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.


Letteri Talks Tintin at Autodesk Screening

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Books, Clips, Movies, Oscar, performance capture, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

At Tuesday night’s Autodesk screening of The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 21) at the Landmark in LA, senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri admitted there’s no escaping the Uncanny Valley. The key, he told host David Morin, is to make sure that you get all the details right on the face to overcome any creepiness. That was the secret to Weta’s success. They leveraged the Avatar technology but improved the lighting to handle all the indoor scenes.

Speaking of lighting, when asked why director Steven Spielberg took a lighting consultant credit, Letteri said it was probably in keeping with the latest trend on animated films (Roger Deakins being the most prominent), but that there was nobody else to fill that role. However, Letteri revealed that Spielberg drove the lighting. At first, they were going to emulate the brightly-colored style of Hergé throughout, but Spielberg found it too flat-looking so he decided on a film noir look for interiors and nighttime scenes.

Meanwhile, the bravura two-and-a-half minute motorcycle chase in Morocco occurred as a result of the previs offering so many long master shots that Spielberg decided to utilize one in the film.

Snowy, the dog, proved challenging because of his white, curly fur and trying to maintain the spirit of Hergé’s odd design for the terrier. Weta used Maya and nCloth and Spielberg made sure that Snowy stole every scene he was in.

When asked if animation and VFX are converging, Letteri pointed to the screen and indicated that Tintin’s the proof.

And for those wondering why Tintin didn’t make the Academy’s list of 15 VFX Oscar contenders, Letteri said it didn’t help that several members of the Visual Effects Branch Executive committee have yet to see it. On the other hand, no animated entries made the cut, so there continues to be a bias against animation or a hard-to-classify hybrid such as Tintin.!

Saldanha Gets Animated Over Rio

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

In my latest TOH column at Indiewire, Blue Sky’s Carlos Saldanha talks about his pet project, Rio, that’s in contention for best animated feature. He discusses feathers, Carnival, and capturing the look of his home. You can check out the stunning Blu-ray now available from Fox.

Apes Rises on Blu-ray

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the surprise hits of the year as well as a surprisingly terrific reboot (it’s made quite a few 10 Best lists), arrives this week on Blu-ray (Twentieth Century Fox Home Ent.). Weta Digital and Andy Serkis combine to make Caesar an extraordinary achievement in digital acting. It’s the favorite to take the VFX Oscar, and I call Serkis “The Man of a Thousand Digital Faces” in my TOH column at Indiewire. Fox is rightly giving him a best supporting actor Oscar campaign, though he’s clearly the heart and soul of the movie, directed by Rupert Wyatt.

Rise is certainly a reference quality Blu-ray; it looks sharp and sounds thunderous (sound editing/effects are also Oscar contenders) with lots of bonus feature that I haven’t had time to check out yet. For instance, there are 11 deleted scenes and I’m hoping the death of Franco’s scientist is among them, along with several featurettes such as “Breaking Motion Capture Boundaries,” “The Genius of Andy Serkis,” and “A New Generation of Apes.”

“We rewrote skin, muscles, fur, and eyes one more time to do them a little bit better,” admits Joe Letteri, Weta’s senior visual effects supervisor, who also oversaw The Adventures of Tintin. “But I think making the performance look as realistic as possible is still the main thing that we accomplished.”

Weta placed the performance capture actors out on location or on set with the other actors. Rather than using reflective optical markers for motion tracking, they developed an active LED system with infrared lighting that allowed Weta to  work in a variety of conditions and match the cinematography.

Weta also developed a new facial muscle system still in progress that delivers better capture and animation, particularly for secondary motion. “It’s a problem that’s not easily understood because the facial muscles don’t behave like the other muscles in the body,” Letteri adds. “They are not so bound by the skeleton. But on a face they’re moving other muscles around and other tissue, and there are deep embedded layers that have an impact on what kind of shape they do, which is really complex and why in the end we wind up sculpting a lot of these things.”

They made Caesar more human because they wanted him to look a little more intelligent than the rest of the apes and to stand out among them. “You could see it in his eyes: we made the irises a little smaller so you get a better idea where he’s looking; the muzzle is slightly smaller; and the forehead is shaped a little bit more like a human’s.”

The shock of recognition in Caesar’s eyes when he realizes how and why he must lead the revolt is Letteri’s favorite moment. To achieve this Weta made a new model that more realistically captures movement in and around the eyes and how they are affected by different lighting conditions.

They’ve signed Serkis to continue his Caesar pantomime, and I can’t wait to see how they evolve the story in the sequel, as it eventually dovetails into the original’s time-warp journey with Taylor.

Bob Richardson Goes Blue for Hugo

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Books, Cinematography, Clips, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

In my latest TOH column for Indiewire, I chat with Hugo cinematographer Bob Richardson about discovering the joys of an autochrome look that goes hand-in-hand with the 3-D. It’s yet another fascinating link back to the roots of early French cinema.

Wrinkles Gets Oscar-Qualifying Run

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

Arrugas (Wrinkles), a decidedly adult look at retirement, friendship, and Alzheimer’s, is having its Oscar-qualifying run this week for animated feature at the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 through Dec. 15 at 1:20 pm daily. 

The hand-drawn Wrinkles, based on Paco Roca´s comic of the same title (2008 National Comic Prize), and directed by Ignacio Ferreras, focuses on two aged gentlemen, Emilio (in the early stages of Alzheimer’s) and Miguel, shut away in a care home. Their wild plan to keep Emilio from being segregated in the upper ward, infuses their otherwise tedious day-to-day with humor and tenderness.

15 Compete for VFX Oscar Race

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Movies, Oscar, performance capture, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | 1 Comment

The list of films qualifying for the VFX Oscar has been narrowed to 15. Not too many surprises. All of the usual suspects are there, with the likely contenders consisting of Captain America: The First Avenger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The Tree of Life happily made the cut for its spectacular birth of the universe sequence, yet Anonymous did not for its superb virtual recreation of Elizabethan London. Also, The Adventures of Tintin was overlooked. Then again, it’s competing in the animation race, which was probably a major factor.

The films are listed below in alphabetical order:

  • “Captain America: The First Avenger”
  • “Cowboys & Aliens”
  • “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″
  • “Hugo”
  • “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”
  • “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”
  • “Real Steel”
  • “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
  • “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”
  • “Sucker Punch”
  • “Super 8″
  • “Thor”
  • “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
  • “The Tree of Life”
  • “X-Men: First Class”

In early January, the members of the Academy’s Visual Effects Branch Executive committee, who selected the 15 films, will narrow the list to 10.

All members of the Visual Effects Branch will be invited to the annual bakeoff to view 10-minute excerpts from each of the 10 shortlisted films on Thursday, Jan. 19.  Following the screenings, the members will vote to nominate five films for final Oscar consideration.

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2011 will be presented on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center, and televised live by ABC.  The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries worldwide.

Revisiting Cowboys & Aliens VFX

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

Last summer ILM had competing aliens with Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens. Now you can compare both at home on Blu-ray/DVD. In fact, Jon Favreau’s western/sci-fi mash-up arrives this week via Universal Home Ent. with an extended cut that’s 16 minutes longer. It looks and sound stunning in HD, as does Super 8. As far as Oscar, though, the J.J. Abrams homage to Steven Spielberg has the definite edge. No matter: ILM had fun with both and each offered their tech challenges. For the Daniel Craig/Harrison Ford actioner, ILM was tasked with animating a 10-foot tall, bipedal reptilian-like creature.

“We created an uber alien in evolutionary scale to make it more complicated in hierarchy,” says ILM visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, who also oversaw onset VFX production. “We used the Legacy design as a foundation and then [VFX art director] Christian Alzmann and others developed it.

“And I thought that the irony of all this was that the aliens turn up and it could be more exaggerated for them. This is not their planet. They’re frontiersmen in a way: traveling to another place and having to deal with all the adversities of the climate. And in our case, we played up the fact that they weren’t comfortable in our world. There are flies all around them; they didn’t like the light; when they were wounded and exposed, a strange fungus grew around them.”

ILM keyframed all the animation (overseen by Marc Chu) because after doing some MoCap tests (a la Super 8), they found that it didn’t work to take the motions of a human and remap it onto the creature. “I set up an all-CG test for the studio where the cowboys were mocap,” Guyett continues. “It gave you an idea of what the aliens could do and we explored some fighting techniques (including Last of the Mohicans-style hand-to-hand) to see how they would attack a creature of that size. They have a complicated anatomy that we made organic to their behavior and in relation to their ship.”

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.

Trailering Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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

OK, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (opening Christmas Day) could be the Oscar wild card to challenge The Artist and War Horse. Judging by the second trailer and everything I’ve read, it’s tailor-made for the Academy (especially the all-important acting branch) in this 10th anniversary of 9/11. Tom Hanks plays a sensitive father killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the bittersweet story directed by Stephen Daldry and scripted by Eric Roth revolves around his “gifted” son (Thomas Horn) scouring Manhattan in search of the lock that corresponds to the key he left behind. You see, before his death, Hanks and his son played a little game in which the boy collected relics from every decade of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the anger and grief are eating away at widow/mother Sandra Bullock, and the boy befriends a mysterious, mute stranger (Max Von Sydow, a strong Best Supporting Actor contender) with his own tragic past. Together they go on a mad quest to find meaning and salvation. If the execution works, we could have another Best Picture contender.

We Were Here Doc Launches on VOD/PPV

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

We Were Here, David Weissman’s powerful documentary focusing on the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, coinciding with the 30th World AIDS Day, comes out Friday through video-on-demand and pay-per-view (check the new releases section of your cable or on demand provider). Through the eyes of five witnesses, the Oscar contender not only reminds us of the horror and tragedy of AIDS/HIV, but also of the love and strength that ultimately prevailed in this close knit, gay community in the legendary Castro district. Most important, Weissman achieves a living history that is both epic and intimate. Co-director and editor Bill Weber skillfully incorporates archival news footage, personal photos, and videos as part of the compelling narrative. I had the chance to speak with Weissman about his experience making We Were Here.

How difficult was it emotionally to go on this journey?

It was an interesting combination of incredibly difficult emotionally but also very empowering in a way for both of us to feel ready to engage with that material. We new right way that we were doing something important and that was a really good balancing out.

It’s an immense epic history but you’ve managed to focus so intimately on the Castro story with the right group of people.

Yeah, the people presented themselves in chance encounters. I assumed at the beginning of the film that I would probably have to do a minimum of 30 interviews and then try to make sense of how you tell a story of this scope. And I wound up only doing a total of nine interviews and four of the first six that I did are in the film, so it’s mind boggling that it worked.

It’s interesting how you use the San Francisco story as an arc: beginning with the sense of liberation that quickly turns dark, and how it coincides with the murder of Harvey Milk

Yeah, there was some similarity with our earlier movie, The Cockettes, in which we had to decide how much do we contextualize it in a larger history of the ’60s, and what we really learned with that is that, if you do it right, you can let the big picture emerge out of the intimate without needing to tell the big picture separately. And I think that really served us well with this film.

What’s it been like reaching a younger generation?

The reaction from young men, particularly young gay men, who would be the most affected, has been incredibly powerful. I think amazement at the enormity of what happened, what the preceding generation went through, and I think also I’ve heard a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation coming from younger men. Very emotionally.

What was your take away?

I think there were a lot of memories revived, many, many, many details that I had forgotten. I think the thing that remains perplexing to me, having re-engaged with this, is the juxtaposition of the enormous horror that lives side by side with seemingly normal daily life. When I look back at pictures of that period or even when we were looking through archival materials, everyone was still having a good time.