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.

The Inceptionization of The Dark Knight

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

The Dark Knight Rises teaser poster has been unveiled by Warner Bros., and the graphic design of Gotham City immediately brings to mind visions of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Obvious marketing connections aside, I asked VFX supervisor Paul Franklin about the take away from Inception during the run up to Oscar in February. First off, he said that Nolan was now very comfortable with signing off on early animatics or simple setups rather than waiting for a shot to be nearly finished.”I could quite happily show him stuff at early stages that in the past I might’ve hesitated to show to a director,” Franklin suggested.

Key, though, was the new level of photorealism achieved on Inception that was going to pay dividends in the depiction of a more complex Gotham.”There’s nothing that gets me too worried about environment work anymore,” Franklin said. “There’s no standing still with Chris Nolan.”

The Dark Knight Rises opens July 20, 2012.

The Ballad of Nessie Channels Classic Disney

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

I interview Stevie Wermers and Kevin Deters about their latest hand-drawn Disney short, The Ballad of Nessie, at AWN. It opens Friday with Winnie the Pooh. Like their previous Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, it captures the look and spirit of the classic Disney shorts, only this one has a fun rhyming narrative and wonderful pathos. It tells us it’s OK to cry.

New John Carter Concept Art Released

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

Disney has just released two new concept images from Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (shortened from John Carter of Mars, opening March 9, 2012). The Pixar director’s adaptation of the beloved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science-fiction series marks his cross-over into live-action after WALL•E and Finding Nemo.

Taylor Kitsch plays Confederate soldier John Carter teleported to Mars (or Barsoom), where he gets caught up in a civil war and the aggressors are 12-foot pale green, slim Tharks. Peter Chiang is the onset VFX supervisor and Double Negative is the primary vendor, with support from Cinesite, MPC, and others.

The cast also includes Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, and Willem Dafoe.

At a recent edit bay presentation at Pixar, some of my online journo colleagues were treated to a sneak peek from Stanton: He reaffirmed the photoreal look; the challenge of achieving a “faux-authenticity”; a less techie and more gladiatorial conceit combining CG and real world surroundings (shot in iconic Utah); and incorporating facial capture in a way that conveys believable movement and emotion.

3-D will be post converted by Pixar stereographer Bob Whitehill; and Stanton intends on developing this as a trilogy. The first teaser trailer is set for release on Thursday.

A Quantum of Bond 23 Casting

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

The supper baddie dream cast of Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes appears to be on track for Bond 23, according to the Mail, along with the introduction of Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean) as the flirty Miss Moneypenny. Nothing official yet from EON, MGM, or Sony.

But that would mean that director Sam Mendes’ darker vision is also on track (scripted by John Logan and Bond regulars Neal Purvis & Robert Wade), “where the characters are modern, mature, and challenging,” according to an earlier report from the Mail.

The mind reels with the possibilities of going deeper up the SPECTRE-like Quantum chain to discover whether Bardem or Fiennes is the post 9/11 version of Blofeld: a slow-burning, charismatic, alter ego to Craig’s conflicted 007. With the other baddie softening Bond up for the real cat-and-mouse.

As for Harris, her presence is sure to be an alluring one as Moneypenny: defusing office tension with M while being Bond’s enabler.

The still untitled Bond 23, scheduled to begin production in November for North American release Nov. 9, 2012, has already tapped naturalistic cinematographer phenom Roger Deakins (True Grit), who plans on shooting digitally on the Alexa with an optical viewfinder.

Still confirming if Mendes collaborators Dennis Gassner (Quantum of Solace) and Tariq Anwar sign on as production designer and editor, respectively, along with VFX supervisor Steven Begg (Casino Royale).

Shane Acker Follows 9 with Plus Minus

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Education, Shorts, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

What’s Shane Acker been doing since 9? Making another post-apocalyptic short, Plus Minus.

But this time at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood for the past three years (via its Gnomon Studios production entity). Plus Minus, which is about the inferno of territorial fighting between demonic forces of art and commerce, will be released in the fall for Oscar consideration. It’s co-directed by Aristomenis (Meni) Tsirbas, best known for his work on the award-winning animated films The Freak and Battle for Terra (which was adapted into a feature like Acker’s Oscar-nominated 9 short from UCLA).

Teaming with instructors and aspiring artists at Gnomon, Acker worked with Tsirbas, Green Lantern visual effects supervisor Tefft Smith and Gnomon students to create Plus Minus, training them on the intricacies of a professional style production pipeline.

Judging from the trailer, Plus Minus looks even richer, funnier, and more operatic than 9.

Meanwhile, Acker has been tapped by HIT Ent. to direct its live-action adaptation of Thomas the Tank Engine, in which a tween boy finds a way to reconnect with his father, who visited the island of talking trains known as Sodor when he was a child, but doesn’t remember it. Weta Workshop and Mattel are providing design work. Cinetic Media and the UTA Independent Film Group are handling funding and distribution. Thomas is scripted by Chris Viscardi & Will McRobb and Josh Klausner.

Trailering Tintin and Discussing Oscar

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

There’s a new trailer for Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23), which reveals more of the performance capture animation and hyper-real world, adding fuel to the fire that the stylized effort to bring Hergé’s popular characters to life is worthy of Oscar consideration.

Spielberg intends on qualifying Tintin in the animated feature category, even though the Motion Picture Academy has stiffened the rules by proclaiming that performance capture in and of itself is not considered animation. However, as I understand it, the rules are more nuanced: As long as the characters are not replicas of the actors (Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Jamie Bell, and Andy Serkis) driving the performances — which clearly they are not — and there is a team of animators shaping the look and crafting the performances in this full-CG world, then it should qualify. And, remember, there is already precedent: The Robert Zemeckis-produced Monster House was nominated in 2007.

However, Tintin has already become a lightning rod among traditionalists, as witnessed by a recent commentary in the Los Angeles Times. But, in light of Andy Serkis’ contention last Thursday during a CalTech discussion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that performance capture is both actor-driven and collaboratively animated, the debate will surely continue.

Meanwhile, Anne Thompson and Kris Tapley cover the issue as well in their mid-summer Oscar Talk.

Trailering War Horse

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

It’s a busy year for Steven Spielberg with two Oscar contenders: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23), adapted from the popular Belgian comic, which should qualify for best animated feature, despite its performance capture technique and stiffer Academy rules, and War Horse (Dec. 28), adapted from the Michael Morpurgo novel (fabulously staged in London), about a bond broken between a heroic boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his indefatigable horse when it’s sold to the cavalry and sent to the trenches of World War One.

Obviously not VFX heavy (but Framestore’s Ben Morris serves as production supervisor), War Horse nonetheless appears wistful yet harrowing, continuing the director’s post 9/11 allegorical journey. It looks exquisitely shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in concert with production designer Rick Carter’s own “Goya-esque” post 9/11 journey (War of The Worlds, Munich, Avatar, and the upcoming Lincoln with Spielberg).

CG Apes Rise at CalTech

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

Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (opening Aug. 5) was dissected at CalTech last night with a panel that included director Rupert Wyatt, Weta Digital VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, and performance capture star Andy Serkis (via Skype). The footage they showed impressively demonstrated the post-Avatar breakthrough in performance capture with head-mounted cameras (or E-motion) by the Weta wizards.

Indeed, for this first-time all-CG ape extravaganza, Weta reinvented what it achieved on Avatar by placing the performance capture actors in the live-action set or out on location. “Rather than using reflective optical markers for motion tracking, we developed an active LED system so we could use infrared lights and that allowed us to be able to work in a variety of conditions,” Letteri explained.

Coupled with a whole animation upgrade for hair, muscle, tissue, and eyes, the result is an utterly believable performance from Serkis as Caesar, the chimpanzee: tender, subtle, sympathetic, and conflicted. He’s raised by humans, but he evolves into an outsider shunned by people and ape alike, and becomes a revolutionary.

“Basically, you have to come up with another method of recording an actor’s performance, in a way that the technology has become more sophisticated,” Serkis said. “The idea is to make it more transparent so that it enables this fantastic interface between the performance capture actors and the other actors on the set and the director.”

Serkis maintained that there is no difference between performance capture and live-action acting. It’s about removing the layers and letting the performance come through in collaboration with the skilled animators.

Letteri even suggested that the industry has a cognitive gap to get over about the separation of performance and recorded image before it can fully understand and appreciate the craft.

For his part, Wyatt explained that they rejected the notion early on of using live apes and fully embraced the performance capture method for re-imagining this contemporary Apes origin story that mixes Conquest (the third sequel) with scientific research gone awry with the best intentions of curing Alzheimer’s.”They may be digitally rendered but they actually have a soul when you look into their eyes,” he offered. His hope is that the rebooted franchise would continue and eventually intersect with the original 1968 narrative.

Reading Between Craig’s Lines About Bond

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

Daniel Craig’s F-bomb littered Esquire interview was very revealing about graphic and implied violence in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 21), the thin political veneer of xenophobia in Cowboys & Aliens (July 29), the weirdness of doing performance capture for Steven Spielberg’s animated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec. 23), and his impassioned world view of the crumbling middle and lower classes.

But, of course, he had little to say about Bond 23 (Nov. 9, 2012), except to reaffirm his delight that old pal Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) is directing his third installment: “[People] want to know everything and I’m going, I’m not gonna fucking tell you!…We can talk about anything else, and hopefully it can be made interesting.”

And yet we can glean a few tidbits from my own previous conversations with Craig, and from the likelihood that Bond 23 will be a radical departure, and from reading between the lines here about what animates Craig (“Not everybody’s happy with their situation!”), and from the sly nature that he brings to the role. No, not necessarily that new bride Rachel Weisz (his co-star in Dream House, Sept. 30) is going to be the next Bond girl or Bond super baddie.

But certainly this will be Craig’s first fully-formed 007 — more comfortable in his own skin, ready to take on his license to kill with more discernment and maturity, and no longer just “a blunt instrument.” And perhaps with a little more pleasure in his profession, including more of that gallows humor under pressure that Craig enjoys so much: “[Bond] likes making a joke when it’s inappropriate and it gives him a kick, and, hopefully, that gives us a thrill. But you can’t force gags like that,” Craig told me.

That said, don’t suddenly expect the effortlessness of Connery either. For better or worse, Craig’s Bond is a post-modern 007 operating in a post 9/11 world. “There are a couple of simple equations that you can apply and that I have always applied to the work anyway,” he suggested. “And that has to do with fallibility, which is much more dramatically interesting. Hopefully, at the end, we ultimately see that [Bond] was right: that there was a grander plan, there was something that he was thinking about, then we’re going to be covered. But during the movie it should go either way.”

Can’t wait to see how Bond 23 unfolds next year in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Bond franchise.

Who Will Animate Paramount Animation?

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

Will Industrial Light & Magic come to the rescue of Paramount Animation?

That’s the burning question after today’s announcement that Paramount Pictures is launching Paramount Animation, riding on the crest of Rango’s box office success (more than $240 million worldwide) and probable Oscar contention (“the best reviewed animated movie so far this year” — hint, hint). A new animation division is an imperative if Paramount loses its distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation (whose stock hit a 52-week low). Their deal expires at the end of next year, and, although a one-year extension was recently offered by studio chairman Brad Grey, he’s insisting that a renewal is contingent on a better deal for Paramount than the current 8% distribution fee.

According to a press release, Grey intends to spend up to $100 million per project, and other sources suggest that he intends to make one animated feature a year, starting in 2014. The plan is to develop a diverse range of CG-animated family films, with some projects produced under the Nickelodeon label. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Paramount is already developing an adaptation of New Kid, the Penny Arcade web comic about the only earthling in an intergalactic school.

Paramount Animation will be folded into the Paramount Motion Group, under the supervision of president Adam Goodman, who is currently seeking someone to helm the division in consultation with vice chair Rob Moore and COO Frederick Huntsberry.

IndieWIRE’s Anne Thompson reports that a Rango sequel is likely too costly and not imminent anyway with Gore Verbinski now back to directing live-action.

But the questions remains: Who will provide the animation? Every other studio has an animation arrangement, either in-house or outsourced (such as Illumination Ent.’s deal with Paris-based Mac Guff launched with the highly profitable Despicable Me). Except Warner Bros., that is, which would definitely benefit from a partnership with DreamWorks.

ILM is primed for more animation after its breakthrough with Rango (which gets released on Blu-ray/DVD July 15), leveraging its photoreal VFX acumen at the service of a “dirty” aesthetic, and expanding its layout department. Meanwhile, Lucas also has his Singapore animation studio as an even greater possibility, which has matured with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series and is currently working on its first feature.

This is definitely worth watching.