Back from Edinburgh

My destination directly after my little London trip was to the capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh.  I fell in love with the place last year when cPanel were hosting a one day conference.  I extended the stay for 4 days, but it wasn’t enough to explore the city.  This time I had 9 days, and let me tell you, I saw (and drank) a lot.

The next few posts will recount my Scottish adventures, but let me just say that during my time in Edinburgh I was a tad annoyed at Disney/Marvel’s presence in shooting Avengers: Infinity War in the city which meant that tours (or anything) involving the Royal Mile was interrupted throughout that time.  And on my way home that also meant Waverley train station.

I suspect in order to qualify for the British film tax credit (read: free taxpayer money) which requires productions to pass a British cultural test (how the other Marvel films passed I just don’t know), I like to think the Avengers were fighting giant space haggises. Given how terrible Marvel has shoehorned British locations to get their tax credits, I reckon for the next Marvel film it’ll probably be shot in Blackpool where Captain America wears a knotted handkerchief, Thor judges a knobbly knee competition, and the Hulk becomes a ballroom dancing champion…

Flashbacks to my time in VFX came flooding back to me.. Hope Marvel’s Avengers enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while saving the universe from mutant space haggises.
Marvel was in town for over THREE weeks…
.. which meant that the section they closed involved a LOT of steps or significant detours up and down hills to get around them..

I’ll be talking more about various movies in the coming posts – particularly Skyfall, Harry Potter (I went to Hogwarts – but not the version I worked on), Downton Abbey and Angel’s Share (a Ken Loach film).

The curse of the digital tiger!

When Life of Pi won the best visual effects Oscar back in 2013, it was a bittersweet victory.  Shortly after the win, the industry saw the collapse of the VFX studio, Rhythm and Hues.  Lots of people lost their jobs.

The following 30 minute documentary explains what happened, and why.

I was checking Twitter yesterday and came across the following tweets:

followed by:

.. which is incredibly disturbing if true. The tweets come from the VFX chapter of BECTU (which is the media & entertainment union here in the UK). I have no reason to disbelieve them as a result.  More information can be found here.

MPC have been fighting unionisation over the past couple of years, but it is nevertheless one of the few companies where employees are members of a union (via BECTU). The VFX sector is one area of the film industry where unionisation has been extremely difficult. Given the costs of VFX which is a highly labour intensive industry, many VFX companies operate to extremely small profit margins. Unionisation is highly unattractive to these companies, and to their clients.

I’ve been talking to a few VFX companies over the past couple of years and my view is that the picture remains bleak, with limited technical resources and staffing costs being a big concern. The smaller boutique companies have had to combine resources to be able to survive (Cinesite & Image Engine springs to mind). For those going alone, you’ll find one member of staff doing one or more jobs. Even the bigger companies have merged (Double Negative with India’s Prime Focus), or bought out (Framestore with China’s Cultural Investment Holdings Co.). And VFX continues to produce significant losses – whether through expansion/R&D (Digital Domain (now owned by a Hong Kong firm) losses double at $64 million) or other means.

Meanwhile, the big corporations that run the film studios continue to get free taxpayer money through the use of film credits for filming or utilising resources in a particular country. Both Britain and Canada are currently the winners in the tax credits game – the US, not so much. It seems the US is not able or willing to financially support its own industry for whatever reason. Just bizarre.

I love film & TV, but bloody hell, the whole industry is a mess. Heavily reliant on state handouts, if this continues we’ll likely to see massive redundancies across the creative industries as film companies go bust. What cost to the UK taxpayer to keep our film industry alive and well?

I am very disappointed with my former employers if the redundancies/replacing with less experienced workers issue is true. It’s bad for the client, bad for the taxpayer, and more so – super bad for those who are being replaced – who took the company an Oscar and BAFTA victory.

It seems to me that any VFX company that provides a CG tiger (Life of Pi & The Jungle Book) and wins a major award is likely to let people go afterwards – for whatever reason. The Walking Dead recently featured a CG tiger – let’s hope it doesn’t win award. If it does, pray for the VFX people on that show. Perhaps the bad luck has to be balanced out by creating two CG magpies? Or better yet – sort out the tax credits issues which is leading the industry to this sorry state, and start making these companies profitable again.

All this has lead to another documentary being made, “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick” in which artists tell of their experience within the VFX industry.

The VFX of The Jungle Book

Update: The Jungle Book won the 2017 BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects.

In the run up to the various film awards, here’s a look at the VFX of The Jungle Book with Adam Valdez, a VFX Supervisor at The Moving Picture Company (for whom I used to work).

The Jungle Book took a plethora of trophies at the recent Visual Effects Society Awards, so I reckon they stand a good chance at this year’s BAFTAs and Oscars.  I sincerely hope MPC win – it would be another major award for them, and deservedly so.  I’m also betting on Kubo and the Two Strings, a beautiful animated film from independent studio Laika that also deserves to win for their technical and creative achievements.

MPC are currently working on Jon Favreau’s “live” adaptation of The Lion King.

Buster the Boxer

The new John Lewis Christmas TV ad is here!  Huzzah!

Love the advert.  VFX (including CG animals), VR and post-production by my former employers, MPC.  Well done to all.  MPC’s creature department is one of the best in the business – evidenced by recent productions such as the Jungle Book.

Fun fact: my parents met while they were both working at John Lewis, so I think I can say that I owe John Lewis my existence.

Weekend Roundup: Samsung’s a tad busy – The Jungle Book may be the best VFX movie ever

Samsung’s going to be a bit busy for the next couple fo weeks

Now that the cat’s out the bag, I’ve been in touch with Carphone Warehouse (where I purhcased my Note 7) to try and clarify what I need to do to get a new, non-exploding Note 7.  They’ve said:

I’m really sorry to hear you’ve been affected by the recent news about the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

I called you today on [REDACTED] to discuss this further but I wasn’t able to reach you. As you’ve heard, there have been some reported faults with the battery on this particular phone. Because of this we have halted further handsets being ordered, and put a stop to any more handsets being dispatched as a precautionary measure.

Samsung have released the following status:

“Samsung is committed to producing the highest quality products and we take every incident report from our valued customers very seriously. In response to recently reported cases of the new Galaxy Note7, we conducted a thorough investigation and found a battery cell issue.

“To date (as of September 1) there have been 35 cases that have been reported globally and we are currently conducting a thorough inspection with our suppliers to identify possible affected batteries in the market. However, because our customers’ safety is an absolute priority at Samsung, we have stopped sales of the Galaxy Note7.

For customers who already have Galaxy Note7 devices, we will voluntarily replace their current device with a new one over the coming weeks. For more information, customers need to contact the customer service team on 0330 7261000.”

Alternatively, a replacement can be provided by ourselves directly as soon as we receive the stock. We don’t have a date at this point however as soon as we’ll know we’ll make an official announcement.

Please accept my sincere apologies for any upset or inconvenience that this matter may have caused you.

If you have any other questions please reply to this email or alternatively, you can call our Customer Support team on 0370 111 6565. Our lines are open Monday-Friday 8am-7pm, Saturday 9am-6pm and Sunday 10am-5pm.

I never received any notification that Carphone Warehouse tried to call.  I did get a text message from them to say that Samsung were definitely recalling the phone, but that’s it. Anyway, I’ve swapped back to the Galaxy S7 Edge for the time being and tried to call Samsung UK when their office opened on Saturday only to be kept on hold for nearly an hour before I gave up.  So I used their web site’s contact form to leave a message (along with serial number, etc.) to ask them what I need to do to get the phone swapped.

I’m giving Samsung until the end of the week to reply, otherwise I’ll just go through Carphone Warehouse (after all, that’s whom I paid and my contract is with them for the sale).  If all else fails within the next two weeks, I’ll just return the phone and get my money back.

While I don’t have plans to go back to Apple, I’ll be watching this Wednesday’s presentation with interest over the iPhone 7, which leads me to think that the biggest problem with technology at the moment is that with everybody releasing a new device every year, Quality Assurance is being compromised.  There’s not enough time to test the hardware and software: everything is being released too quickly.  While I appreciate these companies have got to keep making money, they’re also harming their own products and reputation at the same time.

The Jungle Book Made Me Weep With Joy

I’ve always enjoyed the 60’s Disney version of the Jungle Book, but was blown away by the most recent live action/animation blend.  Featuring complete artificial environments and creatures by my former employers MPC and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, this retelling of the Rudyard Kipling classic is much, much closer to the book than the cartoon.  In many ways this reminded me of the John August/Tim Burton version of Charlie & The Charlie Factory – a more faithful (at least in tone) adaptation against the book than the previous incarnation.

But what struck me about this version of the Jungle Book is just how brilliant the visual effects came out.  I’ve seen many films in which the effects, while pretty nifty, look more like an unplayable console game.  Getting photorealism into VFX produced on computers is very, very difficult.  But I do believe both MPC and Weta Digital have outdone Avatar in producing a very believable photorealistic environment, similarly populated with talking photorealistic animals.

The interaction between Mowgli and his wolf mother before Mowgli heads alone in the jungle made me shed a tear.  It made me believe in the characters rather than think that, other than the actor playing Mowgli, the entire scene was completely artificial.  THAT, my friends, is the sign of good VFX work.  Of course, all this  visual work is all helped along with great performances from the likes of Bill Murray as Balloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, and Idris Elba as Shere Kahn.  Christopher Walken as the massive King Louie is just brilliant.

I am incredibly proud of my former colleagues (many names stand out in the credits of people I worked with over eight years ago) at MPC for their work on this film.  It’s by far the best work they’ve ever produced – more so than Prometheus which also blew me away with the quality of the visual effects work.

I’ll be buying the Blu-Ray as a keepsake.  Jon Favreau is to be heartily congratulated on producing a film that everybody can enjoy.  Including this soppy 40-year-old.  This is Kipling done right.