Netflix Profiles

I was Johnny-come-lately to Netflix, skipping the whole mail rental thing and signing up less than a year ago when I decided to cut the cord. My family has been happy with the service aside from a couple times that they have dropped the licenses for shows that we were watching.

Some of the features of the service, however, were useless to me. All of the recommendations were for children’s shows, because that’s mostly what my kids were watching—lot’s of Disney XD. How are ratings supposed to work when there are four people with varying tastes and interests? Netflix was apparently aware of the problem, because they just added profiles to their service. Now, each member of my household has their own profile, which means we each have our own queue with separately tracked ratings and history. It’s a relatively simple addition that delivers huge value to their customers.

There are a number of online accounts that my family shares. We use a single Amazon account, one Audible account, and one Apple ID. I’d especially like to see Apple embrace a similar approach for iTunes and the App store. Every cheesy, free game my kids download shows up on my phone, and as my eldest daughter just became a teenager, I foresee her music purchases dirtying my user data.

May the Force be with you.

I was 3 when Star Wars was first released. I don’t remember exactly how many months after the May release it was that my parents took my brother and I to the drive-in, but I’m guessing it was the next summer when I was 4. Regardless, Star Wars was one of the defining influences of my youth. I played with the toys until I grew out of them. Then, during high school, I became a fan of every book and game that was released, from Heir to the Empire and the West End Games RPG to Decipher’s CCG and every video game released for my Mac (or my brother’s PC). The Phantom Menace marked my first year of full-time employment, and my eldest daughter’s first Halloween costume, as a baby, was a Jedi robe. I attended midnight premieres of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. These days, I watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars with my kids, and I listen to The ForceCast every week. I have always been, and will likely always be, a die-hard Star Wars fan. George Lucas and John Williams are two of my heroes, to whom I give partial credit for my creative pursuits, career and otherwise.

I was shocked to read first on Twitter, then Facebook, and finally the official Star Wars Blog, that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Not only that, but they are working on the oft rumored episodes VII, VIII, and IX, the first of which will be in theaters in 2015! I admit, my initial gut reaction was a sinking feeling. “Oh no! How could George turn it over to someone else? They’ll ruin it!” But that feeling didn’t last long. 

I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. The writing was on the wall. Earlier this year, Kathleen Kennedy was brought on board to take over Lucasfilm as George went into retirement. I didn’t know anything about her at the time, but just a glance at her IMDB page shows that she is a force to be reckoned with. She has produced no less than 86 films including the Back to the Future trilogy, all but the first Indiana Jones film, and much of Steven Spielberg’s filmography. At the time she was hired, there was speculation as to why she would come on board, if not to make more Star Wars movies.

And for the acquisition by Disney, well, George has always had a good relationship with the studio, working with them on Star Wars and Indiana Jones attractions in their theme parks. I’ve always imagined he would have the attitude that Star Wars was his, and he wouldn’t let anyone else make further films. However, in recent years, he has been grooming Dave Filoni, Director of The Clone Wars animated series to do just that. George’s daughter, Katie Lucas, has been a writer for several episodes. It makes sense, then, that George has decided to ensure a vibrant future for the franchise, and I can’t think of a better company to care for it than Disney. They have the resources, and they have a track record of respecting acquired properties, such as The Muppets and Pixar.

The prequel haters have always said that George should let someone else take over the franchise, considering him to be a washed-up has-been. I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, and I was relieved to hear that he will be involved with the third trilogy. But we are going to have the chance to see what happens when some other people are invited into the sandbox. More importantly, Star Wars will likely remain an inspiration for many generations to come.

beRating

Here’s a simple question. Why is the MPAA rating screen shown before every film so poorly designed? White text with a black shadow creates enough contrast on a green background to vibrate. The text is in ALL CAPS, making it more difficult to read. Then there is the small, compressed type shoe-horned into a thick-bordered table without enough padding. Everything is center-aligned, but due to the table layout, some of it is offset. The only positive is that the most important information is bigger and bolder, clearly standing out from the rest.

My Intent to Break the Law

Thanks to a fictional article from a British tabloid, people are thinking about what happens to our digital media when we die. I’ve spent quite a lot of money on music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, ebooks, games, and applications. The typical service agreement states that you haven’t purchased a copy of the file, as you do when you buy physical media, but a license to use it. This license expires when you do. So, it is unlawful to give your digital media to somebody else, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to use it. I have a problem with this.

First of all, the fact that a song or book is a digital file on my hard drive, rather than ink on paper or even a file on a CD, should make no difference whatsoever. I can pass my printed books, CDs, and DVDs on to my children; why shouldn’t I do the same with the digital versions? The distinction is nonsensical.

Furthermore, my digital media is now a conglomeration of purchases from iTunes and Amazon mixed with ripped CDs. And, since I’ve subscribed to iCloud Music Match, many of the ripped tracks have been replaced with Apple’s files.

So, I have every intention of leaving my media library, physical and digital, to my family members. Given that most of those files have no DRM, I don’t believe there will be any way for said companies to know. That said, I fully believe that by the time I die, digital rights and service agreements will advance to treat digital media more like we currently treat physical media. So, don’t sue me just yet.

Indie Game, The Movie

I took some time out yesterday morning to watch Indie Game, The Movie. To be honest, I started watching it while eating breakfast, and I had intended to get up and do the dishes while I continued watching it, but it completely sucked me in, and I spent the majority of my morning on the couch. This is an outstanding film, but first, a little background.

I seem to be talking about Kickstarter quite a bit lately. Well, here we go again. The film’s producers, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, reached their goal of $15,000 in only 48 hours. After two months, they had raised $23,341 from 297 backers. That was in July of 2010. During the following two years, they shot over 300 hours of footage, and in January, 2012, they won Best Editing within the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. I only learned of the film a few months ago myself when they started taking pre-orders. Indie Game released on June 12th.

Here’s the description of the film from the Sundance Film Festival:

With the twenty-first century comes a new breed of struggling independent artist: the indie game designer. Refusing to toil for major developers, these innovators independently conceive, design, and program their distinctly personal games in the hope that they, too, may find success.

After two years of painstaking work, designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes await the release of their first major game for Xbox, Super Meat Boy—the adventures of a skinless boy in search of his girlfriend, who is made of bandages. At PAX, a major video-game expo, developer Phil Fish unveils his highly anticipated, four-years-in-the-making FEZ. Jonathan Blow considers beginning a new game after creating Braid, one of the highest-rated games of all time.

First-time filmmaking duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky capture the emotional journey of these meticulously obsessive artists who devote their lives to their interactive art. Four developers, three games, and one ultimate goal— to express oneself through a video game. 

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall view into the realities of independent game development while telling very personal stories about the people involved. It had me routing for their success, dreading their possible failure, and fantasizing about throwing my career away to gamble on my own FEZ-equivalent (as if I have any knowledge about how to program a game).

If you are interested in game design, independent development, or just love documentaries, I highly recommend it. It’s available from their website, as well as on Steam and the iTunes store.

Brave

I took my girls to see Brave over the weekend. Pixar has another home run on their hands. As I expected, the film features a wonderful story with lovable characters and a sound, moral lesson. There’s just enough threat to keep things interesting and a healthy helping of humor. The score is also quite good, if you like music of Celtic origin. I already purchased the soundtrack.

As I said, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Pixar, and they don’t disappoint. What really impressed me with Brave are the technical achievements in both hair and water effects. Merida’s hair is an impressive bit of work. Imagining the logic that went into its behavior blows my mind. Knowing how far we’ve come with computer animation in the past ten years, I know we’re going to see some truly amazing stuff in the next decade. Obviously, Pixar was not trying for photorealism, but the hair seemed natural. Blizzard’s cinematics for Diablo III contain the most realistic looking CG humans I’ve seen. The quality of Leah’s skin (you can see pores) and the subtleness of her facial expressions have come close to spanning that uncanny valley.

A few more notes from the film:

  1. No, I didn’t see it in 3-D, and I didn’t miss it.
  2. My favorite shot in the entire film is during her horse ride / target practice. She fires an arrow into the stump of a branch that already has hundreds of arrows lodged within it. It’s only on screen a split second. That was a brilliant bit of storytelling.
  3. When the dedication to Steve Jobs showed during the end credits, a woman in the audience declaimed, “Steve Jobs?!” The reaction surprised me at first, but I guess his involvement with Pixar may not be common knowledge.
  4. It’s worth sticking around until the end of the credits.

Play All

I finally broke down and got a Blu-Ray player. Actually, I received it as a Christmas present, but it was the release of the Star Wars saga that defeated my resolve and convinced me to put it on my wish list. I was determined to skip Blu-Ray and go completely digital. However, I love the documentaries, commentaries, and other special features that come on the discs, and you can’t get those with the digital releases.

I am enjoying the Star Wars Blu-Ray special features, and they’ve done a beautiful job with them, but I have one major complaint. There is one “Play All” menu item for the entire disc. I typically watch this stuff while I’m loading the dishwasher and cleaning up the kitchen. I don’t have enough time to watch it all in one go. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to pause every couple minutes to navigate to the next feature. Every major section of the disc should include the choice to play all. The Lord of the Rings DVDs are still the golden standard by which I measure every other release.

Punishing the Innocent

One of the things I value most is my time. There’s never enough of it. I hate wasting it. That’s the reason I get really annoyed when I insert a DVD and am faced with commercials, previews, and yes, the FBI warning, before I can watch the film. Not only does it waste my time—it detracts from the artistic vision and experience of the film. It’s going to get worse.

The government is rolling out an updated copyright infringement screen, along with a new  “educational” message. Both screens will be displayed before the film starts for ten seconds each, and they will not be skippable.

I already bought the DVD. You don’t need to lecture me on piracy.

More information can be found at arstechnica.

Eating My Words in 3-D

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post deriding the 3-D film fad. I had a particularly bad experience with Toy Story 3. I’m going to change my tune… slightly. Now, before I go any further, I have to make you understand something: I love Star Wars. I love all Star Wars. Yes, that’s right, I love Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But the purpose of this post is not to debate the merits of that film, so haters can shut up or go home. This post is about 3-D and the movie experience.

With that out of the way, you have likely guessed that I saw The Phantom Menace over the weekend. I took my whole family, and it was my daughters’ first time seeing a Star Wars film on the big screen. They had the same poor experience that I had with Toy Story, so they while they were excited to see the movie, they groaned when I told them it was in 3-D. I explained to them that I have heard very promising things about the quality of the film, and  though wary, they were willing to give it a shot.

I’m impressed. We had much better seats, but I think there had to be more to it than that. The picture quality was immeasurably better. There were only a couple times that I had problems focusing on the picture. None of us got a headache. There were even periods during which I forgot that I was watching a 3-D movie. It was cool from a technological point of view, and I enjoyed the 3-D effect academically.

However, I don’t feel that it improved the film. I didn’t leave feeling like it added to the experience. In fact, as good as it was, I still think it was more of a distraction than anything. It more often pulled me out of the story than it pulled me in. So, while I no longer consider 3-D films to be the abominations that I did previously, I will continue to see non-3-D versions whenever possible.

Except in a year from now, when Attack of the Clones is re-released. That I will see in 3-D, because I’m too big a fan not to.

Interactive Animated Improv

There were two shows we saw at Disney World that especially impressed me, both using the same technology. Turtle Talk with Crush featured the righteous sea turtle from Finding Nemo. He was part of a projected, 3-D animation, but it was live. Crush interacted with the audience, answering questions and reacting in real time. It was a seamless experience—people interacting with a cartoon character as if it were real.

Similarly, the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor featured Mike Wizowski, Roz, and a number of other monsters performing stand-up routines to get us to laugh and fill a canister with power for the monster world. Remote-controlled cameras were able to pick out members of the audience to show on-screen as the actors behind the animated puppets integrated us into their schtick, just as a live, human stand-up comic would. I was lucky enough to be the butt of several jokes, referred to as “That Guy” throughout the show, and my experience continued through the rest of the day as I was presented with a sticker to wear, labeling me as “That Guy”. Cast members throughout the park would notice the sticker and point me out, much to the delight of my daughters.

It’s good to know that Disney is continuing to chip away at the barrier separating make-believe from reality… with highly entertaining results.