Cars 2: The Lemon

I started writing this back in July but never finished it. So “last week” is more like “last quarter”.

I took a day off work last week and took the family out to see Cars 2 in 3-D at the local cinema. Perhaps we’ve had it too good for too long with Pixar. They consistently produced brilliant, imaginative animation with engaging characters. I mean really, you can’t fault Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Wall-E or Up whether you’re judging though children or adult eyes. From the start, Pixar cast the right voice actors, wrote brilliant stories, composed great music and employed brilliant visionary directors.

In comparison, their biggest competitor in Dreamworks has been a bit hit-and-miss. Below is a graph showing rating scores from RottenTomatoes.com for Pixar movies (in pink) and Dreamworks movies (in blue).

First thing you can see is that, for the most part, Pixar rates higher than Dreamworks. And, Pixar always has rated highly from their first movie Toy Story back in 1995, following up with greats including Mosters Inc, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The only aberration, funnily enough,  seems to be Cars from 2006, making a score of 74% their “bad movie”. Dreamworks seems to be a roller coaster on the ratings ride, with great shows like Chicken Run, Shrek, Shrek 2 and How to Train Your Dragon being interspersed with stinkers like Shark Tale and Shrek the Third.

But what’s this on the end there? It looks like Pixar took a nose dive off a cliff face after taking a long run up and crashed spectacularly. That, my friends, is Cars 2 with a score of 38%, making Cars 2 the first Pixar movie to get a yellow sticker. True, it’s as visually stunning as any other Pixar movie. More-so, given the “locations” and the 3-D treatment. But none of it could disguise the leaky seals and smoke coming from under the hood. Could it be because Cars 2 was was less about Lightning McQueen, a good strong character, and more about Mater, who, let’s face it, is pretty weak? Could it have been marked down for trying to cram in too much action, like car chases, explosions, guns and violence at the expense of a good story? Could it be because of the weak story pandering to the lowest common denominator, and being too obvious as a vehicle to sell more toys?

Personally, I think it’s a mix of all these. After the movie I think the whole family felt disappointed in the movie. Certainly, Jett no longer regards McQueen as as favourite character but expresses his admiration for Finn McMissile. I don’t know what’s in the pipeline at Pixar, but I hope they can redeem themselves with the next movie. I really hope that they don’t try to revive it and make Cars 3. Even if that engine was fully restored, the body was given a new coat of metallic paint and a new genius director was given the keys I don’t think it’d come out a winner. It would probably never been forgiven for past failures and would forever be known as the Sporty Corvair of animated feature movies.

The scale of the Universe

Waiting up for another football game and found this awesome flash animation. Zoom from the edge of the universe to the quantum foam of spacetime and learn the scale of things along the way! Learn the size of the Pillars of Creation and marvel at the minuscule scale of a neutrino!

iPad users (and google analytics tells me there are at least a couple of you) need not apply.

Large hi-resolution Star Destroyer wallpapers

Here’s a selection of Star Wars Star Destroyer wallpapers I found. Of all Sci Fi ships, I think I like the Star Destroyer best. The opening scene of Star Wars had a big impression on me, with the sight of this impossibly large ship flying overhead chasing the Rebels. As it gets to the docking bay, you think this must be where it ends, but then it just keeps going until you see the giant array of engines glowing blue as they power the ship along. A very iconic image! I’m not too fussed with Darth Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, but the regular sized one is just beautiful. Included are some very large pics of a custom/hybrid version. Not sure of the source for these.

I made some Flame art

I call this one “Bett3r, 5trong3r, Fa5t3r” because it looks like the Olympic rings and because I’m techo and hip and edgy and L33T.

I call this one “Dusting Crops”, because traveling through hyperspace isn’t like dusting crops, boy!

You can make one too by visiting Flame. The main tool is the brush with which you paint. You can change the color, saturation and opacity. You can also change the focus of the brush and alter parameters such as chaos and noise. There is a helpful eraser tool, and you can also choose to clear the entire artboard. Working with this tool is a very nice experience.

My thoughts on the movie Avatar

Avatar eyeSuzanne and I went to see Avatar on the Boxing Day public holiday. I hadn’t heard anything about this movie until about 3-4 months ago when the sci-fi forums I frequent were abuzz with chatter about James Cameron’s newest offering. Some were talking about it as if it was going to be the greatest movie in the history of celluloid, others were ‘meh’, another over hyped movie from a director who hasn’t worked in 15 years. Some friends of mine were in one camp, some friends in the other. So I decided I’d keep an open mind about this movie and do a bit of research before I went to see it.

After it opened, various articles appeared in blogs and newspapers. This one said the movie was “vomit inducing”, but in a nice way. This article from Wired is one of the better ones, and makes it sound like Avatar is the culmination of a 30 year quest for James Cameron to prove he has a bigger wang than George Lucas. He was pretty much trying to out-Lucas what George did with Star Wars in 1977.

In 1977, a 22-year-old truck driver named James Cameron went to see Star Wars with a pal. [snip] Now he was facing a deflating reality: He had been daydreaming about the kind of world that Lucas had just brought to life. Star Wars was the film he should have made.

Young George LucasBut it’s apples and oranges. Here’s the thing; George Lucas was a young director, was working with 70′s technology and worked to a budget of about $8M and managed to produce the magic we call Star Wars. Cameron, as of 2009, has had 25 years of experience working with the latest digital and robotic technology, and with movies budgeted in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Don’t get me wrong; Terminator, Abyss, T2, True Lies and Titanic (at least the second half) are among my favourite movies but they don’t hold a candle to what George created. Star Wars changed science fiction and movie history and 30+ years later the franchise and fanbase is still going strong. Sure, a lot of fans complain that George stole their childhood from them and destroyed Star Wars with The Phantom Menace, but compare James Cameron’s Aliens to the original Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien. One is a dark, moody science fiction horror, the other is a hoo-rah shoot-em up exercise in Marine flagwaving, which is one of the lowest common denominators in cinema.

Which leads me to the theme and storyline of Avatar. I had heard it described as “Dances with Wolves” in space, and this description is pretty much on the money. I guess it’s true that in 2009 there are no more original stories, so most movies nowadays sell the way the story is told and not the story itself. Selling the sizzle rather than the steak. In this case, the story is told in a fantasy world with state of the art 3-D digital technology.

I knew I'd seen all this beforeAll in all, the movie was great. It was a familiar story, well told. The 3-D effects were a good novelty. The only other 3-D I’ve seen was a docco on the International Space Station when I was in San Francisco in 2002. But the digital world Cameron created was fantastic; the level of detail was breathtaking, and because it was all digitally filmed the physics and movement seemed to be very realistic. Often with CGI and live action mixed you can see where one starts and one ends, and sometimes the interaction of the characters and the sets don’t seem to work well together, with visual mis-cues confusing the viewer and detracting from the overall effect. But Avatar was pretty seamless. From dust and smoke in the atmosphere, to the physics of a foot (or hoof) impacting on the ground… it was hard to fault. You can certainly see where $300M went. The only thing nobody has been able to do well so far in CGI is full sunlight. Even with Avatar, you knew that it wasn’t real because it still looked a little dark like it was an overcast day. If the jungle scenes can look like a natural environment like Apocalypto or something, then I think anything will be possible.

Some older Digital Art

So I was reading a friends blog post where a little program called Celestia was mentioned in passing and it reminded me of some art I’d created many moons ago and shared with the guys at mousedroid.com and potf2.com which are two favourite Star Wars collecting web sites of mine where I’ve met many interesting people and made some great friends. Anyhow, I actually saved a couple of those images from the Great Disk Loss of 2006 and here they are in all their glory. I do remember spending a bit of time getting the angles of the cameras and lighting just right on a lot of shots. It’s not like the movies where the ships are always well lit;  when a starship is in the shadow of a planet, it’s hard to see. And it was especially hard on my underpowered little POS computer I had. I did a few others involving fictional planets,  ”Beanstalks” and other space stations but these three images are all that’s left. I should check out the latest version and get back into it, make some more images. They might have a “Perfectly light this object” switch now.

Celestia Star Destroyer in orbit Celestia Star Destroyer Mexico Celestia Star Destroyer Moon

The mathematical sun, and the disappointed Chinese guy.

Apophysis Midnight Sunstroke I call this one “Midnight Sunstroke”. Dunno why. It’s round and red, I suppose, so it looks like the Sun. And “Midnight” because that’s arty, man. This one took about 34 hours to render to a 1024 x 1024 .jpg file. I actually used to almost understand the mathematics behind this stuff (plotting the output of a spherical or sinusoidal or whatever chaotic system onto an image plane), but it has long since faded from my mind. If you’re after a good primer on Chaotic systems, have a read of Chaos by James Gleick. My copy is well loved being read once every couple years since 1989.

One cool thing that happened today was my first Chinese phonecall. I politely informed the caller I did not speak Mandarin, and asked him if he spoke English. I knew he could understand me because I could sense the disappointment in his voice. He thanked me, I thanked him and said goodbye. At least, that’s what I hope I  said. I could have been quoting dimensions on Playmate of the Month.