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Gordon Meyer

Gordon Meyer

By Gordon Meyer
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                According to legend, back in the Golden Age of the studio system, there was a popular vaudevillian comedy team called Biffle and Shooster who, like the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy, made a series of popular two reelers (I.e. 20 minute shorts) that ran in theaters before the main feature in that era.  They made a total of 20 such shorts before the series ended in 1938 with their classic, “It’s a Frame Up.” Film buff and producer Michael Schlesinger recently uncovered a rare print of this forgotten masterpiece and is in the process of restoring it for public consumption.

                What I just said is mostly bogus, though Michael Schlesinger is a real guy and so is the film “It’s a Frame Up.” It’s just not quite the way I stated. I’ve known Michael since his days running Sony’s repertory operation, making sure that quality 35mm and 70mm prints from the Columbia and TriStar libraries were available to theaters all over the country.  Not surprisingly, he has a passion and an ongoing love for classic Hollywood.  Earlier this year, he wrote, produced and directed this 30 minute film starring the fictitious team of Biffle and Shooster, characters created and performed by actors Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan.

                I had the pleasure of attending the work-in-progress cast and crew screening of this big screen labor of love recently at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.  According to Schlesinger, this isn’t the final version of the film.  He and his post team will be tweaking the film before sending it out to the festival circuit, including adjusting the digitally shot footage to replicate the semi-grainy black and white film stock commonly used in low budget 1930s shorts.

                “It’s a Frame Up” is clearly a labor of love for Schlesinger, Santa Maria, Ryan and the rest of the cast and crew recruited for the project.  Several supporting characters were named after popular character actors of the day like Edgar Kennedy and the always fussy Franklin Pangborn.  And while the actors playing those roles were never asked to do impersonations of these familiar faces, they do evoke their spirits.  Even in this semi-rough cut form, Schlesinger and his team managed to capture much of the humor, style and tone of shorts from that era starring ex-vaudevillians like the Stooges with their classic mix of bad puns, slapstick and just plain silliness. 

                Following the screening, Schlesinger and his editorial team began making the usual tweaks to the film after seeing how it plays to an audience.  He plans to make the rounds of the festival circuit, beginning with Cinefest.  Since this is so consciously an old-school film, right down to deliberate continuity errors, it will be interesting to see how it plays to festival crowds who are perhaps expecting more avant garde fare. 

                Now, for the record, in spite of some flaws that I trust will be corrected by Schlesinger and his team in the edit bay, I really liked the film and thought it did a great job of capturing the spirit and comic sensibilities of those low budget black and white two-reelers.   Whether “It’s a Frame Up” is your cup of tea or not, one thing remains undeniable. This is a movie that was made as a passion project by a very talented group of people who not only love movies in general, they also love the long gone era “It’s a Frame Up” celebrates.  This short is nothing less than a love letter to Hollywood and the ex-vaudevillians whose comic antics made millions of people laugh during an era when an afternoon or evening at the movies was the only escape many of those people could manage during very challenging times. 

                Kudos to the cast and crew, including several well-known character actors like Daniel Roebuck and Robert Picardo.  Here’s to a successful Academy qualifying run that leads to a “Best Live Action Short” nomination, lots of kudos on the festival circuit and most importantly, here’s to the film leading to lots of paid gigs for everyone involved, especially writer/producer/director Michael Schlesinger for having the vision, commitment, relationships and resources to make it happen.  You did what most people only dream of accomplishing.  Bravo!

             Want to support Michael and his film? Check out his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ItsAFrameUp

 

Thursday, 28 February 2013 14:13

The Gizmo Guy - A Nostalgic Trip in Time

By Gordon Meyer
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I admit it.  I’m on a bit of a Disney kick this week.  In addition to the just posted review of “Monsters, Inc.” you’ll see my review of “Wreck it Ralph” later today and possibly even the newly released 60th Anniversary Edition of “Peter Pan.”  But this piece is especially for people who subscribe to Netflix Streaming.  I’ve gotten addicted to that service.  While it’s true that a lot of movies I’d like to watch are not part of the Netflix library, I do get to discover or re-discover some really interesting titles, ranging from cheesy British soft core from the 1970s (guilty pleasure viewing) to classic television like the entire seven season run of “The West Wing,” to foreign films or documentaries that would never even been on my radar otherwise.

A few months ago, Netflix signed a deal giving them access to Disney’s library, which means that many of their classic animated features, including “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dumbo” can be enjoyed by subscribers.  There’s a rarely seen movie as part of that collection that any animation buff worth their salt should check out – “The Reluctant Dragon.”  Never heard of it, right?  Even though it was produced in 1941, it’s not exactly in the same league as “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” or “Fantasia.”  It was admittedly a relatively low budget “cheater” feature released during WWII when Disney’s lucrative foreign markets were largely cut off.

The movie features humorist Robert Benchley, very popular at the time for his regular appearances on radio and in a series of theatrical short films taking the form of spoof lectures.  Benchley’s wife had just finished reading the children’s book, “The Reluctant Dragon,” by Kenneth Graham, author of “The Wind in the Willows” and pushes Benchley into immediately going down to the newly opened Disney studio in Burbank to sell that story to Walt as an animated film.  (Let’s not quibble over the fact that Benchley doesn’t even have the legal right to sell the Graham book. That’s entirely irrelevant to the 1941 audience.)

Once at the Disney studio, Benchley ends up taking a walking tour of the place, checking out several key departments and learning how animated movies are made.  While much of this is simplified or downright fictionalized, a lot of it truly shows how the Disney team developed and produced animated shorts and features during that period, beginning with the mandatory art classes taught at the studio to all the animators.  Other behind the scenes set pieces include a look at how sound effects

were created. Speaking of sound, this movie gave audiences a rare opportunity to see the Clarence Nash and Florence Gill, the actors who provided the voices for Donald Duck and Clara Cluck in a recording session.

Viewers also got a look at the giant multiplane camera, a Disney innovation used to create an illusion of depth in animation.  This camera was literally about 20 feet tall.  Scenery was painted on large glass plates mounted on the camera rack at different levels.  Each plate could be moved independently as the camera moves in and through those planes.  This enabled the Disney animators to have scenes that included rack focus shots, something normally not possible in animation.  These days, even in cell-type animation, all the camera work is done with a computer, including multiplane shots.  But for decades, this was state of the art in the world of animation.  Elsewhere in the film there was a sequence showing the way cells were hand painted and how the paints themselves were carefully crafted according to precise formulas. 

In another segment, Benchley gets to see how stories were developed using storyboards rather than written screenplays.  A very young Alan Ladd plays one of the animators who tries out a story being developed on Benchley, “Baby Weems,” a charming short told almost entirely through narration, sound effects and still images.  Other animated shorts integrated into the movie include a segment intended for “Dumbo” (but not used in the final film), the Goofy short, “How to Ride a Horse” and the title segment.  When Benchley ultimately catches up to Walt, it’s in a screening room where Walt is about to look at the studio’s most recent short.  And what do you know?  It’s “The Reluctant Dragon,” the very story Benchley’s wife wanted to sell to the studio.

Admittedly, some of what’s in this movie is kind of hokey, though in a charming way reflective of the period.  But the animated segments are very good examples of what the Disney studio was producing at the time and the live action portion of the film gave contemporary audiences a fairly good idea of what went into making animated films, including the on-camera appearances by many of the actual Disney animators like Ward Kimball and Norm Ferguson.   It’s a wonderful time capsule, capturing a way of making movies that was unique in its time and, in many ways, the way many filmmakers still work. 

While “The Reluctant Dragon” was available on DVD for a brief period of time as part of a DVD boxed set called, “Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio.”  But this title, released in 2002, has long since been out of print, making Netflix one of the few places you can legally see it.  If you’re an animation buff and a Netflix subscriber, it’s well worth checking out.

 

By Gordon Meyer
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                Disney has been dipping back into the vaults, converting some of their most popular animated movies of the last 20 years to 3D.  The most recent is Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” which coincidentally enough has a prequel coming out this spring.   While conversions for 2D animated features like the surprise hit “Lion King” and the upcoming conversion of “Little Mermaid” require technology similar to that used in converting live action features, CG movies have a distinct advantage in that the cyber world and characters were already created in 3D.  Generating a stereoscopic version is more about a new rendering based on existing data than anything else.  But even then, artistic judgment calls have to be made in order for that rendering to be both natural and enhance the storytelling.  Fortunately, the Disney team pretty much has that down.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, “Monsters, Inc.” is a movie I think Walt would have been proud of, beginning with the creative premise that those monsters in the closet that have scared little kids worldwide for generations are actually real.  They exist in a parallel universe that’s powered by the energy contained in those frightened children’s screams.  Professionals like James P. Sullivan, the top-rated scarer at Monsters, Inc. enter the bedrooms of children all over the world through hyper dimensional portals linked to each child’s bedroom closet door and capture their screams as the main power source for the community known as Monstropolis. Sullivan, voiced by John Goodman and known to his friends and colleagues as “Sully,” looks like a big, blue ape like creature and is ably assisted by his best friend, Michael Wazowski, who’s basically a big green ball with skinny legs and arms and a single eye.  Billy Crystal provides Mike’s voice, though at times he sounds a lot like Nathan Lane’s “Timon” from “Lion King.”

The monsters need humans for their screams, but have also been taught to believe that the touch of a human can be toxic.  In other words, monsters are scared to death of the very humans they’re hired to frighten.  The movie is about what happens when a cute toddler accidentally goes through the portal into the monster world and how Sully and Mike scramble to keep her hidden until they can send her back to her own bedroom where she belongs.  Since this is a Pixar movie, the characters and world they come from are fully developed and believable. Naturally there are also twists and turns that take the audience on a fun ride, complete with villains, a secret that threatens both worlds and acts of heroism.  Speaking of giving the audience a ride, a set piece in the third act resembles a theme park ride and is especially effective in 3D.  This is the kind of evergreen that Walt loved to make because it deals with universal ideas, values and fears.

The set is broken down into four discs: the 3D version of the movie along with a handful of trailers for upcoming theatrical and 3D BDs plus a trio of shorts and a faux blooper/outtake reel; the feature itself with the same shorts plus a filmmakers roundtable; a BD that’s just bonus content, mostly recycled from the original DVD release; the DVD version; and a digital copy.  If you get the 3D combo pack, be sure you check out that outtakes section as some of those pseudo bloopers are very funny.  I’m glad that Disney included the old standard def and 1.33:1 formatted DVD bonus content because it features a very interesting behind the scenes tour of Pixar from over 10 years ago, including a good overview of the creative process that went into the development of “Monsters, Inc.”.  Speaking as a writer, I found it especially interesting to note how dramatically the story evolved and changed while maintaining its core conceit of a parallel monster-filled universe.

Movie  ***** (out of 5)    Bonus Content ***1/2   3D Wow Factor ****

“Monsters, Inc.” is available now on DVD, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and 3D Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013 00:09

And the Winner Is...

By Gordon Meyer
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                The 2013 Academy Awards have now come and gone.  Awards Season is finally officially over and done with – at least until September when the race begins all over again.  Am I the only one who thought this year’s Oscar ceremonies were overall on the lame side?  Let’s begin at the beginning with Seth MacFarlane as the host. Speaking as a proud Baby Boomer, the first Oscars I watched featured Bob Hope as host.  Here was someone who had a long career in movies and was genuinely funny, not to mention self-deprecating.  He had a running gag about having never won an Oscar which resulted one year in saying that, in his home, Oscar night was known as Passover.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed pros like Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal hosting and misfires like David Letterman and the duo of Anne Hathaway and James Franco.  But Seth MacFarlane made every one of them look good by comparison.  I’ve seen MacFarlane perform in the past and he can be hilarious in spite of, or perhaps because of his irreverence and gleefully political incorrectness.  But his Oscar performance was just plain blech, beginning with that inane bit with Captain Kirk from Star Trek, allegedly coming back in time to warn him about how much he was going to offend his audience.  While the idea for this routine had potential, it just plain wasn’t funny and went on for an excruciating length of time before we got into the awards themselves.  As for his attempts at humor throughout the night, it wasn’t that he said anything terribly offensive.  It’s just that almost all his jokes fell so flat it made me nostalgic for David Letterman’s infamous, “Oprah, Uma” gag.

Moving onto the show itself, there weren’t a whole lot of surprises, but some nice moments. Not surprisingly, to me the best of those moments were musical ones beginning with Dame Shirley Bassey’s performance of the title song from “Goldfinger” as the climax to an otherwise lame salute to 50 years of James Bond movies.   That segment was a montage of seemingly random shots from the movies shown against a medley of just a handful of Bond music.  I’ve seen trailers from the 1970s better cut than this montage.  But it was a joy seeing Bassey reprise such an iconic song.

Although there were several musical performances, the other two I especially enjoyed were, in order of appearance, when the cast of “Les Miserables” performed “One Day More,” the Act 1 finale, though I still don’t think much of Russell Crowe’s singing. Still, it’s a powerful ensemble piece that gave pretty much every major character/performer from the movie a chance to shine.  The other musical highlight was Barbra Streisand’s tribute to her friend and collaborator, Marvin Hamlisch, who died last year.  This came at the end of the annual “In Memorium” segment.  But as Deadline.com’s Nikki Finke correctly pointed out, the producers of that segment omitted some major talent from the list of those who died in the past year, including Larry Hagman, Andy Griffith, Harry Carey Jr, Ann Rutherford, David R Ellis, Nagisa Oshima, Donna Summer, Susan Tyrrell, Alex Karras, Gore Vidal, Phyllis Diller, Russell Means, Lupe Ontiveros, Robin Sachs, and Jerry Nelson. 

As for the awards themselves, I was pleased, though a little surprised to see Christoph Waltz honored for his performance in “Django Unchained” since, even though I enjoyed his performance, it seemed to me in many ways to be a retread of his characterization in “Inglorious Basterds.”  Likewise, I was surprised, but happy to see Quentin Tarantino win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Django.” I would have thought that movie was too over the top and gleefully offensive for the Academy to embrace.  The thing I liked best about Tarantino’s win was the way he promoted the importance of writers and the outstanding caliber of his fellow nominees’ work.  After all, if not for the writers, except for those in the documentary categories, none of the other artists honored Sunday night would have even had gigs to be nominated for.  Let us remember that it all begins with the written word.

I have a soft spot for animation and had seen and enjoyed most of the movies nominated for Best Animated Feature.  In my book though, it was a tossup between “Brave” and “Frankenweenie,” both of which came from Disney.  The Oscar for “Brave” was well deserved, as was the Best Animated Short Oscar for “Paperman,” a charming dialog-free romantic fantasy that you can enjoy on the “Wreck It Ralph” DVD and Blu-ray coming out next week, in case you missed it in theatres last year.  I am really glad that Disney and Pixar continue to include animated shorts with their theatrical releases.  It’s both a nice treat for audiences and a good way to train and groom new talent in ways that also get those artists a national showcase.

Of course we all knew that Anne Hathaway was the odds-on favorite to take home the gold for her heart wrenching performance as the destitute prostitute Fantine in “Les Miserables.”  Normally Hathaway is a class act. But was she really as surprised as she appeared to be at winning this year?  Come on folks. It would have been an upset had someone else won.

There were clearly two movies that dominated the evening, “Life of Pi” and “Argo.”  Historically, whichever movie wins Best Picture from the DGA almost always wins both the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars.  But since the Academy failed to nominate Ben Affleck for Best Director, once “Argo” took the DGA’s top prize, we knew that for the first time in decades, the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars were likely to go to different movies. I won my bet that Ang Lee would win the former trophy since Affleck wasn’t nominated.   As for “Argo,” that movie had huge momentum leading up to the Oscars, including the Golden Globes, WGA Awards and even the inaugural Final Draft Screenwriter’s Choice Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.  What a thrill all those kudos must be for new screenwriter Chris Terio – and so well deserved.  Back to “Argo,” I really liked producer Grant Heslov’s acceptance speech and his acknowledgement of Affleck’s contribution as the film’s director. 

In spite of how dull this year’s show was, it enjoyed a healthy audience of 40.3 million domestically, up a million from last year and on a par with the 2007 broadcast when “The Departed” took the top honors.  Now how many of those 40.3 million people stuck it out for the entire 3 ½ hours is another story.  Now I know that the Oscars are about recognizing excellence, as they should be.  But as an observation, the more outstanding and, more importantly, widely seen, the nominated movies are, the better the ratings tend to be.  In many ways, it’s the ultimate reality/competition show and audiences like to root for their personal favorites.  So when the top contenders include movies like the critically acclaimed, but not widely seen “Slumdog Millionaire” (2009 Best Picture winner), ratings plummet. But this year, we had a wonderful horse race with some very successful movies.

So congratulations to all the artists nominated for this year’s Oscars, and of course to this year’s winners.  May the recognition you earned bring you new creative challenges and ever better gigs.

Monday, 04 February 2013 20:11

GATE to the future of entertainment

By Gordon Meyer
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Artists and entertainers have been using their craft as a vehicle to encourage enlightenment since the dawn of human history.  Frank Capra, the iconic producer/director of such classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and “It Happened One Night” told a story in his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” about the time he was depressed and seriously ill when someone came to see him. The stranger scolded Capra, reminding him that he has the power to talk to millions of people at a time in the dark.  How was he going to use that pulpit to benefit humanity? Capra said that encounter forever influenced the movies he made from that day forward.

In 2009, a new organization was launched by John Raatz, CEO of The Visionary Group, a marketing and PR firm, actor Jim Carrey and best selling author Eckhart Tolle called GATE – the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment. GATE’s mission statement is, “…to empower entertainment and media professionals and companies to produce and distribute content that inspires new awareness-based worldviews for global audiences by providing education, collaboration and advocacy.”

With that in mind, on February 2, GATE hosted its third annual Transformational Story Conference and GATE 3 conference, back to back at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.  From nine in the morning until well after midnight, by my estimate well over 1,500 professionals from all aspects of the entertainment industry came to see a broad spectrum of authors, consultants, producers, writers, directors and performers talk about not only the importance of using popular media and entertainment to encourage human advancement and spiritual evolution, recognizing the real world business necessities of our industry, many of the speakers also addressed how catering to this growing market can be just as profitable as it is socially responsible.

Yes, it’s true that many of the featured speakers could be characterized as “New Age” types.  Some of them spoke idealistic messages of spirituality and idealism that were more about world views in general than making movies and TV shows that have a positive influence.  I was often reminded of the old Samuel Goldwyn quote which said, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d use Western Union.” Goldwyn knew that, at their core, mass entertainment like movies must first and foremost tell a compelling story.  Any social message must take a back seat to the story you’re telling.  Otherwise you risk making the audience feel preached to instead of entertained.

Amidst the entertainers, independent filmmakers and authors who appeared, there were also real world pros like producer/director Jeremy Kagan (“The Chosen,” “Heroes,” “Taken”) and producer Adam Leipzig (“The Way Back,” “Titus”) who both spoke about the importance of balancing message with business.  Leipzig was especially insightful when he coached the audience on how to make it easier to bring a studio head to greenlight a project by showing him at least five other successful properties (movies, books, TV shows, etc.) that appeal to the same audience as yours. Author and screenwriting consultant Dara Marks provided some especially insightful thoughts about story structure and what she refers to as the “Feminine Heroic” model of storytelling, which takes Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” concept to a whole new level.

The GATE 3 program in the evening was when Raatz and his team pulled out the even bigger guns, beginning with GATE co-founder Jim Carrey talking about the importance of being true to yourself.  Comedian Louie Anderson served as MC for the evening and kept things moving.  Other speakers included Rev. Michael Beckwith from the Agape Spiritual Center, celebrity psychic James Van Praagh, Marla Maples, Congressman Tom Ryan and producer/director Tom Shadyac (“Liar Liar,” “Bruce Almighty”).  Tom was one of our first guests when I produced the “Hollywood’s Master Storytellers” series and even then he spoke quite openly about how popular entertainment in general and comedy in particular could be a sacred, holy thing.

I’m going to briefly get on my soapbox here because I think the philosophies that are so integral to GATE’s mission statement are important.  As a disclaimer, I am speaking strictly for myself and my views may or may not coincide with those of P3 Update’s management or personnel.  But as that wise man said to Frank Capra all those decades ago, we in the entertainment industry have an opportunity to influence hundreds of millions of people worldwide with the stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them. Of course, first and foremost, these stories have to be riveting and filled with characters the audience wants to emotionally invest in.

But when the stars are in alignment, we get movies like “WALL-E,” “Les Miserables,” “Argo,” and TV shows like “Glee,” “Maude” and “M*A*S*H” which celebrate the human experience while achieving huge commercial success.  GATE challenges us as an industry and as a community to use that power to inspire and empower our audiences.  For those film and television storytellers who choose to embrace this concept, what a wonderful legacy you’re building. 

 

 

 

By Gordon Meyer
P3GiznoGuy@gnaul,com

“Frankenweenie” is Tim Burton’s most heart felt movie in years.  There. I’ve said it. Burton is an incredibly talented director with a keen sense of visuals, but his movies are often hit or miss depending on how strong the script is. In this case, the screenplay is by frequent Burton collaborator John August, based on the 1984 short that Burton directed back in his early days at Disney, which in turn was written by Lenny Ripps.

The black and white movie takes Burton back to his days as an animator and showcases the same kind of unique visual style that we saw in his previous stop motion features, “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”  Here, Burton and August pay loving homage to the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 40s, especially, and obviously, Universal’s Frankenstein franchise.  His young hero is a schoolboy named Victor Frankenstein. Victor’s classmates are all budding mad scientists and mentored by Mr. Rzykruski (which sounds a lot like “Rice Krispee”) who looks a lot like the late Vincent Price, a long time idol and collaborator of Burton’s, and voiced with a European accent by another Burton collaborator, Martin Landau.  Burton and his team also managed to slip in a few subtle jokes which gave me a nice chuckle when I noticed them.  Without spoiling anything, pay special attention to one of the headstones in the pet cemetery during the sequence when Victor digs up Sparky as an example of what I’m talking about.

Like the short, which is included in the Bonus section of the Blu-ray, the story is about the devotion Victor has to his dog, Sparky.  When Sparky is accidentally run over by a car, Victor gets the idea to bring him back to life using electricity.  He goes to the animal cemetery in the middle of the night and digs up Sparky, then using home made gear including an upside down bike, attaches electrodes to Sparky’s neck and uses the lightning bolts from one of the nightly storms to revive his dog.  Naturally things get complicated when some of his classmates decide to use Victor’s ideas to bring their own dead pets back to life – purely in order to win the school’s upcoming science fair.  Unfortunately for the townsfolk, in a tip of the hat to legendary Warner Bros. and MGM cartoon director Tex Avery, these revived pets end up getting a swig of a liquid called Miracle Grow and turn into uncontrollable monsters that Victor and Sparky have to stop.                       As mentioned before, this is an animated feature using a 21st Century version of the same kind of stop motion animation that originally brought King Kong to life. Burton and his small army of filmmakers created some amazingly intricate puppets, miniature sets and props to tell their story.  As good as CG animation continues to get, because we’re watching real physical objects come to life, there is a verisimilitude present in stop motion that CG has yet to deliver.  The digitally photographed animation is the most natural I’ve seen to date – and I’ve seen a lot of stop motion over the years.  Shot stereoscopically, like the animation itself, the 3D effect came off as natural and organic, enhancing the viewing experience without distracting gimmicks.

Disney’s transfer, as usual, was pristine, including the 3D effects as viewed on my NVIDA 3D Vision powered computer system on an LG 3D computer monitor using active glasses. As mentioned before, the original 30 minute live action featurette is included in the bonus section.  Comparing the two films, I found it quite interesting how much of the original story and visual elements, including much of the dialog, were incorporated into this expanded version.  There’s also a fascinating section where producer Alison Abbate conducts a guided tour of the studio where the film was made, including close up looks at the miniature sets and how the puppets were designed, built and maintained during the long production. It really gave me an solid appreciation of what’s involved in producing a stop motion feature and is my favorite part of the Bonus section.

The very human characters in “Frankenweenie” give the movie tremendous heart.  It’s a textbook example of Tim Burton’s sense of the macabre as well as a loving tribute to the kinds of movies he clearly watched a lot as a kid.  This one’s a keeper.

 

Movie  ****1/2 (out of 5)    Bonus Content ****  3D Wow Factor ****

 

“Frankenweenie” is available now on DVD, Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and 3D Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

 

 

Thursday, 31 January 2013 22:48

The Gizmo Guy - The Journey Begins Anew

By Gordon Meyer
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            As mentioned in an earlier column, three years ago, I embarked on a mission to build a desktop computer optimized for HD video editing and DVD/BD authoring.  The mission was successful and documented in an earlier incarnation of this column with separate entries devoted to each component.  While this system worked extremely well for me up until a few weeks ago when the motherboard crashed, technology is always advancing.  So, in many ways, the crash was a good thing because it got me thinking about doing an upgrade to secure a noticeable performance boost.

            Many years ago, I sold computer systems retail in the early days of the PC when the Apple II was one of the top selling systems for home use. I used to tell my customers that, if they could get 3-5 years of productive use out of their computers before they decided to upgrade to a more up to date technology they had gotten their money’s worth. Way back in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore coined what has been called “Moore’s Law.”  It basically says that with the geometric advancements in technology, the number of transistors embedded in a computer chip would roughly double every two years.  That principle has also extended to things like RAM, hard drives and non-volatile storage devices like USB thumb drives.

Because of Moore’s Law, I’ve revised my counsel and now tell friends and consulting clients that, if you can get 2-3 years of productive use out of a computer before upgrading that you’ve gotten your money’s worth.  Does this mean that just because a computer is three or four years old that you need to dump it?  It really depends on how you use it.  For example if your primary use is word processing, email and web browsing, your horsepower requirements are pretty modest.   But if your computer serves as a de facto edit bay, then graphics and rendering capabilities are critical and that requires as much horsepower as you can get.

With that in mind, I’m about to perform a major upgrade to my system and I’m taking you with me on the ride.  I faced this challenge three years ago.  At the time, I was using an almost ten year old Compaq desktop computer, which had served me well, in spite of being much older than my 3-5 year rule of thumb.  But during that time, many standards had changed, especially motherboard form factors, RAM modules and hard drive connectors, In that case because pretty much everything I had in my old system was incompatible with the current standards, I had to start over from scratch and replace everything. 

In this case, my upgrade will be much simpler.  I’m going to swap out the CPU, motherboard and RAM and get a major league performance boost.  But I’ll be able to keep the hard drives, graphics board, case and Blu-ray drive I’m currently using.  This is important because when I did my build before, part of the process of getting up and running included installing fresh copies of both Windows and key programs I use, not to mention all my files.  Since I’m using my existing hard drive, once the motherboard and CPU are swapped out, all I have to do is power up my computer and everything will be exactly as I left it. 

Technically, I could actually still use my existing RAM modules on the upgraded system, but I want to double my memory, going from the 16GB of RAM I initially had to the maximum 32GB that my motherboard/CPU combo can support.  This means replacing the four DDR3 memory modules that hold 4GB of RAM each to 8GB DDR3 modules.

Right now, I’m doing my homework to select the motherboard/CPU combo that will give me the best performance boost for the money, especially when it comes to handling high res video graphics both in 2D and stereoscopically.   Accurate sound reproduction is also important.  Fortunately most of the current generation of motherboards made for both AMD and Intel CPUs are capable of high resolution 7.1 channel audio. 

            As I finalize my upgrade decisions, I’ll report my findings here.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, 31 January 2013 22:10

Theatre Review - "Backbeat"

By Gordon Meyer
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A long time ago, a bunch of guys in their late teens formed a rock and roll band in northern England called the Quarrymen.  “Backbeat” is the new show that tells their story and it’s currently making its US debut at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.  As hardcore fans will tell you, “The Quarrymen” went through both a name change and a few personnel changes as the band paid their dues in small, smoky clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg.  We know them today as “The Beatles.”

While “Backbeat” is on its surface, the story of the Beatles’ time before their first hit record, it focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and his close friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who Lennon recruited to join the band.  Sutcliffe was studying art at the time with the goal of becoming a painter as his career when his close friend John persuaded him to learn to play bass and join the band.

The play, which is based on the 1994 movie, covers the period from the day in 1960 when Lennon begins to teach Sutcliffe how to play bass to 1963 when the Beatles, now with neither Sutcliffe, nor original drummer Pete Best, have their first hit record and Sutcliffe’s tragic death at the age of 22 from a brain aneurism.  There are abbreviated versions of many of the songs the band covered during these formative years as well as a smattering of Lennon-McCartney originals towards the end of the show, all performed with a gusto and passion that often got the opening night audience practically dancing in their seats.

The performances, especially by Nick Blood as Stuart Sutcliffe and Leanne Best as Sutcliffe’s German girlfriend Astrid Kircherr, were both real and raw, befitting a bunch of working class blokes still in their late teens when most of the story takes place. Musically, these guys can rock with the best of them.  Thanks to their performances as shaped by director David Leveaux, the audience was witness to the rapid musical maturation of the Beatles from an almost generic “skiffle” band to a group with its own distinctive musical style and sound.  Leveaux also directed the London production.

One of my favorite scenes came when the Beatles were hired by pop music composer and producer Bert Kaempfert as a backup band for Tony Sheridan, who is about to record a song called “My Bonnie,” which was essentially “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean,” sung ballad style – until the playful Beatles let loose with a surprising rock and roll rendition mid song.  Historically, the song was credited to “Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.”  While I have no idea as to how historically accurate the depiction of that recording session was, as theatre, it was a lot of fun.

Most of the play takes place in Hamburg, where the Beatles spent considerable time performing in dingy clubs located in some of the seedier parts of the city.  Although I’ve never been there myself, Leveaux and his cast seemed to faithfully capture the vibe of those clubs.  Kudos also must be given to designer Andrew Edwards and projection designers Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn for the creative way they used projected images on the stage to underscore parts of the story and add a dynamic energy to “Backbeat.”

“Backbeat,” like the movie that it’s based on, is an often riveting and always energetic look at one of the most iconic musical acts of the 20th Century and some of the key elements that ultimately shaped who they became both personally and professionally. Whether you’re a Beatles fan or not, it’s exceptional theatre.  And if you are a Beatles fan, it’s a must see. One last comment: Be sure to stick around after the curtain call for the Beatles medley performed by the cast as a series of encores.  This literally had audience members dancing in the aisles!

 

“Backbeat” runs through March 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre.  www.centertheatregroup.com  

Thursday, 31 January 2013 22:07

The Risks of Build It Yourself Equipment

By Gordon Meyer
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Three years ago, I took myself on an adventure in the world of do it yourself (aka DIY) when I took on the task of custom building a Windows-based computer system optimized for HD video editing and DVD/BD authoring and burning.   Long time readers may recall the lengthy series I did in this space, documenting both the selection of components that would go into my system as well as the process of actually building it.

The heart of any computer system is the motherboard/CPU combination.  Mine was built around AMD’s Phenom II X4 processor and an MSI motherboard using the then new AMD 890 chip set.  A little over a month ago, my computer just shut down on me. No warning.  It just died.  Being the semi-techno savvy fellow that I am, I quickly diagnosed the most likely cause.  Either the 850 watt power supply crapped out or there was a problem with the motherboard and, in all likelihood, it was the Antec power supply.  Fortunately, both were still under warranty.  While Antec routinely includes a three year warranty on many of their power supplies, since this was one of their higher end units, they covered it for five years.  MSI’s warranty ran three years.  In both cases, I was thankfully still under warranty.

My experiences with each company’s customer service department and the contrast between their respective corporate policies proved a valuable and somewhat painful lesson in the importance of doing your due diligence in selecting your components.  Antec has been great to deal with.  They understood that there are times when you need expedited service and they have that option already in place.  While the normal procedure would be for the customer to send in the defective unit before sending out the replacement, they sent out the replacement immediately on receipt of a deposit that would be refunded within days of receiving the burnt out power supply.  They even provided me with a pre-paid address label.  This saved me both time and money.  And since the original power supply was a discontinued model, they upgraded me to a newer product, no questions asked.

MSI’s US offices are in City of Industry in the San Gabriel Valley portion of Los Angeles County and less than 35 miles from where I live.  Since they’re more or less local to me, I wanted to drive there with the motherboard that apparently had fried out my power supply and swap it out while I waited.  But, alas, that common sense scenario was in conflict with the procedures dictated by the Powers That Be at MSI.  Sure, I could shlep across town to drop off the defective product, but they insisted on taking over a week to inspect it and confirm that it was, in fact, defective.  I wasn’t happy about this, but since I was planning to leave within a few days for the Consumer Electronics Show, a trip that would keep me out of town for close to a week, I shipped the board to them on my dime and trusted that a replacement would be waiting for me on my return.  Wrong!

            MSI’s customer service rep was supposed to alert me as soon as their RMA department had completed its testing.  Instead, I had to chase after him for the promised update.  When he finally got back to me, he relayed the message that, since this was now a discontinued model and they no longer had any in stock, they were prepared to offer me approximately $45 as a refund.  Yet I would have to pay somewhere between $100 and $200 to purchase a comparable replacement.  I told them that this was unacceptable and verbally blasted that poor customer service rep for the crappy way his company dealt with situations like mine.  I also posted my experiences on MSI’s Facebook page and emailed their in-house PR person.  Lo and behold, a day later, I was offered a newer model motherboard as a replacement, though when it arrived, it appeared to be a refurbished product with none of the documentation, mounting screws or driver discs that normally come with a brand new product.

            Essentially, I had to first chase after MSI just to get even close to a timely response on my situation, then jump through hoops and shame them into doing the right thing by properly honoring their own warranty. 

            I’m still glad that I built my own system instead of either buying an off the shelf, pre-packaged desktop system because I was able to get exactly what I wanted.  Truthfully, MSI makes a pretty decent motherboard.  Of course, so do their competitors – companies like ASUS and Gigabyte.  These motherboards are all based on the same master designs and chipsets provided by AMD or Intel (depending on which CPU they support).  But even with companies who exercise the most stringent quality control, once in a while either a defective unit slips out or something like a capacitor goes bad. 

             This experience has provided a powerful reminder that, if you’re going to use a custom built system, it’s not enough to choose your components based on raw specs.  You also have to check out and confirm the company’s customer service reputation and warranty policies. MSI may make some of the best computer components in the world, but after this experience, to put it politely, I would be extremely leery about using any of their products again.  

Tuesday, 08 January 2013 15:23

Bluefish444 Upgrade

bluefish444Bluefish444, a manufacturer of uncompressed 4K/2K/HD/SD SDI video cards, has announced important software upgrades for both their Windows and Mac OSX installers.  The new OSX installer adds support for Avid Open I/O to its Create line of uncompressed HD-SDI cards. Avid Open I/O is designed to let third-party manufacturers develop plug-ins allowing their hardware to work with Media Composer and Symphony. 

The OS X 10.7 installer "provides cross-platform SDI I/O solutions to Avid users for the first time," said Bluefish444 Managing Director Craige Mott in a prepared statement. "Bluefish444 regards Avid as a long-term strategic partner and we will continue making Open I/O OS X releases in the future."

The Create 3D Ultra, Bluefish444's flagship card for digital content creators, features 2x HD/SD 3G-SDI IO, 2K dual-link IO, 3D stereo IO, 12-bit video processing, hardware-based scaling, DVI/HDMI preview, three 1D LUTs, eight channels of AES/EBU digital audio and two channels of analog audio monitoring. The Create card line starts at $1999.

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