Unauthoritative Pronouncements

Subscribe About

The Hack

Reminder: This is a personal blog, and not a news outlet. My views do not reflect those of any past, present, or future employer.

At the start of last week, an image of a skeleton on a screen made the rounds on every news site. Ominous reports started to leak that Sony Pictures Entertainment had been hacked.

This seemed bad, but at the time I wasn’t very concerned. How much damage could someone do to one of The Big Six? There are six major, movie studios in the whole world. There are many other movie studios, but in terms of scale, there are six big ones, and they’re all located headquartered in the Los Angeles area. Even the large studios own their own smaller studios. Sometimes those include animation studios, visual effects studios, games, interactive media, etc.

I worked for Sony Pictures Imageworks for many years. SPI is a division of Sony Pictures Digital (Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.). SPDP is part of Sony Pictures, which is a subsidiary of Sony.

Fun stuff.

The hack affected Sony Pictures Entertainment, and I expected it to only affect the computer systems tied specifically to the parent company. However, all of the paperwork for the other companies under it appears to be held on the same servers.

I heard, through a few people, that they had obtained the list of file names that the hackers claimed they would release. Just file names, nothing else. When I saw my name, I knew I was in there for real. That it wasn’t just some gimmick. Especially when they had a t-shirt order form with my name on it in addition to all those performance reviews and contracts. No one would purposefully go to that level of detail for me, the hackers obviously grabbed everything that wasn’t nailed down. (It appears things might not have been thoroughly nailed down.)

It’s hard to describe the violation someone can feel about data relating to their identity, and their work. On the one hand, I know no company would seriously use any performance data obtained from this hack, but on the other hand I know that it’s just out there. My reviews aren’t even bad, but what about everyone else? I’m sure not everyone has paperwork as vanilla as my own.

Social Security Numbers, however, are timeless. All it takes is one person to save a file for use later on. A timebomb on your identity, and credit.

Not to mention the revelation that there are spreadsheets with the medical history of employees. If anyone has a private medical matter, it is now publicly available to unscrupulous people.

I unequivocally condemn the hack. SPI is not my current employer (after they relocated to Vancouver they are unlikely to be my employer again) but this kind of attack exploits and punishes all the employees, and former employees. The company was already in the midst of a restructuring, and this will make that even worse. People will lose their jobs, either directly as a result of the hack, or indirectly due to financial losses the company will incur because of the hack.

Answers

Sony Pictures was mostly silent since the news of this hack first leaked. All they would initially confirm was a “disruption”. Some employees leaked memos to the press. No effort has been made to proactively contact former employees, and no statements have been released to the press for how former employees should contact the company. No effort has been made to announce anything through the media to former employees at all.

This is a media company that, the very same week, launched an all-out blitz for the next James Bond film, and hosted the annual company holiday party. I believe it was, and is, possible for them to do something for former employees seeking answers.

After learning of the hack, I attempted to contact the SPE main lot. I was helpfully directed to the appropriate department. The phone rang for a bit and then someone picked up the phone and hung up on me. I sent an email to an HR address, and three days later, on Sunday the 7th, I received a response. I do appreciate that they were working the Sunday to respond to emails. They said my name was added to the list of the provider they selected for identity protection, and that I should wait to be contacted by that company. They had no idea what information was compromised by the hack.

Perpetrators

No one knows who is behind this. The best guess is North Korea, because a lot of the communication has centered on the film, The Interview. Other speculation has mentioned an insider, though it may be some combination of the two. The FBI investigation is still ongoing.

Media

The data dumps have been going on at a steady pace. They appear to be lumps of similar data in each batch. Either how they were originally organized, or how they were reorganized by the hackers to package for distribution. They have been irregularly dumping hundreds of gigabytes of files.

Some people are reacting to these dumps with glee, because they can pick apart all of the damaging secrets. I am not one of those people. I do have complicated feelings about the reporting. Even though they are a former employer, I have no desire to see the company destroyed. I still have friends that work there, and I want the best for them.

If you’re excited because Sony might sell Spider-Man back to Marvel you’re disgusting.

Phil Lord, famous for several films he’s made with Sony, is staunchly against any data being reported on.

The Sony hack is terrorism. Publishing the information aids terrorists. Sony execs are victims, and filmmakers. We should stand with them. — Phil Lord

Similarly, Rian Johnson:

This Sony hack is some vile shit. My policy: don’t click & note who’s posting stolen emails it so I can continue to not click in the future. — Rian Johnson

Here’s the thing though: Not talking about it doesn’t make the data go away. It’s still being dumped, and people are going to go through it. Sure it’s easy to be upset at Gawker, but what if there is stuff in there on employees being screwed? Where does that ethical line get drawn?

I have a harder time saying that nothing should be reported on. I disagree with the esteemed directors that reporters, and readers, should sit on their hands and let people without a moral compass be the only ones that see the data. Feel free to follow their interpretation though, they are cool dudes.

Sadly, you can’t unexplode this by ignoring the explosion.

2014-12-10 23:45:00

Category: text


How We Make Podcasts

Casey Liss posted last week about his podcasting setup. This went on to inspire some spirited discussion about microphones, and how people should be encouraging, and not exclusionary, with their podcasting recommendations. What is a pro? What is art? What is the nature of the universe? Is this real life?

Ahem.

I seldom get asked about my podcasting setup, but there are a few things that are different about what we do that might be interesting to someone.

(Crickets chirping.)

Mein Mikrofon

I use the much-reviled Blue Yeti microphone. If you are an audiophile, you have feelings about this. It is an imperfect device, but it fills the role I need it to, for the money I’m comfortable spending. If you seek advice on creating a podcasting empire with the dulcet tones of your voice, look elsewhere for advice. I do not excuse the Yeti, or say that it is good enough for anyone, it is simply appropriate for my specific situation. Should I ever fall face-first on a pile of money I will wash my face, because money is dirty, but then I will spend the money on some gear.

Pros:

  1. Relatively inexpensive, and frequently on sale through various retailers.
  2. USB interface makes it a breeze to use.
  3. Headphone jack input on the device allows me to hear what the microphone is picking up while I record, and to hear Skype calls.
  4. Physical mute switch that I forget to disable every time I plug in the Yeti.

Cons:

  1. Everyone freaks out that you use a Blue Yeti.
  2. It comes with a weird stand that is not effective because it’ll be on a table, or desk, in front of you and pick up every vibration from you contacting the table or desk.
    1. Most people replace this silly stand with something more professional, perhaps on a boom arm, or tripod.
    2. I have a hand towel that’s folded over on itself that acts as a shock absorber. Cry your little tears, audiophiles!
  3. The Yeti is very sensitive to any noise around you. Street noise, a refrigerator in another room, loud neighbors, etc. I do record in less-than-ideal circumstances for this kind of device, and we have had interruptions in our recording because of it. Your mileage will vary.

On the Line

Like many podcasts, Dan and I use Skype to call one another, and then each of us records our ends of the conversations. Referred to as a double-ender (snicker). When we started, Dan and I used QuickTime to record the audio input that was being used for the Skype call. QuickTime does this for free, but you have to remember to launch and start, and stop, the recording.

One time, I opened QuickTime before I plugged in my USB microphone, so QuickTime didn’t see it as an input and recorded the system microphone on my MacBook Pro. That is not so good. After this incident, Jason Snell recommended Skype Call Recorder to me. I hemmed and hawed about spending money on it, since I didn’t technically need it, but it’s worth the piece of mind to buy Call Recorder. Having used it for months now, I can safely say that I recommend it, even if you’re just starting. You’ll just feel safer about your recordings, with is worth the cost of the software.

Cutting Room Floor

Dan and I both come from backgrounds in video, and film. We both believe in editing podcasts. The degree to which a podcast is edited can vary, but our edits generally consist of:

  1. Removing garbage from someone hitting a table, or a water bottle (unless it’s not possible to safely extract, so it’s another reason to be mindful while recording.) In a screenshot below you’ll see how much stuff gets scrapped out when we’re not speaking.
  2. Trimming start and ends. Most of the time, Dan and I launch right in to the show at the start of the call, unless it’s a call with a guest. We stay on the line a little at the end, and remove part of that. “Not editing for content” doesn’t mean you literally leave in every second of recording.
  3. Recordings get out sync as time goes on. It usually just requires a quick cut with the razor and slipping the track a bit.
  4. We do edit for content. If you listen, you’ll hear us flub a lot of stuff, so it’s not really editing to make us sound better, but we might remove a small aside about something for the episode, or excise a bit that didn’t come out like we meant it to. It’s really not anything crazy. We aren’t manufacturing a pristine illusion of two intelligent, funny guys, that would be a lie.
  5. Flare. This is my favorite part. Early in our podcast’s life, Dan started inserting little bits of audio for pop culture references (I am not a lawyer, but totes fair use). On the two occasions I’ve taken on editing duties, I’ve tried to emulate this. Usually with music that stops at just-not-quite-the-right time. Last night, Dan didn’t get “very cold in space”, so I spliced in some audio and left a huge spike of music before it cuts back to him talking about how unimportant it is that he get the reference. That’s something you can do in editing, for comedy. Shows like Bionic/BONANZA! have a system where Myke can play live audio in the call because of his mixer. This is some on-the-fly editing.
  6. Bleeps. We try to edit bad words so we don’t have to have an explicit tag. The bleeps kind of come out funny, in their own way. Especially if you’re playing a game of not actually saying a bad word.

Editing Software

Dan uses Soundtrack Pro to edit almost every episode. I do not know much of the process, because I’ve never seen him edit anything, and I’ve never used Soundtrack Pro.

The two times I’ve edited the podcast, for Galaxy Quest and Interstellar, I went with Adobe Audition CC 2014 (just rolls of the tongue). I had an existing relationship with Adobe that made this tool appealing to use. Almost every podcaster uses Logic Pro to do their work, so please don’t place a purchasing decision on me editing two episodes in something that was convenient for me.

The application is similar to Premiere, which I’ve had experience with in the past at school, and for cutting my demo reels. The tools it has for adjusting audio are great, but it’s not as easy to manage a 2 hour clip of audio as I would like it to be. Also? I spent an hour trying to figure out why variable-bit-rate encoding was producing files of different sizes and lengths before I went with constant-bit-rate and sent the file to Dan to compress further.

Here’s our episode on Interstellar:

Review

We review the episodes we record. Sometimes, we listen to the raw Call Recorder version, and sometimes we listen to rough cuts. In some situations we spot-check episodes instead of listening to the whole thing over again 1:1. We rely on a shared Dropbox folder for this. Recordings go in to it, and a “Review” folder displays the latest episode being worked on. The Dropbox app on iOS allows us to listen to the episodes while we go about our lives.

Slacking

From before we start an episode, until after an episode ships, we use Slack to discuss things, and keep things organized. Currently, we use the free account to do this. We have different rooms for different kinds of conversation, and we use them to handle things like shownotes, and title suggestions. Crucially, this is where we decide when to record, and agree to a topic to discuss. It would not be possible to manage the podcast without a real-time chat app with dedicated areas for different discussions.

The All-In-One Platform You Need

Dan uses a Squarespace account to manage the show’s site. This includes managing the RSS feed for the podcast, and the published shownotes. It doesn’t serve our audio files. This is far easier than some moron trying to write RSS stuff themselves.

To Serve Man

Perhaps the most unique aspect of our show is hosting the audio files on my specific server configuration. Most podcasts use LibSyn, or Soundcloud, or some fancy content caching system. In an effort to not spend any money, we decided to use my existing VPS to handle our podcast. I was concerned it would be overwhelmed, but it’s been over twenty episodes and we’ve never had an incident of it going down.

DigitalOcean’s $5/month VPS serves everything. A single droplet, running Ubuntu, with the Twisted framework serving static files. VFX software integrates Python 2.7.x stuff for scripting things so Twisted is just easier for me to deal with than Apache. When I first started blogging on this VPS, I used Python’s SimpleHTTPServer to handle things and a strong breeze would knock it over. Twisted is solid. My datacenter is in San Francisco, and there was one time Casey Liss experienced latency that I could not reproduce, so it may not work for every possible person ever, but it’s certainly affordable, and very flexible. Also, who cares about Casey?

To upload files, I use Panic’s Transmit on the Mac, and iOS. Yes, the iOS app is robust enough that I can download the file from the review folder in the Dropbox iOS app and upload it through the Transmit iOS app.

We have no sponsors, so we aren’t investing in an analytics platform. I have written a python script that allows me to open the access logs from Twisted and count the number of times that a file is download from a unique IP address, each day. I use Panic’s Prompt on iOS to run this on the logs on the server.

When I’ve uploaded the file, I send Dan the path and he puts it in with the shownotes and pushes out an update to the feed.

JIFs

Infrequently, I make silly images to promote the show. Sometimes, they are animated GIFs of someone’s face very loosely tracked on to a short clip from a movie. I have a license of Apple’s old compositing software, Shake, from a short project. I use it to generate a short video, and then I take that in to GIFBrewery where I adjust some knobs to generate a GIF. It’s not a technically impressive task, but a few people have asked how we do it. I would not recommend anyone reproduce this workflow, because Shake stops working on any version of OS X higher than Mavericks.

Content is King

Content is such a buzzword, but it’s appropriate shorthand to cover the variety of things that can be in a podcast. Sound, music, vocal ticks, words, even silence is part of the content. No one will ever tell you how to be interesting, and there will never be a guide on it. Dan and I certainly don’t appeal to everyone, but we’ve carved out what we like to do, and the small audience we like to do it for. We might have a casual tone on the podcast, but we do care about what we make.

Dan and I threw away hours of audio recordings from before we even knew what we wanted the show to be. Even then, it changed over time. No one has a guide for that.

An Explanation, Not a Guide

To be very clear about something: I am not telling you to do what Dan and I do. This explains what we do. Do what you will with the information. (You should probably do nothing with it!)

2014-12-01 08:27:27

Category: text


Wish List: Touch ID Integration with Apple TV

Dan Moren wrote a post over on Six Colors where he brings up his wish for Siri integration with Apple TV. He details several points where Siri would make using the device smoother, and each hypothetical is an improvement over the current input schemes. However, I feel like Touch ID would be a more practical wish (I probably don’t understand how wishes work). Before I explain why I would prioritize Touch ID, let me detail a couple things that keep me from being super-excited about Siri on Apple TV.

I’m bullish on Siri being useful in a living room. When I first got my iPhone 6, with iOS 8, I felt like I was in The Future. Until The Future misunderstood nearly everything relating to proper nouns, and locations. Media is Proper Noun City. I have had very little success getting Siri to queue up specific artists, or albums. In Dan Moren’s example of The Flash what if it returned Flash Gordon (king of the impossible)? Even if she does understand the proper noun, she’s still going to prompt for a user to pick which thing they wanted, as so often happens with inquiries to Siri. Dan mentions seeing search results listed for Hulu or Netflix, but what if you forgot to log in to those? Even if the list has the thing you want, you still need an input device to select the result you want and confirm viewing, or purchasing it.

Someone might wonder why touching something is better, or easier, than talking, so let me ‘splain why. Apple TV currently requires you enter your iTunes ID password when you set up and log in to the device. This is annoying. You have to do this before you setup your Apple Remote App on your iPhone too, so you get to use the milled aluminum stick with the six buttons. It is not fun. You also have the interesting experience of Apple not prompting you for a password on your purchases because they know how annoying that is. So … that seems unsound if you live with people that might buy stuff on your iTunes account. The parental controls are also pretty clunky. What if you could just hold your finger on your iPhone, or your remote, for a second and it just figured out who to log in, what content they were authorized to see, or buy? What if your Touch ID logged you in to anything tied to your account, like Netflix, or Hulu? What if you used it to purchase your Netflix or Hulu subscriptions? There’s a lot of things that get smoothed out when passwords get taken away. Touch ID shouldn’t just be for some iPhone’s, and it’s utility shouldn’t just be at its best in iOS 8.1 with Apple Pay.

Let’s go back to the out-of-the-box experience. Let’s say you get an Apple TV (Why would you, the integrated television set is just around the corner?!?!). What if you could just move your iPhone near it, have NFC pickup the Apple TV, and place your finger on the Touch ID sensor. The whole thing is set up and ready with your iTunes account, and any subscriptions paired with your iTunes account. You’re all set to go.

This obviously addresses completely different problems raised by Dan. It’s not really an either or situation. If someone at Apple wants to do both Siri integration, and Touch ID, then do both.

If not, then just do my thing.

Me. Me. Me.

2014-11-27 14:43:30

Category: text


The Valley

Not that one, the other one.

Monument Valley was a fantastic game when I first played it, and remained a fantastic game when I played it over, and over again. Even though the puzzles are not difficult, and the outcome is known on repeat plays, it has ineffable whimsy and delight. To someone that expects to be challenged by XTREME PUZZLS this game is a disappointment. I’ve also seen people complain about the heaps of praise the game earned. In addition to not being difficult, it is also relatively easy to complete in a matter of a couple hours. There’s no hidden side quests, and no palette-swapped enemies to grind on and elevate ones XP. It’s just pretty pastel colors, and pleasing isometric perspective.

My favorite levels of the original game were the box level, and the level where we were first introduced to the totem. I love the totem. I care about it more than our protagonist. Both of these elements were further explored in the Forgotten Shores expansion that premiered last week.

One-Star Sholes

There was a huge kerfuffle over charging for the expansion. Regardless of whether or not you feel like the way the developers delivered the expansion was appropriate, I think we can all agree Apple’s App Store reviews are completely broken, and unhelpful, in cases like this. People felt entitled to more levels, for free, and so they gave the game one-star reviews, even if they were not intending to buy the expansion. Even if UsTwo Games had released the extra levels as it’s own app, the App Store still lets anyone review something. Any person feeling slighted that there was an expansion could grind their axes on two review scores, instead of one.

Unfortunately, the method for resolving this is just as inappropriate as the source of the problem. Fight fire with fire, they say. There was a call-to-arms and people, that also had not played it, rushed in to defend the honor of the game by leaving positive, five-star reviews.

Good grief.

Forgotten Shores

The game plays like a dream — in more ways than one. The player is presented with the option to play the original game, or download and play the expanded levels. The levels do away with the spinning box with level numbers on the side, and present a straight-forward mapping of levels. The very first involves defeating a balrog.

SPOILERS:

There is a wonderful little moment where we see a dear friend come to the rescue of our protagonist. Then they ride up through the level, together. They complete a puzzle and they’re outside, on a snowcapped mountain with an impossible object and the goal. Snowflakes flitter about. The attention to layering in detailed atmospheric effects in the expansion really helps create depth, and life, in an environment that is otherwise flat-shaded, and static.

The totem accompanies for several other missions until something unspeakable happens. I wish I had a camera record my face the exact moment it happened, and my world was changed.

WHAT THE FUCK?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

The mechanics of the game have also improved with new ways to adjust the terrain, and properties of gravity, in the expansion.

The new-new box even includes clever ways in which reality is filtered through viewpoints through the box. It’s delightfully disorienting.

Fortunately, all is not lost, and we are reunited with able to reunite the totem. Honest to god, without this last level, I might have been one of those one-star reviewers, flipping their ish.

At $3.99 for the original game, and $1.99 for the expansion, it’s still a steal, and I very highly recommend it. The game is worthy of recognition for the visual merit, as well as the gameplay mechanics.

2014-11-18 00:55:12

Category: text


Tim Cook “I’m Proud to be Gay”

Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek today that he is gay. He did not technically come out of the closet, but he had never stated that he was or was not gay. We should not need to live in a world where people need to spell this out, but frankly, we do. It made me tear up. I sincerely hope you all take the time to read it, and think about his words.

The most important part of Tim’s piece is:

I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

That is the value that is carried forward. He is a role model. Mark my words, there’s a kid somewhere, terrified of acknowledging a truth about themselves. It might be personal attacks that caused this fear, terror about being rejected by family, or just the ambient dread homophobic remarks affords us. Seeing a positive role model in Tim Cook, and seeing the acceptance, and love, his public announcement garners, helps quell those fears.

It is not acceptable to maintain that gay people should be inferior in any way. That they should feel guilt, or remorse. His announcement doubles-down (love you, Tim) on his previous statements. It is a sacrifice of his privacy, and it does make him a target for abuse. Many might look at this as a small thing. That it was an open secret, so no big deal, but he is the focus of intense scrutiny already, just for things like storage sizes, and iPad models. A focus on his life outside work is an even bigger burden to take on. Tim Cook is a prominent, global figure, not simply an American one. Imagine the whole world watching you. That is the downside to the tremendous example he sets for others. This benefits others. This benefits future generations.

He also specifically cites same-sex marriage:

America is moving toward marriage equality, and the public figures who have bravely come out have helped change perceptions and made our culture more tolerant.

In 2008, the year Barack Obama won the election against John McCain, the California ballot measure Prop 8 passed. I don’t know how Tim felt at the time, but I certainly wasn’t happy. There was a futility to all of it. I sat through ads telling me to think of the children having to learn about gay people — I’m sure Tim saw them too. Would his eloquent entry have swayed the outcome then, even though he was COO? Would it have caused Apple more harm than good, and kept him from being in a position where he could go on to take this stand, as CEO? I don’t know. I don’t blame him. Everything’s moving forward. Anyone with an axe to grind with Tim over when he chose to make his public statement is simply not being productive.

Tim Cook’s Empathy

Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry.

That speaks to me as well. That is not to say that being gay is a requirement for empathy, but it does give you a different lens to view the world through. It’s not the same experience others have, especially not as a white male, but it does make me question “traditional” opinions on matters of race, gender, sexual identity, etc. as archaic, and harmful to people, and society. Look for, and accept, the experiences of others. A lack of empathy, and sympathy, is troubling in the present-day. The people that make excuses for racism, that claim gender bias doesn’t exist, the ones that bend over backwards to claim victimhood for hurting others … those should not be the loudest voices in the room. Even ignoring their loud voices, not feeding the trolls, does not truly help with the pain inflicted on the targets. Making a firm stand, as Tim Cook has done, really shines a light on the ways in which we are all unequal.

Recent events, like GamerGate, seek to punish women. Matters of representation, and game development are distorted in to arguments explaining how women should feel, and explaining how it’s all about merit. Fair pay acts get shot down constantly. A female CEO, or politician is far more likely to be picked apart for what they’re wearing, and how they look, than any white-male counterpart.

Racism in this country is strong, and constant. Make no mistake about it, it is not a coincidence that Tim Cook so often cites Martin Luther King Jr. Racism is denied in words, but not in fact. Non-white people are looked down on in spite of success. President Barack Obama has long been pilloried in ways that debase him as a human being. Martin Luther King Jr. is paid lip service by many conservative pundits that turn right around and justify reducing voting early voting, and creating hurdles to register, specifically to oppress, and remove any opportunity for role models. It’s about the “best” candidates, you see, and the “best man” for the job.

Transgender men, and women — men and women — are often abused, assaulted, and killed in this country. Even in supposedly enlightened states. Try to imagine what a circus this country would turn in to if someone that was formerly a man or a woman ran for president. What horrible, debasing things would be said. If Tim Cook had written about having spent the first 20 years of his life as a women, would all the same Apple pundits throw in support for him? There is still a divide between people that will accept sex reassignment surgery and those that accept gays, or lesbians.

Tim Cook expressing his views on our basic humanity, and need to be respected, should be embraced by all.

Importance of Role Models

I keep circling back around to how inspiring this was to read this morning. I can’t help it. I sure would have liked to just link to Tim’s writing last week when I explicitly stated on this blog that I am gay. I sure would have liked something like this years – decades ago. I am no role model, but I would have put his words front and center when thinking about how I fit in to the world around me, and my value.

As Casey Newton concluded today on The Verge:

And many still do, particularly younger people, and particularly younger people growing up in the more rural and religious parts of America. Someday, maybe someday soon, we’ll hear about how Cook’s essay today helped someone there through a difficult time. And then we’ll hear it again, and again, and again.

So “move on,” if Cook’s essay today makes you so uncomfortable. Return to talking about his fastidiousness, or his supply-chain management, or whatever. But there’s no moving on for me, not today. This I’m going to savor.

2014-10-30 18:19:17

Category: text


Animated Features are Totally Fine

I’m a visual effects artist. I took out a bunch of student loans (got an art degree in computer animation) and I moved to California to work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in 2005. I’ve seen the film visual effects industry in LA wither and die (it’s not quite dead yet). Countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, etc. all have politicians that get suckered in by some guys from the MPAA that lobby them on how much money their area could get back if they subsidize the film industry. It impacts productions in more ways than just VFX; even the film scores. It’s not just film, but also TV.

I am not going to render a judgement about whether or not this should be happening. I will render a judgement that it upends the lives of the people making film, and TV projects if they are required to move themselves, and their families, to wherever the tax credits are the strongest. It is, however, the reality.

California politicians are starting to face this reality, but they can’t justify matching the tax credits that exist elsewhere. The new credits are tepid, and won’t lure any of the film VFX that was lost back to California. It did, however, give the MPAA an excuse to host a meeting about how other states can counter anything from the CA credits. It’s hard to blame them for not racing to the bottom and participating in a bidding scheme that drains financial resources for a profitable private industry.

Knowing all of these things, I can’t recommend that any one with Hollywood Dreams choose to learn to do anything involved with moviemaking if they expect some kind of stable life. If they’re onboard with moving, not just to Vancouver, London, or New Zealand, but to literally any place that might draft more lucrative incentives, then that’s fine. Travel light.

Unfortunately, to add insult to industry, the very sites that are supposed to cover the field I am in are ignoring it. It makes more financial sense to cater to the desire to learn this craft — dare I say this art? — but it often feels like the sites can see only as far as their own belief in their own, for-profit training programs.

Amid Amidi, writing for Carton Brew, a site that posts the best about the animation industry, posted this lazy critique of visual effects yesterday:

While computer graphics and visual effects may have once been a California specialty, the largely technical nature of the accomplishment made its replication by foreign studios a foregone conclusion. That’s different from the feature animation industry, which is a more balanced marriage of technical and creative artistry. In the nearly 80-year-history of feature animation, no foreign studio has been able to consistently package globally-successful animated films with the winning formula used by American studios. If the state of California wanted to bolster any part of its film industry, it would have done better to double down on feature animation where it remains the clear and undisputed global leader.

What a load.

“Largely technical nature of the accomplishment” is so utterly disrespectful I have a hard time looking past it to the other erroneous statement that California should just throw money at animated productions. Need I remind Amid that almost everything is shared between live-action visual effects and animated productions? Need I remind him that people go back and forth between these roles for live-action and pure animation? To suggest that animation itself is somehow independent of visual effects houses is laughable. Foreign houses have also been able to do this work because they’ve hired people from California. All of those job postings are not strictly filled by residents of the country doing the work.

Also laughable is the suggestion that the animation industry in California is going to keep leading the world. Let’s break it down: There are three animation houses making feature-length work. Sony moved all production to Vancouver, and retain only story positions in CA. Disney Feature Animation, Pixar, and Dreamworks still make movies. Two of those are owned by Disney, and the third was is in such poor financial shape that it was shopped around and bought by Softbank. To put animation on a pillar independent of visual effects is, frankly, ludicrous. Disney is not a whole, healthy industry.

It is no small coincidence that Cartoon Brew hosts job boards for animators. Notice how many of their current listings aren’t even in the US, nor are they for any feature film company. How Amid came to his conclusions completely escapes me.

2014-10-28 2:17:17

Category: text


Oh, K

One of the things that stands out to me about the “iMac with Retina display” (the RiMac as I heard Casey Liss say on ATP) is that people are talking about how applications, and text look on it. How smooth the scrolling is. Do you hear the fan? The questions I have are about the images displayed on the screen.

4K video (part of the UHD specification) is the next phase in display evolution. Walk in to an electronics store and you will see several models advertising that they are 4K. That’s a lot of K! (Every kiss begins with Kay. (Shut up, no one will get that joke. (Sorry.))) HD resolution is either 720, or 1080, vertical lines of pixels. Most films are in 2K (basically 2048 wide, but there are a variety of sizes). 4K video, according to UHD, is 3840 pixels wide, by 2160 tall, which is 4 times the size of HD, instead of being 4,000+ pixels high, as the name might imply. There are 4K videos that are in the 4,000s, but if you see “4K Video” they mean it in the UHD way, not the 4,000+ way. The formating of this is seperate from the aspect ratio which is another thing I’ll move past here.

That sounds complicated, huh! Why can’t it just be one thing? Well, because reasons. Some historical reasons involve movies, and television shows. Remember that TV was a teeny-tiny 4:3 rectangle for almost all of its life? Film oscillated between the panoramic, and the intimate. Modern stuff is mostly just trying to fill 16:9 home television sets.

There are a few problems with 4K: There’s almost no content mastered in the format. There’s no medium, DVD or Blu-Ray, for transporting it, it’s only available with digital, streaming services. Only a handful of TV shows are shooting new things in UHD. Only a handful of films are shot, and fully mastered in anything other than 2K.

When Jason Snell (of Six Colors fame) took receipt of his new, Retina iMac this week, he solicited questions. I asked how it handled streaming 4K content from Netflix. Unfortunately, that was kind of a dumb question because Netflix only streams to select UHD television sets, directly. There is no option to stream to a computer at all, the Retina iMac can only get the normal HD stream that your Apple TV, or internet-enabled refrigerator, can receive.

Let’s do some math (Do we have to? (Yes!)): The RiMac has a resolution of 5120 pixels wide by 2880 pixels high. UHD 4k is 3840 pixels wide by 2160 high. That’s an area of 14,745,600 pixels vs. 8,294,400 pixels. That’s a 6,451,200 pixel difference. If Netflix let you watch one of the House of Cards episodes, or Smurfs 2, 4k streams, then your computer is still interpolating over 6 million pixels per each frame. That’s scaling something up by an extra 56%. That’s a lot!

It gets even more depressing when you consider HD streams. That’s 1280x720, or 921,600 pixels in area, or 1920x1080 for 2,073,600. Remember that there isn’t any way to get 4K video from Tinsel Town to RiMac in 4k, so you’re going to be blowing up something 7x if you want to watch it full screen.

People will point out that the human eye isn’t necessarily going to care, as long as you’re sitting a normal distance away from the display. Many people can’t tell the difference between a 720p and 1080p display from a few feet away. People will be sitting really close to their iMacs though. They’ll also be browsing for videos on the web. YouTube offers the ability to upload 2160p content (UHD 4K). That doesn’t mean a lot of it exists.

No phones shoot 4k (UPDATE: Anze Tomic points out that the wildly popular Xperia™ Z3 from Sony shoots in 4k), no consumer DSLR’s shoot it as video, no consumer tier cameras shoot it. You’re looking at moving up to a very high level to be able to shoot things like that right now.

Even in Apple’s keynote, they demonstrated it as a tool for a photographer to use. He editing photos with the unreleased Photos app and, he also edited video of his daughter (in 4k?) in Final Cut Pro X. Well, that’s a good, aspirational product. I always wanted to be a photographer from the future — It makes learning a lot easier.

Where 4K art Thou?

Naturally, as time marches on, more things will be shot, and mastered, in 4k. It is inevitable. It is its destiny.

However, there is a lot of legacy HD content that will be available for streaming for years. Even though many films are mastered in a higher resolution than HD, those masters are not available for purchase or streaming. Even if they were, those masters still aren’t the size of UHD, unless they’re from 4K cinema projection systems, in which case they’d be scaled down to UHD. Let us just say that you are a person paying for visual effects in a film, and let’s say you’re the kind of person that forces the work out of the country to get subsidies to pay for it, might you also be the kind of person that only pays for 2KDCI/2KFA work? Maybe? Just a hypothetical. Wouldn’t all those visual effects need to be scaled up to fit UHD? What if it was a modern superhero movie with 2,500-3,000 VFX shots? What might be more likely: Paying to scale up all the shots to UHD and then sending those interpolated pixels on to the customer.

While making UHD and “UHD” content available will start to pick up steam, we’ll continue our lovely battle over net neutrality. You see, a bajillion more pixels requires an itty-bitty-bit more internet bandwidth. Netflix recommends that you have a connection capable of 25 Mbps. Participants in Ookla’s internet speed testing service provide aggregate data about download speeds. While I am blessed with fast internet download speeds, not everyone is. Many regions have an average below the recommendation Neflix provides. That’s not super great because there’s no way to download, or buffer film content from Netflix.

Sony offers a 4K Ultra HD Media Player. It recommends 10 Mbps for HD streams, or UHD downloads. (Storage of personal, you-shot-it, 4K video is not available until winter of 2014. Guess that requires special licensing or bandwidth… cough.) 24-hour 4K rentals start at $7.99, and purchases start at THIRTY DOLLARS.

Apple, creators of the world’s first 5K, integrated computer, have no storefront, or service, capable of delivering a UHD movie. None. iTunes can’t do it, Netflix doesn’t support it, and Sony requires a box made of ridiculous middle-management ideas. It goes without saying that Apple should be showing off UHD content in iTunes, and a streaming deal penned with Netflix. Currently, you can download UHD pirated content, UHD YouTube videos of experimental art, or make your own 4K movies in Final Cut Pro X.

A veritable cornucopia of unsatisfying options!

iMovie 4K

Well since you can’t let me buy the ridiculous stuff, why not let me make it? I don’t mean with Final Cut Pro X, which is $299.99. Aren’t we doing Apple a favor by making 4K internet content so there’s more demand for RiMacs? Aren’t we? Aren’t we saints? Give us the tools to make YouTube videos, at the bare minimum. (Psst. Tim Cook, hey, don’t tell anyone, but this is a really good time to take back some ownership of the video streaming market from Google. Just a thought.)

Continuing that parenthetical: What’s the best way to own something? To make it. They ceded making things to the very internet services they battle and cajole with.

iWeb with Retina

LOL! iWeb!

I know, stop laughing. I mean serious business here. Another complaint that is common with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display (RiMBP?) is that the internet looks very blurry. Why shouldn’t it? Not a lot of the internet is being designed for desktop-class Retina devices. The reason? It’s kind of a pain. Images need to be properly sized for displays with high pixels-per-inch (ppi). However, delivering high ppi images to antediluvian devices is a waste of bandwidth. The page needs to be properly coded so that the correct elements are requested from the server, or the server needs to know the device and send the appropriate materials. It’s no fun. Go sit there and roll your own web page that will be perfect on mobile, high-ppi mobile, desktop, high-ppi desktop, etc. I’ll just sit over here with some chilled beaujolais. Go on.

Apple is uniquely positioned to at least offer a way for customers to take these ridiculous photos, and videos, and set up proper galleries for them. They are even more uniquely positioned if they create a product that utilizes iCloud to serve gallery sites. There’s really a whole lot that Apple could do in this space to encourage customers to make media that validates, and promotes, purchasing expensive computers. Apple is no stranger to doing this, they’ve just grown apart from Creativity over the years.

(Yes, I realize this seems to contradict my earlier posts about Apple making new, half-baked things. Obviously, my suggestion here is for these things to exist and to also not be half-baked.)

iBooks Retinator

There are no 4K eBooks. Sure, it’s easy to show razor-sharp text, but that was never Apple’s goal with iBooks Author. There was a huge focus on embedded video, and graphics. A really hamstrung HyperCard. If they make the tools for video, and the tools for delivering the appropriate graphics, then there’s no reason to believe they shouldn’t roll those in to the books they are trying to sell in ePub format.

Eye Conclude

My real issue here has been the lack of pixels in the media we consume, and make; to raise awareness that almost everything you will see on a RiMac will be scaled up. To also encourage customers to demand better from studios providing films they’ve scaled up to UHD as UHD so it just consumes additional bandwidth, instead of actually being UHD. Apple doesn’t seem concerned about this with their movements in the UHD space. Like many television manufacturers, they are more excited to tell you about hardware numbers than what you can do with those hardware numbers.

2014-10-23 01:11:14

Category: text


Let's Make it Worse!

I didn’t read the fine print on the Mavericks update and now I’ve got iTunes 12.

Oh joy.

I’ve hated iTunes for a long time. Lots of people hate iTunes. It’s a craptastrophe that serves as Apple’s Swiss Army knife (if Swiss Army knives were made out of cow excrement.) Apple made big promises about iTunes 11, but it was the kind of application that should only be opened to demo a new version of iTunes on a stage. You know, when you don’t have to actually use it. The kind of demo where you don’t show the sidebar and crunch, clip, and crop everything in the UI. Or show those modal dialogs. Or show those modal dialogs when different parts of the UI disagree about what you do and do not own from the iTunes Store.

Ah, the iTunes Store! The best part. Clearly. The part Apple pours their heart and soul in to because it is a crucial component to their media dominance! Well that could best be described as “rough” looking in the last iteration.

What the shit is this?

Scrolling down the page with the two-fingered scrolling gesture triggers the carousel to move sideways. SIDEWAYS. Scrolling up also makes it go SIDEWAYS. That’s not how scrolling should work! There is some sanity here when you scroll sideways that it does, indeed, scroll sideways. 2 out of 4 directions isn’t bad, right? 50 percent of the time, it works every time.

Underneath the main carousel is a section of “Albums and EPs” that has a two-button toggle to switch the content of the frame from “New Releases” to “Recent Releases”. The distinction being made between “New” and “Recent” is lost on me (New-ish? New minus one?) More troubling are the conflicting visual metaphors. There’s a borderless frame of sideways scrolling content without any indication it scrolls, other than the clipped off album art on one side of the frame. The frame is two rows high, and offers no vertical scrolling. When the toggle is triggered, everything in the frame is changed. Toggling back and forth does not remember your scrolling position inside of the frame, it resets every time. On the right, is a vertical list of hair-thin text containing common links. Nothing about the links stands out, and they aren’t even underlined to indicate they are links until you hover over them. There is nothing visually distinctive about it other than elements flow vertically. Good, I didn’t want to quickly use any of that at a glance anyway! I like a challenge! Bring it on you crazy lunatics!!!!

Instead of repeating another double-row, toggling, sideways scrolling frame, we get a 4 row, tiny-album art frame. And then rectangle album stuff that’s one row. On the right side, we get a whole section devoted to “RADIO QUICK LINKS” (I have no idea what is going on with the capitalization in the right side list.) The radio contains only two links. If I had the money, I would conduct a survey to find out if anyone even noticed there were “RADIO QUICK LINKS” on the page, and also to find out if anyone even bothered to click them.

What follows is a series of alternating frames of album art, toggling frames, multi-rows, single-rows, text under the albums, text on the side of the albums, quick links to buy only some things, more round rects, and then we get the teeniest-tiniest text in the whole world at the bottom of the store. PHEW!

Remember! This is a store! A store where you are supposed to shop for, and buy (digitally license) things! This too-whitespacey, too-thin, borderless, toggling mess shouldn’t be here. This is the glossy index of a monthly magazine. To attempt to arrange it as such does everyone a disservice.

Well at Least My Music is Safe

Hahahahahaha! No!

Let’s just have completely different ways to display my music in every single mode! Some have a sidebar, some don’t. Some have big icons, some have little icons. Some are in a list, some are in a grid.

The worst part is that when you pick anything, it selects a different album, artist, or track. It selects something for you, based on … some internal logic I have not divined.

Enjoy some Taylor Swift, or some Star Trek film scores, or some classic Star Trek, or WHATEVER, DON’T JUDGE ME!

Come on!

2014-10-21 22:42:02

Category: text


Four More Eyebrows

In a continuation of my incoherent ranting and raving about Doctor Who from earlier (do not read it, you’ll waste too much of your life) I’m reviewing the last four episodes that have aired.

The Caretaker

I loved this episode. I didn’t care about the Skrillex Blister, or whatever, it didn’t matter. How it worked, it’s rules, didn’t matter. What mattered was Danny Pink, Clara, and The Doctor. This is the kind of Doctor Who episode I want to see. It’s about these people, these kids, not about some elaborate villain.

Kill the Moon

What the hell. What the fucking hell. I give Doctor Who a pass on almost all science, but WHAT IS GOING ON. They don’t follow their own rules, and they know things that they have no reason to know. For instance, the Doctor basically guesses that the spider can sense movement. Why? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be scary if there was a monster that could sense movement here in this part of the script? SURE! That is what all subsequence decisions in this episode felt like. WTF.

I’m willing to look past a lot of silly things, but you can’t just remake the moon — twice — because it suits the story you want to tell. At that point, it doesn’t need to be our moon. Then I spend the whole time thinking about what a total crock it is.

The Doctor deserts everyone to leave the human race to their own decisions. I am opposed to this. I don’t think it’s inline with his behavior at all. Also, what if events hadn’t turned out how he had wanted? He would have blamed Clara? This was a mess. Instead of empowering Clara, it felt like it undermined her. Instead of “you’re smart” it felt like “well if you’re so smart.”

What the hell is going on? At the end of the episode I was totally lost. What a mess. What a fucking mess. I can look past things, but you expect me to look past that?! I was angry with The Doctor, but not for the reasons that Clara was.

Mummy on the Orient Express

I was totally confused for the first few minutes. I was thinking, intently, about Clara’s feelings at the end of ‘Kill the Moon’ so it didn’t make immediate sense. I caught on, real quick, that they had sorted out some stuff between these episodes. That was probably for the best, because I didn’t really need to know all the details, but it did throw me off when I watched.

Also, here’s the thing: I don’t care if Doctor Who battles a mummy on a future-space version of the Orient Express where every passenger is in period dress. However, I do care about episodes like ‘Kill the Moon’ where he goes to a place that we, as humans, know about. That we know it’s not a fucking egg. One is totally fine, and the other distracts me.

Crazy is fine! Sanity is hard.

Flatline

I really, really loved this episode. It might be my favorite of the series of episodes. I appreciate it for the role reversal, more than anything. Clara gets to be the Doctor (and by proxy, “we” get to be The Doctor).

The small TARDIS is silly, and fun, but that’s fine. It doesn’t throw off the seriousness of the rest of the episode. The mechanism works perfectly. It also allows Clara to shine in a really interesting way. Even my Doctor Who companion loved this episode, and he hasn’t liked anything since Rory and Amy left the show. Anything.

As a VFX guy, I do have to say that I wish they didn’t do those shots of the CG train. It’s almost like they already had the train model from the previous episode and felt like redressing it. It was too shiny, and overly lit. It really shouldn’t have been seen like that, and certainly not twice.

Oh, and then Missy. Ugh. I still hate these. They don’t work like the segments where Joss Whedon would build up a season’s villain, they read like “OOOOOOHHHHH, WATCH OUT! THIS IS GOING TO BE A THING!” Which is the exact opposite of how I like things to present themselves.

Looking Forward

The last two episodes of this season really piqued my interest. First the silly, conflicted relationship, and then Doctor Oswald? This is what I want. What I am in utter disbelief over is that ‘Kill the Moon’ and ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ were written directed by the same guy (UPDATE: Flatline and Mummy were written by the same guy though, Jamie Mathieson.) They’re totally different episodes, and my response to them couldn’t be any different. What’s going on? I like two of those way more than the other two. I want to see more of that kind of work. I really hope we do get it.

No more of this stupid moon stuff. Steal dimensions, more Doctor Oswald. And that’s just one small fraction of the main attraction. Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of time.

2014-10-20 00:52:38

Category: text


Yosemite Wait-and-See

I’m on Mavericks still. Why? Because I don’t have any deep, urgent need to upend everything in the world for something that’s shipped with a bunch of weird, crappy, buggy nonsense in it. I get that Yosemite is working fine for the vast majority of people, but what’s my rush? When Apple was doing releases like Leopard, I’d wait to install updates. Even for the point releases, I’d check on the Mac blogs to find out if WiFi did, or did not, work for that release. I’d rather read the reviews about Yosemite than install it. Particularly when I see that iCloud Drive deleted Nate Boateng’s entire photo library, and broke everything. Yosemite? More like YOLOsemite, amirite?!

The truly disturbing thing about what happened to Nate was that he didn’t trust Apple, and had a backup of everything. I don’t trust Apple, and I have a backup of everything. At what point is distrust a sign of a problem, and not just paranoia? Even Dan Moren, doing some Color Commentary™ on Thurday’s Apple Event seemed a little scared of the “Public Beta” moniker on iCloud Photo Library. I am not clamoring for the Photos app. (Yes, I reused the precious memories joke, deal with it.)

Apple’s seeing a decline in their iOS 7 to iOS 8 upgrade rate that surely has more to do with the size of the update, than for the reticence of the customers — but isn’t there a little reticence? What will the upgrade numbers look like for Yosemite over Mavericks? They’re both free, and everyone should have the required space for it.

I’m not talking about End Times, or we should all go back to Snow Leopard, we should all boycott until iCloud is perfect, or some other nonsense, but on balance, there is no compelling reason to upgrade to the first release of Yosemite. There was no compelling reason to test the beta. My Casey-ancient late-2011 MacBook Pro is too old for many headline features. That leaves the new visual stylings. Meh. I can wait. I’ll upgrade, but maybe in a month or two. It’ll be more an issue of social pressure (like using an iPhone 4) than an actual issue. Surely the problems people face are not universal, but that’s kind of the disturbing part. It’s a “maybe this will blow up in your face” lottery. (That is not my favorite kind of lottery.)

Things working > New things that might not work.

The really annoying part is that I don’t even like Mavericks. I was even pretty angry at one point. My observation then, and now, is that Apple needs to stop pushing forward to release, no matter the cost. If it doesn’t work, or it deletes the precious memories of a few people, then maybe take five? Do not ship it.

I’ll just read John Siracusa’s review a few times to hold me over.

2014-10-19 19:54:26

Category: text