Archive for the ‘Movies & Entertainment’ Category.

Just Because It Is Friday -- Balloon Animal AT-AT

Saw this at the D23 Convention (sort of a Disney-only Comicon) last month

God, I Loved This Show As A Kid

...and as an adult, and a model maker, I still find it engaging but for different reasons.

I couldn't be separated for years from my Corgi model of Thunderbird 2.

Postscript:  Plus, I vaguely remember watching this show religiously but had entirely blocked it out of my mind for nearly 50 years until I saw it in the side panel of videos on YouTube next to the one above.

I Liked This Guy's Movie Analyses

My daughter sent me links to this YouTube channel discussing the mechanics of movie screenplays.  Below is an analysis of how Tarantino makes a couple of long, incredibly suspenseful scenes in Inglorious Basterds (the first scene in the farmhouse and the later scene in the basement bar).

Update:  If you want a comparison, go see Dunkirk.  This is a good movie in its way, and I really enjoy Nolan's movies.  But there are several spots where he is clearly trying to build suspense and he does not do it as well as Tarantino.  One movie that might compare to Tarantino on stress might be the last 15 minutes of Argo, though I have not seen it for a while.

Overhyped Things That Don't Disappoint: Hamilton

We went to visit family in Chicago and in the process saw Hamilton there.  While expensive, it was a lot cheaper than New York and having listened to the Broadway cast album many times, I think the cast in Chicago was very competitive with Broadway.  And it was fabulous.  Really.  I know there is a tendency if one spends a lot of money on an event to convince oneself it was worth the money, but it really was in this case.

In most musicals I walk out singing a particular song.  Out of Hamilton, I find myself singing about 8 songs.   I had one pre-show decision in which I am not sure if I did the right thing -- I had a choice of listening to the soundtrack in advance or seeing the musical fresh on the stage.  I chose the former, mainly because in several songs the lyrics are so clever and come so fast and furious that it take a number of listenings to really appreciate them.  But I probably missed something by not seeing it fresh and new on the stage.

I will say that this has got to be the most unlikely musical ever.  I can just see the pitch -- I want to do a musical in rap featuring Hamilton and Jefferson debating about Federal assumption of state debt.    Seriously, it sounds more like a lead in to a Leonard Pinth-Garnell sketch on Really Bad Musical Theater on SNL.  But it works.

Movie Game: Spot the Rifle

My kids and I drive my wife crazy when we are watching a movie at home.  We have all kinds of conversations going, conversations we would never even consider in a theater (another reason, beyond screen size and sound systems, why I consider the home movie watching experience distinct and not entirely competitive with the theater experience).   No movie can be watched without a dozen IMDB lookups of what else so and so actor was in.

One game we play is spot the rifle.  This probably does not mean what you think it means.  It refers to Checkov's rule (the writer, not the astrogator) never to put a rifle on stage in Act 1 if someone is not going to use it in Act 3.  Our game assumes that movies are following this rule, so we look for elements sometimes awkwardly thrown into Act 1 so they can be used later.  Note this is distinct from a macguffin, and is really not the same as foreshadowing either.  The "save the clock tower" fund raiser early in Back to the Future is an example.  Calling your shot in this game, like on Jeopardy, requires the answer to be in a specific form, ie "Never put a lightening strike on a clock tower on stage in Act 1 if you are not going to use it in Act 3".  It goes without saying that winning answers must be shouted out in Act 1, not Act 3.

My daughter, who is quite an aficionado of romantic comedies, texted me an updated corollary:  Don't put a pregnant woman on stage in act 1 of a comedy unless she is going to go into labor at the most inconvenient moment in act 3.

Postscript:  The "Q" armorer dynamic in James Bond is a version of this on steroids.  The rules of Q were:  1.  Every tool he gives Bond gets used and 2.  No matter how odd or arcane the tool (e.g. high powered electromagnet built into a condom) it turns out to be exactly the niche tool Bond needs to escape at some point.   For example, one and only one time is Bond issued with a CPR device but that one time he needs it to save his life (Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale).

Keeping Cocktails Cold Without Dilution

For many of you, this will be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but I see so many dumb approaches to cooling cocktails being pushed that I had to try to clear a few things up.

First, a bit of physics.  Ice cubes cool your drink in two ways.   First and perhaps most obviously, the ice is colder than your drink.  Put any object that is 32 degrees in a liquid that is 72 degrees and the warmer liquid will transfer heat to the cooler object.  The object you dropped in will warm and the liquid will cool and their temperatures will tend to equilibrate.  The exact amount that the liquid will cool depends on their relative masses, the heat carrying capacity of each material, and the difference in their temperatures.

However, for all but the most unusual substances, this cooling effect will be minor in comparison with the second effect, the phase change of the ice.  Phase changes in water consume and liberate a lot of heat. I probably could look up the exact amounts, but the heat absorbed by water going from 32 degree ice to 33 degree water is way more than the heat absorbed going from that now 33 degree water to room temperature.

Your drink needs to be constantly chilled, even if it starts cold, because most glasses are not very good insulators.  Pick up the glass -- is the glass cold from the drink?  If so, this means the glass is a bad insulator.  If it were a good insulator, the glass would be room temperature on the outside even if the drink were cold.  The glass will absorb some heat from the air, but air is not really a great conductor of heat unless it is moving.  But when you hold the glass in your hand, you are making a really good contact between your drink and an organic body that is essentially circulating near-100 degree fluid around it.  Your body is pumping heat into your cocktail.

Given this, let's analyze two common approaches to supposedly cooling cocktails without excessive dilution:

  1. Cold rocks.   You put these things in the freezer and put them in your drink to keep it cold.  Well, this certainly will not dilute the drink, but it also will not keep it very cold for long.   Remember, the equilibration of temperatures between the drink and the object in it is not the main source of heat absorption, it is the phase change and the rocks are not going to change phase in your drink.  Perhaps if you cooled the rocks in liquid nitrogen?  I don't know.
  2. Large round ice balls.  There is nothing that is more attractive in my cocktail than a perfect round ice ball.  A restaurant here in town called the Gladly has a way of making these beautiful round flaw-free ice balls that look like they are Steuben glass.  The theory is that with a smaller surface to volume ratio, the ice ball will melt slower.  Which is probably true, but all this means is that the heat transfer is slower and the cooling is less.   But again, the physics should be roughly the same -- it is going to cool mostly in proportion to how much it melts.  If it melts less, it cools less.  I have a sneaking suspicion that bars have bought into this ice ball thing to mask tiny cocktails -- I have been to several bars which have come up with ice balls or cylinders that are maybe 1 mm smaller in diameter than the glass so that a large glass holds about an ounce of cocktail.

I will not claim to be an expert but I like my bourbon drinks cold and have adopted this strategy -- perhaps you have others.

  1. Keep the bottles chilled.   I keep Vodka in the freezer and bourbon and a few key mixers in the refrigerator.   It is much easier to keep something cool than to cool it the first time, and this is a good dilution-free approach to the initial cooling.  I don't know if this sort of storage is problematic for the liquor -- I have never found any issues.
  2. Keep your drinking glass in the freezer.  Again, it will warm in your hand but an initially warm glass is going to pump heat into whatever you pour into it.
  3. Use a special glass.   I have gone through two generations on this.  My first generation was to use a double wall glass with an air gap. This works well and you can find many choices on Amazon.  Then my wife found some small glasses at Tuesday Morning that were double wall but have water in the gap.  You put them in the freezer and not only does the glass get cold but the water in the middle freezes.  Now I can get some phase change cooling in my cocktail without dilution.  You have to get used to holding a really cold glass but in Phoenix we have no complaints about such things.

Things I don't know but might work:  I can imagine you could design encapsulated ice cubes, such as water in a glass sphere.  Don't know if anyone makes these.  There are similar products with gel in them that freezes, and double wall glasses with gel.  I do not know if the phase change in the gel is better or worse for heat absorption than phase change of water.  I have never found those cold packs made of gel as satisfactory as an ice pack, but that may be just a function of size.  Anyone know?

Update:  I believe this is what I have, though since we bought them at Tuesday Morning their provenance is hard to trace.  They are small, but if you are sipping straight bourbon or scotch this is way more than enough.

Postscript:  I was drinking old Fashions for a while but switched to a straight mix of Bourbon and Cointreau.  Apparently there is no name for this cocktail that I can find, though its a bit like a Bourbon Sidecar without the lemon juice.  For all your cocktails, I would seriously consider getting a jar of these, they are amazing.  The Luxardo cherries are nothing like the crappy bright red maraschino cherries you see sold in grocery stores.

Movie Special Effects Before CGI

I am a sucker for both 70's disaster movies and well-crafted pre-CGI special effects.  So I enjoyed this article on the special effects techniques in The Towering Inferno.  The 70-foot high model is amazing.

If You Are Jonesing for Game of Thrones...

My wife and I watched a series from a couple of years ago called the White Queen, a drama following the Wars of the Roses based on a novel by Phillipa Gregory.  The series begins with the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville to King Edward and proceeds through the death of Richard III at Bosworth.  After the first episode I was ready to stop because I thought it was going to be yet another historical romance rather than satisfying drama about power and conflict.  But as a series, once is gets past the first episode, it really does become a pretty good watch (though it got only mediocre ratings so caveat emptor).  It has a lot of folks battling for power with the same Game of Thrones "you win or you die" vibe -- which is not surprising as apparently George R R Martin has said that Game of Thrones was partially inspired by the Wars of the Roses.

As one would expect from the author, there are lots of strong and interesting female characters but the whole show is well acted.   It generally followed pretty well with most of the history I learned in school though I would be careful answering any AP history test questions from the plot (Gregory takes some literary license with the disappearance of Edward's two sons in the Tower, but since that remains somewhat of a mystery anyway it felt OK to do so).  The series goes a bit off the rails historically in the second season (the White Princess) as the small license Gregory takes with the sons getting killed in the Tower takes control of the plot.

Amazing Facts

"Steven Seagal released seven films in 2016. Seven."

source

Thoughts on the Oscars and Politics

I was talking to a Conservative friend the other day and mentioned that I was not watching the Oscars, that I just had not stomach for all the smug political virtue signalling.  He said that he knew why he and fellow Conservatives were not watching, but why me?  He observed that for most issues that would come up -- immigration, gay marriage, distaste for Trump -- that I probably would agree with most of what was going to be said.  My answer to him was in three parts

  1. I am exhausted by the addition of politics to every sphere of life - there is nowhere to escape any more.  This politicization of everything, including sports and entertainment, has historically been a feature of totalitarian governments.  In Hitler's Germany, you couldn't just cut hair, but you had to be in the league of national socialist barbers and be ready with a plan for how your barbering was going to advance national socialism.  yuk.
  2. People seem to like it when famous movie stars and sports stars espouse political opinions that they share.  I am not sure why.  I can only imagine that these folks are in their hearts unsure of themselves and thus get renewed confidence when some famous person agrees with them, like counting likes on Facebook or something.  I on the other hand already am pretty sure I am right and I have thought a lot about the issue including reading opposing opinions on it.  Nothing Martin Sheen or Beyonce says about the issue, unless it is related to the entertainment industry, is likely to either change my mind or make me more confident in my opinions.  In fact...
  3. Hearing actors who I know to be dumb as a post agree with me using facile and hysterical reasoning is only likely to make me question whether I really feel good about agreeing with this dolt.  When Rosie O'Donnell agrees with me, it's time to rethink that issue.  I feel like I was stampeded into supporting the Iraq war in part due to the incredible lameness of a lot of the anti-war "arguments".  That was a mistake on my part, and I own up to it, but I still feel tempted to do the opposite of whatever Sean Penn says even when I agree.

Whose Brain Did I Put In? Abby Someone. Abby....Normal

Sorry, I can't get that Young Frankenstein scene out of my head when I read this story:  Wrong sperm may have fertilized eggs of 26 Dutch women in IVF mix-up

 

Create Your Own Star Wars Title Crawl

I Nominate This For Worst Idea Ever for a Movie Based on a Game

My New Speaker Project

Long-timer readers will know that one of my hobbies is building my own speakers.  I built three big ones to go behind my home theater projection screen, and various pairs for music around the house.  The first time I built speakers, I worked exactly from plans.  The second time I customized a design.   The third time I designed from scratch, but they were small simple bookshelf speakers.

This new project is something else.   I started almost completely from scratch, beginning only from this academic article on curved line arrays.  From space and wife-acceptance-factor reasons, I couldn't build a floor to ceiling traditional line array, so I thought I would try this approach.  The height of the speakers was capped by some geography issues in the room they are going in.

So here is what the boxes look like so far.  The rectangular openings are for PT2C-8 planar tweeters, and the round ones are for the ND90-8 mid/bass.  Despite the small size of the bass drivers, the ones chosen actually go pretty deep and the speaker box models (there are lots of free programs out there) with pretty good bass, though I will have it crossed over to a subwoofer as well.  The speaker actually curves upwards more than it looks like in the photo -- the angle of the photo distorts it some.  The curve is actually between 25 and 30 degrees.

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It turns out that things I thought would be really hard were actually easy.  For example, getting the nice curve on the face was easy once I changed my plan to layering several 1/4 inch sheets rather than trying to bend a 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch sheet of mdf.  The rectangular holes are not that straight but the drivers have wide flanges that will cover that up.  The round holes were made WAY easier with this type of hole saw (which rather than teeth has three or four little carbide router bits that do the cutting).

What was hard was the paint.  It was all done with rattle cans, I don't have any professional spray equipment.   I have no idea when I decided to try to get a piano black gloss finish on this, but I will tell you now that life is too short to try to get this finish on mdf.  If you look really closely you can see a few spots where I should have sanded yet again and re-coated, but I finally called it done.  The worse problem was that I accidentally started with a Rustoleum lacquer.  It covers beautifully but dries really, really slowly.  Any other paint type will make a mess if sprayed over lacquer, so I was stuck with it unless I wanted to strip it off and start over (which in retrospect would have been a good decision).   Painting this has been going on for months, with frequent long breaks to let things fully dry.  I am still not sure the finish is really as hard as it should be and am paranoid about bumping it into anything.  It looks good, though, almost startling when people see it for the first time.

Anyway, the next step is installing the drivers.  Part of the academic paper discussed tapering the volume on the various drivers.  This requires some simple resistor networks (L-pads) to attenuate each driver by a certain amount.  Here are the drivers once all the resistors are soldered (on the back, so largely invisible here), shown while I am testing the network.  The laptop is setting the parameters in the digital crossover, which uses a kit I built from miniDSP.  The MiniDSP board also has parametric equalizers so when the speakers are finished, I can fine-tune the frequency response.

DSC_0456

You can actually see the first driver installed on the lower right.

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Here is where we get to the world-class screw-up on my part.  The #1 thing I learned in speaker design is to brace the hell out of them.  You don't want anything flexing.  Unfortunately, I was stupid enough to put the braces in early.  This is fine for the rectangular ribbon tweeters, they install from the front.  But the round mid-basses install from the back, and  this is what that looks like -- the unpainted panels with the holes in it are the braces, and then you can see the actual driver hole in the front of the speaker behind it:

 

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I had this thing up on my bathroom counter so I could see the driver positioning in the mirror.  I then had to reach hands through these braces while using a screwdriver with a 12 inch extension.  A total contortion act, but I got the hardest one done so I am confident I can do the rest.

New Star Wars Trailer

This looks encouraging.

AT-ATs are back!

Before There Was Green Screen

People act as if it is something new and different when actors shoot scenes and 95% of the space on the screen is later filled in by CGI.  This has actually been going on for decades with matte paintings on glass.  Movie scenes were either filmed directly through the glass (there are some great examples in the linked article with Disney artists painting sailing ships on a bay for filming) or reshot later by projecting the original film and reshooting it with the matte art.

Here is a an example before and after the painted matt.  Just like CGI, only CGI can add movement and dynamic elements

Sword-window view

I had thought all this stuff was done in post production but apparently Disney at least shot a lot of scenes straight through a matte.  I love this guy, sitting on the beach painting ships on glass so they would be sitting on the bay in the scene.  You can almost imagine the actors tapping their feet waiting for him to be finished.

Untitled

Much of the beauty of the original Star Wars movie was in its great matte paintings, not only of planets but of the large Death Star interior scenes.

JJ Abrams is World's Greatest Producer of Fan Fic

[no spoilers]  I don't mean the title negatively -- I liked the reboots of both Star Trek and Star Wars that he wrote and directed.  Given the long absence of each franchise, there is no problem in my mind restarting the series with an homage to the old series and characters.  In particular, Abrams is great at peppering the movie with little shout-outs and inside jokes for the fan base.  And both are reasonably good adventure movies with beautiful action scenes.

The problems comes with the second movie, and moving the series into new territory.  The second Star Trek movie (Into the Darkness) couldn't seem to extricate itself from fan fic mode, retelling the Kahn story for the third time, with cute little reverses like Kirk dying and Spock screaming "Kahn.....", the opposite from The Wrath of Khan.

I understand the pressure.  The fan base of both franchises was ready to strangle Abrams at the first hint of heresy to the original material.  But for God sakes the Star Wars loyalists, of which I consider myself one, endured Jar Jar.  The new Star Wars movie has some flaws, but it is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable reboot.  Now it's time to take some risks with it.

Postscript:  Is there a handbook of Star Wars Imperial architecture?  Is it driven entirely by creating movie aesthetics or have directors started to work a running gag here?  In the new movie -- I promise this is not really a spoiler -- there is a scene with one of those classic Imperial rooms with the infinitely deep hole in it, featuring tiny narrow walkways without handrails  (I consider this not a spoiler since at least one such room has probably been featured in every Star Wars movie).  Anyway, one of the characters finds themselves clinging to the walls of said infinite drop some 12 or 15 fee below the nearest walkway.  And what do you know, there is some sort of switch lever there.  There are wall switches in my house that I think are located inconveniently, but wtf?  Who designs these places?

By the way, the movie Galaxy Quest, which I still love, had a great parody of this sort of sci fi architecture.  John Scalzi's Redshirts also touches on this territory as well.

Disney's Amazing Star Wars Deal, Which Might Help Fill In Disney's Amazing ESPN Profit Hole

How did Disney buy Star Wars for only $4 billion?  I first saw this question asked by Kevin Drum, though I can't find the link (and I am not going to feel guilty about it after Mother Jones banned me for some still-opaque reason).  But Disney is going to release a new movie every year, and if it is anything like the Marvel franchise, they are going to milk it for a lot of money.  Plus TV tie-ins.  Plus merchandising.  Plus they are rebuilding much of their Hollywood Studios park at DisneyWorld in a Star Wars theme.

The answer is that this is the kind of deal that makes trading in a free market a win-win rather than zero-sum.  Lucas, I think, was played out and had no ability, or no desire, to do what it would take to make the franchise worth $4 billion.  On the flip side Disney is freaking good a milking a franchise for all its worth (there is none better at this) and so $4 billion is starting to appear cheap from their point of view.

By the way, Disney is going to need the profits from Star Wars to fill in the hole ESPN is about to create.  A huge percentage of the rents in the cable business have historically flowed to ESPN, which is able to command per-subscriber fees from cable companies that dwarf any other network. Times are a-changin' though, as pressure increases from consumers to unbundle.  If cable companies won't unbundle, then consumers will do it themselves, cutting the cable and creating their own bundles from streaming offerings.

ESPN is already seeing falling subscriber numbers, and everyone thinks this is just going to accelerate.  ESPN is in a particularly bad position when revenues fall, because most of its costs are locked up under long-term contracts for the acquisition of sports broadcasting rights. It can't easily cut costs to keep up with falling revenues.  It is like a bank that has lent long and borrowed short, and suddenly starts seeing depositors leave.   And this is even before discussing competition, which has exploded -- every major pro sports league has its own network, major college athletic conferences have their own network, and competitors such as Fox and NBC seem to keep adding more channels.

To Start Getting You In the Mood...

New Star Wars Trailer

I didn't see any gratuitous lens flairs until about 1:42 so I am not sure this is really JJ Abrams.  But I must admit that despite the total crapitude of Episodes 1-3, I am excited.

The Fatal Allure of the Sexy Business

The tech site Engadget directed me to this article on Visual FX and CGI as a "must-read".  What I found was one of the odder economics and business hypotheses I have encountered lately.

The article begins by relating that VFX and digital effects specialty houses all lose money, even when they are providing effects for wildly profitable movies (e.g. Avengers) and purports to explain why this should be.  The author believes that this is a result of Hollywood purposely criticizing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep returns in the VFX companies down (and thus increase the returns of film producers).

As the debate surrounding what visual effects are worth rages on, it is clear that the studios themselves have an interest in perpetuating the myth that VFX are the product of clinical assembly lines and the results are equally lifeless and mechanical. Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope that is bandied about to squeeze the one part of the Hollywood machine that has no union or organizational skill to push back. The right hand asserts they are something not worth paying top dollar for, while the left lines up an interminable roster of VFX-based box office juggernauts for the foreseeable future.

The author goes so far as to say that Avatar was denied the best picture Oscar specifically to support the anti-VFX sentiment and keep returns of VFX companies down (emphasis added).

In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time just 41 days after its release, raking in an incredible $2.7 billion by the end of its run. Weta Digital, the VFX studio that created the majority of the visual effects, along with Lightstorm Entertainment, invested years in developing the tools and talent necessary to create Cameron’s almost entirely computer generated vision, with the cost of making the film rumored to be upwards of $500 million. Cameron had promised to show the world what visual effects could do and he succeeded. The results were universally lauded as visually stunning and unparalleled.

Yet, rather famously, the film and Cameron were snubbed that year at the Academy Awards, both for Best Picture and Best Director. The blame was laid at the feet of the critical success of The Hurt Locker. However, awarding Avatar the Academy’s highest honor would have been acknowledging visual effects as not only lucrative, but high art as well, worthy of its astronomical price tag. And that was a bargaining chip Hollywood was unwilling to concede to an industry it continues to hold hostage with threats of outsourcing to unskilled laborers around the globe.

This hypothesis seems outlandish, and in fact the author never really provides any evidence whatsoever for her hypothesis.   At least equally likely is that Hollywood insiders are snobbish and conservative and reject new approaches to film-making in a way that the public does not.  Or it could be that Avatar wasn't a very good movie (go try to watch it again today, you will be surprised what a yawner it is).  So why are VFX companies really losing money on profitable films?   Let's take a step back, because there is a useful business lesson buried in here somewhere.  I think.

This discussion is a sub-set of an age-old business problem -- how do rents in a supply chain get divided up?   Think of the billion plus dollars the new Avengers movie will make.  Everyone in the supply chain for making that movie, from the actors to the caterers to the VFX houses to the distribution companies believe their contribution has immense value, and that they should be getting a solid cut of the profits.  But profits in a supply chain are not divided up based on some third party assessing value, they are divided up by negotiation.  And the results of that negotiation depend on a lot of factors -- the number of competitors, the uniqueness of the service, regulatory rules, etc.  The most visible example of this sort of negotiation we see frequently in the news is in sports, where players and team owners are explicitly negotiating the division of the end revenue pie between themselves.

If we return to the article, the author actually gives us a hint of the true dynamic that is likely bringing down VFX profits.

The international subsidies-driven business model under which VFX companies operate has been well documented. In pursuit of tax rebates offered by various governments to produce films in their jurisdiction, studios insist that VFX companies open branches in these locations or reduce their bids by the amount of the subsidy in question. Even as studios, directors, and audiences demand the latest in cutting edge technology, VFX houses must underbid one another to get the work and many have been shuttered due to operational losses in the wake of explosive blockbuster budgets. The cost of research and development, shrinking schedules, and the unlimited changes that are the building blocks of every tentpole film, are shouldered entirely by VFX houses.

This is the best clue we get to the real problem.  Here is what I infer from this paragraph:

  1. This is a high fixed cost industry.  There are enormous up-front investments in research into new techniques and large investments in the latest technology, which presumably must be constantly refreshed because it has a short half-life before it is out of date.  The situation is worsened by government policy, which provides incentives for VFX companies to build extra capacity in multiple countries, losing economy of scale benefits from large concentrated production facilities.    One would presume from this that these companies' marginal cost of output, say 15 seconds of finished effects, is way way below their total costs.
  2. There is rivalry among VFX companies that seem to have excess capacity, such that bidding for work is very aggressive.  In such situations (think American railroads in the late 19th century) competitors lower prices down to marginal cost to keep their capacity and their trained people working.  Over time, of course, this leads to numerous bankruptices

I will add a third point which the author fails to cover.  To do so I will return to one of my favorite things I learned at Harvard Business School (HBS).  At HBS, in the first two days of strategy class, we studied two very different business cases.  The first was of a water meter manufacturer, a dead boring predictable unsexy business.  The second was a semiconductor company, which was hip and cool and really sexy.  It turned out that the water meter company coined money.  The semiconductor business was in and out of bankruptcy.

Why?  Well the water meter company had limited investment (made the same meters the same way for decades) and made most of its money off the replacement market, where it had no competitors since users pretty much had to replace with the same meter.  The semiconductor business had numerous shifting competitors and was constantly trying to scrape up enough investment money to keep up with shifting technology.  But there was one more difference.  By being sexy, tons of people wanted to be in the semiconductor business. They got non-monetary benefits from being in it (ie it was cool and interesting).  When there is an industry where lots of people are getting into the business for reasons other than making money, look out!  The profits are probably going to be terrible.   This is why most restaurants fail.  The business-for-sale listings are awash in brew pubs.   The aviation industry was like this for years, and I would argue this also suppresses rents in farming.

I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet that the VFX industry attracts a lot of people because it is sexy.  Yes, like a lot of programming, the actual work is detailed and dull.  But if the coding is detailed and dull, would you rather be doing it for Exxon's new back-office system or to put Ironman on the big screen (and have your name deep into the film credits, seen by the dozen or so people who hang around waiting for the Marvel Easter egg at the end)?

This is why I think a conspiracy theory to believe Hollywood is dissing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep VFX company rents down is silly.  It is totally unnecessary to explain the bad rents.  Had you told me it was a high investment business with huge fixed costs and much lower marginal costs and alot of rivalry driven by participants who piled into the business because it was sexy, I would have told you to stop right there and I could have immediately predicted poor returns and bankruptcies.

So what can VFX companies do?  I have no idea.  The first idea I would offer them is branding.  If you are buried deep in the supply chain and want to increase your bargaining power, one way to do it is to develop a brand with the end consumer.   If consumers suddenly latch on to, say, the CoyoteFX brand as being innovative or better in some way, such that they might be more likely to go to a movie with CoyoteFX sequences, then CoyoteFX now has a LOT more power in negotiations with producers.  Dolby Sound is a great example -- you probably don't even know what it is but movies used to advertise they had it.  Certain camera technologies like Panavision are another, where movies actually sold themselves in part on the features of one member of their supply chain.  As a digital house, Pixar effectively did this -- so well in fact its brand actually was bigger than Disney's (its distributor) for a while, and Disney was forced to buy them.  This does not happen just in movies.  I just bought a car that advertised it had a premium Bose sound system.  The car maker doesn't advertise who made, say, the fuel tanks, so my guess is that Bose, via branding, gets a better cut of the supply chain than does the fuel tank maker.

The Past Cultural Trend That is Perhaps The Hardest To Explain to My Kids

Trucker movies and the CB radio culture are virtually impossible to explain to my kids.  Perhaps they will have the same experience explaining the Kardashians to their kids.

New Star Wars Teaser

Yes, hints from the first teaser are confirmed -- there does appear to be a second black guy in the Star Wars universe (third if you count the now decades deceased Mace Windu). Bonus points for the first media outlet that calls this man who lived "a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" an African-American. I always get a laugh when the media refers to a black man in Jamaica or Britain as South Africa as "African American".

Kidding aside, I presume the thing that will have geek nation atwitter is the use of the present rather than past tense when talking about Darth Vader.  Not to mention the fact that wookies apparently age much better than humans.

Wow, I Should Be A TV Executive

When I first offered my novel BMOC to readers, a lot of them assumed it was some libertarianish fantasy.  Actually, its not a particularly serious book, just your normal everyday mystery for reading at the beach.  The unique part of the book is the introduction of a number of oddball business models (I used to make these up as my occupation to share with people at cocktail parties when I got bored).

I am in the midst of a light edit of the book for a re-release  (like my last story, we will have a limited time free-on-Kindle promotion, so watch for that).  Anyway, I had forgotten this idea I had included for a reality TV show.  I think it holds up pretty well.

Gladstone knew that most of Cupcake’s best-known work was in a reality TV show called “Seven Deadly Sins.”  In that particular show, eight priests were brought together, tempted each week by one of the seven deadly sins. The viewing audience got to vote each week as to which priest succumbed the most and got kicked off the show. Cupcake was featured prominently in several of the weekly contests, including her now famous take-down of Father Stanley Vincenzo (who had up to that point been considered the shoe-in favorite to emerge victorious) in the “lust” episode.

It is amazing no sharp TV executive has yet snapped this idea up.  You are all welcome to it, go and make your fortune.

Have Critics of American Sniper Even Seen the Movie?

I finally saw the movie American Sniper, and I am amazed anyone could think this movie glorified war or America's involvement in Iraq.  As a pacifist, I am extremely sensitive to movies that seem too rah-rah about war, but this was not one of them.  The protagonist may come off as heroic, or at least enduring, but war looks pretty sucky, full of hideous moral choices, and led/governed by jerks.  Which shouldn't be surprising because I would have described Eastwood's other recent war movies in roughly the same way.