From the archives: April 2005

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Being the silly dreamer I am

Thursday, 28 April 2005 — 10:24pm | Animation, Film, Video games

A few days ago, Jim Hill published a piece stirring up some rumblings of Disney reassessing traditional animation. Apparently, the box-office underperformance of the last few all-CG smash-hits-to-be from various studios is getting the Mouse House in a sweat – which is without question a good thing, because it’s about time someone realized that the post-Lion King fall of 2D and rise of CG had very little to do with one medium supplanting another, and more to do with the quality of the stories involved. (Then the diverging momenta were only kept on course by marketing practices, like Warner’s appalling mismarketing of traditional animation’s last stand, The Iron Giant.)

The bottom line is that you can’t drive a film with technology alone, and even mainstream audiences are beginning to realize it. Pixar continues to churn out hit after hit because their projects are propelled by creative artists, particularly those with a 2D background (as was the case with Brad Bird’s core team in The Incredibles), who understand that their technique is a means of signification and not an end. The best films have a vision that challenges and steers the market; they don’t come about because somebody is trying to game the market and predict where the money lies. Boardroom decisions and filmmaking make for an unhappy partnership. It says something that the animated films I am most interested in seeing this year, aside from the one I’m going to mention in a paragraph’s time, are both done in Claymation.

Is anybody of those in my readership well versed in children’s and young adult fiction familiar with the novels of Diana Wynne Jones? One of them, Howl’s Moving Castle, was the subject of a recent Hayao Miyazaki film that is being brought over to North America in June. Word is that it will see both a subtitled and dubbed release, which is welcome news. I passed on Spirited Away in theatres because of the lack of a subtitled release, which was a painful waiting game for one of the very best movies I’ve seen this decade.

I hear that dubbed Miyazaki releases are not half bad, given how John Lasseter supervised the one for Spirited Away and Pete Docter is doing the same for Howl’s Moving Castle; as directors of stellar animated films themselves who revere the work of Studio Ghibli, I’m sure they have no tolerance for subpar quality. Still, I avoid watching dubs whenever possible as a matter of principle.

Could you imagine watching a film like Downfall with the voices dubbed over? (That’s a hint to watch Downfall, by the way – it’s magnificent.) So much of Bruno Ganz’s outstandingly, terrifyingly mad performance as Adolf Hitler is how his voice distorts and projects the coarse, glottal utterances of the German language. It’s irreplaceable, and one instance of many where that is the case.

Now, my opposition is not to the idea of recording voices off the set and layering them over pre-existing footage – that would be silly, since so much film dialogue is done in ADR. Aunt Beru and Darth Vader had separate voice actors in Star Wars, as did most of the supporting Italian cast in just about every Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Almost all musicals have separate vocal tracks, sometimes with different actors entirely – Natalie Wood did not sing her part in West Side Story, nor did Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady or Minnie Driver in The Phantom of the Opera.

But the use of language in those films preserves a sense of internal consistency; you couldn’t have The Good, the Bad the Ugly with both English and Italian, and subtitles translating the Italian. You can have entire foreign films in their original language instead of recording translated lines with out-of-character unsynchronized voices. Dubbing dumbs down the work and dilutes it. Given how that possibility is available, why throw it away? I do not find that animation merits an exception just because the mouth movements are abstracted and synchronization is less of an issue.

Film is thankfully returning to equilibrium after the growing pains of a new technology fetish, and it is marked by a revaluation of aesthetic integrity. Unfortunately, video games are not quite there yet, and most of the recent history of video gaming is a history of technology fetishism and oneupmanship. Of the major players, Nintendo is the only one actively resisting the trend, which is one of many reasons they receive my continued support. I do not simply refer to experimental interfaces like blowing clouds away on the Nintendo DS or controlling Donkey Kong with a pair of bongo drums, but to their first-party software’s refusal to play ball with the trend towards photorealism.

Bringing it back to the subtitling issue, some criticize Nintendo for its continued resistance to voice acting, aside from a few abortive stabs at it like the horrid opening cutscene to Super Mario Sunshine. There is a major fallacy in the logic of some of those who think adopting voice acting is inherently immersive, and that is the assumption that the delivery of a story by way of text boxes is a relic of the technical limitations of an age gone by. It isn’t.

If you look at a recent game like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, a very text-heavy title, the use of text boxes in speech bubbles was an integral part of the storybook aesthetic. It was used to simulate ambient background speech, rapid-fire speech you can hardly pick up, angry speech in shaky bold letters, and a myriad of other effects. Saying that video games are inherently better off with voices is like saying that just because comic books can come with bundled audio tracks, they should abandon their distinct use of stylized onomatopoeic lettering and panel-to-panel dialogue balloon trickery.

There have been games with impressive voice acting of cinematic quality that one would not want to do without – the Tim Schafer classic Grim Fandango comes to mind, as do the recent Knights of the Old Republic titles. They are not by themselves a valid argument that all games should necessarily be cinematic, as attested to by the success of video game titles that opt for harnessing current-generation technology and techniques such as cel-shading to move towards cartoon visuals – Paper Mario being one, The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe being others of note. If we can accept that visuals need not move towards realism, we can accept that dialogue-by-text is here to stay.

Which begs the question of oddities like the next Zelda game, which clearly has graphics that return to the pseudo-real and look really good in doing so, but is reportedly still avoiding voice acting. This decision has come under fire from the usual suspects like Matt Casamassina of IGN, who says, “This new game promises to be so epic on so many levels. It’s a shame to see Nintendo skimping on production values where voice work is concerned… I’m not even suggesting that Link needs to talk. He can remain a mute, for all I care. But the story would flow better if the characters he encountered used speech.”

My response to that is this: production values be damned – it’s not a limitation, it’s a valid artistic decision. The thing about abstraction is that it presents some degree of universal interpretability along the spectrum between the designer’s and player’s imaginations. Games, by the very nature of being interactive, should involve both elements. As for this franchise in particular, the last thing I want to see and hear is a Zelda adventure with hokey American accents like the television episodes that aired with The Super Mario Bros. Super Show back in the day. (Excuuuuuse me, princess.)

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This part, at least, is proceeding as I have foreseen

Monday, 25 April 2005 — 7:07pm | Film, Star Wars

Addendum to the previous entry: I have since purchased tickets for the first show of Revenge of the Sith at South Edmonton Common, marked 12:01am on the morning of Thursday, 19 May.

Join me, and together we can rule the cinema as father and son.

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I need a ticket to ride

Sunday, 24 April 2005 — 7:05pm | Film, Star Wars

You know, over six years ago I swore that at around this precise moment – this month of April, 2005 – I would be in a tent on some Californian pavement, preferably the one outside Mann’s Chinese, like one of these guys – armed with Jedi robes, plastic lightsabres and absolutely no concept of personal hygiene. It is with profound disappointment that I have come to terms with the fact that I am not there, nor will I be there, nor will I ever in my life get another opportunity to tent for a new Star Wars movie.

But not all is lost. As I did in Calgary at Famous Players Coliseum in 1999 and Cineplex Odeon Sunridge Spectrum in 2002, this year I plan to be at the midnight screening of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith on the night of 18 May at the biggest and best moviehouse within reach. This effectively boils down to two choices, and it is a decision that needs to be made quickly.

SilverCity West Edmonton Mall – The biggest strike against this theatre is that as with all Famous Players screens, tickets do not go on sale until a week before the big show. I watched Episode I under similar conditions at what was then the biggest Famous Players in Calgary, and opening-night tickets drew a three-day line. The risk of not getting tickets is one I am reluctant to take, as that sort of line is just not possible for me this year. However, everything else speaks in its favour – it’s easy to get to (for both the show and the ticket purchase), it’s surrounded by other shops and fast-food establishments to draw your attention while somebody else in your party holds your spot, and if the weather is bad it probably won’t matter, as at least some of the line will trickle indoors. There’s also a certain prestige factor associated with this particular multiplex, one of the biggest box-office leaders on the continent.

South Edmonton Common – As part of the Cineplex Odeon chain, tickets for the opening show here are available right now, so you can see the urgency of this predicament. Given the architecture of the cinema, which is identical to Sunridge Spectrum three hours to the south, the line will almost certainly be outdoors – a good thing, weather permitting, because of the spaciousness in general, the furious lightsabre duels with total strangers and the stunned looks from passersby who just don’t get it. Two problems, though: first, the cinema stands tall in barren pavement in the middle of nowhere, a fair walk from anything to see, do or eat. Second, it’s an incredible pain to get to by public transit from the University area. (Ask me about Sin City sometime.) Now, I’m not so presumptuous as to use my blog to wink at people to offer me rides and stand in line for me at six in the morning so I don’t have to skip a whole day of work, but you get the picture.

Finally, I am aware that both of these theatres will likely offer four or five post-midnight screenings at once, including shows labeled for 12:02am, 12:05am, et cetera. These are unacceptable. Traditionally, We of the First Line have looked upon Those of the Second Line with earned derision, and had the battle scars inflicted from the scramble for midnight-show tickets to justify it. It may not be a very practical distinction, but I value my pride, thank you very much.

So – and here’s where you, my readership, enters the fray – what works for you guys? I’d love to see you at the ritual – er, I mean, movie.

Here’s a predictive reference for those of you who have never done this before. For a city like Edmonton, here’s what I predict: the first party in line for the midnight show will arrive either the night of the 17th or by 6am the next morning – perhaps before that if they were already in line for tickets a week before, but they won’t be significantly joined. You can expect thirty to fifty people by noon, which will balloon threefold as most of them are holding spots for others. Arriving at 6pm will put you at about the hundredth spot, which may double by the time you are let in to grab your seats, typically between 7pm and 8pm. (For a party of greater than two to four, don’t expect decent seats if you don’t have a representative firmly in line hours before then.) Arriving after 10pm, less than two hours in advance, is not recommended – that’s when gaps fill in and the ushers start scrunching people together, and saving seats is damn near impossible.

So, any recommendations?

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Does not meet requirements

Sunday, 24 April 2005 — 5:23pm | Computing

Continued exploration of the processes and methodologies of the pseudo-managerial practice euphemistically (and misleadingly) known as “software engineering” has led me to believe that the Golgafrinchan hypothesis – that we are, in fact, descended from useless middlemen with a committee fetish mercifully expelled from their distant planet of origin – is probably on the ball.

It floors me that an artificial semantic construction based on an elaborate canon of Confucian thou-shalts has been exalted to the status of accredited classroom instruction in universities, institutions founded on the trivium and quadrivium and a yearning for knowledge – not the sort of tribalized disciplinary wisdom that McLuhan calls know-how, which properly belongs in technical institutes and on-the-job training, or better yet, shot into outer space.

But give it a clever name with an air of professionalism and conflate it with just the right things, and it stands reified as the norm for both eager, ill-informed freshmen (tragically unaware that software engineering as taught is neither engineering nor science, computing or otherwise) and their future employers. Equilibrium is restored for all but the displaced, and olympian mountainfuls of source code wind up looking pretty. Yippie-ki-yay.

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The exhumation of L-shaped blocks

Sunday, 17 April 2005 — 8:06pm | Film, Game music, Music, Video games

My regular readership is in all likelihood aware that I spend an arguably unhealthy proportion of my time feeding my nostalgic interest in video game music. It is with much pleasure that I encountered a video of an a cappella choir’s live performance of several signature tunes from the 8-bit era – yes, including thematically relevant stage choreography. Now I know what an abstract interpretive human rendition of falling Tetris blocks looks like.

There is often some measure of debate on whether or not the music to Tetris should properly be considered a video game tune, as it pertains to what is by convention admissible on remix and arrangement communities like VGMix. There is no doubt that it is through the classic puzzle game that the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” (“The Peddler”) has seen the most widespread exposure in the Western world, but many are unaware of its roots. For those interested, I would advise a look at some traditional Russian folk dance videos, specifically this one.

It’s amazing how every time there’s a clip like the aforementioned choir performance that spreads memetically over the Web, people swell with nostalgia and perhaps recollect other gems they’ve found – most often the orchestrated medley from Super Mario Bros. from Orchestral Game Concert that is commonly misattributed to the Boston Pops – yet they have nary a clue how big a video game music community is out there, constantly taking the bleeps and bloops of yore and endowing them with near-professional quality across all musical styles. I think there’s a huge audience out there for game remixes that remains untapped, simply because the publicity for these independent niche-genre covers relies almost entirely on word-of-mouth.

I now turn my attention to written media and two posthumous literary treasure troves of note. The first is Runny Babbit, a billy sook by Shel Silverstein – essentially, a book of never-before-published spoonerisms by the master himself. If you grew up on his work, you would understand the warmth of this assurance that his death six years ago was, indeed, not where the sidewalk ends. The second is an archaeological breakthrough that has unlocked an archive of classical texts too unbelievable in scope for words… my words, anyhow. I’ll let this article do the talking.

Speaking of archaeology, I got around to catching the Matthew McConaughey-starring film of Clive Cussler’s novel Sahara. It’s good, clean popcorn fun once it gets past the awkward beginning, albeit nothing special. Intriguingly, one of the things holding it back is that it plays it too safe and doesn’t quite capture the extent of Cussler’s outrageous strokes of revisionist history, which elevate the Dirk Pitt stories to an almost unimpeachably ridiculous degree of escapism (and which, I might add, he pulls off a lot more successfully than the likes of Dan Brown). Although my recollection of the novel is rustier than a decommissioned ironclad – the one time I read it was several years ago – I do recall much of it focusing on a delightfully far-fetched premise involving Abraham Lincoln and a well-placed doppelganger, which was omitted in the adaptation and, to my surprise, somewhat missed.

As far as prospects for a Dirk Pitt film franchise go, it’s hard to say; let’s not forget that Dr. No sucked, but that didn’t stop Bond. And Sahara is far from terrible – it’s more of a one-time pleasure not quite guilty enough to harp on, aside from a number of pesky annoyances. The best compliment that I can offer the movie is this: at least it buries Raise the Titanic! for good.

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