Werner Herzog

From a letter to Werner Herzog by Roger Ebert:

It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive—among those who have heard of you, of course. Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them.

Art Benjamin: Mathemagician

Arthur Benjamin: Lightning calculation and other “Mathemagic”

In this video Arthur Benjamin calculates squares of 2, 3, and 4 digit numbers faster than you can do it on a calculator. I know. I tried to keep up while watching the video. Audience members give him their birth date and he tells them what day of the week they were born. Wait until you see what he does for his grand finale.

[Edit: Fixed YouTube link]

More thoughts on Avatar

I saw Avatar for the fifth time this weekend. This time I went with my friend, Henry, who wears glasses. I’ve heard people complain about having to wear the 3-D glasses over their regular glasses and having to deal with glare so I suggested that we see it in 2-D. For the most part I didn’t miss the 3-D, but there were a several places where I would love to have seen it. One was when Jake and some Na’vi warriors climb up in the Hallelujah Mountains to catch an ikran, the pterodactyl-like creatures. In one scene the warriors have to leap to a vine hanging hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground. In 3-D this shot induces vertigo as you see Jake leap out and grab the vine while the camera hovers out and above the empty space. Because of the depth the 3-D provides you feel like you can reach out and grab the vine right along with Jake. In 2-D it’s still a great scene, but it doesn’t have has much oomph. Other times where 3-D makes a scene pop are when there is a group of people at different distances from the camera. Also when you see an outcropping covered with ikran the 3-D makes the scene look so much more real.

I have been following the progress of computer graphics since before it was in common use in the movies. I think we are finally at the point where we can mimic with CGI just about anything that you can see in real life. Since about 60 percent of the film is in CG I had a lot of eye candy to soak up. Here are a few CG shots that from Avatar that I thought were particularly well-done.

Jake digs his toes in the dirt. (It may have been done with real feet in real dirt). A bulldozer moves through the dirt and you see the dirt cling to its tracks and fall off the other side as the tracks move around.

Realistic skin is difficult enough to render, but in Avatar you see skin that is wet from rain and sweat. In one shot Jake falls down in some mud and then he attempts to wipe it off his face. Very realistic. There is a shot when he bites a fruit and the juice runs down his chin. There is a shot when Neytiri drinks water from a flower and the water drips off her chin. In another shot Neytiri is putting war paint on Jake’s face. It really looks like viscous paint is being smeared on his skin. His skin and lips respond as if they are really being touched. I don’t know if they used some kind of soft-body collision detection or if someone had to hand animate that. In either case it was well done. During a battle scene Neytiri’s skin is shiny with perspiration, but also bits of dirt and debris stick to the sweat.

I’ve seen other movies where they attempted to animate two CG characters kissing. They got it right in this movie.

Any time a helicopter flew over some foliage the plants whipped about in the prop wash. The clothing and hair on the Na’vi also rippled in the breeze realistically.

A tree falls over in one scene and you see the splintering of the wood. I can’t imagine how that was animated. As the tree falls the air is filled with splinters, dust and leaves. There are many shots where insects buzz about in the background which adds a touch of realism.

CG fire, smoke and water has gotten pretty realistic recently. One especially nice shot is when Jake reaches in a stream to pull out a stick. The water ripples nicely around his hand. There are other shots of realistic waterfalls, water dripping off leaves and waves crashing against rocks along the shore. At one point Jake jumps into a river to escape a predator. The water splashing around looks very convincing and it soaks his shirt and coats his face.

Most of these things have been done before in other movies, but never before have there been so many complex and realistic CG shots in one movie.

Pandora

Na'vi - AvatarI have always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy movies, but I never became obsessed with them. I saw Star Wars for the first time on VHS on a 20″ television in the late 1980’s. I thoroughly enjoyed the Star Wars trilogy and I went to a midnight showing of Star Wars: Phantom Menace eagerly anticipating another fine example of Hollywood escapism. I enjoyed the movie but I only saw it once in the theater. I liked the fantasy movies The Never Ending Story and Labyrinth. I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was superb. You’d think I would be predisposed to loving James Cameron’s Avatar. When I saw the trailer I laughed at the blue aliens. I couldn’t quite understand the “remotely controlled bodies called Avatars…grown from human DNA mixed with DNA of the natives.” More often than not big budget special effects extravaganzas disappoint me. Most movies do not live up to their hype, especially movies with entirely computer-generated characters that are meant to be realistic. Pixar has done a consistently good job of animating people in a way that is a little cartoony but emotionally expressive. Pixar understands that it is more important to convey emotion than to attempt to mimic the human face in a pseudo-realistic way. I had high hopes for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Polar Express, but they still hadn’t quite successfully created realistic CG people. The characters in those movies unfortunately fell into the Uncanny Valley.

After seeing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I began to feel optimistic again. But I had no idea what was in store for me in Avatar. From the moment Jake Sully inhabits his Avatar to the end credits my eyes were glued on the 9 foot tall Na’vi people and their beautiful planet Pandora. Every time the movie cut back to the humans I was a little disappointed. It was as if I was watching the Wizard of Oz that had been intercut with scenes from Kansas. I was filled with so much wonder that I told myself while the movie was still playing that I had to buy the DVD as soon as it was available. The great thing about the Na’vi being computer generated is that the actor’s facial expressions are not hindered by latex prosthetics and colored contact lenses. I didn’t think about the actors having to sit in the makeup chair for two hours every morning before filming started. The people on the screen were the Na’vi. As the actors moved through the jungles of the planet Pandora I didn’t think to myself, “I wonder if this was filmed in Hawaii or Costa Rica” because every twig and leaf was created in a computer specifically for the movie. In essence it was filmed on location in Pandora.

Because every rock, waterfall and living thing on Pandora is so realistic the movie messed with my head. I found myself getting sucked in because I knew that I wasn’t looking at Styrofoam props, matte paintings or people in makeup. The result is a kind of exhilaration I haven’t felt watching any other movie. The Indian director Ram Gopal Varma says it well, “Avatar is by far one of the best films I’ve seen in my life. James Cameron is God. In fact, he’s gone a step ahead of God by building a world that even God couldn’t imagine. After watching Avatar I felt I belong to a primitive filmmaking world.” [from Indiatimes.com]
Pandora - Avatar

Little Big Planet

Little Big Planet is the most brilliant game I’ve ever played. Think erector set plus legos, plus fire and poison gas. Then add mood lighting and music. Insert your Sackboy or Sackgirl and go to town. Let your imagination run wild.

I enjoy games that let you freely explore a virtual world, like the Grand Theft Auto series, but LBP lets you create your own game levels and play around on levels that others on the Playstation Network have created.

LBP has received universally good reviews. Read a sample at Metacritic.com.