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.


Trailering Titanic in 3-D

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

Paramount has just released the first trailer and poster touting the return of Titanic in 3-D on April 6, 2012 in IMAX 3D and Real D 3D. Even without the benefit of a stereoscopic glimpse, you still get a greater sense of depth and intimacy. Just imagine what it’ll be like to go inside the ship and explore it more fully, not to mention how it’ll enhance those faces. Although I wasn’t able to attend the recent presentation at Paramount, the response was very positive, even among journos not receptive to conversion. This was echoed by VFX supervisor Rob Legato (Hugo), who worked on Titanic and saw some test footage as well.

However, I recently spoke with James Cameron, and, while admitting that he isn’t a fan of conversion and found the experience “freaky” to fix and redesign (at the very best you’re only getting 90% — and that’s after working on it for a year and spending $18 million), he’s understandably proud:

“The result of it, I think, is stunning,” Cameron admitted. “So I would imagine that fans that saw it multiple times and cherish the big screen experience are the ones that are going to get it. But you’ve also got a whole new generation that has never seen it in a movie theater. There’s a certain type of movie, whether it’s The Godfather or Avatar or Titanic, where you actually make a decision: I’m going to give myself the experience of watching this unbroken. And it will therefore do something to me. There will be an emotional result of having gone through that experience. And it’s not about finding out what the movie’s about. When you rush out on opening weekend to see some new movie, you’re just hoping it’s good and you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. But when something is defined or known, like Avatar in week five or Titanic in week 16, people will line up for that. They make that deal with themselves and with their friends to go and subject themselves to that experience, and that’s unique. And you can’t get that on other platforms — it’s about going to the movie theater.”

Not So Anonymous VFX

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

Now that the Academy has expanded the VFX category to five nominees, it gives movies with more supporting work a better chance to compete. This is perfect for Uncharted Territory’s superb virtual recreation of Elizabethan London for Roland Emmerich’s provocative Shakespeare authorship drama, Anonymous.

One of the first prestigious movies to be shot digitally with the new Alexa at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert (who also served as exec producers in a more creative capacity) built the entire city of London in the computer, relying on accurate maps prior to the Great Fire of 1666.

They constructed tens of thousands of buildings (which were very crooked by design) in a system they created called OGEL (LEGO spelled backwards). They utilized three types: half-timbered, stone, and mansions along with one-offs such as The Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. They made basic variations (one floor, two floors with different roof types) and LEGO’d them together.

The OGEL software was customized in-house primarily because of the nature of the crooked design, which was also part of its charm, according to Weigert. They worked regularly in 3ds Max with both hand and automated work. They wanted to adhere to the map and accurately depict what London supposedly looked like.

“We wanted to use visual effects to create history as it was, so we built the White Hall Palace, for instance, which was Queen Elizabeth’s home,” Weigert explains. “It doesn’t exist anymore and is in a totally different place and looks totally different. But we built it accurate to old paintings.”

Ironically, the original White Hall was more of a red brick palace. “The interesting thing about the old one was that it had actually been built over a long period of time, and they kept adding to it, so there are at least two or three different styles on the outside,” adds Engel.

What’s especially new in Anonymous are the wide panoramas of London across the Thames. “We had several sweeping helicopter or ‘balloon’ shots that show sweeping vistas,” Weigert continues. ” There was a lot of detail in these vistas, not only thousands of people arriving at the Globe, but also row boats, ships on the Thames that have sail animation blowing in the wind, cats on roofs, birds and chickens, and cows in the street, even laundry blowing in the wind.”

This required a lot of R&D for new projection mapping techniques and moving the assets around in the compositing realm, allowing for quicker turnaround, using projection techniques in Fusion. Engel and Weigert thus worked with eyeon to develop new tools, including full 3D water as a compositing package inside Fusion, which helped create the River Thames.

Krill Vision of Happy Feet Two

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

Director George Miller had some unfinished business in returning to the Antarctic for Happy Feet Two (opening Friday), including a couple of wisecracking new sidekicks to take it in an absurd new direction and to underscore the emotion. That’s right: Will & Bill, the bottom-feeding Krills (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), invariably steal the show with their hilarious Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-like antics.

“One of the enticing things about doing an animated sequel would be to try those things that you weren’t quite able to do in the first movie,” admits Miller. “First of all, we had rendered three of the scenes from the first Happy Feet in stereo 3-D and they looked absolutely wonderful, given the spectacular landscape and the creatures themselves. They become more three-dimensional and tactile themselves. You can reach out and touch the fluffy penguins, but we didn’t have the bandwidth and the time to get the 3-D done, and it wasn’t as sophisticated as we were able to achieve on the second Happy Feet.

“Secondly, just the rendering of landscapes and characters and most of all, just story structure. I feel that even though this film only covers three or four days, it’s a denser story and has better rhythms. Virtually both Happy Feet movies are grounded in some authenticity about the natural history of Antarctica: the behavior of the penguins and the elephant seals, the leopard seals, the school of birds, the ice and the clouds, and the sun, and so on. All of those things we try to keep consistent. Obviously our lead characters try to differentiate themselves and are heightened in their behavior and look.

“But, having done that, I didn’t want the film to just get bigger and better in scale, so the thought was to go down into a micro world, and, from the point of view of two almost microscopic Krill, the world looks epic. And I became fascinated by the Krill: these great biomasses of which there are billions and billions of them moving around on the large currents on the bottom of the food chain. And, like the penguins, they’re amazing creatures to animate.”

To take on the more ambitious demands of Happy Feet Two, Miller started a new animated facility in Sydney, Australia, Dr. D Studio. “Essentially, we wanted to create a pipeline that was story-driven,” he adds. “We worked with the very fine Animal Logic in Sydney, but they were an effects [company] and even though they look the same, they’re quite different animals, as it were. In other words, if you’re selling effects to several different movies and commercials, you can’t customize the pipeline to the specific story and we really wanted to get into a much more dynamic lighting in terms of the movement of clouds and the light; we wanted much more detail; we wanted to go into that micro world; we wanted, if you like, to push the photoreality even more; and I view these big dance sequences as big action sequences, so I wanted the flexibility to lens them more dynamically as well.”

Enter Rob Coleman, formerly with ILM (the Star Wars prequels), who oversaw the work as animation director. Sure, there were a lot of improvements to the penguins in terms facial animation and movement and overall performance. But, funnily enough, it was the Will & Bill that attracted him to Happy Feet Two.

“When I came down here and George pitched me the movie and started going through the Krill story, I said I’ve gotta do this movie,” he confirms. “And while most of the other part of this script evolved quite considerably over the last two years, the Krills virtually remained untouched. They had already written their lines. What Brad and Matt brought to it was a whole level of humor in terms of their vocal performances and how they riffed off of each other.

“It was amazing to watch those two guys working together. But when Matt especially became Bill, and there was this extra longing to be with Will, and his desire to have a family, it just made that more funny. And Brad’s independence in no longer wanting to be part of the swarm.”

Along with improving the penguin facial animation and overall performance (the entire rigs were redone from Softimage to Maya), Will & Bill were also pretty daunting with their expressive bug eyes, feelers, 10 dainty legs, and semi-transparent, bioluminescent bodies. We’ll just have to see if Oscar lightning strikes twice.

Universal Buys Mac Guff for Illumination

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

The Blue Sky model is complete for Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Despicable Me). with Universal Pictures’ purchase of the Paris-based Mac Guff Ligne animation studio. Deadline reports that the studio will be renamed Illumination Mac Guff, and that the animators will now work full-time on Illumination projects (the VFX business will stay separate). Universal has also taken a long term lease on the the 35,000 square foot animation facility (housed above an Aston Martin dealership near the Eiffel Tower). Mac Guff president Jacques Bled and Illumination exec Janet Healy will serve as co-presidents of Illumination Mac Guff.

“In acquiring an animation studio located half way around the world, we are evolving our filmmaking model; one that is creating entertainment despite borders, boundaries and languages,” Meledandri said in a prepared statement.

The situation is similar to George Miller starting his own Dr. D Studios in Sydney to make Happy Feet 2 instead of continuing the collaboration with Animal Logic, which animated the Oscar-winning Happy Feet. Miller told me that it was much more efficient to have an animation start up that could handle the more expansive pipeline demands for animated features rather than a VFX facility that does animation part-time.

Likewise, this will enable Mac Guff to grow into a full-time animation facility that can better handle the artistic and technical demands of cutting edge animated features while still pulling off hybrids such as Hop as well.

Illumination has The Lorax (March 2, 2012), a Despicable Me sequel, a stop-motion Addams Family feature with Tim Burton, a Ricky Gervais-adapted Flanimals, and Uglydoll.

Trailering Snow White and the Huntsman

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

Like Alice in Wonderland, this Snow White is a far cry from the Disney fairy tale; in fact, this is a far cry from Tim Burton’s Alice. As TOH’s Sophia Savage points out, Universal’s initial trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1, 2012) sells the sultry sex appeal of Charlize Theron’s evil Queen. But this sword and sorcery epic (the first in a trilogy) looks like Excalibur on steroids, with Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) locked in a ferocious power play. Lots of slicing and chopping, morphing, and other VFXy mayhem and transformations by the likes of Pixomondo, Rhythm & Hues, Double Negative, Legacy, The Mill, Baseblack, and BlueBolt.

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.

Scorsese on Hugo and 3-D

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Below the Line, Books, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

After a screening of Hugo earlier this month at the Regal Stadium 14 in LA, Martin Scorsese proclaimed in a panel discussion moderated by director Paul Thomas Anderson that the experience was an “enjoyable headache…a discovery with each shot.” But in the excitement of “going back to square one,” he came away convinced that 3-D is now part of the toolset. He said “every facet of it was a redesigning of how to make pictures.” It was also a “recreation of a boy’s memory of where he was in the past.”

Thus, Hugo is a bridge. It’s like watching Antoine Doinel trapped in a clock with a rear window view of Scrooge, who, in this case, is forgotten French film pioneer Georges Méliès. And to soak up the period of Paris from 1929-1931, Scorsese studied such surrealist films as René Clair’s Le Million and Under the Rooftops of Paris as well as Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante.

But recreating the legendary films of Méliès (including the recently restored A Trip to the Moon) as well as his glass studio gave Scorsese “a great deal of enjoyment.” It took nearly a year to pick and choose what to use with the final decisions coming about four weeks before shooting.

Scorsese, who was joined by production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Bob Richardson, composer Howard Shore, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and VFX supervisor Rob Legato, underscored the vital influence of the whole transitional period from silent to sound, right down to the autochromatic look of the cinematography.

“He couldn’t trust using colors so he painted the sets — the sets were done in black-and-white,” Scorsese explained. “And most of the costumes were in black-and-white. The rest he borrowed from the theater and those were in color. A lot of the makeup was heavily done a certain way: in some cases, people painted gray with black lips. Because until panchromatic film came into existence, it was very difficult to get the true grays and blacks and whites, so this became interesting on set.”

Ultimately, Hugo is a valentine to the history of cinema and its crucial preservation, and should be required viewing in every introductory movie course.

But it’s the future that Scorsese addressed in his final comments on 3-D, which he has managed to use creatively like no other filmmaker yet in this stereoscopic renaissance. Riffing on the theatricality of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, Scorsese uses depth to frame his sublime story and to make every object a character. But it’s “a heightened expression of reality” that goes beyond theater and 2-D.

“For me, it’s just another element to tell a story,” he explained. “Most people have stereo vision so why belittle that very important level of our existence? There’s gotta be a way to find, for all our technical expertise, a comfortable way of dealing with [it]. The cameras are getting smaller, the issue of glasses is being worked on. If everything moves along and there are no major major catastrophes, we’re headed towards holograms. Why can’t you have 3-D where Hamlet comes out to the middle of the audience and says, ‘To be or not to be?’ I mean, they do it theater. Why can’t you have it in a movie theater or at home? You have to think that way. Don’t let fashion inhibit you if you’re being creative.”

J. Edgar and Rosebud

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

Friday night’s LACMA screening/Q&A of J. Edgar hit home the Citizen Kane analogy for Clint Eastwood’s biopic. The absolute corruptibility of power; the yearning for a love unfulfilled; and sublimating those urges to wield power. In this case, J. Edgar blackmailed the powerful through their sexual indiscretions (Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Martin Luther King) to make up for his inability to express his own sexuality.

Arguably the most powerful figure of the 20th century, J. Edgar shrewdly set up the FBI and created his own law enforcement empire for nearly half a century, pioneering the science of forensics, cunningly promoting his image, and manipulating the media. In this regard, the snapshot of the Warner Bros. gangster film and its shifting emphasis from Jimmy Cagney’s gangster in Public Enemy (1931) to his lawman in G Men (1935) is fascinating and pure Eastwood.

Yet it’s the tender love story between Leonardo DiCaprio’s oppressive J. Edgar and Armie Hammer’s loyal lieutenant/partner Tolson that transforms the movie. Ironically, this could well be Eastwood’s most beautiful love story. During the Q&A, the celebrated director said he was attracted to the notion of exploring the secret behind the myth. I asked him afterward at the reception if he saw any connection between Hoover and Dirty Harry as law enforcement officers driven over the edge, and he just smiled and said that Dirty Harry came out at a time when attention was paid to victim’s rights.

For screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), “it’s a cautionary tale” tied to our post 9/11 fear of terror. As for the notorious cross-dressing scene, he said it was crucial to find an emotional hook: Hoover’s mother. Eastwood said he’s particularly proud of the way it was handled: “It’s his way of bringing himself closer to his mother [during such a vulnerable moment].”

I asked Hammer which was more challenging, the brutal lover’s quarrel fight in a hotel suite or the quiet moment of emotional reckoning at the end? He responded that it was the latter because of the emotional complexity and the physical limitations of the makeup and his character’s stroke. Fortunately, it was the last scene that they shot.

Both Hammer and DiCaprio rejoiced in the famed Eastwood method of no rehearsals and one or two takes. DiCaprio even wondered if maybe Eastwood did more takes than usual since they often did four or five. I asked Eastwood if he altered his method and he replied, “No, I always do a few takes but make sure I get lots of coverage.” Why no rehearsal? “I want to see the moment of discovery in their eyes and get the actors to trust their instincts, and I want to get it on film.”

Puss in Boots Sheds Shrek Image

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Puss in Boots continues the DreamWorks momentum that began with Kung Fu Panda and continued through How to Train Your Dragon: it’s witty, ironic, unpredictable, beautifully designed, and heart-felt. Best of all, this origin story about Puss redeeming his past and forging a legend works as a standalone distinct from the Shrek universe from which it sprang. The DreamWorks animators have created a rich, naturalistic world that recalls Leone, The Mask of Zorro, and a surreal fairy land that’s literally up in the clouds, and director Chris Miller has pulled it all together with verve and fun. (You can read all about the design challenges for the characters and environments along with the new procedural animation for clouds and the beanstalk in Ramin Zahed’s superb The Art of Puss in Boots, Insight Editions.)

Credit exec producer Guillermo Del Torro for his outside the box influence and live action ethos (from suggestions about cutting to recommending that Humpty Dumpty be a da Vinci-like inventor). Speaking of Humpty, his wily character is a refreshing surprise that adds balance and pathos to Puss’ coming of age tale. The end of the year is shaping up nicely for animation and Puss in Boots is a definite Oscar contender.

Trailering The Lorax

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

The new Lorax trailer looks like Mac Guff has raised its game since Despicable Me, but much more lush, dense, stylized, and dark. There are certainly elements of The Grinch inherent in this cautionary ecological tale about saving the forest and recapturing youthful idealism. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (March 2, 2012) is produced by Chris Meledandri and Illumination Ent., directed by Chris Renaud and scripted by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (also from Despicable Me).