Sunday, March 31, 2013

VFX, The World Trade Organization and Actionable Subsidies

[in progress]

[Ok Kids, Global Wahrman will now try to dig into the reality of the subsidies and see what the real numbers are, at least up to a point... so take whatever numbers you read here with a grain of salt...]

In a previous post, I itemized the many factors that have lead to the disaster that is computer animation and visual effects in this country.

Some of the issues that have caused this situation are fundamental and are unlikely to change in any significant way. For example, to change the business model of the visual effects facility is a noble goal, and has in a certain sense occurred from time to time, but it is very difficult and usually quite temporary. Nor are we likely to see our government do anything about globalization: our govenment gets off on and profits by impoverishing Americans by sending their work overseas. That isnt going to change.

On the other hand, our government belongs to trade organizations designed to see that such things as subsidies from a government to its local industry do not occur. Of course the reality is that they occur all the time, and as an example of this, see the section below about subsidies in Japan. (1)

For those of you who are not up to date on this, here is a fast review of how the subsidies supposedly works.  If you, the filmmaker spends $1.00 in Canada on making your movie, the Canadian government will write you a check at the beginning of production for $0.60. So if you spend $10,000,000, the government will write you a check for $6,000,000. (3)  And in return you actually have to spend that $10,000,000 on certain things in Canada, and there are some restrictions on these things. But in particular, you can use it to buy visual effects as long as most of the people working on those visual effects are either Canadian citizens, or are residents in Canada eligible to work (easy to arrange), and of course the FX company must be in Canada.

Thats a 60% discount. What producer could resist that? The answer is: none. So they take the work to Canada, which in this case usually means Vancouver. There is a similar deal in England, and the work goes to London. In both cases, Vancouver and London, there is a robust and experienced community of companies and workers who are happy and ready to do the work.

There are a few other wrinkles on this situation. There are special specific case subsidies in New Zealand involving WETA and Peter Jackson. And there are other deals in various parts of the world.

The end result has been for American company after company to be unable to compete and go out of business. From the Orphanage, to Asylum, to Digital Domain, to Rhythm and Hues (2), they have gone out of business and when they did, they cited subsidies as a primary cause.

So what is a subsidy? What exactly defines a subsidy?

According to the World Trade Organization, a subsidy is:

Definition of Subsidy

Unlike the Tokyo Round Subsidies Code, the WTO SCM Agreement contains a definition of the term “subsidy”. The definition contains three basic elements: (i) a financial contribution (ii) by a government or any public body within the territory of a Member (iii) which confers a benefit. All three of these elements must be satisfied in order for a subsidy to exist.
The concept of “financial contribution” was included in the SCM Agreement only after a protracted negotiation. Some Members argued that there could be no subsidy unless there was a charge on the public account. Other Members considered that forms of government intervention that did not involve an expense to the government nevertheless distorted competition and should thus be considered to be subsidies. The SCM Agreement basically adopted the former approach. The Agreement requires a financial contribution and contains a list of the types of measures that represent a financial contribution, e.g., grants, loans, equity infusions, loan guarantees, fiscal incentives, the provision of goods or services, the purchase of goods.

There is a concept known as an "actionable subsidy", and an "actionable subsidy" has what are known as "adverse effects".

Article 5
Adverse Effects

No member should cause, through the use of any subsidy referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 1, adverse effects to the interests of other members, i.e.
(a) injury to the domestic industry of another member,
(b) (...)(c) serious prejudice to the industry of another member.

So now we know what is a subsidy, and furthermore what is an actionable subsidy. And I think that the argument could be made that the subsidies that are described above are actionable. So what happens next? Well, next, you have to convince your government that they wish to discuss this matter with the WTO and work through the dispute process. You as an individual, and a trade group or any non-government organization can not do this. Only governments can do this. And all parties must be signatories of the WTO. Well it turns out that Canada, the UK and the USA are signatories of the WTO.

So next, one contacts the State Department. Perhaps. Or perhaps, one contacts one's elected representative, and they contact the State Department. But what if your elected representative is in the pocket of the Studios, and they like the subsidies? That would be sticky, now wouldn't it?

WTO on Subsidies

The dispute process


1. The following is from an introduction of an article in Foreign Affairs about subsidies in Japan. The entire essay can be found at the following link (subscription required).

Here is the introduction to the article:

GOVERNMENT subsidies have been a consistent feature of Japanese practice since the country emerged from the feudal system in the eighteen-sixties. Japan's industrial history is singularly unlike that of other countries in that it is not marked by a policy of "laissez faire." Immediately following the restoration of 1867-8, the government set itself the task of industrializing the country, realizing that for this purpose it would have to convert into capitalists and factory workers a nation of knights and retainers. From the first, therefore, the government has exercised a paternal rĂ´le in Japan's economic development. The result has been to make the Japanese people dependent upon the government to a degree unparalleled in other capitalist countries. "Almost any new industry," says a recent writer,[i] "so long as its promoters had some political friends, could secure exemption from taxation, even if no more direct form of subsidy could be obtained."

In starting modern industries it was the government's intention to turn them over to private management and ownership as soon as possible, retaining only a measure of control. In some cases this was done, but not in all. Not only has the government continued to manufacture steel, woolen cloth, and other articles, but it has reserved as state monopolies the trade in salt, tobacco, camphor and ginseng. For the rest, the "westernization" policy has created mammoth corporations, which -- despite their size -- still look to the government for sustenance. Indeed, the list of interests receiving aid in one form or another covers almost the entire field of Japanese economic life. Banking, industry, agriculture, labor, shipping, and shipbuilding, foreign trade, construction, and domestic commerce, all are in receipt of help; hardly any activity of importance or promise is not clamoring for it.

2.  When a production company goes out of business, it is usually due to a number of factors, not just one.  However, in all the cases listed here, foreign subsidies were recognized and publicly stated to be one of the causes, if not a primary cause, of their demise.

3. Its hard to believe that the subsidy is so high, I admit it.  And I have never verified the numbers, but I am trying to now.   It must be less than the reported 60%, that is just too good, I admit it.

The Train Wreck That is Computer Animation Production: A Postmortem

[Updated 4/15/2013]

There are many different issues affecting the health of the visual effects and related computer animation industries in high-end, e.g. motion picture, television and web production. The reason this situation is so complicated has many origins but not least is that it has been building up now for many years, well over a decade and probably closer to two.

So when the train wreck happens, and people are finally willing to take action or potentially change their behavior to improve things, it is not at all easy to figure out how to make changes that will substantially improve the situation. An ounce of prevention might have avoided a pound of cure, or maybe even a ton of cure, but that is water under the damn dam by now.

But what exactly is this train wreck?   What is it exactly?   I think it is the following things.  That a large number of people, Americans and others,  were encouraged to devote a tremendous amount of energy and time and money to become skilled in this area of computer animation, only to discover that there was no reasonable employment for them that would allow them to live a reasonably secure life and support their families.   And that furthermore, having made this bad choice, that it was in fact too late for them to change direction because their career has been, from the point of view of employment, set.   Thus we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people either impoverished or going from bad company to bad company trying to earn a living.   This human misery is the primary part of the train wreck.  Secondarily, that in the process of creating a new industry, computer based visual effects and computer generated films, we not only wiped out several earlier industries, but because of subsidies and globalization we lost our own industries, and that the American computer animation and visual effects industries no longer exist or are on the verge of being completely eliminated.  And third, that in spite of the great technical advances in 3D, that in fact there is very little demand for those skills outside of certain kinds of animation production, and those who specialized in them, and helped create them, are very likely to never work again.

What led to this situation?  Let me count the ways.  But not everything on the list that follows is of equal weight, and not all of them are bad.  Furthermore, some of them are vague.   Had computer animators organized as a labor group from the beginning, would it have made a big difference?  Would it not in fact have hampered the industry and perhaps kept it from coming into existence?   Quite possibly, but on the other hand, the failure to organize and have a plan in place to deal with the project-nature of the business and have a method for benefits to transcend that is a fundamental mistake.

One more thing.   This is not black and white.  You are going to have to think.  Don't assume I am wrong if you disagree, instead find out more about what I am talking about.  Obviously this is from my point of view.

So cut me some slack, people, and pay attention: I am not doing this for me as much as I am doing this for you. I have at best a fatherly attitude towards the situation. I can't force you not to do drugs and drive drunk, but I can sure as hell make sure you know that you are risking your life when you do so. And since I am one of the people who invented the automobile, to continue our analogy, I feel some responsibility to do so.

Each item below could be at least a paragraph, if not an essay.

The situation has its origins in, among other things:

- subsidies from foreign governments to production companies doing work in their country
- combined with production companies that are self-financed through production and therefore have very low reserves and very tight constraints on what they can do at any one time,
- the labor intensive, highly skilled nature of the work, 
- in an industry that has through competition driven the margin to essentially zero such that a production company can do a tremendous amount of work, spend a lot of money, and end up with almost nothing in the bank when they are done,
- with perceived lower cost of labor in some countries combined with the belief that the labor is a commodity, 
- the belief of the customer that the work itself (VFX and animation) is a commodity and is only differentiated by cost ... in other words that the production companies are not very different from each other, (3)
- the improvement in the enabling technologies that make remote collaboration and remote production possible and the willingness on the part of the customers to use remote production (1)
- the glut in labor resulting from extreme exaggeration of the labor market available and the perceived glamour of the market area due to all the media hype and the encouragement of such events as SIGGRAPH (2)
- the contempt for and dismissal of anyone with experience in production
- the failure of both labor and production companies in this country to make allowances for and set up systems to accommodate the project-nature of the work unlike other aspects of the motion picture industry.
- the failure of labor and production companies to use the political tools at their disposal to see that certain advantages in foreign countries, particularly subsidies, are either matched or eliminated.
- the disinclination of the studios to be involved with and finance the costs of production and R&D
- the boom and bust nature of the business which by definition is going to grow and shrink dramatically based on perceived market conditions. This is true, but different, for visual effects and feature animation, e.g. they have their own cycles of boom and bust separate from each other.
- the specificity of the skills involved: people who do not have work are not qualified to do anything else.

None of the above should be the least bit new to anyone.

Each of the above deserves at least a paragraph if not a paper to describe, define and explain what is meant. If you do not think that a point above applies, then you might want to think again or inquire. Because the fact is, they are all part of the enabling situation here that has led to our train wreck.

For example, many people are calling for labor to organize.  On the one hand I am always in favor of labor organizing to present a united front to management.  In this case, I doubt very much if labor organization, possibly even unionization, would have made a huge difference, but it might have made a minor difference in the following way: (a) there might be a system set up to accomodate some of the continuation of benefits for project oriented people and (b) there might have been more in the area of the political process here: particularly involving the US Govt and foreign subsidies.   I doubt very much if unions would have done much to help improve employment in this country in this case, which is probably what most people would desire or expect from a union.

In order to not be perceived as being so negative (although in fact I am), the following has also happened which is not necessarily bad, in fact, they are very good. Even if they may in some sense contribute to this problem in some sort of ironic way:

- a massive increase in the demand at the high end for computer animation because of the great successes brought about by this technology
- a massive increase in the power of the computation, disk, networking, etc, available at any price.
- a much better set of software that is available more or less off the shelf combined with greatly improved techniques
- a set of software that labor can learn on their own or through experience that makes them valuable to a different production company (e.g. you do not have to train everyone from scratch).
- a vastly increased set of skills that can be called upon in a project (e.g. character animation is both a talent and a craft, and good character animators were not really available early on, certainly not in any quantity).

In the next post we will address the first of these as it is so important to the current train wreck: subsidies by foreign nations.  Click here.

Train Wreck at Wikipedia


1. It used to be the case that the studios would not work with visual effects production companies outside the Los Angeles area.

2. ACM SIGGRAPH is a major offender in this area. The various vendors in the industry are also a part of this hype: they encourage people to go into this field and spend their money and time, but turn their back when people can not get jobs.

3. In other words, the studios and film productions believe that the work is all alike, or close enough, so why not go to the lowest-cost provider?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tippett Studios Disturbance in the Force

[being rewritten, awkward construction]

There has been another event in the long saga of visual effects employment in this country. (1)

This time it involves Phil Tippett and his Tippett Studios which has laid off about 40% of their staff, roughly 50 people. In an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Jules Roman, CEO and President, predicted that the work was going up north to Canada and that they had to get a project by the end of the year or, the implication was, that was the end of Tippett Studios.

See the article here:

For those who do not know Phil, he is a brilliant stop motion animator whose studio made the transition from traditional arts to 3D / Computer Animation.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when the first Star Wars came out, the film distinguished itself by showing rare enthusiasm in all its shots. A door would open with a bang. A spaceship was clearly an Empire Ship of the Line such as EE Doc Smith would conceive of it. A bad guy looked bad. A throwaway shot that most people remember is when Chewbacca is playing chess with R2D2 and a little chess piece destroys his opponent which was a stop-motion shot by Tippett.

Phil went up to Marin County to help set up the new ILM for Empire Strikes Back and then went off to run his own production company. Starship Troopers was their first big entry into computer animation and they did a spectacular job, imho.

Here is an interview with Phil from about the time he went up to ILM.

At deGraf/Wahrman we worked with Phil on Robocop II which was an odd film but a pleasure to work on. The screenplay was much better than the film itself for some reason.

Anyway, the producer, Jon Davison, had us collaborate with Phil's company on our 3D talking head of the bad guy, a scanned version of actor Tom Noonan. The computer animation was going to be played back a frame at a time on a laserdisk (thats how long ago this was), on a stop motion character that they were animating.   This would be a modern version of the idea of projecting an image inside a miniature, as one might find with King Kong (1933).

It can difficult sometimes for facilities to work with each other because of the traditional competitiveness of the industry and because so many people in this industry are immature. But not in this case. Everyone was great to work with.

For years now, Tippett Studios was one of the few other VFX companies in N. California besides ILM.

It is the nature of companies like this that they must grow and shrink to meet the production work that they have in-house. And they have survived now, even prospered, for many years, perhaps 20. Their excellence at character animation has always been a strong way for them to distinguish themselves and to get the work that was appropriate for their talents.

The point I am trying to make is this. Although it is normal for production companies to grow and shrink with the work, and even normal for production companies to go out of business after a time (they all do, eventually), losing Tippett would be a major loss of a company known for its excellent character animation, and a place of employment for animators.

Not all computer animation companies and vfx companies are the same. They have different styles, different bodies of work, different cultures. Tippett is a stop-motion animation culture in a computer graphics world. I would hate to lose them, and the vfx community would suffer a loss if they went away much bigger than the mere numbers of employed would indicate.

So lets ask the question. What exactly are the politicians in this state and the US Congress thinking while Canadian and UK subsidies and globalization wipe out the vfx community in this country?

My guess is that they don't care how many unemployed there are or whether the industry goes away as long as the Hollywood studios can save a buck.

Phil Tippett on IMDB

King Kong (1933) on IMDB

1. Visual Effects now means computer animation or computer graphics, but it did not used to mean that, of course.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Misc Links

Blogger is broken again, so I am temporarily adding links here for future reference.

The Future of Decay: The Abandoned Tunnels of the PA Turnpike

"Always look on the bright side of life" the crucified thief advised Brian as he was nailed to the cross. Even as America declines into impotence and decay, led by corrupt and incompetent leaders, engaged in hideously expensive wars at the behest of morons and torturing the natives, working with diligence to disenfranchise workers, destroy unions, and send jobs to China who have in the last decade executed the largest espionage program in history against us, there are still things to be proud of in America.

As the country declines and collapses the bright side is that infrastructure is abandoned and these fascinating and dangerous artifacts of our former civilization can be repurposed as tourist attractions. From old missile silos, to airports, from secret bases to abandoned tunnels, roads, factories and mills, America gains new potential theme parks and sources of revenue.

America may never rival the great centers of decay such as the former Soviet Union, but it can still hold its own and contribute our own uniquely American tradition of decay, corruption and degradation.

Forget "Tomorrowland" and look to the decaying past to see the future of America.

The first stop on our tour is the abandoned tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Eastern Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike was an early toll road in this country connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and extending 360 miles across the state, east to west. The turnpike utilized seven abandoned railroad tunnels built in the 1880s. These were dual lane tunnels, one lane in each direction. As time went by, the single lane through the tunnels became a bottleneck and caused major congestion. Either new tunnels needed to be built, or the tunnels themselves bypassed. Of the 7 tunnels, 4 were expanded by building a parallel tunnel to allow for two lanes in each direction, and 3 tunnels were abandoned and a new section of the turnpike built to go around the obstacle rather than through it.

Like the WW2 German Submarine Basers in France these tunnels were too expensive to be demolished, but unlike the submarine bases, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has sold the tunnels and the connecting road and access right of way to a nature conservancy, the Southern Allegheny Conservancy, who has worked to preserve the area. It is working with "Pike2Bike" a group which is working to make part of the abandoned turnpike into a bike path.

Our Host

See thie following video for a tour of the tunnels:

A web site on the abandoned turnpike:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike on Wikipedia

The Abandoned Turnpike on Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ancient History of Visual Effects: R2D2 in CE3K in Fall 1977

For the betterment of my colleagues in the VFX industry and other people interested in the history of this screwed up field of visual effects, I plan to write some snapshots of the industry at various times in the past.   The hope is that this will help document how the industry has wildly changed, why the issues facing us today are both new and old, and why some of those issues are nearly impossible for us to address by ourselves.

It will also be an excuse to discuss trivia from ancient visual effects films so that, as Herodotus says in his famous introduction, the great deeds of the past are not forgotten. (1)

The first period we are going to address are a series of events that occurred in the time frame from about 1976 - 1980, the very dawn of the modern visual effects industry. But specifically, I want to begin our story with a very specific time, a golden time if you will, which would be in roughly August - October 1977.

The following sequence would have been created about that time. It is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (aka CE3K) and it confirms a story that has been floating around since the release of the film, that if you looked, you would find that there was an R2D2 somewhere on the mothership in CE3K.

I was showing this sequence to someone who should know better who said how much he had wanted to be part of the visual effects industry at that time because it was so glamourous and so very lucrative.

Lucrative?  Are you kidding me?   But first, lets examine the issues involving R2D2.

This picture is from an approximately 2 second shot as the mothership is first revealing itself to our protagonists, but the scientists haven't noticed it yet. They think they have already had their close encounter, not realizing that all that has happened is that they have met the scout ships. The real event is about to begin. The reveal of the mothership is dramatic and exciting, it is one of the best sequences in the history of visual effects.

The sequence on Youtube is below.  The shot with R2D2 is at approximately 1:30

The way model shops used to work, in part, was to fabricate new models out of parts that they either created from molds, or carved, or repurposed plastic model parts that were commercially available. Thus they might buy a Revell model of a B29 and use elements from it, suitably painted, as part of a spaceship, or an alien city. This shot with R2D2, was a homage to Star Wars, their competitor, which had come out just a few months before, and probably was from a model that had been released with the film. It could have been sculpted especially for this purpose, these guys would do stuff like that, and I am checking to see if anyone knows.

But consider: the EEG (Entertainment Effects Group) was in full production on finishing CE3K, they were presumably also ramping up on the Star Trek: The Motion Picture disaster. ILM was dead, they had finished their movie, it was a success, everyone was laid off, and George was negotiating with people about coming up to Marin County and creating a new ILM for the 2nd (now the 5th) Star Wars movie. Apogee might have been formed but if so, it had just started. Robert Abel was doing 7UP commericials during one of their most creative periods having survived the Star Trek disaster. Bladerunner was in the distant future. Tron was in the future.

So, how many people were working, and where, for what companies and what were they being paid?

Unless you were there, I think you will be very surprised.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind on IMDB


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Planetary Science and the Haiku

According to the online website of the Smithsonian Magazine, the 2013 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference has taken to publishing a version of the formal Japanese poetic form haiku to summarize each of their papers. The latest 2013 conference, URL above, had thirty-two such haiku published. 

The specific form of the haiku that they are using is the 5-7-5 form: three lines total, the first line has 5 syllables, the second 7 syllables, and the third line 5 syllables.

Now it turns out that a haiku is actually much more than just these simple rules.  But it is probably too much to ask planetary scientists to worry too much about such niceties and we should just applaud their efforts to find a pithy summary of their published work.  

Here are the four haiku that the author of the article particularly liked.  The article goes into much more detail about what the paper was about.  See the complete article about the conference here.

What a haiku is supposed to look like  

The haiku for a paper on the orbits of Phobos and Deimos, moons of Mars, was

        Two moons in the sky
        wandering by the Sun’s face
        their orbits constrained.

For a paper on the fate of benzene observed in a lake on Titan, a moon of Saturn, we have:

        Tiny little rings
        Drifting in a Titan lake
        Fade away slowly.

On the issue of the content of a meteorite, and whether it contained exotic materials, we have:

        Oh, “megachondrule”
        We were sadly mistaken
        You are impact melt.

Finally, a paper analyzing the data from an old Viking experiment to see if they could detect atmospheric conditions on Mars, has

        Whispers from the past
        Viking mostly felt the wind
        Let’s all look closer

We have previously discussed haiku on Global Wahrman here:

Monday, March 25, 2013

All Six Star Wars Episodes Simultaneously

[Update: As of 3/27/2013 this film has been taken down by Youtube ....]

Someone has taken all six Star Wars and put them side by side and playing simultaneously. There are several things about it that are interesting.

Obviously we have all noticed a parallel structure in the Star Wars movie, involving events that lead up to two types of battles that form the climax of the film. One of the battles is on a macro scale and involves hundreds, usually thousands of people, and the other battle is a personal battle involving two or only a few people. There may be more than one of these two-people conflicts in a single film. Revenge of the Sith, for example, features the climactic battle between the Emperor and Yoda and the battle between Obiwan and Anakin.

I think it is also interesting that there is a Star Wars color palette that changes over the films and that it is usually possible to guess which movie it is from that alone.

Here are some screenshots from the six Star Wars at various times in the film. Unfortunately, I forgot to note the time of each, but at least they are sequentially in order relative to each other.

See the complete version with all six films here:

There seems to be a bug in blogger that keeps me from adding more pictures to this post, but you get the idea.   At the bottom, the shorter movies are ending and the longer ones continue for a time.

Of course there are many more things we could say here, we could compare the films and discuss which ones were satisfying and which were not, and how much George knew about them when he was doing the first one.   Or maybe the question should be "When did George know".    There are different stories here and different theories.   I am in a minority in that I believe that George did know certain things from very nearly the beginning.  He may not have known most of what was to happen, but I think he did have an idea of who Darth Vader was relative to at least Luke, and probably also to Leia.   Beyond that, I am not sure.

Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Cult of Personality

What we do today, darling? Kill Moose and Squirrel ?

                     -- Natasha Fatale

Why are people so fucking stupid? Why can't they be more intellligent, like me?

                    -- The Kim Jong-Il Character in Team America: World Police (2004)

Perhaps one of the greatest influences on the intellectual development of people of my generation was The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show by Jay Ward Studios. The four years that this show was on air and the billions of years that it showed on reruns was fundamental to the development of the ethics, intelligence, world view and appreciation of puns for people all over this country and the world.

The end of a very surrealistic sequence in which Rocky and Bullwinkle are reincarnated in plant form.

In this post we discuss the mystery of what the show was actually called, why the show is important, and its context in the period of the Cold War. Finally we discuss the origins of one of its greatest creations: the term "Fearless Leader".

According to IMDB, there were two shows that overlapped each other in time. Rocky and His Friends, which aired from 1959 to 1964 and The Bullwinkle Show from 1961 to 1964. But according to Wikipedia, the show was called Rocky and His Friends for the first two years and The Bullwinkle Show for the last two years. This confusion probably arises from the attempt by the network and Jay Ward to improve the ratings for the show which never did all that well. The show was shuffled from Prime Time to Saturday Morning in an effort to find its audience and improve ratings. Ultimately they failed and the show was cancelled after the fourth season.

But they did achieve the minimum number of episodes required for reruns in syndication, and the show lived on in various edited forms, for at least a decade longer and in 100 countries. There is now a complete boxed set on DVD which is highly recommended for those of us who appreciate higher culture.

The show was structured like a variety show of vaudeville (1). Each episode would begin and end with a Rocky and Bullwinkle segment that was part of a larger, multiple episode story. Between these two segments would be a variety of other acts including Mr. Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, and Mr. Know it All. The actors who contributed voices reads like a voice-over Hall of Fame including: June Foray, Bill Scott, Paul Frees, Hans Conreid, William Conrad, Edward Everett Horton and many others reknowned in the history of animation.

Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the Way Back Machine

My favorite pun of the entire show was the school that Bullwinkle attended as immortalized on a shirt he would wear:  Whatsamatta U.

Of course it is the villians who are among the most memorable of the characters. The two villians that we normally see in the show are Boris and Natasha, more formally Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. But they worked for a mysterious figure whom we knew as "Fearless Leader". Boris and Natasha, our archtypal Russian spies and saboteurs, were terrified of Fearless Leader.

Fearless Leader

The show, which took place in the Cold War, usually had plots that involved our villians Boris and Natasha, as directed by Fearless Leader, to do something evil and being thwarted by Rocky and Bullwinkle. What distinguished the Cold War from other conflicts was the relentless use of spies, conspiracies and secret plots. It was part and parcel of the Cold War that there would be masters of evil who led these conspiracies, from Ernst Blofeld, to Dr. No, to Joseph Stalin, to Kim Jung-Il.

Peerless Leader

Kim Jung-Il had many honorifics that were bestowed on him by his grateful people. Most people know that he was called "Dear Leader" by the people of N. Korea. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, in fact he had a great many of these, some used in special circumstances, some used more generally.

These honorifics included:

Superior Person, Beloved Father, Beloved and Respected General, Ever Victorious Iron Willed Commander, Great Man Who is a Man of Deeds, Mastermind of the Revolution, Invincible and Ever-Triumphant General, Dear Leader, Respected Leader, Wise Leader, Great Leader of Our Party and Our Nation, Sun of the Communist Future, Shining Star of Paektu Mountain, Peerless Leader, Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love, Bright Sun of Juche, Great Marshall and Dear Father.

Was Fearless Leader in fact named for the real life "Peerless Leader" of N. Korea? We may never know for sure. (2)  (3) But certainly we can say that if Kim Jung-Il had ever been called "Fearless Leader", that it would be right in line with his many other titles.

With that mystery hanging in the air, I want to end this post with a sad story about what happened when Jay Ward proposed a TV special based on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

For every Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ren and Stimpy or The Simpsons on television, we must wonder how many other interesting and important shows were destroyed by Network Stupidity. At June Foray's urging to reboot Rocky and Bullwinkle, Jay Ward pitched a Rocky and Bullwinkle special to a network, I think it was NBC.  In this proposed episode, Boris and Natasha would steal the Superbowl. The studio executive said something stupid like "Good Americans would never allow for the Superbowl to be stolen" and rejected the idea. Jay Ward figuratively threw his hands up in the air, said "I can not work with these morons" or words to that effect, and returned to doing Quisp Cereal commercials.

Quisp and his fellow breakfast cereal Quake

A Quisp commercial on Youtube.

We at Global Wahrman sincerely wish and hope that the so-called studio executive who rejected Jay Ward will rot in hell for all eternity. 


1. In the UK, this was called a "Music Hall"

2. Since Kim Jong-il was about 20 years old at the time when Rocky and Bullwinkle first went on-air, it is extremely unlikely that Jay Ward was thinking of him as a model for Fearless Leader.  It is less clear if his father, Kim Il-Sung the Magnificent, was called these same glorious titles.  Perhaps Jay Ward was psychic as well as being brilliant, then he *could* have channeled Kim Jong-Il from the future.

3. In case you are not aware, the phrasing "Did so-and-so do such-and-such?  We may never know for sure ..." is the classic way you can make crazy assertions and not be sued.  "Did aliens from outer space build the fast food restaurants?  We may never know for sure ....".

Rocky and Bullwinkle on IMDB

N. Korean Cult of Personality on Wikipedia

List of Rocky and Bullwinkle Episodes

Quisp Cereal on Wikipedia

Team America: World Police on IMDB

Variety Show, aka Music Hall, on Wikipedia

Kim Jong-il on Wikipedia

Kim Il-Sung

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Anomalous Stingray Feeding Behavior and Its Relationship to the VFX Industry

I have been observing the Visual Effects "industry" and the behavior of people in that industry since about 1980. I am constantly amazed by the sense of sharing, the love, the collaboration, the farsightedness, wisdom and sheer intelligence of people in this industry.

Well, actually, no I haven't.

In fact, I have noticed what seems to be the reverse: a thuggish, callous, stupid, fuck-you-I-got-mine sensibility that pervades the industry like the smell of rotting garbage in August. To those from the NY area, who will understand the reference, I tell them that I suspect that people in New Jersey Waste Management industry generally show a much higher level of intelligence, wit and humanity than people in our industry.

Every once in a while I come across intelligent behavior in the animal world that totally recreates for me some sense of what the visual effects industry, or the people within it, are like. For example, in this post, I discuss why the Komodo Dragon might make a good mascot for Visual Effects.

I have just stumbled upon another example of animal behavior that evokes for me the sense of the visual effects industry in some subtle, or even sublime, way.

In the past, I have often wondered if there might also be some relationship between visual effects people and the cartilanginous fish known as "stingrays". The stingray is related to the shark, and many have noted that visual effects people do share behavior with stocks, notably the need to always move forward and the tendency to go into a feeding frenzy whenever blood is sensed.

Who you looking at ?

One behavior that visual effects people seem to share with the stingray is in the area of mating. Here is how Wikipedia describes mating behavior in the stingray:
"When a male is courting a female, he will follow her closely, biting at her pectoral disc. He then places one of his two claspers into her valve."
This so clearly resembles mating behavior in visual effects people, to the extent that they mate, that one has to wonder if there is not a deeper genetic relationship between the two groups of animals.

Normally, the sting ray is a loner who travels and feeds by themselves and rarely seeing another of their kind but recently new behavior has been observed in the Cayman Islands. There, tourists have taken to feeding the stingray with prepackaged-for-their-convenience squid packets and the stingray have taken to the idea in a major way. Now instead of being nocturnal and alone, they hang around during the daytime in large crowds waiting to gorge themselves on tasty squid packets. Apparently there is no ethic or value that the stingray is not willing to give up in return for tasty frozen squid.

Consider the following picture of this practice:

You can read more about this here:

This reminds me of the feeding frenzy in visual effects and computer animation in the early 90s, with scum newly trained in art schools flocking into the artificial and unsustainable slave pits of the major studios on the West Coast, gorging themselves on tasty and competitive salary packages and leaving chunks and detrius from dead squid floating in little pieces in the water.

The relationship is surely not a coincidence.

The Stingray on Wikipedia

Grand Cayman Islands on Wikipedia

Thursday, March 21, 2013

One Day My Autostereo Will Come

Autostereo is the odd term for being able to see stereo without glasses. It may sound like the sound system for your car, but its not.  Lenticular images are an example of one form of autostereo.

I first became aware of how practical autostereo was at Ken Perlin's lab in 2000. There I learned the following things as we wrangled the demo for his autostereo paper to SIGGRAPH that year, some of them are technical and some are "industrial".    The point of this is that the technical issues are dwarfed by the industrial issues.

Is this the future of autostereo?

Here are two obvious technical issues followed by two, much harder issues involving commerce.

1. Most autostereo does not pay attention to where the observer is, and has just built into it a number of views that are visible from different angles. Alternatively, you can track where the user's head is in 3D and regenerate the two views that are necessary for that observer in that location which is what we were doing. But then you discover that most head and eye tracking algorithms are 2D not 3D. So reliable 3D head tracking became one of the hardest parts of the problem.

2. But if you are doing more than a store window display, then you will need to be able to generate 3D images from whatever the user sees, whether that be text, the OS window system, or some exciting 3D database of a giant robot. That requires good integration into a high performance (or a suitable performance) graphics device. This of course is very possible today, even on a handheld device (up to a point).

3. But then you discover that there are in fact very few manufacturers of the displays that go into devices. In fact, there are, or were, exactly 1 manufacturer left of CRTs and 4 manufacturers of LCDs and all the people who sell displays buy from these 5 manufacturers. And you discover that they can not just whip out 5 or 50 of something special, that is hideously expensive. And building a new factory is not less than billions of dollars, many billions.

4. On top of that you discover that the primary industrial uses of stereo in industry, are actually quite pleased with the quality and price of their LCD goggles. So that undercuts any productization you might consider that does not go to the consumer.

The point is that everytime you see a press release of a new cool technology or display, you should realize that almost exactly zero of these will reach the consumer. That is a little negative, but it has to do with the costs and risks of ramping up to the scale that would make it worthwhile in that very competitive market.

So we take all announcements of new technology displays, say with 6 phosphors instead of 3, or new autostereo with the grim realization that the probability that any of these becoming available at prices that anyone but the DOD can afford is nearly zero.

On that positive note, HP has announced what seems like a very cool way to autostereo on a handheld. It was just published in Nature.

You can read about it here.

The citation at Nature is at:

A multi-directional backlight for a wide-angle, glasses-free three-dimensional display

David Fattal,
Zhen Peng,
Tho Tran,
Sonny Vo,
Marco Fiorentino,
Jim Brug
Raymond G. Beausoleil

Multiview three-dimensional (3D) displays can project the correct perspectives of a 3D image in many spatial directions simultaneously1, 2, 3, 4. They provide a 3D stereoscopic experience to many viewers at the same time with full motion parallax and do not require special glasses or eye tracking. None of the leading multiview 3D solutions is particularly well suited to mobile devices (watches, mobile phones or tablets), which require the combination of a thin, portable form factor, a high spatial resolution and a wide full-parallax view zone (for short viewing distance from potentially steep angles). Here we introduce a multi-directional diffractive backlight technology that permits the rendering of high-resolution, full-parallax 3D images in a very wide view zone (up to 180 degrees in principle) at an observation distance of up to a metre. The key to our design is a guided-wave illumination technique based on light-emitting diodes that produces wide-angle multiview images in colour from a thin planar transparent lightguide. Pixels associated with different views or colours are spatially multiplexed and can be independently addressed and modulated at video rate using an external shutter plane. To illustrate the capabilities of this technology, we use simple ink masks or a high-resolution commercial liquid-crystal display unit to demonstrate passive and active (30 frames per second) modulation of a 64-view backlight, producing 3D images with a spatial resolution of 88 pixels per inch and full-motion parallax in an unprecedented view zone of 90 degrees. We also present several transparent hand-held prototypes showing animated sequences of up to six different 200-view images at a resolution of 127 pixels per inch.

Father Yod at The Source Restaurant

There are, or were, two important vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles. One was The Source on Sunset Blvd and the other was The Inn of the 7th Ray in Topanga Canyon. The Inn of the 7th Ray will be a topic of a later post.

In 1969, a former US Marine who had been decorated in WW2 and Korea, (1) Jim Baker, started an organic vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip at Sweetzer, called The Source. The Source became a well-known hangout of health conscious people in that part of town and, supposedly, the Hollywood Elite (although I would not know about that). The pure form of the restaurant was when it was run by the religous organization (i.e. sex, and rock and roll commune) started by Baker.

Whoever took this picture clearly needs perspective control or something.

The commune sold the restaurant in 1974 and moved to Hawaii. Unfortunately that means that all the times that I ate there was post golden-age.

Once a Marine, always a Marine

The Source was immortalized in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977). That was back when they still had their dirt parking lot.

All things decay, especially vegetarian restaurants no longer run by the people of the true faith. Various owners ran it into the ground over the next 15 years or so, and I ate there probably in all its phases. When they changed their menu to add meat and completely ignore their traditional vegeburger, that was the end for me.

Allen meets Diane Keaton at a table at the Source on the patio.  Notice the "afro" on the person at the next table. 

Now The Source only exists in our memories and in newsreels of Sunset Blvd from the 1970s.

Someone has made a documentary about the commune and its charismatic leader, Father Yod, aka Jim Baker. Apparently Father Yod was quite a character. Religious leaders generally are either celibate or very much NOT celibate, and Jim was NOT celibate. 13 wives, that we know of as well as lead singer in the religiously inspired rock and roll group.

Some of the albums that they recorded are apparently pretty great.   You can read about them in the links below.

An interview with the person who made a documentary on the movement.



1. I have been unable to find his citation, which doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Here are unconfirmed citations for a James E Baker in WW2 and Korea.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What is the Meaning of Face Stealer?

When I look at an "app" (1) like Face Stealer from Yahoo Japan, I wonder what it is the author's were thinking?  If the author's were alienated teenagers writing a program to prototype looks for a horror film, then the app is a work of genius.

But if the authors thought they were merely doing something cool, or neat, then it is the app itself that is horrifying, as is their lack of awareness of impact of the results.

Faces are more than they appear.   We have a lot of perceptual machinery to perceive and interpret faces, and it is easy to go wrong.  This app supposedly maps another face from an image onto your face in real time.

The Internet is, among other things, a cabinet of perverse curiosities and Face Stealer certainly deserves to be collected.

Consider the following picture from Michelle Starr of Cnet/Australia.

We at Global Wahrman want to congratulate the authors of Face Stealer for creating a truly horrifying piece of software.

The app can be found here:

The article from Cnet can be found here:


1. I wish to be the first to call for the death penalty for whoever came up with this stupid term, the "app". Oh "program" is not good enough for you, program?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Importance of Science Education

While we are on the subject of science education, c.f. the post on "Giant Intelligent Vegetable on Mars", I am happy to see that my friend Dr. Tyson is doing his job and speaking out about the importance of science and the importance of funding science and science education.

A recent NY Times article has an interview with Dr. Tyson in which he spins the recent meteor strikes into an impassioned plea for more science funding.

One of the many fringe benefits of working at the Hayden Planetarium many years ago was to be able to work with the many idealists at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), first among them being Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Neil is unlikely to use the word "motherfucker" in public.

To give you one example of this idealism, and because it always makes me laugh, at a meeting about the Digital Galaxy that we were building for visualization, the project leader, Dennis Davison, asked what measures we were taking to insure "the integrity of the data".   We hardly ever talk about the "integrity of the data" when working on Zombie movies or blowing up planets, generally speaking.

It is a slight exaggeration to say that Neil's job is to be public and get kids (and adults, but mostly kids) excited about science.  And he does this really well.  Part of the secret to his success is that he is completely sincere in doing so.  He thinks science IS important, and he thinks science education is very important and he charges out there in public and uses every opportunity to say so.

When the Hayden was being rebuilt and the AMNH was racing towards its end of the fake Millennium deadline, Neil engaged in a dialogue to have the AMNH create a small astrophysics department.  What you may not be aware of is that there have been almost no new astrophysics departments in this country since the great expansion in the science in the 1950s as part of the Cold War and the Space Race.   The AMNH was not jumping up and down about adding more costs  to their overhead, but Neil insisted and he won.  The point is, the AMNH is the only organization in this country (that I am aware of) that has as its mission doing real science and communicating results directly to the American people.  In other words, their mission is not to train more graduate students, Universities do that, and the AMNH has a good relationship with Columbia and many other schools.  The AMNH's job is to do both research and direct science education to the general population.   Hence, if you have a Planetarium, you should also have an Astrophysics department.

Neil has an interesting background, the whole story of which I am not completely clear on.  But I do know that he went to the Bronx High School of Science, scholarship to Princeton, and is a living example of the promise of higher education to create opportunity for minority groups (although I suspect that Neil is something of a ringer in this regard).

Astrophysics is a very tricky field.  It is incredibly elitist and the field as a whole can be quite nasty, and I assure you that Neil's immense popularity wins him no friends in the field of Astrophysics.  But he is on a mission, he is one of the most recognizable people in NYC, and I assure you he is completely sincere.

By the way, Neil is unlikely to use the word "motherfucker" in public, but I thought that the above image of Neil making a point at some public forum was very funny, so I stole it from a post someone did on Facebook.


American Museum of Natural History