I watched Avatar in IMAX 3D, adding my above-average share to its 2+ billion record box office, after I read half of the Cinefex article covering it. Here are some quotes NOT about the technical details but about the revolutionary and illuminary visions.

A 4-second Shot Takes 50TB

This is from another article on 2012 in the same issue about the shot of an aircraft carrier hitting the White House. It just shows the incredible scale of current CG technology.

Scanline keyframe animated the aircraft carrier to slowly roll in the crest of the wave, then added secondary animation, including tiny aircraft skidding across the deck. A dynamic fluid simulation created a film of water across the surface of the ship. “One of the hardest things in CG water is to make surfaces look wet,” noted (Scanline visual effects supervisor Stephen) Trojansky. “If you render little particles falling over a surface, it still looks dry. Instead, we simulated sheets of water contacting the ship. Those simulations were done at such a high level, interacting with every little airplane wheel and curve on the deck, they filled 50 terabytes of space.

Reinvent the Wheel When You Should

Man am I in the wrong industry. This is a coder’s dream come true: do things in the right way from first principles. BTW I think the Ring Trilogy’s greatest legacy is not the movies themselves, but the Weta companies. They were founded before the Rings, but the Rings elevated them to truly world-leading FX shops. And almost every Cinefex article I read afterwards mentions the use of Massive.

“To figure out how we were going to light and render these very big, complex shots, ” explained (Weta Digital visual effects supervisor–now director–Joe) Letteri, “we went back to ground zero and questioned everything we had ever done. A lot of techniques that are used in computer graphics go back 20, 25 years. They were developed in the days when computers didn’t have early the speed and power that they have today; and so there were a lot of shortcuts taken. Back then, you could never render something as big as what we were rendering for this show. Now that we could do that, what was the best way? Was it still appropriate to use these old ideas? We reexamined every technique we’d ever used. If it held up, great; if it didn’t, we came up with something new.” …

“The goal of everyone over the years has been to make shots look real,” stated Letteri. “But we decided to bite the bullet and make them real, to actually calculate the reality.” (The example is CG character movements are driven by real muscles, fat and tissue, instead of fake muscles “like balloons under the skin that move based on joint movement” and so forth.)

You Can Do Anything You Want, but You Don’t

This one is from James Cameron at the end of the article, showing how far CG has come, and how far he is ahead of everyone else.

“…when you’ve got all these possibilities, when you can do any kind of action imaginable, …you have to be very disciplined. Applying rigor and discipline to the process has been the biggest challenge, in fact. Early on, we came up with the principle of denying ourselves infinite possibility–which sounds wrong. You’d think you’d want to embrace the infinite possibility; but you don’t because you’ll never get there. Ever. We stood by the principle of making a creative decision in the moment, and never second-guessing it. And just by making that decision, we had eliminated possibility. Every single day was about eliminating possibility, in face.”

My aunt has been teaching technologies in Beijing Film Academy for many years. She was an early (for China) proponent of digital film making, and a few years ago she asked me to get her Cinefex so she doesn’t have to fight other people for getting it from the library. I don’t know other specialized magazines, but every issue of the quarterly Cinefex is like an art book. I enjoyed flipping the pages to see the amazing FX/CGI shots, and learned the basic storyline about some latest movies.

One of the few things I really learned is that an FX shot sometimes doesn’t look like FX at all, and those are probably the hardest ones to make. A funny anti-sample is that Peter Jackson said among all the things he did for Lord of the Ring, including adjusting color tint for almost every shot, he did NOT do anything to Frodo Baggins’ blue eyes.

Still, I was surprised to see a cover of an old-aged Benjamin Button. What’s special about a makeup?

Turns out it’s a very significant milestone in FX. We’re probably still many years from a really convincing 100% CG head (Final Fantasy was a decent try), but BB shows that we can already do CG head tracked to human almost perfectly.

The movie itself was a bit lame, as the concept is way too bizarre, and it’s pretty absurd and pretentious when the artificially young and handsome Brad Pitt tried to act and speak with 60 years of life experiences. So when I first watched it without knowing the FX behind it, I was really bored. I didn’t see any FX, and that’s the best FX there possibly can be.

Finally I watched it, after years of knowing it, and months of recording it on DVR.

And I can’t wait another minute to write about it. Thank god tomorrow (er, today) is Thanksgiving.

I think it was one of the earliest western movies semi-publicly shown in China in the 80’s, so I’ve known its name for a long time. Fortunately I only knew one spoiler, that a runner gave up an Olympic event due to his religion and won another, so up until the scene where Liddell learned about the Sunday heat (actually he knew months ago and trained specifically for 400m and earned his spot), I thought it was Abrahams who gave up something on Saturday.

I knew Vangelis from some songs from his collaboration with Yes’s Jon Anderson (mostly from the 1981 album The Friends of Mr. Cairo, in the same year as the movie). I can probably write a full post about that, but basically those were among the first rock (in a general sense) songs I’d ever heard, and they just blew my mind wide open. “Outside of This (Inside of That)” is still one of my favorites to date. And the super long (12’04) and winding title song was like a complete short film. And I can still hear the ocean wave in Mayflower now when I close my eyes, which I played during a family gathering when we made dumplings together and was ridiculed (on the same tape I had Genesis’s Domino, and someone commented “is that what they called the Screaming Rock Star?”). Oh, and I couldn’t believe it when I found out after many years that the singer is a man.

Anyhow. The movie theme song is one of those modern classics that have been so abused that hearing it would almost cause instant nausea, but it really serves the movie well. And I’m surprised that Vangelis did the whole song track (except those hymns, of course), which must be a first in movie history, blasting the way for cheap synth into pop culture (followed by the Beverly Hills Cop theme). By “cheap” I mean the cheapest keyboard can do it now, but it certainly was beyond everyone’s imagination back then.

I think I read somewhere that the movie is considered a milestone for modern sports movies. The script is very well written (deserving its Oscar) with the interleaved and contrasting paths of two great athletes. The movie is very well paced, in 80’s standard at least. And all the slow mo’s actually aren’t that sickeningly cliche, for example the 100m final goes in real time in the first play, and slow mo’ed a few short times afterwards, just like a real TV broadcast nowadays.

Other interesting tidbits:

  • In the opening scene when they ran to the Carlton Hotel (J noticed the name; in real life it’s a student residence hall) in the distance, I said “that looks like St. Andrews”. Lo and behold, it is actually filmed there. And most of the runners in the scene are caddies there.
  • I couldn’t understand most of the dialog in the beginning due to the English and Scottish accent, and that I couldn’t turn up the volume since baby is sleeping. So the first half was quite confusing as I couldn’t understand how the two runners are related until Abrahams watched Liddell winning the 400m after falling down.
  • I can’t believe Liddell’s story isn’t more known in China (especially this year), since he is the first Chinese-born Olympic gold medalist and he dedicated the second half of his life to Chinese people. (Actually I completely understand why: he’s a missionary. Religion is poison, isn’t.) He was born in a missionary family in Tianjin, died in a internment camp in 潍坊, and buried in the same cemetery along with Norman Bethune and Dwarkanath Kotnis.
  • Sam Mussabini is a very successful coach. He coached Olympic gold medalists in 1908, 12, and 20 games, so Abrahams in 24 would be almost like a routine for him. So his emotional celebration in the movie is probably another nice fabrication.
  • When the Americans appear in the Olympics, I was wondering how many stars the flags have (should be 48). Wikipedia and IMDb say the flags in the movie all have 50 stars.
  • In real life, the text from the Bible was handed to Eric Liddell by a coach on the US team, not by Jackson Scholz, who actually won the 200m (Liddell won bronze, and Abrahams was last in final).
  • I thought the scene in a church where Liddell gave signature to a young girl was odd, because I thought Jennie was his wife (she’s his sister), so it’s completely against his religious conviction to flurt with a girl in front of his wife. IMDb says that a scene was cut where he courts the same girl in Paris, and she is from Canada, as is Liddell’s real life wife.
  • I suppose the Paris Olympics scenes are pretty accurate. What a contrast with Beijing 2008! The stadium is smaller than a high school football field. There’s no show or firework. And the runners have to dig their own holes at starting line.
  • The rather conspicuous Lipton Tea sign (the only one) in the stadium for the 100m may be a sign of commercialization, just like the fact that Abrahams used a professional coach, of which the Cambridge guys accused him, is probably a sign of the death of amateurism in Olympics.

It’s a quite disturbing movie, not because the guy got away with a double (or rather, triple) homicide and kept his rag-to-riches marriage intact, but because the staleness and cliches of the story.

The only thing I like is the soundtrack, mostly of Caruso singing Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. It’s not that I like that opera or opera in general, but the heavily scratched mono sound is ironically a lot more innocent and pristine compared to the storyline and characters. The opera is a comedy, but the segments used in the soundtrack all sound tragic and dramatic, making a great ambiance.

And I really can’t understand what’s the fuss about Scarlett Johansson. Sure she looks much better than Sarah Jessica Parker, but “sexist” or “most beautiful” woman alive? Seems like some people just have a fetish of fat lips. A while ago I lamented the lack of classic beauty nowadays, and the popularity of people like Johansson and Jessica Alba seem to corroborate that.

I saw it in my dad’s video collection many years ago, but never got to watch it. The title always sounds enticing, as Helena Bonham Carter–she’s not pretty, but what an actress, a perfect personification of the Corpse Bride and match for the cranky and creative Tim Burton.

I can’t remember when I requested it from the library–must be several months ago. Given that the borrow period for DVD is only 7 days, it’s a pretty hot item.

It’s a pretty slow movie, boring at times, but the pace is perfect for the storyline and the atmosphere. These British films have a special cunningness and charm, with the ageless Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. It was Daniel Day-Lewis’ (then 28) break-out role, and certainly Carter’s (then only 19) as well. What careers are ahead of them!

The hilarious Reverend Mr. Beebe was played by Simon Callow, a good supporting actor in many movies. From what I’ve seen: Emanuel Schikaneder (the librettist of Die Zauberflöte) in Amadeus (his film debut), the wonderfully gay (in both senses) Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Sir Edmund Tilney (Master of the Revels) in Shakespeare in Love.

And we’re pleasantly surprised to see Florence featured in many shots–the first half of the story all happened there. It’s a wonderful feeling, though banal, to see a landmark in a movie and think “yeah I’ve been there, it’s not that pretty”.

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