Beep beep

This weekend was spent rewatching all 8 Harry Potter films. It’s nearly the 20th anniversary of the very first film, and I came onboard at MPC during the second film, the Chamber of Secrets when I was a mere pup of 26.

I own all 8 films on both Blu-Ray (HD only) and iTunes (4K). I bought both because I spent many of my 6 years working at MPC working on a Harry Potter film – in fact, I can’t remember a time when something relating to Harry Potter wasn’t happening. I went to Leavesden Studios a few times to set-up or remove kit too. One time I even had a bite to eat at the Warner Bros. café, sitting outside and looking at the scaffolding that made up half of the Dursley’s house in Little Whinging, Surrey.

No film credit (boo – Warner Bros. are stingy with credit allocation), but MPC did a Nice Thing(tm) by taking out this page in Cinefex

Growing up, the film that inspired my imagination most was, of course, Star Wars. It was a film primarily aimed at kids, so it wasn’t difficult to get into or enjoy when I was 3 or 4. Harry Potter was very much a series that starts off as a tale for younger kids, but the story grows with them – as do the characters. Star Wars is difficult to place in this regard- these days it’s still very much a PG thing (and so repetitive to boot), whereas the last three films in the Harry Potter series are quite a bit more dark & violent.

The Whomping Willow. Destroyer of Ford Anglias.

As I made my way through the films, it’s intriguing to see the stars of the film grow up as well with each film. The storyline is compelling, and the characters are believable and relatable, even if it’s set in a fantasy world of wizards and witches and other supernatural delights. Hermione, in particular, is the kind of friend everyone should have. She does tend to put up with a lot of shit throughout the entire story, so how she remains sane by the end of it is anybody’s guess (the same could be said of Harry and Ron, though).

Harry Potter is essentially the story of three best friends, along with a vast array of weird and wonderful supporting characters, fighting the return of a dark lord whilst simultaneously attending school and learning the very skills to be able to defeat him. It’s very impressive. J. K. Rowling sets up her ducks in a row with each film (or book) and then presses the FIRE button when it needs to be pressed. She’s not frightened to put her characters in very dark, very risky situations. And not everybody makes it through.

The Prisoner of Azkaban resonates with me a bit because we had a massive model of the werewolf Professor Lupin turns into towards the end of the film in the office. And it had a removable head. And people would wear it like a hat – just because. That said, The Chamber of Secrets was the first film I got my hands dirty with, especially figuring out the ins and outs of the VPN system WB had set-up (against a 512Kbs ADSL line at Leavesden – but thankfully it got better with subsequent films) and other VFX infrastructure matters.

This version does NOT have a removable head

I also went along to Shepperton Studios during Azkaban’s production, though it was for another film called Wimbledon. Somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that many years later I’d be working IN Wimbledon. Anyway, on my way to the office at Shepperton Studios, I came across the trailers for David Thewlis (who plays Professor Lupin) and IIRC, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). But even more interesting was this monstrosity poking out the top of one of Shepperton’s sound stages:

It’s big. Seriously big.

It was all good fun (except I got told off for replacing a broken PC on Wimbledon when the resource manager was away – yet the artist working at the studio had to use SOMETHING and that was the only machine I had listed as a spare – I’m glad to be out of VFX because it was things like that which drove me nuts).

Anyway, it was late on Sunday when I finished all 8 movies. I felt sad because we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of plucky youngsters who risked a lot to get where they were, and now we were going our separate ways. Nearly 10 years in the making. And I was also sad because without J. K. Rowling, and as such without Harry Potter, the British film industry would probably not have had such a resurgence between 2000-2010. VFX companies sprung up around Potter. But within that was darkness.

During the Order of the Phoenix, Warner Bros. essentially made an ultimatum – give us more tax credits or we’ll move to Eastern Europe. It must have been a big deal because when the managing director sends every employee an email that wishes the PM (either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair at the time) would increase tax incentives for the studios, it makes you wonder about whether you’re going to have a job later down the road.

And it’s that reason why I feel that we must do something to get away from tax incentives for major US film studios and move to something fairer for the taxpayer. Fairer for VFX vendors. Stop the race to the bottom, and stop the displacement this causes. Besides, these kinds of incentives can lead to tax dodgers (Just “Google” the following: HRMC film tax fraud). State handouts to corporations, especially the film industry, need better management.

Nevertheless, Harry Potter remains one of the most beloved characters and stories this country has produced. And the films are just wonderful. Here’s to another 20 years (but please – no enhancing VFX like Star Wars did).

Netflix has confirmed that it is removing AirPlay support from its iOS application due to ‘technical limitations’.

My concern with this is that it’s taking away one very useful feature – the ability to stream Netflix shows on TVs that have built-in AirPlay (and subsequently AirPlay 2) support. If you’re doing a lot of travelling – whether for business or pleasure – this can be extremely useful.

You could argue that a lot of TVs have a built-in Netflix app already? Yes, this is true. But many hotel TVs don’t. Will Netflix look to make up for potential connectivity problems by attempting to sell dongles or TVs with Netflix built to hoteliers?

I don’t want to have to provide credentials for my Netflix account to completely strange TV setups. AirPlay ensures that my credentials stay secure on my phone (though I’d use a VPN if I was on a hotel Wi-Fi – which could cause problems with Netflix’s policy of using VPNs – another problem Netflix has got to sort out because using a VPN has legitimate uses).

What next, Netflix? The ability to output content from Netflix via Lightning/USB-C to HDMI (which would enable you to hook up Netflix from an iPhone or iPad to a TV or monitor)?

Netflix is becoming awkward on the iOS platform because its app doesn’t support the interactive features that are present in the Black Mirror special, Bandersnatch. And this means other planned titles are unlikely to work either.

The Netflix app on Sky Q is becoming a big problem too. I frequently find that the app on the Sky Q box keeps crapping out, forcing me to switch over to the Apple TV 4K. The Netflix app on the Sky Q can handle interactive features but given that I consider the Sky Q app to be unstable, it’s not

Is the once durable and available everywhere Netflix app becoming a liability and non-consumer friendly? It certainly looks like it. And if Netflix continues on this path, and increases the subscription price, it will be a streaming/cable service like any other and I’m going to stop subscribing.

The recent BAFTA and Oscars have stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Vue and Cineworld cinemas who have objected to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video winning awards for movies that have debuted on their streaming services.

Vue and Cineworld have been spitting feathers at BAFTA because, they claim, the eligibility for films being nominated aren’t fair because Netflix and Amazon streamed films aren’t available on the big screen. Or if they are, they’re not in cinemas long enough.

I get it. They’re cinemas and want bums on seats and their sole business is to show films. Though these days, some cinemas also specialise in live theatre performances which are broadcast live. Or some even show TV shows on the odd occasion (Doctor Who springs to mind). Their bread and butter is to show things on the largest screen possible.

ALAS!

Spider-man, spider-man, shown on the smallest cinema screen..

Cinemas these days are fighting a losing battle. Have you been recently? I went last Sunday to watch the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which was absolutely incredible. Very worthy of its win, and should have won Best Picture as well. Loved it. But:

  • It was shown on the smallest screen in the cinema.
  • The seats were filthy and worn-out. And this particular chain, even in with bigger screens, the seats are uncomfortable.
  • What was once a mighty foyer with snacks and drinks galore is a mere shadow of its former self. The nachos I had weren’t fantastic. The choice of drinks and snacks are abysmal. And costly.

And my general complaint about most cinemas are:

  • Trailers and adverts are not shown in the correct aspect ratio – you have black bars (like you do on TV) for everything.
  • You’re constantly made to feel like a criminal by numerous reminders about not recording the soundtrack or video of the cinema screen.
  • Ticket prices are expensive.
  • The quality of the cinema and presentation vary enormously between different cinema chains and towns.
  • Costs of time and travelling to the cinema and back again.
  • People playing with their bloody mobile phones.
  • People walking in after the film starts.
  • People talking throughout the film.
  • Seat quality. You often pay extra for this, and I don’t mind that too much, but there should be more expensive seats on offer.

Cinema is a shared experienced – especially with family and friends. I get it. But now with the same technology being made for the living room (Dolby in particularly are doing well with their Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos systems), you can experience the same thing at home with a large(ish) TV and decent sound system. Nobody is ever going to have the kind of screen and sound system that IMAX offers, but it’s still pretty damn good – home entertainment has improved leaps and bounds over the years.

As has the ability to finance films. It’s a whole different ball game with theatrical releases versus streaming (effectively you’ve already bought a ticket), and theatrical releases are far more risk averse as a result (and to the consumer too – you spend over £40 for a family day out to the cinema for a film nobody likes, you bet you’re going to be upset).

I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (which rightly won in the categories it was nominated for at the BAFTA and Oscars), and it’s truly an excellent film. He’s done extraordinarily well with it – as writer, director and cinematographer. I watched it on a 60″ TV in 4K (without HDR) and thought it was visually stunning (my former employers, MPC, were responsible for the visual effects and there is one sequence that knocked my socks off – my brain trying to figure out how it was done – and I was wrong!). Roma deserves to be nominated (and to win) as much as everybody else, regardless of how it was financed and distributed.

Imagine the fuss if a YouTube film won an Oscar or BAFTA. The old school and the cinema chains would spontaneously combust.

Spielberg’s complaint is that he wants to preserve the theatrical experience. I get it. I really do. When I was much younger it was a treat to go the cinema. Prices were reasonable. The seats were enormous and comfortable. The big screen was the big screen. And there were very many more cinemas around. Very happy memories of watching the likes of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future (at the Empire Leicester Square no less). I’ve been on a few dates to the cinema, been to the cinema with my mates, and all sorts. But over the past 5 or 6 years, things have slowed down a lot. Cinemas have been closing down. Television has become more interesting.

Some films I’ve had real problems getting to see due the very limited theatrical run. I can only seen them via physical disk purchase, iTunes (or similar) or via one of the streaming service. Should those films still be eligible for Oscars or BAFTA? And what of screeners and VOD that the Academy hands out to members? I’m told it’s a last resort, but even civilians like me don’t have the time (or inclination) to go to the cinema or the time.

Films are films regardless of however they’re made. This is the 21st century. We have the technology. But people want their films to be wherever they are. Whether that be in the cinema, on TV, on their mobile devices. It’s high time that the old school (I include Cannes in this) wake up and smell the coffee.

A small section of my Blu-Ray/UltraHD Blu-Ray collection

With the news that Samsung intends to stop making any more Blu-Ray players, people are wondering whether this is a signal that physical media is gradually coming to an end, particularly with streaming and catch-up services becoming more and more popular. Netflix titles will forever remain on Netflix, right? Providing that you keep paying the subscription?

I would argue that the world still needs physical media. Film and TV studios still haven’t assured consumers that content they buy wholly digitally will remain with them for the rest of the lives (and beyond), and that you can play them in a format that is reasonably open and fair. I can vouch that this is a legitimate worry – I had bought a fair number of titles from the BBC Store when it was alive and well, and even then there was a very big problem:

Access to the BBC Store content was a mixed bag. If I recall correctly, you (eventually) had to use a dedicated BBC Store app. BBC iPlayer apps across different platforms could access it, but for the most part, I couldn’t view the content on my LG TV or any other device that directly connected to my TV. I couldn’t cast content to the TV unless I had a Chromecast. Which I didn’t. I’m pretty sure the platform was more open at the beginning and then slowly killed itself by limiting itself to certain platforms.

By the time BBC Store had decided to shut up shop, at least the BBC had the good grace to provide a refund or voucher for use with a rival service. But this didn’t make up for the fact that not all of the content was available elsewhere. Had I bought the content on DVD or Blu-Ray (albeit for a more substantial price), this situation would never have occurred.

Netflix and Amazon, on the other hand, are available on pretty much everything these days – even ancient Blu-Ray players. The problem that Netflix now finds itself is in interactive content. Its Bandersnatch interactive episode works with modern Netflix apps, with a few notable exceptions – the main one being Apple TV. I seem to recall reading that Apple doesn’t allow the use of Javascript within tvOS apps which is the reason why Bandersnatch isn’t available there.

Another indication that physical media is being looked over is that TV companies are seeming not bothering to make Blu-Ray versions available of their TV show season boxsets. Fox, or as I like to call them, 18th Century Dodo (because they are nearly always stuck in the past) released the first season of their excellent sci-fi/comedy series, The Orville, on DVD only despite broadcasting in HD. DVD is not high definition. Why on earth would anybody want to buy something that’s lower quality than what was originally broadcast?

Channel 4 has done the same with a season 1-4 boxet of their excellent comedy, Catastrophe. Yet you can stream it via HD and buy it in HD on services like iTunes. But there is no Blu-Ray release. Neither is there a Blu-Ray release for Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave. A DVD release, yes, but if you want HD, you’ll need to buy it digitally from iTunes.

Now let’s talk about iTunes for a moment. It’s by far the best ecosystem for non-physical media if you like movies. Not so much for TV programs. iTunes offers movies (many of which now come in 4K resolution – albeit if streamed via an Apple TV – no 4K on Mac, iPad or iPhone) that come with the kind of extras that you’d see on physical media such as behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries. iTunes for TV shows rarely does this – if at all. The only TV show I have bought on iTunes which come with extras and audio commentaries was Breaking Bad – the Deluxe Edition (seasons 1-6), and even that was problematic. I had to disable Dolby Surround to listen to the episodes which have audio commentaries. You can only listen to them when the audio output is set to Stereo. This is not a problem for iTunes movies which set the correct audio channel through the use of a special menu which comes with the movie.

But even after all that, you’re still not guaranteed that the movies or TV shows that you’ve bought through iTunes are yours to keep forever. There is always the chance that a studio or broadcaster could remove their content from the store, and thus your library. A similar situation to Amzon’s Kindle books (which has happened, BTW). And this situation can apply to any digital movie or TV show retailer. There is nothing in the terms and conditions to stop a company from removing content from your virtual library. And nothing to say that you wouldn’t be compensated, either.

So if digital media is on the rise, it seems that it’s because we like the convenience. For me, this is true. I DO like the convenience it offers – especially iTunes. I can stream to my TV, iPad and iPhone without faffing around too much. I have over 348 movies on iTunes along with a few TV shows that I’d like to watch from the iPad or iPhone if I’m travelling. So I am heavily invested in it. But I’m equally invested in physical media too. I have an UltraHD 4K player from Sony which I think is marvellous. I have an extensive collection of Blu-Ray, UltraHD 4K Blu-Ray and DVDs. Some of which cannot be purchased digitally (Studio Ghibli is one such company which has never released its content on iTunes, for example). I did have an Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player which was discontinued as they were moving away from the audio-visual industry. It was the leading 4K Blu-Ray player of it’s time, winning many awards.

But it’s disheartening that TV studios – and maybe even some film studios – don’t seem to care about what the consumer wants. I understand that mastering and duplication of physical media is expensive. But the consumer deserves a choice. A choice I didn’t have when HBO’s Silicon Valley stopped being made available via Amazon on Blu-Ray. DVD only. I had collected seasons 1 and 2 on Blu-Ray, and now future seasons weren’t going to be available in the definition that I want? Outrageous.

What I don’t understand is that it is easier to rip the likes of DVDs than Blu-Rays – they don’t take up much space. So why hasn’t efforts been made to phase out DVDs and replace them with Blu-Rays? Much effort has gone to publicise Blu-Ray as a superior quality format. It’s backwards compatible with DVD, so people’s collections will continue to work. Is it case that people don’t really care about resolution or quality? Why bother with 4K at all in that case? Should we just laugh at 8K and future resolution updates?

Are we in the battle of VHS versus betamax again? It sure as hell feels like it at times. In any event, I express my bitter disappointment at the likes of 18th Century Dodo (Fox), Channel 4 and HBO for their decision to release content on DVD only. I doubt they will be the last to do so, but one can hope the industry gives itself a bit of a kick up the arse to show commitment to all formats. I despise piracy, but I know that piracy isn’t going to stop regardless of whatever efforts are made. But if the TV and film studios don’t do something, the pirates are not only going to give people what they want, in the format that they want, but they’ll probably do a better job at presentation too.

Disney continues to throw money at their live-action adaptations of all their classic animated films, and Aladdin is the latest. Unfortunately, judging from this special preview, they might have mucked things up a little.

Now, it’s important to note just how terrible trailers and “special previews” can be. It’s really difficult to gauge how good a film is going to be unless you actually go and see it. Having worked in VFX where it was often all hands to the pumps during trailer time to get work completed so it can be used, I can wholeheartedly sympathise with those working on this film. But alas, Will Smith’s genie just feels .. dead. And blue. Like a dead smurf.

As an example of deceptive trailers, back in 2014, the live action version of Paddington suffered horribly when he first made an appearance on the internet. He looked terrible. He looked.. creepy. Memes were generated in abundance. But people (including myself) absolutely loved the film. I’d even go and say that it’s some of Framestore’s finest work. The second film too is wonderful. I’d never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. Go see Paddington and Paddington 2 (available on Prime Video).

Blue people in film & TV #10323 – Tobias Funké, Arrested Development

For those of us that remember, ILM did a marvellous job with The Mask, taking Jim Carrey’s character and bending and twisting him into all sorts of madcap characters. Then “Son of the Mask” came along, and it is, without doubt, the worst visual effects I have ever seen in a movie. One can only hope that with Aladdin, ILM have erred on the side of Jim Carrey rather than the sequel.

Blue people in film & TV #23213 – Papa Smurf

The rest of the VFX in the Aladdin special preview feels “meh”, like it could have been done by any vendor. Jafarr seems strangely far less malevolent than he was in the original animated film too. Nothing to me in this special preview or the trailer before that makes me think they have done anything special with this other than to plonk live action people amongst animation of a different type. Seems a massive waste of money to me.

The only two live-action Disney remakes that I have been impressed with so far have been:

In the end, however, does it make any difference? This is just a family film aimed at younger kids. And younger kids will watch anything. In fact, Disney could have saved substantial amounts of money and have had the entire film shot with glove puppets, or brightly covered twigs. The kids don’t care. As long as it’s bright, moves around a lot and makes noise, they’re entertained. They’re the ones not going to write up reviews of the film.