Snap(chat) Judgments

This past weekend Warner Brothers and director David Ayers released by the first image of Jared Leto in makeup from the upcoming film Suicide Squad. You can check it out here.

Judgments from the imagine came fast and quick with some praising its brilliance, and some saying it looked terrible and announcing they had no intention to watch it. Followed by the inevitable people who complained about people complaining about the image, and the people complaining about the people who complained that people were complaining about the image, and so on. From a single still photograph of a makeup test.

Which isn’t to say that having opinions is inherently wrong. Myself, I think it’s a character design that is rife with bad decisions. That’s not what I want to talk about though.

The Internet, and the speed of communication it has created, has given rise to an age of snap judgments that are reinforced in the echo chamber of shared social media outrage. But it’s not limited to pop culture. We’re now making snap judgments about choices in our daily lives, and more often about other people. Look no further than the dating application Tindr.

It begs an unsettling question. Are we more prone to make these snap decisions when we’re unplugged and about in the meatspace world?

Do not be dismayed though, because a reminder to avoid this trap has come to us from the Internet itself! Recently news of a project that third grade teacher Kyle Schwartz undertook has gone viral. Kyle attempted to get to know her students better and asked them to write her simple anonymous messages completing the phrase “I wish my teacher knew…” so that she would have a better sense of what life was like for them. The results were inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking, but always surprising.

A sampling of some of the messages include:

– “I wish my teacher knew sometimes my reading log isn’t signed because my mom is not around a lot.”

– “I wish my teacher knew Vietnamese because then she can say words I forget.”

– “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have a friend to play with me.”

– “I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad since he got deported.”

It inspired others to share their own responses to the same experiment. The whole thing has helped to reveal the hidden struggles, the secret scars that we all carry, and encourages us to be a little more patient and less quick to judge.

So at the end of the day the Internet has proven to be a double-edged sword. While it can give rise to a tendency to make snap judgments, as long as it keeps on reminding us to be a little more humane and understanding with each other, I’ll keep calling it a net gain.

(Pun only half-intended.)

UPDATE: According to this article the Joker will, in fact, not have tattoos. The article claims it was merely a publicity shot to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the character. How accurate this is remains to be seen.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

WHO IS RIGHT IN COPYRIGHT?

Copyright law is a strange animal, because how do you prove ownership of something as nebulous as an idea. Correlation does not prove causation and you really are fighting an uphill battle when trying to prove vague visual influence.

The Hollywood Reporter has just reported that comic book artists Ben and Ray Lai are suing Marvel Entertainment, claiming that the power armor suits that the character Iron Man wears bear a striking resemblance to the power armor suits in their 2001 comic book series Radix. The suit, which includes a cease-and-desist letter, states that older Iron Man comics show the character “wearing simple spandex-like attire and minimal armor.”

Marvel, for their part, seem unfazed.

The aspect of this which I don’t think will work out in the Lai Brothers favor is that Iron Man was created in 1963, a full thirty-eight years before the publication of Radix (also before either brother was born). The fact that they have waited a full seven years since the release of the first Iron Man film before filing their suit, on the verge of what is projected to be another billion dollar plus grossing film starring the character, also smacks of opportunism. Burden of proof is on the plaintiff, and in this case it’s going to take a lot of proof.

Once an idea as simple as “robot suit” is in the public zeitgeist it is hard to prove yours is much different than any of the hundreds of other robot suits featured in films, animation, comics, or video games for decades. It should be interesting to see how it all shakes out, but my suspicion is that the case will be quickly dismissed.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Error 500 Bad Script

We live in an era where computers can do truly amazing things. Not only has technology been the dominant force in changing our economy and and the way that we interact with each other, but the latest computer graphics have made films which take our breaths away. Hollywood owes a lot to the computer.

Unfortunately, Hollywood’s ability to write about computers hasn’t gotten any better since the movie War Games. As far as screenwriters seem to be concerned computers are mysterious boxes full of magic that can do anything a plot demands, and only the arbitrary computer wunderkind on the cast seems to be able to operate.

We’ve all seen the tropes. Zooming in on any hazy bit of video footage and then by simply “applying a filter” making it 1080p resolution. Action hackers who are able to crack any security system in under five second flat, as simple as we type in the password to our e-mail. We all know this is not how computers work, but we accept it.

Now we have the new show CSI: Cyber. If any show should attempt to represent computer forensics accurately, it would be this. I haven’t seen it, but given the other shows’ in the franchise treatment of basic science I think we’re more than likely going to get something that winds up looking like this comic from Kris Straub

Even shows that are great in every other aspect fall victim to this trap. One of the most recent episodes of CW’s The Flash dealt with a “hacking battle” where two computer geniuses typed wildly to out-hack each other on the fly. When a dramatic twist in the onscreen battle was required the villain swung her chair and went to a second keyboard. I get that running a pre-scripted computer program with a simple mouse click doesn’t make for edge of your seat TV, but in a show where the main character can run fast enough that he can literally vibrate his body through solid matter, the least believable thing shouldn’t be computer use.

It’s not that I’m against fun. I’m just against lazy writing.

At least in Tron we knew going in that we were going to be accepting a fantastic world where you can walk around inside of computers. And besides . . . lightcycles! Told you I wasn’t against fun.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Brick by Brick, Dollar by Dollar

No doubt readers will be familiar with the hot new thing in video games for young kids, toy and video game mash-up products. Games like Skylanders or Disney Infinity where, by plugging in a peripheral device which serves as a base-station for character figures you can buy separately. These character figures then give you access to new characters within the game itself. Skylanders is it’s own world based on Sony’s Spyro the Dragon franchise, whereas Disney Infinity offers you content to any license owned by Disney.

I personally can’t stand the trend. I feel like it takes advantage of parents by creating a game where for their kids to get all of the content, the parents needs buy into it over and over. That’s neither here nor there, though.

There is a new entry into this field now, which might be the most decent of all the choices. It’s called LEGO Dimensions, and it gives players access to Warner Brothers franchises. More importantly, it gives them actual LEGO bricks to play with and build, so at least the toy is decent.

It’s a product that Penny Arcade has dubbed The Last Game.

All this being said . . . I’d recommend just buy your kids some LEGOS and calling it a day.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Blurred Lines (with apologies to Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke)

I’m going to put forth a proposition in this post that will make me unpopular with people on both sides of the aisle. No, I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans. I mean filmmakers (specifically live-action filmmakers in this case) and animators. That proposition is that the difference between animated films and live-action is largely philosophical.

The distinction may not exist at all.

Ever since the the beginnings of film live-action and animation have walked hand-in-hand. The earliest silent films incorporated animation to achieve special effects, the same as today. The only difference is that where today’s biggest blockbusters use computer graphics, the early films would either paint directly onto the film frame-by-frame, or even scratch away the emulsion.

And animation has always incorporated live-action sequences. We can all remember the orchestra pit gathering at the beginning of Fantasia. The Fleischer Brothers integrated rotoscoping in many of their early cartoons, and Gertie the Dinosaur from 1914 traveled as part of a stage show with animator Windsor McCay interacting with the film live for audiences.

We need look no further than the robust film career of Ralph Bakshi. He is probably the best example of an animator who rotoscopes over live actors.

The lines are blurring even more now, when more than half of a live-action film can be computer animated like in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Gravity. Critically acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater has made two films that are entirely rotoscope animation. Wall-E, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2008, included extensive live-action scenes. Who is to say if these films are either live-action or animation? They seem to be both to me.

It may anger purists to hear them called this way, but purists be damned. To me, it seems, there’s no such thing as pure in this debate. There never has been.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Viral Videos as the Ouroboruos of Our Time

The ouroboros is an ancient alchemical symbol depicting a serpent swallowing its own tail. It represents the eternal return; the cyclical nature of time. I will return to this in a moment.

In 2015 going viral is a complicated thing.

There’s the good…hamsters eating tiny burritos (available here because you have to watch it). Anything John Oliver does. Some Frozen song covers.

There’s the bad… your epic fails. Your Star Wars kids. Your shingles virus (if you’ve had chicken pox it’s already inside you, thanks for letting us know Terry Bradshaw).

And the ugly… many more of the Frozen song covers. Rick Rolling…

The very nature of the Internet means they’ll come back round again. Like Terry Bradshaw’s shingles. Like the ouroboros.

Someone who has benefited immensely from video going viral is Jimmy Fallon . Beginning with his tenure on Late Night and continuing now that he’s the host of The Tonight Show he has owned the Internet.

(Figuratively, of course. We ALL know the Internet is actually owned by a shadowy cabal of Silicon Valley billionaires who live in a space station constructed out of leftover set pieces from Logan’s Run.)

So many of Fallon’s sketches have become Internet sensations, with millions upon millions of views. If you’re curious a simple YouTube search will net you plenty of results.

One particular recurring sketch, the celebrity Lip Sync Battle, took on a life all its own. Check out one iteration here. As of the time of this writing, almost fifty million views.

The Lip Sync videos became so popular that they completed my ouroboros simile and circled back to television. Spike TV has launched Lip Sync Battle as a show, produced by Fallon, Stephen Merchant and John Krasinski. It debuted on April 2nd.

And now, for your viewing enjoyment . . . The Rock lip syncing Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Digital Actors Part 3 – The Simone Conundrum

To read part one of this series click here
To read part two of this series click here

Please bear with me as I engage in a thought exercise. After approaching the notion of creating fully digitized characters for film in the last two entries in this series, I’m going to take the notion to it’s furthest possible outcome . . . perhaps even into science fiction territory.

In the 2002 comedy drama S1m0ne (directed by Andrew Niccol) Al Pacino stars as a film director with a problem. When he loses his key star just before the start of filming he is a scramble to replace her. The solution he comes up with is to insert the world’s first completely synthetic actress into the role, and pretend it was some unknown the world had never seen. The illusion works too well and Simone rockets in popularity virtually overnight, becoming so in demand that it puts Pacino in more and more precarious situations to keep his secret. It begs the question of where illusion ends and reality begins.

We deal with digital characters all the time now. There is nothing shocking about it. Their performance is determined by choices from voice actors and extremely talented animators. But what happens when the technology gets so sophisticated that more and more real human decisions are taken out o the process.

It’s not too hard to imagine a specific digital character being created as an individual program that you could apply to any film file in post-production; one with its own simulated voice. Is it that difficult to go a step further and think that you could set emotional parameters for the scene based on metrics? That the digital actor could have been programmed with a library of film scenes that a heuristic processor could analyze in nanoseconds to get the ideal body language, facial expression, pupil dilation, and voice cadence to respond to the recording of the real actor?

The appeal for filmmakers is obvious. Who wouldn’t want an eternally young, flawlessly beautiful actor you can cast in virtually any part would would give a mathematically perfect performance every single time? Add in the fact that you don’t have to pay them and they would never do anything in their personal lives to damage the film and you can practically hear film studios and music producers begin to salivate.

It begs a lot of questions to which there are no actual answers. Does a completely computer generated performance or song have the value that a human performance does? Would the public treat these virtual celebrities with the same loyalty and reverence as their human counterparts? Perhaps even more thought provoking . . . if the computer is analyzing thousands upon thousands of previous performances to arrive at a combination of traits to fit the performance it has been tasked with giving, at what point is that actual choice? At what point is that intelligence?

Told you I was going to go way out there. Now who wants to go with me to holographic Shakespeare in the Park?

UPDATE: Since the posting of the first part of this series the Bruce Lee estate has announced a lawsuit against the production company of Ip Man 3 to prevent them from using a computerized Bruce Lee in the film, stating that Robert Lee (brother of the late actor) did not have rights to issue likeness rights to the studio. It should be interesting to see how this shakes out.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Digital Actors Part 2 – Han Solo and the Magic of Movies

To read part one of this series click here

In the previous installment of this series I spoke about the upcoming movie Ip Man 3, and how the filmmakers’ intended to use a CGI to have Bruce Lee appear in the film. While discussing the subject I referenced facially mapping actors’ faces onto stunt doubles for make for more realistic looking films. Now I’d like to talk about the possibility of taking that technique even further.

When the Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm they announced that not only would be they making a sequel trilogy, they would also put one-off solo films into production. One of the first things that many fans started clamoring for was a tale about the early days of Han Solo. It remains one of the projects rumored to be in development.

One of the major problems with the idea many people have pointed out though, is who do you cast for the role that isn’t just a pale imitation of Harrison Ford? We know that there are times cast younger actors in parts and audiences will accept them. The success of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in the X-Men franchise is evidence of that. But Han Solo is such an iconic role. Who could possibly do it the proper justice?

Perhaps the answer has been sitting in front of our noses all along. Lord of the Rings and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes have proven that you can accomplish amazing things, and Star Wars has always been at the forefront of special effects, so why not embrace it? Who better to play a young Harrison Ford than Harrison Ford himself?

I’m not saying that he would have to take on the full burden himself. In fact, his own efforts could be almost entirely minimal. Some facial scanning and voice work. The bulk of the heavy lifting could be done by a younger performance capture artist on set. Using the digital to finesse the live-action. The best of both worlds.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Digital Actors Part 1 – Like Father, Like Son

On March 31st, 1993, the son of martial arts superstar Brandon Lee was busy filming what was set to be his most memorable film role, The Crow. A mishap in film’s property department lead to an actual .44 magnum round being fired, striking Lee in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. He was twenty-eight years old at the time of his death.

Following the incident, the filmmaker’s decided to finish the film using special effects trickery along with the assistance of Lee’s stunt double, Chad Stahelski. To do this they employed a new computer graphics technique, mapping Lee’s face onto shots of Stahelski. It was the embryonic stage of the performance capture techniques used today to such success in such films as Lord of the Rings and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The technique has been used since to make for more realistic-looking film stunts, as well as in similar cases of digitally adding an actor to cover for the fact they died mid-production, as with Paul Walker in Furious 7. We even see archival footage (Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and audio (Marlon Brando in Superman Returns) used more and more. Historical figures like JFK and John Lennon were even inserted to amazing effect in Forrest Gump, interacting with Tom Hanks’ title character.

Never have we seen a long-dead actor inserted digitally into a film as a means of creating audience draw though. Until now, that is.

News broke recently on Slashfilm that a CGI Bruce Lee would appear in the upcoming film Ip Man 3, portraying himself. The Ip Man series fictionalizes the real life of martial arts legend Ip Man, who in real life taught Bruce Lee. Reportedly, the filmmakers could not find a young actor to match the real Lee’s intensity.

It’s a curious situation. We see actors portraying historical figures all the time, but the idea of using a dead man’s image as a digital actor for box office draw rather than as a means of finishing a project they were passionate about strikes a certain ghoulish chord. When they used the archive footage of Olivier in Sky Captain it had an interesting novelty about it, but this could be setting an uncomfortable precedent of estate’s leasing the likeness rights of celebrities out to film studios. Does anyone really want to live in a world that could produce Paul Blart 3 starring Kevin James and Cary Grant?

This is going to be one of three articles covering different aspects of this topic. Watch this blog for further updates.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Stop, Collaborate, and Motion

It was recently announced that Laika – the studio behind Coraline, ParaNorman and – will be expanding their Hillsboro, Oregon animation facility by 70% in the wake of the success of their most recent stop motion feature Boxtrolls. They have also announced that they will be partnering with Focus Features to bring three more stop motion films to the screen.

It’s pretty impressive given that the market for stop motion animation had nearly completely dried up due to the arrival of computer graphics. But it’s not just Laika that is seeing success with stop motion.

As we see more and more traditional animation studios shuttering up there has been a boom of stop motion studios which have opened up in the LA area. Their focus primarily on production for television and commercials. Stoopid Buddy Stoodios is the brainchild of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, spinning out of their partnership in bringing Robot Chicken to the screen. Meanwhile, a partnership between Dan Harmon, Dino Stamatopoulos, Joe Russo, and James Fino led to the creation of Starburns Industries. Add that to the long-running success of Toronto’s Cuppa Coffee, the largest stop motion studio in the world, and we’re seeing what might be considered a renaissance of the art.

The revival seems to stem from a doubling down of the unique aesthetic which comes from stop motion. Rather than trying to compete with the splashy CGI studio releases on their own terms, they’re embracing projects that are uniquely suited to the world of stop motion. It’s not about trying to beat Disney at their own game; it’s about playing the game you were born to play in the first place.

It’s a lesson that hand-drawn animation could stand to learn. Do your own thing, because no one can do it better than you.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.