From the archives: August 2006

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So long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Saturday, 5 August 2006 — 7:15pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

First off, a word of thanks to whoever tipped Cartoon Brew about my previous post, and a warm welcome to all the Real Animators who have come to pay a visit. You guys inspire me. Moreover, it’s nice to get some heavy traffic, for a change, for a post not related to Harry Potter.

I don’t have much else to say about animation this week, though, because I am quite busy playing Scrabble at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore. I came expecting to stay in a hotel, and what I got instead was a monument of sorts to Frank Lloyd Wright. The gardens are decorated with Wright sprites, and the architecture is all Wright (pun very intended). There’s a soup and sandwich place called the Café Wright, a little shop called The Wright Stuff, and a fancy restaurant named – you guessed it – Wright’s. Unlike the National Scrabble Championship in New Orleans two years ago, I’m not taking time to see the surrounding area, or doing much of anything that doesn’t involve letters with points on them, but that’s okay. Like the Fairmont Banff Springs, the resort itself suffices as a tourist attraction.

So let’s talk Scrabble.

First, some links: you can follow my round-by-round progress at the tournament website, and I’m photographing every game I play and storing the snaps in this Facebook album. You’ll notice that the tournament is called the U.S. Scrabble Open now, but it’s really just the National Scrabble Championship under a different (and more accurate) moniker.

Prognosis after Day One: much better than New Orleans. I’m ranked 32nd out of 116 players in Division 4 thanks to a 4-3, +408 record, the second-highest spread in the four-win bracket. Let’s see how I got there. Again, check out the photo album to follow along with the commentary.

Round 1: What a great start. Two natural bingos (ENRICHER, AEROSAT) secured me a 120-point lead by the midgame, and then it was just a matter of shutting down the open lanes and still managing to average about 25 points per turn. I didn’t have a particular advantage in tiles, either; among the power tiles, I drew ?JQSS, and my opponent drew ?SSXZ. And I didn’t really use my blank, since I picked it up near the end. I won a challenge when my opponent tried PARFAIS* down the A-column, too. 433-272, and it’s full steam ahead.

Round 2: I had to fight against the tiles on an incredibly tight board, skipping a turn and exchanging on four separate occasions where I drew to too many vowels or too many consonants through little fault of my own. Thankfully, my opponent lost three challenges, since I wasn’t about to let her get away with INTACTS*, hooking GIAOURS onto BIG to make BIGG*, or OVE*. Word knowledge saved my hide – almost. I technically lost this one 301-312, but my opponent went two minutes over for a 20-point penalty, and I was only 14 seconds away from going over myself. 301-292. Way too close, and I’m evidently a lot more comfortable playing in the open.

Round 3: It’s not like I drew everything. I had ??QSX to my opponent’s JSSZ (and an unplayed S), but good positional playing overcame my letting two phonies go by without a challenge (VEIGH* and PERC*). After the triple-header of WARMEsT for 80, PLOY for 39 and NEXT for 40 near the beginning of the game, I maintained a commanding lead the whole way. It’s always a bit frustrating when you’re way ahead, you shut down the board, and then draw to a bingo rack. Luckily, it turned out that when I held DEELNR? as the game was winding down, there remained a lane that hardly looked open at all. I played LENDERs on a triple, parallel to AIMED to make AN, ID, ME, ER and EDs – and with another 97 points to my name, that sealed the deal. A huge win, 464-243.

Round 4: Among the power tiles, I only drew QSS this game, but I kept pace for most of the game until my opponent finally got rid of both blanks at once with BaNNeRS for a relatively meagre, but game-winning 66 points. Actually, I was still in it, but then she played NU to make PEND, and block off the bottom-centre TWS, right before I’d planned to play OCULI there for 33 points. It was basically an unwinnable game from that point on, and holding EIILU at the end, I was lucky to have the M open for MILIEU. A close and fighting loss, 355-363.

Round 5: I was already playing catchup before my opponent played EXPLAIN for 85 points to take a 90-point lead that I never managed to recover from. I couldn’t really open up without giving away some opportune spots, so she kept on scoring. My one bingo, INSTaTE, gave away the TWS in the top right corner, and a much safer play would have been LINTiEST off the L in PLOVER. I was almost back in the game when she found VARIoLES, and given what was left in the bag, I had no real way of catching her. My biggest loss of the day, 337-413. At least it wasn’t a blowout.

Round 6: I controlled the whole game. Sure, I played a phony without even considering that it might be unacceptable (momentarily confusing VACU* with the valid VATU). But armed with both blanks, drawing great tiles and playing both bingos on the board, my only complaint about this game was that I saw a valid and beautiful bingo (BIOMETEr on a triple) but didn’t play it, since I wasn’t sure it was good. Given that I was leading 311-152 at the time, I really could have afforded to take the risk, and make a serious stab at the 500 mark. Another big win, 417-253. It should have been bigger.

Round 7: Ouch. I challenged the double-blank bingo ROIlIeST and lost, falling behind by a 96-point deficit early on, and just couldn’t get my act together. Exchanging three times didn’t help either, except for temporary alleviating some serious vowel trouble. My opponent lost a turn for challenging JOWAR, but all it did was give me a chance to dump the Q and hope for a bingo-prone rack, which didn’t come. I got stuck with the V for the rest of the game, and lost 322-385.

It wasn’t a bad day, overall, and with 21 rounds to go, I’m still in contention the way I’ve been playing. The interesting thing about this division, which spans the 1200-1399 ratings bracket, is that word knowledge is really all over the map. There are players with strong vocabularies who are merely recovering from a slump, and there are those who simply aren’t comfortable enough with the fours and fives to fill the space between bingos with strong plays and keep the rack balanced.

I’m somewhere in between. Today I played one successful phony and got duped by two, but I also challenged six plays and was right about five of them. I’m playing my way out of bad tiles well enough to get out of trouble, if not always retake the lead. That’s really an essential skill in this game: making high-scoring plays and staying in the picture in the face of horrible misfortune. Most of the time, the frustration of bad luck and the elation of its goodly counterpart are direct consequences of strategy.

And there’s more where that came from. Onward!

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Just like a toon to drop a safe on a guy’s head

Thursday, 3 August 2006 — 1:34am | Animation, Film

It’s no secret that Language Log is still my favourite blog, but what you might not know is that Cartoon Brew makes a strong case for second place. Last week it ran a series of stories about the dismissive ignorance of film critics, sparked in part by Mick LaSalle’s review of Monster House in The San Francisco Chronicle, where he essentially claims that motion-capture has made animation obsolete. The Brew’s coverage is located, in ascending chronological order, here, here, here, here, here and here. I was going to write a refutation of my own, heavily doused in theoretical claims about the distinction between realism and verisimilitude and the Uncanny Valley (and perhaps a few words on A Scanner Darkly), but Real Animators have already done a much better job.

Instead, what I want to examine is not so much the side of the issue concerning animation, but rather, matters pertaining to criticism itself.

I write about film from time to time, even for money on the odd occasion. While everybody who partakes in criticism, no matter how amateur, has a stake in advancing a subjective personal opinion, I like to think that my primary agenda is to advance an educated discourse about cinema. Simply put, I can’t abide people who don’t know what they’re talking about; and when it comes to film, layperson opinions are a denarius a dozen. At the same time, I do not believe that one needs to do something in order to be qualified to discuss it, which is usually the party line of the anti-critical establishment.

That does not excuse a critic from fulfilling the basic journalistic responsibility to Not Be Stupid.

I may be someone with nary a sliver of animating talent, and to say that there’s a lot I haven’t seen (Monster House included) would be a gross understatement, but I do like to think that I pay attention. So when high-profile critics like A.O. Scott of The New York Times write utter nonsense about how Monster House “uses the digitally captured movements of real actors rather than computer-generated algorithms as the basis for its animated images” (emphasis mine), my face does that crazy thing that happens every time someone in the vicinity mentions Dan Brown.

(Hmm. I suppose that’s not a very good example, given that I have a degree that says I know what algorithms are.)

There’s obviously some kind of perception gap among critics, and perhaps the general public, that confines animated films to second-class status. This is strange if you think about it, because animation is really just the continued exploration of the first principles that define everything that we perceive to be a “motion picture” to begin with.

It reminds me of another trend that I see a lot, which is the public perception of special effects and their role in live-action filmmaking. Technological advances are often greeted with a excess of enthusiasm or a surfeit of suspicion. I’ve lost track of how many writers who know way more about film theory than I do – Roger Ebert, for one – lambasted the likes of Gladiator, The Fellowship of the Ring and Attack of the Clones for allegedly intrusive computer graphics, only to go on and cite examples that were precisely the scenes composed using traditional techniques, not CG. In fact, I think the first thing I ever wrote in The Gateway was a letter picking apart an article of this flavour by then-A&E Editor Adam Rozenhart, who subsequently suggested I volunteer.

Film critics aren’t complete idiots. Okay, some of them are, but for the most part, the ones that have gotten anywhere have at least an elementary grasp of what “story” means in a cinematic context, how a film is assembled and who to blame when something goes awry – to say nothing of an awareness of history, and a veritable library of filmgoing experience to fall back on. Yet there is an overwhelming epidemic of total incompetence when it comes to evaluating the impact of technology on film.

One big brouhaha that has been making the rounds in the video game press lately is Esquire writer Chuck Klosterman bemoaning, “There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing.” I like the sheepish consensus that Klosterman simply didn’t look very hard, and Jerry Holkins (“Tycho” of Penny Arcade) is precisely who he’s looking for. But the best response I’ve found is this terrific piece by Chris Dahlen. “We don’t have a new Bangs or Thompson yet,” argues Dahlen, “because pop culture today is primarily a technology story. And we don’t know how to write about technology.”

I think that’s the problem with animation. It’s a technology story. The critics who mishandle it think about it as an experimental bastard-child offspring for kids, a testbed for ever-improving methods marching and heiling towards some indeterminate horizon of progress. The Hollywood execs play into their hands, and the end result is the flooding of the CG market that we’ve seen all year.

You’ll often hear the same films referred to over and over as being the landmark advances of the form. You’ll read that Steamboat Willie gave as sound as we know it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was animation’s induction into feature-length territory, and Toy Story did the same for the digital age and shifted the mode of thought from drawing to sculpting. Framing the history of animation as a series of technological advances is really easy to do.

But it’s also a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. While these films were undoubtedly seminal in method, that’s not why we remember them. We remember them for the echoes of a wishing well and a toy in a spacesuit falling with style. That such masterworks of storytelling were also technical pioneers is a happy coincidence.

You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve encountered believe that The Wizard of Oz was the first live-action film in full colour. In fact, at the time of its release (1939), three-strip Technicolor had been around for five years, and colour processes in general were decades along. My theory is that The Wizard of Oz – specifically, the scene where Dorothy steps out of her monochromatic Kansas farmhouse and into vivid Munchkinland – made a permanent, transitional impression on the collective consciousness that said, nay, spake, “Let there be colour.” And we saw that it was good.

It’s easy to see something marvelous and say, “It must be the technology,” when really, it’s “merely” storytelling with the sublimity to fool you into believing that cameras and algorithms did all the work. Nobody would have cared a lick about the T-rex in Jurassic Park if he wasn’t an object in the mirror closer than he appeared, or if he never bellowed as the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner floated to the ground. Take the films that we revere as technical landmarks and you’ll see that they weren’t technologically driven like their imitators, but technologically permitted.

I speculate that animation criticism is at an impasse precisely because the dream factory that produces the most dazzling visual fireworks is also the one where Story Is King. As a filmgoer detached from the process – critic, businessman, hockey mom – it’s easy to conflate the two as synonymous.

The fellows at Pixar recognize that the relationship between the tools and the work of art is a permissive one. They have all these fancy specular lighting tricks up their sleeves, but the clever part is when they use them to develop character; for instance, Lightning McQueen’s obsession with his lucky sticker. Ka-chow.

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