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.


Shotgun Blasts into Blue Sky

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Movies, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

Blue Sky Studios (Rio) has chosen the Shotgun web-based production management system from Shotgun Software. The studio is integrating Shotgun into its pipeline as the central platform for studio-wide collaboration among all of its 400 employees, as well as directors and producers working on productions at Blue Sky. The studio’s next release is Leaf Men, directed by Chris Wedge and set for a May 17, 2013 release.

“Data tracking is a key component of every production,” said Blue Sky Studios VP of finance Jason Wasserman. “As we have grown, we now regularly have two or three features in production at the same time. As we share resources across all of those projects, it became critical to have an efficient, robust framework to manage all of the data. Shotgun has a number of attractive features we need right out of the box. It’s a cost-effective option to investing in building and maintaining a proprietary tracking system, so we can focus our R&D and engineering efforts on developing the core artistic tools that are our expertise.”

Designed specifically for studios working on visual effects, CG feature animation, and video games, Shotgun enables all parties involved in a project with instant access to critical data, messaging and real-time project progress. It is also highly flexible, with an API that enables studios to easily write their own tools and integrate Shotgun with other pipeline tools and creative software applications.

Blue Sky’s decision to choose Shotgun came after an extensive grassroots evaluation among a small group of managers, artists, and TDs who took the system through its paces and gradually exposed it more broadly throughout the studio.

“Blue Sky has a reputation for developing amazing in-house tools, so it means a lot to us for them to embrace Shotgun,” said Don Parker, Shotgun CEO. “We’re very pleased to have their expertise in the Shotgun family and look forward to building the next generation of Shotgun tools with their input.”

Restoring Dumbo for Blu-ray

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Movies, Tech | Leave a comment

I recently had a chance to chat about Dumbo with Dave Bossert, creative director in charge of special projects at Walt Disney Studios Animation and artistic supervisor of the restoration and preservation team. Dumbo, which has never looked better, was released on Blu-ray last week from Disney Home Ent. It was scanned at 4K with Warner Bros. MPI.

Bill Desowitz: What was the process like on Dumbo?

Dave Bossert: We actually had the nitrate negative transported from the Virginia facility to Los Angeles in what we lovingly referred to as the ice cream truck. It’s actually just a refrigerated truck, but it is actually driven across country to our facility, not flown. The entire film, obviously, is cleaned and inspected. Just for numbers, there’s 275,352 frames of negative for Dumbo that was scanned.

Once we have those digital images, there is an automated dust-busting process that we refer to… it removes a lot of the ancillary dirt and whatnot automatically. And then we’re going in on a regular basis and reviewing parts of various reels of the film at a time. And we are calling out various other aspects, artifacts, and anomalies that need to be taken care of.  Those include — aside from the dust and dirt — fingerprints that may have been on the cells, cell shimmers, what we refer to as Newton rings, when you press several layers of acetate cells together, you get these rainbow rings that can get photographed in, cell scratches.

I did want to point out, from a color standpoint, we’re fortunate because we here at Disney have our Animation Research Library which has something north of 70 million pieces of art archived.  And we’re able to go back and pull out color backgrounds from all of these films, as well as get a series of backgrounds that would be representative of the color palette of the movie.

And instead of just looking at those backgrounds, we actually have them scanned and photographed out on SE film, because the successive exposure film actually picks up contrast and picks up color saturation, and the Disney background artists always painted their backgrounds a little bit less contrast-y and a little bit muted, knowing that the photographic process would then pick up the contrasts and saturation to give them what it was they wanted.  So we take a lot of care in making sure that we are restoring these back to what the artistic intention was, as far as the color goes.

With the digital line-up of the three color records, we’re using anywhere from 50 to 100 targets on the frame to actually line all three color records up, so you get this unbelievably crisp image, the way you would have — the way Walt and his artists would have seen the actual artwork in front of them.

BD: What were the particular challenges with Dumbo?

DB: One of the problems that we encountered on Dumbo is that there’s large color areas of the elephants. There was a lot of what we referred to as paint crawl. And, really, what was happening with the paint was that certain colors – the pigment and binder — would separate if they weren’t continuously being stirred. And so you wind up putting the paint down on a cell, and when that cell dries, there’s almost an imperceptible streaking, if you will, from the brushing — from the brush and the brush application — of the paint. On an individual cell, you can maybe pick it up a little bit if it’s really bad, but you can actually see it when you see a sequence of cells play by at 24-frames-a-second.

The grain really sort of tamed it, if you will.  But with the pristine digital image, we really did have a lot of issues with the paint crawl, and so we needed to go in and mitigate that, and we did that with a digital process.

But that was really one of the big issues for this film.  And when we do these restorations and preservations on these films, every single movie that we’ve worked on has had its own set of issues, its own set of areas that we had to sort of focus on a little bit more, and there were software solutions developed, and ways for us to mitigate some of those problems.

BD: What about the issue of grain? In the past you used to de-grain everything.

DB: No, I think that on each individual film, there is the discussion — and usually we look at a couple of samples as to what level of grain is going to be in it.  There was no blanket decision where we said, “Every single one.”

The intention here is really to take out the artifacts, the anomalies, the things that were photographed in that shouldn’t have been, and to present the film the way it was originally intended to be seen, but not to detract or take away from the fact that it is a handmade piece of art.

So in other words, on Dumbo, the paint crawl, not taking that out completely, but taking it back so that it’s not distracting from the viewing of the film.

Star Wars Goes Into Orbit on Blu-ray

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

So much for the backlash: The Complete Star Wars Saga (Fox Home Ent.) bowed as the all-time catalog Blu-ray title last week, selling 1 million units for $84 million. Are we surprised. That should give Blu-ray a big boost, with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T., and the Raiders of the Lost Ark trilogy.

Ironically, the first time I ever heard of Blu-ray was when George Lucas touted the HD format back in ’95, two years before the launch of DVD. And, not surprisingly, the Saga looks and sounds terrific in HD. Sure, the prequels look superior because of digital improvements, but the original trilogy, despite some blemishes, dazzles as well. You can see such sharpness and detail (including the wear and tear on R2). And it’s fun comparing the wondrous Yoda puppet with the CG version (introduced now in Phantom Menace). Yes, there are the notoriously new revisions, but they’re minor and actually work in the overall scheme of things.

Interestingly, a few years ago I asked Lucas what order I should introduce to my boys, and he unhesitatingly replied chronologically instead of the order they were made. Well, it didn’t work out that way — until now. The boys insisted on watching the prequels first, which are their favorites, and I joined them. I must confess that it was a fascinating way to go. Surprise was sacrificed for suspense, obviously, but they took delight in pointing out the echoes that reverberated: Anakin saying, “I have a bad feeling about this,” which wraps around to Han in Episode IV, even though the trope originated with Han.

I haven’t had a chance to dip into the bonus features yet. I’m still reveling in the movies.

Elton Launches Rocketman Biopic

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Imagine Robert Downey Jr. as Captain Fantastic. That would be divine casting, indeed, considering the friendship that has developed since Elton John encouraged Downey to get clean and sober and turn his life around. Regardless, the Rocketman musical/fantasy biopic was announced this week by Rocket Pictures partners Sir Elton John and David Furnish will launch the surreal story of John’s legendary career from child piano prodigy to ’70s glam superstar to drug addict to redemptive humanitarian (with Furnish and Steve Hamilton Shaw serving as producers). Billy Elliot scribe and playwright Lee Hall will write the script, which Shaw described as “hyper-real” and “non-linear.” Perhaps Ken Russell’s wild film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy (in which John played The Pinball Wizard) will serve as creative inspiration, as Rocketman will incorporate choreographed musical sequences to trace John’s musical career.

This follows on the heels of Rockets successful debut feature this past spring, the animated Gnomeo & Juliet, which also weaved some of John’s hit singles into the Shakespeare ode. In fact, director Kelly Asbury has been tapped to write and helm the live-action/CG hybrid, Will Gallows and the Snake Bellied Troll, also in development, based on Derek Keilty’s book series, about a young cowboy involved in a Wild West fantasy. John will exec produce both films.

“Elton has written such an extensive amount of music that has touched so many people’s lives,” Furnish told me. “There’s a lot of emotional wealth in those melodies. They take you to places right away, even on a subconscious level… they are just chock full of good associations and memories for people and a huge likability factor… As Elton always says — and I think it’s one of the reasons he endures today — ‘Life is about building bridges, not walls.’”

Geeking Out with Cameron at the 3D Summit

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

I interviewed James Cameron for my Immersed in Movies column at indieWIRE’s  TOH. We spoke about 3-D for the Avatar sequels and just announced Disney theme park attraction, as well as the Titanic conversion. Cameron and tech partner Vince Pace spoke at the 3D Entertainment Summit this week in Hollywood, suggesting that the business model is working just fine despite some growing pains and speed bumps.

Meanwhile, Pace is continuing to improve the technology. He’s developing a smart rig (taking the focus puller and interocular guy out of the picture) while still working with manufacturers to create faster, lighter, and smarter digital cameras. He recently worked on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and came away refreshed at the emotional spectacle.

Moneyball: ‘The Island of Misfit Toys’

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Books, Cinematography, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Comments Off

Moneyball (opening today) reminds us that baseball is as much about psychology as poetry. As with anything in life, you can’t fulfill your promise without confidence and nurturing. And, not surprisingly, director Bennett Miller follows Capote with another literate and mournful biopic of a creative iconoclast on a life-changing journey. Only in this case, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt at his most fascinating and charismatic best) is spiritually adrift because baseball has broken his heart (he blew his chance as a player). But that doesn’t prevent the driven and resourceful Beane from reinventing himself,  rekindling his love once again (the script by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian crackles with metaphor and wit).

Moneyball ironically begins in 2001 with the A’s losing a devastating playoff series to the Yankees, and subsequently losing their stars to free-agency. With a small payroll, there’s just no way to compete with the Yankees, but, thanks to a young economics wiz (Jonah Hill), Beane embraces a revolutionary approach to scouting players through computer analysis, and slowly transforms his “island of misfit toys” into a competitive team, and going on a wild, record-breaking ride in the process.

Moneyball is fundamentally about the difficulty of adapting to change and learning to survive and thrive with less — an apt metaphor for our times. Wally Pfister ‘s cinematography has a gritty yet surreal quality at times, in keeping with the volatile tone. The transparent VFX wizardry involving stadium seating is by Rhythm & Hues (supervised by Edwin Rivera).

VES Issues Bill of Rights

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Events, Movies, Tech, VES, VFX | Leave a comment

The Visual Effects Society (VES) today issued a Bill of Rights that more forcefully addresses the downward spiral of working conditions and benefits for VFX artists and dwindling profit margins for facilities than its previous open letter. Indeed, it was approved unanimously by the VES board.

“In the VES Open Letter, we said it was time to step up as the voice of the visual effects industry by talking to all parties regarding their concerns,” said Eric Roth, VES exec director, in a prepared statement. “At this time we have engaged in a vigorous dialog with key stakeholders at all levels and believe our Bill of Rights lays out the vital concerns of each segment of the industry  Our next step is to focus on bringing all parties together to seek solutions.”

To address these concerns, the VES Bill of Rights states that visual effects artists and practitioners, facilities, and studios all have basic rights that need to be upheld in order to recognize the contributions of each group while improving the quality of life and work for artists, practitioners, facilities, and studios.

For artists and practitioners, the VES advocates “a clear understanding of the work he/she is being hired to perform, including knowing what they are being paid per hour, per week or per job, as well as the duration of the assignment, with strict adherence to all local labor laws and tax codes regarding overtime, sick time, vacation time, working conditions, safety, and other aspects of a professional work environment…”

Crucially, the VES calls for “quality health care coverage no matter where in the world he/she may be working.”

The VES suggests that facilities should be entitled to a “clear and reasonable deal memo with the artists and practitioners for hire delineating the scope of the work, the schedule from commencement to completion, and the agreed upon price; and retain ownership of their intellectual property and proprietary tools…”

Meanwhile, studios should be entitled to “a clear and reasonable contract delineating the scope of the work, the schedule from commencement to completion of the project, and the payment schedule based on the agreed upon price; be informed in a timely manner before incurring any excess charges, delays or problems with work for which it has contracted…”

The first opportunity to address the Bill of Rights will be at the third annual VES Production Summit (“Trending the Global Marketplace: You Are Here”) Oct. 1 at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The VES Bill of Rights can be accessed

Cats Dominate European Film Academy Animation Noms

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Events, Movies | Leave a comment

The European Film Academy has selected Le chat du rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat, France), directed by Antoine Delesvaux  & Joann Sfar; Chico & Rita (Spain/Isle of Man), directed by ono Errando, Javier Mariscal & Fernando Trueba; and Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris, France/Belgium), directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol.

Le chat du rabbin (adapted from Sfar’s comic and set in ’20s Algeria) concerns a rabbi’s cat that learns how to speak after swallowing the family parrot and wants to convert to Judaism; Chico & Rita follows the tradition of the heartbreaking bolero in which a young piano player and beautiful singer are thrown together; and in Une vie de chat a thrilling mystery unfurls in the alleys and on the rooftops of the French capital during one night.

Any or all of these could be late entry Oscar contenders if they qualify in time.

The nominating committee consisted of EFA board members Per Holst (producer, Denmark) and Antonio Saura (producer, Spain) as well as representatives of CARTOON, the European Assn. of Animation Film, Patrick Caradec (France), Heikki Jokinen (Finland), and Thilo Rothkirch (Germany).

The nominated films will now be submitted to the 2,500 EFA Members to elect the winner, which will be presented at the European Film Awards ceremony on Dec. 3, in Berlin.

A Dangerous Method Dissected

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Books, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

There’s an interesting irony that the very week Citizen Kane bowed on Blu-ray, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (Nov. 23) took some early critical hits for being uncinematic. Just because it’s theatrical and talky and visually spare? Some Came Running’s Glenn Kenny hit back with some very persuasive aesthetic arguments about the power of Cronenberg’s visual style and how it serves as a compelling counterpoint to the rivalry between Michael Fassbender’s romantic Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen’s rigorous Sigmund Freud.

It just so happens that I attended a screening a couple of weeks ago, and I was particularly struck by the strong visual style. As Kenny points out, for instance, the depiction of the initial treatment of Keira Knightley’s tortured Sabina Spielrein is brilliantly constructed. Jung insists on sitting behind Sabina as she attempts to describe what’s troubling her in an attempt to remain unobtrusive and detached. And as she recounts her sexual repression and compulsion for S&M, her face and body contort as though she were possessed by the devil. All the while, the two-shot and closeups reveal an attraction/repulsion that will develop between Jung and Sabina.

Meanwhile, screenwriter Christopher Hampton told F.X. Feeney during a Q&A how rigorous a director Cronenberg is and how much he’s learned from his narrative skill (which can’t be divorced from his visual style). I look forward to exploring this and more in greater detail as we get closer to the film’s release because it’s such a rich cinematic experience.

Trailering The Pig with the Froggy Tattoo

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Below the Line, Editing, Movies, Tech, Trailers | Leave a comment

What an inspired idea for The Muppets (Nov. 23) to riff on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21) in the latest teaser trailer, The Pig with the Froggy Tattoo. It’s fast, funny, zany, off-beat, and irreverent, as they puppeteer flashes of Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Neil Patrick Harris, Rashida Jones, and Mila Kunis in Fincher mode. VFX by Look and Legacy. How about a double-bill?