Despite digital film releases being more convenient (especially as they usually include an extra week or two window before any rentals or physical disks are released), I was shaken up by Apple’s revelation that they can remove content from your library unless you download your purchases (and even then you don’t get to download the 4K version of the film if it’s available, nor any extras). You can read a lot more about that on this blog.

As you can tell from the previous few posts, I’ve started buying more Blu-Ray disks again. Heck, you can head over to my recently re-launched Instagram account where I detail many of them as they come in. Many of them are classic titles that I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I’ve added a few modern titles to my wishlist.

I’ve a feeling that physical disks will still play an important part in a film lover’s collection because (a) removal of digital content at will by the seller and (b) offline/higher bitrates than digital streaming services lead to better overall quality. It’s also much harder to find rarer films from the likes of iTunes and Amazon, and physical disks usually contain many more extras than that of their digital counterparts.

Most importantly, I think that the sales of Xbox One Series X and Playstation 5 which both come with UHD Blu-Ray players by default (though there is a diskless version of the PS5) will continue to drive the market and demand for films on disk.

Back in the late 1990s, I bought myself a chipped Sony DVD player which could play region 1 disks. I wanted this ability because there was a company called The Criterion Collection which released (or in many cases re-released) movies on DVD which came with a plethora of special features. And these were absolutely brilliant for the film fan. And it helped also when I first went to the US back in 2000 and travelled across the entire country by bus and came back with a huge stack of DVDs of films not yet released in the UK.

That Sony DVD player has sadly gone away, and I never replaced it with a multi-region player again (which is a shame because I still own a copy of Pixar’s Cars on DVD which came directly from Pixar to my boss at MPC as part of a gift pack that was sent out to Renderman customers – he didn’t have a multi-region player, but I did at the time). So I’ve been restricted to region 2 or region B disks.

But the good news is that The Criterion Collection has been releasing titles in the UK/region B and I’ve started collecting all the good titles. Arrow Films has also been doing similar, and I’ve picked up some truly wonderful titles.

Robocop

You have 30 seconds to comply..

When the movie first came out in 1987, I was only ten years old. But I was desperate to see this film. Thankfully my mum managed to buy a copy on VHS when it came out for consumers. It was my very first 18-rated film, and I loved every minute of it. When I bought the original Criterion DVD back in the 90’s, this contained extra sequences (including an extremely gory death) and audio commentaries galore. This Arrow Films release contains all that and includes both the director’s cut and theatrical release.

Nightbreed

So much potential for a TV series

I came across Clive Barker’s work after reading about Hellraiser in Fangoria (or one of the other many film/horror magazines I bought at the time). I’m sure I watched Hellraiser before Nightbreed and was extremely impressed (and as Clive Barker’s directorial debut, absolutely incredible).. Hellraiser is technically my first horror – but I was so impressed with the special make-up and creature effects that I had to see what they did next. Nightbreed was that film. I absolutely loved it. I even bought the Titan behind-the-scenes book which contained high resolution photos of the monsters and other behind the scenes photos. Loads of information.

It’s horror/fantasy, but more emphasis on fantasy than horror. It stars Canadian director David Cronenberg in a major role, and the creatures themselves are wonderful. Danny Elfman’s music score is suitably ethereal, and the ending is crying out of continuation – maybe in the form of a TV series.

This release comes with a huge bunch of special features that I look forward to perusing through.

Being There

I like to watch..

Peter Sellers last film, and possibly his very best. It took me a very long time to get around to watching this, despite being a huge fan of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (which is crying out for a Criterion Collection UK release).

Is Chance the wisest men in the world? Is his autistic? Is he just a simple gardener with simple thoughts? Regardless of his mental state, his words have a heavy influence in US politics and becomes a major political figure – quite by chance. What follows is a farce on a similar scale to Dr. Strangelove and ends in a rather mystical and open-ended way.

Moonrise Kingdom

As a fan of Benjamin Britten, I approve of this film

Wes Anderson. The man can make a thoroughly entertaining film out of virtually anything. It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly why I love his work, but he is by far one of the best directors of the past 20-30 years. His adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the greatest Roald Dahl adaptations I’ve ever seen (including the Tim Burton adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that I worked on). He adds part whimsy, part conflict, part surrealism, some really superb dialogue work, oddball characters and a dash of romance (where needed) and gives you a film that is incredible to watch and a story that’s engrossing as any book.

The Criterion Collection UK has a few of his films, and I’ve just bought the rest – they should be arriving this week – but there is still room for Criterion to add a few more of his works to the Collection (namely Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Darjeeling Limited). I’m also crazy excited to see his new film, The French Dispatch, when it hopefully opens in cinemas in October.

But Moonrise Kingdom is a beautiful coming-of-age film about two adolescents on a made-up New England island running away after feeling alienated from their parents and peers. This triggers a massive police search, including that of the islanders. Featuring an insanely wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat, and isn’t afraid to borrow from Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra (which also features). It’s worth listening throughout the end credits as the soundtrack breaks the fourth wall.

If life could be a Wes Anderson movie, I think we’d all be better off..

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Features some damn good covers of David Bowie’s music, including Starman & Life on Mars

More Wes Anderson! This time we follow Steve Zissou, renowned oceanographer (and meant to parody Jacques Cousteau) on the hunt for the infamous “Jaguar Shark” which ate his business partner. Part Moby Dick, part mockumentary, part family drama, and part sea adventure. It also features some wonderful stop-motion animation of imaginary sea animals to boot, and an insane set containing most of the submersible and its rooms.

This is a very ambitious film from Anderson, featuring a fantastic cast, great music score, and.. oh, you know – I just love everything about this film. Like his other stuff, infinitely rewatchable. And it comes a load of extras which will keep any film fan happy.

Midnight Cowboy

Hey, I’m walking here!

It’s been a while since I first saw this film, but it stuck in mind ever since. What really makes it special is the relationship between Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso and Jon Voight’s Joe Buck. I’ll also never forget Ratso’s dream sequence in which the music I recognised from the 1980’s Animal Show with Johnny Morris. The origins of some music tracks defies belief!

The ending is surprisingly emotional, which is not helped by John Barry’s wonderfully haunting theme (dabs eyes). Never has the harmonica sounded so beautiful. And Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ is such a classic that it’s difficult to count how many times it’s been re-used elsewhere.

Again, plenty of extras to keep the most ardent fan happy.

And the rest..

Arrow Film’s Summer Camp 2020 Sale

Arrow Films is having a sale on – with many titles at £5/£7.50. It was rude not to indulge, so I picked out a few that I’ve been wanting to own for a while.

I’ll mention Zardoz because it’s a film that I watched late at night, possibly during secondary school, and found it to be utterly weird. And it stuck firmly in my mind. It’s been a right bugger to find it ever since and this Arrow Films Blu-Ray is the jackpot. Not only do you get a lovely remastered copy of the film, but audio commentaries and all manner of extras. I’ve been a big fan of John Boorman’s films since watching this (as mad as a box of frogs Zardoz is as a story). It also features one of the best version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that I’ve ever heard – but alas, does not exist anywhere other than the film. No soundtrack was ever released.

And Zardoz was shot at Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow, Ireland. I had the very great pleasure to visit there for the filming of Miramax Ella Enchanted (and was driven from Dublin to Ardmore by Richard Harris’ former driver). Didn’t get to see much of Country Wicklow’s beautiful hills – but it’s an impressive studio that’s for sure.

Oldboy I already have on Blu-Ray – but not the two disc edition. The second disc contains a THREE hour documentary on the making of the film. The film itself is absolutely fantastic, so for £5, I’m not going to say no just to get at that documentary.

Similarly, the extra features on A Fish Called Wanda are worth it alone. I’ve always liked the film, so now I can get to see and hear a bit more about how it was made (and why).

Being John Malkovich is a title I originally owned on region 1 DVD back in the 1990’s, but never got around to replacing it until now. Extra features also made it a lot more attractive as well as the cost.

Children of Men is a film I’ve seen a couple of times, and features some brain melting VFX and cinematography, so I had to get this. I’ve also recently purchased Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma on Criterion Collection UK which I thoroughly enjoyed (and features some stunning VFX work from my former employers MPC), so looking forward to that.

That’s all for now – but stay tuned for more movie madness.

Blonde woman misplaces her pet gorilla: “Oh, Gaylord? Where are you Gaylord?”

I’ve just bought King Kong Ultimate Edition because I used to own a version of King Kong that didn’t come with all the fancy trimmings. And there’s a reason for doing so:

Back in 2005, I had the audacious opportunity to travel to New York to attend Universal Picture’s updated version of King Kong. Written by the team that brought you the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and directed by Peter Jackson, this would turn out to be an eventual trip.

Kong talk

I was a member of a community called Kong Is King (kongisking.net) where we discussed all things Kong, but particularly Peter’s vision of it. Fresh off the Lord of the Rings, many of us were fans of both LoTR and Kong. It was a great place to hang out, and I met some truly interesting people.

Time to break out the tuxedo…

A fellow Kong Is King community member who knew somebody at Universal managed to persuade them to get tickets to the premiere in New York. It also seemed a good opportunity for the community to meet up in real-life, so we made it a proper event.

Central Park and The American Museum of Natural History

Our first adventure as a group was to the American Museum of Natural History – the US equivalent to London’s Natural History Museum. I made my way through a very snowy Central Park and met up with my fellow Kong fans and went for an explore around the museum’s many interesting and often awesome exhibits. After a pleasant wonder, we eventually all went our own way until the next event. I had a stroll. To this day I still cannot get how stunning New York is.

Eat and greet at over a thousand feet?

We all arranged to go up to the top of the Empire State Building. This was my second visit (the first was back in 2000 when I travelled across the US from coast to coast by coach) and it was much more fun because there was somebody up on the viewing platform dressed as Kong. Of course we had a group photo, which I’ve sadly lost over the past 15 years. It may still be out there, but the photo library at KongIsKing.net seems to be a little fragile.

The night was spent at a bar drinking and talking shop and awaiting for other members of the community to turn up who couldn’t make the earlier trip up the ESB.

The following day saw us make our way to Stout NYC, a bar at 133 West 33rd Street for a sit down menu, plenty of booze, and to generally socialise. The strangest moment was when I was asked to call Oscar-winning creature effects/model effects/costume designer/supervisor Richard Taylor from the Weta Workshop to invite him to the meeting. I couldn’t get through, so that never happened. But what did happen is the team that was responsible for the production diaries (included with the King Kong Ultimate Edition) turned up and shot a short piece.

A menu fit for a King.. Kong.

We headed out afterwards for a bit of stroll, and noticed the preparations underway for the premiere.

I saw Kong completely naked!

As preparations for the premiere got into full swing, a group of us discovered Bob Burns out and about with the original 1933 armature of King Kong as used by Willis H. O’Brien in the film. He had no fur and was completely nude. Kong, not Bob Burns. To look at this piece of cinematic history was a true privilege.

Here’s what I saw – being handled by Andy Serkis and Rick Baker:

Embed from Getty Images

Wearing my fancy Debenhams rental Tuxedo and wondering about a cold New York, I spent some time hiding behind a massive stage where the stars of the film and other celebrities all gathered behind a massive sculpture of Kong and had their photos taken. It was all rather surreal.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s only George bloody Lucas?!

You must understand that when we were invited to this event, we’d thought we’d just get tickets to a spare screen somewhere within the many cinemas in NYC.

Oh no. No, no, Universal Pictures had pulled out all the stops for us. We sat in the primary cinema where the cast, senior crew and celebrities were all going to watch the movie. A big group of us sat in the first two/three rows of the cinema. Behind us, the seats went up a bit further and lo and behold there was George Lucas with his son. It’s not often I do double takes, but I probably did quadruple takes. And though we were told not to approach the VIPs, a few people did and he was extraordinarily nice and obliging. Also spotted: Rick Baker, the special make-up effects maestro whose work on An American Werewolf in London won him an Oscar. Stephen King. I can’t actually verify he was there, but I’m pretty damn certain it was him.

Before the film, Stacey Snider who was the chairman of Universal Pictures at the time came out in front of all of us – only a few yards from where we were sitting and introduced the film’s stars and director. All of this was being filmed and beamed into other cinemas participating in the premiere. Some of this footage should be on the King Kong Ultimate Edition Blu-Ray. But it was remarkable of seeing Peter Jackson, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis, etc. all up close. And another star from the film, Jamie Bell, was sitting in the row behind all of us – with what appeared to be a bit of an entourage full of women with him.

All of this was quite surreal, but I am glad I came dressed up for the occasion. I was staying at the YMCA Vanderbilt which is cheap for New York, and pretty decently located. The pipes in the room were rather nosiy, but for the price I wasn’t going to argue. I had my own private room, though the showering and toilet facilities were shared.

I got a King Kong goody bag after leaving:

It includes the PC game, a comic book, a book and a Universal bag. But most importantly it was a tremendous experience and I have many people to thank for it – least of all my ex-wife who bought the flight for me for Christmas.

And the strangest thing about all of this was that the associate producer of King Kong would come to work with us at MPC for a short while. I had just come off this little beauty which deeply divided the critics, but I appreciate and love because it felt closer in tone to the original Roald Dahl book:

I went into the production office one day and the AP of King Kong (Annette Wullems) saw my Kong Is King T-Shirt and remarked that we both at the same premiere. The film industry is huge, and yet is it really?

Bargain price!

King Kong Ultimate Edition is only £7.99 on Blu-Ray and contains 2 discs. The entire Lord of the Rings and Hobbit extended trilogies containing all the audio commentaries and more documentaries than you’d ever want to see in your life comes on 30 discs and a whopping £55 – though I am very tempted to buy it because it’d take years just to go through everything. We joked on KongIsKing.net that Peter Jackson intended releasing a 10,000 disc edition of King Kong at some point.

So get everything on 2 discs is quite an achievement.

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).

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

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.

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!).