Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Hurt Locker

This movie was off my radar until I watched a clip of the first 7 minutes released online. The scene was riveting, and a realistic rendering of the people and environment of Iraq. Even though a film like this normally waits for my very long Netflix queue, I decided it was very worth my time even though the movie is only in limited release.


The movie was filmed in Jordan and Kuwait; I had to check because the environments were so realistic. My wife commented on the trash and asked how you could tell what was trash and what was a bomb. Even the windows on the Humvees were scratched. The film never felt the need to clean itself up. There weren’t any moments when the environment took me out of the movie and made me question the locations.

I could not find information on who did the pyro, but I think it is safe to assume it was all practical. The high-speed camera work was done by Third Eye FX. After Transformers, slow motion would have made me twitch but for this movie it worked. There is a phenomenon in combat where time seems to slow. I don’t know if it was intentional, but in the opening scene the effect put me in the moment. I felt like I was there chasing down the man with the cell phone. I felt like I was diving for cover. When the bomb is detonated the dirt and rocks seem to float up off the ground from the shock wave. It is both beautiful and brutal.

The only thing I questioned about the movie visually was the timeline. It was said to take place in 2004, but the uniforms were the new ACUs and not DCUs, and in one scene they are playing Gears of War, which came out in 2006. It is a small detail; I don’t think the spirit of the movie was to be a documentary but to explore the heart of war. It could have been any moment with any group of soldiers. The film started with a quote implying the drug-like nature of war. The film seemed to explore that idea and the visuals served that task.


The dialogue and interaction were perfect. The yelling children who have learned the cruder side of the English language from soldiers who think it is cute. The watching figures stand on the sides with blank faces so their real intent is never clear. The banter between soldiers.

There is a scene where a colonel parades onto the battlefield as if exploring a combat-themed amusement park. There is another tragic story arc with an officer who leaves the safety of the base to ride along with the EOD team. I thought both were powerful examples that explored the sharp contrast between the intellectual textbook understanding of war and real experience in the environment of war. I have very strong concerns about the difference in training and experience between non-commissioned officers and officers who, barely out of school, take command of experienced soldiers. Green to gold should be the only way to become a combat officer. *end rant*

The enemy is faceless and nothing is resolved. The Hurt Locker is a deep, well-constructed film. It is not the feel-good movie of the year, but it will make you think.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Remedial training

In the military there were some skill sets that we always referred to as being perishable. If you go long enough without using a radio or touching an obscure weapon system it is easy to have a brain lapse and forget the basics. For instance, if someone today handed me a Javelin missile system (hottest weapon you have ever seen) I would more than likely not remember how to fire it. I might be able to hack my way through it but I wouldn’t want any lives to depend on me doing it with any real speed. As scouts who needed to know a little about everything, remedial training was a constant part of our job.

I noticed that visual effects are the same way. Being a generalist has its drawbacks. After six months out of Maya I open it again and feel a small moment of panic before my eyes focus and I find the little icon that lets me make a sphere. It seems that I need to accidentally hit the hot key which permanently rounds out my mesh at least once before I really feel at home again.

Then there is drawing. I need a story board or piece of concept art. I sit down, pick up my pencil and suddenly feel like I have two left hands. I have an amazing charcoal drawing on the wall which I think is only there to keep me from having a small panic attack.

“It’s ok.” I look at past drawings so I can believe what I am thinking. “You just need to warm the hands up again.”

Even though it always comes back and I finish whatever it was I needed to do, the feeling still sucks and I always feel like I lost a little ground by not working on a skill for so long. A few days ago I finally was able to really sit down and start work on my next big project. In one day I was drawing, working on comps and messing around in Maya. None of it was difficult; I just don’t like feeling rusty. It’s like the first run after a long stretch of laziness. The lactic acids build, your muscles are stiff and you suddenly feel like those days sitting around were really not worth it. It sucks.

After that I decided to take the principles from my time in the military and make remedial training part of my daily schedule. I always try organizing my days to maximize my time, and I figured it might be good to just work in some quality time for all the little areas I want to stay fresh in. Even if I use a skill all the time I can still find something new to learn. Today I spent an hour going over fluids in Maya. Tomorrow I will go over some scripts. I don’t have enough time to study everything every week, but by just spending a little time doing random tutorials or work that’s off the beaten path I will keep the rust off key areas. Today, if you need me to go into Maya, I will immediately remember how to make you a mean-looking sphere.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transformers 2: less than meets the eye...

I was wrong. After watching the first movie and trailers seeping with action, I figured there was no way Transformers 2 could let me down. Even if the story was weak the movie might still be entertaining, right? I have never been a big Michael Bay fan, but it boggles my mind how he could take a concept built around nothing more than giant warring robots and still bore me to death. I love Transformers and writing this makes me sad.


The first film had a few very funny moments with the family. Someone must have told Bay that people felt that way, because Trans2 was filled with almost nothing but painful, poorly written one-liners. As I watched our boy hero banter with his family about leaving for college I knew something did not feel right. The script and acting were so bad that when Bumble Bee finally showed up I could not even enjoy the visual.

I did not expect a deep sophisticated plot, but I did expect it to be watchable. Most of the robots had no introduction. Time after time they were blown apart and I was never sure what I was seeing. There was only one moment in the whole film where I found myself caring, and that moment was plagiarized from the 1980s cartoon movie. The take-home here is that a 1980s cartoon was working with a better, more sophisticated script. The old cartoon had the trash bots, but this film has the racist “Twins” who added nothing at all to the film. I heard the racism buzz but was on the fence until one of them declared himself unable to read. Ethnic caricatures who are Illiterate are hilarious, right...? There was a female Autobot, but Bay seems to feel that women are only good for eye candy, which brings me to my final rant.

Last time I checked we are living in a time when a female actress can be both beautiful and have a personality. I understand that glamour shots will bring in the teenage boys, but glamour shots were all we had. There was no depth or interest to Megan Fox’s character. As I am writing this I don’t even remember what the character’s name was.

The hero and his eye candy arguing over who would say “I love you” first was forgivable once. I mean a writer will slip up now and then, but over and over throughout the whole movie? From what we can tell the guy is from a stable family and this is his first girlfriend. Are we to believe that he has emotional baggage and is afraid of commitment?

The other girl in the dorms might have been interesting as a love triangle. Instead she ended up being one of the most WTF (in a bad way) moments of the film. Every Transformer in the film is something mechanical but suddenly we are presented with one that can look human. There is no back story. There is no reason. And why is the tip of the tentacle still looking like a tongue?

The film was so shallow and empty that even with breathtaking visuals I felt like it would never end.


Visual effects is the one area where Transformers 2 shined. The CG characters and compositing were beyond breathtaking. I am sure those have to be the most complicated rigs ever built. I fully intend to own the DVD so I can frame through every scene. There were some designs I thought were strange but the execution was still beyond anything I have seen. I can say nothing bad about that area of the film. The artists who worked on that did a phenomenal job.

Regarding cinematography I think Michael Bay might need to learn some new tricks. Slow motion is ok once or twice, but not in every action scene or explosion. There are better ways of creating drama besides making us watch the film at half speed. Things like story or character development so I really care about the last thing I saw get blown apart. I never cared.

We saw the scene where the camera looks up at the screaming woman as an Autobot flips over her in the last film. We saw high views of robots doing flips as they shot down at their targets in the last film. In Transformers 2 that was all we had. Even the music was a repeat. Yeah we get it … the action is slowed and the music is intense. You want us to care about what is going in this fight. We don’t. There are a few people who will love this movie. The group I watched it with has a few of them. Most will watch it only once and forget about. If you don’t like robots and slow-motion explosions you might even hate it.

Transformers 2 brought nothing new to the table. I had wanted to see the IMAX version but I don’t think I will waste my money.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Welcome to This is my place to discuss and document my path through the world of VFX. I have always been interested in creating art, and from the first moment I laid eyes on CG I was in love. Even back in the ‘80s, I knew that with enough processing power an artist could use CG to recreate anything that could ever be imagined and I was hooked. The greatest aspect of visual effects is breathing life into an artist’s vision, creating something no one has ever seen or bringing a story to film that could not be done any other way.

Currently, aside from basic schoolwork I have two projects in the works. One of the projects is collaboration with fellow students. The project will have some nice wind and water effects. I’ll talk more about that project in another post.

The other project is a collaboration with Nathan Hackett. The concept has the potential for some really interesting particle and compositing work. I will talk more about that a little later.

I need to get back to building my site so I will come back to edit and add a little later. If you end up reading this, chances are I was asking for input on my site design and that is why you are here.