Monday, April 27, 2009

movies: the previsualization IS the movie

Previsualization supervisor Steve Yamamoto made Hancock. Not the director, not the actors.

Movies used to be storyboarded: someone would make a sketch of every shot in the movie and pin them to a wall. Sometimes these were turned into animatics, a movie consisting of simple camera moves and zooms over each sketch and transitions between them. This was especially true for animated movies, and Pixar still makes 2-D animatics of their movies; the fascinating featurette on the The Incredibles DVD shows some.

In effect-laden movies, the crew have to figure out the lighting, the camera moves and the camera details (field of view, focus, etc.) for all the elements of a scene that will be filmed in real life or rendered by computer—for the actors on a set, for the filmed backgrounds, for the digitally-modified background elements, and for all the computer-generated imagery (explosions, flying glass, monsters, digital hair hiding actor's balding head, ...). Everything has to match otherwise the pieces can't be composited to make the final shot. Two-dimensional storyboards are insufficient for this. So someone builds a 3-D world for the scene, puts some 3-D character models in it, animates the models, and then goes nuts moving a virtual camera around to create a computer animation of the sequence of shots. The result is a clunky computer videogame version of the sequence. The previsualizations made for Hancock resemble Sega's Virtua Cop videogame:
screen cap of PC Sega Virtua Cop 2 game
screen cap of Sega Virtua Cop 2
Yet the pre-viz comes scarily close to what the final film looks like.

In the Seeing the Future featurette for Hancock the movie team watches this videogame of their movie, months before they start filming. They change camera angles, re-edit cuts, reposition the actors, even use different virtual lenses to improve the scene. They then have to figure out how to film the real portions of the scene such as Hancock flipping a car upside down, or decide to do it digitally.

gif animation showing sequence

The result is that the actual moviemaking—actors acting, cameramen operating physical cameras, effects houses making special effects—becomes no more than re-implementing what's in the pre-viz. You see Charlize Theron watching the pre-viz on a Mac notebook, watching her 3-D character to learn what she's supposed to do in the shot! Jason Bateman says of the process "It's been interesting". As in, it must suck. The cameramen, the actors, even the director, all watch a movie that already exists that dictates what they need to do.

The obvious next step is to make the pre-viz good enough that it becomes the movie and the producer and the previsualization team tell the cast and crew to stay home! There's no reason the backgrounds in the pre-viz have to look like cardboard or the characters look blobby. Spend some time refining them, gathering better textures and using higher-quality models, record the dialog, and then after you've got the low-quality videogame doing what you want, use a bank of computer to render the movie in high-def using realistic lighting effects. Perhaps it's still cheaper to film an actor covered in sweat/makeup/dirt speaking and emoting rather than trying to model and render him, but animation software and computer hardware relentlessly advances. For the first hour of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" the aged Brad Pitt face is entirely computer-generated (watch long interesting video), it'll only get easier and faster.

I wonder if anyone has made a videogame directly out of the pre-viz. At a minimum you should be able to move the camera around yourself to make your own cut of the movie; add some standard videogame AI programming and you should be able to pause the movie and make the character walk off somewhere else and fire bullets at the scenery. The great William Gibson saw all this coming, read his 2003 talk to the Director's Guild of America.

Labels: , ,

movies: the mess that is Hancock

Hancock is a mess of a movie in many ways. Pointless shaky camerawork, inconsistent soundtrack, an unexplained superhero battle that showed up from a different movie, characters who are randomly weak or indestructible according to the immediate needs of the plot, a struggling PR guy driving an old BMW who lives in a $4M modern house, Charlize Theron slapping laughable makeup on when the going gets tough. It's got a stirring idea, the characters are great, it's a new take on superheroes, some of the movie has a wonderful tired-out feel that plays off comic book gloss. But yet again the most charismatic movie star in the world ends up in a movie that could be great and instead falls way short — I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now this.

You watch the Blu-ray making-of featurettes and it's all revolting ass-kissing about how great everyone is. Sure they are talented people, yet they screwed up. The set decorator (Rosemary Brandenburg) talks about all the objects that symbolize Charlize Theron's healing power, but it's wasted and counter to what happens in the movie. Is it the fault of hired gun director Peter Berg, or Will Smith again producing his own movie?

Update Google snippet search is now supposed to support microformats, let's try hReview
2.5 out of 5

Labels: ,

Monday, April 20, 2009

audio: tube servicing

After several years of light use, one of my monstrous VTL MB-450 power amplifiers died. I replaced its KTK-2 fuse (ordered from Fuses Unlimited), and it worked fine for a few listening sessions, then it stopped, I replaced the fuse again and it died an hour later.

The right thing to do is ship all my amps back to VTL in beautiful downtown Chino for service, tube replacement, and rebiasing; they could simultaneously install the the coupling caps and the extended tube life upgrades that they have developed for this model. Total cost about $2,000; a worthwhile economic stimulus to support a small company with top-notch service, but it will have to wait for my OBAMPO (Obama bailout amp owners) stimulus money. Bea Lam at VTL thought the most likely explanation of these symptoms is a bad tube, so with trepidation, I did the wrong thing and tried to fix it it myself.

I watched the videos of guitar amp tube replacement (!) on ExpertVillage and eHow and carefully removed all the tubes. At first they all looked OK, I envisioned dangling wires and rattling noises like a broken bulb.
6550C tubes, broken Svetlana second from left, replacement SED tube
Looking more closely I spotted a silvery-brown discoloration on one tube (second from left). I ordered two replacement tubes from Magic Parts for $70. I received a matched pair labeled by Ruby of the winged C rename of the original Svetlana version of the 6550C variant of the original 1955 Tung-Sol 6550 design, all the way from beautiful downtown St. Petersburg Russia. (The tube on the right.)
VTL MB-450 with the top off and three valves removed
Reinsert tubes, adjust the bias on each one in that row of holes (risking death from the high voltages and massive currents), insert another fuse and the music is back!

The history and complexity of vacuum tubes is impressive: hot clouds of electrons, filaments, plates, platinum grids, etc. refined over a century. They demand careful mechanical and electrical engineering, are hand assembled, and even then every one has different electrical properties and benefits from careful selection and matching to its partners. I don't get obsessive and mystical about it (the VTL amplifiers simply sounded much better than solid state amplification), but many audiophiles and musicians do: in a guitar mag interview John Mayer confessed to spending evenings auditioning and matching tubes for his amps. Enjoy your equipment, but love your music collection more.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

eco: solar heating means green jobs!

Our solar photovoltaic panels sit there making a dollar or two of electricity every day for us. Zero maintenance, besides occasionally wiping the grime off the panels.

As I intimated, solar heating is another story. After only two years the solar tubes on our roof stopped providing domestic hot water, so we had to turn on the back-up electric strip heater in one of our storage tanks to get hot water. A 50-gallon electric kettle is a very expensive way to get hot water, requiring far more electricity than our solar panels generate.

It was difficult to find anyone willing come and service it. (Our general contractor fired the original designer/subcontractor Bill Reyno and we wound up in legal mediation with the contractor over delays and non-functioning system.) Solar electric is just a bit of mechanical fabrication and some parts wired together; however, solar heating is tubes, wires, pipes, pumps, fittings, solder, valves, expansion tanks, electronic controllers, solenoids, and heat exchangers. There's no standardization, every contractor does it differently, and no one wants to take on responsibility for someone else's design with which they disagree. Everyone who's ever looked at our system has responded "I wouldn't do it that way..."

Finally Luminalt sent some people out. They figured out one of the pumps wasn't working. They had to isolate that pump, drain the system, dismantle it, find a lump of solder inside gumming on the mechanism, refill the system, replace a pressure valve, charge the system with glycol, test everything out. Two and a half guys, two days, $1100. Have no doubt that being environmental means green jobs for Americans! Better yet, the business end seems a little disorganized and they've yet to send me a bill!
158 degrees Temp from Solar!tank at 129 degrees!
Since Luminalt fixed it, we've been getting much hotter water, maybe because they replaced a pressure valve with a higher pressure one.
The rightmost temperature gauge in the first pic shows 158 degree glycol mixture from the solar tubes, and after pumping through a heat exchanger, the top sensor in the second pic shows 129 degree drinkable water in the first tank. It's magic!

On a sunny spring day we're getting more hot water than we need or use, which makes me dream about sending some excess heat to our radiant heating system to heat our house. The system was designed to do that, but that has never worked for a litany of design flaws too depressing to recount. Moving heat around is fiddly and depends on careful system design and installation.
Luminalt installer with Solamax tubes
Three out of the 40 Solamax Direct Flow Evacuated Solar Energy Collector tubes in this picture have condensation on the inside, so they ought to be replaced. I called the distributor SolarThermal, and the guy laughed. If they send these tubes out by UPS, a box of glass shards will arrive on my doorstep. I'd have to pay $300 for a special pallet load to be trucked to my door. That's why most solar installers use flat plate collectors or Mazdon tubes, which are not as efficient but a lot easier to transport.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 18, 2009

eco: Sonicare battery

A long time ago my dentist recommended the Sonicare. It lasts about 5 years, I'm on my third. The rechargeable handle contains toxic NiCad batteries, so I didn't want to throw them away. Sonicare used to provide an envelope for you to send it back, but they scrapped that, no doubt when they found doing the right thing costs money. I finally cracked the two handles open and pried out the batteries.
Sonicare toothbrush handle and its toxic batteries(The red marks are blood.)

How many people bother to do this? There's so much hate for Greenpeace in the USA, yet they have the right idea: don't produce toxic products. It should be illegal for someone to sell you a toxic product unless they pay to take it back. End of story.

I should have Googled first, someone already blogged about this, he heroically tried to replace the dead batteries. Newer Sonicare toothbrushes are apparently easier to disassemble: “The battery inside your Sonicare cannot be replaced, but is easily removed for recycling.” But why not allow easy battery replacement? They don't want you to keep your equipment working, they want it to fail, so they deliberately use a crappy short-lived toxic battery. This is the exact opposite of sustainable design. Again, legislation is the answer.

Labels: ,

skiing: Squaw Valley lies about ski lifts

Here's Squaw Valley USA's lift map. Looks great, dozens of lifts. But if you visit Squaw Valley on a weekday, I guarantee many of those lifts will not be running. I never saw Olympic Lady, Cornice II, Newport, or Mainline run, and Searchlight/Exhibition only ran when the upper mountain was closed. Squaw One Express never ran. You could argue that all this terrain is reachable from other lifts, but as I wrote that stiffs intermediates who can't ski the black diamond runs down to Newport and Squaw One's terrain.

Squaw Valley Ski Corp only ran Solitude once when they thought Shirley Lake Express was broken, which is absolutely shameful; it's a big chunk of terrain that you can't reach from other lifts. Some weekdays they didn't run Far East Express, also cutting you off from skiing huge areas.

Squaw's cop-out "All operations are subject to weather conditions" is a lie. All the lifts I mention above were on "money hold" on weekdays throughout the 2008-2009 season, I paid $850 for a mid-week pass, run the damn lifts you cheap bastards.

To complete the list, Broken Arrow and Silverado rarely run but that terrain does get patchy coverage and ski patrol does have to close the lifts.

Squaw Valley USA is an amazing ski area, six peaks and long ridge lines crammed into one valley, but it's doing worse and worse in ski area ratings.

Labels: ,

skiing: Squaw stiffs intermediates

Squaw Valley Ski Corp are tight-fisted jerks who don't run many of their ski lifts, putting them on "money hold". Their excuse seems to be that if the terrain is reachable, why run a second lift. So lifts like Cornice II and Olympic Lady never run except on a packed holiday weekend, because you can reach the terrain from KT22 or Headwall.

But those are expert lifts to the top of steep peaks! Just because an advanced skier can ski over to the terrain doesn't help an intermediate. Here's a poor photo of Newport on a powder day.
the rollers under Newport - intermediate paradise, but unreachable
The terrain under the Newport chair should be intermediate paradise. Wide, lovely, undulating; a nice break from endlessly lapping the Gold Coast six-pack (from which I took this photo). But the only way to get to it is to ski the face of Siberia (the chairlift visible above it that crosses over it, a hard black diamond run.

It's really sad on a powder day with fresh snow such as when I took this photo. This is perfect terrain to get the experience of surfing the white gravity wave, and experts leave it alone as it isn't very steep. But intermediates can't get to it. So they ski around the overtracked Gold Coast intermediate terrain, and (unless they have a local like Alberto Spagetti to take them into the trees and hidden powder stashes), they wonder what the fuss over "virgin pow!" is all about.

Squaw One Express is another lift from which advanced intermediates can access a nice chunk of terrain. It's also great on powder days, a convex dome above the Mountain Run. It too rarely runs. Bastards.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

the resurrection of Jesus versus Elvis

Happy Easter! Jesus was brutally killed believing it was the will of the vengeful, mixed-up God of the Old Testament. I don’t see how that gets Christians “washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement” — Christian soteriology (not in Firefox's spell checker!) is pretty opaque (Wikipedia for once doesn't help) and AIUI took a few hundred years for believers to make sense of it. Jesus’ resurrection is the mother of all comebacks if true, but it’s so much more likely someone took the body and his devoted followers had “Elvis sightings.”

I think Paddy McAloon was riffing on the similarity in the amazing cycles of songs in Jordan: The Comeback, e.g. the title song:
Layin' on my back bidin' my time
I'm just waitin' for the right song
- Then I'm comin' back
and Moondog
The funeral cars crawl down
The heartbreak side of town
The mourners all discuss
The boy who caused a fuss
We chopped a billion trees to print up eulogies
MOONDOG! - Guess who's on the moon
The one place left to play
The comeback's underway
Here's a good analysis of the resurrection story which makes some fascinating points I didn't know, such as the "dark ages" of the early Christian church between 58 and 95 CE, and the push to "sex up" the resurrection details in the later gospels to outcompete the proto-Gnostics.