Interstellar: First Impressions

Don’t worry, I haven’t come here to moan about scientific inaccuracies. In fact, I’m here to analyze why I liked Interstellar in spite of it’s inaccuracies. And boy were there problems with this movie. There were bits that felt way off key, like the exploration of love as a transcendent metaphysical bond. There were moments when I was jarred from immersion, such as the Endurance falling out of orbit when Mann crashed the Ranger into it, or the frivolous astrogation (“If we slingshot around this neutron star here…”), or LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BLACK HOLE.

Honestly, Interstellar does one type of science fiction well – using speculative science and technology as a foil for exploring contemporary issues (like the changing of textbooks to say the moon missions were faked. That was an interesting addition). For the first half of the movie, I thought it was pretty hard sci-fi, but I eventually realized it was a little bit softer; overall, it fell somewhere between Star Trek and 2001 (I know, not a very helpful range). So my intense desire for scientific accuracy fell by the wayside.

It focuses on a wide range of topics: man’s relationship with nature, the need for an exploratory drive (and the fragility of that same drive as a cultural artifact), the nature of time in human relationships, and unfortunately something about love and gravity. Because it hit this wide range of topics, it seemed a little unfocused, although the movie was long enough to say something meaningful about each.

I might be giving the movie a more generous pass because it looked and felt fantastic. The range of sound was stupendous, and the use of sound was spot on. The movie does not twist itself for sound, sound plays to the movie. What do I mean by this? The rumble of the engines overpowers dialogue, non-diegetic sound abruptly cuts off with the end of a transmission, and Matt Damon gets blown up mid-sentence. And, of course, external shots of the spacecraft have no sound, and inside the spacecraft you can hear the thump of the thrusters. I was a little disappointed at how quite the inside was when the engine were off, though. By all accounts, space habitats are quite loud due to the constant fans and other machinery that make the space livable.

I feel like much of the movie walked the line between freaking awesome and too unrealistic. For instance, the giant waves on the first planet. Sure, there were huge tidal forces. But aren’t waves formed by wind, not tides? Also, why wasn’t there a huge back current in the spaces between them? Whatever, this is a severe case of Fridge Logic. Oh and the bit where everyone died from the black hole’s radiation and tidal forces (hint, this didn’t actually happen). I enjoyed all the graphics of the spacecraft though, and I found it very interesting to be able to identify what elements came from where (both actual and concept designs).

The biggest part of the movie that was completely unrealistic was the black hole, but this is OK. One of the points of speculative fiction is to change one thing about the universe and see how it plays out. In the case of Interstellar, the change was that gravity is actually magic. Basically. So you can’t fault them for having a magical black hole.

But the ending was very awesome, although I almost died from the whiplash. Like 2001, the movie just suddenly decided to go all trippy on us. Which I didn’t mind. I totally saw the whole “the 5th dimensional beings are actually transcended humans from the future” thing coming though. I also have a kickass theory about that part: the robot talking to Connors in the black is actually the 5th dimensional humans communicating with him, not the robot.

Ultimately the best way to describe Interstellar is that Gravity and Inception had a baby, and it didn’t inherit the awful movie gene from Gravity. So go see it.

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Ender’s Game

I feel I have to talk about my thoughts with regards to the Ender’s Game movie, especially in light of the mixed reviews I have heard.

There are two ways to think about the process of turning a book into a movie.

The Engineer’s Way is methodical. Given a movie, what are the changes from the book? For each change, does it modify the meaning or impact of the event from the book? The fewer the changes, the more faithful the movie is to the book.

The Artist’s Way takes a more emotional approach. What messages and emotions made the book interesting? How can we capture those same elements in the cinematic form?

Up front, neither way is inherently better. For a literate moviegoer, the Engineer’s Way may prove more interesting. With the supporting knowledge from having read the book, the movie falls into context. In this case, the moviegoer is looking to see the images in his head turned into CGI reality on the screen. He wants to see the cool things, watch the faces of the characters as they go through their journey. The literate moviegoer has already been inside the character’s head, and emotionally experienced the story. Now they want to graphically experience it.

On the other hand, the hapless, un-informed average Joe has not experienced the story yet, on any level. They have not heard the facts, been on the emotional roller-coaster, or seen the end. In this case, some may prefer the Engineer’s Way, especially if they are looking for shallow entertainment. But if the moviegoer is looking for an engaging story, they will almost always want the Artist’s Way.

This presents a dilemma for the cinematographer. Do you risk the wrath of the fans by deviating from the book? Or do you faithfully reproduce the book and risk losing the emotional intensity found within its pages? Few books allow for both approaches.

Ender’s Game took the Engineer’s Way. Personally I think this was wrong. Ender’s Game is a long book with a couple of plot lines and milieu elements that don’t especially lend themselves to the film medium. In fact, some of the best parts in the film adaptation of Ender’s Game were the parts that deviated most from the book. For example, the two invasions compressed into one and the space battle turned into a fighter plane battle. Of course, that didn’t change the impact of those events — you might say that it is an example of the Engineer’s Way. But the exclusion of the Earth-bound politics certainly falls under the Artist’s Way.

The point I want to make, in a strange, round-a-bout way, is that the film was faithful but devoid of emotional involvement. It had the intensity, but the audience was left behind as the film skipped along at a brisk pace. One of the cardinal sins of blockbuster films (or AAA games, for that matter) is that their sense of pacing is non-existent. There were almost no moments of complete silence in the Ender’s Game movie. Much of it flew along, approaching the discontinuity of montage. Light music accompanied the quick delivery of dialogue and display of action, squelching any opportunity for a realistic pause.

Even having read the book a number of times and enjoying it, I could not emotionally connect with the characters onscreen. I watched the action, rather than experiencing it. The movie did a little too much tell, and not enough show.

While armchair directing is the most despicable form of cinematic criticism, I want give my two cents. If they had selected a few of the most emotionally charged and story-driving scenes and played them out over an extended period, the audience would have been given time to think. When there are realistic pauses in a conversation, the audience can create their own responses and then contrast them with what is said onscreen. In this manner of comparison, the audience connects with the characters. There is nothing wrong with having a second or, god forbid, two seconds of near-silence. A moment of ambient room noise can say as much as a minute of dialogue.

That said, they did pretty well with adapting the book. I’m not going to comment on the ending, because I am as stumped as anyone when it comes to turning the end of that book into a meaningful cinematic sequence.

A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

A Problem with Films

The eponymous film industry has been approaching a point of conflict with technology. Especially in recent years, more films have started used framerates that are significantly greater than the traditional 24 fps. This is caused by the increasingly movement from film-based camera to tape (or digital) cameras. However beneficial this switch might be, the public hasn’t received it very well so far. For example, Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit at 48 fps, but so far people have found the screened clips unpleasant.



The problem is that faster frame rates tend to take away the “cinematic” aesthetic that separates feature films from home videos and cheap television. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix this; our minds and eyes associate 24 fps with movies. This is a stigma that won’t go away anytime soon as long as movie continue to use obtusely slow frame rates. There will, by necessity, be a period in which all movies look “cheap”. Once the transition is made, however,

The same thing occurred with 3D films. At first people were averse to the concept, because it violated their concept of what the “movie experience” was like. However, more and more films took to the technique, and eventually the majority of moviegoers became comfortable with the feeling. I experienced this recently, when I saw Prometheus and decided to watch it in 2D. Mere minutes in to the film, I already have a faint feeling in the back of my head that something wasn’t right; my eyes have become trained to expect 3D sensations when I sit down in a movie theater.

Historically, this trend of initial rejection has been true for all new advances in film. Color film, synced sound, computer generated graphics, etc. Take, for instance, this excerpt of an article I snagged from IGN. It voices the feelings that movie audiences will be experiencing at some point in the next 10 years. However, I think this is a positive switch.

“I didn’t go into CinemaCon expecting to write anything less than great things about The Hobbit, but the very aesthetic chosen by Peter Jackson has made me very nervous about this film. It just looked … cheap, like a videotaped or live TV version of Lord of the Rings and not the epic return to Tolkien that we have all so long been waiting for.”

Source Filmmaker: First Impressions

Meet the Pyro

Meet the Pyro



As you may have heard, the Source Filmmaker was released two weeks ago at the conclusion of the Pyromania Update for Team Fortress 2. To get it at first, everybody was required to submit a survey form that included basic hardware and software specs about your computer, including whether or not a microphone was attached. The idea was that a limited, graded release would help give a taste of what the tool is like without flooding the Internet with videos. However, after three weeks of semi-open beta, the SFM team has gone public. You can download it here. Here are my first impressions of the tool (there is a TL;DR at the bottom).

The Source Filmmaker is a tool that allows “players” to set up scenes within any Source game, and then edit the resulting clips as if they were in an video editing program. This hybrid system passes over a lot of the conventional paradigms in film making. You can simultaneously modify how you want a shot to look AND change how the sequence is cut together. Scenes still have props, actors, lights, and cameras. However, if you decide while editing that you want a shot of the same scene from a different angle, you can create a new shot from a new angle in seconds.

This is definitely the direction that movies are headed as a medium. Computer graphics have reached a level of visual fidelity that allows filmmakers to create entire new elements and mix that with live footage. For instance, Sky Captain (an awesome movie, by the way) was shot entirely on blue-screen in some guys basement. All the environments and non-human actors were computer generated. This allowed the maker to move the actors around as he pleased. If he didn’t like the direction they were facing or their position on-screen, he could simply move them around like another 3D asset.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow



So far I’ve used the Source Filmmaker for a little over one week, on and off (I made this). From what I hear, experts at the program can deftly make complex scenes in minutes. However, I have yet to figure out all the hotkeys and efficient methods, so it takes me a long time to even sketch out a rudimentary scene. My speed is hampered, in some part, by the strange choice of hotkeys; The lower left part of the keyboard seems to have shortcuts distributed at random. Yes, every program has such a learning period in which shortcuts are committed to muscle memory. The SFM, though, for all its similarities to 3D programs, seems to have flipped the traditional hotkey set.

I digress, however. The primary aspect of SFM that impedes my work in the program is the tool’s concept of time and animation. To illustrate, let me explain the structure of the program: Each file is called a “session”; a self-contained clip. A single map is associated with each session. A session contains a strip of “film” which is composed of different shots.

Shots are independent scenes within the same map. Each shot has a scene camera and various elements that expand upon the base map set. Each shot also has an independent concept of time. You can move a shot “fowards” or “backwards” in time, which doesn’t move the clip in relation to other clips, but changes which segment of time the shot is showing within its universe. You can also change the time scale, which slows down or speeds up the clip.

If you move a shot to be before another shot, it will not change the shot, only the sequence in which the shots are displayed. This can be confusing and/or annoying. For instance, if you have a shot of someone talking, and you want to have a close-up shot or a different angle inside of that clip, there are two ways to do so. You could go into the motion editor and move the camera within the specific segment of time within the shot. The easier way, however, is to split the shot into three clips. The end clips remain the same, and inherit the elements from the single parent shot (which doesn’t exist anymore). In the middle clip, however, you change the camera to show a close-up angle. Both of these methods look the same; until you change your mind.

After you split a clip up into different shots, you can’t (to the best of my knowledge) add in a common element that spans all three shots, even though the elements that were there beforehand were inherited by all three. If you move a prop in one shot, it doesn’t translate over. This problem lends itself to a strange workflow, in which you set up the entire scene from one camera view, and only when you are satisfied do you split it up into different clips.

But how about the other method I mentioned? The motion editor allows you to select “portions of time” within a shot’s universe. You can make changes to objects and their properties, but the changes will only be visible within that time segment. For smooth transitions, it allows you to “partially” select time, and blend between two different settings. This feature can be extremely useful and powerful, but it is also a pain in the ass. While trying to hand-animate actors, I often find myself getting annoyed because I want to go back to the same time selection and add in something, or smooth over multiple curves. Since each entity stores its animation separately (each bone in a actor’s skeleton, for instance), I often find myself annoyed because I change an animation, but forgot about a bone. The animation ends up completely screwed, and its easier to start over than fix it.

Yes, a lot of this pain is due to my inexperience with the workflow. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of working with the strange animation system. But for any filmmaker or animation starting out, it will be quite a jump from the traditional keyframe methodology. In the Valve-made tutorials the guy talks about the graph editor, which seems to liken itself to a keyframed timelines. However, I have yet to glean success from the obtuse interface, and in any case the “bookmarking” system seems unnecessarily complex.

I want to cover one more thing before wrapping up. What can you put in a scene? Any model from any source game can be added in and animated. There are also new high-res versions of the TF2 characters. Lights, particle systems, and cameras are also available. For each of these elements, you need to create and Animation Set, which defines how the properties of the elements change over time. IK rigs can be added to some skeletons, and any property of any object in the session can be edited in real time via the Element Viewer. Another huge aspect of the program is the ability to record gameplay. At any time, you can jump into the game and run around like you are playing. All the elements of the current shot are visible as seen by a scene camera. You can even run around while the sequence is playing. You can also capture your character’s motion in “takes”. This is great for generic running around that doesn’t need gestures or facial animations. If you need to change something, you can convert the take into an animation set, which can be edited.

On the note of character animation, lip syncing is extremely easy. Gone are the pains of the phoneme editor in Face Poser. You can pop in a sound clip, run auto-detect for phonemes, apply to a character, and then go in with the motion editor and manually change facial animation and mouth movements.

TL;DR: To summarize my feelings, any person who admires the Meet the Team clips or the Left 4 Dead 2 intro trailer should definitely check out the Source Filmmaker. It’s free, and the current tutorials let you jump into making cool short clips; every clip looks really nice after rendering. The program does require a lot of memory and processing power though, so you will be unable to work efficiently if your computer doesn’t get decent framerates in TF2.

Hog Derby: Duels

Back when I was part of the Halo: Custom Edition mapping community, I offered my help to a team called Hog Derby Productions. The team had produced a series of poorly made videos (called Hog Derby) which consisted of the infamous “hog duels”, in which two or more players are driving a warthog but lack a gunner. They run into each other and try to flip the opponent, thus allowing them to be crushed. I ended up befriending the guy behind the series (dariusofwest) but, although I offered my services, never did any work on the actual production. I had joined in at a slow time, when everything was coming apart at the seams after only a few episodes of the reboot, Hog Derby: Duels (which actually had story). After a while, I left the CE community. I kept in contact with the producer, though, who also composed all the music for the show.

Nonetheless, after many false starts involving terrible cameramen, voice actors, and production schedules, the series came back together after dariusofwest joined Machinima. Having just recently released Episode 4 after almost 2 years, HDP has more episodes in (speedy) production. The series has gone from terrible filming, story, and voice acting to an OK show with lots of potential. As I watched darius struggle through the months and the different changes that occured, I have to say that the show would not have survived if it wasn’t for his endless dedication. I must also say that the experience of seeing all the behind-the-scenes mechanics was extremely interesting, as was being able to hear and critique all of darius’s music before it went into the show.

Now it seems that I will soon be working as an editor of one of the episodes (actually a short, rather than a full fledged installment). After 2 years, I’m definitely ready. I’ve always liked video production, from script writing to filming to editing. I haven’t worked on a project in months, and I’m eager to get in the production loop again. To support Hog Derby: Duels, please check out the latest episode (or all of them) and give it a thumbs up!

Episode 4: Part 1


On a separate note, I finished the first phase of my 3D rendering engine today. I coded the entire thing from scratch (and I also figured out all the math), and I’m in the process of adding texture support. It took only 3 days to get this far. It has support for multiple animations, animation blending, camera movement and rotation, and meshes of any type.

Mediocre Super-heroes

It was just another ordinary day: I was letting Wikipedia impress human knowledge upon me. Suddenly, as happens often, a mildly interesting idea sparked within my mind.

To begin, let me explain some of the things I was looking at. Magnetoreception, for example, is an incredible phenomenon that seems drawn straight from science fiction. Yet, in nature it is fairly common. Of course, we only have inklings about how the mechanisms behind it might operate. To sum it up, many animals have the ability to detect magnetic fields and use them to navigate. This can be seen in migratory animals, for example. In addition, some aquatic creatures have the ability to detect the faint electrical impulses given off by other animals nearby; it aids them in hunting.

Moving into the realm of human-enabled abilities, I was looking at radio-frequency hearing, which is actually a quite common occurrence. As the name suggests, people have been known to hear sounds, ranging from buzzing to knocking (similar to the sounds of tinnitus) and seeming to originate from above and behind the head, when electromagnetic waves in the frequency of microwaves (300 MHz to 300 GHz) are within their vicinity. As it turns out, this is caused not by vibrations in the eardrum but by slight expansion of brain tissue within the skull creating pressure waves which stimulate the inner ear. Pretty crazy, right?

Then I remembered a documentary video I had seen about a guy who exhibited immunity to electricity. I looked it up, and it turns out that there are a couple of people like that. It comes from having naturally thick and dry skin, which increases resistance and lowers the amperes to a non-lethal level. The areas of the body which this applies to ranges from just hands to full-body and mouth.

On the level of increasingly bogus, take a look at this video, in which a Chinese man living in Java claims to be able to control Chi (funky electricity). I don’t believe it myself, but the video was well done and it looked credible enough.

Anyways, this got me to thinking about the show Heroes. Franchises which share that premise, such as x-men, try to explain the super-powers scientifically, but then introduce ridiculous powers (like vortex generation). I think that a movie/show in which both the super-heroes and the super-villains are both relatively mediocre would be excellent. For instance, one person might have the ability to regrow limbs, eyes, and organs not unlike a Caudata; and like a salamander, it would take them 2-3 years to regrow something like an arm. They would be able to afford being stabbed or shot or losing a finger, but they wouldn’t immediately be back in the fight. People could have enhanced magnetoception, RF hearing, electrical resistance, and electrical generation.

On the same thread, I highly dislike explanations that involve either the “10% of the brain” cliche, or the entire “brain wave” concept. Both are unbased in reality and are overused. Powers would be strictly based on phenomena that occur in the natural world. Devices that rely on technological concepts that have been conceived of but not yet well mapped out would be out. As a corollary, Batman-esque powers (i.e. being rich) would be discouraged for super-heroes. Super-villains, of course, almost always need to be rich. More important than riches is genre-sight (or lack of Genre Blindness), and awareness of things like the List of 100 Things to not to do as an Evil Overlord. Their mediocrity would lie in their plans and powers, not intelligence.

That train of thought can be taken a couple of stations farther. The villains may ultimately be more likeable than the heroes. Since the heroes have weak powers, they obviously have personality flaws (like Watchmen) as well (e.g. Superman is almost invincible, so he is almost perfect) and poor planning. Overall, however, both the heroes and the villains are playing a losing game. The villains’ plans aren’t that devastating (except for the occasional climax of a world-threatening plot), and the heroes are disliked by the media due to their imperfections.

Looking farther into the universe, the news of real super-heroes would no doubt spawn a wave of popularity within certain sects. Eccentric individuals or crazed fans would take a low-powered Batman approach and utilize cool pieces of technology for crime fighting, such as d3o or this (the guy made it himself for about $35,000, although prototyping cost him nearly half a million):

That was the essential fabric of my idea, but it could definitely use some ironing.

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