Thursday, 28 February 2013

WTF happened to VFX?

Apparently the Oscars took place in Hollywood last week, which means that we Brits missed the ceremony on account of it taking place in a time zone eight hours behind ours. It seems like it was an amazing event, though, for all the wrong reasons. It turns out there was a set-piece where the host sang a song in which he began naming and shaming the esteemed actresses in presence, highlighting how titillating it was witnessing their breasts in movies; worryingly reeling off several titles that incorporate scenes of their characters being raped. Then there was a hopeless James Bond montage that irked loyal fans. There was also a sequence devoted to celebrating the entire history of musicals in cinema, but scantly showcased three titles, all of which were only made in the last decade. To top it all, some actress even managed to stumble and fall on stage or thereabouts while trying to accept her award.


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s Oscars was the award for visual effects which went to Ang Lee’s Life of Pie. When the winners took to the stage and proclaimed their thanks, they were cunningly cut short by the threatening Jaws signature theme music before they could publically lament the current state of their visual effects industry, a sector in which outsourcing and unfair pay rates is resulting in tough times for many concerned. The situation is so bad that there was industrial protest taking place outside the Dolby Theatre, where four hundred visual effects personnel demonstrated against studios exploiting them and not properly redistributing residuals to the very creative technicians that put the magic into modern movies.

What really must have got the visual effects industry angry was when filmmaker Ang Lee, a Buddhist whose bloodline stems from egalitarian China, told reporters after winning the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi that the hard times incurred by the visual effects industry was primarily its own doing. His comments came in light of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects company that created the impressive digital images in Life of Pi, recently filing for bankruptcy due to the fact that their current business model is unsustainable.

Phillip Broste, a visual effects artist that didn’t work on Life of Pi, took it upon himself to admonish Ang Lee and Hollywood at large, producing an open letter that admiringly argues why his profession is progressively undermined by inequitable practices and scrupulous financial chicanery.

Rhythm + Hues joins Digital Domain as two powerhouse VFX companies that helped define the template of contemporary American cinema, both now filing Chapter 11 bankruptcies and offloading countless jobs. This situation will be more comprehensible if the VFX industry was surplus to requirement, but it’s actually become a cornerstone of American cinema. For the last thirty-five years Hollywood has retained its global hegemony principally because it is the only film industry that has the capital and artistry to develop elements that other countries cannot. The emergence of computer generated visual effects in the late 1970s, for better or worse, finally enabled Hollywood to escape the threat that television posed, realising that audiences will mindlessly flock to watch spectacular digital illusions.

According to Deadline, over 250 employees at Rhythm + Hues have been axed without pay, and those that remain in employment have, allegedly, not received payment in weeks despite them continually working on tentpole features. The employment culture in America is startlingly different to our own, where the attitude seems to suggest that no one is owed a job and that free capitalism unfairly justifies asking its already productive workers what value they are creating. In the case of this particular situation it seems alarmingly apparent exactly what worth the Rhythm + Hues employees contributed, ultimately resulting in them creating a blockbusting movie that pushed the boundaries of visual interpretation and generated colossal amounts of revenue for the studio that hired them. It was their work that piqued the interests of international audiences wanting to watch something that was deemed un-filmable. These artists deserve respect, not pink slips.


American cinema is totally reliant on visual effects in a way that other countries aren’t. Their movies sell themselves on the basis of spectacle and awe, where the digital composites take centre stage and compelling characters come a long way after. Last year saw European films like Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (depiction of an amputee victim) and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (realisation of the most convincing tsunami ever realised), both virtuoso movies that incorporate state-of-the-art visual effects, yet one would never label them as effects-driven pictures because the visuals are there to serve a story, not the other way around. American commercial cinema is almost artistically bankrupt, however, the only creatively advancing element of their movies is the scope of visual effects that grow ever more complex and demanding. Visual effects is the last bastion of Hollywood’s grandeur, but economic forces and labour exploitation may result in them asphyxiating the remaining element of distinction left its arsenal of cinematic power. If you don’t respect the very people that you’re depending on then the end result will materialise in an industry lacking creative energy and monetary value to make the impossible seem possible.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Johnny Marr’s “Upstart”

Johnny Marr will be 50-years-old this Halloween. The great thing about white guys with guitars of this age is that they get admirably stuck in their ways. They refuse to accept that the kind of music they were making as lads ever went out of fashion, or needed upgrading in any way. They also refuse to accept that there is a new way to make music videos, belligerently insisting that their output still be shot on tape and presented in the 4:3 standard television ratio, ignoring the fact that every household in the modern world now has very thin and horizontally elongated plasma screens that hang on walls. The best thing about white men of this age is that due to the fact they are so obstinate, and perhaps not even realising it, they actually get to release songs that suddenly sound deliberately vintage, fooling us into thinking that this must be a new kind of sound and image intentionally at odds with the homogenised pop scene of now. They suddenly become pioneers and, for a spell, make everything else out there sound incredibly not as good as what they’re putting out.
Inasmuch, comparable women of Marr’s age insist on aping current pop trends and trying to pass themselves off as still relevant (Madonna and J-Lo come to mind), old British white men can’t be bothered with any of that, insisting that you take them as they are.
Marr still looks fabulous for a middle-aged bloke from Manchester, but he will tell you that his mulishness and strict vegan diet ensures he remains perennially brilliant in every way possible. And look, he doesn’t even need to get any tattoos to be cool. What a solid role model for all aspiring middle-aged white guys everywhere.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Toro y Moi’s “Say That”

There are songs that work best on radio, where the medium of music videos ultimately doesn’t do justice to what the listener had in their head when bobbing to the beat. Toro y Moi is an artist for whom the emphasis leans greater to ‘geek’ rather than ‘chic’, meaning his stupendous production skills are let down by his insistence to pare down the visuals while accentuating the sonics. It’s an odd combination that seems enervating, only because the music video playing in my mind had more to it than this.
Nonetheless, it’s humbling to know a guy that looks like Toro y Moi can get a record deal in today’s age and have his music playing in places that matter. This chillwave/ glo-fi sound is said to the stuff dreams are made of, though, dreams usually have better production values than this clip.

Monday, 11 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Ra Ra Riot’s “Beta Love”

There’s a bloke called David Dean Burkhart who is such a monster fan of New York electro pop group Ra Ra Riot that he created his own video for the title track from their new album. The record label was so understandably impressed; they got in touch with Burkhart and said they wanted to make it the official music video for Beta Love. Burkhart edited together footage from a local 1980s Bay Area UHF show called Dance Party, creating a visual treat consisting of then dancing teenagers whose children must now be contemplating filing emancipation papers. Honestly, the video plays like some bizarre junior UN convention from yesteryear where the punch got spiked and caused its young delegates to grin and dance like maniacs. The kids look so beautifully smiley, it’s infectious.
The video works brilliantly, making a rather slight music number instantly memorable. It works so well that you may replay it all afternoon, e-mailing it endlessly to everyone. Remarks by fans of the band indicate that much of the irony of this clip has been lost on them, which is a shame because its tongue is firmly in cheek. It’s both embarrassing and endearing at once. Culturally, the British love things like this.
In order to make a few quid on the fly, those of us in Britain should mimic Burkhart’s methods and convince a record company to splice their act’s music with infamous footage of Hit Man and Her. The results could be legendary.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Drowners’ “Long Hair”

An American Anglophile indie guitar band is like a comet that comes into orbit every few years, impressing us with its mocked transient flair, only to wiz away again to more interesting galaxies that hold greater promise.
Green Day started out as a bunch of rockers that sang in affected British accents, the Killers did the same thing a dozen years later, and the Drums came on to the music scene looking like agitated English white guys that went to the same downtrodden comprehensive schools as us lot. All of these bands were received like long lost relatives here in Britain, with us buying their albums and concert tickets like it was our sworn duty. Then, all of a sudden, these wannabe British falsettos started being taken seriously in their home country, ditching their fake British accents and reinventing themselves as Bruce Springsteen’s long lost nephews. (The Drums never did make it big in America, but it’s obvious that they, too, would’ve abandoned us had their fortunes been more fortuitous.)
And now Drowners―a New York band that obviously fetishes the prospect of living in a sink bedsit in Salford like it was something to aspire to―are doing exactly the same thing, taking British indie-pop culture and selling it back to us at jacked up prices. Drowners must know that the British cannot resist any band that deploys a descending guitar line in its songs, and that is why numerous UK radio stations have put their track, Long Hair, on heavy rotation.
To be fair, lead singer Matt Hitt is a native of south Wales, but he was spotted by a scout standing outside the old Virgin Megastore in Times Square and was signed up as an international male model, a gig that proved massively successful for him. (I, too, have stood outside the same building on more than one occasion and am still awaiting.) After completing his degree in English Literature and roping in the services of some New Yorkers that can play instruments, Matt Hitt is embarking on a new career trajectory, that of a credible pop star evoking the living spirits of Steven Morrissey and Brett Anderson, with a slight hint of Tim Booth thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Dutch Uncles’ “Flexxin”

Shame on those that say white people cannot dance. It’s simply not true. Why, Duncan Wallis of Dutch Uncles is nothing short of spectacular in his band’s latest video for Flexxin, doing everything from body-popping to drunken-daddy-dancing within the confines of a studio that’s simply not big enough for all the moves on offer.
These guys aren’t Dutch. They are, in fact, local lads from nearby, though, that kind of dancing will probably get someone beaten up in these parts. Lucky it took place behind closed doors.

Friday, 1 February 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Laura Mvula’s “Green Garden”

This is the second time so far in 2013 that British soul singer Laura Mvula has been mentioned on this blog, and one suspects she may be mentioned a few more times yet.
Mvula has entered the music scene on the crest of music journalism hype and goodwill. The truth is that this Birmingham born artist has only so far released a massively impressive digital EP, while her debut album Sing to the Moon is yet to see the light of day. After having been shortlisted as one of the Sounds of 2013 and being nominated in the Critics’ Choice Award at this year’s BRIT ceremony, Mvula is courting the kind of attention most British singers can only dream of.
The danger is that consumers may be let down by the eventual album that seems inflated by a music industry desperate to overstate the profile of unknown artists, unconvincingly labelling them as the next most important thing. However, Mvula isn’t the kind of musician that can be cynically dismissed. With every new snippet of music released, the interest around Mvula seems to grow and grow. Each new song both validates and surprises in its scope and musicality. The steady flow of material released thus far builds further anticipation for the album, because everything suggests a potential modern masterpiece is about to bless us.
Mvula’s image and sound is beguiling to the hilt. Her music evokes everything from Porgy and Bess to Arrested Development (the hip-hop group, not the television thing), while conjuring thoughts of both Nina Simone and Erykah Badu. Yet none of these references negates the startling originality and innovation Mvula brings to a British soul scene bereft of interesting mainstream performers. Her style is hardly derived, and, unlike previous UK female soul artists such as Gabrielle or Adele, Mvula isn’t aping a particular zeitgeist or trend. There simply is nothing else out there that sounds this good and uplifting.
At a time when just one in twenty of the UK's best-selling tracks in 2012 were both solely written and performed by the same act (while 5% were cover versions), it’s heartening to see an inspired artist gain attention for all the right reasons.