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Month: December 2011

My 2011 favorites

As I said last year, I hate to compare things I love.  But for the sake of a more interesting blog post, I’m going to anyway.  In real life, I don’t really like playing favorites, because different books and movies and stuff all have their own spirit, and are ultimately incomparable.  But let’s disregard that for a few moments.

For books, the nominees are books I finished reading for the first time this year, regardless of their release date.  Movies, TV shows, and film scores must be from 2011.  (Books I only read a few chapters from are not qualified.  Also, I actually only finished reading five books this year, and only one was fiction.)

Here we go… and Happy New Year!

Year’s best live-action film:

hugo

Year’s best animated film:

kungfupanda2

Year’s best TV show:

House

Year’s best film score:

rio

Year’s best non-fiction book:

cartoons

Year’s best fiction book:

lostgate2

Best whatever else:

Best game soundtrack:

skyrim

Best podcast:

we

Tintin was awful

Here’s my terribly negative review of the recent film The Adventures of Tintin.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_Secret_of_the_Unicorn

I’ve never read the comics.  And, to be honest, from the previews, I didn’t expect it to be that great.  But it was worse than I could’ve possibly imagined.

I didn’t much like the character design.  On the technical side, they were amazing.  But on the design side, they were a bit disgusting.  Realistic enough to make their cartoon-ness quite creepy. 

The acting all seemed a bit overdone; everyone was gesturing and moving their arms about and turning their heads curiously too much like awful high school actors in a school play.

The camera kept doing this constant wobble.  I guess the director was trying to make it seem more natural, more realistic, but it was just annoying.  Yes, you can make a computer camera seem natural, you’re very smart, stop it.

The worst part, though, was the dialog.  The main character, Tintin, feels the need to say all his thoughts out loud because we’re too dumb to figure anything out for ourselves.  “Now where did I put that magnifying glass?”  I don’t know, Dora, where could it be?  This goes on and on.  Shut up already!  Let me enjoy the atmosphere of this CGI world.  No, you just have to keep on telling me how curious everything is to you.

Maybe one has to be familiar with the comics for this movie, because I just didn’t care about Tintin at all.  I guess it was because Tintin himself didn’t really care about anything.  He just wanted to solve the mystery and find the hidden treasure because… oh, just because!  Character motivation?  Pfft!  Who needs that?  He was just born to go after the treasure, save for the all-is-lost moment near the end, when he gives up for the simple reason that he’s supposed to at that part of the story.  What will get him to break into act 3?  Some of the worst scriptwriting ever, of course!  “Don’t let failure stop you!”  Wow, thanks!  How encouraging and inspiring!

The humor was atrocious.  We’re meant to laugh at people getting hit on the back of the head with a plank of wood and passing out.  Hahahaha!  How innovative!  Bumbling police men.  Hahaha!  Being drunk!  Hahaha!  I never thought I’d see humor so worse than Disney Channel’s dismal laugh-tracked offerings.

The elements that I did appreciate (for the bad elements were so bad that the most I can do for the good elements is “appreciate” them) were the over-the-top action sequences, especially that magnificent one near the end when the characters are racing through the city chasing slivers of paper, all shown in one long glorious long shot like an epic level from a video game.  I can’t help but imagine how awesome the scene might have been if the story surrounding it wasn’t complete drivel.

I also appreciated the clever scene transitions, possible only with CGI.  Again, though, not enough for the quality to be considered redeeming.

Overall, it was a horrible movie.  One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  Just depressing.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not they make a sequel as planned.  If Peter Jackson directs the sequel, I may give it a chance.

Yet another new animation studio

Yet another new CG animation studio will be opening in 2012, this time in Florida. It’s Tradition Studios, owned by Digital Domain, well-known in the film industry for their special effects work. Everyone’s making millions with their animated features, why not join in? Tradition Studios say they have four animated features in various stages of development, and their first feature, The Legend of Tembo, should be released in 2014.

The more animation jobs there are in the US, the better, right? Though I do fear the industry will soon become overcrowded; surely there’s some limit to this animation fever. I just hope the growth fades away gradually rather than bubbling, so a bunch of animators and artists don’t just suddenly lose their jobs with nowhere to go.

According to the article:

From animation studio tours, an outdoor movie amphitheater and soccer fields, [Digital Domain CEO] Textor said the new building is designed to draw the public in and promote its new venture of telling children’s stories. He said the concept of inviting families is vital to the company’s new mission.

“We make movies for children and like the idea of children visiting and playing at the facility,” Textor said. “It’s not only exciting for kids in the community, but it brings artists closer to their audience. They may think they’re working for me, but I like to remind them who their audience is.”

Um… OK. I think a bunch of kids playing at the facility would be more distracting than inspiring, but who knows. I guess it’s an attempt to attract tourists and stir economic growth in that area of Florida? The article says:

In 2010, the city issued $39.9 million in bonds to build the movie studio and in return, the company must hire 500 employees by 2014. Textor said it’s well on its way to reaching the goal with more than 270 hires.

Digital Domain will pay for the building through a lease with the city.

“(The community) built this studio for us,” Textor said. “We were greeted with open arms and would like this relationship to continue.”

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Stardown Bullets review

I finally finished reading the massive 957-page sci-fi book Stardown Bullets by new writer Joseph Black (who is only a few months older than me, making my lack of success at novel writing all the more bitter — OK, not really).

Overall, I think this may very well be the best science fiction book I’ve ever read.

The book takes place in the far future in which, through a few pages of expository techno-babble, a good chunk of humanity has left Earth and colonized two planets in some other solar system, one planet more naturally habitable than the other. The planets are occasionally temporarily connected through what the characters call a “star bridge” which is this gigantic weird energetic bendy tube which can phase in and out of existence depending on the location of the planets in their orbits. Again, there was some techno-babble about how this was possible — I won’t even try to sum it up — if you’re of a more scientific mind, you might be able to understand it. I just thought “yeah, whatever” and went on with the story. Anyway, due to the planets’ orbits, the star bridge can only exist for 12 days every two Earth-years. (On a side note, how the book deals with time on these alien planets is completely confusing. They use Earth years and Earth hours, but just about everything else — days, weeks, months — are different and have a bunch of confusing names, making you wish the book had an appendix or something.) Whenever the star bridge forms, people can quickly travel between the planets and send cargo back and forth. Quick as in almost-the-speed-of-light-quick. Without the bridge, travel between the planets takes several years.

The fading in and out of the star bridge has been going on for seventy-some years when the story starts with little trouble, but mysterious holes begin to open up, and cargo and travelers are sucked out into space. A team of researchers from each planet is sent to investigate, and until they can figure out what’s going on, the star bridge is closed, causing many economic and political problems for both planets.

The story mainly follows Todd Ackerman, one of the researchers. He thinks that the holes are created by humans in some kind of elaborate conspiracy which he decides to unveil. But as he digs deeper and deeper into the many layers of the organizations that run the star bridge, he discovers that things are not so simple as evil vs non-evil. I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say that most of the clues and discoveries regarding the holes seem really sinister in the first half of the book, then do a complete 180 by the end in rather surprising fashion.

What really makes the story work for me, though, is not the complicated spy-adventure, though that itself is very enjoyable. No, it’s the characterization of Todd; the author makes him surprisingly sympathetic. Even when I didn’t agree with what he was doing, I could completely understand why he was doing it, and was always hoping he would succeed. And, actually, most of the time he did exactly what I would’ve. Also, the author makes it quite clear that when Todd is in danger, even though you know he’s not going to die, there are things worse than death, and they can and do happen. So every time it felt like danger was lurking, I was truly on the edge of my seat, hoping the author wouldn’t be too mean to any members of the cast. A lot of times in movies and such you get characters who you can tell are just there to die. In this book, anyone (well, except for Todd) is under the knife. That said, no death feels random. You know what characters are risking death, and when, so it’s just a matter of reading on and finding out.

The book changes pace a lot too. Sometimes I flew through a hundred pages at break-neck speed because danger was lurking, things were being discovered, and I just had to know what would happen next. Other times, there are long info-dumps which are sometimes interesting, sometimes too techno-babbly for me. The descriptions of the fantastical sci-fi cities and how they were built to deal with the strange alien planets’ conditions I found to be very captivating and imaginative; the author definitely put a lot of thought and care into making them staggeringly different than what we see here on Earth, yet completely plausible.

By the end of it, you see that there’s a wonderful theme flowing through the story about loving your enemies, loving yourself, and not caring what anyone thinks of you. Well, it sounds cheesy written out like that, but played out in the story it works really well. And it’s pretty subtle; I expect some readers may miss it in the heat of the action sequences, and the author never lets even Todd have any extended inner-dialogues. But the themes are still there in the collection choices that Todd and the other characters make.

Again, overall, it was a fantastic read. Unfortunately it’s not part of a series or anything, but I’ll definitely be looking out for Joseph Black’s next novel. I think he’ll be one of most popular sci-fi writers in the coming decades.

Joe Murray’s Master Class in March!

As I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, I’ve been developing a cartoon. My intent is to create a crudely animated short myself in Flash or Toon Boom. However, a few months ago, with the help of some books on cartoon development, I’ve been exploring the possibilities of developing the cartoon as a show, putting together a pitch bible, and actually pitching the idea to networks. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Joe Murray (creator of Rocko’s Modern Life, one of my favorite cartoon shows growing up) is offering some master classes on cartoon development in 2012. I’ll be too busy finishing Animation Mentor to attend class I or II, but class III looked like it would be a major help. Getting feedback on my pitch from a pro with real experience, along with any other professional advice about the industry — who wouldn’t want that? So I registered for class III and was accepted! Woohoo! So after I finish with Animation Mentor in March, I’ll go right on to Joe Murray’s master class, and will spend that time really making my pitch-in-progress be the best I can make it. I’m very excited!

It’s A Religiously Misguided Life : On the worth of life

Re-watching the old film It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, the classic ending really bothers me.  An angel, sent by God, helps a man change his mind about committing suicide by showing him what life would be like for his loved ones if he had never been born.  The key to the plot is that life turns out to be bad for them, and some people are even dead.  What if life had been better for them?  What if his wife had married some other man, had had different kids, and had been just as happy?  Would that have justified George Bailey’s suicide?  That is, how do we value the worth of a man’s life?  It’s A Wonderful Life does it by showing what effect that life has on other lives.  I suppose it works in the dramatic sense — it makes for a good and touching story with a good and touching closing scene.  But it doesn’t really espouse an honest message.  Instead it encourages a sort of “if-it-weren’t-for-me” sense of self-worth, which I think risks being more warped and prideful than honest.

When we ask “what is the worth of a man’s life?” it’s really an incomplete question, because worth is not an objective value.  What is a man’s life worth to whom?  To another man?  To himself?  To God?

The great thing about the worth of a man’s life to God is that it never changes.  There’s nothing you can do to make God think less of you.  He created you and knows you too completely.  The bad thing about the worth of a man’s life to God is that it’s hard to detect.  It’s not apparent.  God doesn’t tuck you into bed at night or give you flowers or shower you with love songs.  And while we might still feel God’s love in some ways, we can never feel it completely, and it’s easy to forget about it and/or doubt it exists at all.  And even if we do believe it, we can’t understand it.  It’s hard and unnatural for us to value others in some unchanging way like that.  It may be a comforting thought to know our worth to God is more than we can understand, but we can’t relate to it.  So someone like Hitler had worth to God?!  A man who murdered millions and millions of people?  Yes.  That is not to say that actions don’t matter, but they don’t matter to God’s sense of your worth.  Hitler, and any wicked man you can think of, is worth just as much to God as you are.  Can’t accept that?  Join the majority of humans.

This concept is completely ignored in the It’s A Wonderful Life ending.  Instead, George Bailey is encouraged to change his sense of self-worth by being frightened by the conveniently poor circumstances of his community had he not been born.  In the real world, that just might not work.  Without you being born, the world might very well be much the same, if not better.  If that’s where you’re getting your sense of self-worth, of course you will have problems.

The angel in the movie, Clarence, leaves George with this quote: “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who has friends.”  It reminds me of another quote from The Muppet Christmas Carol that the reformed Scrooge sings in his final song: “If you want to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.”  I don’t like these quotes; they’re placing more emphasis on the value of friendship than the value of being a good person, as if having friends somehow makes you a good person.  If you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter how many friends you have.  Certainly it’s nice to have them and it’s good to be thankful for them, but they should not be sought out for the sake of themselves.  Friends are not a vital recipe to life.  A man should be honest and virtuous first.  If being honest and virtuous costs him friendship, so be it.  A moral man with no friends is better than a wicked man with many friends.  I suppose the problem is that it’s natural for a man to get a sense of self-worth by trying to see himself through the eyes of others, and the more friends he has, the better he feels about himself.  I think that is very misguided.  It would be better if Clarence had written: “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who follows the way of the Lord” or “Dear George, remember: no man is a failure who trusts in God” — maybe those are a bit more cheesy, but they’re much more truthful, which Clarence, being an angel, should know.

What George Bailey really needed was not a change in his sense of self-worth.  He needed to be reminded of his priorities.  He got way too emotional about money, and the awful consequences of not having enough (like going to jail).  He needed to be reminded of how important his friends and family were to him.  His problems had nothing to do with him being born or not.  And that’s what made the alternate reality effective; the absence of his loved ones as he knew them, not the remembrance of the virtuous deeds of his past.  That’s just messy screenwriting.

Merry Christmas!

On Gollum sinking into lava

Wired had this interesting article which states:

Gollum, if you remember, dove into the lava of Mount Doom after his precious ring was thrown in — he proceeds to sink into the lava (see below) and leaves the ring floating on the lava until it melts away. Guess what? Sinking into lava just will not happen if you’re a human (or remotely human). You’d need to be a Terminator to sink into molten rock/metal …

On a discussion of the article on some other site, author John Scalzi wrote:

In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we’re going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?

I can understand Scalzi’s point, but I disagree with his argument that one shouldn’t complain about the physics of Middle Earth lava just because one has accepted the existence of fantastical Middle Earth creatures.

I agree with Scalzi when he writes:

… you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.

I’d also add (though it should be obvious) that this will be a subjective issue. Some people can more easily suspend their disbelief about certain things than others. If your area of expertise includes lava, lava falsehoods will stand out to you more than talking trees (and Ents are not trees, by the way).

Personally, the lava issue doesn’t bother me, but I’ve never seen a living creature fall into lava before. And it’s not something I ever really want to see. But if I did see such a thing, aside from being scarred and depressed for the rest of my sad sorry life, I can understand why Gollum’s death goop might stop working for me, even while I accept all the other magic of Middle Earth. There’s nothing in the story that signifies that the lava should behave in any other way than it does here on earth. Similarly, gravity behaves the same way, temperature behaves the same way, elf and hobbit and wizard emotions behave the same way. So it’s not like we assume that everything is so different that we have to just accept everything that comes our way.

Imagine if Gollum had bounced on the lava as if it were a trampoline. Who would accept that? Would me saying "hey, you accepted talking trees!" make you change your mind? I doubt it. You expect the lava to behave a certain way in the context of the story.

I would say that most audiences accept the physics of Gollum’s death because that is exactly how most of us imagine falling into lava should look, because most of us haven’t witnessed creatures falling into lava before. When we watch videos of rivers of lava pouring down the side of a volcano, it looks as viscous as it does in Gollum’s death scene. So our acceptance of the physics of Gollum’s death is based on our own lava-physics ignorance, not on our consideration of our own acceptance of the wizards and talking trees and giant spiders that preceded it. This lava-physics ignorance is also what makes the Wired article interesting at all in the first place (at least to me). It’s fun and educational!

Also, I think we could argue that as the lava liquefies Gollum’s innards, because the ring of power has turned him into the ugly gross unnatural goblin-like creature he is, his unnatural innards would liquefy in such a way that they mix in the lava in such a way that what we see in the movie makes perfect sense. That is, the Wired article may be right about the physics of the lava, but it hath no knowledge about the physics of melting Gollum guts, which might become extremely dense at high temperatures. (Sure, why not?)  Or perhaps his skin vaporizes easily at lava temperatures, and lava pours into muscles and bones.  He’s not really sinking; he’s being pulled down by the flow of the lava.  Why didn’t Tolkien specify these sorts of things?  He could’ve had an entire section of the appendix for this!

Goals for 2012

2012 should be an exciting year. I should finish with Animation Mentor in March, and should be able to dedicate the rest of the year to searching for a job. It’s pretty exciting to think that I have no idea where I might end up, though I suppose there’s always the possibility that I get nowhere. (He who expects nothing shall never be disappointed.) I don’t know what the job market is like or how tough the competition will be.

I should also be going to California sometime in 2012 to attend Animation Mentor’s graduation ceremony, whenever that is. That should definitely be an exciting trip since I haven’t taken a real trip since I went with my family to Disney World in 2001, when I was a freshman in high school. (I wouldn’t say that weddings and funerals in our neighboring state count as real “trips”.) I’ve also never been that far to the west before. (I used to live in Alaska, but I was only two or three years old at the time and remember none of it, so I don’t think that counts.)

OK, so here are my goals for 2012, written in second person:

1. Finish writing The Boy in the Sword (novelette) and submit it
2. Finish editing Dreamgiver (novelette) and submit it
3. Finish playing all the video games you started
4. Finish writing fantasy novel, plan and start writing next novel (The Melody Box maybe?)
5. Edit fantasy novel, get feedback from first-readers, and submit to agents
6. Work on designing video game(s)
7. Read 10 fiction books and 10 non-fiction books
8. Finish Animation Mentor and attend graduation in California!
9. Finish cartoon pitch and pitch it to studios… in California!
10. Get an animation job… in California! (or anywhere)
11. Listen to 100 classical music albums
12. Watch 200 movies that you’ve never seen before
13. Release an update to your Melody Generator for Android

I doubt I’ll listen to that much music or watch that many movies or even read that many books, but oh well. They’re on the list.

My 2011 in review

For the most part, this was The Year of Animation Mentor. Between going to work and doing Animation Mentor work, I had very little time for much else. But I did take a leave of absence in the spring to prevent myself from going completely crazy, and used that time to finish creating my Melody Generator for Android, which is the best melody generator in the world.

Every December I write out my goals for the year ahead. I’m still not very good at keeping things realistic, and I tend to change my mind about my desires. Anyway, let’s look back on my 2011 goals and see how badly I did. A lot of the goals I knew were unrealistic anyway.

1. Do good work for Animation Mentor – and graduate!

Well, I didn’t graduate since I took the leave of absence, but I’m prepared for my final semester when the new year begins. I should finish in March 2012, leaving the rest of the year for a much more interesting job search than my previous boring Computer Science degree allowed.

2. Learn to model an environment in Blender

Yeah, I kinda lost interest in Blender. I’m still interested in it, really, I’m just interested in other things more. I’ll keep my books on it, though. I might use it yet.

3. Learn to model and animate a character in Blender

Same as above.

4. Continue trying to sell screenplay The Melody Box

I did for a little while. I think I will try turning the story into a novel in 2012.

5. Write a “listening guide” companion to my album

Never did that. Might in 2012, but probably won’t. I’m not sure there’s any interest, and I’m too interested in other stuff.

6. Finish writing a novel – and finish planning another

Still haven’t achieved this one. But I’m continuing to work on it.

7. Finish writing 15 short stories

Yeah right.

8. Listen to the complete works of Mozart

Too busy doing other stuff.

9. Listen to 100 other pieces of classical music

I wish.

10. Read 25 fiction books, 25 non-fiction books, and 300 short stories

Ha! I’ve gotten so little reading done this year, it’s terrible. Only 2 or 3 books I think. But I did buy a bunch of books when Borders went out of business. I should have more time in 2012 as I finish up with Animation Mentor.

11. Practice drawing for 100 hours

I got a few hours of practice in, but nowhere near 100. That’ll never happen.

12. Play video games for 100 hours (I can dream, yes?)

Dream dream dream…

13. Watch lots of movies and TV shows… to study story structure (“Save the Cat” style)

Define “lots”…

14. Spend as little money as possible… save it for a 2012 vacation!

Animation Mentor took most of my money (which I’m happy to pay; getting professional advice and critiques from such top-notch working animators from the big studios is worth it). Fortunately I just recently paid tuition for the last Animation Mentor semester, so until my California trip, or until I move out (what?), my savings should only go up.

2011 was also the year of family deaths, unfortunately. We lost two grandparents and the family dog. That was not so fun. Seems a lot of people I know also lost relatives.

Neverland

neverland

I just finished watching the miniseries Neverland that came on the Syfy channel here in the USA.  The miniseries provided an interesting explanation for the nature of Neverland involving an 400 year old alchemist from Queen Elizabeth I’s era (how do you write possessives with roman numerals?) and some galactic space-time continuum jargon.  I enjoyed the friends-to-enemies back story of Peter and Hook, and the explanation of how both pirates and Indians wound up in Neverland.

What I felt was most lacking were the main characters’ motivations.  In fact, I’m not even sure what Peter wanted, besides to oppose Hook.  Meanwhile, Hook wanted superpowers (in the form of a special mineral dust; I’m glad they didn’t call anything “pixie” or “fairy”), but seemingly for no deeper reason than any typical villain wants superpowers—because they’re superpowers.  I would’ve tried to give them deeper issues.  For example, perhaps Peter is seeking parental guidance and approval.  Perhaps he knows what kind of loving relationship he’s missing out on by being an orphan, and this is torture for him.  It would be pretty cliché (orphans in books are always struggling with this issue), but Peter might get away with it, since it would help explain the whole “Wendy is our mother” element of the traditional Peter Pan tale.  An issue for Hook: perhaps he sees in Peter everything he could’ve been were he a bit more clever and popular.  Perhaps he’s just plain jealous of Peter and the relationships he’s able to forge in Neverland.  He hates Peter because he craves everything he has.  Wanting the superpowers is his way of getting even, or at least that’s his hope.  “Once the power is mine, I’ll have nothing to envy.”  These are just examples; the point is, I think the characters would’ve been more sympathetic with these deeper issues plaguing their minds.

The special effects were fantastic for a TV film, though the flying looked rather awful.  But I can’t blame them too much for that; I think humans always look pretty horrible flying.  The flying looked much better in Disney’s animated version, I reckon because animators could have so much more control over the characters’ feeling of weight, and how the center of gravity swings back and forth during a flying move so that it looks like the body is moving of its own accord and not attached to some invisible string.

Lastly, the ending made no sense at all, but this is another thing I can’t blame them too much for.  Neverland is trying to set the stage for the tradition Peter Pan story, and the beginning of the traditional Peter Pan story makes no sense.  But J. M. Barrie could get away with that in his day, because back then people didn’t have very high standards.  (OK, different standards at least.)

Over all, it was some good food for my writerly imagination.

This review says:

When this Peter Pan origins tale isn’t gutting small children with giant swords, it’s pumping Native Americans full of bullets and pushing Pirates off cliffs. Oh and there’s sex in it too, and fairy genocide — so yeah, "gritty" is one way to describe it. Or you could say: a bunch of adults ham-fistededly stuff somewhat salacious origin tropes into a poor, unsuspecting fairy tale.

Apparently someone grew up watching too much Disney and not actually reading many fantasy stories.  Neverland was hardly what I’d call “gritty” at all.