Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Introducing the Female Lead with Visual Effects: Three Case Studies


Even though we acknowledge the central importance of conflict between giant robots, the choreography of spaceship battles, and the sheer awe inspiring triumph of the hordes of zombies at the end of humanity, it does not diminish these vitally important tasks to suggest that there are other, perhaps peripheral, roles for visual effects which nevertheless can contribute to the film.  

To that end, we will present three examples here of visual effects used to introduce the female lead.

I can just see my reader's lips curl in disgust. The female lead? A girl? In a movie with giant robots or zombie hordes?    Yes, in spite of Hollywood's best efforts to diminish the role of women in film, they do linger on, if for no other reason than to provide a cheesy lust object for the adolescent male audience, as well as other, minor dramatic roles from time to time.  Thus it is reasonable to consider how special photographic effects might be used to help facilitate such story points as introduction of the character, death of the character, and so forth.

Just as in a musical, where a song must contribute to the story, in a visual effects film we would hope that there might be a way to use the same ideas that are featured in the dramatic sections of the film to introduce major or minor characters of the narrative.    If we have a film about giant robots, then perhaps the lead female can be born from the forehead of a giant robot, perhaps Optimus Prime, as Minerva was born from the forehead of Zeus. Or in a sensitive drama about zombies, we might first meet our female lead eating brains at lunch and worried about keeping her girlish figure.

Here are three examples where the female lead is introduced to the audience in a way that is (a) spectacular, (b) tells us something about the character, and (c) communicates something to us that will be useful in developing the story, or in the third example, to the (somewhat) surprising climax of the story.

The three case studies are from Roger Rabbit (1988), The Matrix (1999) and Shaolin Soccer (2001).

In Roger Rabbit (1998), our protagonist, a private detective, Eddie Valiant, is hired to see if Jessica Rabbit is involved with another rabbit, or person, as the rumors suggest. As part of his investigation, Valiant goes to see Ms. Rabbit perform at a fancy nightclub where he learns she is not a cartoon rabbit, but a cartoon femme fatale. This is a famous scene so I am sure you know all about the tone mattes and optical compositing done at ILM.  One could not ask for a better introduction of this character. The song also advances the story, helping to establish Jessica as a sex goddess who breaks the hearts of both men and rabbits.



Why does Valiant keep his overcoat on in this scene?   It feels inappropriate to me.


In our second example, we have everyone's favorite polyethelyne poster child, Carrie Anne Moss, known as Trinity in her landmark film The Matrix because she perfectly expresses the three values of sex, violence and shiny catsuits in women. We meet this woman typing happily on her laptop in a decrepit room of some sort, when suddenly she is the target of a police raid. There are several interesting things in this scene beyond the first use of so-called "bullet time", which is an extension of the Brigham morphing technology of years ago. First, we learn that she can take on two "units" of policemen without too much trouble (a unit is probably either 3 or 4 policemen). Second, we learn, when this is all done, that this incredible woman is terrified to hear that there are "agents" in the area, thus telling us something about the world we are in. Third, we learn that properly applying traditional analog techniques of lighting can bring out the best of Ms. Moss in a tight jumpsuit. Notice the subtle use of lighting below, which carefully accents her formidable attributes as perceived by many adolescents.


A careful use of key lights can add specular highlights to shiny contours




In our final scene, we have a film that is well known in the far east, but got very little distribution in North America to the best of my knowledge, Shaolin Soccer (2001). In this intellectual drama, good is pitted against evil in the form of a soccer contest, and good is enhanced through the power of the secret techniques from the Shaolin monastery of China. This movie makes extensive use of the rather obvious in retrospect idea that some of the most important things in sports can be made trivial through using CG to create the soccer balls (or whatever the sport in question uses, ping pongs, basketballs, etc) and just having the actors / players mime performing the sport. But in this scene, our hero spies his future love, the poor and acne challenged Mui making bread. If you havent seen this scene before you should watch it, it is pretty great.






So there you have it, three movies, three female leads, all introduced with visual effects and better for it. Not giant robots, I admit, but valuable nevertheless.

Roger Rabbit on imdb

Shaolin Soccer on imdb

The Matrix on imdb

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Process Notes for Global Wahrman 10/30/2012


These are some notes on the process of writing Global Wahrman, and some thoughts to myself on how things are organized and where things are going. Some of you may find the meta posts more interesting than the posts themselves. But mostly this and similar "administrative posts" are written for myself, so I can recall what it was I was thinking at the time.

1. The process of creating the post online

I write these things offline, but I edit them online, that is, after they are published. Otherwise, I will never finish them, I will just rewrite them, forever.  But as I edit and reread things to check what I just published, I find mistakes and make minor changes. But one thing leads to another and the entire post may be rewritten, after it has been published, in place.   Also, I have a new anomaly in my writing style, one I have not noticed before, that of being so intent on what I am saying, that I do not notice how I spell it, and can not see the mistake until enough time has passed to be able to see it fresh.    In at least one case I think we have a situation where I made a mistake because of my own denial of the passage of time and mortality, or that is what I suspect.  I dated the release of The Bourne Identity to 1992 instead of 2002 which is the correct release year.   For all these reasons, a newly published post may be revised, sometimes in its entirety, over the first few days, then it seems to stabilize.

2. The "Selected Posts" list

This list, on the right hand side of the blog, is an index of the "best of" posts, or the posts most likely to be of interest to someone new to the blog, or the posts I want to use as writing samples. 

3. End of the first phase

We are through the first period of the blog and now enter into the second period, which I suspect will last about a year, more or less.  The first phase was to get some experience with the process.  In this upcoming phase we will introduce many of the themes of the blog.   You can already see a few of the themes emerging by seeing which labels have the most posts.   The highest count is "sarcasm" with 30 posts.

4. The easy versus the difficult topics

Some of the most interesting topics have not been posted because they have proven to be too hard to write about, and so I abandon them and do something easier to maintain some sort of rhythm of the posts to the blog (e.g. approx 1 / day).  This is one reason of many why this kind of writing is easier than the task of a professional, in many circumstances the professional can not choose the topic, but has to write to an assigned topic.

5. The genre of the self-published journal

It is not a surprise to those who helped create the Internet and related technologies that the genre of the self-published journal, a genre which is many centuries old, has been enhanced and given new life. It is a surprise to me however that I find the process of creating such a journal so useful. How many of these journals will survive the great destruction and "end of history" as Ken Perlin and others put it, is not clear.

6. The labels will change

The labels are a mess today and will be restructured. The labels will be one of the tools to structure the topics of the blog in a non-obvious fashion. We may need some other tools as well, as yet unwritten, to help put together the twisty logic of topics being assembled.

7. Existential Crisis

See the post on "Shakespeare in Doubt" for one major existential crisis.  See the post on the death of Elizabeth McKenney for another.

8. "Analytics"

"Analytics" is the term used for the statistics provided about who is reading the blog.  I have my doubts about the accuracy of these numbers, for a variety of reasons.    We are slowly building a daily audience it seems. It may not be coincidence that the two posts with the highest read count (e.g. the count that each post gets when someone goes directly to that post rather than just reading the blog in general from front to back) are the TRW / Robert Abel post and the Josh Pines Job Interview post. Both of these were "marketed" by mentioning them on Facebook which seems to have increased the audience to the right people as well as generating good comments (on Facebook, comments will have to be moved over by hand, I think).


Monday, October 29, 2012

Just Got Back from Los Angeles and Boy are My Arms Tired


I have been in LA for the Bob Lambert memorial service at Disney, the 30 year Tron Anniversary at the Chinese, a visit with Ken Perlin who was in town from NYC, a fabulous sail boat ride in the marina on a friends's new yacht, and my fabulous and exciting encounter with the LAPD who decided to release me rather than throwing me in jail.  It must be the red hair; it really seems to provoke some people   More about all this in the next few days.  Things are really heating up here at Global Wahrman.






Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Visual Effects and Subjective Reality in Barton Fink (1991)


This is a spoiler alert for the Coen Brothers film, Barton Fink (1991).

Visual effects are usually used in a very simple way conceptually, to show the audience something that would be hard to film, or expensive to film, or impossible to film, or just inconvenient to film. But generally the idea that is intended for the audience is that what you see is what you get, e.g. what you see is supposedly what happened.

If the story is simple, by definition the visual effects are almost certainly simple.  If the story has many levels or ambiguity or an "unreliable narrator", then there is an opportunity for visual effects to contribute to the film in a more interesting, at least conceptually, fashion.

Visual effects could, for example, show us what the character is feeling, or if the character is insane, what he is seeing.     It is not "photo realism", that hated and evil term of art, but maybe it is "subjective realism".

The best example I know of this, and one of my favorite uses of effects in any project, is the climax of the film Barton Fink (1991). This is a spoiler alert, read no further if you don't want to know.

It is a plot point of the film Barton Fink that whenever Charlie the insurance salesman (John Goodman) is around, it is very hot. The temperature is hot, so hot that the wallpaper peels off the hotel room walls. When Charlie is not around, the temperature returns to normal.   The heat and Charlie are in some way associated with each other.

Charlie, who is portrayed in the film as a prototypical "every man" is,  it turns out, a psychopath as well as an insurance salesman, whose trademark signature is to cut off the victim's head and leave the body.

The climax of the film occurs when two police detectives arrest Fink at his hotel because they believe that he is an accomplice and handcuff him to the metal frame bed in his hotel room. Charlie (aka Mad Man Mundt) has returned to "save the day" in a manner of speaking, and we know this because the temperature at the hotel starts rising.


Put down the policy case, Mundt, and put your mitts in the air.

The police detectives go out into the hallway to confront Mundt but when Mundt appears this time we can see what he sees: and what we see is that Charlie is in hell. And it is hot because wherever Charlie is there are flames burning all around him, in this case from the walls, even though the flames do not consume anything, e.g. the hotel does not burn down.



This is one of John Goodman's best performances.  This scene, and the one that follows, in which he explains his actions to Bart is spectacular.

One of the structural problems with visual effects in filmmaking is almost a tautology: visual effects are there to serve the story, but if the story is banal then the effects are banal as well, generally speaking. This is one of the best uses I know where visual effects are used to illustrate the subjective world of the character in a way that is spectacular and yet completely appropriate.

Its dramatic, its poetic, its intelligent,  and it is really well thought out.  How unusual.   

Now we return to the world of giant robots beating each other up and things exploding, the normal world of visual effects.


Barton Fink at IMDB

The Josh Pines Job Interview Technique


Today when one applies for a job you are rejected out of hand either by a computer, or in some cases, by a human resources person who is no where close to being qualified to evaluate your suitability for the job. The old system of working through colleagues and recommendations and then interviewing the human in person (or at least by telephone) is a practice that was abandoned long ago in America, never to return.

But in 1989, when my partner and I were trying to build a new production company in Los Angeles, we had the naive belief that it was important to find out who was right for the job and to interview them in person.   This was usually easy to do because most everyone we wanted to hire lived in LA or SF.  But there were two exceptions, and both worked at R/Greenberg in NYC.   

This is the story of the interview of one of them, Josh Pines.  The story has become for me the iconic job interview, the one by which all others are measured.   I tell the story of this interview to potential employers (the very few that bother to talk to me, that is, before rejecting me) to see how they react. 

deGraf/Wahrman (dWi) had been in business about a year, maybe a little longer, and with a lot of difficulty we were being considered for the very few entertainment projects that planned to use computer animation in their production.  It may be hard to believe or relate to, but in 1989 computer animation was far from an accepted technique in motion picture or other entertainment industries (e.g. theme parks).   There were very few projects, and we got awarded not one, but two of them, and so we had to grow and we had to get film capability in place.

Back then, film recording of computer imagery for motion picture use was rarely done.  There was hardware you could buy if you could live with the record times, but everyone who had ever successfully used that hardware for this purpose, and there were three companies in the world that had, had written all the software from scratch.   If one was starting from the raw hardware, I estimated that it would take at least six months before one could start recording film reliably and with the kinds of control we needed. 

I am also a film snob, which means that I believed (and still believe) that most computer people know nothing about film and unfortunately (back then at least) most film people knew nothing about computers.   But there were a few people who I felt knew film the way a film person did, yet also knew computers.   One of them, who might be available as the others were not, was the person who had made the film recording work at R/Greenberg, and he was the person we invited to come set up high quality film recording at dWi.

So we flew him out to Los Angeles from NYC and he spent the day with us.  I forget why it took all day, but probably because we had to fly him all the way out here, we thought it was right for him to have a chance to hang with us and see if he felt good about it.   

dWi had just recently moved to their second location, behind the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood (what is popularly known as the Norma Talmadge barn, although I don't think that Norma Talmadge had ever actually owned it).  It was a big wooden barn with a back patio with offices on two sides of a courtyard.  One side had a second story, on that second story was a hair salon.  dWi moved into the bottom floors of both sides of the courtyard.



The courtyard behind the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood, where deGraf/Wahrman was located.  My office was on the left, the hair salon was upstairs on the right.


So Josh shows up suitably scruffy, like a good anarchist from New York City should look, and we talk to him.   Then people go away for lunch, and we had another meeting scheduled with him later in the afternoon.   When he showed up at that meeting, he looked completely different.  During lunch time, he had gone upstairs to the hair salon and had his dark and scruffy hair chopped into a crew cut and dyed platinum blonde.

I thought it was very amusing.  This is our kind of guy, I said to myself.    I think it was also a way for him to communicate to us that if we hired him, that he was going to do things like this; things that many people would never consider doing.  My interpretation was that he wanted to give us "fair warning".   

So I always tell this story to potential employers to see if they understand the reason I am telling them this story.  Its something of an intelligence test.   In my own way, I am also giving them fair warning.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Aesthetics of the Sword Fight in Cinema: Realism is Not The Point


This is the third post on this blog that discusses the aesthetics of sword fights in cinema, a topic that I had absolutely no intention of writing about when I started this blog.   But I came across an odd fact that helped me to understand something about cinematic sword fights, so I am writing about it here.

It won't surprise you to learn that a sword fight in a film, at least a western film, is not realistic. But it might surprise you as it surprised me to learn that Samurai movies are often more realistic. And that is because, in real life, back when swords were used as the primary personal weapon, a sword fight was generally very brief and nearly always fatal. There would not be enough time to say much more than perhaps "Die You Scum" and maybe not even the time to say that. And even if they had enough time to say more, they probably wouldn't, because they would be out of breathe from trying to beat the other person to death with a piece of metal.

The fights were brief for a number of possible reasons and here are a few of them: (a) one party was able to get a blow in before the other party was ready, or (b) one party was that much stronger or that much more skilled than the other party that he was able to get a blow in first in spite of the other party being prepared, or (c) the two parties would fight for a few seconds, perhaps for a minute, but then one party or the other would get a blow in and one blow was all you needed in most cases. Depending on the nature of the first blow, the party who had received one was at a serious disadvantage. Occasionally when both parties were evenly matched, both parties might receive blows before one was disabled and killed.

Also, in a real sword fight they were not fighting by Olympics fencing rules. Better to think about a man in a slaughterhouse with an axe to get more of a feel for the situation. Once the other party was seriously hit, a blow or two and it was over. They were either dead, would be dead in a few minutes from the bleeding, or would be dead in a few days from infection.

Or possibly, one of the parties would avoid the fight or break it off, perhaps by running away. Then both might live, but that was one of the very few ways that both parties could survive a sword fight.

This has a number of implications for understanding the authenticity of certain genres of film:

1. I always thought that the incredible speed of the sword fight in a samurai movie was a way of expressing the skill and zen spirit of the warriors. That might be true as well, but it was the case that such fights were generally over very fast. A real fight from the period had more blood than you normally see in most Samurai movies, I think.

The following is an excellent example of what I think of as a somewhat realistic samurai sword fight, with blood.  This scene is probably from Zatoichi by Takeshi Kitano.  Three blows parried and one blow not parried, and the fight is over.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6SbihSMbPs&feature=related

2. There is actually one use of a light saber in the Star Wars films that was more authentic by this standard than the others. And that was the very brief use by Obi-Wan in the cantina in the first Star Wars film, where Luke gets into a fight with a patron who pulls a gun. It is over in less than a second and the character with the gun loses the arm that was holding the weapon.  The fight is over nearly instantly, but Obi-Wan poses for the camera and dramatic effect.




3. It is an interesting detail of light sabers that they have several advantages over a steel sword for the person who loses a fight. First a light saber is self-cauterizing, so there is no bleeding. Second, in the process the wound is also disinfected from the heat, so there is much less danger of infection. A third advantage from a cinematic point of view is that there is essentially no blood, and the amount of blood is a very important criteria in determining what sort of rating your film receives (e.g. G, PG or R).

4. With this new information, we can probably say that the sword fight and duel in Rob Roy (1995) is the most realistic sword fight in western film that I am aware of. It takes place over a few minutes, but in that few minutes there is perhaps 20-30 seconds of actual sword fighting (e.g. when blows are exchanged), it is physically very demanding, and there is very little talking.



Why do you keep pointing at my nose?  It is so very rude to point!


You can see this fight here:

5. What we learn from this information,  is that the centrally important conversation that the two parties have during a sword fight, discussing good and evil, and raising the fight from a mere battle of steel to metaphorical importance, is not realistic or authentic. It never happened and it would never happen in real life.  The fight is not a fight for its own sake, it is there to advance the story.  The sword fight is the colorful and drama filled activity that is taking place while we are advancing the story.

I doubt that many people will be surprised to hear that a cinematic sword fight is not realistic, but the important point to take away is that it was never intended to be.

The same criteria should be applied to visual effects, whether what is being shown appears to be realistic or not, the important question is how does it serve or advance the story?

To read all the posts on the subject of the aesthetics of sword fights, click here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Ghost in Florence


This post is about the time I thought I had seen a ghost.

This is the only time in my life when I have sincerely, completely and without any doubt believed I had seen a ghost even though I do not particularly believe in ghosts.  I do admit to reading a lot of ghost stories from time to time. Whatever I may or may not believe to be true about ghosts, I was completely convinced I had seen one that morning.

The events in this story happened in the early 1990s, probably about 1993. I don't remember the exact year, but it doesn't matter. It was the year that I was invited to speak at Mediatech in Milan by my friend Maria Grazia Mattei. This is back when I was famous and was invited to speak at such events.   It was all too brief a trip which is normal for these conferences.  

In those days, you had to book your departure and return flights well in advance to get the best price, and changes were expensive, and with some classes of tickets, impossible.  Although I could not spend much time in Italy, I could spend a few extra days and see one other city. So I picked Florence (not sure why Florence over Venice or Rome, but it probably had to do with my comfort level for being able to take a train to and from Milan). The deal was, that I had two and a half days to be a tourist in Italy but I absolutely had to be back on the third day at Milan airport by 10 AM to catch a noon flight back to Los Angeles.

I take the train to Florence and check into a nice small hotel. The hotel is either old or the building it is in is old, but most buildings in Europe seem ancient to someone from California. I run around Florence for 48 hours and see as much medieval and renaissance art as I can. I drink too much very strong Italian coffee, I am suffering from sleep deprivation and I am completely exhausted.  I know I have to get to bed as early as I can and get up at a very early hour, check out of the hotel, catch a train back to Milan and then to the airport.

I set the alarm clock to 4 AM, turn out the lights, and fall asleep immediately.

She was standing at the foot of the bed. It was dark outside and dark in my room, but I could see her clearly. She was very old and she was wearing a beautiful dress, a dress like I have never seen, a dress from another time, complicated and faded, it seemed to glitter in the dim light.  Somehow I knew it was her favorite dress. It was the one she had been buried in.

She stood at the foot of the bed and she said "Wake up. It is time for you to wake up. You have to wake up now. Wake up."

I looked at the clock to see what time it was. It was 3:59 AM. It was time for me to get up.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Suitability of the Game Industry as a Rational Career Move (The Rewrite)


This is a substantial rewrite of an earlier post that was much more colorful. This version has about as much content, but it is also much shorter and less likely to annoy people.

The subject of this post is in the nature of a response to various friends of mine who wonder why I do not work in the glamourous and rewarding field of computer-based entertainment, e.g. the game industry. These are friends of mine who wish me well, and have seen others from so-called highend computer animation go work successfully in that industry. But I don't think my friends actually understand the game industry very well and maybe are not aware of some of my goals going forward that inform the choice of industry to work in, so this post is an effort to thank them for their suggestion but supply some reasons why it is perhaps more difficult than they realize or has other issues that argue against such a move.

First, I think the future of computer-based entertainment (CBE) is huge, just huge, in terms of its cultural importance as well as the technical challenges and opportunities that it presents. And I have no doubt that various groups are making a vast amount of money in that industry, and will no doubt make much more in the future. Some of them will.

Second, here are four possible scenarios where I could work in the game industry and be very happy and rewarded.   Unfortunately I don't think that any of these are very likely.  (a) EA could hire me to be a senior creative vice president at a modest salary of $500,000 US plus a production R&D budget, (b) I could be independently wealthy and have my own personal laboratory and production company working on topics that interest me, (c) I could be Will Wright, founder of Maxis and creator of SimCity. Mr Wright gets to do pretty much whatever he wants to do in the game industry, and I am sure it would be very entertaining and rewarding to be in his shoes, or (d) I could be a Ken Perlin-like person, who does not actually have to make any money from the game industry, but can instead work on ideas that he thinks are important and interesting and from time-to-time publish these ideas. But Ken is a tenured full professor of computer science at NYU and I am not.

Third, although there has been some cross-fertilization between so-called high-end computer animation and the computer based entertainment industries, it is not in general easy to move between those two. There was a very specific period when someone from ILM or another perceived to be glamourous sector of computer animation could talk their way into the game industry. This was a number of years ago though and that time has mostly passed. And even when it was going on, it did not work out for a lot of people, or if it did work out, it no longer does. There are also some cases of people coming from the game industry and moving into high-end computer animation (so called, again, I think these terms are misleading) but again it is not a general rule that such things are likely to happen.

Fourth, the grass is always greener, and there are good reasons for this. When you are not in an industry, it is likely that you do not know what the problems are in that industry. But every industry has problems and here are a few that afflict the game industry. (a) The industry is very competitive, many titles are produced each year but only a few of them become profitable, similar in many ways to the music industry. (b) Also similar to the music industry, the money is made in distribution and production companies only see a major upside if they have had a hit, (c) The games are financed by advances from the distribution companies (e.g. an Electronic Arts) which pays for the production of the game. If the game does not become a hit then the production company has no money to live on, and must either lay everyone off, make a deal to do another game again at low or no profit, or go out of business. Production companies of successful and interesting games go out of business all the time, every day of the week. (d) Because of the vast risk associated with doing a game and the need to sell an idea to a distribution company or otherwise get financing to create the game, and because game production is both expensive and difficult, people work hard to reduce risk which usually means not taking chances. Thus, very few new ideas are explored in the computer based entertainment industry on a day-to-day basis by the people working in that side of the industry. There are people who get to explore these new ideas, but they are special people and this does not represent something that the great majority of people who work in that industry get to do. (e) Like all for-profit companies, the computer-based entertainment industry is highly influenced by who it is that traditionally buy their products and their likes and dislikes as those people (or their parents) are, after all, the customer.  And the game industry is therefore highly targeted towards boys of certain age groups and the themes that appeal to them.  There are some exceptions to this, and there is a lot of discussion about games for girls, games for adults, games for frogs, etc, and this area will evolve, but for the most part we are talking about games for boys here and what it is that boys like to do.

Fifth, it takes time and effort to establish onesself in any industry, and the computer-based entertainment industry is no exception. Therefore, if one is going to put in that effort, it makes sense to be sure that certain qualities of that industry, sometimes described with phrases such as "lifestyle" are right for the individual in question. For example, some industries are located primarily in certain cities, and therefore an industry may or may not be appropriate based on where you want to live. And since I am coming from a long-history of having helped to invent high end computer animation and visual effects, it makes sense to see if the game industry is any better, worse or different in some of these areas. Here are just a few of these so-called lifestyle issues for your consideration: (a) in terms of stability in comparison to computer animation and visual effects, if anything the game industry is less stable, (b) in terms of being able to work on new technologies and explore new ideas, it is not clear that one industry is any better than another, but possibly the game industry has a slight edge here, (c) in terms of respect for experience and issues of ageism, the game industry is if anything worse than the motion picture industry, (d) in terms of the intellectual level or sense of humor of the industry and the people in it, it all depends on where you work and what you are doing, but the game industry per se is probably not that much better, (e) In terms of whether I would be able to work on ideas that interest me, again it depends entirely on the project, your position on that project, etc.

So, in conclusion, I want to thank my friends for their suggestions, but I don't think that working in the computer based entertainment sector would work for me unless I could somehow engineer a project, job, role or whatever that allowed me to work on ideas and content of interest to me in a suitable environment. Otherwise it would just be a waste of my time and I would be better off trying to establish myself in an industry that has more stability, works on a higher intellectual level, and which tries to help the world. The defense industries and the nuclear weapon industries both come to mind in that regard.

If someone from EA is reading this and wants me to come on board as a senior creative vice president, I hope you will not hesitate to pick up the phone and give me a call.

The wikipedia page for Will Wright:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Wright_(game_designer)


Mysterious Booms Part 5: Additional Information


For those who were interested in the series of posts I wrote on the logic and evidence behind the phenomena of the "mysterious booms" that have been heard in various parts of the country, here are a few relevant pages on the Internet that I have come across.

The first is an article by Alex Roth for the San Diego Union Tribune. It is the only well-written piece of journalism that I have found on this topic outside of the "Mysterious Aircraft" section of the Federation of American Scientists web site.

It is at:

The Wikipedia page on "Unexplained Booms" which contains many events I had not known about:

The final article is a report from Las Vegas on the topic of sightings local to Nevada:
http://www.8newsnow.com/story/660076/new-mystery-planes-flying-overhead

All three cite events that I was unaware of when I wrote my posts.

My previous four posts on the topic are at:


Other links include:

An interesting article on the TR-3A and some speculation on the THAP and other programs
http://web.archive.org/web/20060323071004/members.macconnect.com/users/q/quellish/TR3/tr3page1.html


I suspect we will find out what has been going on in a few years.


Monday, October 15, 2012

A Story About the CIA in the Belgian Congo


The following stories are probably true or at least partially true.

When I worked at the RAND Corporation we were managed with a system called "matrix management", which meant that you had two orthogonal types of managers. One type was formal and respectable, these are the people who approved your pay raises and did your formal reviews. The other type was creative and project oriented, these were the people for whom you did actual work on projects and they did not have to be so respectable. I have read that this system has problems sometimes, but it worked very well for me when I was at RAND.

One of my project leaders was a person we will call Gary. That may or may not be his real name, for reasons that will be clear shortly. Gary was very colorful and ultimately he did not come to a good end as RAND has politics and Gary was not very adept at such things, practically asking for trouble it seemed to me.

Be that as it may be, I enjoyed working with Gary and it bothered me when he would do something self destructive. Gary did not manage his time all that well and liked to tell stories. Those of you who know me know that I also like to tell stories, but hopefully I am not as self-destructive as Gary.

Gary was all-but-dissertation in computational linguistics and before he got (or almost got) his PhD he had been, so he tells me, covert in the CIA. So we have two stories from that period, one of modest interest to help explain how such things work, and the other which is very amusing, I think, and therefore less likely to be completely accurate.

The first story is how he got recruited. Gary attended one of those famous catholic universities in upstate NY, apparently there are a few of them. This would have been the late 50s or the early 60s and Gary was a serious anti-communist and completely ready to dedicate his life to the noble cause of killing commies. The way covert at the CIA works is that, to be effective, it has to be that you have never publicly worked for the CIA, or, for example, have been seen coming to CIA headquarters at Langley and so forth. There are many other employees of the CIA who are analysts for whom these kinds of restrictions do not apply: they can drive to CIA headquarters, park in the parking lot and go to work like normal people.

But covert is different. So Gary was recruited by one of his professors at college and went to an interview, I believe, where there was no formal CIA sign on the door. And they told him, if he was interested in this, what he should do is apply for postgraduate work at Georgetown University near Washington, DC in one of several topics, such as "Russian Studies". If he applied, they said, he would be accepted, and he would receive a fellowship so he could afford to attend. And they, the CIA, would be in touch.

I believe that this might describe one of the processes by which young people out of college are recruited, so lets accept this for the purposes of this post. Now we get to the more amusing story, which is much more colorful and therefore probably less true.

We segueway a few years later and Gary is covert in the Belgian Congo as a low-level runner for the CIA.

Here is a topic sentence from Wikipedia on the topic of the "Congo Crisis":
The Congo Crisis (1960–1966) was a period of turmoil in the First Republic of the Congo that began with national independence from Belgium and ended with the seizing of power by Joseph Mobutu. At various points, it had the characteristics of anti-colonial struggle, a secessionist war with the province of Katanga, a United Nations peacekeeping operation, and a Cold War proxy battle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gary told the following story.

One day he was on his motorcycle carrying something from one part of the city to another for his employer, the CIA.  But he had not been careful, and he ran out of gas in a very bad part of town. The native people had set up sentries at various places in the city, and one of them, in full native war dress and with a spear, saw him and came running over. Gary then realized that he had fucked up again, he had also forgotten to bring his revolver, so he was defenseless. My guess is that Gary also had a massive hangover and had not gotten much sleep the night before but that is speculation on my part. He realized that he was probably dead or that his fate was in the hands of this african sentry.

The native warrior motioned to Gary to get off the bike. Gary did so. The native put his spear down, got on the bike, flipped the switch to the reserve tank that apparently everyone who rides a motorcycle knows about other than my friend Gary, started the motorcycle, got off the bike, picked up his spear, and motioned for Gary to go about his business.

Proving once and for all time that no good deed goes unpunished.

What I love about this story is two things. First, the implied cultural racism. It was the stupid white man who did not know about the reserve tank, it was the native warrior in full paint and with a spear who did, and got the motorcycle going again. Second, what we have here is basically a local who helps a stranded tourist, who shows a human kindness to a visitor he doesn't know when he gets into trouble in a bad time and a bad part of town.

Knowing my friend Gary, I believe that there are elements of the above story that are true, but that it has been slightly elaborated and/or restructured for entertainment value.

Gary had other qualities that qualified him for a career in the CIA, he was a dedicated alcoholic for periods of his life and died in his late 50s of cancer of the esophagus. Those of us who knew him miss him terribly.


Richard "Doc" Baily and the Lattice of Causality

This essay is on the general topic of how we perceive coincidence, and read patterns into them.  Do those patterns actually exist?   I doubt it, but who knows.

For those of you interested in the history of computer animation, this story involves my good friend, now deceased, Richard "Doc" Baily.

This story takes a while to get going, unfortunately.  If you make it through to the end, though, I think you will agree with me that its pretty weird.

I do not believe in such things as Synchronicity, or the apparent coincidences that underly the material world that indicate a formal structure of cause and effect that is not apparent to our normal senses, limited as they are by mere matter and energy. I really wish I did believe in such things, because if I did, then maybe I would believe in telepathy, and if I believed in telepathy, maybe I would believe in life-after-death and if I believed in life-after-death maybe I would believe in happy endings and then maybe I would have some hope.

But I dont.

I wish I did, but I dont.

I suspect that when I experience something that seemingly indicates that cosmic consciousness is guiding our actions, or some other similar mechanism, that what is actually going on is a series of coincidences that are assembled by a hyperactive pattern-seeking device known as the human brain. And that this fabulous pattern seeking and making device is, particularly when under stress, finding patterns when none exists. In a more extreme form, this is one proposed explanation for paranoia, that the brain is putting patterns together and is being a little too energetic in doing so.

But I have a few stories, and this is one of them. What I particularly like about this story is the extremely infinitesimal odds of it occurring, as you will see.

It involves one of my best friends, now deceased, Richard "Doc" Baily, or Dr. Baily as we called him. He was a graduate of Cal Arts, a technical director at Abel's who worked on Tron among other projects, a poet, and a talented early computer animator and abstract filmmaker. Richard was very eccentric and not everyone enjoyed working with him in part because of his flamboyant lifestyle choices. Eventually both he and I were no longer at Abel's but he remained a good friend until he passed away tragically several years ago. I met him when I first started working at RA&A in the early 1980s. My friend Richard led a troubled life due to some of these lifestyle choices that I referred to. He was in and out of various substance abuse programs and in and out of work. He did not have a good relationship with his family. I tried to be supportive and I genuinely liked him, most of the time. We kept in touch.

About a decade later, in the early 1990s, I am taking a break from my very depressing life and so-called career in Los Angeles and going out west to visit some of the national parks and chill out. My production company is out of business, computer animation is becoming very corporate, and the future is uncertain at best. I run into a friend, Harvie Branscomb, and I accept an invitation to stay in his guest room for a few weeks, about 10 miles downvalley from Aspen, Co. In Aspen, I meet a pleasant local named Jennifer (not sure I have her name right) and as I am preparing to drive slowly back to Los Angeles, she suggests that I stop by Sedona and visit a friend of hers who runs a New Age bookstore and tchotchke shop. I am not planning to go to Sedona, but I tell her I will visit her friend if I get there.

About a week later, I am driving in Arizona and I reach a crossroads where I either turn directly for LA or go the other direction to Sedona. I was not planning to go to Sedona, but at the last minute I take the turn and go there.

Just wait, this will all make sense.

I go to the New Age bookstore and meet Jennifer's friend. She has never met me before, did not know I was coming, but of course she does remember her friend Jennifer who has referred me. She says without much preamble: You must go to the river.  You must go right now.

Why not, I thought. This has been a fun trip acting on impulse, lets go to the river, lets go right now.

The river refers to a creek near some hills that are supposed to be particularly filled with karmic good energy fields. Sortof an epicenter of Sedona, which is itself a center of cosmic energy, I am told. What I find there is more of a pond, a bit muddy, with some kids playing in it, a few 20-something women, a few picnic tables, an old guy fishing. So, why not, I start talking to the young women who are playing in the water and we start chatting.

And where are you from, they ask? I am from LA. And what do you do? Well, its not clear, thinking to myself, right now I am not doing anything, but I guess I do computer animation, I say. Oh, they say, do you know our cousin Richard Baily? Doctor Baily?, I ask. Oh no, they say, he's not a doctor, he's a computer animator!  He's our cousin and we are just coming from a family reunion with his father and he did not show up!

Oh, I thought, thinking about what little I knew about my friend's "relationship" with his family and his parents.

Ok, I said, I am Richard's best friend in LA or one of them. Why don't I buy you all dinner tonight in Sedona and you can tell me all about it. So I did. Oddly enough, I don't remember much about the dinner, but we discussed my friend Richard and his relationship with his family, and I told them some things about Richard in LA, not bad things, mostly good things I think. But I don't remember too much about dinner.

As the years passed, I wondered if this event had actually happened, it seemed too improbable. But when Richard passed away, I ran into the two cousins at the memorial service and they said yes, we had met by the river in Sedona and I had taken them to dinner, just as I had remembered.

So consider the odds here. They are not planning to be in Sedona more than a day. I am not planning to be there at all. I am not planning to go to Aspen. I do not know Jennifer. I do not know the woman who owns the bookstore. But I do show up unexpectedly that afternoon, and she tells me to go to the river, and I do, and I meet the cousins of my best friend who have just come from a family reunion where their famous cousin who is estranged from his family has not shown up.

The odds of this happening are quite tiny, I think. I don't really know what to make of it.   It does seem oddly ordained by fate.   I have other stories of this type, but this one is exemplerary because how I came to be there was so involved and unlikely.

I still don't have any hope, though.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shakespeare in Doubt (also The Setup & the Payoff)

[One more time, we have two different blog posts inappropriately combined into one.  In the first one we have a discussion of how do we know anything is real, and using the case study of truth and otherwise in "Shakespeare in Love" and the crisis it is has generated.  In the second part, we have a discussion of the comedy writing technique of "setup and payoff" that Shakespeare in Love uses to great effect. Two different posts.  One of these days I have to get my shit together.]

This has been a day from hell for me. I spent several hours trying to write up a post about what was and was not true in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and discovered, through further research, that what I thought I knew here was far more ambiguous or worse. Somehow I had read an article (or more than one) somewhere in some reasonable place and it turns out to be wrong. Of course society is full of such things and belief systems that are incorrect, but it is both annoying and scary to run into one yourself that you were completely unaware of. Of course I can't remember where I read this article or who wrote it. Maybe I just dreamed that I read such an article. Once you start doubting there is no end to the depths that doubt can take you.

To give just one example, I thought I knew very clearly that there was a major scandal involving either the first performance or an early performance of Romeo and Juliet involving a woman playing the role of Juliet because of a last minute disaster involving the boy who had been expected to play the role. It was Elizabethan practice for boys to play the role of women, supposedly this was a way of avoiding licentiousness in the theatre. And since using women on the stage at the time was illegal, the theatre and the play were temporarily shut down. Thus I thought that this incident in the movie was based, loosely, on something that had happened in reality with this play. God only knows what I read or where to think that this was true, but I have known this story wrong as it may be for decades, well before Shakespeare in Love came out but I can find no evidence of any such story on the bold new internet paradigm and if this story had been true or even rumored, it is likely I would find a reference to it without much problem on the internet. But I don't find any such reference. So either I am psychic and somehow channeled from the future this plot point from a movie yet to be made, or I was just wrong.

This is just one example, there are others, and I am now spooked and wish to retreat to safety.

Fortunately, there are a few topics associated with this movie that I can talk about and have some hope that they are true and correct. One of them is how I happened to see this film, the second is to discuss a topic in the writing of comedy which this film demonstrates with great skill referred to as "the setup and the payoff" or words to that effect.

But first, how I happened to see this film.  

Arguably one of the best complements you can give an artist or someone you know is to view their work without realizing who did it. So, for example, say you see the work of a friend without knowing it was your friend, really like the work, and only later discover that your friend did it. Its really nice when that happens, or so I think. Well, Tom Stoppard is not a friend of mine, but obviously I knew of him, but somehow had not realized that he had written (or co-written) Shakespeare in Love.

When Shakespeare in Love came out in 1998, I really did not want to see it. The reasons for this are complicated but it mostly had to do with my contrarian nature responding negatively to the glowing effusions of praise that this film seemed to generate, and because I doubted very much whether someone was going to do an interesting film that I would want to see about Wm. Shakespeare's love life. On top of that, I hated the title. So I planned to miss this one.

But fate had other plans for me and sometime later I was on a plane between NY and LA and this was the movie they were showing. So after the movie started, I broke down and bought a headset and started listening as well as watching. And as I watched I started to wonder who had written this thing. It was being very clever, and I am not used to clever in successful films, I am more likely to think "stupid" than I am to think "clever", generally speaking. But as I watched this movie, I kept thinking: whoever wrote this has done a very good job here, I wonder what happened?

What had happened of course is that I was one of the few people in North America who did not know that this film had been co-written by Tom Stoppard. Oh, I thought, when I found out. That would explain it. Oops.

So now I want to seque to an important non-sequitor, the comedy technique of "setup and payoff." Setup and payoff works like this. You set up in the audience's mind some situation or idea so that they know that something is coming but the main character, generally, does not. Then in the course of time of course something happens that you expected but the characters didn't, and it is often very funny. I realize it does not sound funny at first glance, these things rarely do, but some examples will illustrate this.   First from a different movie that also uses this technique well, and then from Shakespeare in Love.

In the important film, Galaxyquest (1999), we have several completely excellent examples of this technique. The one that jumps right out at you of course is at the basic premise of the movie. A group of former TV actors who had experienced fame once by being on a TV series about a starship going around visiting various alien planets (e.g. Star Trek) get involved with a real group of aliens, the Thermians, who have also seen the show but believe it is real, and try to get our protagonists to save them from a real alien menace. So we know that these are real aliens and real spaceships, but our heroes don't but at various times discover the truth. And the inverse is true, the "good aliens", the Thermians, have to discover that the people they think are space heroes are really television actors who have seen better days. So we have the setup, and then we have a series of payoffs.

I have put on youtube an example payoff from the film.  In this sequence the crew of the TV series think they are trying to join their colleague for some sort of paid fan experience, or job.  They think these geeky looking "Thermians" are just badly adjusted fans of the TV series.
http://youtu.be/3yCFKT633j0

While we are on the subject of Galaxyquest, here is a link to a post by Ken Perlin in which he discusses a way to quantitatively rate a movie which is based on his experience of first seeing Galaxyquest.  His post is not about setup and payoff per se, its about the bigger questions that this movie raises.
http://blog.kenperlin.com/?p=163




The supporting actors learn the truth about the Thermians

Getting back to Shakespeare in Love, pretty much anyone who sees a film with a title like that, will know that Wm. Shakespeare did not, in fact, write a comedy with the title "Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate's Daughter". But everyone does know that Shakespeare wrote a tragedy called "Romeo and Juliet". If they know nothing else about Shakespeare and his plays, they know that much at least. And so we have a perfect setup for a series of gags where Shakespeare is struggling with both the story and the title as it evolves into a tragedy called "Romeo and Juliet". The way Stoppard drags this out is spectacular, and also has elements of the running gag to it. I do not have a copy of the movie here so I can not count how many intermediate forms we have to go through on our way to the final, but its a lot, and every one is a payoff. And of course the audience knows where this is going and feels a sense of relief, or at least I did, when we finally get there. Although a "running gag" is a different technique of writing comedy, this particular example also has a sense of that going on as well. Its essentially setup and payoff combined with a running gag (or so I think).

In a future post I hope to get to the bottom of the real topic of this post, which is why I believed what I did, but I can not write that today, because I do not know the answer.

<ip>

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Two VFX Examples From The Bourne Identity (2002)


This post will showcase two very elegant visual effects shots/sequences in the movie The Bourne Identity (2002).

Sadly none of the case studies today feature giant robots or things that explode loudly.   This is because of the filmmakers' failure to understand that giant robots and exploding things seasoned with an occasional space battle or cute furry aliens are the most important elements when crafting a significant visual effects project.  Instead what we have here is an odd little film with a few likable characters and a lot of violence, but very few explosions.  Even so, we can use this project as a modest example of how visual effects can improve a film or lower the cost of shooting something without an explosion per se.

There is a well-known aphorism from film editing that goes something like "Good film editing should not be noticed by the audience."  The editing should be subliminal, you should not (consciously) notice it.  In a similar way, if the audience thinks "wow, what a great visual effect!" that is not the desired result. They should think it is real.  Of course there has to be some level of suspension of disbelief for that to work in many cases when, for example, one is showing a giant robot eating an alien world or some other subject not drawn from day-to-day experience.

But in the case of a film that takes place in a contemporary setting and in which there are not overtly fantastical elements, then hopefully the viewer will just be involved in watching the film and not think that he or she has just witnessed a visual effect. There are some surprisingly effective and useful visual effects that are completely unnoticable unless someone points them out to you.

To illustrate this, I am going to showcase, as best I can, two shots/sequences from the first Bourne movie: The Bourne Identity (2002). I think that both of these sequences work very well and both of them are implemented in a remarkably simple manner.   In both cases, digital technology made the shots easier to execute.  In the second case, the shot could not have been done without a digital technique.

Sequence 1: The train at night

In this sequence, Jason Bourne, who is suffering from amnesia and does not know who he is, has very little money, is travelling on a train from France to Switzerland.

The shots break down as follows (times are approximate):

1. A five second shot of a modern train going into a tunnel,
2. A twelve second shot with a slowly moving camera of Bourne looking out a window of a train, either looking at the tunnel moving outside the window or at his own reflection,
3. A three second shot of Bourne's hand fiddling with a plot device,
4. A thirteen second shot of Bourne at his destination outside the train looking lost.


One of the unusual things about this sequence is that it moves very slowly.  In general, we do not like people to have the time to study the effect, as they can usually see through it if we give them more than a few seconds.  But in this case, we stare right at the effect for 12 seconds and it works fine.

In the second shot, the one with the moving camera, the original element was shot in a train that was not moving, with the window blacked out (the reflection of his face and seat are there, but it is black otherwise with no sensation of movement). There is a light on the set illuminating Bourne's face intermittantly to simulate the idea that the train is passing something that is giving off light, such as a signal, but there was nothing beyond the window but black in the principle photography.  The camera was tracked in 3D using some early tracking software and a 3D element of some abstract, dark, tunnel-like textures rendered moving past the camera at high speed (e.g. with a lot of motion blur) and rendered with the tracking camera move. This was then composited against the original shot using a simple hold out matte generated of the outline of the window. The element was basically just overlayed on top of the shot in the area of the window, you did not mind that the textures were visible "under" the reflection of Bourne.

The end result of this is that you completely buy that Bourne is on a train moving at night. One 3D track, one simple 3D element, one travelling hold out matte, and a simple additive composite within the hold out area. I think it works perfectly and it was very inexpensive to execute.  Without it, I don't think the sequence would have been as believable (in other words, had Bourne been looking at his reflection against a black background without any sensation of motion). Had it been shot in reality, e.g. a train moving at night, it would have been much more expensive.

Alternatively, one could have used rear projection to do a similar shot, but you would not have been able to move the camera that far off axis in a rear projection situation.   One could have done a similar shot with a moving camera and traditional techniques, I think, but it would have been more difficult.  Using traditional techniques, I would have shot the principle photography using a motion control or motion tracked camera and then reused that move to control a motion control camera to shoot additional elements, in particular to  rephotograph rear projection art work which had previously been created with a suitable blur of movement (for the movement of the train past the window, not the movement of the camera).   Either I would have shot blue/green screen outside the window of the train in the principle photography, or if I was using motion control to shoot the plate, repeated the movement with a green screen in order to get a hold out of the window.  Then I would have optically composited and it all would have worked.  Here the digital techniques really do make this shot straightforward, however, and less costly to execute.

Here is the sequence online.
http://youtu.be/qyAcJEU4xco

Sequence 2: The incident in the park

After Bourne arrives in Zurich, we have one establishing shot of him alone, at night, in Zurich with snow falling which is about 7 seconds long. We cut to Bourne sleeping in the snow on a bench. Two police officers wake him up, ask to see his ID, and tell him he can not sleep there. One of them gestures with his nightstick, and Jason grabs it. The two police officers are standing above him, he is sitting on the bench, unarmed.

The next six or seven shots (depending on how you count) are each very short and appear almost continuous, even though they are not.   In these shots,  Jason disarms both men and knocks them both unconscious as well as taking one of the police officers revolver.  When he is done, Bourne stands puzzled over the two unconscious men and seems to wonder what happened.

It looks completely natural and Jason does not even appear to be working very hard.





It reminded me, as it was intended to, of when I have watched a dancer or gymnast perform: it looks as if what they are doing is easy even though you realize that what they are doing is impossible.

What they did is as follows. First, a martial artist working for the production choreographed the actions of Bourne and the two officers moving very slowly. As shot, the actors moved at a comfortable speed and did not try to maintain a constant rate.  The camera changes position during the shot so presumably it was shot several times from different positions.   You will also notice that Jason appears to move in what seems like clean, deliberate motions with brief pauses between them. The speed of the performers was not constant, to get the effect of the police officer on the right being knocked to the ground, for example, the (presumably) stand in had to basically throw himself onto the snow so it would react properly.  

Then the effects supervisor, Peter Donen,  took the shot(s) and digitally retimed them, varying the apparent speed continuously through the shot(s). There is also some very good film editing going on.  The sequence that results looks flawless to me, and as I have mentioned, almost appears continuous, even though in actuality there are several cuts.  In this case, digital retiming which makes use of a variety of image processing technologies involving motion analysis (image flow) between frames enabled this approach.  Previous to this digital technique, the traditional techniques could do retiming but only in specific increments of the frame rate, e.g. one could skip frames and double the speed of the shot, but that would not have been sufficiently flexible and continuous (e.g. moving at fractional speeds).  Keep in mind also that this retiming technique could only work in this situation as long as one keeps to very short cuts because we have snow falling.  Assuming that this is real snow (and it very well might be, or practical snow on the set) then it will appear to change speed if we do retiming on longer sequences and just allow that to be viewed.  So this technique has to be used in very short segments or elements like the snow have to be added later.

Here is the sequence online.
http://youtu.be/kl1uGvPAJEQ

So here we have two examples of visual effects used to serve the story that were both elegant and inexpensive to do. The second sequence is an example of making something that is inherently fantastical look natural and realistic.  We can forgive the lack of a cute furry alien or a giant robot since the filmmakers have executed their inferior robot-less vision with such skill. 

The effects supervisor and my friend, Peter Donen, passed away about four years after these sequences were done, tragically of a heart attack in his mid-50s. What was especially sad was that his career was just taking off after decades of struggle. He had the misfortune of being the son of a very famous man, the director Stanley Donen.

Transcript of a talk given by Dr. Richard Hamming


Since I am stuck out here in the middle of nowhere in this perfect republican hell, I am not in a position to hear talks by interesting people without huge effort. Unless it happens to be on the Internet, of course. Even so, finding something actually rewarding on the Internet instead of merely interesting is hit and miss. So when I come across something I think is valuable there is likely (in this new world) to be a post about it, so I can find it again.

Here is a transciption of a talk given by Dr. Richard Hamming at Bell Core in Murray Hill, NJ in 1986 on the topic of "You and Your Research". A better title might be, "How to do great work" or it might even be, "How I, Richard Hamming, did great work".

Be that as it may be, its a quick read and I found it entertaining and possibly even useful.

If you don't know what a Hamming code is, you should, and you can read about it here.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Strange Case of the Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Blue Screen Photography

[This post should be rewritten, there are two different  topics.  The first topic is how digital has increased the volume of visual effects by increasing the range within which the effects can be used, and a second post about what happens when things dont work and a classic example of using the shot anyway.]

[As an addendum to this little note, I want to remind my readers that we are talking about 1963 here, or more likely, 1962.   When I talk about blonde hair and moving cameras and pulling mattes, please recall that there is no tracking technology at the time (that I am aware of) and none of the work that has been done since then to electronically or digitally pull a matte from blonde hair.  I will do a later post on this topic,]

The coming of digital visual effects and the use of computer animation at the expense of the traditional arts may not have eliminated poverty or improved society dramatically, but has had a notable impact on the filmmaking production process. It has done so in a number of ways, but mostly by greatly increasing the volume of work that can be done with these techniques by lowering the skill level required to execute them. Ironically, using computers has not reduced the cost of these techniques, using computers always increases costs, but it did dramatically increase the volume of shots that could use these techniques and in many cases eased the restrictions with which these techniques had to be used.

When First Secretary Joseph Stalin spoke at SIGGRAPH he said, "Quantity has a quality all its own" referring not to tank production, as some believe, but to volume production of digital visual effects. 

In the bad old days, a film was greatly restricted in its use of special optical technologies and other techniques in their production process. All films would use optical techniques for opening titles, end credits, and fades and dissolves. It used to be that the film editor acted as the visual effects supervisor, in a certain way, for a film, or most films. On top of these seemingly mundane but actually extremely important uses, a few films would make use of exotic technologies such as optical compositing, rear screen projection, and paintings on glass and other such special processes if the story and the studio permitted. A very few films and even fewer filmmakers would make these technologies part of their oeuvre, and then we might have a Hitchcock or a Disney, and films like North by Northwest, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Forbidden Planet or Mary Poppins.

Just wanted to say goodbye !

If you examine these films I suspect you will be surprised by the very small number of visual effects shots that are actually in those films. You may also be surprised by the way the limitations of the art and craft of visual effects informed some of the creative decisions. We will showcase some of these brilliant uses of this technology back in the day when you had to know something to use them successfully and couldn't just do whatever the fuck all you wanted and expect someone to fix it later.

Here are two examples of the kinds of restrictions that I am referring to: (a) the camera should not move during certain kinds of shots, or should move only in a very constrained way, because you are going to have to create other elements and those elements will also have to track with the camera and that will be both annoying, difficult and expensive and (b) do not put someone with blonde or red hair in front of a blue screen because it is extremely hard, and often impossible, to pull a good, partial density (e.g. the matte is semi transparent) matte for it using the chemical blue screen process.

But whatever you do, do not put a blonde or red head in front of a blue screen while moving the camera. That would be a really crazy thing to do.

So what happened when someone ignored these guidelines and the shot didn't work?

There are three approaches and only three as far as I know: (1) cut the shot from the movie, (2) spend a lot of money trying to fix it and edit as best you can around it, or (3) use it anyway and pretend you always meant to do that.

It was in reference to this third approach that Georges Danton advised the Assemblee Legislative in 1792 saying "Il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!", which means something like "What we need is audacity, then more audacity, always audacity!"

Consider by way of example of this third approach the fascinating and not completely understood case of the opening of Bye Bye Birdie (1963).

This film is an early 60s repurposing of a Broadway musical that fictionally transforms the real-life draft of Elvis Presley into the US Army into a parable about how one can spin any adversity into a cheap publicity stunt. The film has a number of entertaining songs and a spectacular performance by the 22 year old Ann-Margret as the teenage love interest and ingenue.

The film opens with Ann-Margret in classic 1950s High School drag attacking the camera and belting out the title song with all the energy and enthusiasm you could ask for.  She sings those immortal words:

         Bye bye Birdie! I'm gonna miss you so.
         Bye bye Birdie. Why'd you have to go?
         No more sunshine! Its followed you away.
         I'll cry, Birdie, till you're home to stay!


        I'll miss the way you smile, as always just for me
        And each and every night, I'll write you faithfully!
        Bye bye Birdie, its awful hard to bear,
        Bye bye Birdie! Guess I'll always care!

        Guess I'll always care !
        Guess I'll always care !


(See the sequence on youtube.  You want the first 1:15 seconds only.   The rest is from the end of the movie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t3cBTb3xPc)

It may not be Shakespeare but Ann-Margret is so completely drop dead gorgeous and talented and wonderful and I think the sequence is very entertaining.  I can just imagine the director filled with enthusiasm saying: "Oh I have an idea, while we are doing this shot, how about adding a fan offstage to blow her hair around a little, and lets make sure she turns around facing away from the camera to show her hair off, oh yes, and Ann?  Could you shake your head around a lot so we can see your fabulous hair?  Thanks thats great!"




Just try to pull a matte for this hair, you idiots!

Do you notice something odd about this shot?  Something about the background color?  Its rather blue, don't you think?

The story that is reported is that the director, George Sidney, was so taken by Ann-Margret, who was not at the time a well-known star, that he proposed to the studio that they write a song for her and use it at the front and end of the movie. The studio declined so Sidney paid for the shoot himself, spending a reported 60,000 $US. When the movie opened and Ann-Margret was famous, the studio reimbursed Sidney. The song used the music of another song from the play that was not used in the movie version, with new lyrics written for the purpose of opening and closing the movie. 

The unconfirmed story is that Sidney planned to composite her against more newspaper / news footage of Birdie going into the army so he shot against blue screen.  But, so the story goes,  he gave up the idea of compositing the sequence since it would have been too expensive (and I doubt he would have been very happy with the results).   I have a vision in my mind of the effects people called in to review the scene and looking at it on the movieola and smiling grimly every time Ms. Margret shakes her head at the camera and her hair flies around, thinking to themselves, who is going to tell the director the bad news?

So I am guessing that the director said something like: "Fuck it, no one will be looking at the background anyway, they will be looking at Ann-Margret.   Just cut it in and no one will notice."

And I think that was the right decision. 

As far as I know, this is the only major bluescreen sequence in a movie that just uses the bluescreen photography as is as if they meant to shoot it that way.

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Revised 1-15-2013