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.

In the beginning there was Netflix. And it was good. Then Amazon Prime Video popped up, and it too was good. Then the main terrestrial, cable and satellite broadcasters got involved too. Then Apple decided to throw its hat into the ring, entering the arena with no back catalogue and just a handful of original titles.

Now a new (but old) kid has arrived and it’s looking to school the old timers on how a streaming service should work. Welcome Disney+ UK.

When Netflix launched, it effectively laid down what other video streaming services would eventually do themselves. Initially offering content from other companies, Netflix started commissioning their own original programs – starting with the excellent Lilyhammer (sic). Netflix added UltraHD content too, but held out for the longest time in offering downloadable content to tables and mobile phones. The honour of offering downloads goes to Amazon’s Prime Video, which like Netflix, started off offering content from others before moving into their own original productions.

Amazon even attempted to put out audio commentaries on original content – but the only title that I can think of is Transparent – and only season 1. Up until Disney+’s launch, no other subscription-based video streaming service offers extra content like deleted scenes, featurettes or audio commentaries like Disney+ offers.

Disney+’s USP (unique selling point) #1

Featurettes – deleted scenes, audio commentaries and BTS documentaries.

Comparing Disney content I’ve purchased via iTunes and on Blu-Ray, the number of featurettes across Disney movies on Disney+ vary. The newer titles feature audio commentaries, though for something like Black Panther which streams in UltraHD (but can only be purchased in iTunes in HD or SD), you only get a handful for extra features – no commentaries, whereas the iTunes edition, features a full audio commentary from director Ryan Coogler.

There are other titles like this – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, which offers audio commentaries on the iTunes editions, but NOT on Disney+. This disparity means that you still have to buy titles (at a lower resolution, no less) to get all the features. Disney+ is no Criterion Collection. But it could be. It could be. For fans of films, like me, that like to deconstruct movies and see what makes them tick, audio commentaries and featurettes are a staple of movie watching.

But I dislike double dipping, and I dislike having to “own” lower quality material. My beef against Amazon which streams Good Omens in UltraHD but doesn’t offer the physical discs in UltraHD but does feature audio commentaries is still very much a thing. Also: why couldn’t Amazon or BBC Studios make the audio commentaries on Good Omens available via iTunes or Amazon Prime?

Disney+’s USP (unique selling point) #2

The number of available titles.

Disney+’s back catalogue is HUGE. Practically (but not quite) every movie ever released, every cartoon, every TV series, is here. And it’s integrated some of the Fox content it acquired when Disney took over 20th Century Fox a year ago (or so). So that means 30 series of The Simpsons. James Cameron’s Avatar. And interestingly, the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian (which I worked on), and when Disney (at the time) didn’t want to continue spending money on the franchise, Fox bought it and made The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – which has now come back to Disney as part of its acquisition.

Star Wars fan?

Disney+ has every film, modern TV show (it’d have been nice to have seen the Nelvana-produced Ewoks and Droids that I remember from the 1980’s, but I’m guessing Disney doesn’t own them and can’t license them for the service) with the exception of Rise of Skywalker, which is due to be released digitally on the 13th April. There’s a LOT of stuff here I’ve not seen, so it’s going to keep me occupied for quite some time.

The biggest addition, however, is the first ever Star Wars live-action TV series: The Mandalorian, featuring the world’s least best kept secret: Baby Yoda (that’s not his real name, of course, it’s actually Raymond Luxury Yacht). You just know that merchandising is going to through the roof. But this is a TV show that is a technological marvel and apparently damn entertaining to boot. So I’m very much looking forward to that.

Marvel fan?

Again, Disney’s acquisitions have paid off in spades. Here we have practically every film and TV show set in the Marvel universe – with the exception being Spiderman, since Sony are clinging on to the rights for dear life.

Lots of titles presented in UltraHD, and some of them even have audio commentaries! Keep it up, Disney, keep it up!

Pixar fan?

I count Pixar alongside Studio Ghibli and Walt Disney Animation to be the finest animation studios in the world (okay, and Laika Studios and Aardman Animation). Netflix currently has the majority of Studio Ghibi titles on their service, but if you want Pixar – you’ve got the lot. All of it. Including the short films. Again, there is so much here to enjoy and the entire back catalogue of Pixar films are here to enjoy at any time.

So much Disney, it hurts

There is something for everyone here. Absolutely everything. Disney+ is by far the best streaming service I’ve used. It’s well laid out, and on the Apple TV, it performs very well. And logging in was a breeze. I actually set up my account on my 2018 iPad Pro first. When it came to logging in via the Apple TV, I just had to approve the login on the iPad:

And on the iPad:

Sky Q

As I’m also a subscriber to Sky, we get the app on the Sky Q box. However, it is nowhere near as polished as the tvOS/iPadOS/iOS apps. It doesn’t integrate with the rest of the system unlike Netflix, whereas on the Apple ecosystem, it integrates with the Apple TV app and provides a single catalogue of TV and films across Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Channel 5, All 4, etc. – but not Netflix because they’re total spoilsports.

Additionally logging into your Disney+ account on Sky Q box is a poorly thought out, pain in the arse. You’ll need to use your remote control to enter each character of your email address and password. If you use a strong password (generated by a password manager), this is an absolute massive arse ache. It’s as if the app’s User Interface designer just gave up.

Then there’s the lack of UltraHD content. tvOS features content in UltraHD – the Sky Q app (Sky Q is UltraHD capable, as is the Netflix app on it) does not offer any Disney+ content in UltraHD.

I suspect the deal between Comcast (who now own Sky) and Disney was a late one, and the app was somewhat rushed out the door – but it’s a poor performing app. It’s very slow navigating the many options available to you, and combined with the lack of integration and UltraHD makes it a poor cousin to other platforms which Disney+ is available. Maybe in time this will improve – it’s got to – but for now I’d recommend pretty much anything other than the Sky Q app.

Disney+ rating (taking into account cost, catalogue and overall performance based on the tvOS app):

10/10

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!).