Getting More Immersed with Indiewire

  The Penske Media purchase of Indiewire has resulted in an expansion of my role as crafts and awards season contributor.  Beginning this week, I begin Emmy coverage of below-the-line contenders along with my usual Oscar season crafts reporting, working closely

Immersed in Blu-ray: Hitchcock and Bogart

The WB Archive Collection gets Hitch and Bogie on Blu-ray and they've never looked better for home viewing. In Kent Jones' indispensable doc, Hitchcock/Truffaut, he reminds us that Truffaut was on a mission to correct misconceptions about Hitch as a lightweight

Immersed in Books: Farber on Film

For the first time, the complete writings of film critic Manny Farber is available from Library of America, edited by Robert Polito (Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson). Manny Farber (1917-2008) was the first modernist film critic to write like a modernist.


Tate Taylor Talks The Help

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Books, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Trailers | Leave a comment

With The Help coming out this week on Blu-ray/DVD (Walt Disney Home Ent.) and looking ravishing in HD, which should bolster its Oscar chances, it’s the perfect opportunity to post my interview with director Tate Taylor. I enjoyed speaking with the native Mississippian last summer about his film, and telling him the warm regard I still have for the state (I attended Ocean Springs High on the Gulf Coast in the early ’70s).

What was it like going back home and transporting yourself?

It was pretty great and it gave me a lot of comfort to be back on my soil telling a story about Mississippi. It just didn’t feel right doing it anywhere else but there. It would’ve been cheating, almost.

What do you hope young people will get out of the film?

I hope young people can see not so long ago how different things were. I think it’s important that they see where we’ve come from. That’s happened with the novel. A lot of young people picked it up and weren’t expecting to love it so much and couldn’t believe this really happened. That’s such a great discovery. I really hope people can take away from it that you don’t have to be a huge civil rights leader or a politician or a hugely regarded socialite to have a voice.

What was the hardest part about directing?

Directing was just the usual — being a perfectionist. We shot 59 days and I was rewriting every night. It’s war — waiting for that leave, which doesn’t happen till it’s over. Time and tiredness was the biggest challenge, cause you have to stay focused and on your game.

What extras are on the Blu-ray?

There’s a conversation with the real women and the second generation. I just wanted to get some of them to talk about their experiences. And then to see their children because some people think that’s all you could do in Mississippi. And at one time it was. There were these women that worked so hard for $10 an hour. The reason they were doing it was to give their children a better life. And so we talked to the daughters and sons who were doctors and lawyers. It was pretty moving: they thanked their mothers for what they did. It’s not a documentary, but will show the real people behind these characters.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson Lifts Kung Fu Panda 2

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Annies, Blu-ray, Clips, Events, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

Talk about timing: On Monday, the Annies announced that Kung Fu Panda 2 got the most nominations with 12. Meanwhile, I spoke with Jennifer Yuh Nelson on the same day for my TOH column at Indiewire. She discusses why the original cried for a sequel, deepening Po, providing a more devious villain in Lord Shen, and expanding the universe to take Po out of his comfort zone. In this year of the sequel, KFP2 needs all the help it can get in distinguishing itself for an Oscar nomination. It’s coming out next week on Blu-ray/DVD (DreamWorks Home Ent.) and deserves a second look.

The Smurfs Go Blu

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

The Smurfs came out on Blu-ray this week (Sony Pictures Home Ent.) looking every bit as good in HD in all its blueness. Plus there are a bevy of bonus features, including the new Christmas Carol short and Smurf-O-Vision: a second screen interactive feature that syncs with the movie and allows new interactive experiences for kids using their iPad, IPhone, or iPod Touch with easy to follow instructions.

But it’s the blockbuster, cutting-edge movie from Sony PIctures Animation and Imageworks that’s worth enjoying and exploring in more detail.

There were major design considerations, first of all, they involved capturing the silhouette, making the eyes believable and expressive and getting the skin texture right so that it was fleshy but not creepy. Plus they created a model (Troy Saliba was senior animation supervisor for Imageworks) with subtle variations, including pliable facial rig and proper bone structure. There were around 36 character models for film, with Gutsy (voiced by Alan Cumming), being totally new.

“There were physical limitations of anatomy that we had to deal with in creative ways,” suggests Rich Hoover, the Imageworks visual effects supervisor. “We wanted humanistic profiles, joints, muscles, bones, human-like wrinkles in the skin. But we also had to maintain volume for these [7 1/2 inch-tall] characters. Raja wanted them to have a spring in their step, so we made them jump 10-feet-per-second to keep up with the human characters they interact with.”

And when it came to hair for the ever popular Smurfette, they actually started from scratch after animating 20% because the old design just wasn’t convincing in CG. So they tweaked the volume and gave her a prettier makeover with a more modern sheen. Now it hangs down straighter.

Revisiting Super 8 VFX

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

Last week, Paramount Home Ent. hosted a screening of Super 8 at the Academy in honor of its Blu-ray release. It’s worth looking again at ILM’s retro VFX as the J.J. Abrams coming of age monster movie winds its way into the bakeoff.

“Our visual effects strategy was to use as few bluescreens as possible, plenty of roto, lots of image-based lighting, which everybody does nowadays,” explains production VFX supervisor Kim Libreri. “J.J. wanted to keep the nature of the creature [designed by Neville Page] quite secret to the very end, so when we were shooting the creature scenes there was no maquette — there was only a pole for how big the creature was to make sure we shot everything correctly. But other than that, it was a lot of make believe for the kids.”

For Dennis Muren, it was more of a homecoming since he worked at ILM during this period on Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. He was brought in toward the end as a cinematic reality check.” Everything went through me to make sure it had the right kind of look that J.J. was after for that period,” he explains. “It was quite a gamut and each one offered its opportunities to be nostalgic in the look of it. One of the things of the period is that the colors were stronger and the shots lasted longer — there was more time to digest it. It’s a matter of specifying at the start of the shot here is how the lights have to be; here is how the dust has to be; here’s how the size of the debris has to be. The whole thing was played by what I call ‘peek-a-boo.’ That it’s not terribly clear at the beginning of the shot what you’re seeing, but by the time it’s done you’ve figured it out and it’s gone somewhere emotionally.”

That includes the mysterious alien: a spidery humanoid that evokes terror and pathos by the end, with the help of animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh and his team.

Immersed in Blu: Rules, Three Colors

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies | Leave a comment

Rejoice: Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) are out on Blu-ray from Criterion. Renoir called his complex social critique of French society on the verge of World War II: “dancing on a volcano.” It was the apotheosis of his elegant visual style of long takes and deep focus and arranging mismatched pairs for symmetry and conflict along with his crisscrossing narrative among the classes. Alas, Renoir was all too prescient in his cautionary tale because audiences angrily rejected his film. Fortunately, his maligned and mangled masterpiece (reconstructed finally to a director’s cut in 1959 and exquisitely mastered from a 35mm fine grain master positive) is available to enjoy and study in HD.You can luxuriate in the grain and lap up the luster.

“Everyone has his reasons” has become one of the most famous lines in all of cinema. It is the nervy Octave’s attempt to explain love. That he is played by the director as a failed voice of reason makes it all the more powerful. It perfectly ties in to Kieślowski’s sublime Blue (liberty), White (equality), and Red (fraternity), which represent the colors of the French flag and look appropriately sumptuous or gritty but very modern. Like Rules of the Game, the Polish director examines French society at a crossroads by throwing a group of disparate and disconnected people together. It’s like destiny intervening to provide a sense of understanding and renewal. Juliette Binoche overcomes the tragic deaths of her husband and young daughter and can begin anew; Zbigniew Zamachowski plays a Polish immigrant who navigates his way around prejudice and inequality with a bit of role reversal to finish the journey; and serene model Irène Jacob connects with embittered judge Jean‑Louis Trintignant to discover: “Everyone has his reasons.”

Hey Jude on Cars 2

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Oscar, VFX | Leave a comment

Jude Brownbill and Holley Shiftwell were made for each other. They’re both young, British, female, and relatively new to their professions. Brownbill joined Pixar straight out of the Animation Mentor online program, and immediately got her hands on Holley, the newbie spy in the Oscar-contending Cars 2. The sequel to the popular Cars, directed by John Lasseter is currently out on Blu-ray from Disney Home Ent.

“They hadn’t really animated Holley that much,” Brownbill recalls, “and they got this big sequence when she’s outside the Tokyo bathrooms and about to meet the American agent for the first time. And then this whole miscommunication occurs, so Shawn [Krause] and Dave [Mullins], the animation supervisors, gave me that whole sequence to do, and it was my first ever on a feature film. The first shot briefing John actually recorded on his iPad because he was so busy with the other departments. And so I was listening to him describing how Holley was feeling; how nervous she was and wanted to prove herself.”

Brownbill quickly seized on Mortimer’s mannerisms from the recording sessions. For example, she would nod or shake her head before she spoke. “She’s so ahead of the game that she knows what to say before even saying it,” Brownbill continues. “I tried to get Holley to be like that. And there was this nervous energy to her — always blinking. And afterward, people would come to me for advice about her mouth shape. I couldn’t believe that! This was my first film!”

“Statistically, there just aren’t that many women in animation,” notes Victor Navone, an AM mentor and co-director of Cars 2. “Our department at Pixar is about 10% female. I’m not really sure why that is, but it’s really exciting for us to come across another woman who’s a really good animator and brings that female point of view to the animation world.”

If there was anything that Brownbill struggled with at first, it was technically mastering Pixar’s proprietary software. A Maya user from her previous stint at Blue-Zoo in London, Brownbill was glad there were only six controls and could ease into it. “It was really good to get the essence of it with just a head or a tire jilt,” she adds.

As fate would have it, Brownbill is now animating another English female: Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in Brave (June 22, 2012). It marks Pixar’s first stab at a fantasy/adventure with a fiery Scottish princess as the protagonist.

“When I first got my Brave character, she had a spine and legs and her eyebrows and eyelids were separate,” she recalls. “It’s really fun because I’m animating a British character — a very regal one. It’s a huge step up in complexity, but you just have to treat it the same. Do your video reference and try to find a bit of real life that you can put into it, and the mannerisms, really knowing the character and who she is, and trying to figure out a way she’d react to something.”

Cars 2 and Stranger Tides Go Blu

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies, Shorts, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

Two of Disney’s Oscar contenders for animation and VFX, Cars 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, have arrived on Blu-ray/DVD (Disney Home Ent.). Both look sharp and crisp in HD (with color palettes intact in their flat form) and sound thunderous, too.

“What’s intriguing about Cars is that as an animator I want to do complex physiology, but once you pop the hood, you realize how freeing and funny it is to animate these characters,” boasts Dave Mullins, animation supervisor. “It’s just really refreshing.”

“We’ve opened up the expressiveness and wackiness of the characters,” adds Shawn Krause, the other animation supervisor. “You don’t question it — you just go with it. On the first one, John [Lasseter] was grounded in such a reality that we were careful to make you feel that these were cars. And I think it’s only because we created such a foundation that we were able to go in different directions and embrace some other opportunities [with the spy genre].”

Meanwhile, two of the added bonus features on Cars 2 are the shorts, Air Mater (made at Pixar Canada in Vancouver) and Hawaiian Vacation (the first of the Toy Story legacy works).

As for On Stranger Tides, we can now marvel at the back to basics storyline and more transparent VFX work by ILM, who got to play in the water with mermaids and try their hand with a new Fountain of Youth.

And for Ben Snow, ILM’s visual effects supervisor, it was a nice change of pace from the hard surface challenges of the Iron Man franchise. The mermaids were especially different, appearing beautiful and human outside the water to entice and entrap the pirate victims and then menacing underwater with deadly fangs. But rather than going completely CG, they decided to apply a hybrid approach, in keeping with director Rob Marshall’s glam aesthetic and desire to retain as much of the live-action performance as possible, particularly when it came to the hero mermaid, Syrena, played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

“The look of the mermaids was important,” Snow says. “We conceived them as having an inner body that had all the scale texture on them and then an outer membrane that made them look human when they got out of the water. They evolved from being a little more human to a little more creature-like with vestigial gills, but we pulled back on that.”

Bonus features include Bloopers of the Caribbean and the LEGO animated short, Captain Jack’s Bricks Tales.

Pixar Canada Launches with Air Mater

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Movies, Shorts, Tech | Leave a comment

Pixar Canada got off to a flying start in Vancouver with the release of Air Mater on the Cars 2 Blu-ray/DVD. In my TOH column, I discuss the challenges of bringing the Pixar ethos up north and living up to the legacy with the first two shorts, including the upcoming Small Fry Toy Story entry.

Cars 2 and Winnie the Pooh Return to El Cap

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Books, Home Entertainment, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VES, VFX | Leave a comment

Pixar and Disney’s Cars 2 and Winnie the Pooh (now on Blu-ray/DVD from Disney Home Ent.) have returned theatrically for a limited engagement at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Nov. 4-20. Both are vying for the best animated feature Oscar and tout the best in CG and hand-drawn animation, and are best viewed on the big screen. Plus, Cars 2 has the added bonus of being in 3-D.

Cars 2, directed by two-time Oscar-winner John Lasseter, offers noteworthy technical tweaks in lighting and painting and driving performance befitting Formula 1 racing and gadget-driven action.

For Pooh, directed by Stephen Anderson and Don Hall, Disney’s 2D dream team not only went back to the roots of author A.A. Milne to rediscover the wit and simplicity, but they also went to Milne country in England to revisit the places that inspired the author, especially Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, where they sketched, painted, and soaked up the architecture and soft English light.

Winnie the Pooh will show daily at 10:45 a.m., 1:20 p.m. and 4:10 p.m., and Cars 2 will screen at 7:00 p.m.

Additionally, each screening of Cars 2 will be preceded by the new Pixar animated short, La Luna, and each screening of Winnie the Pooh will be preceded by the hand-drawn Disney animated short, The Ballad of Nessie. Both are vying for the best animated short Academy Award.

As a special bonus before each screening of Winnie the Pooh, Pooh bear will appear live on stage. In addition, The El Capitan  will exhibit pieces of extraordinary art that went into the making of these films. There will also be a special “Winnie the Pooh” breakfast at 9:15 on Saturdays and Sundays.

Members of the following guilds are invited to present their membership cards at the box office to receive complimentary admission to attend any of the scheduled screenings with their families (up to 4 people): AMPAS, ACE, ADG, ASC, ASIFA, BAFTA, BFCA, CAS, CDG, DGA, HFPA, LAFCA, MPSE, PGA, SAG Nominating Committee, and VES.

For ticket and showtime information please visit
Or, call 1-800-DISNEY6.

Lasseter Gets a Hollywood Star

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Events, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Shorts, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

John Lasseter got a long-overdue Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yesterday right in front of the El Capitan Theater, surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, including Disney’s Rich Ross and Sean Bailey, Pixar’s Ed Catmull, Jim Morris, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, composer Randy Newman, and Owen Wilson, Bonnie Franklin, Patton Oswalt, John Ratzenberger and Don Rickles.

The stars were aligned just right, with the release of Cars 2 on Blu-ray/DVD and 2012 marking the 25th anniversary of Pixar. Indeed, in a tearful acceptance, Lasseter praised Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs, who passed away three weeks ago: “Today I share this star with Steve Jobs; without him Pixar and all these amazing films would not exist.”

I’ve had the honor of interviewing Lasseter on several occasions throughout the last 10 years, and his most revealing observation concerned mentor Catmull: “Lucasfilm had the cream of the crop in computer graphics research, and I asked Ed how they did it. He said, ‘I always hire people smarter than myself.’ I was inspired by that philosophy.”

Meanwhile, Catmull told me years ago that the Pixar epiphany came with their first Oscar-winning short, Tin Toy: “When the baby walked up to the couch and the toys cowered underneath, we realized that the adults laughed and the kids didn’t,” he said. “And when the baby fell over, the kids laughed and the adults didn’t. That taught us how to achieve the physical layer for children and the cerebral layer for adults.”

And Pixar has never looked back.