Friday, July 27, 2007

"Crappy Feet", and Sodenberg does Fritz Lang

Subject: Cinema
Yes, I just called the popular computer animated film "Happy Feet" "Crappy Feet". Kind of an easy one, eh? Didn't take a lot of effort, huh?

I'm sure it's fine for kids and is otherwise entertaining. But I was totally "meh" about it. I didn't read up on any of the aspects of how it was produced, but when I saw the credits roll with all the motion capture details therein, I was like "yeah, figures. No actual animators were harmed in the production of this movie."*

I guess I have a bit of an anti-mo-cap bias. I'm all for shortcuts as a means to an end, but frankly, the whole exercise was a lifeless, overwrought ball of "ooh-this-will-be-cool", with precious little attention paid to making "life" out of a bunch of pixels. Pixar can do it. It's a shame that a prestigious company like Rhythm and Hues can't anymore.*

*[EDIT: Factual errors corrected in the comments]

Well, it had a few minor moments and all, but from the very first lame musical "mashup", I could tell that a committee was in charge and that any little glimmer of "soul" was going to be a total accident. It's true that technically, there's some extremely impressive modelling and motion and effects. But like I've said many times before, I would have been impressed 10 years ago. Nowadays, not so much. Money != storytelling.

Back to the total opposite of mo-capped computer-generated mediocraty, Stephen Sodenberg goes and proves that he's an even bigger technique whore than I am, and I'm loving every minute of it. "The Good German" is like a post-modern post-war pre-noir 1940's thriller kind of experience, where he gets his chance to put George Clooney in a sharp uniform and subject him to even sharper key lighting in a classic 4:3 high-contrast B&W homage to Fritz Lang and Casablanca and a myriad of old-skool 40's Hollywood post-war classics. The sets were soundstage or local, the lighting and lensing and recording was straight out of the era, and the cinematic tropes were classic and familiar.

Yet, they were twisted just enough to give it a modern edge. The message and the moral were classic, but totally antithises to the blissfull propagandizing of the time. The grim details and little touches of post-surrender bombed-out Berlin during the Potsdam conference spoke volumes to the fact that the end of that colossal conflict was quite a mess indeed. The sorts of things that were romanticized back in the day were turned upside-down a little; yet the core of the story was still classically romanticized in and of itself, but with a dark noir-ish sensibility.

Again, it comes down to the old-skool technique, and Sodenberg lovingly makes that one of the stars of his film, almost overshadowing Clooney, but totally glorifying Cate Blanchett's post-modern Marlene Dietrich resurrection along the way. It's a grand bit of geek-out that challenges you to name every single historical title being quoted (I'm not up to that task myself), and it's a heck of a bit of entertainment while it's doing it.

The Film Techniques of Koichi Mashimo?

Subject: Noir
I stumbled on a brilliantly concise summary of the various written insights on Alfred Hitchcock's techniques, and it struck me immediately that a lot of it described the cinematic techniques that I saw Koichi Mashimo using. I'll highlight a few key points:

2: Frame for Emotion
[...] Emotion comes directly from the actor's eyes. You can control the intensity of that emotion by placing the camera close or far away from those eyes. A close-up will fill the screen with emotion, and pulling away to a wide angle shot will dissipate that emotion. A sudden cut from wide to close-up will give the audience a sudden surprise. Sometimes a strange angle above an actor will heighten the dramatic meaning.

This one is a staple of Mashimo's, even in his earlier old-skool works. A lot of anime fans complain about all the closeups of eyes; me, I revel in them! *grin*

3: Camera is Not a Camera
The camera should take on human qualities and roam around playfully looking for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel like they are involved in uncovering the story. Scenes can often begin by panning a room showing close-ups of objects that explain plot elements.

While not exactly mapping to what Mashimo does, I've long noted that he treats the camera as another character, more than just a viewport on to the scene.

4: Dialogue Means Nothing
One of your characters must be pre-occupied with something during a dialogue scene. Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn't notice. This is a good way to pull the audience into a character's secretive world.

“People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another," he said "a conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs.” The focus of the scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.

"Noir" is famously light on dialogue, yet very strong on storytelling. And you can read a lot into the character's inner dialogue because of this technique. No need to resort to voiceovers or soliloquy.

5: Point of View Editing
Jimmy Stewart looks at dog and then we see him smiling. Jimmy Stewart looks at a woman undressing and then we see him smiling. Those two smiles have completely different meanings, even if they are the exact same smile.

Putting an idea into the mind of the character without explaining it in dialogue is done by using a point-of-view shot sequence. This is subjective cinema. You take the eyes of the characters and add something for them to look at.

- Start with a close-up of the actor
- Cut to a shot of what they're seeing
- Cut back to the actor to see his reaction
- Repeat as desired

You can edit back and forth between the character and the subject as many times as you want to build tension. The audience won't get bored. This is the most powerful form of cinema, even more important than acting..

6: Montage Gives You Control
Divide action into a series of close-ups shown in succession. Don't avoid this basic technique. This is not the same as throwing together random shots into a fight sequence to create confusion. Instead, carefully chose a close-up of a hand, an arm, a face, a gun falling to the floor - tie them all together to tell a story. In this way you can portray an event by showing various pieces of it and having control over the timing. You can also hide parts of the event so that the mind of the audience is engaged.

These two are really Cinema 101; it's why storyboarding is so important, and why editing is more than just splicing camera shots together.

7: Keep the Story Simple!
If your story is confusing or requires a lot of memorization, you're never going to get suspense out of it. The key to creating that raw Hitchcock energy is by using simplistic, linear stories that the audience can easily follow.

"Keep It Simple, Stupid". This maxim was boldly pronounced on the old original Bee Train web site (archived), and was another thing that attracted me to these shows. Complicated and epic stories can be fun to geek out to, but simplicity is often superior. And scratch the surface of something "epic", and you may just find a simpler core...

8: Characters Must Break Cliché
Make all of your characters the exact opposite of what the audience expects in a movie. Turn dumb blondes into smart blondes, give the Cuban guy a French accent, and the criminals must be rich and successful. [...] These sort of ironic characters make them more realistic to the audience, and much more ripe for something to happen to them.

Anime is so rife with cliché, it's no wonder that a lot of Mashimo characters leap off the screen as being "different". Refreshing.

11: Suspense is Information
Once you put tension into your scene, you build it toward something, creating suspense. "Information" is essential to Hitchcock suspense; showing the audience what the characters don’t see. If something is about to harm the characters, show it at beginning of the scene and let the scene play out as normal. Constant reminders of this looming danger will build suspense. But remember - the suspense is not in the mind of the character. They must be completely unaware of it.

They don't mention the role of music in this aspect, but otherwise, more Cinema 101 and a key ingredient in the best arcs of many series.

13: Warning: May Cause MacGuffin
The MacGuffin is the side effect of creating pure suspense. When scenes are built around dramatic tension, it doesn’t really matter what the story is about. If you've done your job and followed all the previous steps, the audience is still glued no matter what. You can use random plot devices known as the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is nothing. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur. (Schickel) It could be something as vague as the "government secrets perhaps" in North by Northwest, or the long detailed weapons plans of Mr. Memory in the 39 Steps. Or, it could be something simple like the dog blocking the stairway in Strangers on a Train. Nobody cares about the dog. It's only there for one reason - suspense. It could have just as easily been a person, an alarm, a talking parrot, or a macguffin!

Heh. Another fun geek-out thing to do is to overanalyze every little thing in every little shot to see what it symbolizes -- and I'm very guilty of that. But I forget the "MacGuffin" principle. Honestly, in some ways, claiming "MacGuffin" is a bit of a cop-out; the situation or object in question must have come from somewhere in the writers' subconcious in connection to the rest of the story.

I'd like to go deeper into all of these and try to illustrate each "technique" with examples at some point. Seeing as Mashimo has mentioned that Hitchcock is one of his influences, it should be pretty easy to find a lot of them.

(also don't forget to read the companion article on Hitchcock's use of humor... it'll be a little tougher to fold these into a Grand Unified Mashimo Theory, but it's good stuff nonetheless!)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Prediction: "El Cazador" gets licensed by ADV at Otakon this weekend?

Subject: Noir
Dunno. Just a hunch I guess, seeing as it's Otakon and all.

I wasn't "active" back in the "Noir" days, so I don't know when licensing was announced for that (I assume after the series finished). The "MADLAX" licensing was just a cruel, cruel (and in retrospect, hilarious) trick, happening mere days before the finale.

I'm not sure "El Cazador" has anywhere near the momentum, but it's all but guaranteed that ADV had a hand in it from the beginning, so they may want to prevent a lackluster DVD launch just in case the end-game doesn't live up to the expectations of buyers like me.

UPDATE: Well, it didn't happen at Otakon, but the San Diego ComicCon is next weekend, and the word is that the companies are spreading their title announcments across both.

The good news is that subs for 15 are out, and 16 are pending. 15 is rather amusing now that I can understand it. I think they're making fun of the whole hot-springs cliche, though it's kind of a subdued satire, I guess.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Uneventful weekend, busy week ahead

Subject: Musings
Well, yes I finished "MADLAX", and oddly enough didn't drunkenly post afterwords. Nothing left to say, I guess.

And yes, I also got around to grilling steak and watching "Cowboy Bebop" again, and oddly enough didn't drunkenly post afterwords. Nothing left to say, I guess.


And "El Cazador" fansubs have been delayed for a little while, so now there's two episodes I don't know what was being said, and without that, they're both kind of mediocre like much of the rest of the episodes.


Now my unproductive vacation is over and I found myself booked solid in meetings all week at the office upon my return, and have hardly had a chance to even catch up on the stuff that accumulated while I was gone, so I have to work late days on that. Reinforcing the notion that going on vacation just serves to make things worse instead of better.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Elvis Costello at the Buffalo Albright-Knox, Sept. 7th

Subject: Music
...Just saw the news about Elvis Costello playing over in Buffalo in the beginning of September. I think I don't want to miss this one. Hmmm.

Pasta-related program activities

Subject: Noir
A soupy, humid tropical morning turned into a stormy, rainy one when I went to the grocery store for supplies. On impulse I picked up some fresh pasta and assorted accompaniments because...

...I'm going to marathon "Cowboy Bebop".

Wait, what?!

Okay, at the time I decided to marathon "MADLAX" again. But now I'm waffling on that... It's been longer since I've last watched Bebop, and it is definitely more of a "party" series that won't leave me weak-willed and listless in the morning.

But, the rain! And the pasta!!

...Okay, okay, I'm going to decide this way: let the OSTs fight it out! While I do a few random acts of housekeeping, I'll see where I am after a random mix has it's way with my stereo.

Update: aaaand the winner is..... "MADLAX"! Yay!

...actually, the winner was Bebop, but watching episode 1 I realized that although it's awesome and fun, I associate it more with grilling steaks instead of pasta, and it's too wet to grill steaks right now. Tomorrow, on the other hand, I'm grillin' steak. So "MADLAX" for the win.

...but I'm not going to start all the way at the top; instead I'm going to dial it back to where Vanessa arrives in Gathz-wheresisface (I can never spell it without looking it up). That should be sufficient.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Almost repeated a two-year joke...

Subject: Noir
"Nothing like a little 'Champloo' to clean your head" would have been exactly what I would have typed for the title of this post, except I realized that I probably used it before to describe using "Samurai Champloo" as an antidote to my usual Post Noir Syndrome doldrums.

Of course, there's not much more I can say about it than I have over the past 2 years either... except that I haven't re-watched the last disc and the ending yet for a while (as it is, I just watched discs 4 and 5). I'm not sure if I'll go that far just yet, but the fun I had with just the 2 was more or less what I needed.

Though it's got me seriously thinking about "Cowboy Bebop" again...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"When, in the course of human events..."

Subject: Noir find an anime that strikes your core as soundly as "Noir" does, well, life is but too short to worry about whether or not you should watch it or not. Or just watch some of it vs. all of it at once. Or if the neighbors will passive-aggressively start mowing the lawn at 7am because you were up until 3am with your subwoofer reporting each and every gunshot "thump".

I'm going to start with the Taiwan episodes, and go through to the end. It's rainy out, so I'm cooking up a batch of, of all things, Indian-inspired food for dinner. (Normally, I either do a sort of Parisian-inspired bread-cheese-soup thing, or sushi and sake). Traditions are a silly thing to be hung up on, especially if they revolve around, ultimately, a cartoon. My favorite cartoon, but still.

So it begins. Expect some of the usual PWI later tonight. *grin*

UPDATE 9:49PM -- Crap, fell asleep between discs! Ah well, I should still be able to do it. Just about to reach the Final Guidance... and fireworks all around the neighborhood are what woke me up. Heh.

UPDATE 11:40PM --

Breffort: "Do you mean to fight the entire world alone?"
Mireille: "Not necessaraly alone."

Maybe I posted this before. But f* that. It's the most awesome thing to say in the entire series. You go, girl!

Update 1:30AM -- And once again, I'm p0wned by this series, as abbreviated as the experience is. I couldn't help but dial it back to "A Season Fron Hell" and watch Milosh get splattered again. And all these hours later, I see Altena trying to justify her motives against these two poor lasses and I weep openly despite the number of times I've been through this...

"El Cazador" doesn't inspire this kind of emotional involvement, which is really very unfortunate. I wish I could find a series that does. But I guess ie will be a while for one to show up. Ah well...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Impending holiday...

Subject: Noir
Over on the 'Fan, I had joked about how I had been saving "Noir" for special occasions. Then I proceeded to list all the holidays that would count as a "special occasion": Noir Year's Eve, Noirsgiving, Noirbor Day...

Noir-dependence Day.

The weather forcast says rain and thunderstorms. Perfect for masking gunshots and a bit o' the Final Guidance, don't you think?

Like usual, I'll probably decide at the last moment one way or another. But I guess I really miss Mireille and Kirika right now. It doesn't seem like an entirely preposterous idea...

Miscellaneous collected anime observations

Subject: Noir
...that is to say -- More roundup.

Because "El Cazador" episode 13 was quite good (finally!), and the preview for episdoe 14 looked like there would be a lot of important backstory in the dialogue, I was tempted to resist watching the raw untranslated version for once. But, I couldn't resist!

And I was right about how important the dialogue obviously is, and I'm very anxious to see the translation. But I can safely say that it was another good episode. It was a lot more sedate, and maybe a bit more "personal" than any of the episodes to date. In fact, it pretty much focuses entirely on Ellis' backstory and excludes all of the other major players (who have always made a token appearance in every episode in some fashion) except for the late Dr. Schnieder and that evil f*er Rosenberg. An assesment which, even visually, is reinforced to a great extent in the episode.

And did I mention that episode 13 was really good? Okay then.

I rented disc one of "Black Lagoon" over the weekend. I had seen the first two episodes raw, and decided it was a "wait for rental" kind of series, and didn't really think of it again until I noticed it on Netflix. Overall it's not too bad, and kind of fun otherwise. The animation and design has it's plusses and minuses, but there's some decent attention to detail. Having a hawt gunslingin' action-babe who is most definitely not all "moe" is a big plus. The somewhat absurd "salaryman becomes South Seas pirate" scenario is kind of dopey but tolerable. Everything else seems to just be typical action-movie homage with all the trappings. And explosions! So it's fun, and I'll keep renting to see if it goes anywhere.

I watched a little more of the old-skool Mashimo hidden classic "Eat Man", and it continues to be as insane as it started. There's a lot of attention paid to the women characters that Bolt encounters (all whom invariably fall for him for some inexplicable reason), and the old-skool touches and the Hand of Mashimo doing his magic keep it entertaining. If "El Cazador" were able to keep more of this kind of style and attitude consistently through the episodes, I'd like it a lot better. Though I'd fear that most everybody else in the world would be like "WTF?!?" Ah well.

Both seasons of "Victorian Romance Emma" have been licensed! TRSI will be coming out with two $50 boxsets, no dubs. It seems a shame not to spend the attention to cast and employ a mix of British (and Indian and German) voices to reinforce for a Western audience the various social stratifications being illustrated, but it's alright. I know one way or another I'm going to have to rent the rest of season 2 so I can find out just what the heck happens now that William has proposed to Emma. After that I'll decide if I want to actually own it, if at least to say "more like this, please."

"Romeo x Juliet" notches along with the transition from a sweetly innocent "honeymoon" (no, really, it was handled with excellent restraint) to a situation where they are forced to leave that behind. I.e., they're captured. That can't be good. Otherwise, nothing new to say about it, and I'm hoping they keep up the consistency in storytelling and it doesn't fall apart under the weight of it's own pretentions.

There's been a lack of timely HDTV releases of "Denno Coil", and I'm getting tempted to just watch the normal AVI release, but that added resolution adds just that much more delight to it. When I buy it (definitely a "when"), I think I'll go for whatever HD disc format it comes out on. Pity on me if it's the opposite format that ADV eventually releases "Noir" on... *sigh*