Sunday, October 23, 2016

Long Way North is a Great Film

Long Way North is a dramatic adventure film, devoid of the comic relief and musical numbers all too common in North American animated features.  While artists and fans are constantly calling for animation to expand its horizons, Long Way North has done it, but its botched release in Canada will keep it hidden from the people who would champion it.

With Canada's recent hunt for Sir John Franklin's two ships, the Erebus and the Terror lost during the search for the Northwest Passage, there was a natural Canadian marketing hook for this film.  Set in Czarist Russia, an explorer sets out to find the Northeast Passage across the pole.  When the ship doesn't return, everyone assumes that it sank.  A search turns up nothing.  But Sasha, the granddaughter of the explorer, finds some notes in her grandfather's study indicating he took a different route than expected.  She argues for another search mission, but is not only refused, she damages her family's position with the royal court.

Vilified by her father, Sasha takes off on her own to prove her theory correct.  Connecting with the crew of a ship thanks to the reward offered by the Czar as well as an obligation a crew member owes her, they take off following her suggested route.

What follows is a rigorous adventure, where she and the crew undergo storms, ice avalanches, bitter cold, hunger and injury.  It is an uncompromising look at a difficult journey and the film pulls no punches.

The script, direction and art direction are all excellent.  The story has echoes of Captains Courageous and what might be an homage to a moment in Chaplin's The Gold Rush.  The characterizations are realistic.

The film, a French-Danish co-production, has an insane number of partners.  Pulling together the financing for this must have been hell.  And for all the film's excellence, the budget is the weak link.  Act 1 is full of animation done on threes, fours and maybe sixes.  The resolution of various story threads is done with stills during the end credits instead of being animated.  However, director Remé Chayé has put the money where it counted.  The search is doesn't skimp on animation or effects.

I can't think of another animated feature I can compare this to directly.  It is like The Iron Giant in that the release has shortchanged it and people who eventually find this film will like it.  It's like Castle in the Sky as it is a straight up adventure without the cuteness that plagues so many animated features.

In its second week in Toronto, it's showing just once a day on a single screen at Canada Square.  The Sunday screening I attended had maybe 8 people in the audience.  It was preceded by trailers for Trolls, Sing and Moana.  The three reeked of formula, which made Long Way North that much more impressive.  I'm afraid the film will be gone by October 28.

If you get a chance to see this in a theatre, don't pass it up.  Eventually it will turn up on other screens.  When it does, watch it.  I wish that GKids was distributing this, as they are great at marketing independent animated features.  I've seen The Red Turtle and will see Miss Hokusai shortly.  I'm betting that either those films or Long Way North will get a Best Animated Feature nomination as the art film this year.  Should Long Way North get it, know that it deserves it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Long Way North Playing in Toronto

Long Way North, a French-Danish animated feature, has arrived in Toronto playing on a single screen.  Three of the five papers in town have not reviewed it.  None of this bodes well for its box office prospects or for people in the animation industry being aware of it.

If you want to see this film, head to Canada Square at Yonge and Eglinton.  Who knows if it will last more than a week.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Copyright Craziness

Warner Bros. is accusing itself of pirating its own copyrights.  If this doesn't prove that modern copyright enforcement is hopelessly broken, I don't know what does.

Warner Bros hired Vobile to search the web for sites that violate Warner copyrights and to send notices to Google to prevent the sites from being listed in searches.  The only problem is that Vobile listed the following sites as pirates:

I hope that Vobile will become even more aggressive, listing every Warner site so that eventually Warner Bros. is completely invisible to search engines.  At that point, maybe somebody will realize that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its take down notices are not workable and that some sort of reasonable balance between copyright owners and the public has to be established.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jam Filled Purchases Arc

According to C21 Media, Jam Filled has completed the purchase of Arc's assets.  There are about 200 employees returning to a facility in Toronto.  While the article specifies that the company will "take over production of current Arc projects," it does not specify what they are.  No word on whether Blazing Samurai, a feature that was in production, is still in-house or, if rumours are true, has moved to another company.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Jam Filled Entertainment Negotiates to Buy Arc

The Globe and Mail has another article behind a pay wall, providing some details.  Deloitte, the receiver, ran an auction to purchase the rights to Arc's continuing projects.  Jam Filled Entertainment, an Ottawa studio bought just weeks ago by Boat Rocker Media, won the auction.  However, the deal has to be approved by the court and Jam Filled will be doing additional due diligence before the deal is concluded.

One part of the deal is that enough of Arc's former employees are willing to return to the projects they were working on.  The hope is that the deal can be finalized within the next two weeks.

As of now, there are many questions.  I assume that the work will stay in Toronto.  If they're looking to rehire Arc employees, it's going to be easier to do this without asking them to move to Ottawa.

While the deal obviously includes contracts for the work and the files created so far, does it include the hardware that the files are sitting on?  Will they occupy Arc's former space or move to another location?  Software licenses are not always transferrable.  Will Jam Filled get rights to the licenses as part of the deal or will they have to purchase new ones?  Which clients will be willing to continue their projects with Jam Filled and which will prefer to move them elsewhere?

Will there be pay cuts for returning employees?  How much?  Will they be across the board, meaning that everyone rehired gets the same percentage of their former salary, or will salaries be negotiated from scratch?

Who will be managing all this?  As Jam Filled is located in Ottawa, will they be sending a management team to Toronto?  Will they be hiring local management talent?  As management was the source of Arc's problems, hiring the right team will be critical to the success of the salvage operation.

Will Jam Filled continue the facility, assuming it is in Toronto, once the existing contracts are completed?  That may not be decided until projects are delivered and the balance sheet is scrutinized.

While Jam Filled's acquisition, assuming it goes through, is certainly good news, much more will have to be answered before this can be called a success or failure.  Good luck to everyone.

Friday, August 05, 2016

More on the Arc Situation

The Globe and Mail has an article behind their paywall about the Thursday court proceedings relating to Arc.  I can't quote from it extensively due to copyright, but I can summarize it.

While I was quick to say that without knowing specifics, it was not fair to blame Arc's management for the shutdown, it's now clear that the management was aware of the situation for at least five months and did not do enough, if anything, to fix it.

In December of last year, Arc made an agreement with Grosvenor Park Media Fund LP giving Arc access to up to $45.3 million.  $17.5 million of that went to repay Callidus Capital Corp, a previous lender.

On Feb. 8, 2016, Arc defaulted on payments to Grosvenor.  Grosvenor twice signed waiver agreements allowing Arc to pay later and extended another $4.6 million in credit.  At this point, Arc convinced the producers of Blazing Samurai to make their $1.05 million payment due to Arc to Grosvenor instead.

Arc again defaulted on payments to Grosvenor in May and July.  In the first six months of 2016, Arc ran a $9.2 million dollar loss.  It was also behind $250,000 in rent, $2 million for office renovations and $1 million in payroll.

On July 26, Guy Collins of GFM Films, international rights holders to Blazing Samurai, sent an email to Grosvenor saying he was concerned that Arc had stopped production on the feature.  Arc was trying to get an early payment for moneys due in August from GFM.  GFM indicated that they would not be paying any more money.  With no promise of revenue for Arc, Grosvenor called their loan and forced Arc into receivership.

This does not make Arc's management look good.  Defaulting on loan payments while continuing to hire and increasing expenses is not the route to success.  While I only know what was in the article, the logical thing to do would have been to cut expenses to the bone, eliminating anything not directly related to completing paying projects.  Had they been seen to do that, Grosvenor might have been even more forgiving than they were.  Arc's management had 5 months to fix things and didn't.  What's worse, it doesn't appear that they tried all that hard.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

ARC and the Hazards of Animation

The news that ARC, one of Toronto’s largest animation studios, has gone into receivership spread in record time thanks to social media.  I’ve been dismayed at many of the comments I’ve read in various places online.  Many are ignorant; some are accusatory.  I have no inside information, but anyone with experience in the animation business knows that a bankruptcy is always a possibility, especially for studios doing service work.

Everyone in animation has probably worked on a project that’s gone bad.  It could be due to demanding or ignorant clients.  It could be due to unforeseen technical challenges.  It could be due to an inadequate schedule.  If a job goes over budget, the costs have to be covered from the next job.  With luck, the profits from that job are enough to cover the loss, which leaves the studio in a break-even position.  But if the profits are not enough, or the next job goes bad as well, the debt begins to pile up.  This puts a studio in the position of using income from current jobs to pay off old jobs, and it becomes necessary to keep new jobs coming in so as to service old debts.

Every budget and schedule (really two sides of the same coin) contains unknowns.  Studios try to build contingencies into budgets to cover the unknowns, but in the competitive market that service studios face, budgets are lean and sometimes intentionally lower than the job requires.

There are valid reasons for under-budgeting.   The studio wants to work with a client that commissions a lot of work and the studio has to land a project in order to establish a relationship.  Or the studio has a crew that will finish a project shortly and needs something to keep the crew on the payroll.  Finally, there’s the need to keep money coming in to meet overhead and maybe service debt.  Every day that the studio stays alive is another chance for the studio to find the profitable job that will solve its problems.

There is also the issue of cash flow.  A studio can be profitable on paper, but if the money isn’t flowing in at a rate fast enough to meet the studio’s expenses, the studio is forced to borrow to bridge the gap.  That borrowing has costs attached to it: legal fees and interest to name just two.  If the cash flow can’t be straightened out, the interest piles up and the studio may be forced to seek other bridge financing.  The end result once again is debt that is paid by diverting money from current jobs.  This just pushes the debt forward.

Either of the above cases can drive a studio into receivership.  It’s important to understand that studios are forced into receivership by creditors.  It’s not something they would choose to do.  So when a studio shuts suddenly, it’s because the creditors have forced it to happen, not because management was trying to screw over artists.  Undoubtedly, management was negotiating with the creditors, hoping to reschedule debt payments or restructure the debt.  If the creditors decide that they’ve had enough, meaning they have no confidence that the studio can meet its obligations, they force receivership, capping their losses and hoping to recoup something from the bankruptcy.

No one – the creditors or the management – wants that to happen.  The creditors would prefer to be paid in full, something that rarely happens in a bankruptcy and won’t happen when a studio’s only assets are computers and furniture.  Management prefers to run a profitable company.  It puts more money in their pockets and makes their resumes look better.  Having a bankruptcy on a resume is not the greatest job reference.  It is possible that ARC’s management made bad decisions.  It’s equally possible that clients, competition and bad luck forced them into decisions they did not want to make.

There is no question that the closing of the studio is a tragedy for all concerned.  But without inside knowledge, no one can assume to know what went wrong.  Bankruptcies are common in all industries because sales, overhead, production and cash flow are difficult to get right.  Attributing malicious motives to this bankruptcy is wrong.  Attributing it to gross mismanagement may also be wrong. 

More than any other studio, ARC (under a series of owners) got Canada farther into the animated feature game than any other studio to date.  While the studio had an unhappy ending, it provided lots of jobs and opportunity while it lasted.  If the management is going to be criticized for the bankruptcy, the least we can do is give it credit for what it accomplished.

Monday, July 04, 2016

More Thoughts on VR

I attended a one day conference on VR & Film, sponsored by SIRT and ETV Film Inc in mid-June.  There were hardware and software demonstrations, but I was particularly interested in the talks, where people involved in creating virtual reality explained the storytelling issues they encountered.

Having worked in cgi in the early years, I'm confident that the technical problems of VR will be solved over time.  My personal interest runs more towards how VR is going to communicate with audiences as a narrative medium.

Pretty much everyone agrees that VR has a resemblance to theatre in that the audience is free to look where they wish.  The stage has various techniques for directing the audience's attention, lighting being a major one.  If only one part of the stage is lit, the audience will naturally look there.  Jeff Preyra of 360 Storylabs pointed out that with a 360 degree camera, it was impossible to place lights, as they would always be visible.  For this reason, he felt that the future of VR storytelling would be motion capture avatars in cgi environments.  The virtual lights in cgi are invisible to the camera, so in a cgi environment, directors could still control lighting.

Preya felt that establishing shots would have to be longer as the audience would naturally want to look around an environment and take stock of who is present before watching whatever dramatic action is going to unfold.  This makes sense, though when returning to established locations it shouldn't be necessary and if you want to surprise the characters and the audience, you could start the action of a scene immediately to prevent the audience from knowing everything that was present.

Preyra also felt that musical scoring didn't work in VR.  As the viewer was in the scene, any music needed to have a visible source.  I'm not sure about this.  In the early years of talkies, there was music under the opening and closing titles, but none during the film unless there was a onscreen source such as a radio, phonograph or visible musicians.  However, by 1933, just a few years after talkies became the dominant form of movies, King Kong had dramatic scoring by Max Steiner throughout the film.  By the late 1930s, composers like Steiner, Newman, Korngold, Waxman, Hageman and Tiomkin were hard at work scoring films throughout their run times.

Ian Tuason of CFC Media Lab said that cameras could only move in straight lines, as any change in the camera's direction might clash with head movements of someone wearing a VR headset.  This makes sense on the face of it, but again a look at film history leads me to believe that it can be done.  Films in the 1930s and '40s routinely shot in ways where the camera's position operated separately from the camera's view.  In other words, the camera's location would physically move while the camera itself would change what it was pointing at.  What was standard, however, was someone moving on screen that gave the audience a focus.  So if a camera was tracking through a restaurant before stopping at a table where the main action was to take place, the camera would follow a waiter while it was moving.  In a VR situation, if there is an obvious center of interest on screen, like a character, the camera could move, changing it's spatial and angular relationship so long as the audience has a reason to stay focused on that character.

I feel the same way about cutting to a closer view.  If the audience is looking at a speaking character, cutting to a closer shot should not disorient the audience any more than it does in a conventional film.

The next five to ten years are going to be very interesting with regard to VR.  No doubt gaming will be a leader, as it's a natural for putting a player inside the game.  But just as games have evolved cut scenes to provide the player with narrative information, VR is going to evolve storytelling grammar in order to do the same.  Once that grammar exists, we'll find out if VR is going to be successful with audiences as a storytelling medium or if it's just a fad like stereoscopic 3D.

For my earlier thoughts on VR, go here.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, has a new book called Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.  It's a quick read and a master course in story construction.  Until June 30, 2016, it's free in a variety of digital formats, including .pdf.  You're not required to leave any personal information in order to get a copy.

Here are two quotes that jumped out at me that will give you the flavour of the book.
"Nobody wants to read your shit.

"What's the answer?

"1) Streamline your message.  Focus it and pare it down to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

"2) Make its expression fun.  Or sexy or interesting or scary or informative.  Make it so compelling that a person would have to be crazy NOT to read it.

"3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.

"When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated.  You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction.  The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities.  In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

"When you understand that nobody wants to read our shit, you develop empathy.

"You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs -- the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.  You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting?  Is it fun or challenging or inventive?  Am I giving the reader enough?  Is she bored?  Is she following where I want to lead her?"
And this:
"A real writer (or artist or entrepreneur) has something to give.  She has lived enough and suffered enough and thought deeply enough about her experience to  be able to process it into something that is of value to others, even if only as entertainment.

"A fake writer (or artist or entrepreneur) is just trying to draw attention to himself.  The word "fake" may be too unkind.  Let's say "young" or "evolving."
"To get over it, the candidate must grow up."

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali and Darwyn Cooke

No doubt you're wondering what these two have in common and why I am writing about them in an animation blog.  I'll get to that.

2016 has been a tough year for celebrity deaths.  Two that have hit me hard are the recent deaths of boxer Muhammad Ali and comic book creator Darwyn Cooke.  Both of these men widened the frame of reference for their respective fields through their work and their words.

I have no idea when Ali became politically aware, though he may have been from birth.  In any case, after defeating Sonny Liston and winning the heavyweight championship, he changed his name from Cassius Clay, telling reporters, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,  I’m free to be who I want.”  Later, he resisted induction into the U.S. military, refusing to fight in the Viet Nam war.

While there were certainly great African-American athletes before Ali -- Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson come to mind -- the times forced them to tolerate the racism they experienced and they confined themselves in word and action to their respective sports where they avoided controversy.  Ali refused to just be a boxer and with his religion, politics, and taking his bouts to other continents, was an example of how a person could define himself regardless of how a dominant society attempted to keep him in his place.  Ali was an outstanding athlete, but his impact owes as much to his life outside the ring as in it.

Darwyn Cooke grew up loving comics and managed at a young age to get a story published by DC.  In those days, before Fedex and the internet, the fact that he didn't live in New York City pretty much ended his comics career right there.  While he was no doubt disappointed, it ended up enriching his work.

Cooke spent time art directing music and fashion magazines as well as running a design studio.  In doing this, he gained experience in the commercial art field, dealing with clients and absorbing aesthetics from fields other than comics.  He then went into TV animation, working with Bruce Timm on the influential Batman: The Animated Series, a show that also brought in artistic influences from outside comics.  It was at this point, after a decade and a half outside the field, that Cooke finally made it into the comics world.

Like Ali, Cooke was determined to define himself.  He did so in terms of the design of his work and his treatment of the subject matter.  Too many of the people in comics had graduated from being fans directly into the industry, and had a very constricted view of what comics were supposed to be.  They had little to no experience in the wider business world.  Comics art of the period was overly detailed and fussy.  Fan-favourite art had a lot of lines in it.  Cooke had a cleaner, more direct style that was counter to what comics were doing artistically and he was comfortable with incorporating modern graphic design.  In terms of content, as former fans-turned-writers aged, they continued to write comics for themselves, taking characters intended for children into questionable areas of sex and violence.  Having worked in the real world where he did business with women, Cooke treated his female characters with far more respect than those in other comics from DC.  He also insisted on heroes being heroes, not psychopaths.

So what's this got to do with animation?  From my perspective (and you're free to disagree), animation in theatres and on TV has gone stale.  Too much of it is the same.  The insularity is due to producers who imitate successes to line their pockets and artists who immerse themselves in animation while growing up and then graduate into the field.  Ali and Cooke each brought some of the wider world into their professions.  They enlarged their fields with their life experience.  Animation needs that.  Though the cost of production discourages it, animation needs to open up to more points of view.  It's not just a question of a more diverse workforce or adding characters of colour or varying sexual orientations to the films.  Animation needs to challenge what the audience thinks an animated film or TV show is supposed to be, the same way that Ali challenged how people looked at athletes and Cooke challenged how comics should be done.

In 2016, giants are passing on and leaving holes in our lives.  While celebrating their accomplishments is appropriate, we should build on their lessons to create accomplishments of our own.

Friday, May 06, 2016


The greatest danger in pitching ideas is not rejection.  While rejection is common, the one benefit to rejection is that your idea remains your property.  The greatest danger is finding a buyer, and that's dangerous because in exchange for getting your idea produced, you will generally lose ownership and control of the very thing you created.

Mike Valiquette of Canadian Animation Resources is now associated with Startoon, a competition to find an animated property worth producing.  This competition is different, because they make no claim to your ideas if you don't win.  This is in direct contrast to most other competitions, where the contest runners have the right to use your work forever in any medium simply because you entered.

It's too soon to know if this will result in a successful project or if the winning creator will feel satisfied at how he or she is treated, but it is encouraging that someone is willing to do business in a more creator-friendly way.  Watch Mike's pitch below and find the complete details here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Canadian Content, Regulations, and Audiences

Canada's federal government is interested in revisiting rules and funding regarding Canadian culture.  In the TV business, broadcasters and cable channels are required to play a certain percentage of Canadian content daily in order to guarantee local producers access to audiences and give audiences access to local content.

As broadcast and cable were the only ways to get a show into homes, the old regulations focused on distribution.  A producer needed a letter from a broadcaster or cable channel in order to qualify for money from various funding bodies.

These days, broadcast and cable have become less relevant with streaming and torrents.  In effect, the audience has left the building and advertisers are going with them, leaving the broadcasters and cable channels with shrinking markets and dubious futures.

The question is whether the government will be smart enough to understand this and resist vested interests who will fight to preserve their positions. 

With distribution available to everyone now, through Netlix, YouTube, etc, the focus should turn to creators.  The problems creators face are financing production, earning enough to live on, and making the audience aware of their work.

While I am obviously biased in favour of creators, I'd be the first to say that those who can successfully engage the audience are a rare breed.  Many can write, draw, direct or act, but only a few can hold an audience's attention. 

Everybody can sing.  No doubt with lessons and practice, everybody could sing better.  But only some people sing well enough to sell tickets.  I teach around 150 animation students a year.  While there are usually a dozen who are genuinely good animators, there are rarely more than one or two with the ability to engage an audience.

The challenge for the government is setting up a system where those creators with the ability to engage an audience can survive economically, and the audience can be made aware of their work.

If creators succeed, government support should be withdrawn and the money and resources put towards discovering other people.  If people fail, they should be barred from reapplying for a period of time.  Too often in the past, people succeeded by working the government's system rather than creating successful products.   That ends up being a wealth transfer from tax payers to mediocrities.  Avoiding that and discovering new talent should be the focus of any revised set of cultural regulations.  It's a big challenge and I hope that the government gets it right.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

TAAFI - The Toronto Animated Arts Festival International

 After a one year hiatus, the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International (TAAFI) will resume on April 22 and run through April 24.  The Friday and Monday will feature workshops with industry veterans such as Eric Goldberg, Samantha Youssef, Michel Gagné and others.  The weekend is dedicated to screenings from around the world, including the world premieres of the features Spark and Nova Seed.  Other guests include Marv Newland, Audu Paden, Michael Rianda, Stevie Vallance, Willie Ito, Jerry Eisenberg and Tony Benedict.

Early Bird discount passes are available until March 22.  The website, with more complete details, is here.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Irish Animation in Toronto

As part of the sixth annual Toronto Irish Film Festival, there will be a program of Irish animation on Sunday, March 6 at 1 p.m.  at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Some of the most interesting animation being done today is coming from Europe, and the program includes films from Cartoon Saloon, maker of Song of the Sea, and Brown Bag films.  There are also some student animated films.

The list of films for all programs can be found here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 Sheridan Industry Day Promo

We're rapidly approaching the end of another school year, and the animation students of Sheridan's class of 2016 have created a promo to showcase their films.  As always, there is a variety of design styles and techniques used.  I look forward to seeing these films on Industry Day, when Sheridan invites studio personnel to view the work of the newest members of the animation industry.

Sheridan College Industry Day Commercial 2016 from Jessica Mao on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Michael and Lisa
(Spoilers below.)

Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a film that I respect but don't love.

I respect it because its ideas have been rigorously worked out in the script, cinematography, animation and soundtrack.  It's a film that is extremely clever in revealing the nature of the main character and uses animation in original ways.  My problem is that for all its excellence, it is a cold film.  Michael, the main character voiced by David Thewlis, is stuck in a depressed state and by the film's end, does not understand himself any better than he did at the start.  He's needy, presumptuous, impatient, selfish and ultimately clueless as to his own nature.  It was difficult for me to spend time with him or to care what happened to him.

Michael is an expert in customer service traveling to Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference.   By the time we learn this, we've seen him interact with many people in the hospitality industry, all of whom behave in ways that Michael would endorse.  However, he's so wrapped up in his own head that he can't appreciate the service he's being offered and is so distracted that he comes off as brusque. 

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that every character except for Michael has the voice of actor Tom Noonan and all have identical faces, whether they are male or female.  While Michael's speech to the conference emphasizes treating customers as individuals, he himself is incapable of seeing people that way.  The only person that looks and sounds different to him is Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is there for the conference and is damaged in her own way.

Lisa has a scarred face and crippling self esteem problems.  When Michael invites her to his room, she assumes that he would be happier with her friend.  After spending the night together, Michael wants to run away with her.  Her life is so empty that she agrees, but when they breakfast together, Michael finds flaws in her and her voice transforms into the the generic voice all the other characters have.  Michael can't accept people as they are, which is why all his relationships end with him unhappy and isolated.

At the end of the film, Michael returns home to his wife, child and a house full of guests, but the final image of Michael is him staring at a mechanical doll, unable to relate to any of the people around him.  By contrast, Lisa seems grateful for the attention she received and seems renewed by the tryst.

While this film looks like it could have been done in live action, stop motion is used to distance the characters from reality enough to make the audience aware of the difference.  The puppets are about five heads high, proportioned with slightly larger heads than real people.  There is no attempt to hide the seams on their faces that separate the parts that are replaced frame by frame. 

The animation successfully communicates the characters' emotional states.  That's what animation is supposed to do.  The facial and hand movements are subtle.  Michael and Lisa are individualized through their movement.  The acting avoids animation clichés and grounds the characters in understandable human emotions.

The direction, cinematography and art direction are impressive. Michael's hotel room and the corridor outside it successfully capture the generic look familiar to anyone who has stayed in a North American hotel.  The lighting of the characters and sets is exceptional.  While lighting in cgi has advanced tremendously, it still can't match the beauty of live action lighting.  The camera moves are fluid and generally unobtrusive until they need to add emphasis.  The sound effects bolster the reality of the world that the puppets move through.

For all of this film's accomplishments, it's difficult to do a story about a character who can't change and who ends up where he began.  The audience learns more about the character over the course of the film, but as the character is not very appealing, it's hard to engage with him.  The central character, while fully realized, is the film's weakest point.

While I don't care about the Academy Awards, this film and Inside Out are both nominated in the Best Animated Feature category and I suspect that one of them will win.   They are opposite in many respects.  One is cold and the other is warm.  This film is tightly structured while Inside Out is a bit of a mess.  I suspect that the Academy will go with the feel-good film, but there is no question that Anomalisa, in spite of its coldness, has taken animation in a new direction in terms of subject matter and technique.  It presents possibilities, something that Pixar hasn't done in years.  While I can't say I enjoyed watching this film, I'm glad that I saw it and glad that it exists.  Anomalisa is a direction worth pursuing.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Can You Imagine?

Can you imagine an election where a winner is declared but the vote totals are kept secret?

Can you imagine a lottery where someone wins, but they won't tell you the winning number?

Can you imagine a Superbowl where one team gets the glory, but nobody knows the final score?

Welcome to the Academy Awards!

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Corruption of Copyright

What is copyright?  It's a privilege granted by law.  Like many things determined by people, as opposed to nature, there's a certain arbitrariness to it.  Why is the speed limit 60?  Why is the voting age 18?  Why are certain days holidays?  It's important to remember that at various times and places, the answer to the preceding questions were different than they are now.  So it is with copyright.

Why was copyright created?  Why was this privilege granted to people who create new works?  It was invented to provide an incentive to create, balanced with a social need to enhance the culture.  If someone wrote a novel, or a play, or painted a picture and anyone could make copies to sell, what would be the incentive to invest the time and effort to create?  Why work hard so that others, who had nothing to do with the creation, could profit?  Creators needed protection to make their investment of time and effort worthwhile, so they were given a temporary monopoly on their creations, allowing them to be the sole financial beneficiaries of their work.

The fact that this monopoly is temporary is the price creators pay for their exclusive rights.  Yes, the law will protect a creator so that they can profit from their work, but only for a fixed period.  Why?  So that society as a whole can be enriched by that work after a time.  When a copyright expires, anyone can republish the work or use it as the basis for something new.  Today, anyone can use the work of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain and culture is richer for that.  You can profit from the work of others but only after they have had the chance to profit from it themselves. 

In principle, copyright works.  However, just as a speed limit or the voting age can be changed, the length of the monopoly can be changed.  Unfortunately, it has only been changed in a single direction.  While the original copyright law in the United States was for 14 years, the current copyright law is for life plus 70 years for individuals and 95 years for corporations.  Until 1976, not all that long ago, copyright lasted a maximum of 56 years.  If that were still true, anything created in 1959 or earlier would be in the public domain.  That includes a lot of Disney films and other Hollywood product.  It includes most or all of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Norman Rockwell, and works starring Superman, Batman, Captain America, Conan, Flash Gordon, Little Orphan Annie, etc.

The Trans Pacific Partnership, a 12 nation trade deal that has yet to be signed and ratified as of this writing, would extend copyright in countries, such as Canada, to match the current U.S. standard.  In Canada, the law is currently life plus 50 years.  What would happen to the 20 years worth of material considered public domain in Canada if Canada ratifies the TPP?  Would publishers be forced to negotiate licenses after the fact with the once and future copyright holders or withdraw the material?  Would they be compensated for losses?  Nobody knows.

Another arbitrary aspect of copyright law is enforcement.  Technically, any fan fiction or art that is made publicly available, even if there is no money involved, is a copyright violation.  Often, copyright holders don't enforce their rights, either because they don't think the violators are enough of a threat to bother with or they are unaware of the violation.  At comics conventions, there are some characters that are understood to be off limits for fan art and others that are not. There are all sorts of films on YouTube that are a violation of copyright.  Some have been there for years.

Where's the line between being beneath a copyright holder's notice and provoking legal action? The problem is that there is no line.  Or rather, the line comes and goes on a case by case basis.  For instance, Paramount and CBS have instituted legal action against a Star Trek fan film, financed on Kickstarter to the tune of $1 million.  Apparently there have been earlier Star Trek fan films made without incident, but this one is a target.  Where's the line?  Was it the money involved?  The high profile?   Or did a lawyer wake up grumpy?

Even under the old copyright term of 56 years, the original Star Trek would still be protected.  But Gene Roddenberry is dead.  Many of the writers, directors and performers of the show are dead.  The executives who put the series into production are no longer with Paramount even if they are alive.  And Paramount is now owned by Viacom, which had nothing to do with Star Trek as it didn't exist until years after the series was cancelled.  I am very much in favour of creator rights, but I find it hard to see a link between Gene Roddenberry and Viacom stockholders

In the U.S., if some entity creates a cure for cancer, they get only a maximum of 20 years to benefit (and some of that time is often used up before the government approves a drug for sale).  After that, other companies can create generic versions without the expenses associated with developing a drug.  But Paramount gets to protect Star Trek for 95 years.  What kind of society values the inventors of entertainment more than the inventors of life saving drugs?  Probably the society you live in.

In the past, culture was something that emerged from a group of people sharing a time and space.  No one owns styles of language, architecture, painting, fashion, design or cuisine.  If you want to make crêpes Suzette, you don't need permission or have to pay a royalty to Suzette.  But since the invention of mass media, culture is manufactured for a profit.  The music, books, movies and TV shows that are discussed are owned and the owners restrict their use.  Even the media we use to communicate our thoughts about culture, such as this blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are owned.  Government owns the post office, but nobody needs permission to write a letter.  Try saying no to a terms of use software agreement and see where it gets you.

Copyright has value.  I would never dispute that.  But when it is used to lock up culture, instead of enrich culture, it has gone too far.  Yes, the makers of the Star Trek fan film do not have the law on their side.  But no one should confuse that with whether the law is just or functional.  Today, copyright is neither.