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.

Movies

Going Blu with Criterion in B&W

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Home Entertainment, Movies, Trailers | Leave a comment

I’ve been getting immersed with Blu-ray for quite some time, including many of the monthly offerings from Criterion and Eureka (the Criterion of the UK with its prestigious Masters of Cinema series). And I look forward to making Blu-ray and DVD coverage a regular staple of my blog.

So I’d like to start by highlighting some of the recent Criterion offerings: High and Low (1963) has always been my favorite Akira Kurosawa and the Blu-ray only reconfirms it. Adapted from Ed McBain’s novel, King’s Ransom, High and Low stars Toshiro Mifune as a successful shoe magnate who initiates a take-over bid of his company to preserve the integrity of his craft. However, when a kidnapper grabs a neighbor’s son instead of his by mistake, Mifune faces a moral dilemma that’s almost Shakespearean. The film represents the pinnacle of Kurosawa’s fascination with American storytelling and seamlessly turns it into an intense Japanese procedural and family drama. Given that High and Low is shot in Scope, the film achieves a strange sense of claustrophobia as result of its gripping narrative, use of black-and-white, and oppressive compositions. In retrospect, the sense of anxiety is heightened by the fact that the film was released the same year as the Kennedy assassination.

Speaking of black-and-white and claustrophobia, there’s no better way to also get reacquainted with Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success (both from 1957) than on Blu-ray. Stanley Kubrick’s early masterwork takes us inside the opulent chateau of France’s aristocratic General staff and onto the brutal trenches beyond with voyeuristic delight, where a World War I suicide mission reverberates with corruption and inhumanity. Kirk Douglas’ idealistic and fair-minded Col. Dax is nearly swallowed up in the power play.

Meanwhile, Burt Lancaster’s Walter Winchell-like columnist does the swallowing up in the wicked Sweet Smell of Success, and Tony Curtis’ oily press agent becomes his accessory in the ruthless game of gotcha. Director Alexander Mackendrick taps into a smoky, seedy, and seductive Manhattan, complemented by the jazzy beat of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ biting script. It picks up where Abraham Polonsky left off and signals the coming of David Mamet. “A cookie full of arsenic,” indeed.

Autodesk and Disney Pact on XGen Tech

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

Autodesk obtained an exclusive five-year licensing agreement for the XGen Arbitrary Primitive Generator technology (XGen), used most recently by Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) in the hit animated film Tangled. XGen technology was first presented by WDAS in a research paper at SIGGRAPH in 2003 for the creation of computer-generated fur, feathers, and foliage. Since that time, XGen has been used to create the fur, hair, feathers, trees, leaves and rocks in Bolt;  the trees and bushes in UP; the dust bunnies, debris, trees, bushes, clover, and flowers in Toy Story 3; and the grass and trees in Cars 2.

In Tangled, WDAS used XGen to bring the lavish CG-animated world to life: from Rapunzel’s perfectly groomed golden locks to the film’s lush, vegetation-filled landscapes, including bushes, flowers, vines, grass, weeds, moss, thistle, ground mulch, fallen leaves, sticks, rocks, butterfly fur, airborne dust, leaves and trees, plus props such as roof tiles, arrow fletchings, a broom, and paint brushes.

XGen is a comprehensive system for generating arbitrary primitives on a surface. The system advances the state-of-the-art in the industry in several ways with its versatility, durability, and impact. XGen allows techno-artistic access to interpolation in an intuitive manner for artists, empowering them with a powerful and flexible framework for primitive generation, which is highly art directable. The genesis of XGen was a collaboration between the WDAS production and software teams to provide its artists with intuitive, creative tools for 3D animation — such as “grooming” tools for fur and hair — so that they can develop the look and feel of their characters and environments more quickly and easily. Senior Development Software Engineer at WDAS Tom Thompson was an initial creator and remains the chief architect of the software. Walt Disney Pictures’ agreement with Autodesk will enable Autodesk to make this technology available to artists to create digital entertainment.

“Twenty years ago, visual effects artists creating computer graphics were mostly mathematicians and scientists using highly technical and complex software tools that required significant amounts of custom programming,” explained CTO Andy Hendrickson, Walt Disney Animation Studios. “Back then, off-the-shelf software could not create the required details of nuance and emotion. Today, we were able to create XGen as an effective artistic tool because Autodesk provides studios like ours with comprehensive tools and a flexible, extensible platform to develop on. The Autodesk customizable toolset helps visual effects artists do their best work.”

“A key challenge in the visual effects industry continues to be the need to constantly evolve creatively while somehow controlling rapidly escalating production costs,” added Marc Petit, svp Autodesk Media & Entertainment. “To help customers better address this challenge, Autodesk has been working with industry leaders like Walt Disney Animation Studios to help them innovate faster and to make these new technologies more broadly accessible. Digital Entertainment Creation users are sure to benefit from developments designed by industry visionaries and proven in production.”

Walt Disney Animation Studios Director of Studio Technology Dan Candela said, “A primary focus for my team is to ensure that the production pipeline is streamlined in order to efficiently produce the best possible CG animation. With Autodesk’s Maya as a core piece of our toolset, we’ve developed over 100 plug-ins and extensions for the platform to enable our artists to create a movie of the quality of Tangled within necessary time and budgetary limits. Sharing our technology with the VFX and CG animation community raises the creative bar for the entire industry.”

New Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol Image

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

How’s this for a ghostly image of Tom Cruise from Brad Bird’s upcoming Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (Dec. 21)? Looks a little like Eminem, who sings “Won’t Back Down” in the trailer. The IMF is shut down when Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is framed for a terrorist bombing, and he must go rogue (like 007 has so many times before him) to defeat the real culprits. Co-starring Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg. VFX by ILM (supervised by John Knoll). Will screen in IMAX.

Disney to Bring out Big Guns at D23 Expo

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Events, Movies, Shorts, stop-motion, VFX | Leave a comment

OK, Disney’s D23 Expo (Aug. 19-21 at the Anaheim Convention Center) is shaping up to be a mini Comic-Con. They will tout footage and discussion of Pixar’s Brave and Monsters University, Andrew Stanton’s live-action John Carter, Marvel’s The Avengers, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, Disney’s The Muppets and CG-animated Wreck-It Ralph, Oz The Great and Powerful, and more. Rich Ross, chairman, The Walt Disney Studios; Sean Bailey, president, production, The Walt Disney Studios; John Lasseter, chief creative officer, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios; and Kevin Feige, producer and president, Marvel Studios, will preside over the sneak peeks.

In celebration of 25 years of Pixar power, five sessions will be devoted to its artistry and technical wizardry:

* A Conversation with the Pixar Creative Team – Enjoy a rare opportunity to spend some time with the key figures responsible for Pixar’s unprecedented success, including John Lasseter (chief creative officer, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios), Jim Morris (general manager, Pixar Animation Studios), Pete Docter (director, Monsters, Inc., Up), Andrew Stanton (director, Finding Nemo, WALL-E), Bob Peterson (co-director, Up), Lee Unkrich (director, Toy Story 3), Mark Andrews (director, Brave), and Dan Scanlon (director, Monsters University).

* The Characters of Monsters University – Director Dan Scanlon and Production Designer Ricky Nierva discuss how they combine hair, horns, and a lot of heart to bring the wonderful Monsters University characters to life.

* Michael Giacchino’s Music of Pixar – In this musical presentation, award-winning composer Michael Giacchino explores his early influences through the creation of modern-day classic scores from Ratatouille, Up, and Cars 2.

* The Art of Brave – Production Designer Steve Pilcher and Shading Art Director Tia Kratter show how they and their team put paint to canvas and fingers to computer keys to create the stunning visuals of Scotland for Disney•Pixar’s upcoming film Brave.

* Pixar Shorts – This retrospective screening of the animation studio’s legendary short films will be followed by a panel discussion with several of the filmmakers, including Ralph Eggleston (director, For the Birds), Andy Jimenez (director, One Man Band), Angus MacLane (director, BURN-E), Pete Sohn (director, Partly Cloudy), Teddy Newton (director, Day & Night), and Enrico Casarosa (director, La Luna).

Expo attendees will also have access to advance screenings of an all-new 3-D version of The Lion King, presented by RealD 3-D, coming to theaters and homes this fall, and the upcoming ABC holiday special Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Tickets to the D23 Expo are available at www.D23Expo.com. Admission includes access to all experiences and entertainment at the D23 Expo, including the Disney Legends Ceremony, and can be purchased for single days or for the full three days of festivities. Admission is $47 for a one-day adult ticket and $37 for children 3-12. Three-day passes are $136 for adults and $106 for children. Members of D23: The Official Disney Fan Club will receive a discount for up to four admissions, as well as early entry to each day of the D23 Expo for themselves and their guests.

Alembic 1.0 Released

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

Alembic 1.0, the open source project jointly developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks and Lucasfilm Ltd. was released to the public today in a joint announcement at SIGGRAPH 2011 in Vancouver.

Alembic is the computer graphics interchange format developed by the two entertainment giants last year and focused on efficiently storing and sharing animation and visual effects scenes across multiple software applications. It was designed to handle massive animation data sets often required in high-end visual effects and animation, which are routinely developed and produced by companies such as Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm Animation Ltd and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The studios each saw the need for a tool like Alembic, something that would fit within existing pipelines and allow for customization at the facility level without impeding the ability to share work.

In addition to the features announced at last year’s SIGGRAPH, Alembic 1.0 includes automatic data de-duplication. The software automatically recognizes repeated shapes in complicated geometry and only writes a single instance to disk. This makes Alembic 1.0 use dramatically less disk space than promised without requiring any extra steps on the part of the user and can improve both write and read performance as well. In the case of hero deforming humanoid characters, including hair, shot caches have been reduced by more than 70%.  For complex, deeply hierarchical and mostly rigid assets like the Transformers characters, tests have shown cache reduction in the order of 98%.

The code base for Alembic is available for download on the project’s Google Code site and more information can be found online at: www.alembic.io.

Joint development of Alembic was first announced at last year’s Siggraph by Lucasfilm’s visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic and Sony Pictures Imageworks. The companies joined forces when it became apparent that they were independently developing software designed to solve, a problem universally faced by the visual effects and animation production community: how to easily share complex animated scenes across a variety of disciplines and facilities regardless of what software was being used.

Alembic includes tools that allow collaboration while working with a generic, extensible, data representation scheme. In essence, it distills complex and often proprietary, animated scenes into application-independent files with baked geometric results. These baked results can be fully re-importable across the range of supporting software.

Alembic addresses a fundamental issue in a world where assets are shared across many companies. Alembic’s production-ready ability to seamlessly translate shapes across a wide variety of applications saves time and resources,” said Rob Bredow, CTO of Sony Pictures Imageworks. “By releasing Alembic as an Open Source project, users have the opportunity to improve the software based on their needs and experience. We’re really starting to feel the positive effects of Open Source, as a community of visual effects and animation professionals come together to solve problems more effectively today than ever before.”

 “Alembic is giving us space efficiencies beyond our most optimistic expectations and at effectively the same time cost as before.  This is sure to have a significant impact for anyone who uses the format and we are excited to be able to share this with the Open Source community,” said Tommy Burnette, Head of Global Pipeline at Lucasfilm Ltd.  “Previously each facility had to produce their own unique solutions to the problem of efficient caching and scene handoff, but the beauty of Open Source is that with strong collaborative efforts we can effectively provide solutions for everyone.”

Both studios have made strides with open source software and recognize the importance of such initiatives, ILM with the industry standard OpenEXR format and Imageworks with OSL, Open Color I/O, Maya Reticle, Field3D, Scala Migrations and the newly release PyP.

Trailering New In Time

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

Fox has released a new In Time trailer (Oct. 28) from Andrew Niccol, which contains more of the framing of Justin Timberlake’s character for murder along with the class divisions and sexual overtones. In a futuristic sci-fi twist on Hitchcock’s pursued pursuer, time is currency and the wealthy live forever while the poor struggle for every minute of their 25-year limit. Timberlake has more time than allowed and takes Amanda Seyfried hostage to crack open the corrupt society that has set him up. Matt Bomer and Cillian Murphy (as the time keeper) also shine. Roger Deakins’ gritty cinematography is up to its usual high standards, as is Alex McDowell’s alluring production design, evoking a Fight Club-like underworld. VFX by Luma, Wildfire, Soho, Rez-Illusion.

New Monkey Business

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Movies, performance capture, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

“It’s a question of simian survival.”

It’s as true in Rise of the Planet of the Apes as it was in the 1968 original Planet of the Apes. Only now we have a new origin story for the 21st century propelled by genetic engineering and CG DNA for the apes, courtesy of Weta Digital.

Yes, Andy Serkis’ remarkably nuanced portrayal of Caesar finally puts to rest any notion that performance capture can’t evoke pathos and is unworthy of recognition. His primate pantomime is utterly believable because of his character arc and Weta’s latest advancements in photoreal animation. The new facial model adds all the dynamics, ballistics, and secondary motion, while keeping the volume of the face. The fur is is now directly manipulated for greater detail. And the muscles in and around the eyes fire more accurately coupled with requisite moisture and refractive lighting. Speaking of which, lighting is more realistic overall, thanks to the new active LED system of motion tracking and the ability to shoot on location and on set with the other actors.

Such interaction is key, according to Serkis as well as Terry Notary, the talented movement coach, ape stunt coordinator, and choreographer. He played Alpha, father of Caesar, Bright Eyes, his mother, and Rocket, the ferocious Alpha-male, along with 20 or so other background apes during the rampage.

“It’s not the big stuff that makes the difference when I’m choreographing movement but the little nuances,” Notary suggests. “And it was so much about getting into how to be still in the character and how to just live by doing nothing. Actually the quadrupedding, the leaping, that looked great. I developed arm extensions and that are about a foot long and have these cuffs go in your arms and it worked out great because we could make it look and feel as though [we] had the same anatomy as an ape.”

Perhaps now the cognitive gap between performance and recorded image that exists in the industry can be broken down. And if Rise becomes a box office success and spawns more sequels, eventually intersecting with the original story, which is already hinted at, imagine the possibilities for more evolved performances. And yet despite the cumbersome makeup, one still marvels at John Chambers’ Oscar-winning achievement and how expressive and entertaining Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans were in the original, which had the right mixture of drama and satire. Rise definitely has room for growth.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YyMqmDeoxI

Giving Rise to Apes at IndieWIRE

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Movies, performance capture, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Everyone seems to be going Ape today, so I take the opportunity at IndieWIRE to dig into Weta’s great performance capture advancements on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and how Andy Serkis is the beneficiary with his remarkable performance as Caesar. It looks like Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and The Tree of Life have some Oscar VFX competition as we head into the second-half of the year.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YyMqmDeoxI

First Looks at Superman and Catwoman

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

So what are we to make of our first glimpses of Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman? Cavill, who was deemed too young for Bond, strikes a familiar if grittier pose in keeping with the presumably more grounded reboot being directed by Zack Snyder and shepherded by Chris Nolan. “I’ve never gone after an actual character in making movies from graphic novels or comic books,” Snyder told me a while back. “I’ve gone after literary or thematic concepts. Where I feel like with Superman, you’re going after a mythology in general. Very different… It’s funny because the thing about Superman that’s stylistically interesting to me is that he’s relevant if he’s real. That’s what Chris Nolan and I talked about early on. The only way I could do this is if Superman were living in the real world with us. And I think that helps him to be credible. It’s just funny because, for me, I haven’t made a real film.”

Amy Adams plays Lois Lane; Laurence Fishburne is the new Perry White; Kevin Costner and Diane Lane portray Clark Kent’s adoptive human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent; Russell Crowe commands Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El; and Michael Shannon recreates villainous General Zod.

As for Hathaway’s Selena Kyle, there’s barely a hint of a feline disguise, though she’s certainly high-tech like Batman with her goggles and cycle. Nowhere near as sexy as Emma Peel but could be a good foil to the grieving Bruce Wayne, who must also battle the menacing Bane (Tom Hardy). With Marion Cotillard as the new ally, Miranda Tate. Nolan vows this will end the trilogy with a sense of realistic and satisfying closure.

The Dark Knight Rises opens July 20, 2012 and The Man of Steel bows June 14, 2013.

Trailering Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Books, James Bond, Movies, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

While awaiting the steely Bond 23 (Nov. 9, 2012), John le Carré’s masterful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy gets a big-screen remake, and it looks like it delivers all the delicious espionage goods. Gary Oldman reprises the role of George Smiley made famous by Alec Guinness in the ’79 mini-series, the anti-Bond called out of forced retirement to weed out a Soviet mole, possessing the same “quiet intensity and intelligence” to pull off the end of Cold War cat-and-mouse. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch round-out the remarkable cast of suspects. Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) directs from a script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. Thankfully, this really is a teaser in the best sense. I once had the pleasure of interviewing le Carré (David Cornwell) about The Tailor of Panama: “In retrospect, the Cold War was a war of fantasies as well as a war of hardware. It was a war of perception,” he told me back in the spring of 2001.

VFX by Framestore (some animation and matchmoving, supervised by Oskar Larsson). Opens Nov. 18 from Focus Features, and I see lots of Oscar potential.