Asymmetric Review: Mad Max- Fury Road

madmaxfrA kinetic masterpiece is the only way to simply describe this newest installment of the long missed post-apocalyptic adventure tale. Max Rokatansky, once played by Mel Gibson and now Tom Hardy, is still a resident of the wasteland. His V-8 Interceptor remains, as does his Main Patrol Force leather jacket, leg brace and even his double-barreled shotgun. Yet there is something new, stark and somehow gentle about the Road Warrior. Perhaps that is Hardy’s style, a bit soft yet more feral than Gibson’s square jawed rogue. Both haunted, Max in Fury Road is a creature bent on survival, on his own and at all costs, until his path crosses into the world of Immortan Joe, his harem of ‘breeders’ and a war rig driver, Imperitor Furiosa (played magnificently by Charlize Theron.)

Where the Road Warrior centered on a tanker load of gas and Thunderdome revolved around kids lost in a wasteland, Fury Road is the story of fearless women escaping a brutal and licentious overlord who holds together his fiefdom with gifts of water and brute force. When his prized brides flee with Furiosa, spirited aboard a ‘Mothers Milk’ tanker, Joe’s war-boy vehicular warriors give chase. This is where Max gets thrown into the fray.

From the start, George Miller’s Fury Road is a load harsh world. His color palette of amber and sun-baked red , rather than a drab grey of most dystopic cinema. His masterful use of a world already established- nuclear war, lawlessness and cult status of the automobile- weave seamlessly into the modern vernacular. I grew up on Gibson’s Max, including watching the ‘American’ English dub of the Australian original and the mechanical aesthetic Miller established 30 years ago flows perfectly into the celluloid of 2015. It feels as if 20 plus years have gone by and the cancerous and belligerent survivors have spawned an organized, but degenerate society.

Importantly, Fury Road has the viewer invested in two types of fear. One for the characters and the high speed peril they find themselves in from the first frame. The second fear is for the life and limb of the stunt performers and drivers that fill the screen with gear grinding, metal bending and vehicular eruptions unseen, well since Thunderdome. The crunch of each collision and tumbling body immediately prompt gasps. The human eye, connected to our highly evolved brain, understands the true pain and thrill of flesh-and-blood stunt performers hurtling around a film. We simply cannot get the same visceral emotion from pixels rendered in a climate controlled office in California. Fury Road is kinetic cinema that is required to keep film alive.

The movie goer is invested in the future of the women in Fury Road especially, and the few decent men trodding the desert landscape. The strength of the women- Cheedo, Dag, Toast, Capable and Angharad- to seek freedom at all costs is astonishing. Each actress brings their own interpretation of victim in flight, without becoming set dressing. They are innocent shut-ins, who crave freedom and release personal demons upon their enemies. They are press-ganged mothers who refuse to let their children be the next, possibly final, generation of men to destroy the Earth. Many consider Avengers director Joss Whedon a model of feminism in filmmaking, but I venture the women in Fury Road, their abused souls and determination to survive, make them astonishing characters worthy of note, exemplified by the involvement of Vagina Monologues creator and activist Eve Ensler in Fury Road.
Theron, always a tall and dominating figure of beauty, turns Furiosa into a character whose sex is secondary to an astounding drive and furiosity. Besides the obvious physical attributes, Theron’s Furiosa embodies humanity in precarious balance- hope or violence. She is magnificent.

Men are not portrayed too flatteringly in Fury Road. Joe is a pot-bellied muscled near -albino, his minions are cancer-ridden and delusional about Valhalla while huffing chrome spray paint in the moment of violent ecstasy. The bosses of the two other towns in Fury Road, Gas Town and Bullet Farm, are vile and violent misogynists. Human lives are less valuable than bullets, gasoline and nitrous oxide.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent film, awash in more character building than the last dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Watch Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, and then marvel at the modern incarnation of live-action filmmaking as it should be.

King Camp Gillette: Utopian Avenger

razorsThis morning the Gillette World Headquarters in Boston was converted into the East Coast R&D center of Stark Industries. Unveiling new razors called the Repulsor 1, UltraStrike, Thunder, XL Gamma (each corresponding to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk) Gillette has placed itself onto the razor’s edge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Another cross-promotion of movie franchise into the consumer world is nothing new. Yet, in a strange way, the fantastic was the dream of the man that gave Gillette it’s name.

King_Camp_GilletteIn the late 19th century Wisconsin-born King Camp Gillette (left) was deeply invested in the world of personal shaving razors. With mens grooming dominated by traditional forged and sharpened straight razor, Gillette was struck by an idea- what about a simple, disposable razor and blade? After several years Gillette’s disposable razor hit the market and was an immediate success. Gillette’s first year, 1903, saw sales of five dozen razors and few hundred blades. A year later Gillette’s mass-manufactured 90,000 razors and nearly 12.5 million blades.Gillette_razor_patent

Success was his and Gillette’s imagination wasn’t confined to the world of grooming. Not unlike the fictional Howard Stark and his “Stark Expo” a place where the future could be experienced through modern technology (circa 1943,) Gillette saw a world rife with potential for harmony, social, economic and cultural advancement.

In the years before finding success as the razor brand, Gillette was an author with visions of utopia. Written by Gillette in 1894, The Human Drift and 1910’s World Corporation were both works bursting with optimism about humanity. Before the fictional Metropolis of the DC Comics universe, Gillette envisioned a mega-city in western New York that was planned down to the finest detail.gillet06

From the shape and height of the buildings, to the glazed tiles of each apartment, to the sewage and electric lighting, Gillette envisioned a world spreading from Niagara Falls in the west to Rochester, NY in the east. Sixty million Americans would live in Metropolis on the Niagara in the world considered a form of 19th century Utopian socialism. Organized by engineers and removing competitive destruction, humanity would flourish in this mega-city.

For three good views of King Camp’s Gillette’s Utopian visions check out posts at The University of HoustonCornell University and UCal Berkley.

You Got Computer Animation in my Live Action!

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Shooting indoors, instead of out, modern movies rely heavily on visual effects to build not only characters but also surroundings. In The Avengers actor Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (right) was entirely rendered based on ‘motion capture’ of his body. An important note, the lack of realistic flexibility in Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man means he too wears motion capture to fill in arms and lower torso.

In a 2002 interview with the late Roger Ebert, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki noted with  amusement the amount of computer animation appearing in film. It was the Spiderman movie franchise that apparently caught Miyazaki’s attention for its level of animation in a film that is otherwise billed as live-action. Miyazaki told Ebert, “In a way now, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation,” where his traditional form of animation holds its own niche.

As you’ve seen by reading this blog, you notice that I am more a traditionalist when it comes to visual effects- miniatures or practical- with the sparing use of smart or visually striking computer effects. The best recent example of this blend of traditional, physical effects and digital work was in 2014’s Interstellar. While imperfect, the Christoper Nolan film attempted to reach lofty heights in visually striking ways. I remained engaged in part because the VFX matrix was nuanced and diverse.

Computer/digital generated effects found in a vast majority of modern films is a tricky balance and often overused. Without delving into issues with the Uncanny Valley, ultimately computer generated images have become so interwoven into live-action films that a preponderance of frames are entirely digitally rendered.

So I must ask the question- how much of a movie is required to have physical actors in order to be live-action? 70%? 60%? 51%? When does a modern action “live-action” film go from being live into animation?

In 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon assembled a superhero battle royal that relied heavily, if not almost entirely, on CGI. For a good look at the immense number of computer generated effects, check out this article from FxGuide. In The Avengers there are “approximately” 2,200 effects shots in the film, with many characters entirely computer rendered throughout the entire length of the movie.

Combine this with the heavy movement towards high-definition all digital film-making and you have the recipe for live-action shots in an otherwise animated movie.

In a Screen Rant article it was estimated that this year’s Avenger film will have 3,000 VFX shots. By contrast James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie that spanned 162 minutes and panned by some for its CG over dependence, there were 2,500 VFX shots. Contrast that number of VFX shots with the landmark and continually beloved Star Wars, which had just 360 special effects shots most of which were miniatures and travelling mattes.

With each passing year actors are rapidly siphoned out of live-action movies. Their likenesses scanned and digitized to be placed on computer generated character that move so blindingly fast and without a sense of connection to the physics of the real world that our “live-action” films of the 21st century feel more like computer animation.

I adore traditional 2D animation. I respect modern digital animation that combines the smooth precision, with washes and tones more like traditional hand drawn animation. What I don’t like is a “live-action” film that feels more like a 2 hour cut-scene from a video game.

In Defense of Neill Blomkamp

chappiedogIn case you didn’t know it, Neill Blomkamp has a movie coming out this weekend. It’s called CHAPPIE, a Blomkamp original idea of a robot policeman who becomes sentient. Just before the movie was released (a movie which I will be seeing this weekend) Blomkamp revealed he was doing his long dreamed ALIEN project. That’s when things went pear shaped in the eyes of science-fiction movie fans. One of the surely sacred franchises, ALIEN has it staunch defenders and Blomkamp’s personal obsession becoming professional was greeted with glee by me, but reservations from many online columnists and commentators. Suddenly this out-of-left-field science fiction director went from promised child to reviled botch up. At the speed of light it seemed Blomkamp became arm-chair aficionados favorite speed bag.

This assail of Blomkamp comes as his CHAPPIE, which has barely hit the theaters, is already being torn asunder by cinemaphiles. Part of a larger issue (which I will be addressing in a post next week) is this almost maliciously ebullient attack on creators of original science fiction films.

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Blomkamp stormed onto the science fiction film scene with 2009’s  DISTRICT 9. A tale of alien life arriving in South Africa set in a modern alien Apartheid state, this blend of action with credible, moral storytelling caught people’s eye. Yet, just as quickly the throngs enamored with the South African director became his harshest and sustained critics when he released ELYSIUM. A bigger movie, cemented by the casting of Matt Damon, ELYSIUM was far from a ‘blockbuster” and criticized by professional and armchair pundits alike. Even Blomkamp, in recent days, has admitted short comings with ELYSIUM and to that I say…admit your mistakes- it is the only way we get better as storytellers- but never back down! To many online critics and raptors, Blomkamp’s admission of mistakes in ELYSIUM give them a foot in the door to kick the director hence forth. (And the article headline is about as agenda setting as a headline can get.)

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I am happy to hear Blomkamp admit there were flaws in ELYSIUM. Perhaps the film should have taken a more satirical tact? Agreed. Maybe his desire for a raw sci-fi actioner belonged in a different project? Perhaps his yearning for an action film replete with fantastic conceptual design percolated in his multi-disciplined mind and flowed into the core of have/have nots that was ELYSIUM. Maybe exoskeletons, hyper-velocity weapons and amazing production design belong in his desired ALIEN? All that being said, ELYSIUM was original, fast paced, and more thoughtful than a majority of tent-poles in cinemas today.

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Neill Blomkamp is the prime example of modern filmmaker shaped by global entertainment. These variety of influences, from films to comic-books, show an adept and bright minded approach to crafting fantastic visual stories. In the below clip, we hear from Blomkamp his list of influences.

The breadth of movies and artists shows his acute and honest survey of his skill-sets. Blomkamp knows his strength lay in visuals, design and story concepts. Blomkamp’s pluses outweigh his minuses, in my opinion. I think that his effort to do original science fiction, stories that are odd, compelling or simply intelligent action, are worthy of praise.

Watch that interview and hear what an honest, yet creative filmmaker sees in the world around him. Below I’ve attached the series of short-films Blomkamp has done. The DNA is obvious- Masamune Shirow, James Cameron, Katsuhiro Otomo, Geof Darrow and Ridley Scott, to name a few. With Manga and Anime blended with the brightest of late 1970s-through-early 1990s science fiction films, Blomkamp remains a talent worthy of defense. His short films act as “sea trial” for ideas, where Blomkamp kept the core concept clean, while allowing him to explore the world within limits. These short films, from TETRA VAAL to ALIVE IN JOBURG, serve as the artist’s “thumbnail sketch” giving him the layouts and show the potential.

Today, IGN UK Podcast with Blomkamp gives us a different view of the director’s creativity. I draw your attention to the 3 minute mark of the interview where he talks about modern “design” in film being done by talented artists, yet don’t have a practical real-world relationship with “tool and die” or tangible model making. Blomkamp’s idea of digital kitbashing keys on an important film making point in the digital age- the further you are disconnected from reality and the basic physics of sight/sound/movement- the further we are removed reality of the most fantastic film. That directorial revelation alone is a refreshing change in a film world where directors routinely parade two plus hour films, loaded with tens of thousands of CGI shots, most with dubious physics, across out cineplex screens.

His choice in design, aesthetics, shot composition and characters make Blomkamp an unusual modern creator.

I’ll take any Neill Blomkamp film- any day- over a bloated, self congratulatory sci-fi superhero project.

TETRA VAAL

YELLOW

ALIVE IN JOBURG

TEMPBOT

The Great Vaccine Debate: What’s Old is New Again

smalllpxIn recent weeks the debate over vaccinations has risen to a fevered pitch, pulling in every walk of American life into the argument. I find it interesting to look back into Colonial American history to see our earliest collective discourse on the safety and validity of vaccinations.

We can return to 1721 Boston when smallpox was a true scourge of the peninsula town. A pitched argument was underway between clergyman Cotton Mather and university trained physician William Douglass, the former a proponent while the latter a vocal opponent.

For a complete overview of the 1721 debate and perspective on how some anti-inoculation beliefs of the period have echoes today, check out this Harvard piece on the subject.

Time Away

Hello readers. I wanted to write to apologize for my absence in recent months. I have been dealing with some personal issues (yes I am sure many a blogger has typed those very words) and I hope to get back into the posting flow in the coming weeks.

Just a quick note of apology and thanks to those who continue to stick with Asymmetric Creativity.

Thank you so much.

Asymmetric Creativity: Writing Through Personal Problems

We’ve closed the most public period for writers in the age of social media- NaNoWriMo. This one month free-for-all of would be authors and established writers plugging away at new projects or long-delayed ideas. The shared encouragement, venting or problem solving is a unique way for the otherwise solitary profession to become communal.

The rest of the year writers occasionally divulge projects online, give us sneak peeks at frustration or triumph. And in those good times the ecstasy is something a writer wants to share. Yet when the block strikes like an iceberg, the pain and frustration are legendary exemplified by dozens of writers block suggestions that make the rounds daily.

There is another trouble plaguing writers (and those of all professions)-  returning to work after trauma. Whether its mental or physical trauma the ability to recover one’s creative self and return to writing can be incredibly difficult and sometimes feel impossible.

We often see it online when writer websites go quiet for weeks or months without explanation. Inevitably we come to expect the standard off the shelf explanation- too busy with life. Often, I’ve come to realize, this is code for a personal problems or issues that has gutted or slowed the writer. It is a very personal act, creation. It is also a personal act to admit when life has dealt us some tough times. Yet our ability to share online those traumas that halted our creativity is incredibly hard. Call it the artist’s temperament, we writers can be a fickle and emotional lot. We tend to clam up or over share.

But we are creatures that explore and explain through our creations. We burrow deep within our minds and imaginations, so should we be surprised that when life deals us troubles that it is especially daunting to return to the creativity that defines us?

Perhaps the key is reminding/remembering every day through these traumas and trials that we are creative and it has been with us in good times and bad. There is no reason why we should use the tribulations as a new way to create. Perhaps its purging the ill feelings through fiction or song? Maybe these life problems are merely potholes in creative highway. You wouldn’t  stop driving down a road just because there were a few potholes. You drive forward, you keep an eye out, but you roll on.

Roll on, fellow writers, past the potholes of life and realize that no matter what is happening your creativity is who you are. It sees you through adversity. The rest are just potholes.

 

 

 

 

Asymmetric Inspiration: Interstellar’s Heroes

interThis weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the theater. A visually brilliant, at times emotional and utterly breath taking venture into space; while finding a deeper spiritual connection between humanity.

I left the theater wishing I loved math more.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again love for physics. Mostly easy to digest popular non-fiction works on physics, but on occasion wandering into the harder theory side of the field. Yes, math is a big part of that. Interstellar made math and scientific curiosity traits of the heroes, women and men of different races, rather than devices for destruction.

The silence of space is unnerving. Its celestial violence is jarring and absolute. The warping of light or its complete avoidance is mind numbingly scary, yet beautiful. Not because its flashy or visually menacing as many movies portray space, but because you understand the physics, the overwhelming and unfathomable powers concealed in these black holes or worm holes. Like the monster concealed in the shadow, the terrible power lost in blackness of space is equally as riveting.

Surely Nolan’s film is not perfect and it does seem to borrow inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Yes, you do rebel against some of the climactic devices, straining what you understand about the theoretical physics of black holes. Then again, worm holes don’t exist so we’re allowed a level of creative license, especially if the bulk of the movie treats the perils and wonder of space exploration tonally realistic.

At times I was amazed at the broad efforts the actors and script exerted on my intellect and emotion. In these moments I was reminded heavily of the fantastic PBS series Closer to the Truth. I HIGHLY recommend this series as it not only delves into physics, but religion and consciousness. It just so happens to include interviews with Interstellar’s theoretical physicist and producer Kip Thorne.

But Interstellar works because the most heroic people in the story are not muscle bound, gun totting badasses but thoughtful, intellectual and adventurous astronomers, physicists and engineers. And that alone makes the film worthy of inspiring, or aspiring to, greater creativity.

Interstellar makes me wish I was a bit braver. And a lot better at math.

Asymmetric Creativity: Down the Research Rabbit Hole

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I’m a fiend for research. I am addicted to the chase of ideas and facts throughout history. When I conjur up a story idea I often know how I will tackle my research before I have a fully fleshed out plot. Sometimes the research serves the story, fleshing out concepts or imbuing characters with more authentic voices. Sometimes, the addiction, the jonzing for new and more information can overwhelm, bog down, and drown a story in its earliest stages. Occasionally I dive into the creative process only to get lost in the rabbit warren of journals, books and articles.

For years I would start the research and essentially kill the idea because I exhausted all of my inquisitive and curious creative energy on the research process. Realizing this only just recently has given me a new lease on life as research addicted author. I now let the story outline lead the horse, rather than the research as cart.

Seems like a no-brainer, wanting to put your all into research in order to wring out the most from source or background materials. Yet the energy is sometimes expended, leaving nothing but a snake skin of the original inspiration. If creativity strikes like lightning for you as it does for me, then grounding the lightning bolt by burying your brain in research only diffuses all the writing energy. Back in the day of libraries and bookstore visits, this wouldn’t be so much a problem, but in the day of Internet research indulgences can be fed into gluttony.

My newest tactic in combating this obsessive level of research, denying the creative process,comes by setting a deadline. As a former journalist, deadlines don’t scare me. But denying the rush and thrill of research feels like denying yourself Halloween candy after spending all night going door to door collecting it. Instead of indulging this rush, I merely channel my research into a time-frame, say two hours, before returning to the writing process, whether that’s outlining or character development.

Most important, trust your creative instincts and voice. Let the story flow with the basic framework of research. Trust your outline, trust your wandering words and new strange directions. If you write yourself into a corner, perhaps generated by a lack of information you’d need through research, then dive back in to solve the problem. But immediately reemerge to finish the creative writing.

While this is easier said than done, requiring a discipline that eluded me for ages, I think that this simple advice may help keep you on track.

Antiquity of Heart Break: Archaeology in Zones of Conflict

duraI’ve had a life-long passion for archaeology. Perhaps it was my love for Indiana Jones as a child that piqued my interest, but all I know now is that history buried in the ground or occulted in forgotten enclaves continues to fascinate me to this day. It is with a heavy heart that I read about the modern plunder or destruction of archaeological sites in zones of conflict.

Perhaps no greater current example of this is in Syria where one of antiquities greatest cities, Dura Europos, has been looted as war roils on. If you are not familiar with Dura Europos it is perhaps one of the greatest cross-road cities of antiquity that brought together Roman, Christian and Jewish history on a plateau in Eastern Syria. The importance of Dura Europos cannot be overstated. It’s loss, destruction or defacement at the hands of zealots or iconoclasts would be a truly tragic cultural heritage event.

The world sat by in 2001 when saw the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan were destroyed. We continue to see similar destruction of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East and around the world without so much of a whisper of public outcry.

In our modern age we have the ability to immediately empower social movements or calls for justice through social media. Yet even cause celebre human rights movements flourish in the first few days of social media empowerment, yet quickly whither when the short attention span meets the idea of putting words, or hashtags, into action. I would call for a social media campaign to protect these cultural heritage sites, to rally the public to the news of desecration and destruction. but when human suffering garners a two week interest online, what passion will a few old rocks and sculptures inspire in the public?

For more on the looting in Middle Eastern conflict zones check out this well-rounded article.