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Archive for August, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum- A Movie Review

Friday, August 31st, 2007

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Being a fan of spy novel master Frederick Forsyth, I have naturally sampled the wares of other authors who write in the genre. Some bring something of their own to the table… Tom Clancy‘s books are much heavier on the modern techno/cyber war elements, for example. Some are more like pale imitations of Forsyth. Robert Ludlum, the author of the “Jason Bourne” books among many others, falls somewhere in between. His books follow the Forsyth pattern of strong, formidable, often reluctant heros who have few equals going up against large organizations that are corrupt, evil and destructive, with sweeping descriptions of exotic locales and plenty of intricate plot lines that unfold slowly. I’ve liked some of Ludlum’s book and disliked others. The Bourne books are probably his best, anchored by a strong character in Jason Bourne.

Wait… isn’t this supposed to be a movie review of “The Bourne Ultimatum”? What does the Ludlum books have to do with the movie? The answer is: absolutely nothing, and that’s no exaggeration.

In the first movie, the only story elements that had anything to do with the book of the same name was the fact that this man was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea, is rescued by a fishing vessel and is found to have amnesia, and further discovers he’s a secret agent. After that it’s almost all different. A few scenes are similar to scenes in the book, but the story is totally changed. In the book, Bourne eventually discovers he was a covert operative for Treadstone, who had been under deep cover as a European assassin named “Cain”. His mission was to smoke out a rival assassin named Carlos the Jackal, and kill him. After many adventures in searching for his past, eventually he simultaneously finds Treadstone and the Jackal in New York, and gets his man while coming to terms with Treadstone. The woman who he meets and who helps him is named Marie, but she’s a Canadian economist not a German punk drifter. Many of the names are the same, but the story involving the assassination of the political exile is all movie invention. The second film “The Bourne Supremancy” bear no resemblance whatsoever to the book of the same name, which deals with Chinese revolutionists and an impostor committing assassinations under the Bourne name. Ditto “The Bourne Ultimatum”, which really just borrows the title of the Ludlum book.

Does any of that matter? No, not at all. The movie is it’s own entity, and if Ludlum (or in this case his estate’s controllers, as Ludlum died in 2001) doesn’t care that the character and names of his books are used to sell a totally different story, then who should? Nobody. The movie is the movie and the book is the book.

With all that said, I was looking forward to “The Bourne Ultimatum” because I enjoyed the first two Bourne movies and this one had gotten a number of positive reviews. I did enjoy it but I did not think it the best of the three. That has to go to the second movie, which had the best plot, action and overall entertainment. “Ultimatum” gets bogged down a bit by several convoluted plot points, a few too many easy coincidences, some rough acting and most of all trying to hard to stick to “the formula”.

The movie opens not at the end of the last one, but at the point where Bourne is making his escape in Russia near thend of “The Bourne Supremacy”. We get to see how he gets away, and in an ingenious twist find out later the scene at the very end of the second movie falls into place near the end of this one… making most of this film take place actually within the time frame covered in the second movie. That’s a clever, Tarantino-ish use of time bending. Bourne is now after the rest of Treadstone, which is the first of the doesn’t-quite-make-sense storylines since he exposed the supposed head of Treadstone in the last film and left him to commit suicide. Why, then, is he still after Treadstone? That is never very clear. Now the oddball coincidences start. CIA surveillance in England pick up a single word (“Blackbriar”) on a random cellphone conversation and trace it to a political reporter from a U.K. newspaper. Bourne meanwhile reads an article by this reporter about him in a newspaper while on a train, although we have to presume he’s read previous articles and is on his way to see the guy already. Inexplicably the single word “Blackbriar” launches a full CIA surveillance of the reporter (wow, I have to be careful what I say on my cell… maybe the CIA has a black op called “lemonade” and I might get snatched by spooks while talking about yesterday’s picnic). By odd coincidence, Bourne and the CIA arrive at the same time to see the reporter, and action ensues. That’s just one example of some badly conceived plot elements that just seem lazy in how they set up confrontation. Wouldn’t it have made more sense that this reporter was already being watched due to his articles on Jason Bourne, a supposedly top secret US operative who is inexplicably the subject of a three part series in a British newspaper? Oh, well. The ensuing action is what makes these films so engaging, and the sequence in the train station is as good as anything in the other films.

I mentioned the formula… the other Bourne films feature Jason out in “the field” on his lonesome battling other operatives who are directed from a pitch-dark command center somewhere that contains cranky CIA bosses stalking around a room full of keyboard-clacking nerds and big screen TVs. The visual trademark of the franchise is the handheld and zoom/focus camera work that adds an edgy, tense feel to the proceedings. Personally I could do with a little less of the herky-jerky camera shots. I have motion-sickness by the end of the first hour, and a splitting headache by the end of the film. Some is good, and even great, but this is too much. Also getting a little old are the command center scenes, full of inane dialogue and dumb questions. if CIA personnel are really as stupid and helpless as the people filling these rooms, we are in big trouble. When a code of five numbers intercepted when given to Bourne are asked to be investigated, one helpful CIA genius lets us know it’s a zipcode in some small midwestern town. Nice work, Sherlock. There are many other examples. I think all these little problems amount the big problem that the director Paul Greengras and the screenwriters abandoned the semi-plausible plots of the first two movies for some cheap shortcuts to maximum action. I love the car crashes and fight scenes as much as the next guy, but I need a little better reason for them than some I was presented with here. The story just doesn’t fit together as tightly as the first two did.

Oh, but the action. In one scene Bourne is jumping from building to building though windows in an old section of a European city. Spying his quarry in the next building, he runs through a room, out an open window, thorough 20 feet of air and through the glass of the opposing closed window while the camera literally follows behind him the whole time. That is one of the best action stunt shots I’ve ever scene in a film. No CGI, by the way. The fight scene next is the best of the series. It’s brutal and rough without any of the overused Matrix tricks we see so much these days. The camera work makes it hard to follow, but not seeing every punch adds to the effect. The car chases were also spectacular, but I still don’t rate them as high as the the original film’s chase in the streets of Paris. These are more destructive but that one was a white-knuckle job.

As far as acting, Matt Damon is again terrific as Bourne. He’s a believable action guy and can pull off the complexity of a man missing large parts of his life and wanting to get some answers. Julia Stiles returns as Nicky Parsons, the CIA secretary who was little more than a cameo in the first two films. This time she does more than just look concerned with that weird baby-mouth lip thing she has. She plays a significant part in this movie and is tied in to Bourne’s past in a more complete, although unsaid, way. David Strathairn is a covert CIA commander who you love to hate, and he is a very good actor so his character is particularly loathsome. Joan Allen returns as CIA flunky Pam Landy, and she doesn’t fare much better in this film than the last. She’s saddled with some of the lamest dialogue in the films, and her character never really connects with anyone. She’s falls very short of being the intimidating CIA big shot she’s supposed to be, and just kind of wanders from scene to scene in a daze.

Overall the movie is a fun ride, but it’s not the great ride some of the reviews led me to believe. It’s a worthy addition to the Bourne films, but doesn’t quite live up to the standards set be the first two films. I wish MAD would have done a parody of any of these movies… they take themselves very seriously and would have been fun to poke holes in.

The Dreaded Deadline Demon

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

The Dreaded Deadline Demon!

Sketch O’The Week

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

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Here’s something a little different for “Sketch O’The Week”. This was a rough sketch for one of several spot illustrations to accompany a story in Fade In Magazine about Hollywood talent agents. The assignment was to do a full page and three spots illustrating some of the points interviewed insiders were making about agents and how they operate. This one was rejected as they didn’t understand what I was trying to convey… the idea was to visually demonstrate how agents like to throw money around driving expensive cars, etc. Of course, a BMW Z-3 is hardly a super car, but I like drawing that car. Anyway, since it got discarded I thought it wouldn’t be a problem to post it here.

This is a good example of how much work I typically put into the rough sketches of an illustration job. Not a lot of shading or tight drawing. I don’t bother to erase a lot of my rough shape lines, just a little general clean up. I don’t want to waste my time rendering anything at this stage. The more I’ve worked with a client, the more familiar we are with each other’s expectations and the looser I can be with sketches… some of my MAD sketches are no more than circles for heads sometimes.

Cartooning Scholarship Reminder

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

NCS Scholarship!

It’s “back to school” time!

In honor of that, and because I am way too busy right now to write any meaningful blog posts, I am reminding everybody about the scholarships in cartooning that the National Cartoonist Society’s NCS Foundation have available.

Again, the scholarships are not tied to a single school or even to an art major. They are about encouraging young artists to pursue careers in cartooning, be they animators, comic book artists, editorial cartoonists, strip cartoonists… you name it. You apply by filling out an application and sending in 5 samples of your cartooning. The amounts and number of scholarships are up to the Foundation’s discretion, so the more the merrier. The deadline is not until Jan 15th, but there’s no time like the present.

Click the image above or this link for the official NCS scholarship page, more details and a subsequent link to an application.

Lord of the Rings Geeking

Monday, August 27th, 2007

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Despite being a bit swamped with jobs, I took a few moments out of each of the last few days to accomplish a task I’ve been trying to find time to do for some time: import the entire, unabridged audiobook recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into iTunes and therefore into my iPod. I had previously accomplished this a few years ago, but that was before my researching how to do it properly (and in fact before the proper software was available to do it right in the first place). Additionally, I had used iTunes 5 to import the CDs, and that version had some serious bugs that caused many of the files to become corrupt and unlistenable. Having imported them with that version also prevented me from using the excellent JoinTogether program (Mac only) to combine the tracks into a manageable and organized number (won’t work on buggy iTunes 5 files). So, I had to reimport all 10 disks for The Hobbit and 46 disks for The Lord of the Rings. It was no easy task.

I wanted to organize the files very specifically. One of the problems with importing audiobooks from CDs is that each CD is usually made up of some 20 tracks of 2 to 3 minutes each. ITunes treats each track as a song, so importing a 10 disk audiobook results in 200 plus small tracks. That’s a lot of tracks. The CDs don’t have any information about the tracks imbedded in them the computer can read (they get numbered 1, 2, etc. and that’s it) so iTunes goes to an online database to find the disk/track information for each disk. That does not work very well, as this information was uploaded by users who could name the files whatever they wished, and there is no rhyme or reason to them. Sometimes you get multiple choices for a given disk, but you are unable to see the format of them past the name of the disk itself, so you end up with mixed and unmatching naming formats… some seemingly done by monkeys. “Tolkien” was misspelled in half the ones I was forced to download, and the methods used to name the tracks are so cryptic as to be undechiperable. That makes it a mess to upload them and keep them in order, let alone differentiate the beginning and ends of specific chapters.

That is what my goal was: to import the disks, then use JoinTogether to combine the tracks for each separate chapter and convert them into the proper audiobook format. Then, using Jointogether again on these combined, one-track-each chapters, I would combine several full chapters into about 2.5 to 3 hour parts, making each chapter have a “chapter stop” embedded in them so I could click forward or back to the beginning of each separate chapter at will. Using a command line program called Chaptertool with the Joingtogether program, and meticulously renaming the downloaded messes into chapters like: “Book V Chapter II- The Passing of the Grey Company” within the title The Return of the King that is in turn within the album The Lord of the Rings. Eventually I succeeded in making a complete, unabridged audiobook file of the whole of the Tolkien trilogy and The Hobbit, complete with stops at each chapter and combined into between 5 and 9 “parts” per book. I also customized a bit of album art above for iTunes and the iPod. Whew.

So, that’s my geek moment of the year. I’m happily listening away to it as I work in the studio. This information serves no useful purpose except to demonstrate my utter lack of ability to prioritized my time or to prevent the occasionally succumbing to my obsessive/compulsive tendencies.

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Q: When you do those MAD crowd scenes adding the extra’s with the celebrities- have you used people you meet (your mailman, barber, your kids sport coaches, neighbor etc.) as those extra’s in the crowd? I would think it would be fun to tell/hint to those people “hey check out the new MAD I added you in a scene.”

A: Yes, I often add people I know into the parodies I do.

One of the first and most valuable lessons I learned from the folks at MAD, from Sam Viviano and Nick Meglin in particular, was that I needed to create cohesion in my “art world”. It was very obvious which people I had drawn were ‘real’, meaning caricatures of real people, and which were ‘cartoons’ meaning drawn out of my head and not from a real person as a reference. I needed to get these two extremes closer together. The solution was to base even my background people on real people, or at least use some reference to get away from the generic cartoon face that was appearing in my supporting cast of characters.

So, I started using real people as the basis for my background characters. Usually I just page through a number of head shot model books and take a hairstyle here, a nose there… etc. Every once and a while I will use my family, my neighbors, my friends or other acquaintances for characters. I only do ‘full caricatures’ if they are prominent or have speaking parts, other wise I just draw them in quickly loosely using some references. Here are a few of the more noticeable examples:

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Splash from “Trading Places” Parody in MAD #435 Featured:

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Neighbors Kim and Craig Gerkin

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Neighbors Julie and Don McNeil

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Parody of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” from MAD #443 featured:

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Friend and illustrator James Hungaski

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“Pimp My Ride” parody from MAD #456 featured:

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Caricaturist extraordinaire Joe Bluhm

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Parody of “Everybody Hates Chris” from MAD #463 featured:

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Caricaturist Elgin Bolling and neighbor Allen Glenn. Cosby is neither.

There are many, many more examples. Sometimes I surprise people but usually I tell them it’s coming. I used to sneak people I knew in but if they didn’t notice (which usually was the case) I’d be disappointed. Now I only do it when the mood seizes me, just for fun, and if anyone notices so much the merrier.

Thanks to Chip O’Brien for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

Death Knell for Blu-Ray?

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Remember the format war heating up between competing High Definition disk flavors HD-DVD and Blu-Ray? Back when I blogged about it things were just starting to get going, and as the crucial holiday season approaches the gloves are coming off. Blu-Ray had been enjoying the lead in disk sales at about 2 to 1 over HD-DVD, thanks in large part to the “PS3 effect” and stronger studio support with Fox, Sony, Disney and Lionsgate films being Blu-Ray exclusive versus only Universal being HD-DVD exclusive (other studios produce thier films in both formats). Blu-Ray supported have been crowing victory on AV tech forums and message boards for months.

Not so fast.

Never mind that it’s still way too early to call the fight, earlier this week a surprise announcement that Paramount and Dreamworks studios, who were previously neutral, were going to abandon Blu-Ray for exclusive HD-DVD distribution of their films. These will include “Transformers” and “Shrek the Third“, both expected to be humongous sellers this holiday season. This announcement rocked the AV world, sending Blu-Ray fanboys into the fetal position and HD-DVD fanboys smelling victory.

Not so fast.

The move, which included a reported $150 million incentive from HD-DVD supporters to the studios, is a major victory for HD-DVD and negates much of the advantage Blu-Ray had with having far more exclusive titles. Still, it’s far from a death blow. Thanks to the PS3, which is also a Blu-Ray movie player, Blu-Ray still has a 6 to 1 hardware install base advantage (there are 6 Blu-Ray players in homes for every one HD-DVD player), and exclusive deals with several studios including Disney, which is the key studio powerhouse in their corner. The PS3 is going to sell this holiday as well, increasing their installed base even more. Blu-Ray backers still scream about the higher disk capacity and bit-rate of their medium and studios are enamored of their higher security anti-piracy copyright protection. Blu-Ray isn’t going anywhere quite yet.

Blu-Ray backers cite HD-DVD’s technological inferiority in capacity and copyright protection as being backward thinking. They remind everyone the PS3 is a Blu Ray player, and it is already in millions of homes. It has the support of more studios. On paper Blu-Ray looks like the better technology and product. However that isn’t what drives the market or what decides the winner of format wars.

Still, things are looking up for HD-DVD. It might not have the technological specs that Blu-Ray has, but it has a lot of other things going for it and much of Blu-Ray’s advantages are nullified by circumstances. Blu-Ray has no competitive edge over HD-DVD in terms of picture quality, which is what people really care about. With the same encoding and compression, the pictures are equal. The other stuff is mainly for geeks to drool over, as a 3 hour movie fits completely on an HD-DVD disk and that is all the consumers care about. The PS3 has been a disappointment for studios who bought Sony’s sales pitch that it would sell like the PS2 did, and that would put a Blu-Ray movie player in 10 million homes practically overnight. Because of it’s enoromous price and lack of specific games, the PS3 hasn’t done nearly as well as expected in sales anyway, but a bigger issue is the small number of owners who actually use it as a Blu-Ray player. Consider this: even though thanks to the PS3 Blu-Ray enjoys a 6:1 advantage in players sold, their disks are only outselling HD-DVD’s by 2:1. Why? Obviously most of the PS3 owner’s out there use it for gaming and don’t buy or watch movies on it. Meanwhile every single HD-DVD player sold (including the XBOX 360 add-on drive) has only one purpose: to watch HD-DVD movies. Hence their buyers also buy movies. Blu-Ray also is not a ‘finished technology’, meaning players sold today do not have the final specs promised by the technology. They have no internet connectivity, do not support PIP, etc. HD-DVD had all features ready hardware-wise and has completed firmware specs even with their first players. Studios are starting to look cross-eyed at Sony, and that probably had as much to do with Paramount and Dreamworks decision as the money that changed hands did.

All that stuff is interesting, but it’s not technology that will decide the war, it’s economics. Geeks buy early but it’s Joe Six Packs that buy forever, and what matter to them is price and content. HD-DVD is the more mature product, and costs drop as products mature. HD-DVD players can be purchased today for as little as $240.00, whereas the cheapest Blu-Ray player is still well over $400.00. The electronics market is a 4th quarter market, and this holiday season will go a long way to deciding this war. When Joe Six Pack hits the Best Buy’s, Wal-Marts and Targets in November and HD-DVD players are priced at less than $200.00, they are going to fly off the shelves compared to BD players which will likely still be around $400.00. The hardware advantage BD enjoys thanks to the PS3 will shrink, and the attach rate (disk buying) of every stand alone HD-DVD player is gigantic compared to the PS3. I would not be surprised to see HD DVD take over software sales leads once all those HD DVD players are hooked up in January.

Some observers are lamenting that this Paramount/Dreamworks announcement might prolong the war and cause both formats to die. The cite the battle between Super Audio CD’s and DVD Audio, two competing “HD like” music formats that both lost and became small niche formats. That comparisons is ridiculous. This is not the SACD/DVD-A format war, which amounted to a fight for something the consumers didn’t care about and refused to buy regardless. Nobody but audiophiles cared about the superior sound because it meant all new equipment for what they perceived as a small or hard to notice improvement in the content. They were happy with CD quality, and the fact that the even lower quality of MP3′s have exploded in popularity shows that the consumer cares more about convenience and portability than ultra-sound quality. HD is a huge and noticeable improvement in picture quality, and the world has made a lifestyle out of sitting in front of the boob tube in their living rooms. HDTV is all the rage, and consumers are replacing their old TVs with HD units every day in growing numbers. Cable companies and satellite content providers are launching new satellites and racing to increase the HD content they provide.

One way or another, there will be an HD format for home video. Consumers want it and will buy it when it’s priced right. Maybe this war will last so long that it will be neither Blu Ray nor HD-DVD, but it will happen. Personally I’ve thought all along HD-DVD would win based on their mature product and more aggressive pricing. Studio support has been their achilles heel (that and a lack of aggressive marketing, since corrected), and the P/DW announcement helps there.

Now rumors swirl that Warner Brothers, right now a neutral studio, might go HD-DVD exclusive. IMO, If WB goes HD-DVD exclusive, there will be a lot of mainstream publicity over it. The public perception will be of rats deserting a sinking ship just as the holiday season is upon us. I think that will push people over the edge to HD-DVD this holiday season by a very large margin. All it would take after that is Disney going neutral… not exclusive but just neutral, before the Q4 2008, and Blu Ray might as well wave the white flag.

It’s not over yet, but HD-DVD is starting to deliver some solid body blows. I think another studio will either go from neutral to HD-DVD exclusive, or more likely one of the Blu-Ray studios will go neutral. If that happens Blu-Ray will find it hard to recover.

On the Drawing Board

Friday, August 24th, 2007

In the freelance world, it’s often feast or famine with regard to work… either you’ve not nothing or you are swamped. Currently I’m edging into the ‘swamped’ department:

MAD- Just got a three page job for issue #483. It’s not a movie or TV parody, but it does have a number of caricatures of TV actors involved. A fairly relaxed deadline. I’m working on the roughs right now. As always, I can’t share anything more about it until publication.

Workplace poster- My usual monthly job for this client. I love these assignments… they are always different and always a challenge. This month I need to illustrate a scene where a car full of shoppers are trying to find a parking space at a mall. They require diversity in age, race and gender and also no overt aggression in the scene.

Fade-In Magazine- Full page illustration and accompanying spots for this occasional client, a west coast entertainment industry magazine. I am finishing the final art today on this job. When they give me the okay to share it I will post some images.

Odds and Ends- Spent part of yesterday finalizing the art for a couple of political greeting cards. I’ll have to hold off here also on sharing the art until they are printed, but they are caricatures of Dick Cheney and G. W. Bush. I also had a few little things to get out of the way this week, including a web only illustration job and a rare personal commission. As a rule I refuse to do the latter except in special circumstances… too much to do.

As always, I apologize for being unable to post images of most of my in-progress jobs, but it’s always a touchy thing with clients. When it’s appropriate to do so, I will post sketches and some steps leading to the finals.

Harry Potter Sample

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

I drew at Valleyfair on Monday, which was a rainy, cold, crappy day. I didn’t do many live drawings and I forgot my camera anyway, so I have no live drawings to share this time around. I did manage to finally finish that park sample of the Harry Potter kids that I posted the rough for a while back:

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Simple, but that’s the idea. Again, the samples up on the walls need to be representational (mostly) of the work produced on site. I thought about having sparks shooting up out of Harry’s wand… but that might be too much for the family friendly theme park!

 

Sketch O’The Week

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

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After my post about this guy on Saturday, I couldn’t resist. “Tay Zonday” of “Chocolate Rain” YouTube iFame.

 

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