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Breaking the "Hug Quota:" DreamWorks, Dragons, HP, and the next creative revolution

The next step in the creative revolution? “Scalable multi-core processing.”

Then he laughed. “If you had told me I’d ever be in front of a room saying that, I wouldn’t have believed you! But it’s true!”

The speaker was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, as he introduced "How to Train Your Dragon" at the DreamWorks campus in Glendale, CA, near Los Angeles. We were there as the guests of HP, the culmination of three days of seeing the latest wonders from HP's Workstation division. (More about this, below.)

Before founding DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, he ran the motion picture divisions of Walt Disney Studios, where he reversed the sad decline of Disney animated features with a string of hits that began with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and included some of Disney’s greatest successes: “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

Among his hits at DreamWorks: the “Shrek” movies, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and “Kung Fu Panda,” to name a few. The man knows his creative processes, and talked a bit about the ones behind "How to Train Your Dragon."

Photo courtesy of Angela George,under the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike license

He began by observing that even the most advanced technical leaps in filmmaking begin with drawings and paint done in traditional media, with pencils and paintbrushes. When it comes to computer animation, though, “artists are still painting blind, only predicting what something is going to look like. They’re experienced, and they’re pretty good at guessing, but they might get it 70% right.” This is after months, even years, of previsualization and testing. From there, of course, they refine both modeling and animation through many additional iterations.

Concept art for 'How to Train Your Dragon,' courtesy of DreamWorks Animation. Click image for larger.

“We believe that in 18 months or so, they will be able to do it in real time. This will change the model in which we work, and it will affect every business – not just ours. You can see how transformative Linux on the desktop has been – this will be far bigger. It will change every aspect of the process, and therefore, the product. ‘Better, cheaper, faster, choose two?’ For the first time, we will have all three.”

If this sounds ambitious, it is. DreamWorks Animation is very much swinging for the fences. They were the first studio to announce that every one of its features would be in 3D, which began with “Monsters vs. Aliens.” Their operation has now become the largest animation studio on the planet, says Katzenberg. “We will release three animated features in 2010 – ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ ‘Shrek 4’ and ‘Megamind’ – when no company has ever done two. These are five-year bets, typically among the most expensive movies made each year.”

Katzenberg adds that DreamWorks is roughly halfway through a three and a half year process of converting all of their tools to take advantage of multi-core processing – their biggest technology investment ever. This includes rewriting their primary animation environment, Emo, which is developed in-house. He notes that “Emo” is short for “emotion,” which remains for him and DreamWorks the point of all this technology. While it is easy to focus on the most sweeping, epic passages in “How to Train Your Dragon” – flying through the air on a dragon’s back, a climactic battle with hundreds of dragons -- Katzenberg says, “It’s in the smallest, most intimate moments that 3D has its biggest impact.”

Watching the movie bears this out.

Certainly there are some startling advances in modeling, especially with hair and fur. For Vikings, this is a really big deal, as hairy characters in fur are very much in abundance. It is also startling to see how far the animation of that hair has come – I really haven’t seen anything like it. To say that it’s “natural” is an understatement. Katzenberg says “It’s not animated hair – it’s HAIR,” and I have to agree.

(Right to left) Sailing to Dragon Island in hopes of ending their centuries’-long feud with the beasts once and for all, Chief Stoick the Vast (GERARD BUTLER) and blacksmith and Dragon Training drill sergeant Gobber (CRAIG FERGUSON) prepare for the worst in DreamWorks Animation’s 'How To Train Your Dragon' ™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. Click image for larger.

There are other delights in the details. Each of the several kinds of dragons in the movie breathe their own very distinctive kind of fire. There are deep textures, especially on hammered metal. The richness of the lighting reveals itself especially in dim interiors – perfectly balanced in ways that previous animated features have barely attempted, and certainly never achieved.

(Many of these new looks were achieved through the work DreamWorks Animation did with cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. You've definitely seen his work.)

And yes, the flights through the clouds are breathtaking. I’m not surprised that many reviewers have called this the movie’s most stunning achievement.

Astrid (AMERICA FERRERA) and Hiccup (JAY BARUCHEL) soar through the sky on the wings of Toothless --in DreamWorks Animation's 'How To Train Your Dragon' ™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. Click image for larger.

There is also a truly epic sweep to the film as a whole – for example, over 2500 dragons in one shot, over 800 Vikings in another.

This is all the nerdy part, of course. What about the story? There are two of them, actually. One of them is around the tangle of issues around a boy finding his way through the expectations of his father and his community, to embrace who he really is – as well as the father’s journey to also set aside his expectations to embrace the boy as well.

The centerpiece of the movie for me is a long sequence where our hero, Hiccup, forms a relationship with a dragon he names Toothless, that he had (mostly inadvertently) wounded. Their tentative steps are very nearly heartbreaking. It peaks as Hiccup closes his eyes and extends his hand, and Toothless leans into it in a truly intimate way. You can see it in the poster frame for the trailer below -- and by all means, play the trailer -- but it still doesn’t prepare you for the impact of this scene in 3D. Not even close.

(I asked afterward, and I wasn’t alone. Pretty much everybody in the audience choked up here.)

There are a few comic bits shared, uhm, let’s call them “meals,” but Hiccup’s first move after building trust is to use his blacksmith skills to build a prosthesis to repair the damage he made to Toothless’s tail that was preventing the dragon from flying. Again, these were very intimate scenes, lots of close-ups, lots of touching. Both technically and artistically, this is new stuff.

Everything else in the story follows from that. The boy’s realization that the dragon has its own fears, and that it is capable of forming relationships. As the story unfolds, he even learns that the attacks on the village by all the dragons are driven by an incredibly massive dragon that holds them all in its sway – they are paying the price every bit as much as the villagers are.

The third act is familiar enough – Dad freaks out when he finds that the boy isn’t trying to kill the dragon, he leads the Viking warriors to destroy all the dragons, giant battle ensues, etc. The battle's finale and it's outcome, though, provide the emotional twist that truly pays off the battle, the relationship between the boy and his dragon, the boy and his father, and everything else. It lends the proceedings a weight I’ve rarely seen in an animated feature before.

If anything, I could have used more of the old school “things jumping out of the screen” aspect of 3D. I was nevertheless impressed by the subtleties of the 3D, and above all, its service to the most emotional aspects of the storytelling.

There were of course a lot of smart people working with a lot of powerful machines to pull it all off. DreamWorks Animation CTO Ed Leonard points out that previz and modeling started five years ago, with modeling and texturing taking most of a year and a half. Much of that involved thinking really, really hard. “We spent a lot of time developing fur,” he says, “but our next question was, ‘How does the fur react with the rest of the clothing? Or when you get it wet? How does the water react, or make the fur BEND?’

That’s the greatest challenge with hair and fur, he says. Yes, you have to make it look realistic, you have to make it move realistically on its own – but you have to make the interactions look right, too. Imagine an arm around the shoulder of someone wearing a fur vest – the individual hairs bend in a very specific way.

Even worse, he says, imagine furry animals hugging each other, as they did in DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar” pictures. The hair on one animal’s arms AND the hair on the other animal’s back had to both react, and react differently to account for their different textures. The process was all so complicated, and so expensive, that Leonard enforced a “hug quota:” no more than two per sequence.

'Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa' ™ & © 2008 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

These are the kinds of limitations that he and DreamWorks Animation hope to overcome in very short order. They’re certainly not making it easy on themselves. While Shrek has 500 curves in Emo’s animation editor, there are as many 4800 for the two-headed dragons. Even with huge leaps in processing power, compare five million render hours for the first “Shrek” to over 55 million render hours for "How to Train Your Dragon." (Also worth noting: the space grew from 5TB on Shrek to over 100TB on Dragon.) The rendering was accomplished on a farm of more than 25,000 computer cores, nearly 10,000 of which were busy all day, every day, for 28 weeks. The render farm was composed of HP Z800 workstations that DreamWorks found to be up to 50 percent faster than the previous generation.

“At DreamWorks Animation, technology and creativity go hand in hand and a large part of my job is to ensure that our filmmakers can dream without boundaries,” Ed tells us. “With the help of HP’s amazing technological breakthroughs, our artists are able to bring our worlds and characters to life on screen in sequences that are just as detailed and visually rich as they can possibly imagine.” For example, an array of HP ProLiant blade servers allowed Roger Deakins to design the lighting and tweak it while watching in full final-frame quality.

For long-distance collaboration, DreamWorks also worked with HP to develop a range of Halo Telepresence Solutions – not just the HD videoconferencing capabilities themselves, but also the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN), the only global fiber optic network designed specifically for video collaboration. Among Halo’s specific uses was for finessing the distinct fire styles breathed by dragons being designed at multiple facilities. Being able to pull different development teams into a single virtual space dramatically sped the process.

DreamWorks most famously collaborated with HP on the DreamColor monitor, a 10-bit display optimized for RGB file-based workflows, but thanks to advanced calibration tools, ideal for collaboration across facilities. It also played its part in tuning the precise output of the large-format HP Designjet Z6100 printers used for checking development shots.

(Check out Creative COW Contributing Editor Jeremy Garchow’s review of the HP DreamColor monitor as a CRT replacement for HD broadcast editing

As the first studio chief to commit to an all-3D slate, it’s natural that Jeffrey Katzenberg is asked what comes after 3D. “I love it when people ask that!” he laughs. “Think back to the last major shift in how people watch movies – what was it? Color, and sound about a decade before that. In the 70 years since then, there hasn’t really been anything. I’ve been around 59 years, making movies for 35 of them, and I feel fortunate to be alive to see even ONE of these major shifts. I don’t expect to see another in my lifetime.”

Not that we’re quite through with this one. “I expect that we’ll see autostereo for the big screen in the next 8-10 years.” He is also excited to see 3D for the home coming to fruition through the partnership between DreamWorks Animation, Samsung and Technicolor. Although he confesses that he doesn’t have a 3D set yet, he says that he is especially impressed with Samsung technology that creates 3D imagery from 2D inputs on the fly. “Is it the same thing as 3D-originated material? Of course not. But it’s quite remarkable.”

He also notes that a 3D DVD of “Monsters vs. Aliens” is currently being bundled with Samsung 3D sets, and that by the end of the year, all four Shrek movies will be.

In the meantime, he says, “The thing that is so interesting about [these new technologies] is that they are more empowering – they help artists think spatially in ways that they haven’t before -- but also easier to use. They are going to lower the barrier to entry, rather than raising it.” They will help enable new kinds of animation, he says, and more vibrant visualization of imagination than has been possible before.

Starting with scalable multi-core processing. Katzenberg’s not kidding.

As I mentioned, we were at DreamWorks as the guests of HP. In addition to the technologies above, they introduced the HP Z200 workstation, so small that it comfortably fits inside the chassis of the full-sized Z-series workstations we've been using here at the COW. As you might imagine, it is in its own way a beast: quad-core processor, dual link video, optional 64GB solid state drive, connectivity galore (none of this one monitor interface nonsense) and more, including the standard Z series gleaming "no tools required" interior.

You have to see the computer in person to appreciate how small it is, and you have to see the interior in person to appreciate how gleaming it is. Here's the interior of the Z800 to at least give you an idea.

HP doesn't get nearly enough credit for its industrial design, among the reasons that it's at the top of the workstation market, with over 40% share, and growing fast.

Speaking of which, I will confess that I seriously, seriously covet the new 15" EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation with a built-in DreamColor display!!! It is absolutely, entirely insanely gorgeous. And not just the display. The picture below doesn't do the laptop itself any kind of justice.

It's not your typical black plastic. Instead, it's a gorgeous gunmetal blue aluminum, built to military spec. Here's the quote from HP's site:

Enhanced durability and protection
  • Meets tough military standards (MIL-STD 810G) for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude and extreme temperatures
  • Travel confidently with the HP DuraCase with magnesium-alloy structure, hardened steel pin axels and scratch-resistant HP DuraFinish
  • Automatically protect hard-drive data from drops and sudden impact with HP 3D DriveGuard

Here are more details.

Also note: the 8740 also includes 2 USB 3 ports. Do you know USB 3? It's jaw-dropping. The 4.8 GB/sec. speed is enough to comfortably handle 10-bit uncompressed 1920x1080 HD. Seriously. While you wouldn't want to capture that to a laptop hard drive...which alas does NOT spin fast enough to accommodate said 10-bit uncompressed HD....the USB 3 ports are exactly what you need in order to hook up Blackmagic's new Pocket Ultrascope. Here's the details, and here's the purty pitcher.

Yep, pretty much what it looks like. Pocket-sized monitoring with SDI up to 3G/s, through yer USB 3 port, running the Windows version of Blackmagic's Ultrascope software. Why Windows? Because only Windows computers currently support USB 3.

And certainly, for anybody in the market for a pro-grade PC laptop, add USB 3 to DreamColor, gunmetal, droppability, and speed, the EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation is a screaming no-brainer.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Mar 29, 2010 at 3:57:57 pm Stereoscopic 3d, Blackmagic Design, HP

They're baaaaack: Super Bowl Commercials selling out

The Hollywood Reporter reports that 65% of the 2010 Super Bowl is already sold out, including all of the first-half "A" spots. The prices are running in the $2.7-2.8 million range - just off the 2009 rate (as high as $3 mil, but largely in the $2.8-2.9 mil range), but still ahead of 2008.

It's not that CBS doesn't have its hands full, and its work cut out for it. Last year at this time, NBC had already sold 85% of its spots - but they're feeling good about getting there in fine shape. It's certainly far from the cratered, post-apocalyptic vision painted in most of the press.

Now, I'm not much of a football fan, but I never miss the Super Bowl. It's an even bigger deal for commercials than for sports, at least for me. But I think it's true for the world at large. Yeah, most people tune in for the game or the half-time show...and the shows have been getting bigger and better of late, with unforgettable sets from Prince, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen in the past few years.

But the ads are important for US in this business for several reasons. One, they're a look at the state of the art. When somebody spends roughly $100,000 to show a commercial, you can be sure that they're spending a lot more than that to get absolutely top-shelf production. You want to see the technology that's going to shape the next few years of our industry? Start with the Super Bowl.

The other reason is that they're often inspiring. The best of them remind me of the power of storytelling, and that that power can often be increased by packing it into a short span. The commercials in the Super Bowl make me glad I'm in this business. If you're not watching the Super Bowl, I frankly don't think you care enough about your trade. Otherwise, how could you even imagine missing the best of what the best can do?

Hopping off my high horse, here's one of my all-time favorites...which has other folks on THEIR high horses. GREAT rotoscoping and compositing, and a great story too. I wish I could find a higher-quality version, but this one's pretty dang good.

Cat Herding - Click here for more free videos

There's a higher-quality version at the director's page at his agency website, John O'Hagan at RSA -- which also contains pages for directors including Joe Carnahan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and Sam Mendes among many others.

Here's also a little piece on the "making of" Herding Cats, at The Inspiration Room.

And since we're talking inspiration, here's a Super Bowl commercial by Ridley Scott that's also not too bad.

You can see it even bigger and in higher quality here.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Aug 30, 2009 at 8:21:27 pm commercials, super bowl, apple, economy, creativity

Breakthrough Technology from...the Muppets?

To be precise, we're talking about breakthrough technology from the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, which is part of the Jim Henson Company's Creature Shop. Some of the company's early technology received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement, but the work that led to their recent Engineering Emmy is even more impressive: motion capture with real-time rendering and 3D compositing, in full quality, full resolution.

Read that last sentence slowly. Real time. 3D Models. 3D compositing. Ready for broadcast and streaming output.

No rendering.

The technologies are simple enough by themselves: "mechanical hand controls, a control computer, and a digital puppet workstation which renders the live on-screen image of the character." It also integrates technologies from AMD and NVIDIA to display finished quality 3D rendering from mental ray, and composited into a virtual environment in real time.

If you're interested in reading more, the Henson Company's page has a lot of wonderful information. But first, let's roll tape. This is a clip from "Sid The Science Kid," airing on PBS Kids. As you watch it, keep in mind that all the performances are taking place and being fully rendered and composited in real time.

Did I mention real time?

The fact is that motion capture for films and games has been around for years. In fact, MOST games have some kind of motion capture. The character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings was entirely a motion capture performance. Henson is one of the companies doing this kind of thing. Those are most definitely NOT real time processes.

The animation on Sid the Science Kid is in its own way quite primitive -- but not the motion. It's flexible, fluid, and dynamic...because that's how people are. The camera swoops through space...because that's how cameras are. The action is taking place in a studio with people, and being output in full quality, full resolution, composited in virtual 3D spaces, in real time.

Here's a nifty peek behind the scenes from the Wall St. Journal.

Variety adds some technical detail: "For any given project, as many as six such characters can interact at once, their every move tracked by 36 infrared cameras and played back in real-time on one of six huge screens surrounding the stage." The article also points out that for shows like Sid, the real-time output goes into Maya, where a Mental Ray pass adds nuances like fluid dynamics for the hair.

In the end, producing a fully-rendered 3D show takes about as much time to produce and post as a regular 2D sitcom. And even without a finishing pass, the output is ready for broadcast and streaming. As Henson begins licensing this technology, and hardware and software continues to refine, expect much bigger things to happen very, very quickly.


Henson has of course been doing much more than Muppets over the past 50+ years. Yes, Henson's puppetry goes back to the mid-1950s, although for most of us, it begins with Sesame St. in 1969. I'll save for another time the stories of how Sesame St. was my primary influence for creating nature documentaries (no kidding), but it's enough for now to observe that you've seen Henson creatures in The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Farscape, and many, many others.

(Although Yoda was voiced by Frank Oz, who also voiced Cookie Monster, Bert, Miss Piggy, Henson and Co. had nothing to do with the design or performance of Yoda.)

The Henson Creature Shop recently put together a reel that captures some of the wide range of styles they've worked in over the years.


Last but not least, I've always been a huge fan of the music woven into Henson Company productions, going back to the songs from Sesame Street, and the great Muppet Movie songs (including the Academy Award -nominated "Rainbow Connection." Later, after you've finished reading this, check out Willie Nelson's leisurely swinging, sweetly heartfelt rendition. Def Jam has disabled embedding, but follow the link to YouTube.


But first, here's the one I can't get out of my head, from our boy Sid the Science Kid. Schoolhouse Rock for 21st century indie kids: "I Love Charts." Seriously, one of the best new songs I've heard this year...maybe even the last couple of years. I think you're going to dig it as much as I do.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Aug 30, 2009 at 10:33:28 am technology, effects, compositing, motion capture, 3d, sesame st, muppets, music, willie nelson

For your Netflix Delectation

One of my favorite Netflix features is that you can stream movies in your queue. Add this one to your queue so that you can start streaming it to your computer right now: Henry Poole Is Here. The trailer's vibe makes it seem wacky...but it's not. The music is all wrong, NOTHING like the music in the movie. But it might still give you some idea: it's slow, quiet, lyrical, a little sad, and very sweet, about what you might find at the end of your rope.

And you can start streaming it now.

I gotta tell you. We've really gotten into the two of us, watching movies gathered close around the laptop in bed. You can't do it ALL the time, but it's very intimate. This is the perfect movie for that.

While it's not streaming, this next one is a picture with a similar slow, sweet vibe. Again, the music is all wrong - the score is by Michael Penn, and gorgeous. So are the shots - gorgeous frame after gorgeous frame, which the trailer gives absolutely no sense of. But again, hopefully, a little sense that this reaches way past cliches, way past the pain, into building something new and real.

We watched this one on the big screen (REALLY big - a 100-inch front projection system), but still a very, very intimate picture.

(The big screen ain't just about me, btw. Every time we've moved, my wife wouldn't even consider a house that doesn't enough throw-room for a projector. She bought one of those laser measuring thingies to make it easier to figure out.)

That streaming Netflix thing really is off the hook. As you might guess from other of my entries, I'm not buying the Blu-ray hype...but the built-in Netflix streaming in many newer models is tempting enough that my wife said it's time for us to start looking around at our player options. (Ah, that's my girl!)

So anyway, two movies that will reaffirm your faith in life, in love, and in moviemaking.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Aug 30, 2009 at 8:54:51 am movies, entertainment, family, netflix, bluray, tv

Blu-ray feeling blue?

As a guy who regularly talks about trends in media consumption and distribution, allow me to make the observation that people who talk about trends in in media consumption and distribution are idiots. Including me. We're hardly ever right about anything.

However, money talks. DVD buying peaked between somewhere around 2007, and has been trending downward since then. While Blu-ray buying is on the rise, it doesn't amount to much in the overall video buying world - certainly nowhere near enough to compensate for the decline in overall DVD sales. Says a senior analyst at Screen Digest, "We don't expect BD to be driving even minimal sector growth until 2010."

Now, it's easy to blame this on an economic downturn...which wasn't happening in 2007. It also doesn't take into account one of the most remarkable statistics I've come across in a long, long time:

47 percent of consumers now own a high-definition TV, up from 35 percent a year ago.

Read that again, slowly. HDTV ownership is up by nearly one third in the past year.

Nearly half of America owns an HD TV.

And yet, the number of people who say that they are likely to NOT buy a Blu-ray player in the past year is UP a little! 93% of people surveyed say that they are NOT likely to buy a Blu-ray player in the next year!

Read it again: HD television sales are UP nearly 30% this year over last year. People are LESS likely to buy a Blu-ray player this year than last year.

It's not the economy. Millions of people saw the value in buying an HDTV. They do NOT see the value in spending a fraction of that on a Blu-ray player.

It's not the cost of disks. You can rent a Blu-ray disk for hardly more than an SD DVD disk.

It's not any lack of confidence in the quality of Blu-ray. Anybody who bought an HD set saw Blu-ray aplenty in the store.

It's that they don't see the value in Blu-ray over the HD programming that they get from cable and satellite.

In other words, they could get a Blu-ray player for about the price of a month of cable with premium channels...but then they don't need the Blu-ray disks.

In my case, I watch TV around 5 hours a day, which puts me right in the middle of the pack for adult America. With the exception of an odd commercial here and there, 100% of what I watch is in HD. I watch a ton of movies in HD. This week, that includes "The Dark Knight," "Tropic Thunder," and "X-Files: I Want to Believe." I haven't watched them yet, because they're parked on my DVR. I'm also not in a hurry for the first two, because I saw them in HD on Demand BEFORE they were on Blu-ray. (I'm not in a hurry for X-Files because I'm not convinced it's good enough to spend my time on...but hey, it's there.)

I also watch quite a bit of TV (most of it network TV - woo-hoo!) and live sports (go Red Sox! - and for the record, my wife can be even more into sports TV than I am...but we both dig it.) No Blu-ray equivalent unless I'm willing to wait a looooong time.

I've talked about this often enough in other posts (follow the tags), but this is the first time that my instincts about the mainstream have been confirmed, as follows:

HD = good.
HDTV = will spend many hundreds, if not more, to buy one.
Blu-ray = yawn, even for $200-300, if not less

What do you think, kids? Given that I choose to write about this stuff on a regular-ish basis, and that EVERYONE who does so is mostly I wrong this time? Why do YOU think that interest is Blu-ray is so low relative to HD TV buying, and waning?

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Jun 25, 2009 at 12:35:11 pmComments (13) bluray, entertainment, tv, dvd

The Art and Science of Joseph Kosinski

I noted in my entry on the Tron sequel that a speedy look at Joseph Kosinski’s IMDb profile reveals virtually nothing -- not even his birthday. I’m amazed that nobody has gotten around to it yet, but he doesn’t even have an entry at Wikipedia.

(I wonder if it's related to the absence of an entry on the Tron sequel. Probably. The only power in the universe I can think of that's more powerful than the masses converging on Wikipedia is Disney.)

And so we ask,

who is this man, and why is he directing the sequel to Tron?

I first discovered him a year before any mention of him helming the Tron sequel, the same way that millions of other folks did: I saw this AMAZING commercial for the Xbox 360 videogame, “Gears of War.” On top of footage of horrific battles and a massive, terrifying monster, he lays a haunted, heartbreaking version of “Mad World.” It makes for an unsettling mix of violence, sorrow, humility, fear, and overwhelming mortality.

Hit the HQ button. Set it to full screen. Turn it up.

Here’s Kosinski talking about his work on the spot, which, remarkably enough, started with the song.

That version of “Mad World” is by Gary Jules, and was first heard by most of us in the remarkable “Donnie Darko.”

"Donnie Darko" was enough to propel the song to #3 in the UK in 2003, but its presence in the Gears of War commercial drove it to #1 at iTunes in 2006.

If you like that, you should also check out the full-length version. It lacks the blunt-force trauma of the shorter version, but it gives you a stronger sense of Kosinki’s cinematic vision. Again, click the HQ button. Watch full screen. Turn it up.

What I did IMMEDIATELY after seeing that first clip was to find out as much as I could about it. I quickly found the director’s website, It turns out that he’s directed quite a few very, very high-impact spots over the years – even if, to be honest, I still haven’t seen most of them outside his website.

The website is in Flash, so links beyond that one are a no-go. The site is also a little old, I think – the clips are small-ish, and dog slow. It’s still worth poking around – lots of great info about the spots, including credits...but watch the spots here before you visit.

One of his commercials is among my recent favorites: “Lincoln Effect,” and it includes the great tagline, “Starships Don’t Need Keys.”

Since we’re talking about directing “Tron 2.0,” I want to draw your attention to “Apple, iSPEC,” a short film that, according to the credits, “postulates the evolution of the personal media device and experience, placing the viewer within a digital recreation of the Colorado Lounge from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’”

Sound freaky? Well, it is. It also evokes a postulatory (I guess) evolution of the world of Tron, from one oriented around the dark, to one oriented around light. Regardless, the camera moves through the opening scenes, including a very interesting new software UI, exactly as you might imagine it moving through a Tron sequel.

That one was all CG, and frankly looks it. Not in a bad way, but for all that it offers a strongly personal camera perspective, there are clearly no people in this environment. It’s truly gorgeous, though, and I’m not shocked that it won the Autodesk iDesign Award.

I learned that from a brief bio formerly posted at the site for his (former?) company KDLAB. The site’s just a landing page now, pointing you elsewhere, but I found the bio floating around, apparently untethered.

Also jumping out at me from his bio: graduating from “Stanford University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1996 and from Columbia University with a Masters of Architecture in 1999. Since then, he has taught Advanced Digital Design at Columbia and serves on the beta board for Discreet in the development of their next-generation design software.”

Let’s add this up: engineering, plus advanced design, plus next-gen software development, equals TRON, baby!

To really, really see this pay off, check out “Nike, LesJumelles.” That’s French for “The Twins.” Watch it first, and then we’ll talk.

A profile at Autodesk’s website talks with Kosinski about using an alpha version of 3D Studio Max and some other Autodesk tools to put it together.

He offers a slightly more artistic take at Archinect, where he discusses the "twin" motif. Here’s the money quote:

“I did some investigation into the relationship between speed and energy and rediscovered Einstein's concept of “Time Dilation” - something which had always seemed fascinating to me. Basically, it states that as you approach the speed of light, time seems to slow down for you, and speed up for everything else that isn't moving.”

Man, oh, man, I cannot WAIT for this movie! After reading that, and seeing those, even if I’d never heard Tron, I’d want to see a full-length version of whatever this cat is up to.

That first Gears of War I saw came soon after “LesJumelles,” when Kosinski had moved to Venice, CA’s "Anonymous Content"...after being recruited by one David Leo Fincher, who is credited as “Creative Consultant” on "Gears of War, Mad World.”

A last note about college degrees in mechanical engineering and architecture, and work in the world of software design: it’s not all that many steps from building devices, to building buildings, to building a world. Because whatever else is true about the world inside the game of Tron, it reflects the strong mechanical and engineering design of a software/hardware mind. It’s not enough for the world inside Tron to be beautiful. It has to visually make SENSE.

I’m going to end this post where it began, with the original version of “Gears of War, Mad World.” This clip opens with that, followed by “making of” footage from Digital Domain, with block renderings and motion capture footage intercut with the final version. Like many of the best magic tricks, it becomes even more impressive once you see how it’s done. You’ll see the technology, but you’ll also see how Kosinski and his team turn it into art.

Kosinski is our boy, all right.

Bonus clips:

It turns out that our boy is quite at home with sequels. I showed his sequel to Gears of War, above. Here’s the third sequel. You know the drill: HQ. Full screen. Turn it up.

And here’s his sequel to “Les Jumelles.”

Here's a 2005 montage of his work. Most of my favorite bits are in the “Les Jumelles” and “iSPEC” pieces, but check the intro: very, VERY Tron.

And a special bonus digression on commercial directors who, like Fincher, transitioned to features. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Tony Scott (Top Gun, and more others than you remember), Mark Romanek (24 Hour Photo), Tony Kaye (American History X), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and Ridley Scott (take your pick).

(Who am I leaving out? Let me know in the comments.)

I should also note that some of these guys have done some of the best music videos of all time. Romanek: “Constant Craving,” "Are You Gonna Go My Way," “Closer,” and one of the all-time greats, Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt." (I wrote about it here.)

Fincher’s videos are so off the hook that, as with Kosinski, I looked him up the first time he caught my, with Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” another on my short list for best ever.

Check it full screen, and loud. Some obvious nods to “Metropolis,” only with crotch grabbing. “Rated M, for Mature” – no kidding -- but a real joy to watch again. Throw in “Vogue,” “Forever Your Girl,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” "End of the Innocence," and “Cradle of Love" off the top of my head.

Anyway, I like commercials. I like music videos. I like movies. Storytelling is storytelling.

Which brings us back to Kosinski and the Tron sequel. I have no idea if the guy liked the first Tron, or even if he saw it at the time. (I'm guessing he was around 8 when it came out.) But as I look at his work again, I can’t imagine anybody better equipped to direct the second one.

Tron 2 Review

More specifically, a review of the rapidly emerging news about the slice of nerd-vana that may or may not be named Tron 2.

Those of us who became devoted some classics of science fiction filmmaking between, oh, I don’t know, let’s say 1977 and 1983, have reasons to cast the stink eye in the direction of latter-day sequels, prequels and such. One of those classics is 1982’s “Tron,” and you don’t need me to explain why.

Yet even in this post-stink-eye era, the word on its sequel is nothing but good so far – including the news that it’s being shot in stereoscopic 3D. As soon as you hear that, your reaction is probably the same as mine – how could it NOT be?

Details have been coming fast of late, so it seems a good time to review where we are so far. Let’s start with a wonderful a bootleg clip of the trailer from 2008’s Comic Con. The quality is pretty nasty, because it’s, well, a bootleg. The clip itself drags a bit (less a well-paced trailer than a look at the “look” of the movie so far, I think), but you can definitely see where they were at the time.

The art and science of the final release will of course be light years (har har) ahead of this, but so far, so good!

A few things to note:

  • This is still online! Disney is notoriously protective of its properties, yet here this clip remains. I think they get that this barely embryonic footage is worth something, and was, after all shown publicly. I doubt any mercy will be shown for leaks…or to leakers…from here on.

  • I got chills hearing the roars of approval when the light cars, and especially Jeff Bridges, appear on screen. Even without the pictures, I’d have gotten chills just hearing it.

    (Here’s an interview in The Guardian that includes some of Jeff’s very endearing enthusiasm for the project.)

  • No Bruce Boxleitner in the trailer? No worries. He didn’t sign on until later in 2008, although he’s still listed as “rumored” on IMDb.

  • It was at the time of the trailer called “TR2N.” Cool-looking, yes, but virtually unpronounceable.

    The name has changed a few other times, but IMDB suggests that we may have landed on Tron 2.0 for now. I'm not convinced. Disney released a videogame called “Tron 2.0” in 2003.

    It was generally well-received -- both the hardcore game nerds and the gen pop give it roughly a B -- but Disney seems like a creative-enough bunch to come up with a unique name. Indeed, reports as recent as a few weeks ago have said that the title is in fact NOT set. Read on for details.

  • Did I mention the roars of approval? That for me is the big takeaway from the trailer.

One of the first questions to come up is, who’s involved? One sign of the project’s legitimacy is the presence of Steve Lisberger, who directed and wrote the story for the original, now here as a writer and consultant. Here’s a wonderful intervi... with Lisberger, as well as the best discussion I've seen of the showing of the trailer at Comic Con.

Something to be truly excited about is that two of the screenwriters, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis have done quite a bit of heavy lifting as both writers and producers for television’s “Lost,” my vote for richest storytelling in the history of the medium, by a pretty long shot.

The key name is of course the director, Joseph Kosinski. A speedy look at his IMDb profile shows…nothing, except a pre-production credit for Logan’s Run. To be released in 2010, sez IMDb?! I don’t think so! (Although it turns out that Kosinski did in fact sign to do “Logan’s Run” first.) And no mention of Kosinski at Wikipedia!

I'd actually heard of him a couple of years before he signed on for Tron, when me and millions of other folks were bowled over by his commercial for Gears of War. Hit the HQ button. Watch full screen. Turn it up.

I was actually a little skeptical about the Tron sequel before I found out that the guy who did THAT was directing the movie! And while you may be skeptical about a commercial director taking on Tron for his first feature, I've put together some of his spots and other shorts that relate to what he might be up to with Tron, and some of the striking things he has to say about it. You'll love it. Even if you'd never heard of Tron, Kosinski is one of the most creative people you'll have come across in a long, long time.

In the meantime, here are some more of stories that have put the Tron sequel back in the news of late. First comes this article at /film the week before last, featuring the first picture of a costumed actor. Later that day, a picture from the set in Vancouver, standing in for New York City.

(I’m only including a few photos from the articles I link to at /film. It’s a great resource for folks tracking stories like this for the entire “reel world” that you should check out.)

The fella who sent in the picture is breathless with wonder:

“I was in total awe of how much equipment and gadgets they had. Everything I’ve seen them doing in the last five days is easily some of the most expensive stuff I’ve ever seen. It’s probably is $300 million, even if it’s canadian dollars.”

(Presumably written by an American who hasn’t noticed that the US dollar is getting its ass handed to it by the Canadian dollar…although because they’re Canadian, they’re doing it very, very politely.)

It took Disney only 3 days to tell us that the budget of Tron 2.0 is NOT approaching $300 million, a figure that had also been mentioned in the Vancouver Sun.

In reporting that debunking, /film includes a picture of a camera, and some tantalizing tech details:

“[‘Benjamin Button’ cinematographer Claudio] Miranda has challenged his crew with the task of having all the flexibility of standard 2D cameras including ambitious use of shots as well as Steadicam in 3D.” … “Amongst other setups, we will be rigging an F-35 to a GF-8 crane and Mini-Scorpio head to get a bird’s eye view out over the night streets of Vancouver.”

Remember the stereoscopic part? I recently had a chance to speak to John Daro at FotoKem, where a number of recent stereo smashes have been posted. He was speaking generally about stereo 3D DI…most definitely NOT about Tron, I promise…but he gave me insights into how the Sony F35 CineAlta camera works for stereo features.

Quite a bit of footage from the F35 crosses his desk, most of it shot at 1920x1080, 4:2:2, recorded at 880 mbps to the Sony SRW-1 HDCAM tape recorder that you can see prominently docked to the back of the F35.

Yes, tape. There’s a ton of it out there, even for high-end digital cinema. And yes, 1920x1080. As Russell Lasson noted in 21st Century Cinema for Creative COW Magazine, virtually all digital cinema is 2K, and as Panavision’s John Galt noted for us in The Truth About 2K, 4K, and The Future of Pixels, the majority of 2K is shot at 1920x1080. Even the Academy aperture for a 2K scan is only 1728 pixels.

So don’t get your panties in a wad about the Tron sequel or anything else being shot at 1980 for the big screen. You’ve already seen a ton of movies shot this way.)

At 4:2:2 for a stereo 3D shoot, the SRW-1 takes two HD-SDI feeds, and records them to a single tape: left-eye/right-eye for frame one, left-eye/right-eye for frame two, etc. John digitizes via the Sony SRW 5800 into the Quantum Pablo, which splits out two separate streams in real time as it digitizes.

The SRW-1 records only – only! – a single stream of 4:4:4. Shooting that way would of course call for a dedicated deck for each eye.

So if the report about shooting Tron 2.0 is accurate, that’s almost certainly how it’s being recorded. In any case, John will be going into much, more detail on the 3D DI post process for the upcoming Stereoscopic Issue of Creative COW Magazine.

Another recent report about Tron 2.0 is that it will be scored by the masked electronica dance duo known as Daft Punk.

With the original scored by the iconic Wendy Carlos, they have as much to live up to as anybody involved in the production of Tron 2.0. They can be cheesy – not necessarily a bad thing in this context – but I think they’re a great choice.

The most-viewed Daft Punk clip I found is this bit of genius by a youngster named Austin Hall, set to their song, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” also known in this permutation as “Daft Hands.”

The uber-geeks at Ain’t It Cool News got an updated report on the plot in the last few weeks, which you can take a couple of ways. One is that, far from being mere fanboys, the team at AICN have established themselves as a genuine force to be reckoned with. For example, site founder Harry Knowles emailed James Cameron about some of the “Avatar” rumors he’d been hearing, and Cameron replied.

So this wouldn’t be the first time that AICN has had info leaked to them...sometimes from official sources, intending to whip up a storm. It also wouldn’t be the first time that a studio has leaked something substantially true, but with important details obscured. And as the author points out, anything can change over the next two years. But his one rings true.

You can find plenty of other good stuff at AICN (as well as some adult language – step gingerly). I've been following it since early web adopter Roger Ebert – whose site remains one of the web’s great film resources -- pointed us to AICN back in 1996, when it was just Harry Knowles and his father. (Harry also co-hosted “At the Movies” with Roger a few times.)

One of AICN's Tron sequel tidbits is this impromptu conversation with Kosinski in 2008.

And this story includes the news that the name of the movie is not Tron 2, but “something with a colon."

This week they've also posted another exterior shot from Vancouver this week. Below is greatly reduced from the original.

As with the other photos we’ve seen so far, admittedly not much to see, but trainspotters will note that this is in fact another train, and that it has indeed been spotted.

This little summary is far from complete, but it’s enough to catch you up on where we are so far. For more perspective on this news, especially on director Joseph Kosinski, see here.

PS. In an article for Creative COW Magazine, CGI pioneer Steve Wright tells how the effects in Tron actually set the industry back!

This is the sidebar in an article in on how commercials were actually the driving force in widespread adoption of CGI. Pretty slick stuff, and well worth a look.

RealD: Monsters

In my Monday-morning breakdown of the numbers after the opening weekend of Monsters vs. Aliens, I noted a disproportionate share of the dough coming from 3D screens:

  • $58.2 million for the weekend, on 4104 screens
  • 28% of those screens were 3D, and accounted for 58% of the gross!
  • .03% --that's three-tenths of 1 percent -- of those 4104 screens were IMAX (143 to be exact)...and they accounted for nearly TEN PERCENT of the gross!

    Now, IMAX is a name you know. Until very recently, it has been synonymous with big-screen stereoscopic projection. Really, it's the first major brand in this space.

    Here's the next brand to watch: RealD. Right now, they make the 3D systems used by roughly 90% of the installed screens. (The other big name besides IMAX: our pals at Dolby. But that's another story, and I'll get to it soon.)

    RealD recently announced that their specific slice of the pie was a big one: over $25 million of the total take came from screens using their systems.

    The 3D screen rollout has obviously slowed, for obvious reasons...and there are equally obvious reasons why someone might want to sign up for one of these screens anyway: there's obviously money to be made. Of course, if everything obvious was true, or everything true was obvious....well, you get the point.

    In any case, look for more from RealD soon, right here at your friendly neighborhood COW.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Apr 19, 2009 at 6:46:40 pm stereoscopic, movies, entertainment

iPod/iPhone: Getting in the game

The folks at Reuters were among the world press who covered the Game Developer Conference earlier this month. It truly is a massive event, this year held March 23-27 in San Francisco. Among the tidbits from their coverage on April 1:

Some say the iPhone's unique features -- GPS capability, connectivity, a touch screen -- and sheer variety of content gives it an edge over its more established handheld console competition

Yo, Reuters: kind of late to the game, boys. You could have read THIS three weeks earlier in Creative COW Magazine's Games Issue:

Our notion was that if Nintendo had announced this device as a games machine, and said, "It's got a camera, it's got a GPS, it's got all your contacts, it's always connected, it's multi-touch, it's got accelerometers, and oh by the way, there's 75 million users with credit card accounts already active," you'd say, "Are you kidding me?" But Apple DID it.

That's from Bob Stevenson, Chief Creative Officer (GREAT title) at ngmoco, a "Next Generation MObile COmpany" made up of some truly sharp games developers from companies including EA.

While far from the biggest company in the market -- only 6 of 'em when we spoke to Bob -- but I think absolutely the one to watch. After you read our conversation with him, I know you'll agree.

Back to Reuters:

The DS franchise has shipped more than 100 million units and the PSP more than 50 million since both came to market in late 2004.

They threw that away in one sentence, but three weeks earlier, I had put it in a much wider context in the COW Magazine. I posted an expanded version what I wrote in the mag here at my blog on March 23, before GDC opened, and a week before Reuters picked up the story. I have to tell you, I write a lot of stuff, and I really like this piece. Games really are a big deal for our business, and game developers are among the folks who are quickly pouring into The COW.

(Turns out that there's a lot of VIDEO in VIDEO GAMES. Who knew?)

Of course, lots of other people are pouring into The COW too.

So anyway, you can hang around and wait for the world's leading news agencies to get in the game and tell you what's happening out there...or you can read it weeks earlier here at The COW.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Apr 11, 2009 at 8:44:41 amComments (1) games, creative cow magazine

Monsters vs. Aliens: And the winner is, STEREOSCOPIC 3D

Jeffry Katzenberg has been a major advocate of stereoscopic 3D for a while. The first place I saw him talk about it was ShoEast in 2007, a gathering of eastern US movie theater owners and operators. The talk was called "The Future of 3D in the Digital Age," and it was among the places that he said that all of Dreamworks' animated features would be released as stereoscopic.

On one count, he underestimated how quickly this would come to pass: he said that there would be "5, 6 or 7 'Super-A' titles" in 2009, 12 to 18 by 2010. So far this year, we've already seen My Bloody Valentine, the Jonas Brothers concert movie, Henry Selick's "Coraline," and just this weekend, "Aliens vs. Monsters," with 10 more slated for release this summer.

Here's the first trailer for Aliens vs. Monsters, which first ran in 3D during the Super Bowl:

<object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="//"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><embed src="//" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

Here's the second trailer:

<object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="//"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><embed src="//" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

Here's the third. Not sure why YouTube won't let me embed the high-quality version, but it's worth following the link to take a gander.

The next biggie is going to be Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

<object width="450" height="298"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" width="450" height="298" allowFullScreen="true"></embed></object>

(You can see Entertainment Weekly's preview of the year's 3D releases here, but it's worth trying to track down the print issue, which includes anagplypic stills from most of those features, along with 3D glasses to view 'em. Pretty slick. It also doesn't have much to say about James Cameron's Avatar, opening in December...but I sure will later.)

So for the pace of "Super 'A'" releases, we're well ahead of schedule.

As theater owners pushed back on Katzenberg in 2007, they said that upgrading screens was going to be way, way too expensive. His reply was that they'd make more money on 3D showings, and this week's premiere of "Monsters vs. Aliens" certainly bore that out. Here's how the numbers broke down:

  • $58.2 million for the weekend, on 4104 screens
  • 28% of those screens were 3D, and accounted for 58% of the gross!
  • .03% --that's three-tenths of 1 percent -- of those 4104 screens were IMAX (143 to be exact)...and they accounted for nearly TEN PERCENT of the gross! (Again to be exact, $5.2 million, a record.)

To put it another way, 28.3% of the screens accounted for nearly 70% of the money that Av.M pulled in! That is, as the kids say, off the hizz-OOOK! (Actually, I doubt any kids say that anymore.) There's absolutely no question that Katzenberg is being proved right on feature after feature.

However, here's one area he was a little optimistic on: he predicted 6000 3D-equipped screens by March 2009. The number is more like 2000 in the US, with a smattering more overseas. Let's be generous and call it halfway there.

The good news is that there are a total of 8000 screens "committed" (see previous link)...but as far as I can tell, no particular timetable.

When I say 8000 screens, the vast majority are those offered by RealD. Dolby is late to the party, but has a few hundred screens committed, mostly in Europe. The draw is that they don't require a new screen, and sell their gear outright. RealD requires new screens and collects royalties....but c'mon, seriously now, RealD has it locked up. Although as far as overall revenues, all signs point to Katzenberg being exactly right: the real money is in 3D exhibition.

It's true now. It's going to get truer. Expect more details.

In the meantime, our stereoscopic 3D coverage is going to be a wild ride that you're not going to want to miss. If you don't already subscribe, now's a good time to start.

Posted by: Tim Wilson on Mar 31, 2009 at 8:07:06 amComments (3) stereoscopic 3d, 3d

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