Things I Finished #1

In reverence to a tradition embraced by Jesse Schell and supported by Matt Webb, here’s the first of an ongoing series of posts titled ‘Things I Finished’, a kind of catch-all for media bits that took some effort and are worth mentioning.

Stories of Your Life: and Others, by Ted Chiang
I’d read a lot of Chiang’s stuff online, and finally picked this up to get through the last two I hadn’t seen, “Stories of Your Life” and “Understand”. Both didn’t disappoint. Chiang has a way of developing complete, convincing characters and worlds in a very compressed period of time, which makes it feel like he stretches the space of his stories. I’m excited to dig into his novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, as soon as the library delivers it to me.

Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage, by Eamon Javers
I was hoping this would be a little less mass-market, which sounds kind of stuck-up, but there it is. Javers details how private security and detectives have turned into freelance spooks and ex-Federal agents working in shadowy Washington corridors on behalf of any and all interested customer, securing all sorts of valuable information at whatever price. Very interesting stuff, yes, and a difficult world to get access to, but I was hoping there’d be more nuts and bolts attached, that he’d get into those corridors to figure out how these guys do their jobs.1

True Grit
I’m way behind on Oscars viewing, but wanted to get this one out of the way while it was still in theaters. As always, the Coens know how to write dialogue, but I felt some of the thematic elements were a bit unformed, for instance the snake motifs.

  1. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Anonymous/HBGary thing has stirred up a whole pot of shit, with the relationships Javers describes in the book exposed. We’ll see what Javers has to say–he seems to be stuck on Wall Street at the moment. []

VidPik! A Letter From Brooklyn

About a month ago a forwarded email arrived. It was so staggering, actions were forced.

The note, laden in artistic pronouncements and full-of-itselfness, begged for an extension; a dramatic reading was considered, but it turned out only a full video could to the thing justice. After all, a 1500-word yearly update email sent to dozens of people deserves the highest degree of satire you can muster.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an earnest man. But even sincerity, in extreme, is funny as hell. (Viz. Kenneth on 30 Rock.)

Who was the sender? An unknown personage, but clearly a modern-day Benjamin Franklin, part writer, part political organizer, all full of Brooklyn potential and privilege and so indicative of our generation’s rampaging self-importance.

We christened him Eric Anton Schechter-Oblomov; this is his yearly update, verbatim, brought to life as best we could.

A Letter From Brooklyn from Eric Anton Schechter-Oblomov on Vimeo.

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VidPik! Reynosa Shootout

It’s not always hysterical japes and fun videos around these parts.

Despite proximity to South Padre Island, the border town of Reynosa probably isn’t the right place to dip across for some tacos al pastor when you’re on Spring Break.

You might want to wait until after you’ve had your morning bagel for this one. (They were still picking up the unused grenades off the sidewalk a few days later.)

There’s some interesting analysis at Exiled Online but all you really need to know is these folks were likely involved and their recent tactics are far from the norm.

Gomorrah’s Woes

gomorrah locale

I’ve been anticipating the movie adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s landmark piece of journalism, Gomorrah, since I finished the book about a year ago and proceeded to recommend it to anyone who’d listen. Unfortunately, while it’s a good enough movie by itself, compared to the book it falls short.

First, a word or two on the book. Saviano, a native of the Naples area, lived and breathed the Camorra, the network of clans of organized criminals growing up, and after twenty-something years had enough and wrote a blow-by-blow account of all the different ways it infects the region, from its fashion output to the mozzarella it eats.  Saviano, who narrates the book while hopping from murder scene to murder scene on his scooter and detailing his own family’s determined path around the muck, published the work to the dual accolades of it becoming the most-requested tome in the Italian prison system as well as drawing death threats from the clans whose foibles and excesses it chronicles. And it made him a very rich, well known (both deservedly so) man, at the price of his own safety and freedom–a true commitment to the cause.

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VidPik! Compression-wacky pop!

Here’s the daily jam, and it’s not even noon!

Chairlift “Evident Utensil”

You should definitely click through and watch this in HD. Datamoshing!

Here’s how it works (according to teraflop on the MeFi thread): “video codecs like MPEG-4 use motion compensation to cut down on the bit rate. Only a few keyframes of the video are encoded in full, about one every few seconds; the rest (“predicted” frames) store a rough estimate of how much each block of pixels has shifted since the previous frame, along with just enough actual pixels to make up the difference between the estimate and the real picture. So if there’s a single moving object on a static background, all that needs to be stored is the area of the background that’s been uncovered since the previous frame.

In this case, what I suspect they did is encode their raw video clips with no keyframes (except the very first one), then spliced them together, so the decoder applies the motion vectors to the wrong original image. It looks like they also duplicated the same frame several times in some places, to get those swirls of color.”

The vid was directed by Ray Tintori of the amazing “Electric Feel” interactive video for MGMT. Tintori’s doing some really exciting stuff lately.

RIP, Patrick McGoohan

Farewell to an enormously influential writer-actor, Patrick McGoohan, who is reported to have died in Los Angeles yesterday at age 80.

I had been planning to post about AMC releasing all of the episodes of The Prisoner for online consumption, but unfortunately that news comes with this much sadder notification of McGoohan’s passing.

True screen icons are diminishing, I think, and he carried the torch. McGoohan was a forceful actor and brilliant mind–don’t forget, came up with the concept for the show and wrote and directed many episodes. As comparable as someone like JJ Abrams is in the latter, Abrams certainly doesn’t have the acting chops.

If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, take a rainy Sunday and loaf in front of the screen and watch at the AMC site. They’re preparing some sort of remake, which will be interesting.

Michigan’s Digital Production Divide

All this looks like small beer compared to the meltdown here on Wall Street this month, but I was back in Michigan over Labor Day and found myself thinking the state’s huge production incentives program isn’t being fully utilized.

Up North, things are particularly bleak. In the town where my parents stay, Boyne City, 95 people started Labor Day weekend with a pink slip, as LexaMar, one of the biggest corporations in the town of 3500 laid them off on Friday. It made small talk everywhere, downtown, strolling past the classic cars on display, at the police-sponsored drag race at the city airstrip, another midsized manufacturer slicing off jobs as the economy expels another ragged breath.

The one point of light in a state with its biggest industry, automobiles, breaking down, is film production. It’s exceptionally cheap to shoot anything in Michigan right now, and that has ushered in the closest thing to a business renaissance the region has seen in years, at least the latest Band-Aid to create an economic buffer around the doomed car business, like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s Automation Alley plan that began about a decade ago.
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Pineapple Upside Down

True providence (well, an invite from a production company) got me into a preview of Pineapple Express Thursday night at BAM, complete with a Q&A afterwards from David Gordon Green. It was a funny film; it felt like the Rogen-Apatow-McBride-DGG bloc is evolving a tiny amount past previous milestones from each of them, pushing screwball, farce improv comedy a little further out onto the gangplank. Things in PE get pretty absurd, but it’s OK when they do. As the wheels come off, you’re reminded its a chummy bunch of funny guys who have tens of millions of dollars to make something that’ll hold ground at the box office for a few weeks and have a shedload of extra stuff on the DVD. Or, as Green explained the wild climax, “it only works because everything is building to such absurdity.”

Not to give the impression it isn’t a funny movie; its hilarious. I don’t bust out laughing that easily at the novies but by the end even small weird utterances and movements from characters had me giggling.

Spoiler alert: they smoke a ton of weed in the movie. Green revealed afterward it was some herb used as a substitute, and despite it tasting terrible “it was addictive.” They actually had a Technical Consultant who was a pot grower licensed by the state of California. He appeared, along with the postproduction supervisor, as a guy buying dope off Franco. The grower is the one with the rat tail.

Another interesting revelation was how much improv was used. At the end, there’s a Boy what an adventure!-type diner scene, which Green said was all improvised. He wound up cutting five different versions, testing them all in different L.A. neighborhoods and adding stuff that did unexpectedly well into a final cut.

A few more bullet-pointy notes:

DGG is working on remaking Suspiria, the Dario Argento classic, with Christof Gebert, the sound mixer he frequently works with.

Originally Seth Rogan and James Franco had opposite roles.

James Franco gashed his head badly during one slapstick scene and needed stitches in his forehead; they had to shoot him with a headband or from behind for the next week or so.

Huey Lewis wasn’t the first choice for the Pineapple Express theme song; the guys wanted Ray Parker, Jr. But there was prior litigation between Parker, Jr. and studio Columbia that killed the idea.

Danny McBride’s shitty clothes and weird wardrobe is payback for Green agreeing to do a nude scene when the two were in film school together.

Brad Neely’s Big Debut

If emerging web video platforms are sports teams Brad Neely is Super Deluxe‘s franchise player. Neely’s been rolling with his twisted brand of hilarity for some time, but now that he’s at the Turner-sponsored spot thousands are braying for Babycakes and the Professor Brothers. Here are the interview bits I didn’t use when I talked to Neely recently for Creativity. Check out more of his work at his Creased Comics site and at his Super Deluxe site. Look for the rest of the interview and a few morsels of Neely’s funniest after the break.

Hey Brad, how’s it going with Super Deluxe?

BN: It’s been really fun so far. Iím turning in a great deal of work, both Babycakes and Professor Brothers and a lot of one shots as well, they’ll be just characters that you never see again, some holiday things. But the core will be Babycakes and the Professor Brothers.

At what point did you take the comics you were making and put voices and animation along? Had you always been doing that?

BN: No, I hadn’t. A few years ago I did “Wizard People, Dear Readers,” which was an unauthorized alternate audio that’s synched with the first Harry Potter movie. I toured around with that and got shut down by Warner Brothers and I had such a good time doing that, it was my first time to be really close to film in a weird way, but it got me to thinking about how to continue to make things on my own terms with my own brand of comedy. So making the pictures sort of cartoons was an easy thing that I could do all by myself.

Where did the character Babycakes come from? I saw one of your comics with a Babycakes-esque guy.

BN: I’m always drawn to the giant, hairless bald person, I don’t know why. Babycakes, whenever, I’d done the George Washington cartoon on YouTube and the Super Deluxe people came to me and asked me if I had anything else to work on, and I just kind of rummaged around a lot of notes and Babycakes and the Professor Brothers just kind of evolved out of that. There are certain types of jokes that I want to be able to tell and certain tones and songs and fantasies and nightmares and prophecies and dances and all that kind of stuff and you make characters that will bring those out.

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