Friday, November 05, 2010

A New Metaphor for 3D Stereo

I have a new metaphor to describe the studio-driven push for 3D stereo films.

I've said, and many agree, that 3D is not part of the natural evolution of cinema, like sound and color were. 3D is a paintbrush in an artist's toolbox to help tell a story - and not all filmmakers require this tool to tell their stories.

3D stereo is like Cinemascope in the '50s. Widescreen film was introduced as a cinema-only alternative to television. The beautiful wide canvas was born as a new tool for storytellers, but not every film requires it. And some films are simply wrong for it.

Today, six decades after widescreen was introduced, some filmmakers are still using it. But it's not appropriate for all films.

So, what's the difference between 3D and widescreen? Studios can charge more for 3D, while widescreen movie ticket prices were never surcharged a premium. That's why it's being shoved down our throats by studio executives and producers.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Back to the Future" and Eric Stoltz

This is another follow-up post to our "Back To The Future" podcast on The VFX Show.

On the podcast, we discussed the early production troubles on the set of "Back to the Future," when the film's leading man, Eric Stoltz, was fired from the movie after five weeks of shooting. No film footage of Stoltz as Marty McFly has been seen by the public, until now. As part of the new 'making-of' documentary accompanying the upcoming Blu-Ray release of the film, we can finally get a glimpse of what the movie could have looked like with Stoltz in the lead role.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sneak Peek

Oh, my. What on earth am I doing? And why am I doing it?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Back to the Future," Einstein Jump

This is the first of several follow-up posts to our "Back To The Future" podcast on The VFX Show.

Here's an objective breakdown of "Back to the Future"'s first big effects sequence, the first time slice of the movie that sends Einstein the dog forwards in time.

Real photographic background plate of Delorean, with glows and time slice animation created by the animation department at Industrial Light & Magic.

The fire and sparks (and their reflections) were created on the set with special effects rigs attached to the Delorean.

A large strobe light on location provided bright interactive light. Full frame flashing was also achieved in the optical composite.

Hey, look in the upper left corner of the screen. Say hi to the crew!

Panning left with Delorean. The car is actually on the set, with animation and effects added optically.

The pan reveals bluescreen-photographed Marty and Doc. The actors were tracked and matted into the shot.

Pan abruptly stops, explosions and flares optically composited to represent time slice effect.

First visible frame of explosion element. The main explosion element has a faked reflection in the wet ground, achieved in the optical composite.

Explosion element runs backwards, giving the impression of an implosion. On-location, live-action ignition of fire trails appear, and are skip printed to appear to ignite much faster than reality would allow, approximating the feeling of 88mph.

Marty's foreground foot is rotoscoped to allow the fire trail to appear behind his leg.

The last frame of the shot.

In-camera effect, featuring on-set fire trails, using stunt performers.

This shot was skip printed in post production to give the ignition the feeling of greater velocity, giving the impression of the Delorean continuing its 88mph journey in a parallel dimension of time. As a result, the fire's motion is somewhat strobey.

Notice the relative exposure difference between this shot and the shots preceeding and following it. In this shot, the cinematographer exposed the film to feature the fire (or was underexposed in the colortiming or visual effects process), which reveals the internal structure of the fire. In the shots before and after, the actors and environment were the target exposure values; consequently, in those shots, the fire is blown out and overexposed, leaving only hot white fire shapes.

The first frame of the iconic Einstein time slice effect, featuring actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox. The actors were shot against a bluescreen, standing on a mirror. The mirror gave the effects artists pristine reflections of the actors; the reflections were matted to separate them from the actors, and treated in the composite to appear as wet, pavement reflections by adding displacement and tweaking the brightness.

Michael J. Fox's screen right foot was placed behind fire licks via frame-by-frame rotoscoping. Areas of fire were articulated to bury Fox's foot within the fire. Like the previous two shots, the background plate was skip printed to give the fire trails more energy and speed.

"What did I tell you?!?"

"Eighty eight miles per hour!!" This shot is entirely in-camera. The fire trails are a practical effect, just like all of the previous shots. In the sequence, the trails have been fully formed, and are no longer being generated; as a result, there was no need to skip print the trails for this shot.

In a future post, I hope to dissect the shots more thoroughly from a subjective point of view, and expand upon ideas Mark, Mike and I discussed on the podcast.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Inception" Music Analysis

Even those who didn't think "Inception" was a masterpiece must admit the film is rich, interesting, and worth talking about. Or, in the case of YouTube user "camiam321," meticulously analyzing the film's soundtrack.

Inception Music Comparison by "caiam321"

Spotted at The AVClub, "Great Job, Internet!: The secret of the Inception soundtrack."

update: Composer Hans Zimmer talks to The New York Times about his score.

The Clip Show, 2007

There are a few new eyeballs visiting FXRant recently (hi!), and since I'm buried in work, and would like to show off some of the original articles I've written over the years, I think it's a good time to run a clip show!

Here are some highlights of original articles from 2007, excluding any self-promotional-esque filler material (like, wow, those effects in "Transfomers" were really aweseome, eh?). 2008 and 2009 will follow soon.

May 2007,
"Appearing As Himself: Sam Elliott"
This is silly, but funny.

June 2007,
"The 'Shouldabeen' Lois Lane"
Instead of Kate Bosworth, Bryan Singer should have cast Rashida Jones as Lois Lane.

June 2007,
"'Ratatouille' and the Moving Camera"
Brad Bird is the best live-action director of animated features in the business.

July 2007,
"Awful Movie Poster: 'Rumor Has It...'"
Bad movie, bad poster.

August 2007, "Fearmongering"
Do you have a fantasy of shooting children in the back? So do these guys.

October 2007, "Good, Thankless Effects: 'Stealth'" [and the introductory article]
Digital Domain makes pretty imagery for a bankrupt film.

November 2007,
"Camera Shake Citation: 'The Sentinel'" [and the introductory article]
Our very first ticket handed out for poor use of digital camera shake. Many more to come.

November 2007, "Movie Marketing is Hard! 'Beowulf' and '300'"
FXRant's most popular article, comparing the marketing of "Beowulf" and "300."

December 2007,
"The Polluting Sky: 'Die Hard with a Vengeance'"
Analyzing an in-camera shot from "Die Hard 3," and how an overexposed sky affects the foreground.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Back To The Future" and The VFX Show

Recently, I had the pleasure of discussing the visual effects of the Robert Zemeckis classic, “Back to the Future” on The VFX Show podcast. Mike Seymour and Mark Christiansen and I spent nearly an hour discussing and dissecting not only the film itself, but the impressive visual effects, special effects and makeup work on the film.

The VFX Show - Mike Seymour, Todd Vaziri & Mark Christiansen
revisit “Back To The Future"

show #105, July 20, 2010

Tunes link \ The VFX Show on FXGuide \ Overcast link

“Back to the Future” was an extremely influential movie for me. It’s the movie that inspired my passion of filmmaking, while the films of James Cameron opened my eyes to the possibilities and opportunities of visual effects. It was my privilege to appear on the show, and I want to thank Mike and Mark for inviting me.

I plan on posting some follow-up articles here on FXRant that expand upon some of the comments we made about the movie. [update: here are two additional posts!]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More Genius from The Onion

Here's some more on-the-nose satire from The Onion:

New Google Phone Service Whispers Targeted Ads Directly Into Users' Ears

I particularly love the jab at Yahoo! at the end of the piece.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Congratulations to Paul Franklin the entire team at Double Negative and New Deal Studios for their incredible visual effects work on Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

Additional kudos should be heaped upon the masterful cinematographer Wally Pfister, as well as the extraordinary work of Chris Corbould and his team of on-set special effects for creating several 'how-did-they-do-that' moments in the film.

Do Not Be Alarmed

This photo combines three things I love: my hometown of Chicago, Michael Bay (the auteur behind 'splosions!!!), and The A.V. Club, possibly the finest website for film and television articles, discussion and criticism. Chicagoan Keith Phipps was driving around the city on July 20, and spotted this sign, indicating that "Transfomers 3" was shooting around the corner. Read The A.V. Club article for the logical meme-worthy cinematic equivalents of the phrase, "Do Not Be Alarmed." And make sure to read the article's comments-- there are some great ones in there.

photo by Keith Phipps

Friday, July 16, 2010


As the sad, demented souls who actually follow this blog have noticed (and God bless you demented souls), I haven’t been posting a lot lately. The easy way to describe this situation is with the old, tired, cliched excuse: “I’ve been really busy lately.” So I’m going to take the easy route and say exactly that.

At my day job at ILM, I spent the first half of the year working on “Iron Man 2,” where I was a sequence supervisor. Most of my time was spent working on the Stark Expo environment, which was well documented in Cinefex 122 (article by Jody Duncan). I’m really proud of the aerial shots of the Expo; a before-and-after photograph in the Cinefex article gives a good impression as to the extent of the work. Mr. Favreau seemed quite happy with the quality of the shots, which makes me and the team very happy. After “Iron Man 2” wrapped, I worked on a super-top-secret project that I can’t discuss. After that wrapped, I worked on another super-top-secret project that I can’t discuss. So, there’s that. And now I’ve just started on a film where the pace is incredibly intense.

In the meantime, I bought a house, moved to the new house, and sold the old house. So there’s that, too.

All this whining doesn’t mean that my enthusiasm for writing has waned, it’s just that it’s getting harder to carve out those magic moments to indulge in my obsessions of film and visual effects. I have about thirty half-written articles sitting in the ole’ Google Docs about everything from diopter lens shots, to continuity editing, Kubrick and Wells, deep focus vs. shallow focus, the debacle of the “Pirates”/”Matrix” sequels and what they can teach us about blockbuster filmmaking, reality versus cinematic reality, narrative setups and payoffs, and about a hundred half-written Camera Shake Police citations. And I want to get to all of it. It will just take time.

Speaking of time, I actually have spent some time cleaning up my personal website. There were an inordinate number of broken links to interviews and articles that I’ve since restored. (Thank you, Wayback Machine!)

So this was a long way of apologizing for the lack of ‘stuff,’ and a promise that more will eventually come.

And, as always, feel free to send me any questions you might have about the visual effects world, and if the question is something that the entire class might enjoy, I’ll answer it here on the blog. My email address is

Thanks, all, for your patience. You internet folks have been a great source of inspiration to me. You’ve all been really supportive of my writing, including way back to the early days of Visual Effects Headquarters. Thanks so much.


Monday, May 24, 2010

This Makes Me Happy

As you may know, the amazing animated series "Futurama" is returning with new episodes on Comedy Central later this year, and they've been teasing the return with glimpses of the upcoming season. Here's one that turned up on the Comedy Central website:

Do I see a visual homage to one of 2009's biggest sci-fi hits?

I believe I do, and it makes me grin.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hell Has Frozen Over

After years of relentless begging and pleading from people who know what they're talking about, the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally, finally approved the expansion of the number of nominees for the Academy Awards from three to five films.

With the overall quality of feature film visual effects achieving new heights over the past 20 years, this decision, while awesome, comes much too late. Far too many films that deserved visual effects nominations were left nomination-less because of the branch's bizarre devotion for three nomination slots.

The visual effects branch's decision needs to be approved by the Rules Committee and Board of Governors. Hopefully, this will mean that the 83rd Academy Awards will feature five nominees for Best Visual Effects. Finally.

It is unknown, at this time, what this will mean to the two-step procedure of determining the 'bake-off' roster, or to the 'bake-off' itself.

And what will this mean to The VFX Predictinator, our totally awesome formula that accurately predicted the visual effects Oscar winner across 21 years? It will require a serious overhaul, since many of the formulas are dependent on the assumption of three nominees. More likely than not, we'll have to come up with an all-new formula.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How Companies View Their Customers

Want to be a jerk like this guy? If so, then Microsoft wants you as a customer.

Commercials are not simply conduits for product sales, they are a window into how the advertiser looks upon its customers. They reveal how companies really think about their consumers and how they will ultimately use their products. To illustrate the sometimes wildly different perspectives on advertisers' potential customers, let's analyze a few mobile phone commercials and see what they reveal about the company's attitudes toward the masses.

First up, a typical Apple iPhone commercial:

Apple iPhone, "Backpacker"

How Apple regards its potential customers: customers can use our product to easily find hotels, share your photos with your family, and help you learn a new language.

Next up, a Verizon commercial, trumpeting its 3G coverage:

Verizon "Big Red"

A fractured transcript:
• Browse the web much better (Verizon customer is supposedly posing for a sculpture, but is tapping away on her cell phone, the artist ultimately gets frustrated with her lack of focus, and she doesn't even notice when the sculpture is finished)
Update Facebook pages better (kids on a camping trip are ignoring their father telling a scary story while playing with a phone)
Ditch your boring job much better (a bellboy ignores his customers because he's having so much fun tapping on his phone)
You'll watch YouTube on a horse... (um, yeah, that one is self-explanatory)
• Download stupid stuff much better

How Verizon regards its potential customers: Verizon customers can waste time, ignore their job, tune out from the normal world, be brats on camping trips, and, well, we'll just spell it out for them, "download stupid stuff" with our product.

Microsoft essentially says the same thing in this next ad.

Microsoft, "Meetings are Better with a Windows Phone"

Microsoft: "Want to be a douchebag, jerk-employee who wastes time in conferences on Facebook, and then tries to cover it up with an Excel spreadsheet? You should buy a Microsoft phone!"

Monday, May 10, 2010

If You Can't Make It Good, Make It 3D

Yep, this pretty much sums it up from my perspective.

"If you can't make it good, make it 3D."