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.