Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Over the past couple of days I’ve been keeping tabs on the SpaceX/NASA launch of the Dragon module to the International Space Station. This is the first time in nine years that a manned space mission has launched from the United States using US hardware, and in conjunction with a private company.

And it was spectacular. The first thing that struck me was how minimalistic the space suits were. They’re almost fashioned in a Thunderbirds-style uniform (albeit the astronauts still need to wear a helmet). As for the Dragon module itself, it too is very minimalistic. All touch-screen displays with very few physical buttons. It’s as if 2020 finally caught up technology wise (though marred with the the awfulness going on in the world right now, it has to be said that those two astronauts are two very lucky buggers escaping Earth for a short while).

While I was waiting for the module (now nicknamed Endeavour) to rendevouz with the International Space Station (ISS), I decided to take the opportunity to watch Netflix’s Space Force, created by Steve Carrell and The (US) Office’s Greg Daniels (who also manages Amazon Prime’s excellent TV series, Upload – think of that one as a funnier, yet bleak version of Black Mirror’s San Junipero.)

While Space Force lampoons a certain president’s mad ambitions to conquer space for the US, the message (and mission) is by and large a good one – to work with others to put humanity out there in space. By co-operating with each other rather than going against each other – and at the same time, treat the planet with respect. However, it doesn’t exactly start out that way.

We have Steve Carell’s Mark Naird, a four star general who is promoted to lead the Space Force division. His experience in the army leads him to make rash decisions and ignore the advice of the science team. In the first episode, a $6 billion project is in jeopardy because the science guys are not confident of a successful launch and the chief scientist (played by John Malkovich) goes out of his way to persuade Naird to abort due to weather conditions. After struggling with incompetent and annoying members of staff, advisory boards, etc. (which is why the show partly reminds me of Veep) he eventually decides to launch. He comes to realise that this is a job where you need to balance risk. The launch is a success, but is ultimately sabotaged by.. well, let’s say it gets messy.

The second episode is pure delight, and features some of the best VFX in a TV series second only to The Mandalorian. Weta FX provides a fully mocapped space chimp which was abandoned (along with a dog) as part of an earlier mission. The chimp is still alive, but hungry, and General Naird – through a sign language interpreter – has to get the chimp to try and re-attach the solar panels of the module that was launched in the last episode that were cut off by a rival nation. And the chimp has to do all this with only a promise of a non-existent banana, or a human baby (or chimp). After 3 hours of getting the chimp to pick the right tool, he goes out into space – and well, some of the finest comedy involving a drill and weightlessness ensues.

Space Force is incredibly funny. It is poignant. It highlights bureaucracy (both good and bad) of a space programme, and the potential dangers of weaponizing space. Let’s hope that doesn’t become a real thing. The SpaceX/NASA collaboration is wonderful thing to behold, for the right reasons. But let’s not turn it into something destructive.

I realise that I’m starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but being able to easily back up, retain and watch movie and TV purchases from the iTunes store is important to me – and it should be for anybody who regularly uses the iTunes store.

I’m struggling to understand Apple’s approach to how it stores and manages music, movies and TV show purchases through the iTunes store. Apple is actively promoting the iTunes Store’s ability to buy and watch purchases everywhere because it stores everything you purchase on its own servers.

But they have the right to remove content at any time and strongly advocate that you need to download it so you can keep your purchase. However, with that comes some major disadvantages: you lose 4K and you lose iTunes Extras if they come with the film. It takes away a lot of the features that attract people to the platform (name me any other online video retailer that offers audio commentaries and featurettes). Apple needs to significantly improve in this area because it’s not inspiring consumer confidence in cloud computing and services if content you’ve bought is removed without knowledge or compensation, leaving either nothing or significantly less than what you bough. Cloud computing something Apple is keen to increase its interest in, especially after it’s been revealed that Apple has gone on a hiring spree.

To avoid you having to go through my previous rambling rants, I’ll summarise the key points here as I understand the situation:

  • Apple can remove any music, movie or TV show title you’ve purchased from your library at any time, for any reason. The most likely explanation is the ownership of copyright has changed rights owners and Apple hasn’t been granted permission to continue selling that title. Apple doesn’t give any notice if this happens. Nor are you entitled to any kind of refund or compensation. Then again, it’s also possible that you could potentially still access your purchase. In summary: it’s effectively completely random as to whether you keep your purchase with all its features to stream or download from Apple’s servers. You might keep a title forever, a week, a month, a year, 5 years, 10 years. You just don’t know.
  • Apple recommends downloading and backing up your purchased media content. Music purchases are DRM-free, usually small, and this is usually no problem for the majority of people to keep backups of their music files. Movies and TV shows, on the other hand, are large, multi-gigabyte files which are DRM protected, meaning that this restricts playback to your Apple account and devices that you own. iPhones, iPads, Macs and Windows machines can playback downloaded movies and TV shows. If they’re not downloaded, they’re streamed from Apple’s servers. iTunes Extras after the 10th July, 2014 are streaming only and cannot be downloaded. 4K content is streaming only, restricted to certain devices, and cannot be downloaded. So they cannot be backed up.
  • Apple TV HD and 4K devices are streaming devices only. iTunes purchases are not officially supported being accessed from NAS devices. Home Share doesn’t seem to support a new movie/TV show container format that I’ve found which is being used for newer titles in the iTunes Store. AirPlay should be used to stream to an Apple TV device from an iPhone, iPad and Mac/Windows machines if the title is not available anymore from Apple’s servers. Again, a reminder: you will lose access to 4K (if it was offered in that format) and iTunes Extras if the film is pulled from Apple’s servers. Your movie download only consists of the HD movie (or SD if not available in HD).
  • iTunes purchases downloaded to iPad and iPhone are not backed up if the device is set to only backup to iCloud. You’d need to connect your device to a computer running iTunes and macOS Catalina and back up the entire contents of the device there.

It should be noted that the terms of Apple’s Media Services are extremely ambiguous (for example, streaming is barely mentioned – just “redownloads”) and in my initial dealings with Apple Support, it feels as if they’re making excuses on the spot to get around their flawed and consumer unfriendly policies.

So, with regards to not being able to play newer iTunes movie purchases through Home Share (to test backup strategies), I reached out to Apple Support on a separate ticket and used examples such as Warner Bros. Birds of Prey, Lionsgate’s Knives Out and Warner Bros. Joker. All recent films, and all appear to use a new container format (HLS) when downloaded from the iTunes Store to a computer via the Apple TV app (on macOS Catalina). I discuss the symptoms on my previous post.

Apple Support and I have had some interesting conversations about this – nearly 90 minutes spent on the phone. The first revelation is that Apple does not officially support Network Attached Drives (or NAS). So if anybody is using Synology or similar NAS tech to share media libraries with an Apple (TV) device – Apple won’t support you.

The second was that AirPlay is the recommended method by which to play this type of content to the Apple TV. From your Mac, iPhone or iPad, you start playing the content and select the AirPlay symbol, select the device you want to stream it to, and it starts playing there.

The trouble with downloading content to an iPad and iPhone is the limited space available, and you’d still need to back the whole device up to a computer (Mac or Windows) to be able to backup any purchased media content because it won’t be backed up to the iCloud.

So what you really need to back up your movies and TV shows is a Mac (I can’t speak for Windows too much because I have no idea at what state it has move on from iTunes and transitioned to separate apps like the Mac) – but you need to either download the entire library to your Mac’s internal SSD/HD, or to an external drive. If the latter, you’d have to find your own way of ensuring that you have backups of that drive. Apple recommends using Time Machine to back up the Apple’s internal drive(s), though (again, see previous post) – this doesn’t always yield favourable results and I had to rely on the Apple cloud to restore everything for Apple Music. I only hope it was because of the separation of iTunes and library folder layout which was the problem (dramatically different layouts when I compared my Time Machine backup to that of the new Apple Musics app).

Note: Any iTunes Extras content made after 10th July, 2014 cannot be downloaded – it’s streaming only. So if Apple pulls the plug on a title, you’ll only have access to the file(s) containing the movie (up to HD quality only).

What Apple told me about the HLS container files is that it’s possible that the DRM is preventing playback on the Apple TV device via Home Share. If so, that’s crazy – especially as I’m using an all Apple ecosystem. And that this is not a bug. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t (I say isn’t), it seems that me that Home Sharing could be for the chop in a later tvOS/macOS. If it’s not able to handle these new container formats, it makes future iTunes purchases impossible to play via Home Share. Obviously one would use the Apple cloud service to stream in all cases where possible – but if Apple removes the content (without notice), you’ll be forced to use the method described above.

UPDATE (19th May, 2020) – the issue of the HLS package download can be resolved by going to Preferences -> Playback in the Apple TV app in macOS Catalina and ensuring that Download Multichannel Audio and Download HDR when available are both unticked.

I’ve still yet to hear back from Apple why this has to be done, and why Apple TV devices can’t see the HLS format (and what good does it do anyway if the download has no effect whatsoever).

Fix .movpkg / HLS file downloads in Apple TV app by deselecting the above

I’ve asked Apple Support to continue investigating and raise this accordingly with the technical engineering teams responsible. But I still say that Apple needs to keep all previous iTunes Store purchases on Apple’s servers even if the seller has pulled the title from the Apple platform – unless it is a genuine mistake by the seller, and then compensation needs to be organised accordingly. I don’t care about the legalities of this – and neither should the average consumer – we shouldn’t care about what licenses or agreements Apple has with their sellers. Keep the purchases on Apple servers indefinitely!

Downloading and managing files is the very least thing I want to be doing – I chose Apple because the process of purchasing and watching movies and TV content across multiple devices using their servers is quick and convenient. When you start to bring in backups (and only half-arsed backups at that due to the strange download/streaming hybrid Apple has found itself in), it becomes inconvenient and you see the cracks in the system that Apple has spent decades building up.

It also has to be said that we really need better consumer law surrounding digital content and protecting consumer purchases – especially if it’s being stored in the cloud.

(Well, more of a mugging than a robbery, I suppose)

Yesterday evening I was looking for something to watch. Something I hadn’t seen in a while. I was sure I had purchased it, but according to the Apple TV app running on macOS Catalina 10.15.4.1, it wasn’t able to find it when I did a search.

But I did find it within my library when sorted alphabetically. Phew! It just looked as if Apple was no longer selling that particular title. But at least I could stream and download it. That title was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MicMacs, a wonderfully comic French film about the arms industry (got to love the French sense of humour!).

Oh, really? Tell that to the Apple TV app on macOS Catalina and Apple removing content without notice

But I decided that I’d leave it until I’m off on holiday next week when I can really start binging on movies (many of whom were purchased via Apple’s iTunes store recently) – I’ve got:

  • Knives Out
  • Once upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Rocketman
  • Birds of Prey

as well as a few older titles that I’ve not seen in a while that were on sale.

While I was reminiscing over Sylvain Chomet‘s The Illusionist (which is based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script, and was directly responsible for me falling in love with the city of Edinburgh and have not regretted it since), I thought about his other film, Attila Marcel. I hadn’t seen that for a very long while, and thought it’d make for a good evening’s viewing.

ALAS!

Like MicMacs, I couldn’t see it in Apple TV’s search function. What was worse: I couldn’t see it listed alphabetically in the library either. Yet I was damn sure I bought it on iTunes.

Thankfully Apple keeps all orders and invoices going back many years – though they could consider introducing a text search function within the Apple TV and Apple Music apps to make it easier to find particular titles – otherwise it’s you need to do a LOT of scrolling. That, plusan export function for any and all invoices as CSV or Excel format.

I managed to find the original order/invoice:

So that confirms I wasn’t going stark raving mad (entirely possible during this lockdown phase). Tried to go through the usual route of reporting a problem with Apple, but the order was so old. I managed to set-up a generic support ticket with Apple Support. After an hour or two I got a reply:

It’s important to note that I quoted the original order ID when establishing contact. I replied to say that I’ve never hidden any purchases and gave them a screenshot to prove there was nothing being hidden. I then received the following:

Effectively:

“The content provider decided to stop selling their movie on our platform, and either we don’t have the file or are not allowed to give it out – even if you’ve purchased it.”

Where it gets unnecessarily complicated is that Apple sells the Apple TV 4K device which has limited storage – 32Gb or 64Gb. They also sell the iPhone which has a maximum storage capacity of 512Gb. They also have the iPad which goes all the way up to 1Tb. My entire Apple TV/iTunes library sits in around 1.75Tb. And until recently my MacBook Pros have only had a maximum of 1Tb of internal storage – and half of that was being used by Apple Photos and project work.

The entire point of buying from the likes of Apple is to make it easy to access and view my film collection (haha, I’m trying to find another word for collection as it’s not really such if some swine can just come along remove stuff from it at any time without my permission or notice) via the Apple TV device, my iPhone, my iPad or my MacBook Pro.

In the UK, the fair use law prevents us legally from ripping content from physical media that we’ve purchased. Apple seems the best option – especially as they generally give you a similar set of extra features content that you’d find on a DVD or Blu-Ray release.

Now, even if I download all ~4Tb of my content to my Mac and back that content up either to the likes of Backblaze or an external hard drive or NAS, I cannot download the 4K version of the film, nor the iTunes Extras content. Then we have issues of presenting films that have been removed from iTunes like Attila Marcel to the Apple TV, iPhone and iPad. There are options for this:

  • AirPlay (think Google’s Chromecast)
  • Home Share (sharing media library direct from Mac or NAS)

But this isn’t a consistent or nice experience – something that Apple does so very well in almost all other areas of the business.

Some questions:

  • Why Apple doesn’t inform you of any content that’s about to be removed from your library?
  • Apple has seriously screwed the pooch because there is a difference between download and streaming, which is the heart of the matter here (and especially so with the Apple TV device). I keep the movies in their “cloud” to save space and to be able to stream because I generally always have the bandwidth to do so. There is very little need for me to download an entire movie. I think this applies to the vast majority of Apple’s customers, too. This hybrid download/streaming system is an utter mess.

Apple’s own storefront web site makes absolutely no mention that content can be withdrawn. This is what it has to say (at the time of writing, 5th May 2020):

Oh, really?

Buy. Rent. Watch. All inside the app. Welcome to the new home of thousands of films, including the latest blockbusters from iTunes. Now you can buy, rent and watch, all from inside the app — as well as watch everything you’ve previously purchased from iTunes.”

But Apple has done a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy style maneuver. To quote from the book written by Douglas Adams, who was a big fan of Apple:

“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

The search for Apple’s Terms of Service in a nutshell

Apple’s Terms of Service (which, strangely, I found only through a third party web stite) only stipulate redownloads, NOT streaming – which is how I use iTunes/Apple TV content. Again, we’re back to the problem which is a legacy hangover from the early days of iTunes where you had to download everything to be able to watch it. Then the iPhone, the iPad and Apple TV came along. Especially the Apple TV which MUST stream the content.

REDOWNLOADS

You may be able to redownload previously acquired Content (“Redownload”) to your devices that are signed in with the same Apple ID (“Associated Devices”). You can see Content types available for Redownload in your Home Country at https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT204632. Content may not be available for Redownload if that Content is no longer offered on our Services.

Associated Devices Rules (except Apple Arcade): You can have up to ten
devices (but only a maximum of five computers) signed in with your Apple ID at one time. Each computer must also be authorised using the same Apple ID (to learn more about authorisation of computers, visit
https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT201251). Devices can be associated
with a different Apple ID once every 90 days.

Associated Devices Rules for Apple Arcade: You can have up to 10 devices
signed in to Apple Arcade per Family member at one time. Devices can be associated with a different Apple ID once every 90 days.

Redownloads vs streaming – nowt mentioned about streaming, necessary for Apple TV

The link in the above only mentions general availability of Apple Media Services. It does not mention the conditions in which content may be removed (and event then, only referring to downloadable content), nor that you will not be notified that the content is no long available.

Not if they’ve pulled the title from their servers you can’t. Be prepared for fiddling with file transfers and AirPlay instead – and extra features going missing as they’re streaming only and can’t be downloaded.

Compare this against Amazon Prime Video’s Terms which are linked to at every option to rent or “buy” (and I use that term loosely now). Amazon are much clearer on the point whereas Apple has been super vague for the past 7 years despite constantly removing content from people’s libraries.

4. DIGITAL CONTENT

i. Availability of Purchased Digital Content. Purchased Digital Content will generally continue to be available to you for download or streaming from the Service, as applicable, but may become unavailable due to potential content provider licensing restrictions or for other reasons, and Amazon will not be liable to you if Purchased Digital Content becomes unavailable for further download or streaming.

Amazon’s Terms for “buying” digital movie or TV content from them – this is very clearly set out: don’t use them for buying film or TV content.

Amazon have made it very clear anything you “buy” from them can vanish at any point. That they don’t have to give you any notice. That they owe you nothing if this occurs. Apple’s terms are more ambiguous because it merely states “redownloads”. Yet the service is primary a streaming service; downloads are a legacy from when iTunes first started when streaming wasn’t available and which just happens to be convenient these days for going offline (for travelling).

  • Why Apple doesn’t offer an immediate refund or compensation if content is removed – people make the assumption that if you purchase something from these services, they have access to it indefinitely. There’s no big massive asterisk next to the purchase button warning you about Apple or the content provider’s ability to remove the film from your cloud library. It should not be considered an extended rental. If you buy a physical CD, DVD or Blu-Ray – you don’t have somebody turn up at your doorstep from the shop that sold it to you and demand it back because their supplier no longer sells to them. Just because something is intangible should not bring about Houdini style hijinks.
  • Why Apple hasn’t thought about and solved this problem already? There have been sporadic reports of content being removed from people’s libraries since at least 2013.
  • If Apple can’t sold this problem technically, then why doesn’t it try to resolve this through its significant legal resources and the major film studios and distributors? If Apple truly is a consumer champion, dedicated to the likes of privacy et. al, it needs to be seen doing a heck of a lot more for protecting consumer’s rights. (Ironic, given the whole right to repair fiasco which is stil ongoing.)

Some experiences of other people:

There are plenty more articles about this, but the point is that in an age where we’re relying more and more on cloud services (including storage), it seems highly unreasonable for Apple to expect us to download every single title we buy from them and keep it somewhere local.

I’ve reach out further to Apple Support and Tim Cook to see what they have to say on the matter and have asked them what they intend to do in the future to protect consumers’ purchases. Apple needs to resolve its issue with the legacy iTunes stuff because it’s now becoming a major problem. Until then, I’m extremely damn nervous to buy anything more from the Apple TV/iTunes store knowing that at any time a content provider can pull the plug just like that.

I’d reach out to Metrodome who distributes (or at least did) Atilla Marcel and ask them what the bloody hell they’re playing at, even though my contract for the purchase is with Apple. But they went into administration in 2016. Maybe the rights reverted to Pathé? Though this doesn’t explain why it has taken this long for the title to be removed from iTunes – I’m pretty sure it was still there at the end of last year (2019). In any event, Amazon’s Prime Video has the title to rent or buy. I may reach out to Pathé and ask them what the hell THEY’RE playing at – especially as there a good number of titles from them happily existing on iTunes that I “own”.

Apple, live up to your creed: Think Different. Yet just don’t think different – do something!

BTW, when the BBC Store closed down, I had around £150 worth of purchases refunded to me in its entirety by BBC Worldwide PLUS a voucher for Amazon which could be used to buy physical or digital content by way of an apology. More companies – especially Apple – need to take note.

43 (nearly 44) year old man still collecting Star Wars figures

Disney+ in the UK has finally released all eight chapters of The Mandalorian, the first ever live action Star Wars TV series, and I’ve got to say that in all my years of following the Star Wars films: this TV show is the dog’s knackers.

Jon Favreau, who created the series as well as wrote the majority of the episodes, has done an absolutely fantastic job of creating a modern Western in space (or maybe a better analogy – a modern Eastern, since a lot of it aligns itself similarly to Lone Wolf and Cub, as well as the Seven Samurai).

The plot follows a bounty hunter (much like Boba Fett) belonging to the Mandalorian clan (they’re not a species, but more of a creed) who takes a job tracking down and retrieving somebody who is only described as being 50 years old. But this is no ordinary job. The client (played by Werner Herzog) offers the bounty hunter (Mando, we’ll call him for now) a significant bounty if he brings him back alive.

The Child (aka Baby Yoda)

The target happens to be a child. Albeit one that ages extremely slowly. As far as we know, this is the same species as Jedi Master Yoda (hence the nickname) – though Mando doesn’t know that. After finding and rescuing the child, Mando can’t bear to leave the kid with the client, whom he suspects is torturing him/running experiments, so after he pockets the reward (which he turns into protective armour), he rescues the kid – which results in him being banished from the bounty hunter’s guild and making many enemies in the process. They both go on the run.

Throughout the course of the series, we see Baby Yoda demonstrate remarkable feats of Force power, much to the amazement of Mando and his rag-tag team that he assembles to bring down an Imperial warlord (played by Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul’s Giancarlo Esposito).

The show is an extraordinary testament to what can now be achieved in television production: the visual effects, the sound design, sets, puppets/creature effects.- everything that you’d expect to see in a major Hollywood movie. It’s shot anamorphically too – with two big black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, giving it a true cinematic quality. All split across 8 30-minute “chapters”.

It’s funny. It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. The Mandalorian is a joy to watch. Some would argue 30 minutes is too short, and I’d agree to an extent – though what they manage cram into those 30 minutes ensures that everything remains fresh and keeps on moving.

The Mandalorian has been the best thing on TV in ages, and I can’t wait to see season two when it airs in October.

Update: Cineworld are also blocking Universal Pictures films too. This is the same chain that withdrew their support of BAFTA because of the eligibility requirements for the film Roma, which had an extremely limited theatrical run (read: not via Cineworld cinemas) before appearing on Netflix.

Once these cretins start blocking Disney, which has been doing the same thing (perhaps even more aggressively than Universal, though they have not said or committed to anything regarding future simultaneous theatrical/VoD releases when cinemas open, with the one exception being the forthcoming Artemis Fowl movie which WILL be streaming only via Disney+) – these cinema chains will effectively be dead.

Fancy seeing the latest James Bond movie at your local AMC Theater (for Americans) or Odeon (for us Brits) when it’s eventually released and cinemas are open once more?

Well, you can’t.

It seems that the CEO of AMC Theaters, Adam Aron, has had a massive temper tantrum over Universal Pictures release of the animated movie, Trolls 2: World Tour on video on demand platforms during the cinema release, with Universal Pictures planning similar launches for future films. Universal wants it to be complementary to a theatrical release, but cinemas such as AMC/Odeon (as well as Cineworld in the UK and Regal Cinemas in the US) are up in arms.

COMING SOON TO A CINEMA (OR NOT) NEAR YOU: Studios vs. Cinemas, an epic battle to monetise your eyeballs

With cinemas already affected by video on demand/streaming platforms, they need all the revenue they can muster, and generally there has been a window of opportunity for new films to be released only in theatres first before it ever hits VoD. But Covid-19 has changed all that. And cinemas are not at all sympathetic to their studio “partners” in this situation.

For me, I’ve always tried to watch new films at the cinema. Nothing beats a really big screen with superior audio. But over the past few years, the experience has not been as good as it could been – with even big chains like the Odeon not really doing much to improve upon it.

The local cinema (Ambassadors) was cheap and cheerful, but the seats were very uncomfortable and everything started to look shabby. So I made the effort to take the train to Guildford and watch films at the local Odeon. But in a move that will undoubtedly help them in the long term (assuming they don’t block film studio releases), Ambassadors started doing major renovation work on the cinema before the Covid-19 pandemic came to be, with plans to open in summer 2020. Meanwhile, Odeon in Guildford was planning to take over the buildings directly next to it, but then withdrew.

Could we be saying goodbye?

With regards to cinema releases being available to rent via the likes of iTunes or Amazon Prime Video at £15.99 for 48 hours access – it’s not something I’ll be doing, but like most things, it’s always good to have a choice. The kind of choices that the movie exhibitors would rather the consumer not have. It’s understandable, of course, but it’s very much a case that one has to adapt or die – something many businesses in this pandemic have had to do.

Cinemas will need to do much more than sell coffee to retain customers

However, the current window of VoD opportunity is a confusing one. I recently spent £13.99 on the last of the Star Wars Skywalker films on Apple TV, thinking that it’d be some time before it hits Disney+. I was wrong – in less than three weeks since its release on iTunes, Disney+ is going to stream it as part of everybody’s Disney+ subscription. I’m okay with that – in fact, it’s good because hopefully Disney+ will offer the thing in UltraHD whereas the iTunes version is only HD.

Now I have absolutely no idea what DIsney plans to do with the release of Pixar’s Onward. I’ve always enjoyed a good Pixar movie – they’re the US equivalent of Japan’s Studio Ghibli to me – but at the moment we have no idea when the Apple TV release is going ahead, and with that, the Disney+ UK release. And why doesn’t Mr. Aron take exception to Disney and block their films? Because they own 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar as well as their own films. That really would be business suicide.

I think studios are just as unsure of release schedules during this time of pandemic as the cinemas. Nobody knows when the lockdowns will ease. Will there be a resurgence of the virus? Secondary infections? How long before a vaccine is developed and rolled out?

The big problem here is that the studios have spent many tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars making these films, only to find there is no avenue in which to release them theatrically SAFELY and start making their money back. Without that return and profit on investment, new films can’t be made. Yes, they want to release them in cinemas, but while people can’t get out to them, the only way forward is video on demand.

And remember, the film industry is HUGE. We’re already seeing VFX companies laying off people in the hundreds or in the case of DNEG in London, asking people to take a three-month pay cut (which, as you can imagine, has not gone down too well).

And that’s why I think AMC/Odeon/Cineworld/Regal are being bloody fools in this argument. If you remove the ability for somebody to watch a movie at their local (or regional) cinema all because you’re so pissed off with them for releasing something during a time when nobody can go anywhere at all, people are simply going to see that film elsewhere. It may be another cinema or video on demand.

What really makes me mad about Mr. Aron’s decision is that AMC Theaters put on a really good film premiere back in 2005 when I went to New York to attend the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The place was buzzing, and everybody had such a great time (and talk about celebrity spotting – it’s not often you get to watch a film in the same theatre as George Lucas who was there with his son). It was a brilliant presentation from AMC and Universal, and it saddens me that Mr. Aron is willing to destroy that relationship because Universal needed to release the film.

Is it the end of the cinema? I don’t think so. But I think there has to be many changes made to the business model. Not only does the price point need to be such that entire families can afford to go more regularly (the various subscription passes go some way to resolve that issue, but perhaps not enough), but content options need to be wide open – not reduced further. More live events on a big screen. More TV shows (yes, really) – why couldn’t I pay something like £40 to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul at the highest quality over a period of a few weeks?

In any event, I hope this issue is resolved, otherwise I’m pretty sure we might be saying goodbye to AMC and Odeon as people leave it for other chains or home video.

The term Visual Effects (VFX) usually refers to post-production work to integrate CG or model photography into live action footage. Special Effects (SFX), in turn, usually refers to practical, on-set effects like explosions, smoke, mechanical effects, etc.

When I first started working in the VFX industry way back in 2001, CG post-production had become the dominant force in VFX. Few productions were using miniature/model effects, and even fewer animatronics (to the point in 2004, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop packed up and moved back to Los Angeles from London).

MPC made strides in a number of CG innovations, including its innovative Alice crowd simulation software which was used on a number of big productions. Over the years, we’ve seen major improvements in motion capture, character rigging, CG modelling, compositing – generally all the usual fields that CG VFX is put to use.

But as film makes way for increasingly ambitious television productions, new techniques have to be found in order to reduce costs and speed up production turnaround.

The Star Wars films have always been a major innovator in the world of visual and special effects. Right from the first film back in 1977, George Lucas had the foresight to start his own company for the purposes of producing the complex visual effects needed to tell his story.

Those complex visual effects have mainly been restricted to film only – costs for producing something on that scale for television has been been pretty prohibitive. Attempts at the first Star Wars TV special were interesting to say the least:

Getting back to the the evolution of VFX tools, the games industry were also making progress with more and more complex video games. This too required substantial development and R&D, and you’ll find that both VFX and the games industry share many of the same tools and techniques – each industry complementing each other.

Fast forward to Disney’s “live-action” The Jungle Book and subsequent The Lion King. Director/Producer Jon Favreau and his team developed brand new techniques to help create the films. This in turn has been used in the first ever Star Wars television series, The Mandalorian.

In order to create the fantastical sets, landscapes and other backgrounds, the production brings the old technique of rear projection bang up to date by using giant LED screens to produce a highly detailed background. This allows filmmakers to shoot practically whereas before you’d typically shot on green or blue screens and replace the backgrounds in post-production. My biggest issue with this approach is that scenes which use green/blue screens never have fantastic lighting. If you’re shooting a scene which is, for example, set outside but shot indoors with green screen compositing, it never looks real. The lighting is a dead giveaway. Whereas with this new virtual set system, the lighting is a lot more accurate and realistic.

The virtual set system obviously requires some VFX to be produced pre-production to display on the giant LED screens, so this technique is bringing together the terms VFX and SFX – creating a blurred line between practical and post.

What’s interesting is that the system uses Epic Games’ Unreal Engine which is probably best known for the video games Unreal Tournament and Fortnite. Filmmakers can make live changes to landscapes and environments on the fly through the use of Unreal Engine. All these techniques are thanks to ILM‘s Stagecraft Virtual Production team, Epic Games and Jon Favreau’s Golem Creations.

It’s all very impressive, and I consider it a major game changer to the point that if they haven’t already, the entire team responsible should be given an AMPAS scientific award for filmmaking innovation ASAP. It’s certainly the most exciting FX technology that I’ve seen in past 20 years.

The Mandalorian airs exclusively on Disney+, the new streaming service from Disney, and will be available to watch in the UK starting the 24th March (I can’t wait!).