Friday, November 30, 2012

Transcendence in Visual Effects: Expressing the Inexpressible in Shaolin Soccer (2001)


As we have previously discussed, visual effects can be used for purposes beyond mere reality, but can be used to express an emotion, or the inner life of a protagonist, or in this case the experience of attaining spiritual enlightenment.

When seen in this light, most visual effects are revealed to be the empty shells that they are: communicating nothing of value, the mere posturing of one giant robot to another, of another wall that explodes, a car that crashes or the actions of a zombie going through the motions of being a human but empty of genuine human thought or emotion. It is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

But when the purpose and talent of the filmmaker uses visual effects for a higher, more noble purpose, then visual effects can add tremendous value to a film.

In this example, from Steven Chow's Shaolin Soccer (2001), visual effects is used to show the triumphant return to enlightenment of the former and debased monks, who through the discipline of soccer and the humiliation of being defeated through the deceit and immorality of the practice team, achieve enlightenment on the soccer field. Thus the fire that appears behind them when they open their eyes, is the fire that is experienced by the soul when it attains this spiritual state. And the practice of playing soccer is a metaphor for how the secret techniques of the monks of Shaolin can lead to a better and more actualized life in the so-called real world.








The sequence is here:

It is not clear which school of Buddhism is being presented, it may be an esoteric form of practice. But I have no doubt that the practice exists or should exist as the seriousness of purpose of the filmmakers comes through in every frame of their film.

A better use of the technique of a modified "bullet time" does not exist and many doubt it could exist, so perfect is its use here.


The Wikipedia page:

The IMDB page:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Miracles from Molecules

(This post is in progress).

I miss the cold war, when not everyone was using computers to steal money and distribute pornography, and we thought a new world was coming, a world with freedom and economic security for everyone.  A world where the rich would not oppress the poor, where disease would be defeated, and where everyone could explore their full potential, irregardless of the circumstances that the accidents of their birth allowed.

This is the world that the composers of the post-show of the Disney/Monsanto Adventure Through Inner Space celebrated.  I was listening to this song this morning and I felt compelled to transcribe the lyrics, an artifact from a past that imagined a future very different from our present.


Please watch your step as you leave the vehicle and step on the moving walkway.  


The composers of this song created a perfect statement of the triumph and potential of modern (e.g. 1960's) chemistry and sings the praises of a new hero, the industrial chemist.  The song is called "Miracles from Molecules" and it was composed by the Sherman Brothers (1) for the Walt Disney Company.


      Miracles from molecules are dawning every day
      Discoveries for happiness in a fabulous array!
      A never ending search is on, by men who dare and plan,
      Making modern miracles from molecules for man!

      Every atom is a world, an infinity unfurled,
      A world of inner space without an end!
      A world of mystery, of endless energy,
      With treasures more than man can ever spend!

      Miracles from molecules, around us everywhere,
      There are miracles from molecules, in the earth, the sea, the air!
      Now men with dreams are furthering what nature first began,
      Making modern miracles from molecules for man!


      Making modern miracles from molecules for man! 



The song encapsulates the early 1960's vision of the future and the promise of a world with unlimited energy, and new materials that solve previously unsolvable problems, a world without limitations, amen. This was a  vision of hope when some would despair in a world of poverty, war and the threat of nuclear destruction.  It was for all of us, the worldwide community of Americans of whatever nation, all citizens of this new and synthetic world that was right around the corner.

Of course you had to be 12 years old to believe in such a thing, and a naive 12 years old at that.

But at least it was a vision of a better world, and stated with total sincerity, in a large-scale corporate marketing world exposition sort of way.

Today, do we hear a similar refrain from the promise of nanotechnology?   Perhaps, but they don't have a catchy song yet.


Get on the moving walkway and follow the arrow to your future.


A simulation of the complete attraction with the official soundtrack, is below.  This song is part of the post-show and it starts at approximately at approximately 8 minutes, 20 seconds into this video.

My previous post on the Adventure Through Inner Space is below.
_____________

(1) Richard and Robert Sherman composed a tremendous number of songs for the Walt Disney Company, for both films and theme parks.   Not only "Miracles for Molecules", but also the lead song from the Carousel of Progress as well as It's a Small World.  Both of these will be subjects of their own post.  A Wikipedia page for these two is at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman_Brothers


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Psychological Effects of Flare in Dr. Strangelove (1964)


One of my favorite things in the world is flare. I mean flare like you might find in photography, not "flair", which is also good, but something else. Flare is a lens aberration that comes from light reflecting off elements in a lens. I mean a REAL lens, not the fake lenses that one finds in computer animation or the fake lens flare programs people sell for photoshop. I mean the real flare that comes from real lenses, particularly older lenses, that comes from light being being deflected from where it should be going, to the emulsion or sensor, and instead bounces around inside the lens, willy nilly, going whereever it damn well pleases.

The type of flare I am talking about has several kinds of effects. One kind of effect is on the image (loss of contrast, washing out the blacks, causing halation or a glow around bright objects, etc). But it has another kind of effect as well, a wonderful effect. It has a cognitive effect, or if you prefer a psychological effect. We have learned that when you take a picture in bright sunlight, that the image will be washed out. We have learned that when you take a picture of a bright object, that there will be a distortion of some sort of the picture. We have learned to expect to see halos around lights in night photography. And because we have all learned this, and don't think about it anymore, we can use this to create in an image a different feeling or persuade you to think you see something that is not there.

So, if I am simulating a city at night, or an airplane at night with bright lights on it, then it is a standard approach to create a halo or some other artifact around each of the lights that are supposed to be bright. Back in the days when people did model photography, they would reshoot a scene with only the lights visible, everything else black, in order to get a "light pass" which could then be composited in. Think Bladerunner (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). These kinds of effects are all throughout these two films. (The effects facility was the brilliant Entertainment Effects Group in the Marina, now long gone, and the work was supervised by Doug Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, both ASC.)







But there is one sequence of all that is my favorite use of flare. It is all through this sequence, a sequence that I consider one of the best in all of film, and no one ever notices. This is "the bomb run" from Dr. Strangelove which is six minutes long and is the last six minutes before the bomber drops an atomic bomb on a target in the former Soviet Union. It is the sequence where they run through the checklist for the bomb and try to get the bomb bay doors open. Among other things, it has a very young James Earl Jones in the role as bombadier ("Negative function, sir. Bomb bay doors do not open, sir").

Here are some images from this sequence.










There is flare in every one, and a lot more in the sequence itself. It is completely subliminal and I promise you that it is not accidental. I say that with such assurance because before Stanley Kubrick was a director he was a professional photographer in NYC. And no photographer is unaware of flare. Not a chance. This was deliberate and I think it adds to the atmosphere of the world inside the bomber.

What a shame that lens designers work so hard to remove flare from modern lenses. Progress, I guess.


There is an ok copy of the bomb run at the following link. The particular sequence I am referring to is from 3:00 into the clip to the end.

Zeiss explains their T* anti-reflection coating in this youtube video:

An Example of the Genre of the Making of VIsual Effects Films


One of the weird phenomena that surrounds the tremendous "success" of visual effects, is the self-destructive documentary that describes how the effects are done as part of the publicity of the film, no matter how irrelevant the visual effects may be to that film. Whatever movie it may be, it has a documentary about how the visual effects were done. First the premise of the documentary is silly, the visual effects are anything but glamourous yet the documentary will almost always make them seem so.  Second, it is self-destructive because telling everyone how we do the work is like a magician revealing how the trick is done, it takes away the magic. How "special" will "special effects" be if everyone knows about how we do what we do? Third it is often lies, that is often not the way the effects were actually done. So that is good at least, you see we didn't tell everyone how we did the work, although we did tell them how we often do the work, just not that particular shot which was complicated and annoying and who would want to be bored with the actual details? Besides maybe the details of how that particular shot was done would reveal a mistake or maybe that bold new technology that we were using to sell the show didn't actually work all that well, and had to be augmented by animators and technical directors fixing every frame, and how much fun would that be to tell the movie-going audience who doesn't really care about the boring details anyway?

Fourth, anyone who knows the world of visual effects knows that it would be extremely unlikely for one of these documentaries to be in any way humorous, satirical, sarcastic or self-critical. Not in a 100,000,000 years. With a few exceptions, people in visual effects are deadly serious. Tell a joke, go to jail. Use a big word, they think you are making fun of them (seriously). At least in this country.

So it is to the UK that we must turn for the best commentary about visual effects I have seen in any media, and it is in the form of a mock documentary looking back at primitive visual effects as they were done at the end of the 20th century as part of a 2006 BBC show called Time Trumpet.


Did he really say working with actors is like "herding zombies"?  Oh my!

Avoiding annoying and unnecessary spillage of beer on the set.

Notice how they call a green screen stage a "CGI studio". I think it is somewhat funny that computer graphics has become so famous that people think that a standard visual effects technique is or must be "computer graphics". Nevertheless, this is one of the best satires I have seen about visual effects.

The documentary is at

Information about Time Trumpet is at

Friday, November 23, 2012

How To Make Someone's Head Explode


[This will be one of the many posts that include details about famous effects shots that I have picked up over the years.   It is all anecdotal information, believed to be true, but I wasn't there.  When this film was shot, I was in a dark room at Robert Abel & Associates writing their raster graphics system.]

As an exercise, I want you to think for a moment about how you would make someone's head explode.

As it turns out there are many ways to do this (in visual effects, of course, not in real life) and they all work with varying degrees of realism and at various costs.

Many of the films that might want to cause someone's head to explode are also low-budget horror films, those with the least amount of money to execute their vision. So I think we can say that one attribute of a method to make someone's head explode is that it should have a modest price and hopefully contribute a lot of value to the film.

Generally speaking, these are the things we are looking for.

1. That the head that explodes looks as much as possible as the real person's head. 
2. The audience should not notice the switch from the real to the standin.
3. The explosion itself should have character and not be a generic explosion.
4. The exploding head should interact with the set in some suitable way, e.g. brains, skull parts, etc. 

Although there are many ways of doing this kind of shot which could use any number of different techniques (miniatures, prosthetics, all digital, etc), best of all would be that it was "practical" in some way. "Practical" is a visual effects term of art that refers to an effect that you can use on the stage and when it is shot in live action it is in some sense done. There is no more to do. A radio controlled squib that spurts blood in simulation of someone being hit by a bullet is an example of a practical effect.

Arguably the best solution of this cinematic problem was realized by the movie Scanners (1981) as directed by David Cronenberg. The script describes a war between a small number of telepaths who are trying to take over the world and who have the power to read minds and also, with some effort, to cause someone's head to explode. Near the beginning of the film, a security organization gives a demonstration of telepathy to an audience of security professionals and, not realizing that they have been penetrated by a "bad telepath", played by actor Michael Ironside, the "good telepath" and the "bad telepath" struggle.   Evil wins in this case, and our victim telepath explodes.   Or rather, his head explodes.



As you can see, the telepath on the right seems to be reaching for a certain, climactic head position.

The solution was completely practical. A life mask of the good telepath in an expression of great pain was made, as well as a dummy of the rest of the body, dressed in the same suit. The live action of the scene was shot with the good telepath emoting his great unhappiness and reaching the same position and expression of the mask. A second sequence is shot with the camera in the same (or a similar) position, but instead of our actor we have a dummy, whose hands are gripped in an indication of great stress.  The mask on top of the dummy is given appropriate makeup and appliances, such as the eyeglasses, and filled with fresh chicken skin and Technicolor Blood #2. Then a shotgun is placed behind the dummy and pointed to the back of the head, out of sight of the camera, bolted into position, and rigged to be fired remotely. They then start the camera, set off the shotgun, and record the results for a few seconds. I am guessing that they use a high speed camera.

Then the two different takes are edited together such that the cut to the dummy happens a frame or so before the shotgun goes off. Of course they had to find a place to cut where the real actor had reached the head position and facial expression to match the dummy and mask.

The shotgun blows away both the mask and the contents, which then fall heavily, showing both excellent gravity and a sense of "follow through", onto the chest of the dummy. The effect itself makes good use of the animation principles of replacement animation, gravity, anticipation, follow-through and appropriate sound effects to enhance the visuals.

Its a beautiful effect which truly accomplishes what it needed to accomplish, which was to blow someones head off in a way that was dramatic and memorable and yet be very economical.   You could use the same technique today and it would work very well. 

Here is the trailer on Youtube, unfortunately in poor quality. It captures the essence of the scene in context however, if you want to see the blood more clearly there are other examples on Youtube that show that, but this shows the context, which is so important.   Please ignore the stupid music and graphics at the beginning and end of the trailer.  This was 1981 after all, a more primitive time.

I have found a much better trailer, this one for British audiences.  Unfortunately, it does not show the head explosion as well, but it is superior in all other ways.   On review, I have decided that this is probably a completely different head explosion from that found in the movie.  I wonder if it wasn't made especially for this trailer.   Some other post will discuss the context of how trailers are made, it is probably different than you expect.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6GNs6MthtU&NR=1&feature=fvwp

I have left out a picture of the exploding head, because it is too disgusting, and I am very sensitive to images of former people who have been turned into a bloody mess.   

The IMDB page for Scanners:


Thursday, November 22, 2012

An Attempted Reconstruction of a Deleted Sequence from The Mummy (1932)


The Mummy (1932) is the definitive version of a certain sub-genre of horror film: the fallen priest of the old religion of Ancient Egypt who is cursed yet is reincarnated to act out his revenge and his love in the modern world. It is shot in fabulous black and white, and stars many character actors that are immediately recognizable from other Universal horror films. Boris Karloff saying "I have waited over 3,000 years to read the scroll of Isis" is a peak moment for me in this or any film.


This fall, men will wear fez's and women will wear headgear with fantasy elements.

Apparently there was a sequence which was filmed but deleted in which our Mummy, Imhotep, explains to the romantic interest, the mummy's intended victim, about her past lives through history. This sequence was cut from the film and it is believed that none of the footage survives.

But apparently publicity stills from this sequence do survive, and someone has made an effort to recreate the sequence on Yourtube in a form of "slideshow" set to music.

The person who made this "slideshow" did a very good job, I think. I do not know enough about this situation to be able to judge whether she has this all correct. But it certainly feels plausible, and is worth reviewing.

The Museum of Forrest J. Ackerman

[Colleagues have asked, where is a picture of Wendy Wahrman?  When I get a suitable picture of Wendy I will post it]. 

Once upon a time I had met most of the working west coast writers of science fiction, or at least the ones who came to the Westercon, the west coast science fiction convention.  This was no big deal, pretty much anyone who attended Westercon could meet them, they were very approachable.  This included such authors as Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson and Jerry Pournelle, just to name a few. Someone I knew about, but had never met, was Forrest J. Ackerman.

"Forry", as he was known, was quite famous in that world. He was a pioneer and contemporary of Robert Heinlein and people of that generation, and had made a living as a writer, an editor, a publisher and a literary agent all in the area of science fiction.   Science fiction is to literature as puppetry is to theatre, it doesn't get much respect.   And it is very difficult to make a living as a writer of fiction no matter what genre the writer works in.   He published none other than "Famous Monsters" magazine.  He probably wrote the first ever story for Vampirella.

This is Vampirella in her pre-sex goddess form.  No kinky leather jumpsuit at this time.

Forrest was also famous in this world of science fiction for his vast collection of all kinds of memorabilia from the worlds of horror, science fiction, and fantasy.  Such items as Bela Lugosi's cape from Dracula, and the mask from Creature from the Black Lagoon. He collected with the passion and obsession of all great collectors and kept everything in a great old mansion in the Hollywood Hills.

To give you an idea of what we are dealing with here, consider this link, which has a scan of a letter from a 14 year old Forry to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the reply from Mr. Burroughs.     

One day a good friend of mine, a pioneer of the ARPANET who lived in Palo Alto, and a fan of science fiction, asked me to arrange a tour of Forrest's mansion for him.  The idea was that I was a local, and he wasn't, so I should do this.    As it happened, I knew Mr. Ackerman's phone number, because everyone who knew science fiction knew his phone number.  It was (213) MOON FAN.

 So I gathered up my courage and out of the blue one afternoon, I gave him a call.

"Mr. Ackerman," I said, "my name is Michael Wahrman, but you don't know me, but we of course know of you and of your famous collection and a friend and I wanted to know if there was a time when people could come see this collection. Perhaps you might have an open house one day a year or something like that. If you do have a way for people to tour your collection, we would very much like to do so."

I can not begin to write in a way that expresses how Forrest Ackerman used to speak. I want you to imagine in your mind that his lines are being spoken by Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932).

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then he said "What is your name again?"

"Well, my name is Michael Wahrman, but I am pretty sure you have never heard of me".

"How do you spell that", he asked.

"Well, its spelled W-A-H-R-M-A-N, why do you ask?"

After a pause he said, mysteriously,  "You may come by, whenever you wish."

Well, that's odd, I thought.   But I made an appointment and my friend came to town and we went to this fabulous house somewhere in the Hollywood Hills and we were received by Forrest, shown around, and introduced to his lovely wife, the former Wendy Wahrman.   She greeted me with a fabulous Hungarian or perhaps eastern European accent saying "Ah, Wahrman.   An old family name.  From Hungary".

It is almost certain that Wendy and I were related. Its a very unusual name. Associated with a specific intellectual (jewish) elite of Europe. Only a few black sheep with that name came to this country, most of them were killed in the Holocaust, a few went to Israel, so you do not find many Wahrman's on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

I am looking for a suitable picture for Wendy Wahrman Ackerman, but haven't found one yet.

I will always remember Mr Ackerman, now dead these many years, and his amazing hospitality to a total stranger, and with this fabulous voice, doing a perfect horror movie rendition: "You may come by, whenever you wish".

Wikipedia page for Forrest Ackerman:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forrest_J_Ackerman

A link to a first edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula, signed by Forry, Christopher Lee, and many others.
http://turhansbeycompany.tumblr.com/post/33611652054/hotmonsters-panicbeats-forrest-j-ackermans

Remembering Monsanto's Adventure Through Inner Space

[Revised 1/15/2013]

If you grew up on Southern California in the 1960s as I did there is a good chance that you share certain cultural experiences, a baseline as it were, with your fellow Southern California adolescents.

Some of us went surfing, some did not; some obsessed on and drew hot rod cars (e.g. RatFink and Big Daddy Roth) and some did not. Perhaps you went to that famous intersection where you could buy Red Devil or Black Cat fireworks, just about everyone went there.  (1)


But whoever you were, if you lived in Southern California, you went to Disneyland and went on the Adventure Through Inner Space, the Mighty Microscope, and experienced the world inside an ice crystal and the perils of shrinking ourselves to smaller than a molecule.



I always remember that anguished question "Dare I enter the world of the nucleus itself?  No!  I must turn back!  Or I will go on shrinking, forever!"  

The Adventure Through Inner Space was replaced (nothing could replace it, of course, not really) with Star Tours. How could they ? Well, they could. Time marches on, and Tomorrowland is not "1960s land" after all. Even if the 1960s was the highest expression of American Culture, it apparently did not fit in to the new Tomorrowland.

Then several years ago, Disney released a 6 CD boxed-set of audio from the original Disneyland, including the complete soundtrack of Adventure Through Inner Space.  This included what you heard while waiting in line (the preshow) and what you heard while exiting the attraction (the post show).  For the first time, I could hear exactly what was being said.  I sent excerpts to various friends who I knew had grown up in S. Calif to see if they would recognize it and got a reaction from every one.

I thought about doing some computer simulation of this attraction, in schematic form, without too much attempt to recreate it really, but just a bit of an outline.   Then I discovered, to my amazement, that someone out there took the time and energy to do a very detailed 3D simulation of this cultural landmark, attempting to preserve it for future generations.   His name is Steve Wesson and I have a link to his website and to the 3D simulation of the attraction in all its glory at the bottom of this post.

Simulated water molecules in the recreation of the attraction.  The original was projected, and so this is not so far from that.  Are these water molecules (H2O) or do we perhaps have hidden Mickeys?

But the real world interferes even with this selfless and probono work. Someone has posted the 3D simulation of the Mighty Microscope on Youtube where you can enjoy it free of cost, but he did so without asking Wesson, who would like to make some money on his work.  Of course, he doesn't own the intellectual property either, the Walt Disney Company does.  So its a little sticky.

But we won't worry too much about that.   I invite you to review this amazing simulation on Youtube and to visit Steve Wesson's site as well. Possibly you will even send him some money via Paypal or something to reward his extraordinary effort and devotion to the excellence of theme park attractions.

The video on Youtbe:

The Steve Wesson site:
http://themightymicroscope.com/home.htm

_______________________________________

1. The intersection was somewhere out in the San Fernando Valley, possibly near San Fernando Road itself.   I was very young and being driven by my father so I probably did not even know exactly where it was.

Linked In "Endorsements" Out of the Blue


Well, I don't exactly understand what is going on, but apparently LinkedIn automatically solicits my friends for "endorsements", which I think means that they are willing to say something nice.   I don't really know what to make of it, but it is reassuring given my horrible situation to get these nice emails that says that so-and-so has endorsed me.  It certainly couldn't hurt!

I have thanked most of these friends by email, but I thought I would also publicly say thank you here. Thanks  to Craig Reynolds, Bruce Borden, Maija Beeton, Robert Swanson, Dave Seig, Phil Zucco, Sylvie Rueff, Allan Battino, Jim Tucker and Bill Bishop for your endorsements.  I appreciate it very much.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Politics Is a Continuation of War by Other Means


The following is an editorial about recent politics in Washington involving the Petraeus resignation.   In this editorial, I express my real opinion about the Republicans and if that is upsetting to you, you may wish to stop reading.   

When I started this blog, I made the conscious decision that one thing I was going to do here was to express myself honestly about some of the politics and hypocrisy I have observed in my so-called life.   This is the second such editorial in a series, the first is here.

One more time we have a situation where the Republicans demonstrate amazing hypocrisy and a willingness to damage America in any way they can as part of their pursuit of power.   In an attempt to damage a member of the the Obama Administration they have slandered and probably succeeded in destroying the career of a loyal and competent soldier.  

The situation as I understand it is this.   The FBI failed to notify Congress that they were investigating a senior administration official.  Presumably the investigation itself was initiated by right wing Republicans looking to generate dirt to manipulate the Presidential election.  The investigation failed to find any wrongdoing and the investigation was dropped.  Some right wing FBI agents decided to disclose confidential personal information collected during the investigation to their allies in the Republican party in congress, who used this information to attack and slander a person who was innocent of all wrongdoing.

Having an affair is not a crime in this country.   If it were, there would be a lot of criminals walking around.  And Republicans of all people should be the last people to point fingers.

This post has been rewritten to be a little less negative.  Are we so powerless that we can not even control our own FBI ?   Are we so stupid that Republicans can not see how evil their elected representatives are?

Maybe its just that the Republicans are desperate men.   I dont know, I am not going to worry about it here on this Blog, I have better things to do with my time.



Monday, November 19, 2012

Will Glamorous Spies Seduce Our Systems Administrators?


Now you can waste hours of your life reading new documents on the National Security Agency's "What's New" page which should really be titled "What's Newly Declassified"....

http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/whats_new/index.shtml

In particular, a paper written in 1991 called "Out of Control" spells out the vulnerability that comes from having classified material on systems with a systems administrator(s) with access to everything.

The specific conclusion was that systems administrators would become the targets of HUMINT operations by foreign intelligence services looking for root passwords.  The sysadmin could become the new "lonely cipher clerk" that is compromised by the beautiful foreign agent as seen during the cold war.


But first I must see your root password.


Would our loyal sysadmins be vulnerable to this insidious attack by attractive secret agents?  I think the answer is clearly "yes, they would".   An obvious countermeasure is to make sure that systems administrators are very good looking, well-adjusted and with healthy romantic lives. Presumably arranging a healthy romance for our sysadmins will become a standard part of counterintelligence in our nation's defense infrastructure or be a prerequisite for assignment to this sensitive position.

http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/cryptologic_quarterly/Out_of_Control.pdf

The seductive femme fatale is Honor Blackman.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_Blackman


Reality vs Visual Effects: The Case of the F-15 Over Afghanistan


I regularly stumble across pictures from the real world that look fake to me.   I believe that if this picture was used in a movie, that is if there was a scene that looked like this, people would complain about the bad and obviously fake visual effects.

Here is a picture of a fighter being refueled at night over Afghanistan.

Examine the picture (click on it to enlarge it) and then read my notes below.   These are the notes that I would give the technical director of the shot to help him or her understand what some of the problems are.


An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, refuels Dec. 12 during a combat mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)


1. The camera seems to be in an improbable position.  But it isn't, this is a camera on the refueling aircraft, completely normal.

2. The background (terrain) looks overly simple, it needs more detail.   That's how a lot of Afghanistan looks in winter at night.

3. The motion blur looks wrong.   But it isn't, the background is blurred because we are travelling fast over the ground, the airplane is not blurred because it has matched our speed.  The camera is at an oblique angle and the ground closer to the bottom of the picture is travelling "faster", e.g. more screen distance vertically, than the terrain in the upper part of the picture, hence the motion blur in the bottom of the picture is visibly more than the blur near the top, and this is correct.

4. You can see inside the cockpit.  That is correct, very high visibility these cockpits. And lots of illumination from the refueling boom.

5. The fighter itself is too low detail.  It looks like a model.   But it isn't.  F15s look like that from this point of view.  If you got up close you would see more detail, but it is deliberately supposed to be a sortof even grey from a distance (its a form of camouflage).

6. There appears to be a matte line around the front of the aircraft.   Yes there does appear to be a matte line, but it isn't.  It is the dark sky reflecting in the metal of the nose as it curves down.   It just looks like it has been outlined.

7. The lighting looks weird.   Its not your imagination, the lighting is weird.  We have a refueling boom with some sort of really bright (sodium?) light on it, a very bright moon illuminating everything with a blue-white light, reflections from the moon off the ground, illumination inside the fighter.  This is weird lighting.   That's just the way it is, or was, that night over Afghanistan.

In fact, it is a picture of a fighter at night over Afghanistan in winter being refueled.  It looks like that.   I think this is very amusing.

The original picture is at
http://www.strategypage.com/military_photos/military_photos_20121106215639.aspx

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Mystery of the Original Star Wars Trailer


This is a post about the mystery of the first or original Star Wars (1977) trailer. I saw this trailer about a year before the movie came out, then never saw it again. All the billions of people I knew who worked on the later films at ILM and Lucasarts never saw this trailer. I think I have found it on Youtube, but first I want to explain what it was.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a low budget science fiction film with the odd name of "Star Wars" was being made. Its director had made a successful film in a completely different genre, but this was not the same, and very few people knew what to make of it. Generally the people who read the script and the people who were working on it did not think it would do very well.

But a number of things happened that changed that.

One of those things is something that was very unusual back in 1976 but is common today: the premarketing of the film at various fan conventions, such as science fiction conventions or ComicCon. A friend of George Lucas from Film School, whose name is Charlie Lippincott I believe, went to science fiction conventions around the country: Worldcon, Westercon, etc and gave a presentation and showed footage from the film on 16 mm.

Back then, people had never seen anything like this. We had been fed garbage from the studios like Logan's Run (1976) and otherwise treated with contempt.

I happened to be at the 1976 Westercon by LAX that year and I saw the presentation. We made him show the trailer twice and this is what I recall.

1. There was no John Williams music. The score for the film had not been composed yet, so they used a basic tone repeated to give some suspense, 2. There was a voice over saying things like "the story of a boy, a girl and a universe" and "coming to your galaxy this summer". 3. There was a shot of a little robot falling on its face (this was R2D2 and this shot was not in the final movie), 4. There was a shot of some strange older guy with a glowing sword in a bar, 5. There was a shot of a spaceship being attacked by smaller spaceships, the camera POV was moving as if it was in one of those smaller spaceships, 6. There was a shot of two people jumping over a chasm with a rope in classic swashbuckler style.


R2D2 is starting to fall.

Bang!

We thought it was great and we all went to see the movie the day it opened. That plus the Time Magazine feature on the film generated enough business so that lines wrapped around the block at the 50 theaters in the 50 cities that the film opened in.   The publicity and word of mouth of that first weekend / week of business started the snowball rolling.

No big deal, nothing strange here, except that this hugely successful film, with all the paraphenalia and media and all my friends working at ILM and no one ever saw that trailer again. No one. None of my friends at ILM or anywhere else had ever seen this trailer. It was easy to tell. You would ask if the trailer had John Williams music and the answer was always yes. This trailer had completely disappeared.

Today, I came across a very bad quality dub of something that claims to be an original Star Wars trailer.

It might very well be. It has the elements that I recall, and it has things I do not recall. But this was a long time ago, so I am going to say that this might have been the trailer, or something very close to it. Now was it worth the wait? I am not sure, it is hard, very hard to put yourself back 30+ years and remember what you were like and what the world was like.

But if this is the trailer I remembered, then the mystery is explained.  It is filled with shots that never made it into the final film as well as what I think are early visual effects tests that also never made it into the film.

Here is the trailer

Visual Effects Stoops to New Low to Visualize Skydiving Cats


I want to thank Yayoi Wakabayashi for pointing out one of the truly, genuinely stupid use of visual effects in recent history: skydiving cats.  Guess what, they didn't actually throw cats out a window, they used the magic of visual effects to execute this abomination.




http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/us/2012/11/16/tsr-moos-skydiving-cats-controversy.cnn#/video/us/2012/11/16/tsr-moos-skydiving-cats-controversy.cnn

With great power comes great responsibility and clearly these people are not up to using visual effects responsibly.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Visualization and Employment in the Defense and Intelligence Field


Just for fun, and because the grass is always greener, I decided to look at the job openings at a major computer technology defense contractor: SAIC. SAIC used to be a small (e.g. maybe 500 people) company in San Diego renowned for treating its people well and doing cool things for three-letter agencies that they could not talk about. I knew that they had grown since then, and I knew that the national security business was experiencing major growth, but I was still surprised.  Amazed actually.

SAIC now has over 40,000 employees, all over the country and the world. They have over 3,500 current job openings, and all of the ones I looked at had been listed in the last 60 days.  So SAIC is gigantic and is growing like mad.  

Job titles on Internet employment lists vary from useful to useless as we all know.  Nevertheless, I am an expert reader of such things and scanned about 1/2 of the jobs open at SAIC, pulling out 1 or 2 a page for further review.   The first thing that pops right out at you and waves their arms around so you can't miss it is that almost all these jobs require a security clearance.  Not merely that you are willing to get a security clearance, no, they require that you have it already, active, in order to apply.  Of the 30 or 40 jobs I happened to pick because they sounded interesting or possibly relevant all but 1 or 2 required an active security clearance.   Since you as an individual can not keep a security clearance active easily, this means that you were either in the military, working for a defense contractor or you were your own defense contractor and needed a security clearance within the last (approximately) two years (it varies, based on the type of security clearance), or it would have lapsed automatically.

But this gets better.  It isn't just any security clearance that you are supposed to have, its a Top Secret / SCI clearance.  Whats funny about that is that Top Secret is a classification, but SCI is not, its something else, an "access ticket" I think.   Just because you have a ticket to one compartment, doesn't mean that you can automatically have a ticket to another, it means you have a need-to-know for that first compartment.  I presume that it is easier to clear someone for a new compartment if they have had a ticket to another one in the past.  I guess.

So of the 30 or 40 jobs I read beyond the job title, all but a few required a clearance of some sort, and most of them TS/SCI.   One of the few that did not require this was, ironically, the one job I found that looked like it might use Visualization as part of its job description.     This is yet more (anecdotal) evidence that graphics and visualization is a poorly regarded niche specialization outside of a few industries.

Wikipedia page on security clearances
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security_clearance



Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ivan Sutherland, the Screen Transformation and You


[Tom Duff pointed out to me that the MIT TX-2 and the MIT Whirlwind computer were not the same thing.  Whirlwind was used on SAGE (the semi-automatic ground environment), and it was the TX-2 computer that Dr. Sutherland used for Sketchpad.   I had not been aware of how closely the TX-2 resembled or was a model for the original DEC PDP-1.   Thank you Tom!]

Ivan Sutherland has won the Kyoto prize.   

Dr. Sutherland is known for many things, but perhaps the single thing that he did that is used billions of times a second is the method of creating a screen transformation from a 3D object by applying a 4x4 matrix transformation to the 3D coordinates. Most of the time when you are seeing a computer graphics image on a screen you are seeing an application of Ivan's work.  A matrix transformation like this is particularly amenable for implementation in hardware (just about anything can be implemented in hardware, it is true, but this is perhaps the most amenable to hardware implementation of the various algorithms one can use to create a screen transformation in a scalable way).

My favorite thing that he did is a user interface for a CAD design system he did as a graduate student at MIT on a TX-2 computer. The interface is better than 98% of all user interfaces you have the misfortune of using and it was written in machine code on a crazy primitive computer.  A friend at RAND has or had a 16 mm film.  I will try and see if I can not find it on the internet, or get it transferred and uploaded to the internet.  You will be amazed.


A picture of the Whirlwind is kept here because it is so cool looking.

I believe these are Selectron tubes.  A colleague of mine at RAND had one of these or something similar from the Johniac that we had at RAND long before I got there.   Again, this is related to the Whirlwind.

The TX-2 console used for early human-computer interface work

The TX-2 at Lincoln Laboratories


Read about the Kyoto prize, the Whirlwind and Ivan below.

The Kyoto Prize

The Whirlwind Computer

Ivan Sutherland

Tom Duff also sent the following two links.  The first is a collection of information about the TX-2, including Dr. Sutherland;s Sketchpad paper.  The second has information about the Whirlwind computer.

http://bitsavers.informatik.uni-stuttgart.de/pdf/mit/tx-2/

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Some Modest Suggestions in Light of the Disney Acquisition of ILM


I have hesitated to comment on the Lucasarts / ILM acquisition and what it may imply for the future of ILM because, oddly, I did not want to annoy people. Besides, how would I know, or what would I know that could possibly contribute? Other than the history of the field, and the history of various studios when it comes to visual effects facilities and how the studios think about such things, that is.

In a future post I will review some of the structural reasons why it is so hard to have a facility like ILM at a studio like Disney, but first, I am going to review some ideas that may be useful. I am pretty sure that my friends at ILM know these already, but there are others who are interested who may not. And it doesn't hurt to discuss these things a little bit, as far as I know.

Suggestion #1. Do not lose money.

Of course it is better to make a lot of money, but if you do not lose money then you are not obviously a perceived drag on the profits of the company. Its more complicated than that, a lot more complicated, but making a dollar is a much better position to be in than losing a dollar. But whatever you do, do not lose a million dollars on some project and expect them to want to pick it up.

Suggestion #2. Be low maintenance.

Manage yourself so well, that keeping you around seems effortless to Disney management. No big horrible scandals, no personnel disputes that become newsworthy, only positive modest press releases that help you get more work but does not interfere with anything that Disney is doing. Fly low, avoid enemy fighters. Avoid controversy.

Suggestion #3. Find a way to deal with Disney producers.

The standard problem in this situation is that a company like Disney Studios which makes movies, will encourage their producers to use an in-house facility, which ILM now is. But the producers are interested in saving money, and will want ILM to give them a deal. This always happens, that is the good side of the situation. The bad side is what happens when people don't love each other anymore, when they do not like the deal, when they do not like being charged for adding a billion shots at the last minute, when they do not like being charged because they went to the lowest bidder they could find then call on ILM to save their stupid ass at the last minute. Then people get unhappy and they take their unhappiness out on ILM.  You see, the producers have access to the top management at Disney and they are not shy about complaining about being charged for the work.

Suggestion #4. Find a way to deal with the fact that you work with the competition.

ILM makes its money by doing excellent visual effects as a work-for-hire production service facility for a fee.  The point is, ILM does work for whatever studio is willing to hire them. But the Walt Disney Company competes with these other studios and they may have a film coming out that competes with a film you worked on for another studio, and the producers and executives at Disney may not like that. I have no idea what you do about this situation, it is not reasonable to expect the producers at Disney to be mature on this topic. I suppose that one thing you can do is to be low profile and not try to get the normal publicity that a successful visual effects film often generates.

I predict that if you are able to do these things, that you will be able to continue the remarkable track record that ILM has generated thus far. There are major institutional reasons why a company like Disney does not normally have a facility like ILM as part of their company and those reasons are all still operative (the subject of a later post). But I am hopeful that you can find a path through this jungle and that the (somewhat obvious) ideas above may be of modest use.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Very Brief Introduction to Robert Abel & Associates



Tomorrow is the Robert Abel event at the UCLA school of Theatre & Film, which I may or may not be able to attend. I have taken this occassion to write up a very brief introduction to the period that Robert Abel & Associates was a part of. I could write many, many pages about Abel's but I am not going to do that here. Here I am just going to do a page or so of very basic background.

Robert Abel & Associates (Abel's) was a famous visual effects production company mostly in the world of advertising and commercial production, but not entirely. It employed some of the most accomplished people in the field of visual effects and has alumni who are very important in the field as it is today.

I was there only briefly, from 1980 to 1983 or so, working on building what we called the "raster" computer animation system. What we call computer animation today is what we would have called "raster" back then, in contrast to vector animation, and other forms.

It is going to be hard for someone who only knows the field today, or of the last decade, to relate to what Abel's was and what it did. Here is some background to try and make some of it comprehensible.

1. The community of people was small, much smaller than it is today. Maybe a couple of hundred people, although maybe its a few more depending on how you define this community (e.g. visual effects, effects animation, matte painting, rotoscope, camera, etc).

2. The production companies that did exist varied in size from 1 - 80 people, and occasionally would grow larger when they had a project that could support it.

3. The companies were production companies, financed through the personal wealth of the founders, and living on a week to week basis depending on what jobs were in house. If there was no work, everyone would be laid off immediately.

4. There was occasional motion picture work, but not much and not continuously (e.g. motion picture work was nice to have but if you wanted to keep people employed you had to do other things). There was also some television work and intermittent theme park / special venue projects.

5. But at the end of the day, if you wanted to pay the rent, people in visual effects and other related fields often did commercials and such things as "broadcast graphics".

6. The two 800 lb gorilla's in the field of visual effects and graphics oriented advertising was R/Greenberg in NYC and Robert Abel & Associates in Hollywood. If you worked in this field in NYC, then you are likely to have worked at R/Greenberg. And if you had done visual effects in one form or another in Los Angeles, you were likely to have worked at Robert Abel & Associates, even if only briefly.

7. Abel's and R/Greenberg would compete for the big, technical advertising projects. Not the cute projects that had a lot of live action, more like Cliff Robertson AT&T commercials.

8. The advertising business is director driven, and at Abel's, in general, the art director was the director in charge.

9. Generally speaking, the projects themselves were done, e.g. accomplished by the "technical director" who was the filmmaker, if you will, for the project, as directed by the art director.

10. Computers were only a tiny part of the techniques used in visual effects. And perhaps the least important of the techniques.

The good news is that there were some extraordinarily talented people who worked there, and did some of their best work. The bad news was that Abel's, as a culture, encouraged people to work to their detriment and damage their health and in some cases their lives.

I will always be grateful for meeting some of the people I met at Abel's, but I would not want to work under such circumstances, if I could avoid it, again.   It was the Abel experience that first made me realize that the workplace needed to be regulated or in some way moderated to prevent the kinds of abuse I saw there and elsewhere.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What the Bin Laden Family Taught Me About the Nature of Friendship


A few years ago I was discussing with a therapist why I felt so sad and abandoned by my friends. I used as an example a story from a book about the Bin Laden family by Steven Coll.

There are a number of things to learn from this book, which is very entertaining and worth reading (see link below) but perhaps the most compelling thing I learned was something about the true nature of friendship.

As background, before we get to the specific story, here are a few other things to know about the Bin Laden family. First, they are not Saudi Arabians, nor are they related to one of the important families from Saudi Arabia. They are Yemeni immigrants who went to Saudi Arabia and fit the stereotype of the classic Yemeni immigrant in Saudi Arabia: the hard-working, dirt-poor immigrant brothers who through pluck and hard work become millionaires. The next thing to know is that there are hundreds of Bin Ladens, they take many wives, divorce them, but keep them around, and marry new ones and have children by all of them. (1) The next thing to know is that of those hundreds of Bin Ladens, most of them seem to love America and spend a lot of time here. And finally, although the Bin Laden family was and is very wealthy, there was nothing like the wealth that would have permitted a 3rd generation Bin Laden such as Osama, who was not much involved in the family business, to have anything like the $180M in personal wealth that was reported in the American news media (in other words, our press got it wrong, again, not even close to accurate.)

Some of the Bin Laden Family in Europe probably in the 1970s.

Their are many colorful anecdotes, including the one about how after 911, the Bin Ladens chartered a jet and become one of the very few planes allowed to fly, as they picked up their various relatives at various parts of the country and flew them to Europe. Recall that air traffic was prohibited for three days after 911 with only a few exceptions. It seemed safest to the Bin Ladens, our State Department, and the Saudi Arabian government to just get the rest of the Bin Laden's out of the way for a while than to have them scattered all over the country and have to provide security for them (or fail to provide security for them as the case may be).

The specific story which is significant for this post and the cause of so much emotional unhappiness is the story of the time one of the Bin Laden's of the second generation was living in Florida and planning a party in Pakistan. Recall this is before 911, before the war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was and may still be a favorite vacation place for people from Saudi Arabia, famous for its falcon hunting. Anyway, this Bin Laden was also a fan of ultralight airplanes and planned to charter a jet to fly to Pakistan taking with him many friends and ultralights for the event. Being a colorful and generous man, he also invited along many of his neighbors from Florida including his local ultralight dealer.

This is a typical ultralight without either a Bin Laden or a suitcase filled with cash.

Now we get to the signifcant part of this story. This is the part that really made me wonder what kind of friends I had and about the true nature of friendship.

You see, this Bin Laden, being a careful and generous host, also brought along a briefcase stuffed with cash in order to pay for any little extras along the way. Not a lot of money, just about $250K in various denominations, which is enough to buy a Range Rover or two, or hire a band at the last minute, or rent another floor of the hotel, take the gals shopping, whatever. The point is, he so trusted his friend with the ultralight dealership that he was given the briefcase and asked to carry it around.

Obviously, this is an indication that Bin Laden had both trust and confidence in the ultralight dealer. You can't just leave the briefcase with anyone, and you can't just put it in a safe, because you need it around if you need anything. So you appoint someone to keep it with them, someone you like and trust with the money.

 This photograph is for educational purposes only.

This really made me think. Whats the matter with me that I never get invited on the chartered jet to fly ultralights in a foreign country?  Why don't my friends let me carry the briefcase stuffed with cash? Why am I never invited to join the various Academy committees that have my friends and peers as members and who later win important awards because they served on those committees? Whats the matter with me that my friends treat me like shit?

The bottom line is that if they really liked me, they would let me carry the briefcase stuffed with cash from time to time, but they don't.

That's why this story makes me feel very sad and depressed.

_____________________________________________

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steven Coll

1.  There is a restriction in Islam that says you can only have four wives at a time and then only if you can afford them. However, there is no restriction on marrying, then divorcing, and keeping good relations with your ex-wives. In this way, one can with persistance and good financial means, extend the number of wives that you have in some long-term sense of the word indefinitely and the Bin Ladens seem to have in general used this technique.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Voting Irregularities in Virginia and the Byrd Organization


When the Republican putsch put the Bush administration into power in this country in 2000, thus ending democracy and destroying the credibility of the Supreme Court in many people's eyes, there were some of us who were, and are, adamant that the issues of voting procedure had gone on far too long and needed to be dealt with now, completely, fairly across districts, and as comprehensively as possible.

To a Southerner who is tired of being bashed by ignorant Westerners and Northerners for being from a "racist part of the world", this was a particularly low moment.   "Fix the fucking voting machines, ok?" we thought to ourselves. This has been going on long enough.

But there have always been voting irregularities in American politics and some elections are more famous for this than others. Important political dynasties were created out of creative control of voting procedures, one need only think of the Daley machine in Chicago to pick one notable example.  The South had their political machines as well of course, and the one in Virginia from the mid 1920's through most of the 1960's was called the "Byrd Organization" led by former governor and US Senator Harry Byrd. These were Southern Democrats of the old school.


Governor and US Senator Harry F Byrd


So one day, sometime in the 1930's, my dad and his first wife went to vote in Virginia Beach, Virginia where they lived. All polling places have publicaly posted a list of who is registered to vote in that precinct and whether they have voted that day or not. This is all to reduce fraud and to increase confidence that the people who vote are eligible to vote and have only voted once.

The father of my dad's first wife had died many years before. But since he was a good democrat, he not only continued to be registered in his precinct, he had also voted that day, demonstrating excellent party loyalty.

I am sure nothing like that happens today, of course.

The Wikipedia page for the Byrd Organization:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Selected Items of Interest from Computer Games of Recent Vintage Part 1


As previously mentioned, I did a survey of PC games a few years ago in order to form a more modern impression of the state of that industry, what games were being made, what I liked about them and what I didn't.   

As you would expect, it was a mixed bag.   But out of the 50 or so games I reviewed, there were about 30 or 40 things that did impress me.  Here is a list, more or less at random, of 10 of those things.

See this post for a discussion of what I was looking for:

1. An idea so good you wish you had thought of it: Sissy Fight 2000

A turn-based game based on a playground in which young girls compete to become the most popular, or alternatively, do the best job of lowering the self esteem of the other girls by saying nasty things about them.




Although the server for Sissyfight 2000 is no longer operational, this high point in western culture will not be quickly forgotten.

2. A great user-interface idea: Grand Theft Auto III

In GTA III, you are given tasks to accomplish for the local criminals. They want you to drive their car somewhere, say to pick up their girlfriend. But the user interface is rigged so that it overreacts making it nearly impossible to actually drive the car without bashing into other cars, or people, or streetlamps. The car is rigged with all sorts of great breakaway parts that get destroyed colorfully. So you pick up the girlfriend, and she pretends not to notice that the hood is bashed in and the door is hanging loosely off its hinges.




3. A great story point / gag: Grand Theft Auto III

You are given an assignment, pick up the boss's girlfriend, there is a map, but the city and the map are perverse. You pull into a parking lot to turn around, in what is probably a stolen car, and discover that the parking lot is actually the lot for the local police station. You try to turn around to get out of there but as with the point above, the car is impossible to drive so you end up playing demolition derby with a bunch of parked police cars. These guys are very funny.

4. Something happens that makes you think that it is actually thinking: SimCity IV

I set up a toll booth to try and collect revenue from an interstate (e.g. only collect money from people passing through, not locals). But I do not realize that I leave a back street open that people could use, if they were clever or persistent enough to find it, to avoid the toll booth.   Trust me, this route was not obvious, it required going around through a bunch of back streets and then back onto the main highway.

So I put in the toll booth and, after a while, a local neighborhood group complains about too much traffic from cars passing through. The game is obviously simulating some of the crazy things people do to save money, in this case, having them drive all over the place to find the cheapest path. It greatly added to the sense that the game was actually paying attention and that there was something actually going on in there.

5. A game that results in learning something about the world: SimCity IV

Maxis says that SimCity is not doing real urban simulation, it is just faking it.  That may be true, but even so, it is an excellent learning tool for people interested in such topics as urban design and management and it is the only such tool that I am aware of that is available to the general public.   

6. A game that is useful in thinking through a strategic issue: Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars

Tiberium Wars is an amusing real-time strategy game, one of the few I enjoy playing.  There is nothing about it that is intended to be realistic nor is that its purpose in any way.

But it has a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) feature and there are several amusing things about it, I noticed.  It is implemented in a way that you always know who did it, you are warned they are going to do it, they can only use it intermittently, and it is very destructive in a limited region but you will probably survive the first blow.

What was interesting was that without thinking about it, I found myself implementing these counter-strategies: (a) distribution of industries in different regions, (b) duplication of key technologies in different regions, (c) attempting surgical strikes to knock out their WMD before they can use it (or use it again), and (d) developing my own WMD in response.   I did not think about it at the time, but in retrospect the strategies that evolved to manage the threat of WMD are some of the same strategies used in the real world to deal with this threat.

7. A game that did a good job of creating a mood or feeling: Bioshock

One of the few games I have found that did a good job at creating some sort of feeling or sense of place, this time of a strange underwater world. The equivalent of a good, bad horror film.




8. A game with a weird funny idea: Portal

Portal is a pretty weird idea, and well implemented. Whether or not it is a good game or not, I could not tell you, its not the sort of game I enjoy. But it is fun to look at, and it is actully somewhat original in concept.

9. A game with some whimsical humor: Command and Conquer Red Alert

Very few games have anything I would see as charming, or whimsical. You may feel differently about it, but that is my impression. But in this version of the C&C franchise, there are some very funny bits. My favorite is the type of Russian soldier, the great Russian bear. The bear can be delivered to a place (a battle, an island, etc) by shooting it out of a cannon. When you do that, it is very cute in how it flies, how it parachutes down, and how it lands. Its really charming in the great wasteland of not-charming of most games.


This bear is fierce looking.  The bear(s) in the game itself are adorable.

Tim Curry as Premier Cherdenko.  He probably got this part because of his role in Hunt for Red October.

10. A game with a great use of some technology: the Total War series

The game separates out the strategy from the battle. During the battle you are given a user interface to attempt to control behaviorally generated troops of soldiers. A Roman Legion for example, made up of the different specialities that existed within the legion. A lot of work has gone into making it possible to give direction to these groups of simulated people as they try to kill each other. And the behavioral is very good and works in real time with dozens of groups interacting with each other and thousands of individual foot soldiers being animated.   A very good job, overall.

A view from the Rome: Total War series.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen !

I will probably post another list of equal length sometime soon of other things I thought were well done.

Then I will tell you what I really think about the games I reviewed.