Thursday, January 31, 2008

The FX of Cloverfield; also, read Cinefex

I want to avoid allowing this blog to just become what most blogs are: a daily link to some OTHER blog. You can get that crap anywhere, and a blog generating its own content is much more interesting. But I think that linking to articles or posts of potential interest occasionally should be okay.

There's an article up over at Studio Daily about the visual effects of Cloverfield.

If you liked the movie and are interested in visual effects, without having to deal with too much techy-talk, it's a pretty good article. For those who are deeper into VFX, it's something to hold you over until the March issue of Cinefex hits stands with their Cloverfield coverage.

Incidentally, for those of you who read this occasionally looking for advice on VFX, here's a nugget for you: read Cinefex. You should be subscribed and read every issue cover to cover. If you're just starting, it's kind of a trial by fire; I started reading Cinefex with issue 86, their coverage of Pearl Harbor in July 2001, and if I understood 10% of that issue I'd be proud of myself.

Cinefex is a professional journal for the visual effects industry. It does not contain tutorials on how they did the effects, nor will they take the time to explain a fundamental concept they cite. For example, they will tell you that they created New York for I Am Legend thusly:

Using lidar scans, Imageworks created the entire Times Square area as a 3D environment, building models and then projecting photographs and matte-painted elements onto that geometry.

The current issue is 112, and in the just-under-seven years I've been reading the magazine I've had a lot of experience, and done a lot of research, so that I actually understand just about everything they say in every issue. But if you don't know what lidar scans are, if you don't know how one would build a 3D model or by what process one would "project elements onto geometry", they're not going to tell you, because they expect you to know.

So if you pick up Cinefex and a lot of it sounds like total gibberish, don't worry. It is VERY dense material, especially if you have never heard of these concepts before. But if you want to get into VFX, take it as a challenge. Do external research, make Wikipedia and other tech-savvy periodicals your friends, and soon enough it'll all make sense. You may not be able to DO everything they talk about (God knows I can't), but you'll understand what it is that they are doing.

Also, if you REALLY want to get into this stuff, buy the backissues, too. They've been publishing since 1980, and more than finding out how they made the latest movie, you can learn a LOT and have your mind expanded by reading how they made some of the classics. Some backissues are available on the site, others you have to take it to eBay. I don't have a full collection, but I'm working on it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Mustang? Really?

I know that I went off on a long post a few weeks back about how the producers of the new Knight Rider had the right to make the new KITT any car they damn well pleased, as long as the story is served. I still agree with that.

That being said...a Mustang was the best they could do?

I know KITT is supposed to be a muscle car as much as a sleek new whatever...but it's not even that cool-looking. It's like every other damn Mustang out there, plus the red running lights -- and it still has the Mustang racing stripes, which I really hate.

We'll be watching it, I'm sure, but bah. They didn't even try.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Phenomenal Cosmic Powers!

Did you see what happened there? If you're not in L.A. you might have missed it, so I'll tell you.

I told the rain to go away, and it DID.

Today has been lovely, the sun has been shining and all that jazz. I've finally gotten out and about, making my living space less itty-bitty by getting rid of the things that need ridding.

Hopefully back on the more consistent bloggerating this week.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away

What in the hell is happening to this town.

I love the rain, but what I love is when it's OUTSIDE and I'm INSIDE. I don't like going out in the rain because dammit, it's too cold for that.1 For those of you not in Los Angeles (even for some of you in L.A.), I may sound like a sissy, but this rain thing is totally ruining my schedule. I've got a lot of errands to run and I don't want to do them because I don't want to go out in the rain.

Besides the temperature, errands = driving, and whatever you've heard about L.A. driving, it gets worse tenfold when it's raining. I've been in three car accidents, and had two near-misses, and all of them were in the rain.

So meanwhile, here I sit, with lots to do but not enough of a death-wish to go out and do them. The one exception was getting out to the post office and mailing off a batch of our RvD2 DVDs, because by God, they paid for a product, and I'm not so much of a Fauntleroy that I'm not going to get it to them in as timely a fashion as possible, just because of a little rain.

But all my personal errands? I'll just take another cup of tea, thanks.

  1. The one exception to this was my freshman year of high school, February 1998, when El NiƱo hit. It was pouring rain the night of the Valentine's dance, and the heat inside was stifling, so some of my friends and I wound up going outside in the rain. But the rain was warm, and the music was loud, so we danced the night away in the pouring rain. It's frightening that that was a decade ago, almost to the day. Ah, to be young again.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Irony: You're Using It Wrong

A lot of people have complimented me on my blog, appreciating that it is not a boring daily rant about subjects no one cares about. I strive to keep it interesting, informative, and generally low-rant.

That being said, I've had this particular pet peeve of mine triggered about a half-dozen times in the last day and a half, so things might get a little rant-tastic in this particular entry.

Listen: just because something is surprising, unexpected, or unfortunate does not make it ironic, and I will thank you not to automatically say so. It seems like the automatic responses when people aren't really listening to what you said are "Uh-huh," "Hmm," and "Well, that's ironic."

Odds are, it's actually not.

I gave up on calling people on using "gay" as a pejorative a long time ago.1 I use it myself occasionally, just for the shock/humor value (I'm takin' it back!). But I'm not ready to give up on irony just yet.

Personally, I blame Alanis Morissette. Irony is not like ray-ee-ain on your wedding day, and it's not a no smoking sign on your cigarette break.

Something is ironic if it is being used or has an effect the opposite of what is expected or intended. Not just different, but the opposite. It should not be used to refer to any unexpected event or absurdity of life.

Irony is not a black man who hates fried chicken. He merely has his own tastes. Also, that's racist and you should be ashamed.

A sniper killed by falling rocks did not die an "ironic" death, because the juxtaposition of nature and technology is not ironic. It is also not ironic if the man who invented the Pet Rock were to be killed by falling rocks (it is, however, hilarious).

Really I'm not sure if falling rocks can be an ironic death at all, so maybe it's a bad example. Irony would be if a safety measure was put in place to PREVENT death by falling rocks, and that safety measure wound up killing someone, and/or the building of the safety measure caused a rockslide.

Being killed by an airbag is an ironic death, because that which was meant to save your life is what killed you.

In certain 80s sci-fi movies, irony is trying to prevent nuclear war by putting the a logical computer in charge of nuclear weapons instead of emotional humans, only to have that computer decide that the only logical way to prevent humans from annihilating each other is to annihilate them itself.

Irony is creating DRM to reduce piracy, only to have it increase piracy because pirating has become more convenient than purchasing legitimately.

Irony is a cop car with a bumper sticker that says, in tiny print that you have to strain and focus to see, "Watch the Road."

It is not ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.2

Get it? Got it. Good!

  1. The last time I tried to call someone on it, a friend of mine apologized for being late somewhere because "traffic was so gay." I asked him, "What exactly was homosexual about it?" To which he replied "Some guy crawled up my tailpipe and rode my ass for an hour and a half." I had to concede.

  2. Seriously, Alanis. WTF.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

For Real This Time: Cloverfield Review

In the 9 years since The Blair Witch Project, I've talked to a lot of people who hated the movie. They didn't get what the hype was about, they thought it was boring and not scary at all.

My question to them is always "Did you see it in theatres?" Their answer is always "No."

I don't mean to get all David Lynch on your ass, but if you didn't see The Blair Witch Project in theatres, you didn't really see The Blair Witch Project. There's a huge difference between watching a movie on your dinky television set, in the comfort of your living room, with your roommate or significant other making popcorn in the kitchen, knowing you could pause the movie or turn up the lights at any time, and watching it on a big screen, in a dark theatre, surrounded by strangers, with the experience totally out of your control. At home you're really only half-paying attention1; in the theatre you're totally enveloped.

So I'm going to say: if you don't see Cloverfield in theatres, you'll never see Cloverfield properly.

Now, I've wanted to see someone take the Blair Witch found footage/documentary horror ball and run with it for almost ten years. I wrote a couple of outlines for those kinds of films -- one of a group of people on a camping trip that gets caught up in an alien abduction/invasion, one of a group of college "ghost hunters" that get in over their head in a real haunted house -- but Cloverfield takes it to the epic level straight out of the gate.

Like Blair Witch, Cloverfield's marketing campaign was primarily viral.2 The "found footage" aesthetic lent itself well to the post-YouTube world; this is, in many ways, a YouTube monster movie. But unlike Blair Witch (a movie which some people I meet still believe was real), Cloverfield never attempted to pass itself off as real footage from a real event. Instead, it is an "IF this were to happen, here's how it would go down" hypothetical, with enough verisimilitude to make O.J. Simpson proud.

One thing I love about Cloverfield, just from a conceptual standpoint, is that there's another movie taking place off-screen. Somewhere else is the movie where the retired army guy is pulled back into service to stop the creature that has attacked his city, and he's throwing out one-liners the whole ride. Somewhere else the scientist and/or the hacker are figuring out where this thing came from and (maybe) how to bring it down. Somewhere else the President is facing the tough calls of sending the military into Manhattan and, sir, a localized nuclear strike may be our only chance of containment but we have to act NOW. But we don't see any of that. And that's okay, because we've seen that movie. Cloverfield is the movie we haven't seen, the one that turns the body count into characters we connect with.

Because let's face it: when you go to see a monster movie, you're kind of rooting for the monster. It's almost a given that the humans are going to win, so you're really just looking to see the monster wreak as much havoc as it can before that happens. That means you want to see the really gruesome, brutal kills; you want to see the damn STAKES get raised.

But while that other movie I mentioned will show the President grimacing as he watches someone die brutally in a military video or whatever, Cloverfield makes you one of the victims, watching your friends die and hearing your other friends scream and mourn as it happens. Cloverfield makes you a part of the event.

My first impression of Cloverfield was that some parts were pretty predictable. For example, there's a scene in a dark tunnel where you can only see about five feet in any direction from the camera. They hear a sound -- what was that? All the rats are running away from it. Oh hold on, the camera has night vision. Let me, the main character, step in front of the camera to turn it on.

If you don't see where this is going, you're one of the lucky ones and you should skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. For the rest of us, we know that as soon as the night vision comes on, we're going to get a VERY clear look at what's making that sound, because it'll be right behind the main character, and it will wait until it's sure you've seen it clearly before it attacks. And so it goes.

Now, I initially faulted Cloverfield slightly for this, but I asked myself: how would I have handled that moment differently? And to be honest, I probably wouldn't have. It's highly effective and after the attack sequence the entire audience applauded spontaneously because it was a damn good piece of immersive filmmaking. So maybe it was only "predictable" because it's exactly what I would have done.3

At any rate, it doesn't really matter that you can see what's coming a mile away based on the tropes of horror and monster movies (in no case, ever, is loss of blood the only thing you need to worry about if a monster bites you). The point is not what is happening, the point is that it's happening, essentially, to you, and you're powerless against it. The film is not afraid to kill its characters, and when it does, it often happens in the blink of an eye, in a moment so chaotic that you, like the characters, have no chance to even really process what just happened until some time later. I've had nightmares like Cloverfield, that played out in similar ways. The filmmakers did a great job of tapping into that.

The characters themselves are generally well-realized. Most of them are Dawson's Creek stereotypes of some kind or another, but their performances are solid. A lot of the film sounds improvised -- which, in a movie of this scale, seems unlikely, so it's a testament to the actors that they make everything they say believable and genuine in the moment. My favorite character by far is the cameraman, the person through whose point of view we experience most of the film, appropriately named Hud.

Hud is the main character's best friend, and he's the kind of guy everyone knows -- kind of dumb, a little bit too literal about things sometimes, but fiercely loyal to his friends. He'd never be the leader, but he'd follow them anywhere, and he does as he's told which makes him the perfect cameraman.

You never question why on earth this guy is still running the camera, because at the beginning of the movie he's told to record the events of the night, and we all know this kind of guy well enough to know that that's exactly what he's going to do, no matter what, until the battery dies or he does. He's also the comic relief character, and giving that kind of personality to the camera is an inspired choice.

As the monster goes, I will say that you do see it. Personally I thought it might be cooler to never actually get a clear look at it, but the movie puts the characters in the middle of everything4, and so you do see the monster quite up-close and personal. But what it is, where it comes from, what it wants are never explained.

Ultimately, this movie is a character drama in a monster-movie world. They used a device that the events of the movie are being recorded over another tape from a much different time in the characters' lives, and the occasional "timecode break" drops us into that other footage. The juxtaposition is powerful, and I really like that the filmmakers took advantage of their "found footage" structure to tell a story more intimate than the monster attack. I know a lot of people will hate it, but I thought it was great.

What it comes down to, though, is that you need to see this movie in theatres, with other people around you, if you're going to have any chance of appreciating it fully. This is the kind of movie that you can't just watch, you have to experience it.

  1. I know a lot of people who didn't get the ending because the set-up was so subtle and they missed it; if you saw the set-up, the ending was amazing.

  2. Blair Witch, of course, practically invented the viral marketing campaign singlehandedly.

  3. Although John Rogers makes a great point: if a thousand rats are running away from something, you don't stop to find out what it is, you outrun those fucking rats. I probably would have handled THAT differently.

  4. Admittedly it does sometimes stretch the limit of the suspension of disbelief, that they should have such poor luck as to always be right where something significant happens, when it happens.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

RIP Heath Ledger

I was working on my Cloverfield review to put up when this stunner hit the news.

A part of me remains fascinated by the fact that someone can die on the East Coast and within a few hours (or less) the world can know about it. That's how wired in we are, and that's not a bad thing. But that's not what I want to talk about.

Overall, this is just incredibly unexpected and sad. I'm not crying over it, but when I think about how Ledger's career is about to blow wide open with his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight, it's tragic that that will be the end for him, instead of the beginning.

Ledger seemed like a grounded actor with a good head on his shoulders. The papers are calling "drug overdose" but I'm going to reserve judgement and hope that isn't true.

We've been deprived of a very promising actor's future body of work, and that's sad. But most significantly, Ledger leaves behind a wife, Michelle Williams, and a two year old daughter who will never know her father besides the times he played pretend. That's the real tragedy here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield review forthcoming...maybe

I wrote a long review for Cloverfield, and then goddamn Safari crashed when I hit the "publish" button. And then it was gone.

Fuck. Me.

I really ought to have gotten into the habit of writing long posts in TextEdit to begin with, but here we are. I'll try again tomorrow.

I'll have you know the greatest irony is that my next post AFTER that was going to be a post extolling the need, as a creative, to ALWAYS have backups of EVERYTHING.

I'm going to sleep before I punch something.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

fxphd, continued

I just got an e-mail today containing a link to a preview video for the term. It's a torrent so it should download quickly.

This is the 0-Week "Background Fundamentals" course. The e-mail contained specific permission for me to include this here -- I can't post any other classes during the term.

Still, check it out if you're remotely interested, or even just kinda bored.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Get your learn on...

For those of you who may have made a New Year's resolution to learn something new, allow me to pimp my latest intellectual ride:

fxphd is a website that hold 10-week "terms", during which you sign up for three courses and take one class a week in each course, consisting of a video about 30-60 minutes in length. There are many different "Tracks". I signed up because they started a production track featuring the RED camera, and I really only wanted the one course but you have to do a minimum of three. So I took a Shake course and a Color course.

I have to say, it's the best value I think I've ever gotten from a training course. I did the whole nine with the college degree and all, 18 years of school from preschool to postgrad, and I've never been so interested in "going to class" as I am with fxphd.

They have the production track, as I mentioned, and they have a motion graphics track, a design track, and many software-specific courses. It's just a great resource and they are very passionate about making sure everyone gets the most out of their courses.

I've signed up for the new term and there's a bunch of very exciting classes that I'm going to have trouble choosing between. If you do sign up, make sure you put my username (DorkmanScott) as a referral. If you do, I get an extra class, and that makes choosing easier.

Next week is "Week 1", you can sign up any time until Week 6 for the term. It's not pocket money for most normal people ($330 for the basic tuition), but it's cheaper than a semester in a trade school and if you're serious about learning post-production skills it's totally worth your while.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy Happy Joy Joy

In the midst of the writer's strike, I've tried my best to boycott the studios who are locking out the writers. I've missed a lot of movies I wanted to see theatrically (such as I Am Legend) trying to support the writers. I haven't done a perfect job of it (I saw The Golden Compass on Christmas Eve -- I didn't have anything else to do since I usually spend it with my grandparents) but cold turkey is hard, dammit, and it's not like the studios are getting any closer to making a deal. 1

Anyway, as I mentioned, my roommate had a birthday this weekend and she has been wanting to see Enchanted for quite some time, and really so have I. So instead of lecturing her on the ethical quandries, I went with her, as did Ryan and his girlfriend.

Anyone who's seen the trailer knows it's about a traditional (one could almost say "stereotypical") Disney animated princess who gets transported magically into our modern world, shortly after becoming betrothed-at-first-sight with the prince of the kingdom. She meets a "real life" man in modern New York, she learns from him, he learns from her, hearts are warmed all around.

Now, this isn't an Enchanted review so I'm not going to go through it very much, suffice it to say that, like the Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz team, they've managed to make a film that simultaneously makes fun of and has great affection for its genre. There are a lot of subtle winks to Disney's other "Princess" movies, such as cameos by a number of the voice actresses, and Alan Menken's music.

It's a relatively predictable film, competently made but not a masterpiece. Still, I really came out having loved the film.

The musical aspect of the film quickly disappears as the princess becomes, well, three-dimensional as a character. The final musical number2, "That's How You Know," is a balls-out (to use a delightfully inappropriate colloquialism) celebration of love, done in the style of a 50s musical where suddenly everyone knows the song, drops what they're doing, and storms Central Park in a spontaneous-yet-intricately-choreographed dance celebration. Being postmodern, the male lead of course questions how it is that everybody but him knows the song and dance.

It's a cheesy movie, but I had a smile on my face all through that scene, and through most of the movie in general. Because cheesy or not, by God, everyone just looked like they were having FUN on that screen.

And I realized: a lot of movies aren't fun anymore. They're plenty mindless, they're plenty cheesy, but so many of them take themselves so SERIOUSLY that they're just no fun -- and without a message or a story or any fun, they're worthless.

I realized that this was what I loved so much about Transformers, which while visually brilliant had plot holes large enough to drive an alien robot disguised as a Mack truck through. To the extent that it should be an affront to my every sensibility as a writer. But I didn't mind, because I was having too much goddamn fun while watching it.

Compare that to something like the Matrix sequels, which while equally visually stunning and filled with obtuse bullshittery masquerading as philosophy, were NO fucking fun at all. They were somber and brash and painful to watch. No sense of humor (aside from the Andy Kaufman-esque way that I've come to suspect that the Wachowskis were playing a prank on us all, intentionally making senseless films to see how far people would go to justify them), no joy, just a string of video game cutscenes. I hate those movies and I'm kind of mad at myself for even bringing them up just now, but I needed to make a point.

Transformers made me laugh, it made me cheer, and it made me forget that it makes no sense for the good guys to decide their best option is to take the fight into the middle of a city to maximize collateral damage. I'm already forgiving the alien-robots-become-trucks thing, I figure I'll go all the way as long as I'm having fun. And Shia of course brings such a great energy and humor to the film that, frankly, makes it work.3

I really realized that a lot of movies which aren't explicitly comedies don't have much fun in them -- and frankly, even most recent comedies (excluding Shaun/Fuzz) aren't much fun either. Too many of these comedies and "parody" films have way too much teeth and are too mean-spirited with their jokes. They're insulting to their characters, their genre, and their audience more often than not.

And don't tell me 9/11 changed everything, because you're an asshole if you do. Besides the fact that destroying our ability to enjoy our lifestyle and freedom is EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED TO DO, I can see it making comedy a little tough for a while, but nearly 7 years on? It's time we started enjoying life again.

Ultimately I think that was the main message of Enchanted -- which, thank God, was not explicitly a message movie. But you've got the world of perfect fantasy colliding with harsh reality, and what the princess teaches the single father is: the "real" world may be hard, things will never be perfect, but that's no reason you can't be happy and share your happiness around.

I walked out of that theatre feeling happy, glad that I'd seen the movie and not manipulated like a lot of feel-good movies leave me feeling.

I'm glad to see that message finally starting to get out there. It's time to get some real joy in the air again.

  1. I'm totally seeing Cloverfield at a midnight showing whether the strike's over or not. Sorry guys, but there's only so far I'm willing to sacrifice without being a produced screenwriter.

  2. It's "final" in terms of being the last song in the film, although it is only a third of the way into the film.

  3. It's still not funny to have Bumblebee take a piss on John Turturro, and anyone who thinks it is needs their funnybone checked.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Wellington is RAW!!

Okay, I know it's trashy, but I'm a sucker for some reality TV shows. I have a tendency to watch American Idol in the early part of the season, telling myself I'm going to stop watching once the shitty singers are all eliminated; but then by the time fucking Sanjaya gets voted off I'm in it for the long haul. The last couple of seasons we started watching Hell's Kitchen with regularity, and although we started with a kind of train-wreck fascination at this bastard of a Head Chef making the contestants cry, we were soon persuaded by his passion for what he does and his genuine concern and care toward the careers of each contestant. Gordon Ramsay won us over by the end, and this season we shared and understood his frustration at people who just couldn't get shit right.

Apparently a staple of the Hell's Kitchen menu is beef wellington. Usually someone would order it and Chef Ramsay would wind up screaming at the contestant who made it because it would come out woefully undercooked.

The impression we got from seeing wellington on the show was:

1) It must be tough to make, because no one on the show can goddamn get it right.
2) It must be expensive, because Hell's Kitchen is "fine dining".
3) It must be delicious, because 1 and 2.

So we (I'm speaking of myself and my roommates Brian and Katie) have been wanting to try some beef wellington for a while. Well, tonight was Katie's birthday, so I decided to attempt to make a beef wellington for the occasion.

There's lots of recipes out there. I chose to go with one that didn't require foie gras or specialty cheeses. So what we had was not the full BEEF WELLINGTON EXPERIENCE. I made a few mistakes -- I didn't make enough mushroom mixture for the interior of the pastry shell and apparently that's a big part of it -- but you know what? It was a perfect medium steak, in a very tasty flaky shell, with some great sauces and flavorings that came together nicely. It wasn't fine dining, but for a first time attempt I think I did a damn fine job.

I feel like I should try to tie this into filmmaking or something somehow, but I just spent 5 hours preparing the freaking wellington and I'm too tired to be pedantic. I really just posted this to say that I made a delicious beef wellington, bitches. Josh from Season 3 can suck it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In Bruges

Okay, so this is not a movie review precisely, but I've just discovered that the trailer for In Bruges is up.

I haven't mentioned this movie in the blog before, but anyone who knows me knows I will not shut up about this movie. I haven't even seen it, but I had the chance to read the script.

And let me tell you something: it is the funniest goddamn script I have ever read. And I've read scripts to produced movies, movies I found funny, that didn't make me laugh on the page. But In Bruges made me crack the fuck up. It's the only script that I've wanted to read again immediately after finishing it.

It's very British humor, and it's very dark humor. The movie is about people who kill for a living, and (slight spoilers) it does not have a happy ending. If you saw and liked Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, I think you'll love this. It's funny on the page, and the writer (Martin McDonaugh) is also the director, so I trust that the comedy translated perfectly to the screen. It's funny and sad and violent. It's like a Tarantino comedy.

And my God, what a cast! Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes? Oh, this movie's going to rule.

I don't want to ruin anything, but I think that the trailer fails to do the film justice or really make it clear who the audience is or what the kind of tone of the movie is. If you like Tarantino, if you like British gangster movies, you HAVE to see In Bruges.

That's all for now. It comes out March 7. Plan to see it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

...and a Happy New Year

Welcome to 2008. I'll be posting aplenty, hopefully.

My father believes this is "my year". Keep your fingers crossed.