Sundown: Interactive Graphic Novel hits virtual newsstands

Sundown CoverWell, it has finally arrived. After over a year of my own time and even more prior to my involvement, Sundown: Part One – White Birch, has been released to the public.

I first got involved with Sundown around May of 2011 when it was being designed as a fairly bog-standard motion comic – i.e. it was a single panel per page, self-propelled video format production. After a few months of working on that, and two or three other titles under development at the time, the pause button was pressed and everything came to a grinding halt. After some review, revision and restructuring, the project was redesigned as an interactive book with a new layout much more akin to printed comics. This was in no small part due to our discovery of an iPad app created in the same tool we eventually adopted, CIA: Operation Ajax. Since then till now, I have been pretty much buried in layout designs, artwork appraisals, animation and building interaction to create a digital reading experience which, whilst maybe not 100% new and original, hopefully stands out in the crowd as both innovative and entertaining.

I know, at the very least, this project has help to push the development of the tool, The Active Reader, which we have been using. I think we have had to upgrade the tool 6 or 7 times over the course of production to be able to have some the things we were doing work. It has been a lot of hard work which has, at times, driven me to edge of madness – the sound won’t play, or that font failed to load, again, or that layer of art simply doesn’t show up anymore (Thank you everyone at Tall Chair for helping me through). But, as with most creative endeavours, its completion and now release brings a special kind of satisfaction. All that’s left is to panic over whether anyone will read it and, more importantly, like it.

The book has been published by Motion Works Entertainment, based on an original concept from the creator of The Crow, James O’Barr and features original artwork from the same, with additional art created by Space Goat Productions. The build, animation and effects work were undertaken by myself, here at Dancing Fish Productions, using San Francisco based Tall Chair’s Active Reader tool. The book also features the music of Godflesh along with original music and effects created by AK Audio & Design.

Go download it, and let me know what you think.

Sundown: Part One – White Birch can be downloaded from the App Store:

Sundown Icon


Killing Them Softly – with bullets, though, not songs

It’s the perfect crime, isn’t it? Knock off the game run by the guy who everyone knows already knocked off his own game once before. Any dumb monkey could do it.

That is the basic premise of this post-millennium gangster flick. With an all-star cast headed up by Brad Pitt, along with James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Richard Jenkins (Burn After ReadingThe Visitor) and Ray Liotta. But Goodfellas this is not. Gone are the ‘Families’ and ‘Made Men’ of the Mob epics of yesteryear and so is the epic running time, Killing is a mere 97 minutes, but it is time well used and well spent, and who wants to sit through 2 and a half hours anyway.

The game in question, is a mob-protected poker game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta) and the ‘monkeys’ are recent parolee Frankie (Scoot McNairy, MonstersArgo) and permanently wasted puppy pincher, Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, AustraliaThe Dark Knight Rises). The mob, understandably pissed at having their game ripped off, again, needs the mess cleaned up so they can reopen the games. Enter Jackie Cogan (Pitt), the mob enforcer entrusted with the delicate job of finding and removing those responsible.

This hour and a half or so is spent in the company of some varied, well constructed and well portrayed characters set against a backdrop of a rain soaked post-Katrina New Orleans, the growing economic crisis and the final days of the Bush administration. From Pitt’s jaded, cynical but well understated Jackie, to Gandolfini’s over-the-hill, washed-up hit-man, Mickey to McNairy’s in-over-his-head Frankie, Killing Them Softly is as much a study of this diverse collection of characters as it is about the unfolding of Pitt’s cleaning job, which punctuates the film with moments of violence as varied in their cinematic execution as the characters involved.

A bare-knuckle beating which forces the viewer into the position of the victim. A slow motion CGI ‘dance’ of bullets through brains. A there-one-instant-gone-the-next execution. While these moments are well executed (sorry for the pun), I’m not sure that this variety of visual style is particularly necessary given the substance of the interpersonal stories being played out around them and some even feel a little like gratuitous showing off. Cinematically, outside of these performance pieces, the rest of the movie is fairly standard fare, but it doesn’t need to be anything else.

And then, flowing just below the surface is the not so subtle allegory suggesting the mob is no different to Corporate America and even the government. The regular snippets from both Presidents Bush and Obama (then still a Senator) on the state of the nation and the economic climate, heard on radios and TVs throughout the film. These start as seemingly incidental background noise, gradually increasing in prominence until becoming virtually the centerpiece of the final scene between Jackie and Jenkins’s mob liaison  Driver, punctuated with Pitt’s closing line, “America isn’t a country, it’s a business. Now pay me my money!”. Liberal Hollywood ‘having a go’ at the Rupublican right-wingers? Maybe, the original book, George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade, was written in 1974, so I’m not sure if this particular subtext has come from there. At least not in the same specifics.

In summary; Killing Them Softly is an enjoyable, albeit violent, watch with solid performances from a great cast. It’s not your average mob flick but I think it will still appeal to fans of such. Hardcore Republicans may find some cause for offence, though.

Killing Them Softly will be in (US) theaters, November 30th. Sorry, UK readers, I think it has already been and gone.

The Origins of Animation?

If I was to ask you when animation began, where would you go? 1995, Toy Story (don’t laugh, there are kids out there that can’t imagine even that far back!). OK, more serious, the 1920s, Disney? How about Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in 1911? Earlier? OK, what about Emile Renynaud’s 1892, Pantomimes Lumineuses? But then there was the Zoetrope from William George Horner in 1834. But even that can trace its origin as far back as AD 180(ish) China. So is that it? Animation started in China sometime around 180 AD? Well, apparently not.

It’s been I while since I’ve put finger to key here and offered any peas of my mind. What with back surgery, welcoming a new baby, a stereotypical toddler and working up to 4 projects at a time, there’s not a lot of opportunity. However, last week as I was making an urgent nappy (diaper) run to the store, I caught a few minutes of PRI’s The World on the radio. And in these few moments an interesting story caught my ear.

Marc Azéma, a French archaeologist and film maker, has been studying French and Spanish cave art for 20 years and has come to the belief that many of the depictions were deliberately designed, not just to show the subject is moving, but to actually show that movement. He proposes that they should be viewed sequentially in much the same way we would a modern animated cartoon and has created a video to demonstrate this;

He also makes the bold suggestion that these cave paintings, estimated to be in the region of 30,000 years old, mark the beginnings of cinema – albeit several evolutionary stages away from what we have now. I’m not wholly convinced myself, it’s a wonderful idea and in the video he has created a great supporting visual for his idea. But it is a video he has made himself by superimposing the various paintings over one another, not exactly concrete scientific evidence.

So, were the Neanderthals of prehistoric France and Spain the originators of the moving image? Or is Mr. Azéma’s theory yet another of archaeology’s grand speculations – I mean, come on, can we really know what colour a stegosaurus’s belly was?!  Why not take 6 minutes out of your day to listen to the man yourself and watch the video, then make up your own mind.

I would like to thank the Academy…

So, the Oscar nominations are in and already the press is filled with a slew of ‘Tin Tin snubbed’ comments. I, however, would like to thank The Academy for not bowing to popular pressure and public expectation.

The basic fact is, last year The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences pinned their colors firmly to the pole when it comes to animation. If you read my last post, on this subject, you will already understand. For those of you who missed it, take a quick pause and head over there just now.

In that last post I cited the official Oscars® ruling on animated films which, to cut a long story short, rules out motion (or performance) capture from qualifying as animation. The Adventures of Tin Tin is almost entirely performance capture and so, quite rightly, cannot qualify for the Best Animated Film category.

This year’s nominations are; . A fairly large group this year compared to the 3 from last year, which included our very own (as in, the film both my wife and I worked on) The Illusionist.

I am slightly ashamed to confess that I have not seen a single one of these. However, I am to rectify that over the next couple of weeks and I will return to give you my thoughts on how these measure up and which I think should get the little golden fella for their mantlepiece.

The Adventures of Tin Tin: Best ‘Animated’ Film…But is it?

As many will no doubt have heard, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tin Tin walked away from the Golden Globes this week with the Best Animated Film award. Commonly, though not exclusively, this has meant that the film would be a shoe-in for the Oscar® of the same category. And, unsurprisingly, The Adventures of Tin Tin is currently campaigning for such consideration. However, I would like to protest this.

Now, I’m not making a comment on the film itself or whether or not it is good enough to win such awards. In fact, I have not even had the opportunity to watch it. I have been well-informed that it is a good movie and from what I have seen of it, it looks pretty good to me. No, I am actually commenting on whether or not the film should even be put up for consideration at all.

Last year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the awarders of the coveted, aforementioned Oscars®) published new rules governing the eligibility for consideration to the Best Animated Feature Film Award. These are unchanged for this year’s looming Awards and an extract can be read below:

Rule Seven: Special Rules for the Best Animated Feature Film Award

  1. DEFINITION: An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.  Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique.  In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time

The full rule can be read HERE

From what I understand, ‘ Tin Tin, in regard to the major characters at least, is performance (or motion) capture and, therefore, should not be eligible for consideration in the Best Animated Film category of the Oscars®.

However, from my research, it would appear that other major awards are not so specific on their requirements or definitions. The Golden Globes, as far as I can see, do not have any special rules or requirements covering animated films. The Annies, presented by The International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood are specifically for animation yet do not seem to have available a definition of animation but each award is given “in recognition of creative excellence in the art of animation.” Somewhat ambiguous but I would suggest that using the term art would suggest something more hand-crafted. The BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) state in their rule book, “17. ANIMATED FILM: A film will be classed as an animated feature film if it is primarily animated throughout the majority of the length of the film and has a significant number of animated major characters;”. More specific but, again, does not define the term animated, however, there is a heavy insinuation in the wording.

Tin Tin is scooping up Best Animated Film awards left, right and centre and, for the majority it would seem that, due to imprecise or lacking definitions and unspecific eligibility rules, its receipt of these cannot be contested beyond personal opinion. In the case of the Oscars®, though, I think the rules and definition are clear. The Adventures of Tin Tin is not eligible for consideration to the category of Best Animated Film, it quite clearly does not meet the requirements. Of course, the nominations are not out yet and it may prove that The Academy do not allow it, we will have to wait and see.

Finally, as something of a disclaimer, I am not against motion/performance capture as a tool and I have even worked with it in production. It has a wealth of value and any number of valid uses, including filmmaking. As an animator, however, I do feel that the two – animation and motion capture – ought to be separated. Animation is an art and a craft, whether it is 2D, 3D, stop-motion, traditional or digital. Motion-capture is a tool, a technology. Like I say, it has its place and value but it is not animation.