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Launch Anxiety

Yesterday morning I listened to Myke Hurley and Casey Liss on their brand new show Bionic Bonanza The Casey and Myke Variety Power Hour Analog(ue). The show is ostensibly about the human side of tech podcasts, and therefore, it is kind of experimental. Myke had Casey on as a guest on a similarly themed episode of CMD+Space many months ago. Strangely, I have elements that I find I can now identify with more directly — it’s like their launch experiences are analogous to my own. Huh.

Casey discusses the fear, and uncertainty he had about the launch of Neutral, the show that propelled him from a relatively unknown, to a slightly more well-known unknown. Casey talked about fears that surrounded that launch. When he kept checking his phone while he was with his wife, Erin. He couldn’t believe it.

Myke, similarly analogously, relayed the story behind his announcement that he was leaving the 5by5 Podcast Network. He was filled with abject terror. What would people think of the move he was making? Would people be upset with him? Would people be happy for him? Each second, each minute that passed built more tension for him because he received no immediate feedback.

This is Where I Make it All About Me

Dan and I had recorded a bunch of Skype calls podcasts that we never released. Some of them, Dan and I just outright trashed. We had no real concept originally, a different configuration of hosts until timing became uncertain, and we had tried to start the show in different ways. At the conclusion of a short freelance project, I was feeling tapped out, creatively unfulfilled, and I wanted to actually do it for real this time. We had something that was mostly useable. We managed to speak to one another in a fashion that we could stomach listening back to. Dan still edited out some stray conversation threads, and trimmed some of the start and end. The result sounds pretty natural, and I do understand the desire to just put up raw audio, that it is more pure, and truthful, but a little primping never hurt anyone.

The problem was that while Dan was editing, I was terrified about two things. Firstly, I was scared that he was putting in effort in to editing something that we wouldn’t like when we listened back, a total waste. Secondly, I was petrified about what to do if it was good. I never had a scenario in which it was mind-blowing, but I thought good-enough was a possibility.

When Dan sent me the file, I knew it was good enough. Not like in a settling for it kind of way, but in a “I would put my name on this” kind of way. I can’t call it pride exactly, but I had a firm enough opinion that Dan and I were worth listening to this one time. If we didn’t release it, then we’d never know if we were worth listening to a second time.

Dan and I fussed over a few tiny things, then Dan made the website with Squarespace. We had no idea what to call it though. We never got far enough to give what we were doing a name because we never had confidence. We bounced ideas around for a few hours. Obviously, we had a VFX nerd bent to it, but we also talked about movies and Dan’s opinions on iOS note-taking apps (LOL). In the end, the VFX-ness won out and we called it “Defocused”.

Dan and I bounced ideas off one another for the album art, the logo. Dan wanted to use a colorful test pattern, and I wanted to use a 3D rendering of 3D text with a very tight depth-of-field effect from the “O”. Dan put the two together and hazed out the background, and that was the show art. Simple, and pretty literal.

It was all set. There were no more excuses.

Where’s the Trigger? Where is it?

Dan and I were faced with the interesting problem of not knowing when to launch it. Time mattered. Ideally, we’d try to stick to whatever day and time we started off with. It has been said that consistency is hugely important for blogs, podcasts, web comics, etc. People want to know when their episode will be there.

However, I was also terrified of launching in broad daylight. I was worried we’d either get totally crushed in the Eastern Time Zone Daily Tweet Deluge, or we’d be totally unnoticed. Naturally, we launched in the middle of the night. I had been releasing a few, blog posts around that time, and it felt kind of safe. Dan and I thought the late hour would give us a chance to get some slow feedback, and to tweet about it some more during the day if things seemed positive.

I couldn’t sleep. I was in bed, my iPhone in my hand, refreshing and refreshing Twitter, and my earbuds in, listening to the episode for the second or third time to make sure there wasn’t a reason to pull it. I’d go to Tweetbot, then back to Twitter, and then I’d go find the show’s account and see if it had mentions. Now that I had launched it, I found that I was in the same situation as Myke and Casey — That moment of paralysis that seems to last forever when you don’t know if you did something you will regret.

I was mulling over this terror when Myke tweeted that he listened to it and retweeted the show to the gajillion people that follow him.


Here I was, lying in bed, eyes wide, heart racing. Was Myke just being nice? He really liked it? What if he did like it, but only because he talks to us on Twitter? What if all those people that would see his retweet would go in to our episode expecting a Myke Hurley podcast? Neither Dan, nor I, are Myke-esque in any way.

Most importantly, what did this mean for the second episode? God, now we were really in the shit; we had to make more than one for sure.

Dan and I pelted each other with “OMG” messages of disbelief until I started to notice tweets trailing off. I fell asleep at some point then. I woke up a few hours later, and checked twitter in a panic. Then again. I basically have not had a solid night’s worth of sleep on any of the night’s we have launched an episode. This terror and uncertainty keeps waking me up. What if my server I host the file on goes down? No one can fix it but me. What if I lose people because of that?

This is a lot of stress for something that provides no commercial value to Dan, nor myself. We continue to do this because it is fun. The adrenaline hit of panic is fun in a demented way. After it all dies down, and you see those few tweets that someone liked a thing you did, you’re on a high. It’s like skydiving, or bungie jumping (I refuse to do either of those, they seem dangerous). Every time some hugely important podcast person says something to me, I am arrested with uncertainty, and gratitude.

Launch Feedback

There are different forms of feedback you can get over Twitter. Someone will favorite a thing, they will retweet a thing, they will reply back to you, and they can also follow you. I don’t formulate tweets specifically with any of those outcomes in mind. If I merely get a chuckle that I never know about, that’s fine. However, I live in abject terror of being followed by someone I respect. Someone that has my genuine respect will see everything I say. I see the follow notification, I get excited that they like me, and then I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach that they will utterly regret their decision to follow me once they see my nonsense. That the quantum waveform will collapse, and the cat in the box will be dead. I guess I’m just a positive-thinkin’ kind of guy.

Podcasts don’t even give you that level of interaction. Sure, people will interact with the show account Dan runs, or they will message Dan and me directly, but that’s not really a guaranteed outcome. When I look at feeds, or file access rates, or any of that, I see that most listeners are made of dark matter. I can observe their effects, but I have no idea who they are, or what they like about the show. Where are you, silent listeners?

This is very similar to the gap Myke describes where there’s no feedback, the feeling that maybe no one cares, only in a certain way, I can see that they care enough to have subscribed and have not unsubscribed yet. It is strange to think of the enormous chasm between observation and interaction. Surely, I admit that I am vain enough to care what people I’ve never met think, and I’m sure I care enough about what a random, important listener might think.

An interesting dynamic came a few weeks ago with the launch of Overcast. The recommendation system linked to Twitter was a new and innovative approach to looking for podcasts to listen to. It’s also a great way to spy on the people you follow to see if anyone of them are recommending your show. (Sorry guys, I’m spying out of love.) That recommendation isn’t sent to the podcaster, it isn’t available on a leaderboard, it isn’t a graph widget, it isn’t an analytics package for purchase, it is just a small way to see if someone you follow likes you enough to think other people should check you out.

Frodo & Gollum

Hopefully, Dan and I will continue to improve at this, and it will start to feel very natural. Maybe I’ll get some more sleep when these go up Wednesdays. I’d like to keep receiving slow, steady, positive feedback. There’s no anxiety if everything’s easy-peasy.

There’s another part of me that wants to keep experiencing this adrenaline hit. To see a rapid expansion of listeners. To do new, unexpected things with the show. To have some cray-cray success that overfills my inbox with compliments.

That’s not a healthy, sustainable impulse, and maybe it’s a sin to secretly want that? Damn it, why couldn’t Casey and Myke have talked about that part?! Way to leave me high and dry here, fellas! I guess I’ll just have to tune in next week.

2014-08-19 00:19:39

Category: text

Chrisjen Avasarala is my Spirit Animal

It is hard to believe, but there have been 4 books in the ‘Expanse’ series written by James S.A. Corey. James is actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. They take turns writing and editing alternating chapters in these books. The first novel, ‘Leviathan’s Wake’ was nominated for awards, and made a fairly big splash when it came out. Many people that read the first book might be unaware of the sequels, or have not kept up with that’s happened in the latest books.

The “world” of the books is referred to as ‘The Expanse’, the human race has expanded out from Earth and colonized Mars with domes, filled large asteroids, and moons, with underground cities, and started mining distant asteroids and comets for resources. Humans have been born in space, elongated from the lack of gravity. Language is a colorful patois from the people that moved out to ‘The Belt’ and beyond. Conflict arises between Earth, Mars, and these distant settlers.

In many ways, it shares some similarities with Firefly (Ugh, I know, right?) with Earth being ‘The Central Planets’ and everything else sort of being like the outer worlds of ‘The Verse’. The similarities are superficial because there are far more forces at work in the solar system than there were in Firefly. Three-way political machinations, noir detective stories, Lovecraftian horrors, corrupt corporate research, etc.

There are flavors to science fiction, where you can have sci-fi horror, sci-fi fantasy, etc. In one half of the “author’s” point of view:

Daniel Abraham: As far as mapping the books to particular genres, Leviathan Wakes is our noir, Caliban’s War is our political thriller, Abaddon’s Gate is our haunted house story, and Cibola Burn is our western.

The Expanse will be a TV series too (don’t Firefly it.) It will be interesting to see how it gets adapted. The novels feel more like films in a series, than they feel like a television series. While I said that I didn’t think Ancillary Justice could be adapted for the screen, I can see how every single thing in these books can be adapted for the screen. Even descriptions of skips in time are discussed, as well as the way the chapters seem to cut between different points of view. I assume they will need to pad out some things and that each season will constitute approximately one book, since there are 10 episodes. I don’t think they’ll run in to the same lag George R.R. Martin has with the Game of Thrones series, because “James S.A. Corey” has been putting out one expanse novel a year, as well as some novellas.

Miller has been cast as Thomas Jane. Which, seems different from what I had pictured in my head, but not punishingly so.

Leviathan Wakes

The first book in the series starts with an abduction that goes awry. A woman is taken, and stuffed in to a locker on a ship. No one comes back to get her and she panics, escaping, only she comes face to face with something.

We spend the rest of the time wandering between the stories of a ice mining crew, with Jim Holden front and center, and the story of an eccentric noir detective trying to find the woman from the prologue, Detective Miller. The stories weave together, as one might expect, when we get to a big climax.

Throughout the novel, you get the flavor of the world, the politics, the personalities of it. There are some tropes in here, to be sure. The detective has more in common with characters of silver screen than with actual detectives. Amos, an gruff, violent, brute of a man, fills the gruff-violent-brute-of-a-man role. Holden, is your Han Solo, Mal Reynolds, dumb-rouge-with-a-heart-of-gold. Naomi is the smart one that plays hard to get. Alex Kamal is, basically, a cowboy pilot. That is not in any way a slight to these characters, they’re just fun, and they do fun stuff.

Also, there’s Fred, who’s your basic NPC mission dispatcher. He works for the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), but he’s basically there to give Holden things to do.


The main source of conflict in this book stems from the protomolecule — a term that I have never, ever been a fan of — A thing, like a virus, that traveled to the solar system on an asteroid that was captured by gravity. It’s payload held in stasis until humans do what it does best, and try to kill other humans with it.

The real lesson here, the one that the bad guys don’t learn, is that maybe you should not try to do that. It all goes wildly out of control as protomolecule spreads, and it becomes clear that it is programmed with its own agenda, one that threatens all of humanity — as these sorts of things are want to do.

Miller, who starts out as pretty annoying and whiny, really leaps to the forefront when action happens. From the instant we meet Holden, we expect him to save the day, but it’s really Miller (literally Miller) that saves the day. The dull stuff, at the start on Ceres, becomes more interesting as we see Miller break out of it in later episodes.

The ship, the Rocinante (Roci for short) is a Martian naval ship that Holden claims as salvage, and named after Don Quixote’s horse. The name should be a huge clue that it’s an indulgence of the author(s) more than an indulgence of the characters. Like in Star Trek, how every time someone says a line from a Shakespearean play, the other person in the scene says the act, scene, and line number. People are always very well versed about these sorts of things in the future. The Roci is our Millennium Falcon. Holden uses the Roci to pursue what he sees as “the right thing to do” — to solve the mystery, to keep war from happening, to find out who is controlling things behind the scenes.

It’s the assumption of this role, where he’s the guy that’s going to save the solar system, that sees him get hit with criticism by other powerful characters in the novel. His idea of fixing things involves sending out broadcasts to the entire solar system every time he finds a clue to something, with little regard to what effect his broadcasts will have. He’s a moron, but he’s going to save people.

When Miller convinces the seed of the protomolecule’s efforts to divert from Earth, to hit Venus, sacrificing all of them, he solves his case, and saves everyone. What’s on Venus is very much alive though.

Caliban’s War

The novel starts with marines patrolling outside domes on Ganymede. You know, normal stuff. Then nearly everyone is slaughtered by a gooey monster with our new POV character escaping, Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine.

A political thriller sounds incredibly dull. It’s not even presidents, monarchs, and dictators, it’s under secretaries. Oh boy? Yay?

Surprise! Chrisjen Avarsarala is the fucking best fucking character in the whole damn, mother-fucking series! She is a surly, cynical, foul-mouthed, teeny-tiny grandmother. Above all else, she knows how to play the game. Where those of us (sane people) find the prospect of intra-government and inter-government wheeling and dealing to be extremely tedious and corrupt, she takes great joy in wielding it to crush others. She even uses the inefficiency of government as a weapon to force others to bend to her. Naturally, this makes her unpopular with a great many people. She acquires a personal bodyguard, naturally, a Martian marine. The unlikely duo proceed to have a bit of fun with each taking turns being the ‘fish out of water’.

A third, new POV is Praxidike Meng. A father that has lost his little girl to a disease.

The bad guys here are related to the bad guys in the first novel, having not really learned anything from the events of the prior novel.


Just kidding about that ‘lost his little girl to a disease’ part, she was totes abducted by unscrupulous, evil scientists — my favorite kind.

Turns out, that the Protogen corporation’s buddies at Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile. The very same Jules-Pierre Mao that was the father of dead Julie Mao. Turns out, that JP is a bit of dick and he has a sample of the protomolecule that he’s still trying to weaponize. You know, because that worked really well before. This time he’s working with a doctor that likes to use children without immune systems as hosts for the protomolecule, and then the doctor puts an explosive on the infected youth in case they lose control of it. Great plan, guys.

It is immediately evident to the audience who the bad guys are, and it even becomes evident to the characters who the bad guys are, but — like politics — they have to move against this opponent carefully because JP has spent time ingratiating himself (paying them money) to more powerful politicians. Ones that have been promised the chance to bid on the weapon. It’s a really tangled web.

In the final battle, with the protomolecule-hybrid source located on Io, the bad guys fire the soldiers. A UN ship, the Agatha King, is hit by a hybrid, but the bomb failsafe fails to save the situation and the crew of the Agatha King become vomit zombies. Holden relives much of the tension from the Eros events in this cramped environment with infected marines. A minor character stays behind to detonate the King’s self destruct, which is pretty predictable. The author(s) might as well have let him live.

The part that makes me squeal with glee is watching Avasarala deal the deadliest blow in the whole book.

“This is not a negotiation,” Avasarala continued. “This is me gloating. I’m going to drop you into a hole so deep even your wife will forget you ever existed. I’m going to use Errinwright’s old position to dismantle everything you ever built, piece by piece, and scatter it to the winds. I’ll make sure you get to watch it happening. The one thing your hole will have is twenty-four-hour news. And since you and I will never meet again, I want to make sure my name is on your mind every time I destroy something else you left behind. I am going to erase you.”

Mao stared back defiantly, but Holden could see it was just a shell. Avasarala had known exactly where to hit him. Because men like him lived for their legacy. They saw themselves as the architects of the future. What Avasarala was promising was worse than death.

Mao shot a quick look at Holden, and it seemed to say, I’ll take those three shots to the head now, please.

Holden smiled at him.

Excerpt From: James S. A. Corey. “Caliban’s War.” iBooks

The title is a Shakespeare reference, The Tempest character Caliban, rebels against being controlled. It’s kind of a fault of these books that the titles are “Hey, look at me! I’m an author!” but I guess it’s better than a line someone says in the book. At least no one says, Caliban’s War in a trite way, like a Bond movie.

As for Venus, it percolates away through the corse of the novel and then spits a blob of matter out to the edge of the solar system. The blob forms a ring — a gate. We are visited by an apparition of Miller, the end.

Abaddon’s Gate

This book has the most POV character chapters of any of the books, and I blanked on all of their names when I was writing this. I’ll be honest — I really didn’t care for this book. I found it to be very dull, with things happening in ways that seemed illogical, and distracted me from really enjoying the novel as I had the first two.

We start with a kid from the belt. He’s racing in a little pod to go through The Ring, The Gate, formed by Venus’ phlegm in the last book. He thinks it’ll just really impress his bros. Unfortunately for him it was a dumb plan, and when his craft passes through the ring and slams to a slow crawl, splattering him inside the ship. The ship is no longer in the solar system, though it is visible through The Gate. It’s in a space without stars.

Carlos c de Baca (Bull) works for the OPA, and he’s in charge of the security forces on the OPA expedition to The Gate. He’s pretty bland. He means business. So much business.

Clarissa Mao, and her forged identity of Melba, are out to get revenge on Holden for putting her father in jail in the previous novel. She’s taken her money and put it in to extensive body modifications that are more like something from Neuromancer than anything we’ve seen in ‘The Expanse’ series so far. Her revenge plan is totally weird and convoluted.

Anna, a peace-loving Methodist joins the UN expedition to The Gate as a representative of the Methodist World Council. Other religious bodies have also sent envoys. There is a lot of theological discussion in scenes with her, about what the protomolecule means about god, what The Ring means about god. It’s pretty dull, and well-trodden in other science fiction books.


Holden keeps seeing that Miller hallucination and it keeps telling him to go to The Ring. You know, for reasons.

Long story short, all these competing factions vying for power want to go through the gate so they can stick a flag on whatever they find and say that they own it. You know, human stuff. This results in greedy people, and fearful people, doing incredibly stupid things that make everything worse for all of the people there.

They determine the speed that things can move before some force knocks it back down to barely a crawl. This is important, because no one wants to turn in to soup when they suddenly decelerate. Then a bunch of dumb, greedy morons vying for power violate that speed and make everything grind to a halt, braking ships, and stranding them all.

Holden has to go to the station — the thing the Miller hallucination wants — and try to turn off the field keeping all their ships knocked out.

What could go wrong? Oh yeah, some idiots are dispatched after Holden to keep him from the station because they need to enforce their claim on it. You know, human concerns.

Holden and the Miller hallucination make their way through chambers of the station and discover some sort of viewing system that Holden can use to see what happened. Unfortunately, what he sees makes no sense. The civilization that made the protomolecule, rings, and station, vanished because of an encroaching enemy that was able to spread through them, and disable their systems. They blew up solar systems to try and keep it from spreading, and then eventually killed the gate network as a quarantine procedure. No details are given, no explanation of the builder’s motivations. Nothing makes any sense with them. They just built all this stuff for their empire that did… things? We never know. I would not complain about this things being kept from the audience except for the fact that they’re literally using the computers those guys had. Computers that have the ability to make a human mind feel like it is on another world stored inside of the memory banks. It’s not like there’s a lack of detail in that stored information, guys.

Holden turns it all off, and opens all the gates that were closed for the quarantine — you know, because that seems like a real good idea.

This is why I find this third novel so frustrating. Nothing really makes much sense. You can’t go in to detail here, and leave other things as vague sketches. The characters that are added are also unappealing. Did I mention that Clarissa is an idiot? I miss the characters from Caliban’s War. Where’s my swearing-grandmother chapters?

Cibola Burn

We start with Bobbie Draper on Mars. She’s just chilling with her family and they’re chit chatting about the first colony humanity’s put out through the rings, and what it will mean for them when — BOOM! Huge explosion at that colony.

Turns out the colony was started by former OPA citizens from Ganymede — you remember that lovely place, right? The one that the evil bad guys turned inside-out in Caliban’s War? Well refugees skipped on through and landed on this planet before anyone had set up traffic control around the ring station. This is politically complicated, because Earth feels like it has the mandate to dole out who gets to colonize what. They give that charter to Royal Charter Energy. RCE thinks they own the whole planet, and that the Ganymede people are squatters.

Since the gates opened in the previous novel, all we’re left wondering is how long it’s going to take for Holden to go through them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to go all that badly. He’s been dodging Miller’s requests to go, and just doing simple runs. Fred and Avasarala commission Holden, and the crew of the Roci to go mediate an escalating situation on the first colony world through one of the alien gates. This is something Holden is hilariously ill-suited to do. Fred and Avasarala both seem to know he’s going to fail.


This novel is much better than Abaddon’s Gate. The fact that almost no characters from the previous novel are here, and the rest are from the first two books, should give you an indication of how weak and unloved A.G. characters are. Avarasala’s colorful cameos made me laugh out loud while I read them.

“If Fred is showing this to you, Holden, know that your home planet appreciates your service. Also try not to put your dick in this. It’s fucked enough already.”

Excerpt From: James S. A. Corey. Cibola Burn. iBooks

Havelock was always a jerk, but this novel lets him redeem himself. He’s not evil, he was never evil, he just didn’t think things through until 3/4 of this novel were over.

Elvi is a frustrating character though. She’s a mouse of a scientist. She has a crush on Holden, and she stammers when she talks to him, and she says things in such a way that characters are always telling her to say it “in English” — you know, because she’s a scientist. She was fine, I just won’t miss her if she doesn’t turn up again. I think she was supposed to be the character we identified with, our way in to this alien planet, but really that was Holden.

Basia chapters were ones I dreaded reading. He thinks in very small, selfish ways, and that doesn’t make for good reading. Even when he starts to realize he was wrong, he’s still fixated on things he can’t change, and reading someone selfishly beat themselves up is pretty unappealing. His redemption does make sense, even though, I think they still should have carted him off for a trial and some jail time.

We never have a chapter from Murty’s POV, but he is very present throughout the book and we really get a sense of how crazypants he is. His actions have a brutal nihilistic logic to them. He’d rather they all suffered and died so he could say he did his duty, than have them all live, and lose RCE’s claim.

The thing that struck me the most when I read this novel were the themes of violent, and disproportional shows of force making matters worse. This was in the previous novel too, but here, it’s a much clearer divide between the RCE security forces, and the down-on-their-luck squatters. RCE forces using military grade gear to suppress crowds, and enforce a curfew. To bug a town, and shoot down anyone that might threaten their control. This is clear abuse of power in a way that isn’t corrupt corporate science. For several characters, it is more important to be the winner, than it is to be alive. For Murty, it certainly is about enforcing rights at all costs, and making the claim stick. Assaulting, and murdering, unarmed civilians, as well as arming a militia to make sure another ship can’t escape with lithium ore. He’d rather they all died, with himself on the top of the pile, than see anyone benefit at his expense.

The tension is present with Amos and Holden. Amos wants to kill the killer, and Holden and wants to keep things from escalating. Holden’s plan is not a good one because Murty repeatedly threatens every one. Amos’ would lead to a total clusterfuck, but Murty wouldn’t have been there to feed anyone ideas on how to increase the suffering.

After all, people want to believe in their institutions of security. They want to believe that police, or rent-a-cops, or the military will keep everyone alive. That they won’t violate rights. Arguably, if the RCE Governor had not died in the crash, Murty would not have been able to assume total authority, to declare martial law.

We have a long history of abuse of police power in the United States, and in many other countries. Sadly, while I was reading this book, real-world events were escalating in horrific ways in the US once more.

The one thing that unified all the characters in the book, for a brief time, was a planet-wide disaster. A malfunctioning, alien reactor detonated and sent a shockwave around the planet. Alien defense systems disabled fusion reactors for the ships, and everyone had to survive. Even Murty cooperated and they all survived, along with the blinding microorganisms in the rain, and the toxic slime. They were all exactly the same, their guns, armor, and ship made no difference at all.

Naomi is able to get Havelock to see how his plan to just follow orders is going to get them all killed, or at least caused a lot of unnecessary death. From the POV chapters up to this point, we saw glimpses of the doubt Havelock had, as well as his sense of duty, of wrapping himself in the safe mannerisms and opinions of his superiors. The thing that sent Havelock over the edge to Naomi’s side was the prospect of arming the amateur militia he had been training. Nothing about it felt hollow or out of place, and I think it was really well executed. It was not selfish, it was selfless. He wasn’t protecting Naomi to save himself, he was doing it to protect his own men, and everyone else, too.

One really big nitpick I have is the obviousness of the blinding plague. The mechanism of it was novel, but the second they said the name of the only person not affected by the disease, Holden, I knew it was the anti-cancer meds he takes. The doctor even takes a full medical history of Holden, and surely must have known that it was the ONLY thing none of the other people were taking. It made me hard to believe any of the doctors or scientists were remotely capable people when it was so obvious.

Speaking of obvious, as soon as Naomi said she would sneak over to the weaponized shuttle and put in a kill-switch I knew things would go South. Any time a character spells out a whole plan in these books it always goes awry in some way. The only successful plans are the ones that happen outside the POV of the current narrator. Thus, Naomi’s whole plan about the switch was going to fall apart, and she’d be out in space. They should have holed the dumb shuttle on the spot and just sent their evidence back to Earth.

The other strange thing is that everyone is worried about touching the protomolecule in the first two books, and then people are rubbing all over stuff in this book. It seemed pretty out of place that no one even voiced a concern about it.

The really-really big thing that bugged me was Miller. Not the way that Miller talks, I’m a huge fan of the color he provides to scenes. What bugs me is that he has weird limits on his power and knowledge that fluctuate as needed by the story. It is also bothersome that when things are going wrong on the alien planet that Holden doesn’t use whatever limited knowledge Miller might have. For instance, when Miller gets Holden to go to the material transport network, he finds a whole cavern, nice and safe, underground. He scolds Miller that they could have used that, and Miller, rightfully, points out that Holden never asked him. They really should not have been dodging helping each out. If Holden’s people were safe, it would have gotten Miller what he wanted, sooner.

What did Miller want? I’m still confused. I thought he wanted to better understand the thing that killed all the alien technology, but he just seems to want to use it to commit suicide and take down all the alien technology on the planet — possibly elsewhere. Since Miller was part of the Earth’s Ring, carried on a lump in the cargo bay of the Roci, did the Earth’s Ring die? Did it’s higher-level functions just die and it still functions? Because everything on the alien world seems to have died. Does killing all the alien tech benefit them at this point? It was malfunctioning, but it was supposedly malfunctioning because of this artifact. Hey, wait, isn’t the artifact still there? Why is no one panicking about that?! There’s a lovecraftian hole in space that tore apart Elvi and reassembled her, killed all the alien tech, and no one’s worried that it’s still there? Who would just be like, “All right guys, let’s take Murty to justice and let these settlers keep on assembling a shanty town on DEATH WORLD.” If you wanted that ending, then at least don’t let the audience know there’s a ball of nothingness lingering around, unsolved. I know there are nine books, but at least make the ball of nothingness go away until another book can figure it out! That’s the part that feels like Abaddon’s Gate. Don’t leave nonsensical loose ends just dangling there like that.

Indeed, we close with an Avarasala epilogue where she explains that Holden was set up to fail, to slow things down. To make it so things would take longer, because it’s going to drain out the people wanting to settle on Mars, Martian military tools and ships will fall off ledgers as it shrinks away and all the colonists settle their own Death World. You get a Death World and you get a Death World! Everyone look under your seats, you’ve all got Death Worlds!

The only part of the conclusion I found satisfying was Avarasala trying to enroll Bobbie Draper. I can only hope that the next book is another swear-filled adventure of intrigue.

2014-08-18 15:53:56

Category: text

Visual Effects Glossary for People That Don't Care


I’ve put out ePub (Safari users, right-click to download, otherwise it tries to load the ePub in Safari), edited version of this post. Things are tidied up and organized to be a little easier.

The always interesting Dr. Drang posted this rather entertaining bestiary of construction equipment to help the masses. It spurred me on to, jokingly, create a glossary of visual effects terms that almost no normal human being would ever need to know.


In 3D programs, the origin is (0,0,0) in world space. The position of almost everything is in some way related to this origin (or to the camera, but more on that later.) Even in a 2D compositing package, operations need to understand where two images may overlap, and the compositing package will use (0,0) to figure that out. Where different packages choose to put 0, and which axis is which, varies between software vendors.


In 3D software packages, this is your window to manipulating objects in the world in 3D space. It’s not accurate for lighting, shading, or texturing under default conditions, because it is designed to be fast and interactive.


The act of producing a raster image from either a 2D or 3D set of assets.

Batch Render

Rendering every frame of a batch of frames, one after the other, on a single machine.

Render Farm

A bunch of a computers that are networked together and accept ‘jobs’ commands to render a frame, or set of frames, and return the result to disk. This is so no one has to batch render frames that take minutes, or often hours, to produce.

Frame Padding

Renders of each frame receive a unique file name when written to disk, with the frame number included in the name of the file. To make sure these files look pretty, the number is padded. for example:




World Space

This is pretty obvious, this is everything as it relates to your scene’s origin. That is your ‘world’ in the file.

Camera Space (Screen Space)

Everything relative to the camera in the scene. The camera is an infinitely small point, but it has an orientation, a field of view, and a position in space relative to the world origin. Things in camera space move in directions relative to the camera, not to the scene origin directly.


Expanding the view of the camera to include areas outside of the field of view. This data can be useful for seeing things just off screen in the viewer, or later on, when rendering it can provide additional pixels for use in certain compositing operations that might shrink the frame slightly.

Clipping Plane

Every computer model of a camera has a near, and a far, clipping plane. The plane is measured from the camera. This can be used as an optimization, to ignore everything off in the distance that is not required, or to ignore particles that are 0.001 units from the camera and would produce crappy results.


Just like in your geometry class, a vertex is a point. Infinitely small, but given a specific location in world, or camera space. With a collection of points, connections can be made. With 2 points, you have an edge. With 3 points you have 3 edges, and 1 face, making a triangle. With 4 points, you have 4 edges, and 1 face, making a square. Any higher number of faces is termed an n-gon. Verticies can store information other than their position.


Two, joined vertices produce an edge. This would be a ‘line’ in your geometry class.


Three, or more, edges are required to make a face. This is drawing a triangle, or a square, on a piece of paper, and then filling it in. This is useful for making surfaces to look at, or for calculating simulated collisions, and many other things.


Different software packages will include different primitives, but they typically consist of spheres, cones, cubes, etc. Some software vendors will include more complicated geometric constructs under their ‘primitives’ menu — fun things like teapots, and ponies.


The verb for making geometry. A particular artist might specialize in modeling. They are not voguing at work, they just make things in computers that may or may not be animated to vogue.


Non Uniform Reticulating Bezier Splines. They are fancy, vector based splines that allow for curvy edges, instead of a direct-line linking two points like a polygon mesh. The wikipedia page for them is pretty dang neat.

NURBS Control Point (Control Vertex)

This is a point in space that dictates the vector stuff for your curve.


Two control points, with tangents and stuff. Think of curves in 2D vector graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator. A curve can also be shaded to have width in world space, or relative to camera, which is how most CG hair is made.

NURBS Surface

One big square. Every complicated object is made with this one sheet of imaginary voodoo. Each sheet can be subdivided in to really tiny pieces through a process called tessellation. A NURBS Sphere is just the sheet wrapped in space with inifitely small top and bottom points. You wind up with a seam down one side of the sphere. A NURBS Cube is 6 NURBS Surfaces with all their edges meeting. More complicated shapes can be made by using booleans to cut holes in the surface (but the surface is still ‘there’ in a sense, just stenciled out of existence, so it’s a little weird). Another technique is to stitch patches of NURBS planes together to make a character, but if the seams weren’t perfect, they’d pop, just like an improperly sewn garment.

NURBS were very popular in the 90s because they allowed for very smooth surfaces to be made without having a very dense polygon count. It fell out of fashion and mostly subdivision surfaces are used.

Subdivision Surface (Sub-D)

This is like a polygon surface, but the surface can be divided in to smaller and smaller faces, and then reverted back to a base mesh. This makes it easy to work with a lightweight version of your character in your scene, and then only subdividing it for renders where the extra detail is required.


The joined, polygonal, or subdivision surface.


Depending on the specifics of a software packaged, a piece of geometry can be loaded, once, and instanced to many locations in the world. Trees, buildings, leaves, crowd animation, anything. There are usually systems to manage these instances in ways that can randomize them, or pick from a library of different sources based on certain conditions. Instancing is really good for memory optimization, since you can potentially load only a few things, but render thousands of versions of them.

Edge Loops

An edge loop is basically following an edge all the way around a polygonal mesh until it loops back on itself. draw a line around your knuckle, perpendicular to your finger, and you will have an edge loop around your knuckle. These kinds of surface features are important when you move on to deforming geometry because it can create areas that compress and expand without tearing, or crinkling.

Surface Normals (Normals)

The wikipedia explanation is kind of a pain to read. A normal is basically a vector calculated from a surface. The vector of an edge, or a face, can be changed to simulate the look of a crease, or a completely smooth, round surface. Video games rely heavily on manipulating surface normals to make low-poly surfaces look smooth, or more detailed, but often betray the illusion along the silhouette of the object, or character. Under optimal circumstances, this can be used with texture maps to bend the light on the surface inside of each face. This can give the illusion of detail that would require an enormous amount of geometry. The way that a surface normal is calculated usually means that it’s best to use polygons with only three, or four, sides.

Bind Pose

This is the default position, and properties, of your geometry before you’ve applied rigging to it. It is your muppet without the hand in inside, all perched and ready to go. A good bind pose is important because it dictates what everything looks like before you start stretching and compressing surfaces, and thus stretching and compressing any textures on those surfaces. In most cases, a human being will be standing with their arms sticking out at an angle from their torso. Arms straight to the side, or arms straight ahead, will have very severe stretching in almost any situation that is not to the side, or ahead. Having them at an angle gives you a nice middle ground, and a more natural look. Bind pose could be anything though, pugs, caterpillars, chairs, etc. It’s just whatever the most natural default is.


X, Y, and Z are already used, so who ya gonna call? UVs! Ahem. UVs are the 2D vectors along a plane used to texture objects (and other fun stuff that requires 2D surface coordinates). Because your object is in 3D space, and the textures are in 2D space, you have to either project 2D space on to your object, or unwrap your object to a 2D plane.

UV Projection

You can project UVs on to a surface mesh from your camera, from an orthographic view of the top, or the side. You can project them in a cylinder. If you have anything more complicated that a tin can, or a sphere, then you’re going to need to unwrap your surface. Imagine you have an action figure in your hand, and it’s just a thin shell, no thickness at all. Now imagine cutting in to the action figure so you can unfold it on to a piece of paper. You’ll need to bend your model in some places, which means your UV coordinates on your mesh will not be exactly lined up with where the XYZ coordinates are. This is neccesary, but moving these points too far apart means that you’re going to have something that will look stretched, or compressed, when the 2D surface is is painted and reapplied to your model. You can cut it in to a bunch of individual faces, but then you will have texture seams EVERYWHERE. Good luck matching the painted edges of each of those! Sucker!


Per-face Texture Mapping (That would really be PFTEX, let’s be real) is a technique of skipping UV layout. This means you will need to paint in 3D space or you will have seams. This is better explained in this video that has a big head, and little arms.


The invisible armature in your model that controls it. This is made of things that look like, and are referred to as, bones. They are comprised of joints.


The act of making a fake skeleton.


The person that makes the fake skeleton.


Like a vertex, but for your rig. It’s position, and rotation, will influence the mesh it is bound to. Joints are parented to one another to create ‘bones’ and when the top-level joint is rotated, or translated, all the underlying joints move with it.


You take your invisible skeleton, and your geometry, and you tell the software that the skeleton should drive that geometry.


Whenever you manipulate the points of a mesh, you are modeling, because you’ve produced a frozen object. It is what it is. When you add the element of time, it becomes deformation. If you have a lump of clay, it is a model. If you push your finger in to, it will smush as you push it, over time. You’ve deformed it. Now imagine you could do that with a computer. N-gons will deform in really funky, and unpredictable way, because the surface within the edges will recalculate as some verticies get closer, and farther away, from one another. N-gons suck. This is also why an edge loop will create the illusion of something bending smoothly, as all the parallel edges curl along a perpendicular, deforming one. Quads are really superior here, in almost every application.


These are imaginary points, like vertices, or joints, that can be parented in weird places. They can affect the surface like a joint, with weighted influence, but they often are used as the building blocks for more complicated deformers.


Tools in a software package that can manipulate surfaces, or points, in very specific — often single-purpose — ways. For example, you might have a ripple deformer, which will make a ripple through the surface, as if it was the surface of a pond and you dropped a stone in it. Many packages have deformers that function almost like mini-rigs, all prepped for you to use where you see fit, for that specific task.


Not like weight lifting. This is just a term for the amount of influence a deformer, or a joint, can have on the mesh that is effecting. If you had a joint in your human character’s upper arm, and one in their elbow, you’d want to control the amount of influence each joint exerted on the surface. When your elbow bends, it should not be moving the top of your shoulder down. Typically, weights are adjusted by ‘painting’ them with a tool in your software package. Some joints might be added along a bone, in places that are not anatomical joints in a human body, just for the purposes of weighting the mesh with more fine-tuned control.


Constraints are invisible rules that govern how different objects relate to one another inside the 3D scene. Usually they keep things ‘together’.

Point Constraint

Glueing something to a point in space. Rotation, and scale are unaffected.

Orient Constraint

This makes something line up with the rotation values of something else in world space.

Parent Constraint

This is like parenting two objects, but it doesn’t change the hierarchy of the scene, since it uses the constraint to do it.

Forward Kinematics (FK)

When you curl your finger, that’s FK. The base joint moves, the next knuckle moves, and so on. The movement is inherited according to how joints are parented. Fingers, and arms are obvious for FK.

Inverse Kinematics (IK)

This is when you push off of something. When a human walks, their feet stay planted on the ground until they are lifted off the surface. If this was FK, then the hip, knee, and ankle would all move and move the foot, it wouldn’t stay planted on the ground. Almost any rig is littered with FK/IK switches to go between which system works best.


You take a mesh, duplicated it, and deform it. Then you tell the software package which one is the source, and which one is the target. Now you’ll have a blendshape value that can be adjusted to linearly translate the points from their original location to the new location. It’s mighty-morphing technology. Because the movement is linear, inbetween shapes are often modeled. This can be for things like sculpted muscles, or lips.

Control Curves

NURBS curves that float in space around your rig. They are typically parented to specific parts of the mesh, or the joints of the rig, so that the controls move through space with the character. The curves are used as proxies for manipulating the armature. Directly manipulating the joints is something only an insane novice would think to do. Control curves give you the ability to set functional properties that can be reversed, animated, or connected to other properties through expressions, or constraints.


This is the fun part that most people think is super neat. This is where you take your character and you make it do things by assigning mathematical values that change over time. (I’m kidding, your mostly dragging those curves around, math sucks, bro.)


Frames are a unit of time. A certain number of frames results in a certain number of seconds. Everyone’s seen nerdy sites that freak out about FPS (First Person Shooters (No, I’m kidding, I mean Frames Per Second)). Most film is played back at 24 frames per second.


A frame where a value is explicitly set. With several of these frames, and values that change over time, you create animation because crap will move around from one place to the other. Wikipedia has handy graphics for this one, including one blue scribble that might give you a seizure.


The implicit behavior that occurs between two keyframes. If you keyframe a ball in one corner of a room, and then you keyframe the ball in the opposite corner of the room, the ball will linearly translate from one position to the next. You did not give it any keyframes in the middle. You can change this interpolation in every animation package with a curve editor. This is a graph of that plots the value of your keyframed attribute in Y, and the frame number in X. You can change that linear interpolation to a smooth curve, that will make the ball appear to slowly accelerate, move quickly in the middle of the room, and slowly decelerate. You didn’t add any keys for that, it’s all handled by the tangents of that curve.

Pose to Pose Animation

A style of animation where all the essential keyframes are created, resulting in the character, or object, moving from one ‘pose’ immediately to the next. The inbetween frames are often refined later, but a certain ‘snappy’ quality often remains.

Straight-Ahead Animation

Stepping through, one frame at a time, and setting a keyframe on every frame. This used to be more common in certain 2D animation styles. It is still used when specifically tracking to a 2D, recorded performance.


Max Fleischer originated it (suck it, Walt!) but some of the most memorable rotoscoped scenes are from Disney films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (shoot). The technique requires tracing every frame recorded footage. These days it is most commonly used to describe matte generation (tracing photography with splines in a 2D compositing application). It can be applied in 3D, with a CG character’s performance being viewed from a camera, and matched to a live-action performance. This is different from motion capture, because the performance is only photographically recorded, and no 3D data for the performance is generated. Animators typically look down on this for the same reason that artists look down on tracing portraits from photos.

Walk Cycle

Just what it sounds like, a cycle of animation of a character walking. These cycles can be added to libraries and reused when needed where animating every footstep a background character might take would be tedious.


A first pass of animation where interpolation is usually disabled. This leads to just a rough overview, like an old-style animatic.


You take a bunch of storyboards, time them out, and you get a very, very, very rough animation of your movie. Temp recordings of dialog, and sometimes temp music, are added to the animatic. This can help the director see what he wants to do. It is almost exclusively used in completely animated productions these days, though it has been used for live-action movies that have animated characters.

Previsualization (Previz)

This is basically doing a rough job at the modeling, texturing, and animation, to make a not-pretty mock-up of what the visual effects, or CG characters will look like later. It’s like an animatic, but WAY more expensive. Previz is essential during some live-action shoots because it allows the director to direct his actors so they will more easily integrate with the final work done at a later time. Pretty much nothing is kept from previz except for whatever is used in editorial. This editorial cut will be used by animators to make their animation, like a very expensive animatic.

12 Principles of Animation

Again, I defer to Wikipedia on this one.


Because everything is computer perfect, and all the poses were set on nice, clean keyframes, there’s going to be twinning. When two things happen at the same time.


Some of the keys are dragged around to happen before, or after the keyframe they were originally set on. This provides overlapping action. Instead of a character raising both arms at the same time, one will move a frame or so before the other. This produces a fluid, natural range of movement without twinning.

Once all the keyframes are set, the animation is typically offset to prevent twinning. Pixar did this with their eye blinks too. If you pause a Pixar movie when a character is blinking you will see that the eyes are closing and opening on different frames.


You’ve got your Pixar-level, super-duper, awesome animation all set, but it’s typically good form to actually watch it before you tell anyone it’s good. You do this by telling your animation software to basically capture a screenshot of the view in your application for every frame, and then stitch that back together in to a movie. Certain bells and whistles will vary from application to application, but this is an essential step to evaluate animation, because almost nothing will play back in realtime inside of the viewer of your application. This is a kind of batch render.


It is very important on a live action film project to track the camera movement, and camera properties, of the real-world camera so that everything be constructed in a way that works for whatever else you plan on doing. The photographic plate needs to be unwarped (the bowing effect from the camera lens removed so you have a flat image) and different algorithmic solvers can give you a good head start on figuring out the space.

Look Development

This mostly includes texturing, but not the actual work of laying out UVs. It is primarily concerned with the application of shaders, with specifically-set material properties to your geometry.


This is a view of just the edges that make up a surface. This was commonly used in the 1980s and 1990s in graphical overlays to show how high-tech something was. It’s most useful in an interactive viewer. There are also special wireframe shaders that let you render something with backface culling and adjustable thickness to the wireframe edges.


Even in the basic preview the application’s viewer presents to you, things are shaded (often in OpenGL). Since vertices are infinitely small, something has to draw a dot there for you to visualize. Surfaces are shaded with some default material that usually resembles plastic. A shader is the code snippet that tells whatever is rendering the view how to return the pixels. When light hits a surface, at a certain vector, it will trigger some component of the code to shade the surface in a specific way.


Materials are often referred to separately from shaders. A shader is a chunk of code, and materials are basically a group of preset values to use with that shader. This distinction is often confusing, and most people think of shaders and materials as being the same thing.


Let there be light! The diffuse lookup is the matte illumination of the surface. Think of a mostly matte surface like concrete. It illuminates pretty evenly when light hits it.

Specular (Spec)

Shiny! The bright, hot highlights on a surface are specular components. This is typically a very tight lookup of the relationship between the light, the surface normal, and the camera.


Shiny? Technically, reflection is specular, and specular is reflection. Many software packages split the two, which allows for easy adjustment of one or the other. Reflection can be most easily thought of as chrome, but even human skin and concrete reflects the world around it.


Bendy! A surface normal controls how light hits a surface, but refraction controls how light transmits through a surface. Glass, water, prisms, your grandmother’s ugly candy dish, are all refractive objects. The angle the light travels through the object bends based on the index of refraction, which is a measurable property of any real world substance.

Index of Refraction (RoI)

Google around for some tables. They’re fun. The Index of Refraction is the measurement of blah blah blah. Even gold has a refractive index. Light doesn’t pass through gold, you say? Well there’s a direct relationship between reflectivity and the Index of Refraction. Physically accurate shading models will even tie these values together so that RoI can drive refraction, reflection, and fresnel.


The term refers to the rolloff exponent in a shader, but it can be tied to a physically accurate model that uses the Index of Refraction to drive the fresnel. Nonsensical fresnel effects can be used to achieve certain non-photorealistic looks, like “X-Ray” shaders, or shaders that cheat the look of hand drawn cel animation edges.


Bending surface normals with mapped, or procedurally-generated data. This allows for the illusion of internal detail on model surfaces, but the edges will still look like flat geometry edges. Bump maps are typically within a set range, and black and white. with one being up, and the other being down. This varies depending on the package. Special kinds of maps can use RGB vectors to provide more detail than the straight up and down of bumps.


This is like a bump value in a shader, but it actually deforms the surface of the mesh. If your mesh lacks sufficient polygons, you’re going to get a pretty crappy displacement. Because displacement requires a certain density of the mesh, it can be extremely computationally time consuming. The displacement must also occur to the mesh before many other actions are taken by the renderer. Some neat effects can be achieved with animated displacement, where a sequence of images might represent footprints in snow, or the surface of an ocean. Vector displacement uses RGB data to drive displacement along different vectors from the surface normal. This can allow for a more complex profile along an already displaced edge so it’s not just straight up and down.


You can make something transparent.


The surface either looks to be self-illuminating, or actually sends out rays in to the world to cast light based on the incandesce of the surface.


A bunch of wacky shader models to make metallic paints, insect wings, and pearl effects.

Subsurface Scattering (SSS)

Hold your hand up to a light. That. This does that thing. It can also be used for marble, jade, milk, gummy bears, everything in The Incredibles, and flan.

Procedural Noise

This is basically everything you see in Babylon 5. Procedural noise is used in shaders to create variation in a parameter over a surface by generating different kinds of fractals. This has certain advantages since you don’t need to worry about textures, or the resolution of your textures. Depending on the specific functions used to make the noise, it can look very regular, or large and craggy. These noises are best used in conjunction with textures, because otherwise you’ll have Babylon 5.

Hair Shaders

Specific kinds of shaders that shade along a width-less curve to give it width, and the illusion of being hair. Bells and whistles vary. There may be all kinds of weird cheats for performance, like shadow density stuff, so they are often pretty unusual.

Double-Sided Shading

Because surfaces have normals, they also have two sides. The front side (normal up) and the back side (normal down). Some non-photoreal effects can be used to assign different shaders to front and back faces, but typically, double-sided shading is desired for any object.

Backface Culling

Removing all the faces with surface normals bent away from camera — essentially this is the back of an object as seen through a camera. It is relative to a camera, and often used to optimize render times for things where the back of an object might not matter.


Something occludes something when it is in front of it. A solar eclipse is the moon occluding the earth from the sun, and casting a shadow. Your hand over your eyes is occluding literally everything because it’s covering your view. Occlusion can describe any relationship where something covers something else, even at incident angles, like a big soft light casting soft shadows.


This is taking your modeled, textured, shader-applied assets and rendering them with — guess what? — LIGHTS!

Spot Light

The most basic kind of light in any package is a spot light. It’s functions almost identically mirror those of a camera. It is an infinitely-small point, with orientation and position, as well as a cone angle. Imagine there’s a cone where the pointy end is stuck at the point of the light, and the wide end just goes on forever. Everything in that cone can get light. Often people soften the edge of the cone with different settings, like an inner cone angle and an outer cone angle, so it can fade between the two. Penumbra is term for a value that does the same thing by making the edge of the cone fuzzy. Some packages let you set a radius on the light, which basically tells the render the light is not an infinitely-small point, but a disc in the same region as the cone. This can be useful in physically accurate applications when reproducing realistic lights.

Point Light

This is like a spot light, but there’s no cone angle. Light goes out in all directions from the point. It can also have a radius, a width, in certain applications so it’s more like a lightbulb in a lamp.

Area Light

Big rectangles that send light out in a perfectly even, perpendicular direction to the rectangle. This is most often used because you can get soft shadows out of it, since the light is coming from a giant rectangle instead of a teeny-tiny dot. Imagine the overhead fluorescent lights of your least favorite highschool class.

Directional Light

This is like a cross between a spot light, but the light rays are all coming from one, uniform direction across everything in your scene. There is no cone angle, and no source. You can only manipulate the direction of the light. This is useful for simulating distant sunlight. Shadows from the sun are mostly perpendicular (don’t nitpick) where shadows from the cone of a spot light will flare out with the angle of the cone.

Light Decay

As light travels in the real world, it has less influence on things farther away. It visually decays at an almost quadratic rate from its source. Depending on the software package, this decay can be built in as an assumption of the world, or it can be totally disabled, providing infinite illumination.

Decay Regions

This is like light decay, but with near and far planes that can be adjusted. This can provide very specific falloff for a light. It’s more for art-direction than it is for realism.

Shadow Maps (Depth Map Shadows)

If you are using an older, raster renderer, then you’ll have to typically contend with a system of generating depth maps from the view of each light in your scene. The renderer then uses these depth maps to figure out where light is occluded. Soft shadows are very easily achieved by blurring the shadow map, however that uniformly blurs it. If you look around in the real world you’ll see that shadows mostly start sharp and end blurry. It all has to do with distance from the light, and the occluding object to the receiving object. You can’t do that with shadow maps. Another thing is opacity. Depth maps render all the geometry as visible. If you have glass, it will produce a solid shadow like it was plywood. This can be cheated by moving the glass object to another shadow map, and then cheating that map to be less dense, but it’s still silly-looking and there’s really no excuse for it these days.

Ray-traced Shadows

This is computationally more expensive than shadow maps, but you get way nicer shadows with more realistic-looking shadow fuzziness and sharpness. The main issue with raytracing shadows is the number of rays that are fired to get a clean result. The sharper the shadow, the fewer rays you need. The softer the shadow, the more rays you need or you pixels that are in shadow next to pixels that are not. Ray-traced shadows are also the only way to get accurate shadows for transparent, or semitransparent objects.

Ambient Occlusion

With non-ray-traced renderers, you need to approximate the look of ambient light getting all over surfaces, except for in cracks and crevices by checking the distance between two surfaces, and their normal. This produces something that looks like an overcast day. This can also be used as a utility pass in compositing, to give the illusion of a soft shadow under a character on to live-action ground.

Reflection Occlusion

Same as ambient occlusion, but with different surface normal requirements. It looks like chrome, if you printed it on an ImageWriter II.

Point Clouds

Point maps can be generated, a bunch of data in camera (light) or world space to be used to speed up certain calculations like ambient occlusion, or SSS.


A High Dynamic Range Image map that is usually read in to the software as a lat-long image (a sphere unwrapped on to a long rectangle). This is used for different global illumination effects in different packages, and the selection of the HDRI map source can make or break some work. HDRI maps can be generated on a film set with chrome spheres, or with special camera rigs.


A skydome is either an all-encompassing light source, or merely a tool of a global illumination cheat. An HDRI image is mapped on to a sphere and the sphere encompasses the world you’re rendering. This makes highlights show up in mostly the places they should, and even contributes some illumination. This is used in the place of ambient occlusion stuff in most ray-tracers.

Lighting Rig

The collection of lights grouped together in to a logical element that can be exported, and reused elsewhere. A lighting rig might even include constraints to lock the rig to piece of geometry, or a character.


Motionblur like interpolation, in that as an object is in motion, or as the camera is in motion, from one frame to the next, the object will blur according to the shutter speed of the CG camera. With too little motionblur, CG can ‘strobe’ (Hello, Michael Bay!) Different rendering solutions exist for 2D motionblur, where motionblur is calculated according to the vectors an object is moving on, or with 3D motionblur, where the geometry is sampled over time on the ‘subframes’ in motion creating a fuzzy haze of movement. The latter is more accurate, but time consuming. Motion vectors can also be generated as a separate render pass to be applied in comp by particular plugins.

Raster Renderer

A raster renderer only considers the pixel it’s looking at right this second, no rays are fired to figure out where realistic reflections, or shadows are. This makes these sorts of renderers super-duper fast. The catch is that if you want something to look photoreal, you need to do a lot of set up work to make sure you have just the right balance of shadow density, shadow blur, reflection maps that make things look like chrome, and all kinds of stuff. This is a really big downside. Pixar’s PRman started life out like this.

Ray Tracing Renderer

Mostly this consists of firing a ray from the plane of the camera’s image, per each pixel, in to the world. The ray hits something, and based on the surface properties determines if it sees a light, then it figures out how to shade and return that pixel value. This happens a whole lot, with multiple samples being taken to smooth out sampling noise. Sampling noise arises because you’re dicing up a whole world with tiny details in to a finite number of pixels. Ray-tracing is really in right now because it produces a lot of really neat effects that were time consuming to set up cheats for in raster renderers, and even hybrid renderers. Examples include: Arnold, Mental Ray, V-Ray, and many others.

Hybrid Renderers

Pixar’s PRman has been a hybrid renderer for a really long time now. It can do some operations as raytracing renders, and some operations as raster renders. It’s not very good at the ray-tracing, but they are improving it. There still aren’t a lot of things you get for free, versus having to set up yourself, but it’s getting better.

Lighting Passes

Under many conditions, it’s considered optimal to produce several different renders that can be combined, or manipulated, in the comp. Some times a lone light might be split out from the rest if it needs to have its intensity animated, or the refraction might be split out from some undulating cloaking effect, or utility renders (fresnel, or depth maps, or occlusion renders) will be produced to modulate certain things. Depending on the renderer, some of these passes can be produced from the same render pass. As the rendering engine processes the frame, it keeps all the data to split out all the extra info as separate images. It’s a handy trick, but it’s also done manually.

FX (Simulation)

Anything that explodes, vaporizes, snows, rains, catches fire, splashes, swirls, smokes, or swarms. This is an all-encompassing term for simulating complicated interactions that would be too difficult, or impossible, to implement by manually keyframing each of the many, many elements that interact.


Particles are like vertices. They are usually ‘birthed’, or ‘emitted’ from a source. Either a point in space, or along a surface. Particles have no visible component unless a shader is assigned, or geometry is constrained, or instanced to them. This can be 2D planes that face the camera, but move with the particle, called ‘sprites’ or it can be full 3D models that tumble through space, like rocky debris. Particle emission systems often have complex ways to assign random values to the particles so that each might have a different spin, or density.

Fluid Sim

Lots of things are fluids, smoke, fire, plasma, water — well, maybe you epxected water. The properties of the simulation, gravity, viscosity, all kinds of stuff dictate what we perceive the fluid simulation to be. It is shaded accordingly.


Minecraft! No, not really, I’m talking about volume data to render puffy clouds and stuff.

Rigid Body Collision

When two boxes hit each other.

Soft Body Collision

When two Jell-O Jigglers hit each other.

Cloth Sim

I’m including this here, but typically the people that make the clothes, and the people that blow things up, work separately. Cloth is applied in bind pose, as the character moves around, the cloth moves against the character. Improper settings on cloth can make silk look like kevlar, and vice versa.


The collisions, and simulated liquids, all need to be solved for, for every frame, starting with the first frame. Each new frame building off the previous simulated result. You can’t hopscotch around the timeline with this, you have to do it in order. The resulting cache is typically saved to a file and read back in to the software package as read-only before it is rendered by lighters.


So you have your superhero in a cape jumping over explosions in the rain, what do you do now? You composite it all together! Integration is the name of the game, you need to make sure that all the elements that have been received from lighting can fit together and make the pretty thing.

The Comp

THE comp is referring to the specific file that contains all of the compositing operations being used, and where all the work is being done.


This is like a comp, but before it. You put together some elements that will feed in to the comp to make the comp lighter and more responsive to work with.


Not a Prodigy song. This is a first pass comp where all the bits and pieces are slapped together without much care given. It’s useful for things like, “Why are we missing half our stuff?”

Node-Based Compositing

There are two kinds of compositers in this world: Those that composite in a node-based compositing application, and those that are wrong. Essential to the art of modular, reusable, easily organized, functional work is a node graph, a 2D plane where a bunch of nodes (boxes) are laid out. The connection of these boxes holds significance (this node sends data to this other node). Certain connections are impossible to make in a node graph. For example: You can not take the output of your node and connect it to your input. That is stupid, and also impossible. Likewise, any connection that would result in the output eventually connecting to the input is also impossible. A key feature of a any node-based software is the ability to ‘view’ the result of a node, and the nodes connected above it, from any point in the node graph. This is how you can find out which color correction node is making everything go cyan.

Layer-Based Compositing

This is AfterEffects. It’s just like Photoshop, but with a weird timeline, and a bunch of stuff that stacks in an order you don’t like. It is more common in television production.


The photographic frames.

Pull a Key

This is different from a keyframe. This is keying hue, saturation, and, or value from a photographic plate to produce an alpha channel. This is your greenscreen or bluescreen work. You want to get a ‘clean key’ so that the background can be replaced with your fancy CG ice cream parlor, or shark tank.


Matte can refer to either the alpha channel of what you are keeping, or the alpha channel for what you are using to remove things. A person with a hole in the live-action actor’s head might say, “There is a hole in the matte.” A supervisor asking for a fern to be removed might say, “Matte that fern out.”

Garbage Matte

This is a quick and dirty roto, or other matte, that basically ammounts to a blob, or box. It is used to contain, or screen out things that do not require finesse of intricate roto work.


When the color of a greenscreen or bluescreen affects the photography you want to keep, (like green light bouncing on to an actor’s face) then it is referred to as spill. Even if a clean key can be achieved, there will still be green on the actor’s face.

Spill Suppression

Neutralizing the spill that is contaminating the photographic element you are keeping. This can amount to different color replacement techniques, or desaturating that specific hue.


Text burned in to the bottom of the screen. Like the X-Files.


The art of frustration. You put a crosshair thingy on a clearly readable feature in the plate, and you push track, and it immediately fails. Just kidding, that never happens. You track a feature of a plate to either add an element to the plate that needs to move with that element, or to stabilize the plate.


Sometimes a director wants to take camera movement out of a scene. Tracked coordinates are used to negate that movement and stabilize it to the position from a particular frame. The camera will still probably jiggle around a little, but what are you going to do? You’re not a magician.


You add, or remove, frames to speed up, or slow down, a plate. There are many tools to retime things, the simplest being dropping frames or doubling them up. Another prodcedure is taking the frame before, or after, and synthesizing a new frame, which is usually mushy, and gross.

3:2 Pulldown

This is a dumb artifact of the NTSC broadcast standard. Film is 24 FPS, and NTSC broadcast is 30 FPS interlaced. All modern media can jump between whatever speed is required, but many media libraries are chock full of things that have the pulldown baked in. You’ll notice a certain stuttery, shitty quality to old movies being rebroadcast. It is a form of retiming.


The act of making everything worse by dividing up images in to staggered fields and stitching them back together in horrible ways that look like crap. Some video sources are captured in an interlaced format and they are absolute nightmares to work with in compositing because of those fields. Even de-interlacing plugins aren’t going to magically fix it. Always shoot your home video progressive, and never interlaced.

Stereo Compositing

Anything that produces multiple views of the same frame. This is typically ‘left’ and this other thing called ‘right’. Most modern compositing packages pass down both views through all the same nodes. Particular exceptions will need to made to offset things for certain eyes. The views are put out to disk and combined during playback to give the illusion of stereo. Things can be cheated in stereo space by transforming them, left or right, to increase, or decrease, the offset of the object, and thus, its relative position in space. You can’t add volume to an object that way, you’re just moving it closer or farther.


Real people don’t store their data in sRGB web jpegs. Light is captured in a mostly linear-float way. The human eye works in a mostly logarithmic way. We perceive differences darker values more than we perceive them in lighter values. It can be argued, that it can save space to store things in log. Unfortunately, you don’t want to do any compositing operations in log space because it’s all clamped and weird. What you want to do is work in linear floating space and only store the files in log, if needed. A lot of tools exist to manage storing, and viewing, pixel data from and to various colorspaces, but OpenColorIO is the head honcho. Maybe some day web developers will care about color accuracy? Ha.

Lookup Table (LUT)

A way to go between colorspaces either for viewing or storage.

Digital Intermediary (DI)

This used to refer to just sending to stuff to the post house that would handle color grading for the film. Now it is synonymous with terms color grading.

Color Grading

Everything that normalizes colors between different shots, adjusts the contrast, adds warmth, coolness, or messes up everything you worked so hard on. I’m kidding! It’s just a little joke.


Editors cut together all the shots in the film with non-linear editing software.

Non-Linear Editing (NLE)

Everyone’s used iMovie, right? That’s a really shitty, horrible, mess of a non-linear editor. More popular versions are Final Cut, Avid, and Premiere. NLE packages often include bells and whistles to do certain quick compositing tasks, but they should not really be considered compositing tools. Their primary purpose is slip and slide shots around on timelines.


A shot is the smallest building block of your edit. It’s the set of frames between one cut and the next.


A bunch of related shots. How related they are is up to the editor and director, but typically it’s stuff that’s in the same location, at the same time.


This is different from compositing, this refers to how things are arranged in screen space. Where the character’s are in relation to the camera, the effect of a specific kind of lens used, and how things move through the frame. The impact of composition is obvious when many shots are cut together because the brain stores information about what was just on screen. This can be used to create a comfortable conversation on screen, or a slasher flick.

Establishing Shot

Typically the first shot in a movie, or a change of location, that establishes where things are. We see the Death Star, and TIE fighters whizz by to establish that we’re going to be spending some time with the Death Star.

Same-As Shot

A shot that is very similar to another. In visual effects, and animation, elements might be reused from scene to scene, like backgrounds, or lighting rigs.

Wide Shot

A wide-angle lens is used. This can show “more” but space can feel unnatural the wider and wider you go.

Long Shot

A shot from really far away, usually with a wide-angle lens, often an establishing shot.

Medium Shot

Typically of a human subject, and it includes most of the human subject in the frame. This is useful for showing where characters are sitting or standing when they are talking to each other.

Three-Quarter Shot

A view of the upper 3/4 of a person. Torso, arms.

Cose-Up Shot

Tight framing on the subject of the shot. Typically a human face, but it could be a close-up of a button, or trigger that is important to the events occurring in the scene.

Extreme Close-Up Shot

All up in your grille.

Over-The-Shoulder Shot

Usually used for exciting cafe scenes. The camera is perched over the shoulder of one person in the conversation, and aimed at the the other person across from them. Typically this is paired with the reverse view of a camera over the other person’s shoulder.

Shot Reverse Shot

A view of one character, intercut with the view of another character. We assume the two are talking to one another.

180-Degree Rule

Wikipedia. The rule can be broken to purposefully achieve certain effects on the audience. That is not an excuse to ignore it because you’re an art student and you think ‘rules’ are dumb. YOLO.

30-Degree Rule

This is a guideline for how far the camera should move when cutting on the same subject. It’s a little hard to conceptually understand, but if you don’t move the camera around, and just push in or out on your cut, you’ll wind up with something that distracts the audience (a jump cut).

Rule of Thirds

Your iPhone has this built in. A grid of lines produced by dividing the width of the screen, and the height of the screen, by three. The eye typically focuses on elements resting on those lines, and particularly on elements resting on the intersection of those lines. However, this is a guide and should not be taken literally.

Dutch Angle

Tilting the camera so it isn’t aligned with the ground. This can give a fun-house effect. It should be used sparingly, to intentionally produce a jarring, or unsettling result. It’s from German Expressionist directors, Deutsch. Americans just call them ‘Dutch’ because: America.


How you get from one shot to another. This could be a cut, it could be dissolve, it could be fancy matted out objects overlapping in to the next shot.


A camera cut is when footage is ends, and new footage begins. There are many different kinds of cuts.

Jump Cut

Almost exclusively used in horror films, this is basically removing a chunk of time from within a shot. The camera appears to ‘jump’ from one position to the next. It is unsettling, hence the association with horror, and not 27 Dresses.

Match Cut

Cutting between two different shots, but the two shots have elements that graphically match between them. Prime example of this is 2001: A Space Odyssey when the femur is tossed in to the air and it cuts to the a nuclear weapons satellite in the exact same position in screen space. (One of my favorites is from The Fall, keep an eye out for the face and landscape in the trailer.)

Cutting on Action

In one shot, a character’s arm reaches forward, we cut, and the next shot we see a close-up of that hand grabbing an ice cream cone. Delicious, artisan-crafted, action-packed ice cream. The movement is continuous and impactful even though the cut occurred in the middle of it and the two shots could have been filmed at different times, and even with a stunt-hand. You mostly see this in action scenes, as characters flail around trying to land punches.

Fast Cutting

The speed of the cutting can affect the perceived passage of time. When camera cuts come fast and furious, things feel like they are happening very quickly. This is because your eyeballs are hit with new information in rapid succession. Action scenes, explosions, all that stuff that needs frenetic, chaotic energy. Use sparingly to achieve the desired effect, use excessively to look like Michael Bay.

Slow Cutting

You’ll never guess what this one is.

Long Take

A shot that goes on for a really long time. That sounds pretty arbitrary, but it’s relative to the length of the other cuts in the film. If you have some big opening shot where you’re touring Serenity with a steadicam, then you have a long take. “Hey, look at me! I did something hard!” Is typically what the director wants the viewer to know by using this shot. Another, example that you either love or hate is the opening part of Gravity.


Going back and forth between one scene, and another. This can create tension by weaving together several events. The Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi is cross-cut between the Emperor’s throne room, the rebels on the surface, and the rebel fleet (there are smaller units to how that breaks down, but you get the point). The technique is used extensively in The Fifth Element often to comedic effect. Something is revealed to the audience by a character in one scene, as the character in another scene discovers the facts themselves.


One shot gradually turns in to another shot.


Have you seen a George Lucas movie? All those. Horizontal, diagonal, vertical, radial (shudder), everything where graphical element wipes the frame. More subtle examples are when an object, or person, in the scene moves past the camera and they are part of the wipe. You’ll see this in crowd scenes. Some headless bozo walks right to left in front of the lens and on the right, behind the bozo is the next shot.

Iris In/Out

A cheesy circle opens or closes to reveal the next shot. This is a kind of wipe.


We’re gonna need a montage.


Sometimes, a shot will only be a set number of frames, but it will have a few frames before and after the shot range just in case the editor, or director wants to ‘open up’ the shot and make a hair longer. Handles are not a requirement.

Demo Reel

A software vendor, visual effects company, animation studio, or artist will stitch together some shots they feel are really good. About one to three minutes in length, it shows bits and pieces of the work either to submit for an award, or more commonly, to secure future work.

Reel Breakdown

All the shots from the reel get a short explanation, usually in a spreadsheet. What software was used, what roles were involved, artist names, any potentially relevant information.

2014-08-11 23:19:17

Category: text

Not Quite Dead Yet

This will be my second book review here, so don’t expect any deep, articulate insight. I just finished Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. She won a Nebula Award, Locus Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and BSFA Award for it. The second book in this series, Ancillary Sword, will be out in October this year. I had put off reading the novel because The Incomparable panel didn’t seem to care much for it. I read Blue Remembered Earth and On a Steel Breeze first. They are both decent, but the ‘world’ is smaller. Ancillary Justice is very similar in scope to an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. The best books I’ve read so far this year have been a claustrophobic story about a sarcastic astronaut and a deeply-affecting quest of a dead person.

The novel is a sophisticated, world-building enterprise that spans everything from identity to empire. The series starts with a dual narrative, splitting time between current events of the protagonist, and past events that shaped what the protagonist is doing now. We see a vast empire of human colonies that have existed for so long that each planet has produced its own ethnic line of humanity. There is no memory of old Earth, nor which planet originated the human race. This is far future stuff, much like Frank Herbert’s Dune. Rather than build a novel around ecology, and deceit, it is about identity and deceit. The protagonist is many things, and none of those things. She can move freely through space, with vast wealth, she can exist over aeons. She has spoken to the emperor and saw fit to destroy her.

I say, “her” of course because gender is a peculiar quirk of the novel. It distracts from creating a concrete image of who the people are in the novel. Rather than refer to “him” and “her” we are given only feminine pronouns to work with. The empire doesn’t see gender, and does not use gender as a means of procreation. Other humans do use gender, and other languages have the appropriate desire to break down the gender of things. This comes up as a frequent obstacle for our protagonist. After reading the entire novel I am still not certain of the gender of the novel’s protagonist. Something that would be unthinkable in any other novel. If you are someone, like me, that reads a novel and imagines how it can be adapted to a screenplay you’ll be utterly confounded, and intrigued by the construction of gender here.

It works for me though. I think about the layers of meaning each of her interactions has — if she is, and is not, a “her”. A genderless society seems more alien than anything I can think of today.

A central concept of the novel is also the use of reanimated, dead corpses that act on behalf of the artificial intelligence of a ship. There is none of the brutality associated with conquest that humans normally bring, but there are certainly downsides to this.


The gender is very distracting in the first third of the novel when the characters are on Nilt and Ors — planets that still uses gender in language, and to frame expectations for human behavior. It is confounding, especially when it seems to flip flop. This is something you could not do in television, cinema, or a graphic novel. The medium enables this confusion. Once you get past it, and on to the later portions of this journey, we occupy only the genderless language of the Radch and we no longer get distracting by the pronouns flipping. We do wonder more about these characters though. What must their relationships be like? Relations are hinted at in different forms of clientship arrangements, but that does not really denote gender. What starts as a frustration turns in to an interesting puzzle. Particularly if you accept that reproduction figures in to this process in no way at all. These humans would be more alien to us that Vulcans, Klingons, Centauri, Narn, or anything else you could throw out.

This is particularly interesting at the end of the novel when we know that one character has an interest in the protagonist. We know that character is a male because he was addressed as such in another language. This still leaves us to puzzle over our protagonist. Is this what we would consider to be a heterosexual or a homosexual relationship? Are the feelings the character expresses towards the protagonist those he normally feels for others, or is the protagonist’s gender unique? My completely unconfirmed assumptions are that the protagonist’s current body is a female gendered one, and that the affections exhibited towards her would be the same for other female gendered characters. However, that is my own mental baggage I am assigning to these far future figures. How great would the next novel be if they were both men?

The issue is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the protagonist was probably many different genders at other points in her life. She was the artificial intelligence of a space ship. A carrier for a crew of dead humans. As a computer program, gender is completely inapplicable. Each of her inhabited bodies would have had a gender, and in turn, the one inhabited body we get to know through the novel will have one specific gender. We see that the ship places no particular importance on gender at all, except when dealing with talking to members of other races. She is somehow blind to making such observations — I assume all Radch look like Ziggy Stardust — but in situations where she should have anatomical knowledge, or when she’s interacting with dimorphic humans, she should more easily be able to interpret it herself. That part was a little farfetched for me. Though I do appreciate the effort that Ann Leckie went to in weaving this.

The real conflict steams from the emperor of the Radch. A character that is actually split in to many thousands of bodies — much like the ancillaries of a ship, only without the central intelligence. She is working against herself and it is at the expense of many people in the story. No single thing is a throwaway story and it all builds to paint an unflattering picture of both halves of this emperor. There is no good choice, something which troubles our protagonist. Something which causes things to unfold in the novel according to neither plan the emperor has.

Jason Snell, of The Incomparable, lamented in their review that we never saw anything of our protagonist’s past before she was an ancillary. I am not as bothered by this. I am willing to accept that she’s essentially be reformatted. We have so many stories about bodies being used, or taken over, that it would be kind of trite for some of the similar stuff about the memories of a former occupant returning. Certainly, the story wasn’t lacking for other narrative elements going on. Instead of a singular, former personality exerting itself, I would have been interested to see if some of the anomalous behavior of Justice of Toren One Esk was due to the amalgamation of memories bleeding from previous minds. She was, after all, controlling many bodies, and she did exhibit behavior that was uncharacteristic of other units on Justice of Toren.

I am dissatisfied with the resolution of the novel. I do agree with The Incomparable panel here. She is given an assignment by the not-the-worst-half emperor but it feels so rushed that it seems to wrap too quickly. I wanted to linger longer on the outcome of the climactic battle.

The ideas present throughout this novel are interesting, and never dull. The world is rich, and as you read you can envision other paths that might be taken. Whole novels that could be written between two sentences. This is astonishing because Ann Leckie is a first time novelist. Not that she could not do it, nor that any first time novelist could not do it, but merely that I am overjoyed she was recognized for this labor of love. When people say that the publishing system fails us, I’d just like to point towards this book from Hachette’s Orbit imprint. She approached them with this amazing story and was able to turn it in to a success for herself, and I hope to see her continue to do so.

Ancillary Sword

The next novel is only a couple months away. Surely more details about her will unfold, especially now that there is no need for her to keep secrets. She will also have the chance to interact with a ship’s computer that misses having ancillaries. What report might develop between the two of them? To say nothing of a possible romantic relationship with her companion from the first novel? Usually, I despise the cheap trick of making a character a love interest, but since gender is a total puzzle here it’s actually quite interesting.

2014-08-09 12:58:57

Category: text

Defocused 8: 'A Turducken of Dead Media'→ ►

This week, Dan and I talked about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The spoiler-free version is that we both liked it, but we do pick it apart with some story questions, and issues where we feel like character motivations are not explored. See my previous post for more on that. We wind up having a pretty long episode about it.

Please send all your hate-mail to Dan. He’s the worst.

2014-08-06 12:11:18

Category: text

Guardians of the Galaxy Continues to Close Marvel's Gauntlet Around Avengers 3→ ►

SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about plot points in Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World.

Ben Kuchera wrote on Polygon about the complex planning going on at Marvel to tie all of the franchises Disney now owns together in to one larger universe. He starts with the premise that the Marvel stories have centered on MacGuffins that are shared between movies. This isn’t the correct use of the word though because a MacGuffin is something unimportant to the plot, it’s just a goal that could be anything. In Marvel movies, the central plots revolve around the use of these objects, which hardly makes them interchangeable baubles. He’s speaking, of course, about the Infinity Stones — The Tesseract (Captain America: The First Avenger,The Avengers), The Aether (Thor: The Dark World), and The Sphere/Purple Rock (Guardians of the Galaxy).

Ben argues that the success that Marvel has seen has been due, in no small way, to these stones. The movies with the ‘stones’ have centered on them being used to imperil Earth/The Universe, and then brought back in to containment. All the while they hint at the larger significance of these elements for future movies, and future franchises.

I argue that Marvel’s success has had more to do with creating likable characters in movies that blend action and comedy. Every Marvel movie winks at the audience, because the actors, and the characters, know they’re in a fun playground. It’s the people, not the stones, that have driven Marvel’s success. (Also Disney’s marketing department, let’s not forget Disney’s marketing department.)

These powerful elements, now explicitly referred to as the Infinity Stones, are narrative glue that adhere the movies together and allow for characters to crisscross between vastly different creative spaces. Giving all of The Avengers a reason to show up and avenge can’t be completely discounted, but no one would show up to watch the movies if they didn’t like the characters.

Indeed, Thor continues to be the weakest (in terms of earnings) of the franchises Marvel releases, and it has received two installments. It is improving, but placing essential story elements in to a Thor movie, like The Aether, is risky. When The Aether, or it’s stone equivalent, pops up in another movie, will all of the audience have seen Thor: The Dark World? Will they rehash the events of TTDW with exposition? Either way, that’s risky. You risk newcomers tuning out of your movie if they don’t understand the intricacies of these stones, and where they came from, but if you spell things out, over and over, you’re sort of punishing the ardent fans that have graphed all this out with flowcharts at 3 AM.

This division between the most loyal fans, and the casual observers is precisely why comic books are still so niche. People find the amount of narrative, and ‘crossover events’ they are obligated to know to enjoy comics to be such a huge burden that Marvel and DC periodically have to create new ways in to these dense universes — much to the consternation of the ardent fans. As Marvel’s movies become more structurally similar to comic books — one giant crossover event — do they not also risk imperiling the superhero movie genre with the same handicaps that keep people away from being long term, regular comic book readers?

I am not arguing for every movie to be some standalone production with one-off characters. Just that it is perhaps unwise to highlight the mechanical underpinnings that connect these film franchises, at the cost of the storytelling, and characters, within each film of these franchises.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a good, decently enjoyable film in a long franchise of films. There’s fun, offbeat, wonderful things that happen. I ate all that up. There’s great visual effects work, and intricate set pieces crafted by teams of artists. That’s all good stuff. The reason I say ‘fine’ is because of some clunky plot elements — some of which are there purely to tell stories in future movies, and future movies in other franchises.

The Thanos Tease

Thanos is an issue because he’s not the bad guy — yet. He will be, some day, the biggest, baddest antagonist The Avengers will face, and the fate of everything will hang in it’s balance. That is why he gets teased. At the end of The Avengers his servant, The Other, says things went not-well, and Thanos grins. This is utterly meaningless to moviegoers unless they know who Thanos is. The next time we see Thanos is in Guardians of the Galaxy. He gets to talk to Ronan the Accuser (the actual antagonist of the picture) but he doesn’t do anything. When Ronan rebels against Thanos, Thanos does nothing. Of course he won’t, because it’s not his movie. He’s there because he’ll be a larger part of future movies, years from now. This is a very long set up, so hopefully people pay attention, and see all the movies that Thanos will be teased in, so that it will pay off when he finally does something much later.

Now, it can be argued that it is a good thing that they are teasing Thanos early, rather than just having him step out from behind a curtain in Avengers 3 and say, “Ah-ha! I was behind it all!” But it is risky to give the character screen time to do nothing when there’s so much to do with the characters of the film you are watching.

Indeed, Gamora and Nebula are supposed to have a complicated relationship with Thanos. They are his adopted daughters — their parents slaughtered by Thanos. We see none of their backstory, and none of their interaction with their adopted father. Nebula has a scene with Thanos, but she’s fiddling with her mechanical arm. Gamora and Nebula both talk about how they would like to betray Thanos, but there isn’t much weight to these statements because we see nothing to motivate it, we just get exposition. I felt nothing when Gamora is telling Peter about why she betrayed Thanos, but in the same scene, I felt something for Peter and the death of his mother. That’s because of the storytelling in the movie, not because of Infinity Stones being set up for future movies.

At the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy we see the death of a mother, and the profound effect that has on Peter Quill. Nothing like that for Gamora, or Nebula. The absence of Peter’s father also has a profound effect on him. Indeed, his father is mentioned as setting in motion the events that led to the abduction of Peter and Peter’s complicated stepfather-like relationship with Yondu that developed in the absence of anything else. We see none of those parallels with Gamora or Nebula.

If you’re going to introduce these characters, give them something to do that helps us understand the main characters. As it stands, Thanos is not really a part of the movie, he’s a boogeyman.

It’s a Dark, Dark World

The first inkling I had that the multi-movie-franchise arcs were going to be a problem was during the sequel to Thor. The director of the first movie, Kenneth Brannaugh, did not return because he found it difficult to work with Marvel. Marvel, for their part, exercises a degree of central control that many other directors find it hard to work with. Marvel is very focused on the big arcs, and all the other franchises in motion, while the director of a particular film is focused on their own film, and potentially their own sequel to their own film. Just replacing the director is not really a big deal, just by itself (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Thor), but it does indicate where the priority is on the storytelling — the macro level.

The Dark World starts with what I’d call an “exposition bomb”. There is instant fighting, and it goes on for quite a bit. It features characters we’ve never seen before, and the significance of what we’re seeing is only relayed to us through the words of a dispassionate Odin. It terminates and our heads are spinning with this compressed information that will surely have an impact later.

Much of the movie is spent recapping the events of two other movies. Why Loki is in a cell, why the people of Earth don’t like him, why he can’t be trusted. There is no time spent on why Malekith is the way Malekith is. He’s just there and he’s bad. We spend a great deal recapping Natalie Portman’s super-boring character, and pulling the professor back from his insanity. We spend a lot of time setting up the “rules” of the Aether. Finally, Thor’s a dope and puts everyone at risk and makes a huge mess, and all of reality is screwed (starting with the U.K.). Malekith dies without us feeling anything about the Dark Elves at all — they’re just ponderous dicks.

We get an after credit scene with Asgardians dropping another exposition bomb about how they need to leave The Aether with The Collector, because Odin (Loki as Odin) doesn’t want two Infinity Stones together in Asgard (If he’s Loki, why wouldn’t he want that?)

This was supposed to set up events for Guardians, but The Collector turned out to just be an exposition device in Guardians and The Aether played no part, whatsoever, in the film. That’s a lot of plot in Thor: The Dark World that is about future editions of other Marvel movies which could have been spent on making the movie we watched in to a better one.

For Serial

In the beginning, Marvel licensed it’s characters to try and generate income. Throughout its history, the company has been plagued by financial problems, and mismanagement. This first round of licensing was a mixed bag. It gave people the X-Men franchise they liked, and the first few Spider-Man movies, but it also had huge failures, like Daredevil, and two, different Hulk movies. Their properties were strewn to the four corners of Hollywood. Disney saw value in tying them all together.

The movies Marvel is telling are very much like large comic book crossovers. That has benefits of tying together the plots of disparate creative spaces, but it can also be its undoing. Even comic book fans get sick of “events”. As long as Marvel makes enjoyable movies, with fun, zany characters, they might not have to worry about the burden they are manufacturing for themselves. If they loose sight of this comedy and action pairing, they could have one bad movie that drags down the rest of these franchises. That is, of course, the reason for their heavy, central control. It has also influenced all of the other studios.

Sony Pictures holds all of Spider-Man, and Spider-Man’s villains. They want to have the financial success that Disney has enjoyed. That is why they announced movies entirely made out of Spider-Man villains — The Sinister Six, and Venom movies. They even set up as many villains as they could in Amazing Spider-Man 2. They have since announced Amazing Spider-Man 3 will be delayed until 2018. Number two made a lot of money, enough that Sony Picture’s parent, Sony, turned a profit for the quarter. However, it was the smallest amount of money generated by any of the Spider-Man movies to date. It is very likely that the franchise will see another reboot. Sony had, after all, delayed Spider-Man 4 with Raimi still attached to the project until they could announce Amazing Spider-Man. The technicalities of their licensing arrangement with Marvel insure that the property is being developed, or it reverts back to Disney’s control — something that many people, including Ben Kuchera, call to happen.

Fox is seeing success with its X-Men license. This is why you will not see a single mutant in any of the Disney films, Fox owns them all, not just the X-Men, and they’re looking to make more movies with mutants to capitalize on the kind of multi franchise success Disney has seen. They have also been keeping a Fantastic Four movie under development for quite a while, it’s slated to be a reboot. The odds are high they will tie their X-Men franchises in with their Fantastic Four franchises.

DC, Warner Bros., has never had any central control structure like Marvel’s, but they own all of the DC properties, not just some. The upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie will be the first time they put these characters together. It will have very large ramifications for them. They have been unable to organize any kind of a movie around any of their other characters — save for the bomb, Green Lantern. They have repeatedly courted creators about a Justice League movie — including Joss Whedon before he gave up and made Marvel’s The Avengers.

Good Comic Book Movie is not the same as Great Movie

The reception for these comic book movies has been off the charts. They are crowd pleasers — when they work. When they don’t work, they are $200 Million holes in the ground. When I say that I have nits to pick about Guardians it is not because I hate it, or that I dislike it. It’s because I want the individual films to have strength, and confidence in being themselves, comfortable in their own right, as a priority over satisfying the larger demands of setting up future movies. I am not some joyless monster.

[Dancing Groot]

2014-08-04 09:17:54

Category: text

Joe Watches Firefly

A few weeks ago, I joked that Firefly was not for me. I don’t even recall the context — something about horses in space. There’s no real malice, the show just didn’t click with me when it first aired. (I did troll Casey Liss once… or fifteen times…)

I was a fan of Buffy, and I was a huge fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (original version, the remake wasn’t out yet), Babylon 5, Farscape, and even Stargate SG-1. The guy that made Buffy making a space show?! Great, sign me up!

Unfortunately, I don’t like the American Old West genre, and it was very clear in the first few episodes that it was going to be more horses than space ships. This is not something unique to Firefly, a lot of science-fiction shows have one-off episodes with Western flair. I happen to not like those either.

I ignored the rest of it’s short run. However, I reconsidered my position when I saw how much the fans of the show loved it. Maybe I should have stuck with it? After all, most of the other sci-fi stuff I’ve seen usually had a weak first season (sometimes two, or three seasons). How do you even recommend the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation to people that never saw it? Do you even tell them to start at the beginning?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t about to buy a DVD set for something I might not like. I thought I’d let the movie Serenity make up my mind back in 2005. Surely, that movie would be great, right? No inept execs from Fox mucking things up, a big budget, a very specific window of time to tell the story — surely all that must be a great experience. I even liked their use of Kasabian in the trailer for Serenity.

The movie didn’t do it for me — for different reasons than the episodes I had watched. This left me unconvinced to spring for the DVD set of the show.

Flash forward to my jokes about Firefly in the present day, and I was confronted with a lot of people that not only love the show, but don’t want to hear any criticism of it — particularly from someone that won’t put the effort in to watch it. It’s on Netflix these days, so I watched it all. (Turns out they also don’t want to hear your criticism of it when you watch it either.)

This ginormous blog post is not for people that can’t stand to hear any criticism of Firefly. I do say positive things, and this isn’t just a giant troll (I would never put this much time in to a troll), but this still may not be what you’d like to hear from me.

The show was written by some of the best writers in modern film and television, and by one of the most acclaimed showrunners and moviemakers alive. It has a lot of merits because of that, and it deserves the love it gets from people that can see past the things that I can not. All I can do is explain what does, and does not, appeal to me as a viewer.

Firefly (TV Show)

Theme Song


I do not like country music, or westerns — therefore I do not like these credits. I can see how someone might feel very strongly about the message of the lyrics in the opening, but it does nothing for me. I honestly put it up there with “Faith of the Heart” from the opening credits for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I know, I have no soul, or whatever.

Serenity (Original Pilot)


This is messy because it’s trying to establish a lot of properties of the universe. It is basically the length of a feature film though so it should be able to establish those principles and tell a good story. The casting is very good, but many things feel contrived. The idea of language changing is nice, but doing so much with language in the first episode is very distracting when you’re trying to pay attention to who these characters are. The wild west qualities are also overwhelming and stick out as very strange when they’re paired with the high-tech stuff. Foot soldiers with WWII-style helmets fighting with guns while green-flamed space fighters whizz overhead is more problematic than it is interesting. Why would that make any sense? This was also a weakness in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when they attempted to show ground battles being waged during the Dominion War, but some were better than others. Attempting to graft very old war elements visually on to far-future elements is clunky. We do not know who these people are, or what is going on, so it’s a lot of camera motion for naught. Later episodes do a much better job at capturing why we should feel something about this war.

The world-building of the Alliance and Reaver elements feels so completely out of place with the rest of the tone of the episode. The Alliance’s space-skyscrapers, staffed by train-conductors, are just odd. They seem to make no logical sense. The reavers, aren’t effective bad guys because they’re boogeymen that don’t turn out to be all that scary in the episode. The chase is interesting, but the Reavers are a faceless (heh) enemy here.

The horses — why? There’s a lot going on and no one is particularly likable here. There are solid ideas but not much character. A lot of pilots are like this though. After all, it’s about selling the idea of the show to executives, and demonstrating there are enough ideas to mine for future episodes. There surely are. At least there weren’t space jellyfish, wormhole aliens, or a Temporal Cold War. It was also a good thing no one cast Eliza Dushku to show off her acting range.

The Train Job


This episode is more coherent, which is ironic since Wikipedia says Tim Minear and Joss Whedon wrote it as a replacement pilot at the request of Fox. There are problems with the pacing, and with the cheese-ball quality of the bad guys. “Look at me, I’m scary Russian-accented guy. I carve up my nephew-in-law. So evil!” Which is even more ludicrous when we see that the henchman has a whole crew of guys. Why couldn’t they just steal it themselves? This is the first in a long line of cartoonish bad guys. There are funny moments, and some tension, but it drags a lot when we’re getting to know the town sheriff. We need to get to know him because we have to agree with Mal to leave the medical supplies, but we never see this sheriff, or this town, again so it’s kind of a waste. We do clearly set up that Mal is a shoots-first Han Solo, and not Captain Picard.



Standard spooky ship stuff. It’s well directed, and it’s nice because it’s actually in space. What a crazy notion, right? A show about space that takes place in space? Crazy! I liked it well enough but the introduction of the Alliance ship brought the whole episode to a screeching halt and it was totally unnecessary and slowed down everything. The episode would have been better had they discarded that element and made it just about the crew and the survivor.



This episode is supposed to be about Inara and Mal, but it’s really about Kaylee and her magnificent dress. She is a wonderful country-mouse, and the expression on her face when she enters that ballroom will win over any one. There is absolutely nothing bad that anyone can ever say about Kaylee, she is great. The party is suitably ludicrous, as is our foe this week, Atherton. He is a cartoon Disney villain.

No one’s been like [Atherton]
A king pin like [Atherton]
No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like [Atherton]
As a specimen, yes I’m intimidating!
My what a guy, that [Atherton]



This episode sets us down on another planet that looks suspiciously like Southern California, and a spare western town. The scene with Kaylee and Inara in the General Store is nice and a perfect set up for Simon to be a total jerk to Kaylee. He looks down on everyone like some kind of snob. He shouldn’t look down on things people love! (cough) Back to the review…

The exposition about Simon and River’s abduction is something that seems peculiar. The people in the normal town tolerate a town that kidnaps people? Uh… OK? The whole thing about burning her as a witch is suitably cliche, but it does establish that she can read minds.

Our Mrs. Reynolds


Christina Hendricks is absolutely fantastic here. She knocks it out of the park in every way. Her character turning on them is predictable, but the way it unfolds is engrossing. (You can mostly win me over on execution alone.) The scene where she’s putting the moves on Wash is hilarious because the cat’s already out of the bag about her intentions. The scene with her and Inara on the catwalk is a riot as well. The real cherry on top of it is when Inara goes to check on Mal and kisses him, dropping out cold. Love this one.



This one is a big, muddy mess. It starts off with smalltalk that contradicts what happened in the previous episode. Many scenes in the episode are written to be comedic, but they wind up being goofy. There are some fun exchanges, like when Simon asks for a menu, but overall it’s contrived and heavy-handed. This is pretty unsurprising because it’s written by Ben Edlund, most famous for The Tick. Ordinarily, I love what he does, but this episode did not click for me. I fault the silly bad guys.

Out of Gas


This is HANDS DOWN the best episode of Firefly and better than the movie. It is a tremendously good episode for any science fiction television show and I’d put it up there with the best episodes of any other series. I would wager that it’s possible for someone to watch this episode in total isolation from the rest of the series and love the show. It is very different from the episodes before or after it, in terms of tone, writing, directing, editing. I am puzzled about why it’s such an anomaly in the series.

Tim Minear wrote it, and while he’s written and produced much of Firefly this is the first time they’ve split up an episode in time like this. Other episodes have singular flashbacks that don’t weave in like this. The episode is also directed by David Solomon, the only time he directs an episode of the series, which may explain some of its uniqueness.



More like Ariel Eleven, am I right? It’s a heist in the style of Ocean’s Eleven, instead of a train heist, like the appropriately named The Train Job. There was nice little twist (not that Jayne gave them up to the police, but that they didn’t assume he was guilty of doing it). The Hands of Blue guys finally do something and it’s creepy, and neat (but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to kill people like that. What if River was nearby?) Even though this episode goes back to kind of format that the episodes before Out of Gas used, it is much stronger than those prior episodes. The character work here is great and really speaks to the talents of the writers and the actors. Especially the scene at the end of the episode.

War Stories


Ugh. The Russian guy from The Train Job is torturing someone, again. The crew did not seem to appropriately plan for being in orbit around the station that houses someone that’s sworn to torture them to death. If I block him out, the episode is good because it shows the crew working through some personal issues. The torture scenes could have been tedious, but it was helped out with heavy doses of Mal and Wash arguing. The rescue is daring, but it really made me question how the Russian guy is so feared. His guys were pushovers. We do see the unsettling first glimpse of River’s combat abilities. Although, I had already seen Serenity so it was not as big of a surprise for me as it was for Kaylee.



Saffron returns and it’s very funny. I still don’t see how any of the crew would agree to work with her again, but they do because otherwise we wouldn’t have another cool Saffron episode where she betrays Mal. To be clear, it is evident from the first time we see her that she will betray him again, no one would debate that. The twist with Inara was nice though. I could watch Inara and Saffron say catty things to each other for 44 minutes.

The Message


Another Tim Minear episode. The Sentinel is in it! Unfortunately, The War is also in it. Again, we are treated to a ground assault that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What the episode really does right is sell us on the idea of this man that’s too damaged by war to find a way in the world. A man that schemes and blames others when things go badly. While Tracey was Mal and Zoe’s charge, they ultimately are the two people that fatally wound him. First Zoe shoots him, then Mal. According to Wikipedia this was the last episode filmed, and everyone knew the show was canceled by this point, which adds another layer to the funeral.

Heart of Gold


We’re back to planet Southern California, only this time, they covered a house in tin foil — I mean REYNOLDS Wrap. Get it? Because Mal Rey— nevermind. The interior of the house is also wallpapered with newspapers. You know, old-timey space-newspapers. None of the production design in this episode makes any sense to me. The people making the show even felt compelled to include a line about the foil being for solar use, which should be a huge red-flag that maybe covering the house in foil is more distracting than not covering it in foil.

The bad guy is rich enough to buy fancy, illegal sidearms but not rich enough to pay for a surrogate to have a baby. The bad guy is also a horrible, horrible cartoon character. It’s really disappointing, after all the work they did in the last few episodes that they went back to the goofy villain. A guy that has a bunch of people indiscriminately fire weapons in to a house where his “heir” is in. How’s that for strategy! We are also treated to more of the “blaster” sound effects for some of the guns.

I do love this exchange though:

Kaylee: Wash, tell me I’m pretty.
Wash: Were I unwed, I’d take you in a manly fashion.
Kayless: Because I’m pretty?
Wash: Because you’re pretty.

There is still real heart and emotion in his episode with the relationship with Inara, and Mal. Neither of them tells the other how they feel and Mal sleeps with Inara’s friend. Inara announces that she’s leaving and it’s really gut wrenching stuff. It’s too bad about all the goofy shit with Crazy Baby Theif!

Objects in Space


Another unique episode, and it starts off from the perspective of River. For the first time the audience can see an inkling of what she’s thinking. It’s clear from the very first episode that she is able to see, and react, to things that she should not be able to.

Wash: Psychic. That sounds like something out of science fiction.
Zoe: We live on a space ship, dear.

The bounty hunter is a very, very strange lion. He certainly had some peculiar quirks, but he wasn’t nearly as goofy as Crazy Baby Thief. It was a very odd note to end the series on, of course, because they weren’t planning on ending the series there. They showed the photo on his ship at the start of the episode, so you knew it would come in to play in the third act. When Simon went searching they lingered on the space suit locker so it was obvious she was in a space suit. It is a pity that the episode was cancelled at this point. While the episode is good, and includes a kooky villain, it doesn’t tie up anything.

The Whole TV Run


After watching the series run, I can only conclude that the show could have continued to improve with a second season, and adequate marketing from Fox. However, even in the episodes that I like, there’s a streak of ridiculous stuff. Let’s be clear that when I say “goofy” I don’t mean “funny ha-ha” I mean that it’s embellishment that distracts you from the story and kicks you out of the episode for a second. Like when I wrote about Star Trek: Voyager and I said that Janeway’s foes tended to have ridiculous flaws, like the Kazon having fleets of starships but no water. That’s kind of what a lot of the situations felt like, they’d sort of throw the logic of “we have a spaceship” out the window.

Serenity (The Motion Picture)


The opening sequence has the kind of budget that finally makes The Verse feel like a grand space. The escape sequence is interesting, since we never saw that escape in the show. Unfortunately, we have a cartoon villain with a pseudo-samurai complex. Joss loves killing and threatening henchmen to show how villainous and singleminded the antagonist is.

The camera work in Serenity’s interior is indulgent, to say the least. A long shot like this really shouldn’t call attention to itself in this way.

When I saw this movie, I thought the Old West elements were too ham fisted, but after watching the TV series, and watching the movie again, the movie shows a level of finesse and reserve in comparison to the TV show. Fortunately, there are no foil-covered houses.

The introduction of the Reavers really does them justice. They could never have done anything close to this on the TV show’s budget. The only time we saw reaver activity was the pilot episode, and Bushwhacked. This leaves a lot of room for the movie, particularly since no reaver was seen on camera before the movie, only their ships, or the aftermath of an attack.

The chase in the mule has a few technical problems where the camera crosses the line of action, and where the Reaver ship criss crosses as well. They are suitably established as a menace in the film, with a firmer footing than The Operative.

The scene where River beats up the entire bar when she gets the coded signal in the advertisement baffled me when I first saw it and it still baffles me. If They’ve been running around in space for eight months, why did the Alliance wait to use this? Why is she in a bar without Simon and with Mal there? Why is there a safe word now, one he could have used on at least two other occasions?

Mr. Universe is goofy. I had always assumed he was in the show before the movie, but that’s not the case. Needless to say the hacker work he does has all the hallmarks of every other Hollywood hacker scene. Translating the animation in to layers and turning it in to Matrix code is the visual cliche to go along with the dialog.

There is a touching scene between Simon and River and it’s a welcome break, and a reminder that there’s good writing, acting, and directing in here. I really want to highlight this as being very, very good.

The exposition delivered by Shepard Book is clumsy. It is a shame. Again, The Operative stuff is ponderous. Having seen the series, I can only wonder why the two men with blue gloves aren’t in the movie at all. Why go to all this trouble to introduce this guy when there was already a set of Alliance agents? I guess they would have been worse at hand-to-hand combat, what with those latex gloves and all.

Whedon Bad Guy Formula:

  1. Show they are nuts by having them kill someone on their side, preferably after a long speech.
  2. Introduce a novel way to kill them, with some telltale signs.
  3. Use some of those telltale signs as a cue to the audience to build up to peril for the heroes, like the pattern of a Boss in a video game.

Summer Glau does an absolutely brilliant job in this movie. Every twitch of her face, every glance, and incline of her head.

One weird thing with the Miranda briefing is that they talk about “Reaver Territory” but in the show there was no such thing. They were a “myth” on the show. However, in the movie, they do go out of their way to make them a concrete force in The Verse.

I’m sort of baffled about why they killed Shepard Book. The Operative also somehow crossfades in over all the feeds that Mal is looking at when he’s getting footage of each of his murdered contacts. The Operative continues to be a loopy weirdo, and they have a contrived conversation, again. This does drive Mal to a really dark place though, a place he never went to in the TV show. Not even when he was being tortured by Crazy Russian Guy.

The clustering of Reaver ships doesn’t make any real sense, only dramatic sense. This is space, guys, come on.

The bleached-out processing and the jump cuts add a sense of unease to all the Miranda scenes. The exposition delivered by the hologram is your standard “The Experiment Went Wrong” stuff though. Labs experimenting on people sure do love to leave these kinds of recordings lying around in Hollywood movies.

Strange observation: Not a single one of the Alliance ships is the same as the ones from the TV series. We’ve also never seen an accumulation of Allaince vessels like this before. The dogfighting makes very little practical sense. I criticized the show for not having enough outer space stuff, but because they’ve never had anything close to this, it feels out of place. It’s also 4 minutes of absolute chaos. If this all came down to a horse shootout it would have been more apt (though I would not have found that very exciting). The sprinkling of “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Is great through it.

Unfortunately, they kill Wash. This is surely the craziest, dumbest death I’ve seen in a science fiction movie. There was no bold sacrifice, nor was there a heroic stance, he just gets smote by the writer’s pen. Before anyone can process his death, we are propelled in to the final gunfight. Sure, “war is hell” and all that, but this is a strange time to get gritty and real about death. I don’t think it has the effect on the audience that Whedon may have been hoping for.

When Mal enters the room to send the transmission all I could think of was the scene from 1997’s Galaxy Quest which parodied the nonsensical, deadly innards of starships. There are counter-spinning thingies, chains looped, and dangling — It’s all just too much. Having him fight the bad guy would have been enough without the goofball deathtrap.

Gwen DeMarco: What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn’t have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here? Jason Nesmith: ‘Cause it’s on the television show. Gwen DeMarco: Well forget it! I’m not doing it! This episode was badly written!

We cut back to the loosing battle at the bottleneck and things are going badly, but it’s not ridiculous. Too bad they ruin it with “The door could be closed from the outside.” — How would that help? Wouldn’t they just be able to open the door? Requiring the med kit, made more sense.

Good news everyone, The Operative changes his mind because of the recording from Miranda, which seems totally out of character for him, because he’s a sociopath. He’s been threatening and killing all manner of people without batting an eyelash up until this point. He lets them all go and they make a holographic memorial to the people that needlessly died. They somehow got Serenity off the planet and repaired — Because, of course, the Alliance was all “My Bad, Bros. Let’s help!” Does the Alliance lack actuaries? It’s confounding to take away Wash and Book, but still go for the sappy ending where the ship is all fixed up (except for that one panel). I should not be angry at a happy ending. That doesn’t really seem right to me.

2014-07-31 16:29:19

Category: text

Et Tu, Ed?

In a post on Pando Daily, Mark Ames pulled up evidence and testimony concerning a gentleman’s agreement to keep wages down in visual effects and animation industry. What is absolutely crazy to me is that it concerns my former employer resisting Ed Catmull. This completely blew my mind when I read it. Mark Ames makes some pretty ridiculous characterizations in his writing, but the court documents speak for themselves.

Pando Daily has a lot of problems. A whole lot of problems. I generally ignore their reporting because they can do some really sloppy hatchet jobs. However, I can’t ignore Ed Catmull’s own words.

Up until I read this, I held Ed Catmull in the highest regard. He brilliantly contributed to the science of computer graphics, and animation, and worked for a ground-breaking computer animation company. In Ed Catmull’s recently released book, Creativity Inc., he goes out of his way to talk about how important it is to analyze failures and to not be too comfortable with success. These anticompetitive business practices do not come up. What a shame.

Their first article in this series by Mark Ames contains other truly unexpected testimony.

2014-07-10 14:47:18

Category: text


Yesterday, the Bionic podcast, with Matt Alexander and Myke Hurley, ended. It was one of my favorite podcasts. I started listening to it when it was over on Myke’s 70 Decibels podcast network. I followed through the 5by5 transition, and onward. Every week, Matt and Myke would discuss some tech announcements — usually things unrelated to Apple — and go over how they might impact the market. Matt was very pro-disruption, and Myke was very cautiously optimistic. What made it unique, at that time, was the banter between them. Little in-jokes, and innuendos filled in the gaps around what they were talking about. Myke was vigilant to keep the show from going off the rails, always pulling Matt back from excess, until one day…

Episode 51, United Queendom, was when the show pivoted. Myke let the train jump the tracks, and it just kept going. Instead of a technology show with flourishes of personality, it was all personality. Pop culture, and mock technology coverage threaded through with in-jokes becoming stronger, and more thought-out. It was two British guys, on the phone, just using their imagination to build a baffling little world.

I loved the change of pace for the show. I was not sure how long it would last — if they’d just decide it wasn’t working and veer back towards sanity, but after a couple months, I was reasonably certain that wasn’t happening. Around this time, I had started the silly iTunes reviews. I wrote something based on their weeks of insanity — their world building — and I put out the review on the iTunes store. Their Volcano lair, fire wall, all the details were lifted from their episodes. Apparently, Matt noticed it and decided to do a reading with Myke in Episode 64, Confidential at Best, at 30 minutes in. I was a little worried I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was, but they apparently liked it. They even asked for a full movie screenplay for Confidential at Best, which I scribbled out, and have since hidden away from humanity because it is so bad. So. Bad.

From time to time, Matt or Myke would mention that a podcast episode was going off script from what I had written — as if I was writing any of their brilliant insanity — and I must say it was flattering. I didn’t write the stuff for the attention from them, but I did write it to hopefully entertain them, as some kind of modest reciprocation for their own entertainment they were providing me.

I was not alone in wanting to return a little something back to them, some fan art for them to stick to their refrigerators. It is probably a sign of mental illness that so many people would just make things out of sheer love of the show. But it’s a marvelous mental illness. I count many of them as internet-friends on Twitter. It helped take my mind off of things to scribble-out some ridiculous, creative nonsense.

From Matt Alexander’s farewell post:

Personally, whilst going through periods of intense self-doubt and worry regarding Need and the future, Bionic represented a moment — albeit brief — of respite, ridiculousness, and disconnection from reality. I know it was emblematic of something similar for Myke, too.

Fortunately, I was able to listen to the entire live broadcast of the last episode yesterday. I was shocked when Myke plugged Defocused as a place for Bionic fans to go, and even more shocked when he said it was one of his favorite podcasts he listens to right now. Myke was correct to disclaim his recommendation by acknowledging that Dan and I had only 3 episodes (4 now), and that we could go “bat poop crazy”.

I’m glad I could listen while everything was closed up, and packed away. I am so sorry to see it go. It’s like a TV series ending. There are some you wish could go on forever, and some you wish had ended long ago. It is for the best they are in the former camp, instead of the latter, but that doesn’t mean I will miss their weekly lunacy any less.

My Super-Favorite Episodes (in no sane order):

2014-07-09 12:13:19

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Incomparable 200

If you don’t follow The Incomparable podcast, then please don’t start with episode 200. If you do follow The Incomparable podcast, then block out 3 hours and 45 minutes of your life for the epic podcast.

I really love the podcast, in general. It’s fans talking about things that they are, and sometimes are not, fans of. There’s a wide variety of topics, and they’ve even started some specialized spin-offs.

Spoiler Horn:

I wrote in to them with a question that was read on air once. They said my name was not real. I also wrote a somewhat insane, and unhelpful, iTunes review of their podcast from the point of view of an alternate universe version of the panel reviewing this universe. I did not win that iTunes review contest, but it was worth it. I also wrote a silly version of “The Fog” for them when Jason Snell put out a challenge for silly fan fic. I do also make a brief appearance in the 200th episode, because they had a contest for fans to pick their favorite episodes of the podcast. David Loehr, a panelist, and a very sharp guy that writes their audio dramas, also gives me a little shout out at the end of episode 200 too.

That should give you some idea of how much I like the podcast. It should also tell you how I should be committed for psychiatric evaluation.

It’s just nerdy, nerdy, nerd stuff all the way down.

2014-06-30 22:42:43

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