Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: Avatar Movie

I saw the Avatar movie twice over the holiday period, both times in 3D. Visually it is a glorious feast for the senses, but in terms of story it was Dances with Wolves (or Pocahontas), and fairly ordinary. The acting was actually of quite a high level for a Hollywood action sci-fi film, with newcomer Sam Worthington holding his own alongside veteran actress Sigourney Weaver.

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The slightly wacky eco theme sits curiously well with me as the bizarre ecological situation on Pandora is really unable to be compared with Earth – and in fact given the apparent lack of sensitivity of Earth’s creatures to each other we might even find that a Pandoran viewpoint would be that Earth’s deadness existed even before humanity killed it (as Sam’s character alludes).

From a spiritual viewpoint I find it interesting that people are seeking the one great truth, and grasping at the apparent holiness of the eco-green movement as the way forward. The hypocrisy of that movement is that it places ecology before humanity, whilst claiming that it is more humane to live that way – the millions of people who have suffered starvation because of the rush to make biofuel out of food crops are testimony to the illogic. Some of the greatest green leaders are in fact quite open about believing that we need less people on the Earth (perhaps if we need to kill ourselves off they could go first?).

Anyway, that wasn’t what this post was supposed to be about. In fact the thing that prompted me to write something tonight about Avatar was its use of 3D. A lot has been said about this being the first real mainstream movie use of the 3D effect. There were certainly scenes where the 3D was particularly noticeable (in the holographic displays in the command centre and in the ash flakes falling from the sky). There were also scenes where it was probably used, but it was less obvious (like the flying scenes). Seeing the movie again in 2D would probably be the only way I could truly tell where it was most used.

It was the less subtle times when it was used that bothered me as it jolted me out of my suspension of disbelief and reminded me where I really was. In my mind this is the paradox of 3D effects. As long as the 3D effect is simply adding depth to the screen you run the risk of a few things happening:

  1. Reminding the audience that they’re really in a cinema (or at home now that 3D TVs have launched).
    This happened to me when the ash flakes fell and it felt like something fell in front of my eyes in the cinema and blocked my vision, which was annoying.
  2. Allowing the director to force a focal plane on the audience.
    In some scenes, particularly the command centre, I wanted to focus on the cool background items but found them deliberately out of focus because of the 3D effect. This is less obvious in 2D movies and it feels more natural looking at the background items.
  3. Bringing the audience into the scene.
    This seems like it should be a good thing, but as long as we can’t change the point of view it can be frustrating to feel like you’re cemented to one part of a scene, especially one that may challenge your phobias or perceptions (the character may want to peek over the edge of a 500m drop, that doesn’t mean I want to).

An obvious future step is for filmmakers to try to give audiences the ability to change their point of view (POV) in each scene in the movie, and then to even attempt to give them the POV of the main character. This is the ultimate merging of first-person shooter games with the movie format.

Playing with POV can lead to some insidious issues, such as the problems created when the main character and the main viewpoint are one and the same. In this case you are given some uncomfortable issues to deal with if the main character lies or is misdirected as the audience must be likewise affected. Physical comedy becomes much harder to represent when the body of the main character is invisible – and worse the audience may be left feeling the physical discomfort of the performer rather than the humour of his actions (although some new, more subtle, comedic routines might be discovered that make use of this fact).

So if 3D filmmakers avoid the issues of POV by taking the more traditional ‘limited godhood’ viewpoint then the issue becomes how to cope with audiences that will manipulate the POV for their own purposes (I can already see websites springing up with screenshots of actors from compromising/embarrassing angles). Perhaps some angles would be marked off-limits and unavailable, guarding film crews and actors alike – or post-production would become super-intensive and designed to limit the effect of compromising viewpoints.

Of course the technology to capture 3D is a long way from allowing us to capture all of a scene in real-life cameras, but that wouldn’t stop the type of CGI scenes that Jim Cameron has pulled off in Avatar – which then brings back the existence of compromising angles.

I think the first-person POV will be experimented with, but in movies like Doom that was generally regarded as an annoying gimmick (remember The Rock?), and I can’t see it taking off in 3D either, except perhaps in the horror or X-rated movie genres. In fact there might be a place for it in romantic movies – after all it would feel great to be seduced by a famous actor/actress, right? Perhaps not, but I’m sure someone will try it.

In fact, before POV becomes changeable it would be nice to see the plane of focus being variable. If we could choose what was in and out of focus then that would make it a much more natural experience and add variety to movies that you might watch time and time again.

Other areas are likely to prosper once we get 3D TVs into our living rooms. For one thing sport offers a tremendous area of innovation as promoters look for ways to bring the audience onto the sporting field. However the costs of creating 3D cameras might be prohibitive in a fast-moving and unpredictable domain like sports (although table tennis, darts and snooker might be easy ones to make 3D). The thrill of being in the midst of a sporting occasion would mare it an obvious choice for pay TV, and this alone might make it the starting point.

Gaming is the most fertile ground for 3D TVs. Technological breakthroughs like Microsoft’s Project Natal enhancement to the XBox will also offer an amazing degree of interaction with a 3D image – with the potential of games taking advantage of your 3D TV and the Natal interface to offer truly immersive experiences. In fact that might be the greatest use of a 3D movie in providing rich, immersive ready for 3D worlds for game designers to then populate with challenges and learning experiences for novice and experienced games alike.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Friday, October 17, 2008

Experiencing Top Gear Australia

I had the pleasure Wednesday night of going with 3 mates, Andrew, Dan and Chris, to be studio audience members for the 6th episode of Top Gear Australia (TGA). Whilst it was fun, I would say that the experience is one I'm not keen to repeat. As in the taping of any pre-recorded TV show there is lots of time spent waiting for crew to move things around and cast members to get their lines right - and unlike most shows you are standing up the whole time.


The TGA hosts, Charlie, Warren and Steve, usually got their lines right the first or second time. But one segment just didn't seem to work and we saw several attempts at it - fortunately this was made more bearable by Warren hopping up on their center stage and giving us an impromptu trivia lesson about TGA and its British parent.

 

tga_hosts
Top Gear Australia hosts Warren Brown, Charlie Cox and Steve Pizzati

 

The hosts were all charismatic, funny and friendly, with Charlie perhaps being the most standoffish. Actually Charlie looks like he could stand to gain a few kilos as he is a bit too skinny. Warren was great and very approachable - Steve was a little invisible (perhaps because he's too short).


The different segments were spread around the cavernous hanger which allowed different parts of the audience take their turns in getting close to the action. Canned segments were displayed at the appropriate time on monitors so we understood the hosts' references to those elements of the show. If I was going again, I would try to stand right at the edge of the center stage (the one they use for celebrity interviews) as people there were able to get up on the edge of the stage and see what was happening further away more easily than those of us on ground level.


The actual studio is very basic on the outside, but inside is full of relics of the hosts' car stunts (the shark-cage car, a sailing Audi and this week's demolition derby cars were all on display - sometimes levered up high, but mostly accessible to bored audience members. I would show some photos but you are banned from taking cameras in the studio, and asked to turn mobile phones off as they interfere with the recording equipment (really?). Being at a working airport (Bankstown Aerodrome) the taping had to halt a couple of times as helicopters took off or landed nearby.


The celebrity guest for our episode was James Morrison, a famous Australian jazz musician, and avid petrolhead. He had a cracker of an interview with Charlie and having had 96 cars (!) he was obviously at home discussing them. He has also had some experience in celebrity races and rally car driving. Watching his lap footage it looked like he was simply taking it easy, when in fact he was hurtling around the track faster than anyone else so far (including Steve Bisley).


(Sidenote: I just saw a Prius with Police stickers driving around Frenchs Forest - weird!)


After 2 hours we were all feeling footsore and a little bit bored, so we took off early for a bite to eat, Andrew reckoned he knew where to find Sydney's best wood-fired pizza nearby ... except he got us lost and we ended up at Yagoona. The pizza was respectably delicious, although the ambience of the area leaves a lot to be desired. That is one suburb that has sure gone downhill in recent years and if you are not familiar with the area I recommend you take the M5 to nearby Beverly Hills instead. The main strip near Beverly Hills train station is now famous for its high quality and affordable restaurants -if we'd been bothered (and paid a little more) we could have had a much more pleasant meal there. Although we would have missed seeing Andrew trot out his rusty Italian and get (loudly!) ear-bashed by the proprietor of the pizza joint! :D

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

World of LEGO

I was a LEGO fanatic as a kid, always wanting more of the little coloured blocks and building everything my imagination could desire, from spaceports to castles, dinosaurs or anything in between. My enormous LEGO collection was passed onto my half-brothers and has dispersed from there to other kids.


Having kids myself means I get to re-visit my childhood and re-enter the world of LEGO, this time with a more discriminating eye and the aim of getting the best value for my kids that I can.


Things are certainly different from when I was a kid, and yet the basics are the same. There is a greater selection of bricks/parts than ever before, and even small models come with unique parts that offer interesting re-build possibilities. The basic streams of city, space and castle LEGO are still there, but there are new lines that target specific media licenses (such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Speed Racer, etc.). There is a far greater prevalence of friction and pull-back motors that give kids all sorts of vehicle possibilities, but there are less lights and battery operated pieces than when I was a kid. Technics is still around, but there is also MindStorms, the robot building kits.


Being a one-time LEGO junkie there is nothing better than sitting with my kids and helping them build an X-Wing launcher, monster truck or other fun toy. In fact there are still a good number of adults that still build LEGO models, it's just that they are either aiming to look more like models than toys (e.g. see the spacecraft below) or they use them for other purposes like wargaming or roleplaying games. There is even LEGOuniverse, the upcoming massively multiplayer online game from LEGO.


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gm013

With the newer editions of D&D emphasising the use of square map grids for combat maps, the LEGO world starts to make some sense, particularly given the additional minifig personalisation options now that we have aliens from Star Wars, Dwarves and Trolls (OK, Ogres and Orcs) in the LEGO range. Unfortunately by the time you collect enough bricks and minifigs you might as well have spent the cash for good old fashioned wargame miniatures, especially if you are just a player who wants a single (if highly customised) minifig.


Fortunately it turns out that the bricks aren't the only thing that's changed in the last 20 years. You can now find sites online where you can buy single bricks/parts and get hard to find items that might not even be in production any more (can anyone say Pirate LEGO?). There are even sites where people make custom parts compatible with LEGO, for example farm animals, wizard's capes, etc. In fact there is a plethora of sites out there, many of which are just copies of each other.


Here is a short list of the sites I've been most impressed with:

  • Bricks to the World
    First up, an Aussie company that gives you access to the whole LEGO range, including some kits that are no longer available elsewhere.
  • FindMyBrick.com is a great site to go to find individual bricks/parts. The ability to buy individual parts (usually for less than a US dollar) makes it easy to build a minifig to match your elven fighter-mage. They also have some modified bricks.
  • Official LEGO Store
    Of course there is an official online store, but prices may not differ much from your local toy store (and with shipping are usually more). However there are pieces for sale there that are not available elsewhere, such as this huge LEGO chess set.
  • BrickQuest
    In the spirit of HeroQuest comes BrickQuest, a fantasy boardgame that uses LEGO pieces and settings. There are even fan sites with ideas for monsters.
  • MOCpages
    This site gives LEGO enthusiasts a place to showcase their models. I particularly like DARKspawn's range of historical building models.
  • Brickshelf
    Like MOCpages this gives the enthusiast somewhere to show off their latest models.
  • Minifig.co.uk
    This is not an eCommerce site, but it has a nice selection of custom models for the Viking and Castle ranges.
  • The Brick Testament
    This is a fun retelling of the Bible using LEGO bricks and minifigs.

Enjoy LEGOing and let me know if you find any other good sites out there!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Signs of the Singularity

Vernor Vinge is still banging on about the Singularity. In this case in the latest IEEE Spectrum, with Signs of the Singularity.

Personally I think that humanity is more than bits and bytes and processing power is not, and never will, be equal to human intelligence. More to the point I suspect we will come across technological revolutions (like printing or the internet), but they will not fundamentally alter human nature, or the essential issues of being human (living, loving, growing old and dying).

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition

This is my review of the 4th Edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. Basically I like them, although I think they have been marketed at a mature audience and I would not recommend them for anyone younger than 15, and with parental guidance for any older teenager.
 
I was surprised this weekend when I managed to get an hour or two free from the family to browse my FLGS and found that they had just got their first delivery of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition (D&D 4e). Another pleasant surprise was the price, AU$39.95 each for the Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM). After perusing the books for 10 minutes or so I was sure that whilst interesting, this might not be the future for my gaming group, so I only plunked down the cash for the PHB and DMG, as the MM could come later if I actually DMed anything.
 
Dungeons & Dragons was one of the first pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs) that experienced a huge growth in the 1970's and 1980's before first collectible card games (CCGs), and then massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) ate into their customer base, especially the important new players (who tend to spend a lot on new rule books).
 
Here are the major differences I've noticed in my first few reads:
  1. Core Classes: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, Wizard.
  2. Core Races: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Hafling, Half-Elf, Human, Tiefling.
  3. Alignments: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil.
  4. All classes are as complex as each other now. Cleric/Wizard have simplified a lot, the rest have become more complex, especially Fighter.
  5. Skills have been greatly simplified and streamlined, but still offer interesting abilities.
  6. Healing is still important, but more of it is available via 'natural' means (resting, skill-checks) than ever before. Healing powers are more spread about the classes too.
  7. Lots of development choices, whilst all random elements in character development have been removed (no rolling for abilities, hit points or starting gold). This makes it possible for people to create characters without a DM present.
  8. There are no conversion rules, or references to old versions of the game, except for a brief History of D&D sidebar at the start of the PHB.
There are some elements that are worrying as core rules for a game that has traditionally been pitched at pre-teens on up:
  1. Tieflings are more definitely infernal than before, with the devil-inspired characteristics very plainly displayed in the artwork (horns and thick tails) and flavour text that suggests a real struggle to overcome their darker natures.
  2. The artwork in general is much darker than ever before, with violence and horror graphically depicted (PHB: p.122, massive slice through lizardman's side; p.297, blood running from Regdar's nose; DMG: p.11 bruised and bloody heroes; p.130-131 a far too realistic horror piece).
  3. The Warlock class is a dark parody of real-life witchcraft and plays up the darker emotional aspects of the role and the 'selling your soul' element. For example Hellish Rebuke says that "You point your finger and your foe is scoured in hellish flames stoked by your own anger and pain." If you take the Feytouched paragon path then you have been "driven slightly mad" and "relish the madness and can control it, but those you unleash it upon can do nothing but crumble in the wake of the unparalleled majesty of the Feywild." If you take the Life-Stealer paragon path then "Your pact with infernal powers has given you the ability to steal and utilize the life energy of your enemies. This life energy provides you with a new avenue to power, and you hunger for it as a vampire craves blood." Lovely.
As a result I would not recommend these rules for anyone younger than 15, and parental guidance even then, given the interest in the occult that this could easily foster. This is a shame as the artwork could easily have been toned down, and the Tiefling/Warlock rules left out for a darker add-on supplement. In particular it clashes with the (rather glib) advice that if "you choose an alignment for your character you should pick either good or lawful good."
 
I suspect the decision has been made (at some level) to go after an older age group, as the average online gamer is in their 30's and can afford the subscription model that D&D 4e seems to be heading towards. However, I can't help wondering whether this shoots themselves in the foot as many parents I know would be even less likely now to invest in D&D 4e for their kids. I certainly would now steer my children, nephews and nieces towards other softer games for their first pen and paper roleplaying experience.
 
Now, some people might reflexively think I am overreacting, however please bear in mind that I would not recommend many online RPGs to younger players for similar reasons. I recognise that my own exploration of RPGs started with the very benign Basic D&D rules, and it was only later that I was exposed to ideas that required more mature filtering than I had as a young teenager. Giving a young teenager D&D 4e would be exposing them to occult ideas, horror elements and graphic violence - there are undoubtedly parents who do not have a problem with this, but personally I'd like to save my kids the nightmares and unnecessary perversity of the thoughts behind ideas such as selling one's soul for power. If I was going to do it, then I would make sure I guided them through it in order to help them place these ideas properly in their place.
 
So, perhaps I am unusual, but it does make me wonder if this sort of marketing blunder indicates that someone at Hasbro (owners of Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D 4e) has taken their eye off the brand?
 
For mature gamers, who have perhaps been around the block more than once with White Wolf's World of Darkness products (Vampire, Werewolf, etc) there is little in these rules that you will not have seen before, and the main issues you would have are with the decision to change the core classes and races, yet again. In particular the admission of Dragonborn and Eladrin races seem spurious, given how many other races have been left out.
 
I've heard people openly criticise this edition as going after the MMORPG crowd, and whilst a sell-out could be on the cards, to me this looks more like a genuine attempt to re-visit the core rules and bring some much needed balance back into the game - albeit by removing many of the 'realistic' rules that have been around since D&D's early wargaming days. Personally I look forward to sitting down with the boys, opening a few beers, swapping stories about the kids and then seeing just what we can do with a few heroes of old.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

R2D2 DVD Projector

This absolutely rocks! At US$2900 it is a touch out of my budget though ...



More information at the Nikko America website.