I’ve bought hook, line and sinker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ever since Iron Man was first released back in 2008. And Disney has done exceedingly well with their $4 billion acquisition. Recent profits have suggested they’ve made over $18 billion over the past 11 years.

I’ve generally enjoyed all the films – and watched most of them at the cinema – but time and work usually gets in the way of getting the best cinema experience, so I’ve seen a few at home. I, unfortunately, missed out on Avengers: Endgame – the much-anticipated sequel to Avengers: Infinity Wars which I did see in the cinema. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers like the plague, and Disney/Marvel has yet to re-release the film in UK cinemas before the UK digital home release on the 19th August (alleged date). It is, of course, available on US digital home release. Disney, an avid tax credits collector when filming in the UK, puts us Brits in second place as they usually do.

I was up in Edinburgh when Marvel was filming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

So it’s kind of made things like the SDCC (San Diego Comic-Con) announcements a massive no-no in terms of news. While I appreciate that distribution windows are set to maximise bums on seats and profits (see my interview with Jane Goldman about this), trying to avoid spoilers in a country with a different release schedule is a massive pain in the arse! Disney can and should do better.

But at least Marvel has released Captain Marvel which helps fill in a few gaps between Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. It also introduces us to a young Nick Fury who, up until the events in this film, had never encountered an extraterrestrial before.

Captain Marvel is a fun film – much in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy or even the recent Thor: Ragnarok. And you can’t be mad at a film in which does something very unusual with a lovable feline during the end battle. It’s also a sad film. Stan Lee passed away during editing, so Marvel’s usual opening logo features images of Stan during his regular cameos and some behind the scenes stuff before fading to black with the words centred in the middle of the screen:

THANK YOU STAN

Indeed, thank you, Stan. And thank you, Steve Ditko. And thank you Jack Kirby and all the others that worked with Stan to produce some of the finest characters and storylines in comics history. Without Stan Lee, we wouldn’t have these movies. And speaking more of Stan, he’s here in cameo form albeit during a period in which he was starting to become seriously unwell – sitting on a train and reading the script to Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (in which he has a small, but important role). It’s a lovely nod to both Stan – and indeed Kevin.

Brie Larson makes a marvellous Captain Marvel, and with a sequel announced (it’s been very difficult to ignore SDCC announcements), the universe is in good hands.

What I don’t understand is why so many people – mainly men – that were so bitter towards Captain Marvel (to the extent that Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator) had to step in and remove a substantial number of bitter reviews. I’m definitely seeing a trend in fandom where toxic elements are trying very hard to spoil things for all.

My former employers, MPC, have been busy with the photorealistic version of The Lion King for Disney. And, it seems, the film version of the popular musical, Cats.

I do think, however, that motion capture (or performance capture – whatever you like to call it) is perhaps not the way forward for the film version of Cats. We’ve ending up with some kind of weird cat/human hybrid. A werecat, as it were. A style significantly more unsettling than the original stage performance costumes. Sometimes it’s better to get the audience to rely on their imagination rather than spoon feed the buggers with CG monstrosities.

Now, movies made from stage musicals are a good thing. Going to the cinema is (usually) cheaper than a stage performance. It should get more eyes and ears on the show than you’d normally do in the West End or Broadway. But for me, there have been many stage to film versions which have entirely dismissed the intimacy of the stage and thrown the big book of epic at the film, only to have failed miserably. Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera was a massive disappointment as a film. But it is magnificent on stage.

Given the reactions to the trailer, it’s difficult to say how well the movie version of Cats will be received when it’s released.

The family cat, Lupin, for comparison. He can’t sing. He can’t dance. He doesn’t require a whole team of VFX artists or computers to bring him to life. But he can certainly eat. Lupin: The Movie. Not coming to cinemas near you. Not unless you tempt him with food.

Lupin disapproves of werecats.

Later this month, I’ll be attending a special book launch for the biography of Ronnie Le Drew, a professional puppeteer who has worked extensively in the TV, film and theatre industries.

For my whole life, I’ve always been interested in puppets and puppetry. I grew up with the likes of Zippy, Bungle, and George. Sooty, Sweep and Soo. Rod Hull and Emu. Basil Brush, Roland Rat, and many more besides. The Muppets were a big thing in our household too (if only I could find the photo of me and my cousins sitting around the TV watching The Muppet Show – it was the most 80’s photo you could ever imagine thanks to our tracksuits and furniture coverings).

When I was older, I wanted to work for the Jim Henson Creature Shop helping design and build the computer performance systems that powered some of their most advanced animatronic creations. I didn’t particularly want to be a puppeteer so much, though this photo suggests otherwise:

A Young Blofeld welcomes Mr. Bond whilst petting his vicious Emu
Signed DVD from Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, and also a damn good director)

The irony was that I’d end up working for a visual effects company that would replace traditional puppets with all-CG versions – this was the case for the film Ella Enchanted in which Heston the Snake was originally going to be a practical puppet, but was instead entirely CG (and voiced by Steve Coogan).

But nevertheless, I still love the art of puppetry and the people behind the performance. I’ve already had the great privilege to meet Louise Gold about 20 years ago, who was an active member of Jim Henson’s Muppet performers during the time The Muppet Show was being recorded in England. She’s an extraordinary all-around performer and was most recently seen in Fiddler on the Roof in the West End.

So it’ll be nice to meet Ronnie and fellow fans at the launch of his new book in a few weeks time. I already have a copy of the book in Kindle format, but I’m going to wait a bit before reading because a good book is like a good wine. Best enjoyed slowly.

Zippy and Me: My Life Inside Britain’s Most Infamous Puppet can be pre-ordered via Amazon.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Ronnie’s antics as Zippy can be found in this infamous not-for-public (whoops) video:

And there’s also this 23 minute documentary about Ronnie on his career:

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. cafĂ©, 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 got my imagination going most of all 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.