Unauthoritative Pronouncements

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Screenplays and Storyboards, Sitting in a Git Branch

I am a big fan of the Fountain markup language. It allows for some really interesting approaches to a creative writing space that haven’t been able to progress much with one company holding all the cards. This morning, I saw Stu Maschwitz tweet about this new Storyboard Fountain app from Charles Forman, and Chris Smoak. In very tiny letters, all the way at the bottom, they acknowledge that there are probably very few writers that use tablets, and that an iPad app would probably have more appeal. Interestingly, the whole thing is MIT licensed on GitHub. Unfortunately, it uses Node.js, which is why it’s currently a desktop-only app. That kind of explains a lot. (I guess with a web view…)

Just thinking about someone — anyone — using this to think about how they’ll shoot something before they start shooting it fills me with hope for the future. People underestimate the value in that kind of planning.

Indeed, Charles’ blog post is chock full-o-reasons why it’s a good idea to use storyboards. Like, knowing what you need, and saving money.

This tool is a fancy way to organize sketches. Being excited about this tool, is like being excited about a notebook, instead of being excited about all the great ideas you’re going to write in it. I’m excited to build a tool to help a better process, and ultimately make better work.

I disagree with Charles here. If there’s one thing the internet can do, it’s show you how excited people are about notebooks.

2014-06-10 16:32:00

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The Sprawling, Booming LA Tech Scene is Having a Moment ►

Recode posted a thorough piece where writer Nellie Bowles traveled around the LA metropolitan area and interviewed founders of tech startups about how being in LA, instead of Silicon Valley, has helped them. After feeling so down about this city recently, it’s a little heartening to see something can grow here — even if that something happens to Snapchat (cringe). I would definitely say that the people interviewed range from strange to fratty.

There is one sad part that caught my eye:

At an old steel-and-concrete special-effects studio along the main drag in Santa Monica, Peter Pham and Mike Jones have set up an incubator called Science. They have a private movie theater with a 25-foot screen and leather seats.

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT - DAY

JOE
(pours one out for Digital Domain)

That’s also technically Venice… Erm. So.

What’s curious about it is that there is an emphasis on being close to film, and television culture. Something that is dwindling in LA. Wouldn’t it be strange to see a shift where tech investment in online ‘content’ starts to make actual entertainment jobs? Not just a few people holding up a smartphone to record something?

Another perpetual starter-upper makes mention of the connection between Hollywood and ‘Madison Avenue’ for advertising. His metaphor is embarrassingly clunky, and makes his advice about the connection here being more natural a dubious one.

2014-06-09 14:39:00

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60 Years

Alan Turing died 60 years ago. Excerpt from a letter he wrote to mathematician Norman Routledge:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think

2014-06-07 13:00:00

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End of an Era - Follow-up

The other day, a friend emailed me to let me know that my post about Imageworks closing in Culver City was up on the VFX Soldier blog. I didn’t know it would find its way there, and I had not talked to Daniel about any of it. The last we spoke was when I ran in to him at a mall, when he was working for Digital Domain years ago. My blog is mostly for personal things, and isn’t a call-to-action, or anything. There was some argument in the comments over on VFX Soldier about pro-LA, anti-Canada, anti-Tax, pro… Etc. That wasn’t what the post was about, it was just about my feelings, and definitely not deep analysis. I winced at the thought of coworkers reading my piece, but I guess that’s just self-doubt about my writing. My blog is basically about nonsense, so please don’t stick around for any further emotional outbursts. Just for the really bad puns, and sarcasm.

💚

2014-06-07 12:45:00

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Form and Function

My favorite, cantankerous snowman wrote about design last night. In Design is How it Works, Dr. Drang argues that people misuse design to talk about how something looks.

Steve Jobs’s [Joe’s note: Take a shot.] “design is how it works” gets a lot of lip service, but when most Apple bloggers and pundits say design they still mean how it looks. Flat design, skeuomorphic design, “clean” design[1] these generate millions of words of heated discussion, but they have little to do with how your computer operates[2]. You could go to the Iconfactory and change every icon on your machine, but that wouldn’t change how you or it work.

He managed to have two footnotes there.

  1. “Clean design = Helvetica + white space.”
  2. “I’m not arguing that how something looks has no effect on how we use it. There’s no question that things like layout, shape, and color can have a profound influence on user interaction. But the features have to be there to interact with.”

I don’t feel like those should be bunched up in a pop-over footnote. By shooing away how things look, he is downplaying an integral component of design. How something looks, and how something works, should not be disclaimers, they should work together. Also, his example of changing the icons is not a good one. Change every icon on your system to be exactly the same icon (pick your poison!) and then tell me it has no baring on how you interact with it.

There are a myriad of different kinds of design. Many shorthand the artsy-fartsy part as ‘design’, which should be corrected to include the engineering, but it shouldn’t exclude the people responsible for the look, because really, both parties are as responsible for the design.

When the doc decries ‘clean design’ he’s right to do so. In almost every case, it is used to describe vast tracts of emptiness padding the elements you read, and interact with, so that the overall look is ‘spacious’. It is more often, cold, spartan, and out of proportion. Google is especially bad at it in their web apps these days. That is bad design, and it’s the fault of someone with an art degree. After all, we all know engineers have beautiful, functional web sites that can be used on any mobile platform.

From Yesterday’s episode of The Prompt podcast, Stephen Hackett, Myke Hurley, and Federico Viticci discuss the necessity of some of the visual changes in iOS 7. Without them, the new mechanics of iOS 8 would be very strange.

Myke: We got iOS 7 to enable iOS 8, and that the design of iOS 7 was done in such a way that iOS 8 would make sense. Because if you think now, like, what they’ve done this year, is so much bigger than what they did last year. What they did last year was just change the way everything looked. In regards to functionality, there was some cool stuff, but it’s nothing like what they added this year. It feels like this is two years of functions. Like if you look, 4,000 new APIs. It seems like too much. Like it’s so much stuff. So I feel like iOS 7 was designed as a groundwork for iOS 8, which Apple probably should have made clear, I think.
Stephen: Well they’re not going to make it clear on the front end. They’re not going to say — Because what are you going to say? Last year, hey we redesigned it but we’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming next year? They’re never going to say that. In hindsight, it’s easy to connect the dots. And I have a couple points to make about OS X when we get there.
Myke: I’m sure that you do.
Stephen: But absolutely, [iOS] 7 was a stepping stone to this. And you see the way these things work, and parts of the interface make a lot of sense. Even down to, and it’s probably dumb, but, like, even trying to get developers go to an interface that’s white, that’s very flat, that makes pulling elements of different apps in to each other, easier, if apps kind of look like they’re in the same family.
Federico: I mean, can you imagine if, this stuff was done in iOS 6? You’d have, like, a metal calculator on top of a wooden, library bookshelf —
Myke: [giggling]
Federico (Continued): — I mean, that would have been crazy, right? Where as the new look of iOS 7, and iOS 8, allows apps to not only be more consistent with themselves, but also with each other.

That is, of course, assuming a lot about the intentions last year. It’s hard to ignore that thought exercise though. You’d double-tap to go to your multi-tasking card view, with a linen background, and linen would still slide down for notification center. ‘Well, you’re being too literal.’ I know, it’s my blog, go get your own blog.

That’s not really worthy of a footnote. People should still talk about the design of what’s changed this year when it comes to functional aspects, and not exclude that important work, but that’s because it is form and function that make up design.

Let’s say you need to design a chair. Sketch out a chair, I’ll wait. No matter what you draw, it will have components of form and function. It will have a supporting structure, part of it will be for resting your tuchus, perhaps it will have back support, lumbar support? You can go on. Whether or not it works is the functional aspect of the design. What it ends up looking like is it’s form. There is no way to completely abstract away form from your chair, it will have it. The aesthetic value of the form speaks to how well the form was designed. A well-designed chair will meet not only functional standards, but aesthetic ones. Shorting either will give you a poorly designed chair. Frank Lloyd Wright designed some beautiful-looking chairs. They are great to sit in.

Even in computer programming there is form and function. An engineer might think he has distilled his well designed program down to just code with a simple command line interface, but it’s still an interface. A text prompt is still a form. Don’t believe me? Go play with a bunch of command line applications and look how they choose to print information back in to the shell for you to read. That is an readability is an aesthetic concern. Even the code for the program has a form. Tabs or spaces? Line breaks between your blocks? Where should your imports go? Functionally, the program will work, form-wise, it’s gross and people will not like you as a person.

I work in a field that requires technical work, like setting up a ‘rig’ of ‘joints’ that need to rotate a certain way in order to function. They need to bind to a rig so they can actually be a character, and they need to render out, all-pretty-like, for people to see. Form and function throughout the pipeline.

Can’t we all just get along? We can all be designers, guys. No need to downplay what each of us contributes to design processes. Surely we can all come together and agree the real enemies to design are the managers.

2014-06-05 12:14:00

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One More Concern…

While I am excited about Swift, I am apprehensive about the frequent use of the word ‘seamless’ during yesterday’s WWDC presentation to describe many other things. Apple is notorious for being really bad at services — or I should say, “not as reliable” as their competitors. They have improved the reliability of these services, but even with the very latest iWork update, they continue to miss the mark. From David Sparks:

Yesterday I had a small writing project with a Mac-savvy client and I decided to do it collaboratively with him using iCloud Pages. I figured that if the application can support 100 collaborators, it should be pretty solid with just two. It still isn’t.

That’s the most recent release of iWork, just days before the WWDC announcement about more, seamless workflows. Color me skeptical.

Every CloudKit Has a Silver Lining

Perhaps what should be encouraging is that CloudKit, and other iCloud services, seem to be different from the infamously bad iCloud implementation of CoreData. Not very many details are out, but a few tweets from programmers attending CloudKit sessions seem to indicate they at least believe it is possible for the service to function appropriately. Perhaps this indicates that some future version of iWork will be updated to include some of these other functions, that it will continue its slow shuffle in the direction of improvement?

“I would only agree that a symbolic [cloud service] is as nourishing to the intellect as a photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.” — Dr. Manhattan

Photographs

Part of this overhaul includes rethinking the storage, and sharing, of photos on your devices. Mac OS X.X and iOS 8 will have some more persistent available storage for your photos, instead of the weird, busted, Photostream system that no one has been happy with. This is good, in theory, but they didn’t go in to a lot of detail about the tools to manage the storage, or to archive, old photos. I am hopeful that they learned their lesson from Photostream, but the fact that there is another new Photos app that won’t ship until “early next year” should be a red flag that this idea hasn’t really been fully tested. This was not an announcement they were making for a project that’s been under development for years, this was something that was far more recent. Let’s focus on the positives… I’m sure it will seamlessly move photos around just in the way that I both want and expect it to. I’m sure.

PhotoKit, however, would seem to solve a problem for some photo apps that want to ingest your photos in to their own storage facility to use their app. Things like VSCOcam. There really isn’t a reason to have a duplicate collection of photos that you need to keep importing from your Camera Roll and exporting to your Camera Roll.

Dropkick

Another strange development in the rat-king that is iCloud services, is that they’ve added some support to directly access other cloud storage solutions. Notably absent were the two biggest, most widely-used cloud storage solutions on the market: Dropbox and Google Drive. Will this mean that there’s going to be a bifurcated experience going forward? If I have data in one of those buckets, like Dropbox, then will I have separate storage widgets popping up using Extensions? That would seem to make for a less than ideal user experience! I’d hardly apply the word ‘seamless’ to that. While Extensions can solve many problems that users experience, they can also create new problems if every developer chooses to carve out “me-me-me” space for themselves. A year from now, when people go to save files, are they going to get a list of 10+ services they can save to? When they open a file, are they going to immediately remember what service it was saved on? When they go to save it, will they know to return it to the same place? Particularly if some services choose extensions, or built-in Dropbox browsers?

No One Will Ever Need More Than Five Gigabytes

They have three tiers.

  1. 5 GB for free.
  2. 20 GB for $.99 a month.
  3. 200 GB for $2.99 a month.
  4. Plans up to 1 TB for ? a month.

The top end is a good value, relative to Dropbox, but the low end is laughable. I am fine paying for it, but as Bradley Chambers notes on his blog:

While people reading this article understand that $.99 is cheap for 20 GB, a lot of regular people will just not pay any amount of money for it. They will just use up their 5 GB and then nothing else will be uploaded or backed up. When they drop their phone in the pool, they will still be upset that some of their photos aren’t backed up. Google offers 15 GB for Google Drive as the starter plan. We can argue about business models all day long, but the bottom line is that things like automatic backup with a ton of storage for free helps sell devices.

Preach, Brad. Like I said, I am fine with it, but I am unlikely to run in to normals that will put down money for this. We exchanged some tweets about this the other day, and I noted that if Apple makes it sufficiently frictionless to enter, and sufficiently frictionless to auto-renew, then perhaps people will participate. Here’s an article with data from a Rutgers University study on pricing.

Maybe They Got the Message?

iMessage is one of those services that has steadily improved over the years. It continues to have hiccups, and rough patches, and it’s never really clear when an iMessage will just bounce off one device, and hit another one you aren’t using. It’s ‘magical’ that way, I guess. Still, very reluctant to call this ‘seamless’. When I’m at my Mac, and the Messages app is closed, I will get a new iMessage that will show as a red badge. If I read, but do not reply to it on my phone, the red badge persists. That’s not accurate, let alone seamless.

While they announced many features yesterday for Messages app, some of them are using new techniques to piggyback on your iPhone to get audio, and text data on to your Mac. No mention is made of progress on the other weird bugs in iMessage during the WWDC keynote, but perhaps by consolidating it all to go through your iPhone it will be less buggy? I am given to understand that part of the problem with synchronizing the notifications was the way every device deals with encrypted connections to the server. If your phone is a single conduit then it may increase reliability and presence awareness because it is dealing with one channel instead of two? The last thing I want is for EVERY thing to ring like in the bad, old days when every single device you owned always got a notification.

Having said all that, I will give Apple the benefit of all of my doubts and download Yosemite when it is available.

2014-06-04 14:50:00

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Swift Excitement

Of all of the many announcements from Apple’s WWDC yesterday, the one that seemed to pique the interest of the largest number of people in attendance, online, and in my living room, was the premiere of Swift. Apple has been the subject of some ridicule for their Objective-C language for many years. A lot of blog-ink has been spilled, and a lot of audio has been recorded, with people arguing for and against adopting a new programming language. I happened to be in the camp that thought they needed develop one, but that was purely for selfish reasons. I’ve wanted to make applications — nothing profitable, marketable, or really all that interesting. Just to put together a little something-something for myself to make task X, or Y easier. One might say, “to scratch an itch.”

Objective-C melts my brain. It is a hideous monstrosity of a language, covered in warts. I know why it is that way. Many consider that a feature, and a testament to the original design. As someone that didn’t grow up using C-based languages, those reasons mean very little to me. I have none of that development baggage. All I want to do is get in, and get out. Have my tactical strike run of a few lines of something I can read, and be done with it. This isn’t just a barrier to adoption for me, but for many. The reason to learn Objective-C is to do something with Apple’s platforms that require it.

As I’ve said before, my ability to do anything at all stems from using graphics software that uses embedded Python interpreters to provide scripting, or expression, functionality. That’s why I know enough Python 2.7 to configure a Twisted settings.py file for multiple, virtual hosts, and to write a stupid static blog engine, and other proprietary pipeline scripts. I don’t know enough to do anything super-important, because what I consider to be super-important is programming a GUI, not CLI stuff. Tons more people know JavaScript because they’ve had to tinker with it for the web. These things are not completely dissimilar to one another.

That’s what’s so valuable about Swift. It integrates all the things I want to make with a language I can read and understand. I don’t have an iOS, or Mac Apple Developer account yet, but I probably will. It is too enticing to think about writing little pet apps for myself.

Just how easy is it to understand it given my limited background? Well if you understand:

print('Hello World')

Then you’ll understand:

println('Hello World')

Blocks aren’t exactly the way I’d like them ({} cruft), but they’re easy to interpolate between the two in your head:

mydict = {'apple':0, 'blackberry':0}
for key,val in mydict:
    if key == 'apple':
        val = 1

Compared:

var mydict = ["apple":0, "blackberry":0]
for (key,val) in mydict {
    if key == "apple" {
        val = 1
    }
}

If you already know one of these similar languages then this is approachable as fuck. If you don’t know one, then at least it’s equally cryptic! The only part I foresee being potentially confusing for me is the difference between var and let which I’m sure I will get wrong 50% of the time.

Next Generation of Programmers

I don’t recall seeing many Apple developers maintain a personal site where they publish any information about how something internal was developed, but Chris Lattner has done just that. Excerpt from his site.

I started work on the Swift Programming Language (wikipedia) in July of 2010. I implemented much of the basic language structure, with only a few people knowing of its existence. A few other (amazing) people started contributing in earnest late in 2011, and it became a major focus for the Apple Developer Tools group in July 2013.

The Swift language is the product of tireless effort from a team of language experts, documentation gurus, compiler optimization ninjas, and an incredibly important internal dogfooding group who provided feedback to help refine and battle-test ideas. Of course, it also greatly benefited from the experiences hard-won by many other languages in the field, drawing ideas from Objective-C, Rust, Haskell, Ruby, Python, C#, CLU, and far too many others to list.

The Xcode Playgrounds feature and REPL were a personal passion of mine, to make programming more interactive and approachable. The Xcode and LLDB teams have done a phenomenal job turning crazy ideas into something truly great. Playgrounds were heavily influenced by Bret Victor’s ideas, by Light Table and by many other interactive systems. I hope that by making programming more approachable and fun, we’ll appeal to the next generation of programmers and to help redefine how Computer Science is taught.

A beautiful sentiment. It made me feel bad for laughing when I read this.

Cons

There are some not-great things about Swift that are immediately obvious right out of the gate.

  1. It was not, and will not be, developed in the open so that people will have advanced knowledge of new features in the language, or be able to propose, or respond to, features in the language.
  2. It can’t be run on any other operating system. (You could write a web service in Swift, but it would need to run on Apple hardware.)
  3. The development IDE, Playground, looks great, but that will be the IDE.
  4. Security. Apple is the only one that will really be able to do anything with the guts of the language, and the compiler. Not that anything would happen.
  5. It is not one of many, similar, existing languages.

Those are ALL the things I expect of any Apple language. I don’t expect them to start a standards body where people can weigh in on this stuff. Pfft. What possible incentive is there for them to do that when the goal is not to increase adoption of the language on competing platforms, but to increase adoption of their platforms.

A few, long-time Objective-C developers seem to be averse to Swift. Todd Ditchendorf, former Apple developer, and developer of commercial software, like Fluid, was beside himself on Twitter yesterday. Todd loves Objective-C, and he sees Swift as inferior. I mentioned to him that I was excited about it, because it would help get more people to write software for Apple’s platform, to which he replied:

@joesteel I’m sorry, you must be looking for rational @iTod. You’re currently speaking with emotionally violated @iTod.

Todd’s been linking to complaints against Swift, so anyone interested in seeing this from another angle should definitely be following him. He linked to this piece by David Flanagan, a Mozilla programmer.

The fact that Apple treats a new programming language as a WWDC surprise, says a lot about Apple’s culture, I guess. If I wrote software targeting Apple hardware (or managed people who did) I don’t think I’d be happy at all about having a new language dropped on me from the blue—here’s the new language you’ll be using from now on… go learn it right away!

Naturally, I think David is overstating the urgency to adopt Swift swiftly. Its very design allows it to run alongside Objective-C code — of course it would. It is in Apple’s own interest not to invalidate the a language that is used for everything in both of their operating systems. The reason it was unveiled was to increase excitement about future development. To give guidance that there is a direction things will go eventually. Apple famously had Carbon and Cocoa frameworks for doing things in OS X for a really long time before they deprecated Carbon. There’s no way they expect an overnight switch, as David argues.

Back to the security concern: Unicode. There is a delightful part of Apple’s Swift book that shows unicode characters, and emoji, being used in variable assignment. This is neat, and great for developers of other languages. Python 3 also lets people do this and Armin Ronacher, a prominent developer, has pointed out that it is very possible to include backdoors in code if you substitute certain, lookalike unicode characters. I have not been able to test a similar situation under Swift, but I’d be curious to see how they avoid the same pitfall.

Who Else is Pumped?!

I am! Are you?

2014-06-03 14:50:00

Category: text


Contributing to Film Development

UPDATE: Rob Bredow, the Chief Technology Officer at Sony Pictures Imageworks for many, many years, is moving to ILM instead of staying with Sony Pictures Imageworks after the Vancouver move. I didn’t interact personally with Rob ever, but I would not be breaking any NDA to point out that he was crucial to the development of everything I mention below. Not just the development, but of the open source contributions that have benefited so many companies, large and small. More in David S. Cohen’s Variety article.

Original Post:

In my last post, on the loss of Imageworks as a local institution, I was pretty focused on my personal feelings. There are some practical things to consider though. Imageworks was staffed not only by artists, but also with brilliant software engineers. Every visual effects studio has a budget for software engineers. You just do. They set up a pipeline where resources can move between multiple software packages, and through the hands of many people. When I started in the industry, companies were starting to open up to open source, free software. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) distributed OpenEXR so that all studios could handle passing around image files without resorting to ancient, limited image formats.

Imageworks, similarly, started to release tools as open source and they’ve been adopted across the industry. Not just with other studios bolting on the tools to existing software, but with third party software vendors integrating them. The effect is so large that the Sony engineers have won Academy Awards for their technical work.

  • Alembic - When animating geometry, every software package handles not just the geometry data differently, but the way in which the surfaces deform. Imagine a puppet rig inside a character, and you want to hand it off to another vendor. Their software isn’t the same, or its a different version, and that delicate puppet rig breaks. Alembic lets you bake out, on frames, sub-frames, everything before it is handed off. Then the other software loads only this baked geometry, no delicate rig that can break, or have precision issues.
  • Field3D - A common format for storing voxel data. Things like smoke clouds, explosions, etc. Like Alembic, this is baked per frame, or sub-frame.
  • Maya Reticle - Autodesk Maya pretty standard for animation and layout work these days. This improves looking through the camera in the software, so it’s a little more niche.
  • OpenColorIO - This is huge. Color is fucked up. Seriously. If you’ve ever worked with images, and thought “gee, that looks different on my computer in Photoshop” you might be able to empathize with the problem. Imagine a world where color management was totally unified, and actually implemented. No more ‘let’s just assume this is sRGB’ in software. Jeremy Selan, the chief developer, won an Academy Award for this in 2014.
  • Open Shading Language - OSL is an ambitious project to create an open standard for how to write shader code for any render package. Pixar recently announced that they would add support OSL in to Renderman.
  • Pystring - Python string handling in C++. I don’t do anything in C++ but I always thought this looked cool.
  • Scala Migrations - I don’t want to use this one, but I’m glad it exists.
  • Pyp - This one is fun. I’ve posted about it before. You can do all kinds of neat stuff on the command line. It is most useful if you are working with lots of directories, or need to transform file paths. It’s something you can run right there on your Mac at home.

That’s a lot of really useful open source, totally free software. Most of it is MIT licensed, so it can be put in commercial projects, like The Foundry’s Nuke node-based compositing application (the current industry standard for compositing).

Katana

One of the things that I love the most is Academy-Award-winning Katana. I am under a boring NDA so I can’t talk about how I’ve used Katana, but I can point to other people that have been authorized to talk about using it (video). Like Nuke, it is a node-based system. For those unfamiliar, it looks like a flowchart, but none of the nodes in the flow chart can loop (boring wikipedia page on DAG). This provides a powerful, modular way to filter through data. Katana is also based around the idea of deferred loading. Instead of loading everything in the file in to memory, it keeps track of where those things will go. This means you can do things like render all of Manhattan.

The reason why Katana is a big deal is because it was sold to The Foundry, makers of the aforementioned Nuke, and now studios can buy Katana licenses to use it in production. Indeed, Pixar used it for their short film. The Foundry has a user guide for Katana as a PDF, and a more detailed technical guide if you’re interested in learning about any particular details.

This stuff took years to make at Imageworks. You can’t just whip it up overnight. As you can see in part of that video, Tippett Studios did not have the resources to work on a system like this. Even though this is commercial software, and not open source, its wide spread use (much like Nuke, which originally started at the studio Digital Domain) is still a valuable contribution to the industry. All of Sony’s open source projects are also inside of Katana, Alembic, Field3D, and OpenColorIO.

With Imageworks shuttering in Culver City, where all this development took place, it’s another reason to be sad about these tax subsidies.

2014-05-31 12:13:00

Category: text


End of an Era

In May of 2005, I graduated from art school. I was terrified that I had not been recruited before the end of the semester, like many of my graduating classmates were. I had my demo reel (a series of clips demonstrating what you can do), and it was specialized around lighting and texturing surfaces. In those days, you needed to burn DVD’s to mail to recruiters, so I made sure I bought slim-line DVD cases. I printed color DVD labels, and made a DVD sleeve for the slim case. When you send things out, to be judged based on your schoolwork, it can really put you ill-at-ease about yourself. After all, it was a personal effort. It was very hard not to take the rejection letters personally. Even more painful than rejection: complete silence.

I had an interview with Electronic Arts in Orlando, Florida (Tiburon, they called it). They were primarily working on EA Sports titles. Every year there was a new Madden, etc. They started their first non-sports game, a Superman title, and a few of my friends were already working on it. I really wanted to get on that. Instead, in the very large conference room, with 12 people in it, I got questions about what my favorite sports team was, and since I was from Tampa, they thought I must surely like The Bucs. I do not like football, and hold The Bucs, and Tampa, in contempt for all the tax shenanigans they used to extort financial backing for their state-of-the-art stadium. Remember the tax theme, it’ll come up again.

It was very clear to everyone that I would not fit in well for what they wanted me for. I bought a ticket to fly to SIGGRAPH in LA, a convention that’s held for computer graphics, which also has a job fair. No dice. After another month of sulking (a total of four sulking months) I got a call from a recruiter for Sony Pictures Imageworks. They wanted to conduct a telephone interview with me, provided I was immediately available to start work in Los Angeles (I was in Tampa).

My stomach was inside out, I was full of nervous energy. Now that I was getting hired for something, and moving somewhere, I was going to have to be in the real world. There wouldn’t be time to hem and haw. There is a tightness in your chest with this kind of anxiety, and tingly numbness in your extremities. Uncertainty sparks it. I flew out to Los Angeles with nothing but a large suitcase. I stayed at my Aunt’s in Altadena, and drove the 1.5-2.5 hour drive to Culver City in complete stop-and-go traffic. I was even late for my first day of work. Back in 2005, you couldn’t check your phone for directions.

I worked. I worked, and I worked, and I worked some more. In those days, it was project after project. There wasn’t really a life outside of work. There are so many stories like that in VFX, and tech, jobs that it’s kind of banal and gratuitous to dwell on it much more than that.

The proudest moment I had was working on the Watchmen movie. A lot of people were disappointed in it, but I liked it. (Anyone who says they should have kept the squid monsters is plain wrong.) The work was incredibly challenging for me, and it made the reward of seeing it on the screen all the better. I got to blow up four people in two shots. There weren’t a lot of those exploding people shots, so getting the opportunity to work on something so memorable was beyond my wildest expectations.

I am under NDA for the rest of eternity, so I can’t say anything really crazy, but there are public things that happened in the news over the years. They opened a New Mexico facility to take advantage of tax rebates in 2007. They bought a facility in India to handle some types of technical work in 2007. They opened a Vancouver facility when the tax rebates were better in Vancouver. They closed the New Mexico facility in 2012. They closed the India facility in 2014. What happened in the industry-at-large was basically the same, satellite facilities moving to where financial offsets were favorable.

The first time I was impacted by the shifting landscape in VFX was when I was laid off after Hotel Transylvania. I had a lot of that same anxiety from before. I had convinced myself that there were still other opportunities out there. With a new demo reel (things were all online now, no more DVDs) I applied to places, and once again went to SIGGRAPH (only it was a much smaller job fair, and everything was for Vancouver work). There weren’t as many rejection letters this time, it was mostly silence. After three and a half months, I got a call from Rythym & Hues, another large VFX house in the LA area. They had relocated their facility from Marina Del Rey to El Segundo, CA for more favorable economic reasons. They just finished Life of Pi and they were staffing up for several projects. Right before my interview, I was contacted about coming back to Imageworks, right away. I let R&H know this and they hemmed and hawed on making a decision so I had to go with Imageworks. Only 2 months later R&H filed for bankruptcy. (They also won an Oscar.) The short-term hire turned in to another long gig, and I was there until the end of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. There wasn’t anything for me to work on again, and it was getting pretty scary that there wasn’t anything to work on outside either. Digital Domain, another LA company was in trouble.

Where was all this work going? It was going abroad, for tax rebates on labor costs. Hollywood, like any industry, feels that labor is always too expensive, and can be obtained at a discount. Unfortunately, as DVD sales (remember my demo reel DVD?) declined they needed to reduce their risk but subsidizing the production of the movies they were making. You’ll recall seeing articles about why there aren’t as many middle-budget films these days. That was also part of the impact.

I was hired back to Imageworks again, only two months later this time, to work on Amazing Spider-Man 2 for a few months.

Before the end of Spider-Man, a rally was planned by VFX artists outside of the Academy Awards to draw attention to the labor situation, and what it was doing to families. It got a good deal of press, but I could tell that it wasn’t going to last. The event wasn’t really close to the Awards. No one was really going to cover very much of it. No stars would stop on the red carpet and stare at the people wearing greenscreen-green when they weren’t even on the same street block. Besides, I had to work. I went to work. The rally would have been cathartic. The news articles circulated until the next morning.

I wrapped up, again, in March. By this point the anxiety was less. I had survived this twice, remember? It would be a good “vacation” in a horrible sort of way. This time, however, I suspected Imageworks would not be calling me back to start right away. Something about it felt very permanent.

Today, it was made permanent. In Variety, The LA Times, the CBC… In a cruel twist of fate, the banner image they selected of Spider-Man with the manhole cover is something I did stereo work for (not the 2D, just the stereo). I have no credit on the film, but these things happen. It doesn’t really matter where the story ran, no one reads that stuff except the dwindling coterie of VFX artists. It’s not like Motorola closing a plant in Texas for making phones no one would buy. That’s news. It’s related to electronics, and tangentially to Apple, so it’s worth dwelling on. How entertainment is made is so dry and boring it quickly gets flushed off the home page of every site that ever posts it. Stars and directors are almost the only part that people track. People like to fixate on Kubrik, and other auteurs. That’s not to sound unappreciative, or spiteful, it’s just a fact.

People that have either already accepted positions in Vancouver, or are considering them. People that have moved to the bay area to try and make it in VFX there. People that went to commercial houses in New York to get out of film. Even people looking for work in Vancouver, where SIGGRAPH is announcing an unemployment discount for the first time ever.

I did my first stint at a small company in LA, and it was an interesting experience, for a month. I will look for other, tiny places, and tiny places after that. When I work on something, I go all-in, but if the work isn’t here to do, I don’t feel the same way about moving to chase it. International migrant work is not appealing to someone that wants certainty, that wants stability.

I hold on to those moments, like Watchmen as the reason why I have pride in what I do. I like to hold on to those moments where I worked crazy overtime for pride in my ability to do a task set before me. However, without more of those moments I fear I’ll lose momentum.

Truth-be-told, that’s why I’ve been writing so much recently. It’s why I tinker with bad code. I need something other than my career to think about or I’ll go nuts. I’ve even toyed with the thought of writing, or with web dev crap. Not because I think I have the same aptitude, nor because I think it would be profitable, but just because it would be something else. I’m even posting really awful jokes on Twitter more often because it distracts me from peering in to the abyss.

We now return to our regularly scheduled snark fest about things that don’t matter.

2014-05-30 15:07:00

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Mac App Store Pro-vides Poor Pro‑Prospects

When was the last time you bought anything in the Mac App Store? Was it longer than 6 months ago? It has been for me. In your recent recollection you may be confused, thinking you had paid for something, when it was a free download, or an upgrade. Did you used to download from the Mac App Store more often? I did. When it came out I thought it was the bees knees. I thought that finally I could do away with entering serial numbers, and holding on to digital receipts, and software updates that you had to go get manually — five miles uphill, in the snow, both ways. What a relief it was to have it. Indeed, initially developers seemed to be relieved as well. It solved many things for them. The Mac App Store was our last, best hope for peace.

Then Apple just decided to bulldoze over fucking all of it. It served their purposes to enforce a sandboxing requirement. Then, as time went on, it became increasingly clear that wasn’t going to work so they just kept extending the deadline. And then they extended it again. And again. Then they said, “this far, no further!” and everyone bailed on their fucking shit. I mean, seriously, how many apps have bailed to go back to the shitty way things were before? How many stories have there been? SPOILER ALERT: A lot.

I open the Mac App Store today because there’s a red badge-thingy on it. “Update this number of things!” It cries out, in its circle of crimson blood. “Sacrifice your time to me!” It commands. The majority of things I’m even downloading updates for are Apple’s OS X fixes. Of the last 13 (ominous number choice) updates it displays, just five aren’t OS X updates. Shouldn’t I be using this store so often that I barely see Apple listed anywhere at all? Shouldn’t this be a profitable system for developers to get people in to buy things in volume since they can no longer get me to buy expensive things? Wasn’t that the whole point of this system?

Indeed, even Apple has applications in the store that predate the store. They are still selling software that they made over 4 years ago. Aperture — the dead horse I like to beat every now and again — was released February 9, 2010. I gladly bought it on DVD, which was SHIPPED to me. For several of Apple’s apps, Aperture included, Apple just authorized it to appear in the Mac App Store, eventually, for updates. That was the grand solution they had for their pro developers. Just suck people in to a nightmare world of incrementally bug-fixed software for the low-low price of “we’ll never do anything good with this again because this doesn’t even make business sense for us and we made it.”

Currently, on the “Featured” pane of the store, there is a game that was released last calendar year for iPhone, a RSS reader that is the editor’s choice, an application that lets you bookmark things on the internet, a game that looks like it would never make it on the Xbox or PlayStation stores, and an application for planning what you need to do in your day. I do not want to belittle those applications any further than that. They are fine at what they do, and they are very useful to people (with the exception of the one game, that’s a head scratcher). Where are the big apps? Surely, OmniFocus will let you do things, and Reeder will let you catch up on your subscription services, but where is the BIG stuff? And of those things that have some use to you, how much time would you say you use them for? Hmm? I certainly don’t have much practical need for anything they are featuring, but that might just be me. Even contrasting the apps on the Mac with the apps for the iPhone or iPad, there’s no comparison that there is an overall dip in desirability between these apps.

In the Best New Apps, the best app is Pixelmator, which isn’t really new, it’s an updated version of Pixelmator. I love Pixelmator, and I love the updated Pixelmator. There are things for timers, home inventory, notes, little things you need a small solution for. All the big software you need, all the powerful stuff, isn’t here. Nowhere to be found if you search hither and yon.

The Mac App Store offers very little promise to developers, which in turn, offers very little promise to me. I’m still using web downloads, serial numbers, and — for fuck’s sake — Creative Cloud. I hate that. Words could not possibly do justice to the caustic bile that wells up from within my blackened soul when I think of Adobe’s Creative Cloud and it’s update for it’s update process. It spews forth excrement in to the world, and I gladly sup it, because I need it.

I hope that after Apple’s WWDC event next week they release an “App Store”.

2014-05-29 23:58:00

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