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Every Rose has its Thorn…

…and every Babylon 5 had its Thornton. Yepp, exactly that one. Unfortunately the B5 curse seems to strike again and now Ron Thornton has some serious health troubles it seems and needs to raise some cash. The Larry Schulz story happening all over again? I hope not! After all, the effects on Babylon 5 were a big part of why I got into 3D graphics and obviously Ron was a big influence there. Given the limitations of the hardware at the time and Lightwave nowhere near being as sophisticated as it is these days, some of that wasn’t really half bad. Of course it was just as easy to see through if you were a Lightwave user, but who says that a few cleverly arranged and textured capsule primitives don’t make wonderful cargo ships. ;-) Back then I also always wondered how they could ever get anything finished. I vividly remember an afternoon at a friend of a friend’s secret cellar compound and us marveling at a single (!) lens flare on a then brand new first generation Pentium computer clocked at 90 MHz rendering in under a minute as opposed to taking three minutes on my 486DX. anyway, before I get lost in nostalgia, head over to the donation page. Perhaps you can spare a few bucks. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind going beyond those targeted 40k and have a comfortable safety margin, even if they already have collected quite a bit of money pledges.

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The 4th of Frank

One of the few luxuries I’m affording myself from time to time is trying to keep my DVD and Blu-Ray collections complete on my very limited budgets, and of course the fourth season of House of Cards was high on my list. It’s only been released here about a week ago after becoming available on Netflix a few days earlier due to the usual “international licensing” nonsense. Anyway, I was binge-watching it the last few days two or three episodes at a time and here’s my thoughts on it.

First, unfortunately I have to chime in with what many critics were saying when it was released in the US. Despite of a lot things thrown in to spice things up, this season is nowhere near as interesting as the first three ones. There are some definite pacing issues with the overall writing and the series loses itself in some well-intended, but ultimately ill-fated attempts to humanize the characters by exploring their backgrounds. Claire not getting along with her mother was “in the air”, as they say, from the beginning and it wouldn’t have needed so much attention, especially amidst a million other things like the assassination attempt and the numerous balance-shifting twists in the electoral race. They simply jazzed it up too much.

The Lucas storyline that ultimately lead up to the shooting is just plain ridiculous and they should have let it rest. If you met such a person in real life, you don’t have to be Frank to dismiss it as dealing with an utter lunatic. It does the series a disservice and takes it into a direction where it needs to squander another two episodes to explain everything away. I feel that’s also true for Hammerschmidt picking up the investigation again in later episodes. It just doesn’t have the bite and impact it needs to have in all the noise of the surroundings and the calm nature of this investigative journalist doesn’t help. I found myself thinking that it would be a good thing if he just bled to death after Freddy beat him up. That’s how annoying and bad it was. I also don’t think it’s the right way for Frank to go down. If at all, this should play out like a sharp court drama or a Western with a shoot-out at high noon.

One more misstep is the choice of subject when referencing foreign politics. The writers may have thought having the Syria conflict in front of their eyes every day and using it as a model would be a good idea, but I definitely think it is not. This is simply “hitting too close to home” and is bad for the series, because in two years (when it’s presumably going to end) we will look back at it and laugh at how dated it already looks for the simple reason that even current events one year after filming show how unpredictable such stuff is and that it always develops in another direction than you think. That, BTW, is also the reason why series like Quantico or Homeland will fade into oblivion very quickly and radically one day. In my opinion it would really have been better that they kept it simple and abstract and used a different premise, even if South American or African dictators getting their due may be a cliché.

Overall it’s probably safe to say that this isn’t the best season of House of Cards so far. The writers threw too many ideas in the pot without really thinking things through and there was no good reason they even had to. The election scenario alone would have offered ample opportunities for all the bickering and political intrigue and ultimately that’s what I want to see. I understand that they need to explore other things, but everything loses too much momentum when they stray too much from Frank‘s plotting and scheming. I also felt that some of the acting just wasn’t as good and over the top, mainly for some newly brought in characters like that eccentric computer guy that does the search engine analyses or Gov. Conway. Don’t even get me started on Frank‘s many “bad hair day”s. A lot of it left a lot to be desired and one can only hope that in season five the series recovers and regains its edge, sharpness and wits that made it so brilliant in previous seasons…

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Merged away Sapphire

The world of plug-in vendors is a strange one and in constant flux, not always for the better. There’s an unhealthy tendency towards market concentration and monopolization, which isn’t always a good thing for customers. You know, that thing with prices being higher than they possibly have to be due to lack of competition and lack of advancement in individual products for similar reasons. From a corporate point of view it of course always makes sense with cost savings due to removing redundancy, optimizing everything and thus increasing profit margins. In the world of technology this argument is then bolstered further by the usual “combining best of both worlds” and “merging technologies” stuff.

Generally there’s nothing wrong with any of that – if I were running a small plug-in shed, I’d sure welcome the backing of a bigger company and all the good things that come with it like better income or easier marketing and distribution – but it still makes me sad. Just recently I stumbled across the remnants of my After Effects Plug-in Guide thingy that I had some years ago, and it’s just painful to see how many cool things no longer exist because companies were gobbled up by others or went the way of the dinosaur. Red Giant and others haven’t been exactly particularly innovative and forthcoming in the last few years. It feels like their only concern these days is to maintain their existing product basis and keep it compatible with as many host programs as possible.

I have somewhat similar feelings about Boris FX and their of tools. I never doubted the technical quality of their stuff, but the BCC suite always seemed to be the lesser choice compared to Sapphire, first and foremost because it was aimed at “editor porn” and some of the stuff looked awfully cheap and tacky. That’s why I definitely have mixed feelings about their acquisition of GenArts. That is even more the case since Sapphire 10 doesn’t really offer that much new, which could be interpreted as a sign that things have been boiling behind the scenes for a while with the merger in mind.

Now not all is doom and gloom despite my skepticism, since there’s some potential here indeed. While you need to come to grips with the fact that some duplicate effects will disappear, others could benefit hugely. Lens flares are of course still one of my favorite subjects and I’ve dabbled with both sides. The Boris flares look mostly awful and I of course have created a shitload of flare presets for GenArts that suffered from some limitations, so why not bring everything together in one great effect? Adding some mocha tracking magic inside the flare builder could do fantastic things. Naturally we’ll have to see if and when such things happen and it’s going to take a while, but this could be cool as could be any number of other combinations…

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Rattle & Repair

In the olden days (that to you younglings is like twenty years ago) we used to joke that the easiest way to repair a computer is to throw it out of the window from the 2nd floor, pick up the parts and reassemble them. Back then hardware was quite heavy and bulky and was made of thick cables, connection plugs that looked like they could survive 10000 Volts and circuit boards that were so thick and robust, you probably could have used them to board up your windows before a hurricane, the whole thing would probably have worked. On a lesser level it still seems to work even today. Guess what – when I was turning on my computer this morning like I do every day, it crashed multiple times, citing an nVidia kernel failure in addition to drawing funky colored stripes on my screen. Of course I thought “OMG WTF!?” and used creative language, but to my own surprise I was amazingly calm otherwise and after a few minutes just got down to pulling out the cables, propping up the casing on my table and opening it up. After the usual dust-busting (amazing, what those fans suck in) I had a long hard look for fused resistors, melted diodes, exploded capacitors and loose cables, but nada! So I rocked my graphics card a bit in its PCI slot and tugged on the cables and somewhat frustrated closed up the whole thing again, hoping it would have repaired itself. Re-plugging the cables and flipping the power switch I waited for it to boot and what can I tell you? It worked like nothing ever happened. Strange magic! Of course I still have this bad feeling, that one day everything will go belly up and I will feel uneasy every time I hit that power button, but at least fo a while I may be safe…

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Cinema Ray

How strange a place the 3D software industry has become once again becomes apparent when you read this bit of news about Maxon partnering up with nVidia over iRay. The funny thing of course is, that this feels a bit like someone picking up the pieces at a bargain price now that Autodesk have decided to dump anything that remotely reeks of Mental Ray and have declared Arnold their new lovechild. Don’t misunderstand me – iRay for Cinema 4D has existed as a never-ending pre-Alpha/ Alpha/ Beta for a while, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Combined with the other factors this seems quite a bit like someone desperately trying to find new markets now that the existing user base is slowly going to dry up. I also can’t shake the impression that in a market where people are drooling over renderers like Redshift this may come too late to make any significant impression – beyond perhaps one day being integrated natively in Cinema 4D, that is. It’s certainly an odd move at an odd time….

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AEIBCC 2016

There used to be a time when I had my eyes firmly on those tradeshow dates, but these days I’m glad when I can keep my medical appointments straight. Yepp, it’s IBC again and as per the usual routine, it’s one of those events that most companies in the media industry use to make some sort of announcement. Of course Adobe can’t be left out and after the massive disappointment that was the last version of After Effects earlier this year there is now the “real” 2016 version.

From what information is available, this looks like more of the same, so once more the decisive question will be if it actually works “as advertised”. Integrating Cinema 4D‘s renderer natively was inevitable and I believe, I actually predicted it in one of my rants. For the time I maintain my position that it’s still sort of a crutch, but at least it will/ should mean the death of that awful failed Raytrace 3D experiment and in a bright future, when Cinema may get a better renderer there’s always the chance of a “convergence of technologies”, to use one of those hollow marketing phrases Adobe and Maxon are so fond of.

The Team Projects stuff is of course just another way to chain you to Creative Cloud. On an idealistic level it’s not even bad, but to me it would make much more sense as a locally client-server thing within a creative department. Trying to convince admins to grant the necessary network privileges for the outside world will be a massive showstopper for many people. The rest is not really worth talking about – hardware-accelerated Hue/ Saturation effect? *yawn* The logic behind this eludes me, considering that most of these effects have been near realtime even on large footage for years running only on CPU.

Overall this is another less than impressive release. However, the consolation is that there is some visible progress and a feeling that some things could turn into something useful, though it may take another two years before anything of the sort truly comes into fruition. On that note, someone dug up a recording of Adobe MAX Japan showing some stuff from a potential future. You may want to tune your crystal ball and hedge your bets. I’d wager that style transfer will become a thing in After Effects and in Photoshop some time not so far away. For my taste the fluid stuff looks to “fluid-simulation-ish”, though, in a bad and cheap sense…

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Not so A-Maz(e)-ing

One of the more questionable “pleasures” of again having access to more TV channels is that I slowly get to catch up on movies on my backlog. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but more often than not I come to the realization that I really didn’t miss out on much. I don’t need to write a single word about the Transformers movies – we all know how awful they actually are – but it so happens that now bit by bit other movies are trickling down to the TV recycling markets that were hot a few years ago, so I was actually looking forward to Maze Runner.

As a modo user I really liked the Ruin short movie back then and was hoping for a similar experience, but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. The premise is of course moronic and even ludicrous – I knew that when I looked up the synopsis and well, what can you expect, it’s one of those Young Adult novels turned movie that studios were buying by the bucket ten years ago, hoping to rake in big cash with long-lasting multiple movie franchises – but I didn’t want to let it get in the way and enjoy the ride.

Naturally, the biggest issue is that you never actually care for what happens. It’s like they could have placed a title slate with “Day 500 in the Glade. Someone is out exploring the Maze while the rest are having a good time.” written on it and it would have been the same. There’s just zero interaction and, most importantly, the effects of long-term isolation and having to deal with the situation as an adolescent are left completely unexplored. It really would have been good if there was a bit more Lord of the Flies in here. This also extends to what happens when someone gets “stung” and regains his memories. We never get to see how people break down over the realization of their situation and how hopeless it is. If and when there are moments that would offer some insights, they are dealt with in a by-the-numbers way and every sentence sounds like it has been ripped out of another book or movie.

The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the production design. While the Maze itself is made to look like old concrete bunkers from the second world war (I guess it shows that there was a short movie with a similar look before), it has no logic beyond “big moving walls” and one could even argue that on a planet allegedly scorched by the sun there would not be even a hint of rust because the air is so arid. Then again of course there’s a scene where it rains. Talk about plot holes! The same could be said for the Grievers – they are a mix of organic and robotic technology, yet it is the technological part that infects people using a conventional syringe. Mmmh?! They do look rather ridiculous to boot and neither in a biological nor technological sense have any logic to them.

The absence of any sense of passing time is also something I took issue with. The young cuties always looked like they came fresh out of a beauty parlor with perfectly styled hair and perfectly clean. There’s nothing scruffy or grimy about them. Some of them are supposed to have been there almost three years. With natural growing hair, at least a few should have had long hair, don’t you think? The same could be said for clothes being worn down and so on. Even if you give credit to that they are cared for from the outside, things should have looked much more ragged and dirty.

Overall I think this is a typical case of a director hitting all the wrong beats. It’s not that I believe that the books would ever become literary classics, but I’m willing to believe that you could extract a better movie script from them, regardless. As it is, this is pretty dull and uninspired and I actually had to struggle for motivation to even watch the last 45 minutes or so. There was never a feeling of suspense or mystery regardless of whether you knew the story already or not. Everything was 100% predictable. The only thing that could have been worse would have been watching Battleship again, which concurrently ran on another channel… ;-)

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