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Rogue One – a grim (and long) Star Wars Story

Our annual little ritual happened yesterday and so just like every year my brother and me went out to see “that big movie of the year” because it so happens the week between Christmas and New Year’s is about the only time we can actually coordinate things to fall in place. It also helps that guaranteed hits like Rogue One have such a dense viewing schedule that you can pick a seat in a different screening room every half hour at the cineplex. The admission prices are really getting to a point of being outrageous, but that’s another story.

Of course the whole thing was somewhat overshadowed by the recent unexpected passing of princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher (and now two days later her mother, Debby Reinolds, has died, too). It’s strange to see her on The Graham Norton show the other day and then she’s just gone. Lucky enough (even if that seems in appropriate) all the filming was done already on next year’s Episode VIII and she doesn’t really play a big part in Rogue One, but it’s still sad news on some level. A girl a few seats down the row commented that by killing Han Solo in The Force Awakens they killed the wrong person and now are in all kinds of trouble with their future movies. Are they? We will have to see and of course they’ll somehow fix this with reshoots and digital effects, assuming the story isn’t already written as such that Gen. Leia Organa doesn’t die a hero’s death.

Speaking of digital effects, let me share my view on that. Many reviews on the web bemoan the digital re-creation of Peter Cushing‘s Grand Moff Tarkin, but both as a film afficionado and a 3D artist I have to say it wasn’t actually as bad as those write-ups make it sound. Yes, it looks slightly off, mostly because they didn’t get the eyes right and the skin looks a bit too glossy next to a matt powdered actor face, but it’s not that you would not be willing to buy into it, either. You can perfectly live with it and on some level it seems odd to get worked up on this when there’s lots other digital creatures in pretty much every shot. If you wanted to get nitpicky about it, you’d have to pick the short reveal of Leia at the end. That was sort of weird – they made her look younger than even back then in the original movie and somehow it looked like she just escaped Madam Tussaud’s. Still, again, it’s not that you couldn’t overlook those brief three seconds in favor of the whole experience.

Naturally there’s other digital stuff aplenty from the vehicles to the planetary landscapes to droids and digitally generated stormtroopers plus all the explosions that go along with that sort of thing. What clicked with me was that for the first time I actually got a feeling for the enormity of the Death Star by ways of some cleverly set up tight shots. Of course back in the seventies there were limitations so I don’t blame them, but in the original movies it always looks to me like what it more or less ist – a grey ball in space. Ironically even the much bigger planet killer in The Force Awakens still looks that way to my eyes simply because they didn’t manage to give it a kind of technical credibility. Similar things with regards to believability could be said for the actual tactics employed. At long last we finally get entire swarms of Tie-Fighters and armadas of Star Destroyers instead of just single ship formations. It adds a sense of “this could really have happened” – sort of.

At the same time – and that’s why I chose the headline as I did – the realism contributes to some structural problems in the storyline. I used to love wartime inspired movies and on some level do, but lately I’ve grown a bit weary of too many details of a battle being shown and in case of a Star Wars movie it seems unnecessary. I’m no fool and this one was never advertised as anything else than it is – a gritty recount of the events leading up to A New Hope, but I still feel that bits and pieces could have been trimmed, especially in the final battle. One other part that could have been lost is the lengthy introduction and set-up of the adversarial relationship between Galen Erso and Krennik. It just didn’t work for me and came across as being made up to just give Jyn a reason to get involved later on. It’s also not the best piece of acting you have ever seen of Mads Mikkelsen.

As far as Krennik‘s motivations are concerned, his cowardly clerk-ism and zeal are revealed soon enough when Tarkin takes over the Death Star and he doesn’t take it very well or when Vader tells him “to not choke on his ambition” (incidentally, that shot spiralling in to his citadel on the volcanic planet gave me a short inner smile and was very reminiscent of similar ones in Lord of the Rings). For other players their goals never become completely clear and they end up being throwaway characters that get killed off whenever it seems convenient. They should have fleshed out at least some of them a bit more for those of us who don’t have bookshelves full of Star Wars novels or the entire Clone Wars series on DVD. ;-)

Overall, though, this was still a very satisfactory experience. It’s not a film without flaws – a bit too long (-winded), sometimes bordering on battle-fatigue and with way too little humor – but tying up some loose ends in the Star Wars canon, regardless, and providing some nice eye candy. As a matter of fact I’m sure my perception of it will improve once I’ve watched this to good effect a couple of times on Blu-Ray/ DVD when it comes out and together with the promised 4k restauration of the original Star Wars just in time for its 40th anniversary this could be a nice dual combo to spend a long fanboy evening with.

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Toruk – the first Cirque

My relationship to the Avatar movie has always been somewhat ambiguous. I still occasionally watch the thing on DVD (no, the extended director’s cut hasn’t really salvaged this mess) as a guilty pleasure when I’m just in the mood for something really dumb, but other than that I’m probably one of the few people who’s not necessarily looking forward to another three films of same ilk. Back then I loved the depiction of the lush exotic planet (and as a 3D artist who occasionally dabbles with and obsesses about virtual landscaping and plant creation appreciated the tremendous amount of effort that went into it), the poor story, cheesy acting, ridiculous names (Hallelujah Mountains, really?) and ultimately the often failed CG on the blue smurf characters not so much.

Still, there’s no denying that the movie has spawned a whole very profitable franchise and that’s why we’re going to see more of it one way or the other. I could live with a scenic park attraction and might actually want to visit it, but I’m not sure if the Cirque du Soleil building a show around it was the best of ideas. Struggling to stay awake from my illness-induced exhaustion I watched Toruk – the first Flight yesterday evening on arte.tv. You can grab it on arte +7 for the next several days and you should jump the chance before you never get to see anything of the show again unless you attend it. Sadly the Cirque out of some misunderstood protectionism over their IP seems to think we are no longer worthy to get their shows on DVD/ Blu-Ray or on demand, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d watch any of their shows live even if I saw it a hundred times on screen already.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, the blue smurf problem. While it reassured me that I still like a nice male butt in a Spandex suit, artistically it’s one of those “oh my” moments. I love how much effort goes into costumes and designing a unique make-up look on every other show, but this just isn’t what I would expect of the Cirque. The dangling, inanimate tails looked just ridiculous and making someone blue from head to toe is visually more distracting than you might think. They should have foregone some of that stuff in the interest of allowing more leeway for the artists to actually be recognizable and making things a bit more easily discernible.

The latter is hard enough, anyway, because the artists are literally battling against the constantly running projections. It’s an interesting technical feat and must have taken months of figuring out the details and develop the looks, but in the end I found it way too distracting. The performers are constantly swallowed by light and sometimes barely stand out. Since the area is huge, they already appear tiny and as a spectator you have to be attentive like an eagle to spot them in the scenery. I also imagine it must be quite exhausting for the artists, since they have to travel huge distances. The “stage” is the size of a hockey field, mind you, and it just takes a while to get from one end to the other.

That being said, the sheer dimensions are staggering, but the grandiosity of it all is also the show’s biggest problem in my view: It tries to impress and manages to do so with all the technical stuff, but it does this at the cost of the human factor. Not only is it difficult to spot anything, but there’s simply not much in terms of structured acrobatic performances. Yes, of course there’s jumping all the time to mimic the Na’vi kind of running movement, but not really much in the way of distinct “acts”. More or less this plays out as a continuous stage play with a narrator and occasional performances sprinkled in, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you feel like you didn’t attend a circus/ varieté performance.

I found this lack of the feeling of being immersed in a “real” show also being furthered by other factors. While the music isn’t particularly revolutionary, some songs are okay, yet you never get to hear them properly. This is quite the opposite of most Cirque shows, where the soundtrack acts as a guide. Here it takes a backseat and is often drowned out by sound effects that accompany the projections and of course the constant shouts in Na’vi language, which after a while gets a bit annoying.

In my opinion this is also the biggest problem at the core of it all: The show insists on re-creating the movie and it’s actually true – without having seen the cinematic version, you won’t understand half of what is going on, be that the blue performers, the puppeted other creatures (another thing that looked more than slightly ridiculous if you ask me), that talk of Eywa or the general setting. One might even argue that they had too many people watching over their shoulders and God forbid had they deviated from the great master plan of what the licensing allowed them. Unfortunately it also has prevented a better show from emerging, which I have no doubt is buried in there somewhere and if I had anything to say about it, it would in fact only take some tweaks and restructuring to make this a lot better.

I totally “get” what they were trying to do, but it seems they haven’t succeeded that much. For all intents and purposes, this is more of a franchise tie-in for Avatar than it is an original Cirque show and as such it would probably work nicely in Disneyland next to the Pandora park, but as a touring show on its own I’m not so sure. It just doesn’t build the atmosphere and the technical requirements already are a strong indication that this will only ever make stopovers at large and reasonably modern/ new arenas that meet those prerequisites. Of course I would see it if it made a stop in my area, things being that the choices of Cirque shows here in Europe seem to get fewer every year, but I still have rather mixed feelings about it.

For all its trimmings it’s a masterful and skilled, yet massively flawed creation that totally fails to evoke any emotion and that’s what to me a good show about. Yes, I want to feel warm and fuzzy inside and I even love being depressed about it and pondering how my life had turned out if I had become one of those guys with a nice ass in tight suits. Oh, the endless possibilities… ;-) I just didn’t have any of that and combined with my tiredness it made for a slightly dreary evening that seemed to just drag on.

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His last Christmas…

Excuse the cheap word play and the language, but this has been a fucking awful year for the world of music (among other, more serious things that went wrong on this planet, of course). Many “greats” like David Bowie and Prince have left us and now George Michael is bowing out at 53, on Christmas no less. That’s a bittersweet irony, considering that his Wham! hit “Last Christmas” is drilling into everyone’s ears again right now and has reportedly still made him 8 million every year. Figures!

Aside from that little song, which as per his own admission he never liked very much, his life and musical career were colorful, to say the least. His battle with Sony over musical rights and profit shares (which he lost) as well as his involuntary outing as a gay man and some ensuing scandals like getting arrested in a public toilet have become legendary and triggered some responses with hugely successful songs (“Freedom” and “Outside“, respectively). Through it all he managed to stay on top and always come back, even if he made himself a bit scarce in recent years and there wasn’t much opportunity to hear his warm, silky, soul-y voice, he will clearly be missed… Mmh, now I need to think about how to get a disco ball spinning in my toilet/ bathroom. ;-)

To boldly go… Beyond!

Since due to my eternal health issues I’m still stuck at home a lot, I rarely ever get to go to the cinema these days. Usually I don’t mind too much, but this year I came close to disobeying my doctors’ recommendation of not staying in crowded, air-conditioned venues so as to not pick up infections (that one time around Christmas when I sneak out with my brother to watch some Star Wars or Tolkien movie doesn’t really count ;-) ), since I really, really wanted to see Star Trek Beyond. The trailers just looked too enticing! Now with the release of the DVD/ Blu-Ray I can finally catch up.

I didn’t exactly hate Into Darkness, but I wasn’t too enamored with it, either. It had its moments like for instance the chase on the Klingon planet, but it bent classical Trek lore too much for its own good end ended up with one mess of a story. Even some of the visuals were boring and sub-standard (you know, that “secret” shipyard with hangars that looked like your average logistics hub with corrugated walls for instance). That being the case, even the few glimpses you could get of Beyond in the trailers looked ten times more appetizing and then some… I can only say that I’m pleased!

The movie doesn’t waste much time getting the story started and I’m not going to give away too much, but it’s pretty much the opposite of the previous one which felt like an endless series of “exposition”. The pacing is much tighter. Save for the short sort of prologue with the shore leave on the Yorktown space station, them battles and ‘splosions begin to quickly take the stage. I’m often put off by destructive spectacles, but this is handled in an almost logical way and someone has put some thought into what tactics an alien force might employ to shred the Enterprise to pieces.

The heart of the movie is of course once they land on the planet as scattered bands of survivors that have to find their comrades and find a way to get home, which leads to a number of crazy things, including some much-needed comic relief from odd character pairings and the circumstances in which they find themselves. That component was nearly absent in Darkness, making it one grim and dour film. This phrase has been overused a lot already in reviews when the movie came out, but yes, you can really feel that sense of humor and comradery. It’s fantastic to see everything being invigorated and infused with some life blood.

All of this makes this much more of a Trek movie than the previous one could ever hope to be. There’s even some nods to the other movies and the TV series which you will notice in some details, shot composition, the usual namesake and of course some of the quips and dialogs harkening back tho those past outings. Of course the whole thing isn’t without flaws, plot holes and other inconsistencies, either. Still, I never found them to be as distracting WTF? moments as in that other movie. About the only thing that irked me was that Idris Elba was totally wasted under all that make-up and the resolution of the Krall story felt forced and even harebrained. It seemed like they built up the villain too much and then couldn’t come up with a good way to get rid of him again…

I see Nodes everywhere!

Trapcode Particular has long been a staple of motion graphics design in After Effects, but with more than 10 years on its back, its age is showing. It comes from a time when things were much more limited and even though it still can do amazing stuff, you wouldn’t do some things the same way today. It always felt crammed and there’s only so much you can squeeze in without only further pushing their – erm – “distinct look” that is usually a dead giveaway of which plug-in or preset has been used and what the limitations are. In that regard Particular has always been a victim of its own success.

It seems things are about to change as there’s a new kid in town thanks to Stardust and it seems pretty nifty. Ironically, many of the presets look exactly like – shall we say “inspired” by that other tool (and its brother Form as well as Plexus) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the people behind it, which so far choose to remain mostly anonymous turn out to be the same ones involved with those tools. The only real flaw is that it only comes for the “bad” After Effects versions with Creative Cloud. If only those weren’t so atrocious that I couldn’t be bothered to re-install one of them, perhaps I might consider trying this out…

Elsewhere Flowbox is finally available, though I can’t help but feel that the result is nothing like what it appeared to aim at some years ago. It seems that the realities of software development caught up with them and instead of an all out solution from the start we are going to get it in slices. In my imagination this looks like they scrambled to release the rotoscoping part instead of having nothing to show for another two years or so. At least from the available clips and screenshots there’s no trace of the scripting system and a few other things hinted at back then. I also get a very “ugly as Nuke” vibe which furthers this rushed feeling – there appears to have been no time for better UI design. Don’t get my usual nitpicking the wrong way – I’m willing to believe that it does its stuff well enough, but it just seems a bit sparse compared to what the marketing had you believe it would be…

The Thorn is gone…

Sad news reaches us today as the magical Ron Thornton now has passed away. Apparently his struggle with whatever health issues he had was a short one, which I, having experienced my father’s own demise recently, consider a lucky thing. You really don’t want to see your beloved ones going down that path further than they have to and remember them as they were in their prime. Ah well, may he rest in peace! With so many of the Babylon 5 crowd already having gone to the sea, he’s certainly not alone up there, though I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing…

Render War Veterans

Times they are a-changing, are they not? Once, long ago, a free version of Renderman or Mental Ray would have had us drooling all day. These days the only reason to write anything about them is  when they are given away for free. NVidia are clearly playing for keeps with their Mental Ray for Maya effort now that they got the boot by ways of Autodesk buying Arnold, but no matter what – it’s dated technology that has seen better times.

On some level I feel that’s also true for Pixar‘s Renderman, though obviously their priorities are completely different and at version 21 you probably shouldn’t expect anything revolutionary and be happy that, to use a hollow marketing phrase, it’s a “robust, proven production renderer” that can chew through scenes with gigazillions of objects without crashing. They now have a non-commercial edition as well. Funny enough, a Cinema 4D plug-in still doesn’t seem to be high on their list of priorities.

In light of the previous it’s actually a good thing you now have access to the Cycles renderer via Cycles 4D. Compared to other products of its ilk it’s quite inexpensive and offers a broad and complex feature set by ways of nodes. Naturally, if you already use X-Particles, it’s almost a no-brainer to get it, too, given how you can access data from the plug-in just as well as MoGraph.

The bitch of it all? With so many options out there, you are facing the severe dilemma of having to decide which ones to learn and use. Not only will you need to have a handle on your 3D program’s native renderer, but also the ins and outs of your add-on renderer. As the situation with Mental Ray illustrates, this can quickly turn into a one-way road you can’t easily get out. And as Murphy’s Law dictates, what can happen will happen and after you spend years of finessing your Mental Ray skills or similar, you’ll end up on a job that requires VRay knowledge. It almost makes you pine for those simpler days, when we had to make do with what was built into the programs…

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