I hope everybody had a good holiday. I know I did. A week at my dad’s of sleeping and doing nothing other than putting on 3 lbs of weight which (I hope) will fall off come January when things start getting hectic at work.

Apart from eating and sleeping, the only other thing I did was to put a Berocca energy tablet in my morning coffee by accident – and watch a bit TV and listen to the radio.

Visual summary of my holiday downtime

I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV, though. Mainly because the TV schedules were generally rubbish. I did download the whole of HBO’s Watchmen to my iPad Pro but ended up not watching it. I will. And I promise to finish off HBO’s Chernobyl too.

I did download and watch Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns from Sky Cinema which proves that you can get away with anything when an author is dead and buried and whose wishes you can stamp upon without fear of getting an ear-bashing every five minutes from them (also see the BBC’s recent version of A Christmas Carol – Dickens would be spitting feathers). Mary Poppins Returns isn’t too bad, but it struggles with a poorly developed first and second act that brings to mind the amount of story recycling going on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The VFX are nothing special – especially in this day and age of audience members who’ve seen all this kind of thing before – and have probably figured out how it’s all done. The musical numbers vary between reasonably good to far too modern – a shame since Marc Shaiman is a favourite composer of mine. I also feel there are maybe one or two many songs for its own good. The third act, and the story’s resolution, is worth it – watching a 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke sing and dance without any difficulty is inspirational. And Angela Lansbury as the balloon seller is also a lovely tribute. As is the finale which actually does a decent job of building upon “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”. One final note – kudos to Disney for crediting Peter Ellenshaw (officially designated a Disney Legend) who designed the original Mary Poppins titles and matte paintings, for inspiring the filmmakers to adopt his style for the titles of this film.

I also downloaded Disney’s live-action Dumbo too. I’ve got to say I greatly dislike the stylistic direction that Tim Burton has gone in recent years. Indoor green screen galore with CG backgrounds has replaced physical location work and physical sets with virtual ones. With that many visual effects, it makes me wonder why Disney even bothered with a live-action remake in the first place – in the same way, I wonder why Disney’s The Lion King exists other than as a technical demo. I switched off after ten minutes. Couldn’t stomach the style.

The Undateables at Christmas (Channel 4) was a testament to the saying that there is somebody for everybody regardless of whatever physical or mental attributes you may have. The Undateables has been a shining beacon of positivity in the fog of an increasingly negative world. When two people come together, it makes me happy. You can shove your Love Islands up your bottom. This is the real deal.

This year, Richard, who hates Christmas with a passion, and won’t travel more than a certain number of miles outside his home in Surrey, should be able to find somebody if he really, really, really makes the effort. As for Daniel and Lily, I almost wept by how much these two love each other. Daniel is a whirlwind force of positivity, and having already proposed last year to Lily (which DID make me weep), he upped the ante considerably to lay on a surprise in which he appeared in the local panto as Prince Dan-Charming who is looking for his Cinder-Lily. Having brought her on stage, he then presented her with her own sparkly shoes. If this does not define the very notion of romance, I don’t know what is. I can’t wait to see their wedding – I do hope Channel 4 has been given an invite.

Leeds fan Ray and Christine – also favourites of mine – were also wonderful, with Christine surprising Ray with a trip to see his football idols up close and personal. It was a lovely thing to do, and I do hope they both tie the knot in the not-too-distance future. As for Francesco, I think Channel 4 needs to take him to Japan. His future missus has got to embrace the Japanese culture. In any event, I wish him only the very best of luck.

The BBC’s The Snail and the Whale was an animated triumph. A simple tale of a sea snail wanting to see the world was beautifully rendered by the team at South Africa’s Triggerfish Animation.

Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special saw a very welcome return after an absence of ten years away from the West and Shipman families. Ten years! And it didn’t feel as if a day had gone by since season 3 had ended. But many things HAD happened: Gavin and Stacey have had three kids. Nessa and Smithy’s son (Neil the Baby) is now a teenager. Smithy is seeing somebody else – with a view to getting engaged. Uncle Bryn is.. still Uncle Bryn. The camaraderie between the cast is still there – maybe even tighter than ever. Nessa and Bryn’s rendition of The Fairytale of New York was just perfect (and not shying away from THAT line – good – as uncomfortable it may make some people, you’re exposing the character in the song), and the uncomfortable meeting between Smithy’s new girlfriend and the rest of the family was a delight – especially when it came to Nessa’s Christmas presents. All in all, this was a perfectly crafted comedy which exposes just how good James Cordon and Ruth Jone’s writing really is. But we cannot – cannot, I tell you, leave it at THAT cliffhanger. But, as they say, leave them wanting more..

Mackenzie Crook was possibly always meant to play Worzel Gummidge. Combining his talents as an actor, writer and director, you’ve got yourself a Worzel that is equipped for the 21st century and all the environmental problems that it has brought us. Worzel’s conversation with The Green Man was spot-on – nature and human beings have got to work together. Yet Mackenzie’s Worzel is also the classic Worzel that Barbara Euphan Todd first wrote about all those decades ago. Although this Worzel is a very different Worzel to that played by Jon Pertwee, I love both interpretations of the characters, and after watching both hour-long episodes, I am rather keen that – if Mr Crook is happy to do so – the BBC commissions a full series.

The make-up by Neil Gorton’s Millenium FX is first class, though I’d probably consider animatronic heads for the some of the scarecrow characters to bring a bit more articulation that prosthetic make-up alone can’t quite reach. Nonetheless, the costumes and everything supernatural about our magical beings is nigh spot on. Aunt Sally’s wooden make-up and lack of a lower-body other than an open frame on wheels make for a delightfully spooky encounter in the first episode.

And finally, Tommy Cooper: In His Own Words was a repeat, but I could never tire of seeing him work. He was a comedy genius and loved him as a kid. I also remember watching his final performance live on TV (I would have been eight at the time) and being shocked that I actually watched the man die on stage. This TV show gave us a lot of good memories of the man, including a lovely tribute from his daughter.

It seems that MPC Vancouver has shut down shop, laying off 95% of the workforce just before Christmas. There is a rather substantial thread on Reddit about it, as well as this Cartoon Brew report.

One set of comments that stood out was this one. Never go full feline.

To give a bit of context, the VFX studios Rhythm & Hues closed down after winning their VFX Oscar for The Life of Pi. The following documentary explains what happened, and what’s wrong with the VFX industry:

It’s difficult to say how much of an impact this will have on the rest of MPC’s worldwide presence, or how the industry will perceive it. Come Oscars time, it’s worth watching to see who will win the best VFX Oscar. If it’s MPC for The Lion King, this is going to be a bittersweet win – but could possibly have ramifications for the industry too.

When Disney released their mixed live-action/photorealistic CG version of The Jungle Book back in 2016, I was blown away by how good the visual effects (by my former employers, MPC and New Zealand’s Weta Digital) were. It was a perfect blend. It cut back on some of the songs, but when there were (The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You, it was done in such a way that it never ventured into uncanny valley.

With the Lion King, there is precisely one live element – and that’s right at the start of the film, a landscape with the rising sun. From that point, the entire environment, lighting, cinematography, creatures, etc. are entirely computer-generated (albeit using a substantial number of MPC employees – we’ve not got to the point where computers are able to visualise and generate their own images – yet).

And it is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen – at least after The Jungle Book. I still marvel how well all the elements – from the ground, stones, rocks, grass are rendered. You can barely tell the difference between it and live-action. And the animals are extraordinarily well modelled and animated. All in all, it’s like watching a David Attenborough documentary – except here the animals talk.

And here lies the problem. As for the talking creatures, they work pretty well. It’s when it comes to singing some of the signature tunes that things get a little weird. Unlike The Jungle Book, the characters don’t fit the songs being sung. The voice work is extraordinary. If you’re listening to the OST without the images, it works really well. But when combined the images, the jaunty character work feels as if I’m watching an over-extended version of a Comparethemeerkat.com TV advert. Even Timon and Pumba don’t entirely work as singing creatures – and they’re the comic relief.

There is, however, one moment which DOES work. “Can you feel the love tonight?” starts off with Timon talk-singing, with Simba and Nala singing/communicating with internal thoughts. It’s genuinely a beautiful moment that works far better than any of the other songs in the film.

There are some very powerful moments in the film that the photorealism double downs on the emotional level. One moment is, of course, when Simba finds his dad lying on the ground, dead. It as sad in the 2D animated version – but rendered using 3D modelling and photoreal texturing.. it’s heartbreaking. Another is the moment in which Rafiki catches up with Simba and leads him to the watering hole where Simba has a spiritual encounter with his father.

Overall, The Lion King is a beautiful, beautiful film. I’m immensely proud of my former employers and colleagues that worked on it. I have no doubt in my mind that it’ll pick up Best Visual Effects (and maybe Best Animated Film) during the 2020 Oscars.

I think I still prefer The Jungle Book over The Lion King. The problem that I have is how well photorealism plays in future animated Disney movies. I think it can only go so far. It has limitations. That we can produce animated films to this level of photorealism is impressive enough. But I think this kind of technique is best used in conjunction with live-action such as The Jungle Book, Avatar and their forthcoming sequels (something I am absolutely looking forward to).

So, Labour has pledged that they’ll bring free broadband for everybody by 2030 if elected on the 12th December. They’re re-nationalise parts of BT and take over the infrastructure that’s currently being run by OpenReach. The cost of all of this will be met by taxing the big tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

It’s a lovely idea – the internet has become part and parcel for many of us, and it can be very costly (I won’t reveal how much I pay monthly across my broadband and mobile, but it’s not a pretty sight – but for me, it’s essential for my job, is a hobby, and a method of learning new skills).

But:

  • Who pays for the extra capacity required to support every single home and business? This is a HUGE investment. And what about the equipment? Will the UK government stick with using Huawei, or side with the US (and in turn angering the Chinese who have invested substantial sums in UK businesses and infrastructure)?
  • Will we see costs associated with services operated by the “big tech” companies increase substantially if they’re taxed heavily? After all, Apple famously defended their $1=£1 conversion by saying, “That’s the cost of us doing business in the UK”. I fully expect the costs of AWS and Google’s Computing Platform to increase for London points of presence (PoPs), which in turn will affect businesses that use cloud computing. Netflix which uses the AWS platform probably serves video content via a local PoP, so their operating costs will increase, which will probably be passed to the consumer. I’d also imagine the likes of Amazon Prime and Prime Video going up too. And what about the UK government itself, which also relies on Big Tech in its day to day operations? Their costs would surely go up as well?
  • How does this affect existing ISPs? I’m very happy with Zen which uses G.Fast to deliver 300Mbs down/50Mbs up. That said, it uses the OpenReach infrastructure – there is no alternative. To be free of OpenReach requires changing to Virgin Media. And surely if the UK government takes over OpenReach, you’re just replacing one monopoly with another? Is the UK government competent enough to understand the technical implications of doing so?

Let’s take a look at the UK film and TV industry as an example of what could happen if they ever were found their tax cuts are reduced or even withdrawn (let alone making them pay their tax). US studios would have major hissy fits. This has already happened when Labour were in power:

  • During the production of the Harry Potter film series, Gordon Brown (then PM) was forced to introduce better tax cuts for the likes of Warner Bros. due to uncertainty over what would happen to them. Had Brown not done this, Harry Potter’s production would have moved to Eastern Europe. When New Zealand also bulked at reducing tax credits for New Line’s (owned by Warner Bros.) Lord of the Rings – a similar threat was made.
  • An email was sent around work to say that this threat was serious enough that it could cause problems of the business if Brown and his chums didn’t capitulate. Now, imagine this being the case if Corbyn pisses off the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazon. All these companies have employees and offices in the UK.

A better option at this time would be the discussion of the possibility of re-nationalising BT and OpenReach – the implications of doing so (including technical). How will this affect the current employees of BT and OpenReach, their pensions, etc.? What are the alternatives – better regulation?

What’s to differentiate between Apple TV+ and other streaming services, other than the content and a lower price? Unfortunately, very little. One of the biggest frustrations I have with all of the current streaming services is the complete lack of additional features and audio commentaries.

Apple had a chance to make their Apple TV+ streaming service truly unique by introducing special features and audio commentaries to their original content, but this just has not happened. Yet. Until they do, Apple TV+ is just another platform offering limited original content.

iTunes Extras has been the only service available to most (dependent on the film studio) film purchases on iTunes to provide special features. It’s the main reason I’ve stuck with iTunes as a purchase platform. It is the closest I can get to physical media features on a digital platform. I can play films on my Apple TV 4K, iPad Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max or 2018 MacBook Pro. It’s both portable and can be played on the big screen TV. I still prefer physical media for most things, but as I’ve mentioned many times here and elsewhere, it’s a rapidly losing battle.

On the TV programs front, iTunes has been a poor show. None of the titles available are in 4K, and very few carry any extras – mainly because iTunes Extras is a format reserved for films. Breaking Bad is currently the ONLY title I own that has special features and audio commentaries – and I can only play the audio commentaries by disabling Dolby Surround.

Apple TV+ content IS available in 4K. Whether this will push existing TV studios to consider releasing their purchasable content on iTunes in 4K, I just don’t know. I doubt Apple will let you purchase episodes or whole series of Apple TV+ shows since it’s in their interest to keep you as a subscriber. But that then brings me back to the special features and audio commentaries.

Netflix, oddly, puts many special features about their shows on YouTube. Not on their own platform. Amazon is equally rubbish at this, and also put special features on their YouTube channel too. Amazon have been the only streamer to put an audio commentary on their service, but only for one title, and for one season.

No. Unless Disney+ pulls its fingers out and puts special features and audio commentaries on their platform as well as releasing new content and offering their back catalogue, Apple TV+ isn’t going to be unique in the market place at all.

Other problems with Apple TV+ have been the super annoying Up Next bar during end credits. I can’t dismiss it – but it does vanish after a while – but it still obscures credits. And the Apple TV+ user interface doesn’t tell me the frequency of new episodes of a current season. I had to look up when new episodes for For All Mankind came out having watched the first three episodes this weekend.

For All Mankind, BTW, is a decent show but somewhat let down by its visual effects. I’ve seen Method Studios and Pixomondo do better. But the storytelling is compelling enough to stick around for now. Other titles have received very mixed reviews. I have a free year’s trial with Apple TV+ thanks to upgrading to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, so only time will tell if I’ll be paying for it next year (even if it’s £4.99/month).

In other news, I cannot tell you how much frustration MacOS Catalina and iOS 13 have caused me over the past few weeks. This is some seriously buggy piece of crap from Apple, and by far the worst quality releases that have come from them in years. If Apple doesn’t buck their ideas up, I’ll be moving back to Dell and Windows late next year.