film Rapunzel was too near completion to outright cancel, and went through a lot of changes before finally being retitled and released as Tangled. When that turned out to be a hit, suddenly princess films were back in, and Disney revived The Snow Queen - following Tangled's lead with a new title - Frozen - and trying to give it the same updated vibe. (I suppose Pinocchio would be re-titled Wooden, Snow White would become Poisoned, and Pocahontas would be… well, it would still just be Boring ). Anyway, Frozen was rushed headlong into production and I wasn't hearing very many positive things about it. Usually if a film is going to be good (like Wreck-It Ralph) there's some advance buzz about it ahead of time. Plus, the early trailers for Frozen - featuring an incredibly annoying and bugg-utly snowman sidekick - left me cold (sorry… ). All that said, I was pleasantly surprised by Frozen. I think this is as close as Disney has gotten to a "classic" Disney fairy tale since Beauty and the Beast. It's not as good as that film, but it has that sort of feel to it, as if they're on the right track. The movie has basically nothing to do with the original Hans Christian Andersen story, so this is very much a Disney story, and as such it comes with the usual Disney baggage - wacky sidekicks, predictable story elements, cookie-cutter characters, forgettable musical numbers, and plot-holes big enough to drive a sleigh through. The point of a Disney film like this isn't so much does it break any new ground, but is it competently entertaining enough for what it is? You know what you're in for when you walk into the theater, just as you already know what you're in for when you wait in line for any ride at Disneyland. So the question is - do you still enjoy the ride? For Frozen, I enjoyed the ride for what it was. They mixed up the formulas enough to make the film interesting, and the wintery setting makes it visually stand on its own (at least as far as Disney films are concerned). One gripe - they didn't do a very good job of establishing that it was warm summer day when the city of Arendelle got frozen. It wasn't until well afterwards that I caught onto that. For all I knew, it was a cold climate to begin with and could have been mid-November already. In many ways, the character of the Snow Queen is treated similarly to the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. The Beast wasn't so much a villain, as he was misunderstood. Here, the Snow Queen isn't so much evil as she is a tragic figure, which leaves her ultimate fate in question (and helps keep some tension in the film). Unfortunately, the film didn't spend nearly as much time with her as it should have. I wanted to see more of the story from her perspective, especially early on. The other characters are likable enough, but most don't really offer anything new. Just the same clichéd Disney characters, with perhaps a little more 'tude. The ice trader Kristoff has some fun moments with his reindeer Sven early on, where since Sven (mercifully) doesn't talk, Kristoff does both sides of their conversations. But it's only used a couple of times, then sadly abandoned in favor of the ugly little talking snowman for comedy relief and plot exposition. The animation is as good as I've seen from Disney in recent years. There's one snow monster which is particularly fun to watch. The problem is - most of it is all so much more of the same. It's competent, solid character animation, but it's not groundbreaking. Disney should be the studio making breakthroughs in CG animation that everyone else is compared against, rather than merely rising to an acceptable level of competency. Part of that is their generic approach to character design. You could interchange Frozen's characters with those from Tangled, and never notice the difference. I keep hoping Disney will cut loose and design something really amazing for a change. Fantasia-level amazing. Disney changed styles radically from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty. There's nothing keeping them from doing the same thing with CG animation, other than the willingness to do so (see also: Pixar, before they became a sequel machine). The songs were okay, but for the life of me I can't recall a single one of them now. Again, they felt like they could have been lifted from any one of a number of other Disney films. The one that the audience responded to the most was a throw-away comedy number where the little snowman sings about longing to enjoy the days of summer. The rest of the songs could best be described as dramatic musical filler. Well crafted, but not critical to the story. Plus, the mix on a couple of songs made it really difficult to discern what the lyrics were. Still though, despite its flaws, Frozen is a very good Disney fairy tale. It certainly "feels" like a classic Disney fairy tale. But perhaps because of that, and the sameness of it all, it never really emotionally resonated with me. But in a theater packed with kids on a busy Black Friday afternoon in Orange, CA, it managed to keep everyone entertained, enough to feel it was worth a matinee ticket and a bag of popcorn. Frozen gets a 6.6/10. (Addendum: I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Frozen was mercifully free of poop and fart jokes. A definite point in its favor.)
  16. Let's see, what bad things have happened in animation recently? Well, DreamWorks is reportedly laying off 20 - 25% of their employees. Rhythm & Hues is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And the website Cartoon Brew is dead. Where did I read about all of these? Why, Cartoon Brew, of course! Cartoon Brew has been, for better or worse, a central source of animation-related news and opinion for the last nine years. Co-founded by animation historian and author Jerry Beck and some other guy name Amid Amidi, the animation industry has had a love-hate relationship with "The Brew" for years. Mainly, people loved Jerry, and hated Amid. Jerry is the quintessential nice guy, respected author, and his love for animation shows through his every writing. Amid, by comparison, is the very definition of an internet troll. I have yet to meet anyone in the animation world who likes or respects him. How he ever got work writing animation books is beyond my comprehension. If his typical self-aggrandizing, inflammatory blog posts are any indication of his writing "skills", why on earth would I ever want to buy an entire book written by him? Now Amid is the sole owner of Cartoon Brew. For whatever reasons, Jerry has left. Bought out by Amid. There is no reason left to read Cartoon Brew anymore, because the voice of reason of Cartoon Brew has left. And in typical fashion, comments for the posts announcing the buyout and Jerry's farewell have been disabled. Such a shame. The flame wars would have been most entertaining. Oh well - one less website to check. Saves five minutes out of my week.
  17. I rarely blog about my job since hey, it's a job. But this post isn't so much about my job, but rather my alma mater. Both of which just happen to be the same place. CalArts. Y'see, the LA Times posted a little article today about how films that have been directed by CalArts animation alumni have collectively grossed over $26 billion dollars worldwide. Billion. With a "B". Like Carl Sagan would say: "Billllyuhn." There's a handy little "infographic" about it on CalArts' website. I happen to know about this, since I was the one who gathered all of the data. It's all online. IMDB, Box Office Mojo, Wikipedia. Feel free to look it up. I was curious about it after seeing this chart, so that's what I did. Now, this is strictly box offices grosses. Not home video sales. Not video games. Not TV series. Not advertising revenue. Not merchandising. Or theme park attractions. T-shirts. Candy. Underwear. Just box office grosses. The actual revenue these properties have earned is known only to the studios. However, it is known that Cars alone rakes in about $2 billion per year in merchandising. So you might think then, "Cool... I bet CalArts is just rolling in dough, right?" Uh, no. Just to clarify that point, that would be a "no". In case anyone was wondering.
  18. The trailer for Cars 2 has been released: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFTfAdauCOo It looks pretty good. I'll admit I was skeptical about Cars 2, since contrary to most Pixar films (where they put story first), I'd heard reports that Cars 2 was green-lit and scheduled before a story was even in place. Why would Pixar do that? Simple. The Cars franchise pulls in some 2 billion dollars a year in merchandising. Two. Billion. With a "B". Now, the idea of a spy story centering around a world Grand Prix race is hardly new (see also: Speed Racer - the TV series), but it hasn't really been done very well at a feature film level (see also: Speed Racer - the movie). Of course, with Cars, it's a natural. And while I'd like to think that the Pixar folks decided to go this route* because they came up with a good story, I have a sneaking suspicion the conversation went more like this: Marketing guy #1: We need to capitalize on Cars. That means more characters to merchandise, and that means a sequel. Marketing guy #2: Why don't we just make a series of short films? Marketing guy #1: Not enough box office potential. Nope, we need a sequel to milk this for all it's worth. Marketing guy #2: Well, how can we improve the appeal of the brand to the target demographic of 5 to 12 year-old boys? What's more appealing than cars that talk? Marketing guy #1: How about cars that talk... with spy gadgets!! Marketing guy #2: Awesome! That has huge marketing potential! And how about if they transformed into giant robots? Marketing guy #1: Don't be stupid. Nobody would buy that. Anyway, I'll go see it. Even though at first I didn't care all that much for Cars, it grew on me after awhile. In part because I played the PS2 game, and the whole concept lent itself perfectly to video games. So I got to explore the world, interact with the characters, and because the game design so closely mimicked that of the film, the two media blended together nicely. And Cars 2 looks even more geared* towards the inevitable video game tie-in. Besides, the villain's henchmen are AMC Pacers and Gremlins. How can you not like that? * puns not intended Also out recently, is the trailer for Disney's next traditional animated film: Winnie The Pooh: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbFz--GCkOM I wasn't all that much of a fan of the first one... so I'll probably pass on this one. I suppose I should feel guilty for not supporting the animation industry more, but the fact of the matter is, I'm not going to plunk down $20 to go see a movie I'm not interested in. If they make more films I want to go see, then I'll pay to go see them. Case in point: I still haven't decided if I'm going to see Megamind yet or not. I can't say I'm all that enamored with another Dreamworks re-hash of a concept Pixar already did (see also: Toy Story/Small Soldiers, A Bug's Life/Antz, Finding Nemo/Shark Tale). I also doubt I'll go see Tangled. From what I've heard (from people working on it) it looks great, and the animation's amazing. The story? "Pretty good." It's yet-another-Disney-princess-film, and all of the panicked, last-minute re-branding they've attempted with it just won't change that. Sorry, but I'm not really in that demographic. But if some people from work go, I'll tag along. But I reserve the right to skip out to get popcorn during the "wishing" song.
  19. Are you in college, planning to go to college, or planning to send kids to college someday? Don't ever, EVER take out a student loan from Sallie Mae. Be wary of any loan company that might sell your existing loans to them, as well. They're evil. I will be well-rid of these conniving, thieving, dishonest, money-grubbing, manipulative, opportunist robber barons, the day I finally get my last loan paid off. I don't "hate" very often, but I hate Sallie Mae. I've come to personify the company as some crotchety, cantankerous, nonagenarian old broad, sitting on a rocking chair (next to her sister Fannie) on the porch of an old house packed to the rafters with cash stolen from bankrupt college students, taking pot-shots at passersby with a shotgun, screaming, "Git away from mah MONEY!" BLAM!! She's been freeloading off of me since the day I graduated, so I've been trying to pay off my loan as fast as I can, so I can finally kick her out of my house. This has been to the exclusion of doing other things - like going to CGExpo or California Extreme this summer. Or buying a new computer. This year, I've managed to pay down the loan quite a bit. I was expecting when I got to the end of this year's payment book (they send out a booklet each year with payment slips for each month), that they'd send me another, and I'd keep making my monthly payments as usual, and just end up paying the loan off early. Right? Make sense? No. They didn't send me a new payment book. I called them. They said they'd mailed me a new one, and it should be arriving soon. It didn't. I called them again. They weren't going to send me a new payment book. I didn't need to make another payment until 2013, because I'd "paid ahead". Ummm... no. That wasn't the point here. The point was to take payments off the end. Not to pay ahead, you idiots. Can I get a new payment book now? No. I didn't need to pay again until 2013. Therefore, the new payment book would arrive then. Then I asked them the question they didn't want to answer... "But isn't my loan still accruing interest during that time?" "Ummm... I'll have to check on that. (Long pause) Yes, your loan is still accruing interest daily. But you don't need to make a payment again until 2013." Riiiiight. So now it becomes clear. They were going to suck another THREE YEARS of my money away as interest, without communicating this to me in any way, shape or form. Evil, greedy, stupid, lousy, useless (insert long string of expletives of your choice here), money-grubbing crooks! So in the end, I find out I can pay on the loan now anyway, but I have to go to their website to find out how. And pay on it I will. As fast as I can financially afford to. I want to deprive them of as much interest as I possibly can. Then I'm going to kick that old broad out of my house. And I'm going to enjoy it.
  20. Tron: Uprising debuts in June on Disney XD. Looks stylish! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ds_ukdV7Kw http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K17aH76uNv8 Not quite sure about the lead character, Beck, though... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPfmNxKLDG4
  21. Been piecing away at this one for a few weeks now... May 5th, 2011... Remember this entry? It featured the first appearance of the HD can-of-worms which we were just about to open up at work. Four years ago. Well, in honor of us finally achieving high-defness at work, I decided to finish it up in color. Ooooooo... I painted over the original sketch in Painter, and it just looked better with the sketch left intact, rather than a clean background. Not sure why. Maybe I'm just too used to seeing the original sketch in all its messy goodness. Nothing ruins a perfectly good sketch like going back in and trying to make it look "finished". Anyway... So yes, we finally went full HD this year. 23.98 fps, 1920 x 1080p. All of the students in the Character Animation program had to produce their films in that format this year. We used Apple's ProRes 422 (HQ) codec, since it maintains broadcast quality*, but at manageable file sizes and bit rates. The reason for 23.98** is that it goes more places without conversion than 24 does. DVD, Blu-ray, broadcast TV, SD NTSC, all take 23.98 with minimal fuss. Plus in the extremely unlikely event anyone needs to go to film, it's a very easy matter to convert it to 24 (or if going to PAL, to 25). Seems to me I mentioned that we were making the leap to HD before. Ah yes... here we go. Now, despite some server-related headaches (especially in the first semester, where the word "plagued" comes to mind) the whole transition went pretty smoothly. Much more than I expected. In fact, out of 145 films turned in, only about 10 were in the wrong format, and those were fixed by the students pretty quickly. Some years we've had 25 - 30 wrong, and they tended to be more wrong than the relatively minor issues from this year. I think some of that improvement came from the awareness there had been a major format change, so the students knew they had to pay more attention. Some of the improvement also came from the format itself, since with our old standard-def production path, we were using 29.97 fps as the target (which involved 3:2 pulldowns and other icky stuff), and the codec we were using (DV-NTSC) used non-square pixels. Try explaining those concepts to a student sometime. I think the biggest piece of the puzzle though is that our technical faculty did an excellent job of getting the information out to the students, helped out by the fact that we were able to hire on a full-time position for the first time in years, so the students always had someone on-hand to go to with production questions. Still, until all the films got turned in, I had no idea how it was actually going to work out. Prepare for the worst, hope for not-quite-so-much-the-worst and all that. Oh right... did I mention I was going through our Open Show crunch again? Yeah, that just happened. I'll recap. Student films were due Monday, April 25th. (Edit: Hard to believe it's a month ago now.) As usual, I came in for a few hours over the weekend before, then I was at work about 18 hours on Monday. The films were due at 4 PM that day, but our Program's Director decided to extend the deadline a couple of hours (which pretty-much happens every year). So there's this mad rush where all of these films just come piling in at once. It then takes me until 2 or 3 AM to sort through everything, check all the films, then e-mail the students who have problems they need to fix. The next few days are spent dealing with fixed films and stragglers who missed the deadline, assembling the show, and mixing the audio. A lot of my time is spent just with file management and keeping everything sorted out. Every year I worry that somehow, I'm going to miss including someone's film. So far, as best as I can recall, that only happened once, and it was so long ago, I don't even remember when it was. But the whole thing is like juggling cats. Angry cats. Angry cats that are wet, and don't want to be juggled. Once the films are all finally correct and sequenced in Final Cut Pro, then I go through and spend a day or two "mixing" the audio for the whole show. Now I say "mixing" with quotes because it's not really mixing as such, but more like really roughly adjusting the audio levels so as to not cause the audience any undue pain or ear bleeding. In the last couple of years, I spent way too much time fixing audio problems within films. Boosting weak dialog, rolling off sound effects that were too loud, etc. But I decided this year not to do that because a) it takes way too long and b) it really doesn't let the students hear why they need to pay more attention to their sound in the first place. So I went back to what we used to do, which was just balancing the levels from film to film, so the whole show played at a reasonably consistent volume. This still takes some time though, since the show was 5 hours and 21 minutes long. That's just one pass through it, so to go back and forth through the whole show and mix the whole thing took about 12 - 15 hours. Fortunately though, because we've really made a major effort over the last few years to improve our curriculum in regards to sound design, the overall sound of the films was better this year than it's been in a very long time.† Now, that may seem like a long show, but that's actually pretty short for us. In recent years, we've had shows with about the same number of films that were 7 1/2 hours long. This year, for whatever reason, there were just a lot of short films. And frankly, I think that was a good thing. Maybe students are realizing that completing a more manageable project is better than turning in an incomplete "epic". The show was finished up Thursday (the 28th), at which point I sat down and watched the whole thing, beginning to end. Usually I have to do this anyway, as the show was output to tape. But this year - no tape. Still, I felt it important to make sure the whole show played properly, and at a consistent volume. I have a really nice production HD monitor on my editing station at work, and the films just looked amazing. The difference in detail, clarity, and image quality was startling. I rendered out the final show into three large chunks (as opposed to 145 little chunks), and I went home to get two hours of sleep. Friday was spent getting in the rental equipment for the sound system and prepping the playback systems. In one room ("The Palace"), we would be running the films for the faculty (so they could judge them for our Producers' Show - a smaller selection of films shown to the animation industry), starting Saturday around 9:30 AM. Then starting at 2 PM Saturday, we'd start the Open Show in the Institute's Main Gallery for the students and public. So I have to have two systems in different locations, running the same material, but offset by a few hours. The Palace also had to be set up with tables, power strips and extension cords for the 35 or so faculty (and their laptops) who would be watching the films and then scoring them using an online form. (While online scoring requires more setup, we no longer have to tabulate the results by hand which used to take hours.) This setup took a lot longer than expected, so I didn't even get around to starting on the playback systems until around 10:30 PM, Friday. Fortunately, there is already an HD projector and sound system in The Palace, so I only needed to make the playback system play nice with it. Then I had to retrieve the projector for the Main Gallery, then calibrate and test it with its playback system so there wouldn't be any surprises on Saturday. We ran the shows straight from Mac Pros through HD interfaces (one from Matrox, the other from AJA), and into the projectors with either HDMI or component connections. But since I'd never used those interfaces with those projectors before, coupled with my already sleep-deprived state, it took me until 4 AM Saturday morning to get both playback systems working properly. Then I had to be back at work by 9 AM. Three whole hours of sleep. But at least the judging setup was all done before I went home. (Somewhere in there, and I'm not sure when, I also had to make the judging forms for the faculty screening, and the printed programs for the Open Show. That might have been Thursday. It's all a bit of a blur, now.) Saturday, we had to transform the Main Gallery into an impromptu movie theater. We used the same set-up as last year: four 15" JBL Eon speakers plus two 18" powered subwoofers for the sound system (rented from Location Sound, and kindly set up by a couple of my fellow techs who were nice enough to come in on their day off), a 20-foot-wide screen (rented from and set up by American Hi-Definition), and 300+ chairs. This all had to be done before the show started at 2 PM. (Fortunately, in addition to the techs who came in, we had a lot of help from our T.A.s and other students.) That just left the projector. Since I had stayed up the night before calibrating and testing it, I just basically had to point it at the screen, plug it in, and focus it. Mostly. Now, you might notice that the worms in the cartoon above aren't actually high-def. If they were, that image would be 1920 x 1080. There's a reason for that. I got about halfway through painting it, before I realized I was working with a low-resolution scan. Such are the side-effects of sleep deprivation. I decided to just leave it, since for a blog entry, it wouldn't really matter. But it's somewhat apropos that it isn't in high-def. You see... the Open Show wasn't actually in high-definition either. Oh, the films were all in HD. The show was edited in HD. The playback files were all HD. The computers were outputting HD. The faculty got to watch and judge the films in HD. But the Open Show itself wasn't projected in HD. Not in the Main Gallery. It was projected at a meager 1024 x 576. About 1/2 of HD. Why? Well, without getting into politics, let's just say that the cost of renting a true HD projector for the Open Show was deemed as "too expensive" so we had to use what we had on hand. From my standpoint, I thought that the expense would have been well worth it. After all, this is the only show where all of the students get their work shown in front of an audience. But hey... not my call. I made my case the best I could. Still, the picture was a lot better than in previous years. Except for the glitching. You see, the projector didn't like HD. In fact, the only signal we could feed it from the interface that it would even display was 1280 x 720i at 59.94 fps. So the image was already being scaled down once, and then the projector scaled it down to its native resolution - 1024 x 768. But it had to letterbox it, since we were feeding it 16:9 video, and the projector was 4:3. Apparently, it was all a little bit more than the projector could handle, because anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes apart, there'd be a horizontal glitch across the bottom of the image - just like noise on a video tape. Two steps forward, three steps back. Despite that, the show went really well. We had to have a break in the middle from 6:30 - 10 PM due to another event taking place in an adjoining space, but because the show was shorter overall, we still wrapped up around 11:30 PM. Much earlier than previous years.‡ Except for sneaking out to grab a quick lunch, I had to stick around for the entire show (in case of any technical problems) and during the break as well, since when the judging was over (around 7 PM), I had to sit down with the Program's Director to tally all the results for the Producers' Show. I eventually left around 2:30 AM, because I had to stay and break down the equipment and put it away. Then after another three hours of sleep, I had to be back by 7 AM Sunday to meet with the screen rental company for pickup. I finally got home just after 9 AM Sunday, and could finally collapse and start catching up on some sleep. Sort-of. May 14th, 2011... Between then and May 12th, I had to get things ready for the Producers' Show. This is a lot shorter of a show (this year, only 67 minutes), and much easier in most regards to putting it together. For me, anyway. Not so much for our sound faculty - Ben - who did 5.1 surround mixes for all 23 of the films. This is his second year of doing this, and the difference it makes is like night and day. But with sound. My week is mostly spent getting the program put together. Students design it and create artwork for it, but all of the typesetting, final layout and prepress work is done by me (and, of course, it has to go through several rounds of approvals). Then I have to work with the printer to make sure it gets done on time (this year, it was delivered at 2 PM on the day of the show... we need to work on that for next year), while coordinating with the theater and the outside companies we'd be working with on the day of the show. Once the sound mixes were done, I then had to cut the show together and render out the final playback files, test everything, and make any necessary tweaks. After a couple of last-minute fixes, I finished the final output files about Noon on the day of the show, and then packed up everything to take to the theater. This year - with the move to HD and the extra work being done for the sound mixes - we did get to put some money into the Producers' Show screening. After all, this screening is for industry big-shots (who also pay to sponsor the thing), in addition to our students. The show takes place at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Theater in North Hollywood. In previous years, we played back standard-definition Betacam SP tapes, which only used two-track audio. You could get Dolby 2.0 (Lt Rt) surround off it, but at best that was only sort-of surround, and the theater had no HD video playback capabilities. So we hired American Hi-Definition to bring in a Christie Roadster 18K HD projector (about $90,000 worth), and Dolby (yes, that Dolby) to set up the surround system there to support true 5.1 surround. Now, while we'd had American Hi-Definition set up screens for our Open Shows before, we'd never worked with them for the Producers' Show, nor had we worked with Dolby there. So I had no idea what to expect, how long setup would take, what sort of problems we might encounter, or how any of it might work with the Mac Pro and AJA Io HD we were bringing for playback. Our show was scheduled for 8 PM on May 12th, and we were going to meet up at the theater at 4 PM that day. I was seriously worried we wouldn't have enough time, since I'd never done any of this before, and we had to start seating people at 7:30 PM. The fact that I left for the theater later than I wanted to and showed up exactly at 4 PM (and not 15 minutes early, like I'd wanted to) only added to my anxiety. In fact, I remained stressed-out until shortly after 4 PM when they started setting up in the projection booth, and it became clear that our show was in excellent hands. Within maybe 30 minutes, everything was basically set up and ready to go. 30 minutes. 35, tops. My stress over this had been building up for weeks, if not months, and the last couple of days had been nearly unbearable at times. And within minutes - gone. The word "professionalism" only scratches the surface with these guys. They were well-practiced, efficient, calm, knowledgable, self-assured, and absolutely, thoroughly professional. It was a real joy to watch them work, and immediately put all of my fears to rest (plus, the sheer geek-factor of the gear they were using was pretty awesome, too). The fact that they all knew each other (it's a small world after all...), and had all worked at that theater before helped, since everyone already knew what everyone had to do. I basically just had to set up our computer system, plug it in, and the picture and sound were perfect. No muss, no fuss. I especially can't speak highly enough about the projector. The picture quality was astonishing. Razor sharp, crystal clear, super bright, saturated, and perfect color. In the 17 years I've been doing this (that's about enough...) this was the first time I've ever been completely satisfied with the presentation of the show. There's always been something in past years I haven't liked, but this year it was flawless. Now, that's not to say I still wasn't nervous during the show. We'd brought two pre-configured Mac Pros (one as a back-up), plus a third copy of the show on an extra hard drive, just in case. Once the show started, I never left the projection booth until the last frame of the show was off the screen. Admittedly, it made the show a lot less enjoyable (projection booths are noisy places with lousy views of the screen), but I never would have been able to relax if I'd been down on the floor. Next year though, I'll have a better idea of what's going to happen, and I think I'll be in a lot better frame of mind for it. I'm also hoping we can get a MacBook Pro with a Thunderbolt hard drive for playback, since those Mac Pros are heavy. The screening by all accounts was hugely successful. Or so I'm told. Because we had no safe place to lock up the Macs, I had to load them into my car immediately after the screening ended, and drive them back to CalArts. I couldn't stick around for the reception afterwards. I would've liked to have heard what people thought of the presentation, but I'll just have to go off of second-hand accounts. But everyone seemed suitably impressed. With any luck, maybe they were impressed enough so that next year, we can rent a proper projector for the Open Show as well. Fingers crossed. With that, here are the films from this year's Producers' Show (not all are online yet, but I'll update links as they become available): Opening Titles - Jeff Liu (and many others) little boat - Nelson Boles Marooned 3 - Tom Law Paraphernalia - Sabrina Cotugno Sharkdog - Eric Anderson My Grandfather's Ship - Trevor Jones Shell Out - Sunmee Dong Origin - Jessica Poon Shape - Eusong Lee The Trackpad Jam - Jeff Liu Brave - Jasmin Lai Berdoo - Miranda Tacchia GrandMugged - Jacob Streilein We'll be fine, probably. - Sam Kremers-Nedell Hummingbirds & Holograms - Jeff Liu Vampire Gastelbrau - Hannah Ayoubi Give Me Space - Brian Carter Bottom Feeder Blues - Colin Howard Blueberry - Glenn Williamson The Funny Thing About Lois - Amelia Lorenz Lemur - Takehiro Nishikawa 500 Days of Winter - Natalie Wetzig Eyrie - David Wolter And while the following films didn't make the Producers' Show, they're some of my favorites from this year: Ima Loose Cannon - Tom Law a.breeze.from.mt.Parnassus - Vitaliy Strokous Unlocked - Tahnee Gehm May 26th, 2011... Since then, besides recovering (it takes me weeks to get back on a normal schedule, and I'm still not there), I've been mostly working on getting the DVDs of the show authored and duplicated (including the labels, inserts and cases), and getting projects lined up for the summer. At some point, I'll be making Blu-ray discs of the shows. But that can wait for a little while. I've got some other projects to deal with, first. And some time-off to take. *Actually, most "broadcast" HD is so badly compressed by the time it gets to your TV that everything we're doing ends up looking far superior. **Yes, I know. It's actually 23.976, but most production software rounds it off to 23.98. †1994, to be exact. That was the last year where every 2nd through 4th year student was required to have a sound mix. After that, we went digital, so everyone could do their own sound. This is good and bad. Good in that students have far more control and flexibility in regards to their soundtracks. Bad, in that many of them wait until the very last second to do their sound, and tend to just hastily slap their sound together without giving it the attention it really needs. ‡When we used to have the Open Show in the cafeteria several years ago, we couldn't even start the show until after dark, because it had windows on all sides. That meant sometimes the films would run past 4 AM, and then we'd have to take everything down and clean it up.
  22. Well, the San Diego Comic Con happened recently. One of these days, I must really go and see it. Not because I'm into comic books (I was cured of that particular disease years ago), but because of the whole spectacle of the thing. Yes... I'm talking about Cosplay again. This is what happens when Gorfs intermarry There's a rather impressive bevy of barely bedecked babes, people who've packed on ponderous poundage, comedic creative costuming, and just some stuff that you have to see to believe (although actually understanding it isn't required). Who you gonna call? I know who I'm gonna call! So here are some links for ya': Joystiq's Comic Con gallery Rotten Tomatoes' Comic Con gallery The Great White Snark's galleries: Day 1 Part 1 Day 1 Part 2 Days 2 and 3 Part 1 Days 2 and 3 Part 2 My personal favorites are Chunky Iron Man, Li'l Yoda, Boba "The Pimp" Fett, Budget Transformer, Groping Stormtrooper, The Tetris Family, and a nice Pair of Tomatoes. Enjoy!
  23. Well, I hadn't originally planned to go see Kung Fu Panda, because most Dreamworks animated films are dreck. Seems to me they even have a few films named Dreck or Wreck or Shlock or some such thing. Whatever. But when positive reviews started showing up on Cartoon Brew, I thought I'd go see it anyway. The readers on Cartoon Brew tend to be pretty merciless when reviewing animated films that don't live up to their (generally over-inflated but often accurate) standards. So, as part of work-related research, I skipped out... I mean... took an extended lunch... and went to go see it today. And I have to say, it's not bad. Actually, it's pretty good. Not great. But pretty good. Very watchable, in fact. And, at times, even funny. Okay, it's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I'll admit I'm more than a little biased against Dreamworks, and have a hard time admitting they made a... okay... I'll say it... a good film. And actually, I'm glad they did. Moreover, I'm glad it's a success at the box office, because maybe it will encourage them to make more good films. It's certainly a better film than Meet the Robinsons or Chicken Little. Way, way better. Way, way, way better. So, what did I like about it? Well, Jack Black was funny as the title character - Po. I'm not sure how much leeway he was given when laying down the dialogue, but I would think it was quite a lot. It sure sounds like stuff he'd come up with anyway. At the very least, someone knows how to write for him very well. The main villain was fun, although his voice could have been better, but he still came across as menacing and still super-cool at the same time. There's a delightful turtle character in there which is wonderfully animated (I almost typed "acted" - which is really what animation is, at its best). Also, the rhino prison guards were very cool, as were some of the bird characters (a crane and some ducks). Good voice work and really fun, expressive animation. The animation for the action sequences was absolutely amazing, and given the different character types and complexity of the movements, that stuff must have been a nightmare to animate, yet it all came off beautiful and fluid. The film looked good, too. It wasn't particularly ground-breaking in terms of visual styling (although the prison and misty chasms were very cool), but everything was well designed and built, and felt very true to the world it takes place in. There were some character design issues with the feline character faces though - as if they weren't very well thought-out from every angle. Some angles just didn't look right, as if the faces were pasted onto the fronts of the heads. There is an opening sequence done in 2-D however that's really very cool looking (as are the end credits). I wouldn't mind seeing a whole film done in that style actually, although Dreamworks actually had to farm that animation out to a former Disney animator, since they aren't set up for any 2-D work. What didn't work? Well, most of the voice casting, except those mentioned in the previous paragraph. The problem is with "celebrity voice casting" rather than "casting the right voices for the characters". Actually, going into the film, I only knew of Jack Black's character. I wasn't aware Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and others were in there, because their voices were so bland and lifeless for these characters, they were unrecognizable. That isn't to say you should recognize a character's voice and dwell on who's behind it, but rather that the voice should be distinct, interesting, and help convey the character - rather than just sit there and read through the script, half-asleep. Dreamworks needs to cast for characters, not for name recognition. Also, the plot was extremely predictable. It's hard not to figure out exactly where the film is going pretty-much right from the start, and to stay ahead of it for the entire film. No real surprises, at least none that are important to the plot. But there were some jokes and sight gags that caught me off guard. I'll admit to laughing out loud a number of times at this film, which is pretty rare for me (although I didn't laugh nearly as much as the "dudes" who were behind us, who thought everything was funny). I'll also give mad props to Dreamworks for keeping pop-culture references out of the film and keeping butt jokes to a minimum. Very refreshing to sit through a film, and not have that stuff thrown in my face. Overall, I liked Kung Fu Panda, which surprised me. I'll probably even get the DVD to watch the fight sequences. Despite the largely bland voice acting, Jack Black really makes the film fun to watch (and as the lead character - he'd better), and although the plot is predictable, at least it's still an engaging plot with likable characters. Hopefully, Disney is paying attention. Definitely worth checking out. Especially if you like Kung Fu films. 8/10 P.S. And stay through the credits of this one, too. Not as cool as Iron Man, but still worth seeing.
  24. Remember the movie Escape from New York? Near the end of the film, there's a scene where Kurt Russell and everyone is running through the lobby of the World Trade Center. That was actually shot where I work - at CalArts, in the Main Gallery. The only thing I'm not sure of, is if they made it messier for the movie, or cleaned it up for the movie. (That's a CalArts joke... ) Anyway, it's 3:50 AM Sunday as I'm starting this blog entry. I just got home from the Character Animation Open Show, which ran last night. Seems to me I've mentioned it before. It's all of the films the students of our department created this year, run back-to-back. A couple of things were different this year though... First, we were able to hold the show in the Main Gallery - a large, open performance/exhibition space right inside the main hallway going into the building. This is a big deal for us. Originally, we used to hold it it in the college's theater (The "Bijou"), which holds maybe 120-150 people. Charitably. But we would pack that room out to the point where the fire marshall threatened to shut us down (something about tripping over burning bodies in the event of a fire or something). So a few years ago we moved the show into the cafeteria. Much bigger, but we instantly filled that up to overflowing, and if anything, was even worse. Since it was free-form seating, there were no aisles, and no way for people to get in or out of the middle of the room, and people jammed themselves in there as tightly as they could. It's a closed-off area, so it got very uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and smelled like a locker room. Also, it was tucked off in the corner of the building, and only had a couple of entranceways, so passers-by couldn't stop and watch the show. They'd stand 10-20 deep in the doorways if they stayed at all, and most turned around and walked away. So after trying for a couple of years (long story involving Institute politics), we were able to move into the Main Gallery. Plenty of space for people to spread out, to move in or out, and best of all - for people to just stop by and watch as they walked through the main part of the building. A lot of people did just that, too. We had to keep bringing out more chairs during the first hour. If I had to guess, I'd say there were as many as 300 people there at any given time (and we "only" have 139 students in our department). The second change was how the show ran. Usually, it has just run straight through, beginning to end, with a few short 10 - 15 minute breaks. This year though, there was an issue. Since the Main Gallery has several adjacent performance spaces and other events happening, we had to split our show in half, and leave a four-hour gap in the middle of it. This was a big concern of the students all year long, and we weren't sure how it would work. It seemed awfully disruptive, and broke with a long-established tradition. We were already trying to figure out how we'd get an uninterrupted block of time next year. It's at this point, I'd like to mention that our students turned in about 7 1/2 hours worth of films this year. So with short bathroom breaks every couple of hours, you're looking at 8 hours - minimum. Have you ever tried to sit through 8 hours straight of animated short films (or any films, for that matter)? It's agonizing. No matter how good the later films are, you just want them to be over. Our show usually started at 8 PM, and ended after 4 AM. By that time most of the audience were either zombies or had gone home. It was more of an endurance test than fun. This year, we started at 2 PM, ran until about 6 PM, then started up the second half at 10 PM and ended just before 2 AM. Much to my surprise (and probably everyone else's) - the break turned out great. Everyone I talked to afterwards really liked it. And not just the break, but the fact it was four hours. This gave everyone the chance to catch a breather. Go out and have something to eat, or play dodgeball, or just hang out with friends somewhere and clear their brains out for part 2. Also surprising, was that everyone came back for part 2, and more to the point, nearly everyone stayed. They enjoyed the second half of the show, and really liked being done at "only" 2 AM. Also, being in the Main Gallery made the entire show much more enjoyable, for the reasons previously mentioned. It was no longer the endurance test, but the end-of-the-year "hey we got our films done" celebration it should be. So next year... we'll do it again. At least, we'll sure try to. Again, getting Main Gallery space isn't as easy as it should be. But we've got an established success in there now. (Later...) Well, I finally got some sleep. It's around 7 PM, Sunday evening. This is the first solid sleep I've had all week. In the last stretch, except for a quick half-hour nap here or there, I was up from about 9 AM Friday morning through about 6 AM Sunday morning, until I finally managed to get to bed. From Monday through Saturday, my best guess is that I worked 86 or 87 hours this week (20 on Monday alone). It takes that much time to gather up all of the student films (as digital QuickTime movies), get problems corrected with them (incorrect formats, and so on), put them together in Final Cut Pro, then go through the whole show and balance the audio between films so they all play at a listenable level, then output the show to BetaSP tapes, and then get the Main Gallery set up with what we need to project the show, and then take the whole thing down afterwards. And also in there, I have to make the programs for the show, make judging forms for the faculty, set up for their screening of the show in another room, and probably a bunch of other things I'm forgetting. Monday was the day films were due (at 5 PM). That deadline got extended to midnight-ish. I spent a lot of that day helping people with last-minute problems, and then just trying to keep all of the films straight as they were submitted to the server. Then I had to check all of the films to make sure they were in the right format, and send out e-mails to those who needed to fix things. The next several days were split between keeping track of the new versions of fixed films coming in, even more late films coming in, and trying to sequence the show, and doing paperwork (entering film names, student names, run times, and so on). I was able to automate some of the paperwork this year, and have some ideas that should streamline the process next year. But keeping track of all of these films and their current status takes tons of time, and it's one of the worst parts of the job. But it's absolutely necessary to make sure the show goes off without forgetting somebody's film, or using the wrong version, or some other mistake which would inevitably bring some student up to my office at the end of the show in tears. It's happened before. Not fun. Sometime around Wednesday night, or maybe it was Thursday, I began mixing the show. This is basically just audio damage control. Trying to make everything play at a reasonable level. The soundtracks for the films are all over the map in terms of volume and, to be frank, quality. In all fairness though, and for reasons I won't get into, it's not really the students' fault. For the past couple of years, there has been a big hole in the curriculum, and we weren't aware how much of a problem it was until only recently. We are working to remedy it. At any rate, this means I have to try and balance everything out, so students aren't straining to hear one film one moment, and then are deafened by the next. I also spend more time than I should making spot fixes. For example, if a student film is too quiet overall, but I can't bring up the volume of it because there's one sound (say a gunshot) that is already too loud, I'll go in and lower the sound of the offending effect, and bring up the rest of the film, so you can hear the dialog. I ended up doing a lot of that this year, and it takes time. Also, at the last minute, I ran into some issues that there was no time for the students to fix. As I was mixing the sound, I noticed several films were out of sync. Way out of sync. In fact, some had their picture ending before their sound did. It only showed up in Final Cut Pro - not in QuickTime Player. (Incidentally, we always tell the students to check their final film in Final Cut Pro, since QuickTime Player does "weird stuff™" when playing back.) So their movies were actually "okay" as QuickTime files, but there was something weird with their video track. My best guess, is that they output their films using After Effects' "Export QuickTime Movie" option, and not by going through the Render Queue. The Render Queue renders out each video frame as a unique frame, but QuickTime can also support still images of varying durations, and this is something that Final Cut Pro (being a video editing program) wouldn't like. Each frame has to be unique. So my guess is Export QuickTime doesn't make unique frames for every frame. This is something I'll have to look into. The solution was to take these films (there were probably six or eight of them) and take them through the Render Queue in After Effects, and re-render properly formatted QuickTime movies. The thing is - if you loaded one of these weird movies into Final Cut Pro, it would tell you they were fine. They'd just be way out of sync, and some of the video might even be missing. So even if students might have checked them in Final Cut, but they didn't watch them all the way through, they never would have seen it. Anyway, I caught them all and fixed them. One more thing to add to the list of "things I learned this year, to make next year go smoother". Finally, on Friday evening, I was able to output the whole show to tape. We don't run the live shows straight off a computer (yet) since tapes are easier to move around to the three locations where we had to show the films this year (the Main Gallery, the faculty judging, and a screening in the Bijou this afternoon), and Betacam tapes are a known, reliable medium. And actually, the Main Gallery and faculty screenings were running at the same time, just offset by a couple hours, so we really had to move the tapes around a lot. The catch, of course, is that I have to spend a minimum of eight hours putting the show on tape. It runs in real-time, so I get to sit there, for another eight hours, watching every... single... film... again. I have to make sure everything works. The films are in sync, the audio is acceptable, there are no glitches, and no forgotten films or other problems. After that, I set up the faculty screening, made the programs and judging forms, and probably some other things I forgot, and finally went home Saturday morning around 8 AM. I was home just long enough for about a half-hour nap, a shower and change of clothes, then back to work to start setting up the Main Gallery and getting the show started, running tapes back and forth from the two screenings, and falling asleep in front of my computer a few times in my office. During the break, a few co-workers and I went out for dinner. It was so nice to have a real meal, and not fast-food for the first time all week. Then, I had to go back, and make sure the second half started up okay. Went home and rested for a few hours (finally!) and then came back around 1:30 AM to help tear-down everything after the show ended. And that gets me back to the beginning of this blog. Every year, I absolutely dread this week. It's always like this. Admittedly, I could just slap the films together, and let them run however they turned out. Let the audio be all over the place, and the sync be off. It would take far less time. Probably less than half. But the problem is - I was a student here. I know what it's like. I remember sitting in an audience and hearing people respond to my film. In the end, that's what this is about. There's nothing in their time here as thrilling as sitting in the midst of an audience as people watch their work up on the screen. There's also nothing quite as terrifying, until they hear them respond the way they can only hope they will. The last thing a student should have to worry about is, "why is my sound so quiet" or "why is my film out of sync - I swear it was right when I checked it". My job, in essence, is to facilitate the students' abilities to make their films. And yes, I do more work than I probably have to. I'm dead tired, I ache all over, my patience has been pushed to the extreme, and I'm not paid any overtime for it. I hate this week as its happening. But... When I get to stand back, and watch the students enjoy each others' work, when I get to see how successful the move to the Main Gallery was, when I hear people laughing and applauding and cheering and having that release, that moment that their entire school year has been building up to, when I get to see students smiling and congratulating each other afterwards, when someone comes up to me and says "thank you"... ... it's worth every single minute. Just don't tell anyone... I've got a reputation as a cranky old curmudgeon to uphold. So here are some pics: The start of the show. One of our recent grads - Justin Wright - passed away this year. So we ran his student films at the start, and dedicated the show to him. A shot of part of the crowd. It was actually pretty dark in there, so these were taken with a very long exposure. The big tall thing on the left is a scissors lift, where we placed the projector. The screen is 12 feet across. Another shot of the crowd, from the main hallway running through the building. It's all open to the Main Gallery, so everyone could see what was going on. There's even a walkway up above, and people watched the show from there. A shot of the crowd during the first hour or so of the show, taken from above and behind the screen. And again, this time just a couple of films before the end of the show, around 2 AM. Aren't animators cute when they're asleep?
  25. It's been awhile since I've reviewed any animated film. Mainly because it's been awhile since I've seen any animated film. However, since I'm home with the flu, I figured while snot was draining out of my head, it was as good a time as any to watch Meet The Robinsons. Mainly because nothing else is on, and a friend of mine loaned me the DVD, so it didn't cost me anything. Here's my review, in a nutshell: Seriously... if you're a filmmaker... never ever put scenes like these in your film unless you're absolutely certain the audience won't be having the exact same thoughts. To be fair, Meet The Robinsons is better than Chicken Little (but given that the main character looks like Chicken Little, it's hard to separate the two). "Meet" (or "Meat" as it was referred to at Disney), had the distinction of being the last film produced mostly by the "old" Disney, but then it was finished under Pixar's regime. The problem though was that there wasn't enough time to completely gut and re-make the whole film. They had to rush the thing through, patch up what they could, and make the best of it, since they already had a commitment to a release date they couldn't change or back out of. All other films in production had no such commitments, so everything else was basically put on hold until the films could be re-evaluated (or outright canceled) in order to bring them closer to Pixar's standards (which is why Disney bought them in the first place). There were also a lot of creative differences during the course of the film, including at one point eschewing the style of the original children's book's author, for the generic character designs that are left onscreen. The models are a good ten years behind Pixar. They look static and lifeless, and for the most part are animated with most of the same clichéd movements that dominated Chicken Little. They often lack weight, solidity, fluidity, and seem more like plastic dolls than living beings. The animation just isn't compelling. They're moving from point to point - not living or thinking. Collisions, cloth, hair, and physics are equally poor. The future city has kind of an interesting design to it, but otherwise the film doesn't have much of a strong style to it. It just looks like more of the rendered-the-exact-same-way CGI we've seen a dozen times now. The alternate future which appears near the end of the film is much more interesting looking. I would have rather seen that film. The big problem with the film though, is that I just couldn't have possibly cared less about any of the characters in it. At all. The two main kid characters have no interesting or redeeming traits, and are so bland that it's hard to relate to them. They have no real chemistry and it's hard to ever accept them as being friends. They just seem to annoy each other. Plot-wise, I'd figured out the whole story (without half-trying) 43 minutes into the film. I knew who pretty-much everyone was, what they were going to do, and how the film was going to end up. The comedy was equally predictable, with the only real humor coming from the villain. I laughed exactly once during the film (about 30 minutes in). It might have been twice, if not for the best joke in the film having been spoiled in the trailer (the bit about the dinosaur having short arms and a big head). Without an emotional investment in the characters, none of the action sequences or plot twists held any real impact. The most interesting character in the film (I kid you not) was a hat. There's no real emotion in the film until about the last five minutes, but that's only because the ending, as formulaic and obvious as it was, was well executed. I'm always a little torn writing reviews like this, since I know a lot of the people that work on these films. They aren't stupid people. They're funny, talented and smart. But for whatever reasons and circumstances, that rarely seems to get on the screen. Maybe with different people supervising things at Disney now, that might change. Bolt (formerly American Dog) will be the first of the films that was gutted by the Pixar regime and remade in their own image. We'll just have to wait and see if it makes a difference. (That is a big toilet.)
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