Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Hashtag Visual Effects Protest

If you have any connection to anyone in the VFX industry you've no doubt seen at least a few green-screen green avatars around lately. If you're reading this you've probably heard a lot about it already, but I want to express my own opinions on the matter, I want to tell you how I feel right now, paying thousands of pounds to a university so that I myself can go work in the VFX industry.
If you're not interested in that, you can read either this article from YaHoo! Movies or this from /Film. They're both great articles that will tell you why people are angry.

First of all, nothing of what is happening now is new, this has been going on for years, at least for as long as I've been paying attention, and likely a lot longer before that. The reason this is coming up now is because BAFTA and Academy Award winning VFX house Rhythm and Hues went bankrupt making one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2012, Life of Pi. VFX houses have done this before, but Rhythm and Hues is a widely respected business, and frankly it was just the last drop in the bucket.

Just two days before Life of Pi won its Academy Award I was lucky enough to be in attendance of Hans Rijpkema's Animex talk on how it was to work at Rhythm and Hues and in particular on how it was to work on Life of Pi. He didn't talk about the state of R&H as is, but he gave a very good talk on exactly how much work went into Life of Pi. First of all, let me just give you a number, the eye catching headline whenever someone writes about VFX. The final render of Life of Pi took a combined 1633 years. This is not including setting up the renders, testing the renders, renders that went wrong, different versions, man hours that went into making the things that were to be rendered, just the final render itself. And you know, if you're doing it well, it takes longer to make the thing that needs rendering than it does to actually render it. One thousand, six hundred and thirty three years. That's a lot of time. It's such an amount of time that people have a hard time comprehending it, if you sent one of R&H's average render computers back in time to render Life of Pi on its own it'd had to be sent back to the year 380(ish) to make sure it was done by Life of Pi's release.

However, the real time spent is not spent rendering, it's the extreme amount of research and development done leading up to a project. In order to create a photorealistic, no, real tiger, R&H has done years of research. Animals is the trademark of R&H, they created the animals for Cats & Dogs, Scooby-Doo (2002) and Aslan himself for Narnia. Creating the famous Richard Parker wasn't something thrown together over night, it's taken years for R&H to at all be able to make him.
You probably weren't surprised when you first heard there was a CG tiger in Life of Pi, but I think that is mostly because you expected it to be. You knew they couldn't have made a tiger act like that on a set, but did you know that there is actually 23 shots of a real tiger in the mix of Life of Pi? I sure didn't before Rijpkema told me. They spent ages fine-tuning every detail of Richard Parker, making every last thing just right. He showed off some test renders, which I wish so hard I could show you, where they had taken a shot of the real tiger and matched the animation. The first shot he showed us I had to comment to the person next to me: "I think he has messed up, obviously he's shown the same shot twice by mistake." And I wasn't the only one, Ang Lee himself had gone past a technician working on a shot and commented "nice reference footage" only to have the technician reply "it isn't a reference, it's a render".

It's really hard to convey to you without the use of actual work-in-progress shots how much time went into every last detail of that film, and I'm far from understanding it fully myself. Hundreds of people around the world spent their entire days for years to make sure this film was made just right, and what did they get back? They lost their jobs. When a VFX artists does her job, you're not supposed to know she was ever there, and because of that they are forgotten. Film studios don't want to pay large amounts of money for something "someone has just made on a computer".

Digital artists can and are being replaced, most of the time we don't really have to be at an office, we can just sit at home, make what we're supposed to and then ship it across the world where some poor bastard lost her job because I, on the other side of the world, was willing to do her job cheaper. VFX houses keep having to underbid themselves to get work, it's not as much about how well they can do a job, it's how cheap they can do it, and now they want us to do the same job even faster, a film has to be made in three years, two! There is no time for preparation, but there is plenty of time for over- and crunchtime.

Nothing of this will change if all we have are words, action has to be taken. If films all of a sudden look like this webpage does now, will the industry get what it's worth? Or will the cheap and willing emerge even more, making it impossible for anyone to work and live in proximity of the film they're supposed to work on? All I know is that in a very short amount of time I'm going to, hopefully, enter this business full-on, and whether or not if I survive will rely on what will happen at the living wake of Rhythm and Hues.

A thing that is scaring me about the next generation of VFX artists is the way we are being educated on the industry. I've been in school studying 3D film production, computer character animation and various other fields for several years now. What software we are taught, how to use them best, what being creative means, it all differs from country to country, from school to school, from teacher to teacher, but a few things remain throughout:

1. Do not expect any recognition.
     - Fair enough, I'm not making pretty pictures on a computer in the pursuit of fame.

2. You will work overtime.
     - I will work overtime? Isn't it just then "time"? Oh, you mean there will be a set schedule when I will work, but it will be broken all the time because people want their films done quicker than we can make them? Great.

3. You will work crunchtime.
     - Crunchtime? How does that differ from oveOH! You want me to work all the day, every day, for months on end? Not just overtime, but basically slavery? I am expected to work till I actually develop psychological problems. At least the pay is good.

4. You will either get paid very little, or nothing at all.
     - Well, that is just dandy, isn't it? You want me to work my ass off for months at the time so that you can pay me barely enough to afford food and rent? Or even better,  you want me to do this for free because, after all, it's such great exposure for me. People will see my work on this one thing in these three shots and they will come throwing money at me. No, they won't, see number 1. I will have to pursue them, I'll have to show them this piece of work, I'll have to tell them I did it for free, and then they'll probably expect me to do a similar thing for free because I've already done it for free once. Brilliant. I think I'm going to like it in this industry.

But as much as we complain, and we do complain (read: making our voices heard) a lot now, we do love what we do. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. No sane, normal person says to herself: "I am going to go paint pixels and drag cursors twenty-odd hours a day!" We grew up watching the same awesome films you did, and we want to make the kids today grow up watching even awesomer films than us! But we can't do that if you won't let us, we can't do that for you, but we will continue to do it for us. We will always do what we do, and some day, some beautiful day, maybe we'll start making our own films from scratch. I think it's time more VFX studios lose the "VFX" from their name. They already make the majority of the film anyway, take it that little step further, hire the screenwriters, hire the directors, hire the actors, make the films yourself.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Oscar 2013 Predictions

Update 25.02.2013: I've added the winners of each category with a few comments to go along.

It is that time of the year again, in just a few hours the Academy Awards ceremony is starting and the grandest film event of the year begins. Now, there's a lot of films to go through, but before we get to it I want to explain my categories to you.

There are often major differences in what film I think will win, what film I think should win, and what film I just want to win. I seldom share my opinion with the Academy's voters, but that doesn't mean I can't understand what films they are going to vote for. That's why I differentiate between will win and should win. For added subjectivity I also add what film I want to win, it's often enough different from the two previous categories that I use it to share which I'd vote for.

And now, in the order of the listing at, here are my predictions:

Best Picture
Amour, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables

Best Picture is the biggest award of the night, and the one there's often the most controversy over. I have seen all of the nominated films in this category apart from 'Lincoln', and oddly enough that's the film I think will win. It holds all the traits of an Academy Award winning film, and all the buzz around it makes me think it actually will win. However, there's another film I both think should win and I want to win, Silver Linings Playbook. When I watched it I was spellbound from beginning to end, the acting is magnificent, the story is wonderful and the directing is fantastic. A small part of me think it actually will win, but it's not big enough to throw off the part of me which believes Lincoln will win.

Winner: I was not expecting this one, Argo took home Best Picture without being nominated for Director. It's apparently the fourth time that has ever happened. I'd prefer Silver Linings Playbook winning, but Argo was not a bad winner.

Lead Actor
Bradley Cooper, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Hugh Jackman

There's two performances on this list I haven't seen, Daniel Day-Lewis', and Joaquin Phoneix'. I am however completely conviced that Day-Lewis will in fact win this one. There's been talk about it happening since before the film was even released, and the only way I think it will be possible for him not to win is if everyone decided that they didn't want to vote for the obvious one and went for another.
I think Bradley Cooper should win, his performance in Silver Linings Playbook was absolutely amazing, I never saw him as a quality actor, but apparently there is something really big inside of him that David O. Russell managed to get out, I don't doubt we'll see him nominated again.
Here I want Hugh Jackman to win, even though I found Cooper to be fantastic, there was something about Jackman's role in Les Misérables that just stuck in me. I also just really want him to finally get an Academy Award, as I think he's long overdue for one.

Winner: Yeah, of course Day-Lewis won, let's move on.

Lead Actress
Jessica Chastain, Quvenzhané Wallis, Jennifer Lawrence, Naomi Watts, Emmanuelle Riva

I've been able to watch all of the performances in this category, and they're all really good, though I don't really think they all deserved to be nominated. I think, and want, Jennifer Lawrence to win, she was glorious in Silver Linings Playbook, really bringing her character to life to the most minute details. Sure, you can recognise the way she plays the character from other roles she's had, but I think overall she made Tiffany a real-life character.
Now, I've put Emmanuelle Riva as who I think should win. And this is a bit more for "political" reasons than actual quality and talent. Do not get me wrong, her acting in Amour was as good as flawless, but the main reason I put her as 'should' is that having an elderly, French woman winning the award would be really great for the Academy. She's just different enough from the norm of Oscar winners that it could help the Academy evolve from the rut it's getting itself into.

Winner: Jennifer Lawrence won! Probably the best part of her winning was seeing how excited and surprised she were. Then again, she did just win the price for Lead Actress... Nah, I'm sure she was genuinely excited and surprised.

Supporter Actor
Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Christoph Waltz

Christoph Waltz. I don't even think I have to say anything more here, if you've seen Django Unchained you will understand, if you haven't, get the frak to it.

Winner: Christoph Waltz won! Much deserved.

Supporter Actress
Amy Adams, Sally Field, Anne Hathaway, Helen Hunt, Jacki Weaver

Same goes for Anne Hathaway as did for Waltz.

Winner: Of course Anne Hathaway won as well!

Animated Feature Film:
Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Wreck-It Ralph will win, I'm ninety-nine percent sure of it, and so is Disney. In fact, when I attended Animex this week (blog post soon to follow) a speaker from Wreck-It Ralph went as far as to say: "I hope you will all follow the Oscars on Sunday and watch us win." I don't think it should win, however, no matter how much I loved Wreck-It Ralph another film was just far superior. 'The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists' (as it's properly called) was just charm from frame one right up until it ended. It's the best animated film I've seen in years, and I really hope it actually will win.
Side note: I think it's really great that the majority of the nominees are stop-motion films, even though I'm mostly a CG animator myself I think it's taken a bit too much over lately.

Winner: What the frak!? Brave won!? I've got to be honest with you, I did not see that one coming, at all. In my personal opinion it was the weakest of all the nominees, and I sincerely believed Wreck-It Ralph would take it home. I've never been so surprised over an Academy award.

Anna Karenia, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Skyfall

I've not seen Anna Karenia or Lincoln, but I don't think I have to. Life of Pi's visuals are stunning, and I think it will win this award even though the main reason it is stunning is its VFX. A Rhythm and Hues speaker at Animex went as far as saying "[Life of Pi] is nominated for cinematography, and even though it probably is great and all, I think we [, Rhythm and Hues,] should get that award as well should the film win it".
Django Unchained is the worthy winner of this price, in my opinion, it may be a bit of filmmaker porn, but isn't the entire Academy Awards that to begin with?

Winner: This one was far from surprising, Life of Pi took the award home. No mention of Rhythm and Hues, though.

Costume Design
Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Anna Karenia, Les Misérables, Lincoln

I don't really care much for this category or have strong opinions, but I've placed all my bets on Les Misérables.

Winner: Anna Karenina was the winner here, I have yet to see that film, and to be honest I probably won't see it for a long time.

Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

Directing! The second biggest award of tonight, I'm actually really unsure which film will win this award, though I'm really sure which film should win. I landed on Lincoln for directing, just because I thought it'd win Best Film, really. Silver Linings Playbook should win, though. That film is just marvelous, and I won't talk so much about it here as I have earlier. I just want to say, I really loved Silver Linings Playbook.

Winner: Ang Lee won for Life of Pi. He was my third pick for winner after Spielberg (Lincoln) and Russell (Silver Linings Playbook). Many VFX type people around the world were hoping for him to mention what Rhythm and Hues has gone through while making his film, filing bankruptcy and all, but no. He didn't even mention the VFX which featured in... Well, of the shots people actually remember from the film it was probably all of them.

Documentary Feature:
5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar Man

Haven't watched a single one of these films, I chose The Gatekeepers because Wheezywaiter thought it'd win.

Winner: Searching for Sugar Man won this one, and I sort of thought it would do that, but another wrong, another day.

Documentary Short:
Inocente, Kings Point, Mondays at Racine, Open Hear, Redemption

Not watched any of these either, but Redemption sounds like a film that could win.

Winner: Incocente won this one, not much to say.

Film Editig:
Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

I thought Argo was brilliantly edited, and I think the Academy will think so as well. I don't really have much more else to say, I'm pretty sure about this one.

Winner: Argo won! YAY!

Foreign Language Film
Amour, Kon-Tiki, No, A Royal Affair, War Witch

FIRST OF ALL! I hate that Amour is nominated for both Foreign Language Film and Best Film, that means that it will win Foreign Language, if it was in the top nine of all films, why would it lose out to these four films which weren't? I do want Kon-Tiki to win, though, I haven't watched it (yet), but it's Norwegian (as I am) so it'd be real neat if it won.

Winner: Of course Amour won, moving on.

Makeup and Hairstyling:
Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables

Don't have much opinion on this one, think Les Misérable will win though, and I guess it deserves it.

Winner: Les Misérables won, as predicted.

Music (Score)
Anna Karenia, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Skyfall

Neither Argo's nor Life of Pi's score really stuck out to me, I can't hum any theme from any of them. I honestly think Skyfall will win solely because of Adele's song.

Winner: Here's another I didn't expect, Life of Pi won. I honestly can't really remember any music from the film, even when people on twitter linked me songs I couldn't quite connect them up to the film's experience.

Music (Song)
Chasing Ice, Ted, Life of Pi, Skyfall, Les Misérables

Yeah, there isn't really any competition here.

Winner: As predicted, there was no competition, at all. Skyfall just won.

Production Design:
Anna Karenia, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln

Lincoln will win because it's Lincoln, but Les Misérables should win because of the way it brilliantly merged theatre style sets with film style sets. It didn't put me out of the story, but it was fun to see how the sets where built up as for a theatre, but filmed as a film.

Winner: Lincoln won this one, like I've said I haven't seen the film, but I guess it isn't really an unworthy winner. These sorts of prices tend to go to period pieces anyway.

Short Film (Animated):
Adam and Dog, Fresh Guacamole, Head Over Heels, The Longest Daycare, Paperman

No doubt Paperman will win this one, the way everyone has talked about it, but I found it to be rather average when it comes to its story, art and direction. Its technology, mixing 2D and 3D animation, was amazing, though.
But Adam and Dog should win, it was heartwarming and heartbreaking, it was beautiful and it was ugly, it was the best animated short I saw last year.

Winner: Paperman took home the undeserving win here, as predicted.

Short Film (Live-Action):
Asad, Buzkashi Boys, Curfew, Death of a Shadow, Henry

Haven't watched any of these, but Buzkashi Boys sound like a winner, I suppose.

Winner: Curfew won, guess that title sounds kind of like a winner as well.

Sound Editing
Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty

I think Life of Pi will win this one, the sound sounded like it had a vision, Ang Lee knew what he wanted and he achieved it. I'm rather unsure about this one, however, but I don't really see any other clear winner. Perhaps Argo.

Winner: Here's another shocker, something I didn't even think was possible, both Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty won. It was a tie! It's apparently only happened five other times in the history of the Academy Awards. I've got to say, it seems rather odd that they couldn't just get some new person to come in and settle the tie. Something! But oh well, this was one really threw of people's Oscars predictions, that's for sure.

Sound Mixing
Argo, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Skyfall

GAH! I'm not much of a sound guy, and I'm finding it really hard to justify my choices on these categories. I'll just go for Argo.

Winner: Les Misérables won this one, guess it sort of makes sense with all the music and sounds mixing together. But, alright.

Visual Effects:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Life of Pi, The Avengers, Prometheus, Snow White and the Huntsman

This is more like me! Life of Pi will win, no doubt about it, it's stunning, it's beautiful, it's technically well done, and everyone loved it. The Avengers should win, though. I don't think many realise, but the very most of this film was complete CG. That battle in New York? They weren't even in New York for most of the time. Sure, Life of Pi handled water and pictures of skies well, as well as their trademark photoreal animals, but The Avengers was a technical marvel. Pun intended.

Winner: Of course Life of Pi won this one, Rhythm and Hues, in particular, did an amazing job on the film. I'll talk a bit more in length about their work on this film in my blogpost about Animex 2013.

Writing (Adapted)
Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

I think Argo will win, because the Academy will want to give it some awards, but I think Silver Linings Playbook should win. It just works so much better.

Winner: Argo won! Best Film and Adapted Writing, not bad for a film not nominated for Directing.

Writing (Original)
Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty

Django Unchained should win, because it's frakking amazingly written, but I think they'll actually go for Zero Dark Thirty because of its real-event story and closeness to a really proud moment for the USA.

Winner: Wish I'd gone more for my guts on this one, Django Unchained won, as deserved. Don't really know why I went for Zero Dark Thirty anymore, seems rather obvious now that the Academy would go for Django, oh well.

Results: I got 12 out of 24 categories correct, half and half. From what I remember, that's a bit better than what I did last year. Maybe in a few years time I'll master the art of predicting the Oscars and starting making the complete opposite films. Maybe.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Cindel and Wicket Back Together?

The rumour has been floating between various blogs for weeks now, starting with Zack Snyder going to make a film about a group of Jedi warriors, and now it has all (mostly) come true. Disney has confirmed that they're developing a slate of stand-alone Star Wars films to be released in the same time period as the new trilogy.

Many speculate that the first stand-alone is going to centre around Yoda, exactly what time-period Yoda we're talking about no one is certain, and this speculation has its merits. Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back, which introduces Yoda, is one of the screenwriters set to write a stand-alone. Bring me all the hate you want, but as fun as Yoda is, I think his story is much better left in mystery. The way he is introduced and shown in the original trilogy is so fantastic. We have no real idea who he is, other than he's supposed to be a great Jedi master, and we never learn who he is before he passes away just shy of training Luke to his prime. He is a great character indeed, but I believe he is great because of how little we know of him (as far as I'm concerned, he wasn't in the prequels).

I am a fan of Bob Iger 's(Disney CEO) wording when it comes to what the films are going to be about.
"[We] are working on films derived from great Star Wars characters that are not part of the overall saga." -Iger
It could sound like they're making films about fan-favourite characters from the films, and that the films are not going to be a part of the main saga, but to me it sounds like they want to make films about characters that hasn't been in the main saga. And I have to say, the latter sounds much more interesting. As much as I want to learn the origin of Wuher or the final demise of a certain Binks, it'd be much more fun and interesting to see characters from the extended universe come to life in bigger budget films.

I have recently watched some of the old stand-alone Star Wars films (for reasons which will be apparent in future), and I have to say, I really want Cindel and Wicket to meet up again for a stand-alone. If you even can call a third story of them two a stand-alone.
For those of you who don't know, Cindel and Wicket were two of the main characters of the Ewok Adventures films, Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor. Cindel was a young human girl at the age of eight or nine at the time, and Wicket was a young Ewok boy roughly the same age (at least mentally). I believe that a story that brings those two back together could capture the imagination of the viewer.

Perhaps one could be set around the time Cindel turns sixty, she is all alone, her family long gone, and she never found anyone she thought she could spend her life with. She watches her holovision (or whatever it is they're watching in The Star Wars Holiday Special) and sees the news that the moon of Endor, and the Ewok people has entered into the new Galactic Alliance.
   - We can add something about how their bravery during the Battle of Endor contributed to the membership despite the Ewoks's obvious long way to star travel -
The first Ewok congressman is an adult Wicket, who now speaks quite fluently Galactic Basic Standard, who promises he will fight for the Ewoks's rights to the entirety of the Endor system and for congress to grant them schematics for hyperdrive engines so that they can travel freely within the Alliance.
Cindel immediately recognises Wicket despite all the years they have spent apart, and she goes on a quest to find him. She has to get to Coruscant, but it's not that easy getting to the capital of the relatively newly formed Galactic Alliance. The planet has been off-limits for off-worlders for decades, unless they're elected congressmen.
   While she is doing all the sneaking about to get to Coruscant, we learn that Wicket himself is looking for Cindel. One of the main reasons he went into galactic politic was so that he could find his childhood friend once again.
   Cindel is left stranded on Tatooine after a trafficker robbed her of all her credits and took off, leaving Cindel with nothing but the clothes on her back. Sat in a crowded bar (yes, it's Chalmun's Spaceport Cantina, alright?) she is on the brink of tears, she has no idea what to do. She then hears the bartender shouting something. "HEY! We don't serve furry bastards around here." Cindel looks up, and sees Wicket standing in the door. She gets up and runs towards him. "How did you find me?" "Oh, it wasn't so hard." Wicket then points to wristband she's wearing. "I remember the serial number, it was how you learnt me to count." Cindel gets teary eyed and hugs Wicket again. They leave the cantina together.
Or something like that.

There you go, Lucasfilms. Please go make "Smuggler of Truth", I know I'll watch it.

Original confirmation source.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Two Kinds of Pain

First Impressions

The first thing I did today, as any day, was check Twitter. I had no memory yet of what day it was, or if anything special was going to happen. Then I read the following tweet:

T-minus 3hrs 18 min til Netflix's House of Cards is live. Practise your fake cough, call in sick and enjoy the ride. 
- Beau Willimon

It was posted four hours before I got up, and I knew what I had to do that day. I got out of bed, turned on my laptop, ran my browser and quickly searched for 'House of Cards' in the already open Netflix tab. I sat down with a bowl of cereal and got comfortable. 

The first episode, creatively titled "Chapter 1", started of introducing the main character Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. No more than five minutes had gone by and I understood this character completely, I knew who he was, I knew what he wanted, I just had to figure out what he was going to do. Any show that manages to introduce its characters this well, this fast, is good in my book. I'm a strong believer of characters being the most important in any story, the plot itself is just a tool for the character to expose herself. But even though the character work was great, I can't say I was already a fan. I was on the fence about whether or not to bother continue watching, and contemplated going back to watching Star Wars: Droids, an animated series about C-3PO and R2-D2 from the mid-80s. A brisk comment from a friend advised me to continue watching, and so I did.

Episode two ("Chapter 2") is where the series really shows its guts. Francis starts exposing himself like a cat in heat, he proves that he really knows everything there is to know about how the capitol works, and more importantly, that he knows how to spin it his way. We get to more closely meet and understand the journalist Zoe Barnes and see how Francis is using her drive to be respected for his own political gain. There is never a doubt that Francis Underwood is an asshole, but he is an elegant asshole, and he will make you feel like the most important person in the world if he needs something from you. But if he needs you gone, you will be to your shoulders in reporters asking questions about the age of that prostitute in those pictures.

I have only watched the first two episodes so far, and the why is really simple, I don't want to "use up" this series right away. As it stands now it's set to be one of my favourites series of 2013, and I don't want it to be a one-night thing, I want it to last. I'll be back with a full report upon series completion.