Saturday, January 18, 2003

Eminem, 8 Mile, and the North American Numbering Plan

This afternoon I saw the Eminem/Curtis Hanson film 8 Mile. It's quite an interesting film, although rather formulaic. (In a sense, it's a little like Curtis Hanson's previous film Wonder Boys, creative person is stuck in a somewhat nervous rut and needs to get out of it).

What really pays off in spades though is the decision to shoot the film in Detroit. The city is almost the star of the film. Detroit is famous for being the most extreme case of the once extremely prosperous centre of a city being abandoned as white middle class citizens moved out of the city itself and into surrounding suburbs that were not technically part of the city (and that had separate school districts). The centre then decayed and collapsed, and became a (largely black) ghetto. 8 Mile Road is the boundary between the city itself and the innermost of its suburbs, and the film is the story of Eminem's alter ago (named Rabbit in the film) starting to make it in the rap world that exists in the city. The film takes great advantage of the urban decay, and parking lots, nightclubs, and many of the other settings are in run-down buldings that were clearly extremely lush and ornate in their heyday. It was clearly once a very grandiose city, and this shows. The class difference between city and suburbs is omnipresent. An abandoned, ruined house is burned down. It is observed that it would still be a nice house if it was on the other side of 8 Mile Road. (A photo is found in it of the nice, respectable looking family who once lived there). The line is stark. At the end of the story, Rabbit wins a rapping duel with a black rapper (who has been taunting him for much of the film) and wins it with a rap full of taunts about how his opponent went to a private school and comes from the suburbs, and isn't really from "the 313" after all. Rabbit genuinely comes from the city, so he is authentic. Race really isn't the point: class is. You can really feel the city in the film. Movies are constantly giving us Los Angeles and New York, and maybe Chicago and San Francisco and Philadelphia once in a while, but rarely Detroit. Which is a shame. Eminem insisted the film be shot in his home town, and he was right.

The characters do comment on this. There is at one point a mention of "What's this East Coast / West coast business? When are we going to see some rappers from "the 313"? (As the film is a lightly fictionalised story of the rise of a rapper from Detroit, the film kind of answers this).

And what is this about "The 313"? Fairly obviously, it is a telephone area code, and that of central Detroit, but in a way this continues the metaphor. For complicated reasons, when area codes were first allocated in the US in 1947, the middle digit was always either a 1 or a 0. The outer digits could be anything from 2 to 9. The codes with the lowest digits were allocated first, and the largest cities got the numbers that could be dialed quickest on a rotary phone: this meant a 1 for the middle digit and the lowest possible numbers for the outer two digits. Thus, New York got 212, Lost Angeles got 213, Chicago got 312, and Detroit got 313. That's right: at the time area codes were allocated, Detroit was fourth most important city in America. So, as with all the gradiose architecture, the city has a grandiose area code as well. There is almost a certain irony between the run down city and the grandiose area code.

Secondly, in 1947 it was almost unimaginable that any city would need more than ten million phone numbers, and no city had more than one area code (full of seven digit numbers). As the years went by, that was no longer true. New businesses created a demand for huge numbers of phone numbers, and area codes were split in most big cities. Typically, the center of the city kept the old area code and the suburbs got the new ones. Thus 212, 213, 312 and even 313 shrank to only the centres of their cities. (Look at the insets of this map). Thus the phone code represents almost the same thing as 8 Mile road: the old central city, rather than the suburbs. (The 313 area code admittedly covers a fair bit of ground north of 8 Mile Road and technically in the suburbs, but stll, it is another way of saying "central Detroit" rather than the whole urban agglomeration).

Interestingly enough, the audience of the film (in Croydon in south London) was quite different to what I am used to. It was much more ethnically mixed than is usual at that cinema. Lots of black people live in the area, but I don't see them going to the movies that much. Sitting next to me was an enormous black guy with a baseball cap on backwards (who was extremely courteous when he wanted to get past me and who offered me some of his popcorn). There were also quite a few people of east Asian ethnicity in the audience for some reason. Once again, the fact that Eminem is white seems not to be the point: rap is big on the idea of authenticity, but that authenticity seems rooted somewhere else than explicitely in race. This is clearly one of those films where a a different audience from the usual one shows up: this happens once in a while. (You could also tell this from the fact that I was the only person out of quite a large audience who sat through the end credits: the more regular the movie-goers in a cinema the more likely they are to watch the credits, particularly for a film in which music is very prominent, as information about the music in a film comes very close to the end of the credits).

Anyway, quite a good film, and worth seeing.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata notes that since I put the photo at the top of this page he has been coming to my page, noticing that the photo is still at the top of the page, and has therefore assumed that I had not updated the blog since it hasn't moved. He has therefore gone away without realising that the text below it has changed. I wonder whether anyone else has made this mistake? I suppose it proves what the designers of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot paper now know, which is that good human interface design is hard, and that attempts to improve the design can have odd side effects. (Another thing to remember is that HTML may look very different on different people's screens. This is unlikely to be a problem on large screens, where the photo and a good amount of the text will visible, whereas on 800x600 or below, the photo is all that will be seen). In any event, I have put a whole month's posts onto the front page for now, so that anybody who has missed anything and wants to look at it can do so without fiddling with the archive. And I think I may move the photograph off to the side rather than keep it at the top.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

This article in the Telegraph excessively claims that the banana might be extinct in ten years. Apparently

The doomed banana's Achilles heel is that it is a genetically decrepit sterile mutant. One of the oldest crops, the first edible variety was propagated around 10,000 years ago from a rare mutant of the wild banana, which, with a mass of hard seeds, is virtually inedible.

But because all edible bananas are sterile - effectively clones of that first plant - they are unable to evolve to fight off new diseases.

Black sigatoka, a fungal disease that cuts yields by up to three quarters and reduces the productive lives of banana plants from 30 to only two or three years, has become a global epidemic.

So banana lovers are all doomed. Actually not. Firstly, bananas can evolve a little through mutation. If farmers are very careful to watch for their most resistant plants and then clone those, you can possibly get a resistant strain. Secondly, there is genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering may be the only answer, New Scientist reports today.

Last year, scientists led by Mr Frison announced plans to sequence the genetic blueprint of the banana within five years, focusing on inedible wild bananas, many of which are resistant to black sigatoka.

But large producers have refused to back the research because of costs and fears that consumers will not accept a GM banana.

Half a billion people in Africa and Asia depend on the banana for up to half their daily calories. The starchy varieties rather than the sweet fruit is used in everything from cooking to banana gin.

Actually, it will be relatively simple for researchers to figure out which genes in the wild bananas give resistance and transfer them to edible bananas. Then, bingo. Banana yields back to where we started, or higher.

Actually this could be interesting. Imagine the scene in 2012. Normal bananas are extinct. Those of us who have been following the ongoing EU banana war for the last couple of decades know that the Germans have an almost legendary apetite for bananas. It may be that they will be faced with a choice: accept genetically modified bananas, or move to some other fruit. My money is on the genetically modified bananas. As for the wildly exaggerated half a billion people in Asia or Africa, I suspect they also will choose the genetically modified bananas over the other terrible fates the Telegraph implies they are in for.

Update:This article from New Scientist (via slashdot ) might have been the Telegraph journalist's starting point. I don't know if straight bananas are boring, but I am sure they will go down a treat in the land of the rising sun and square watermelon.
Lawrence Lessig is taking it hard.

It is the middle of the night. Sleep is awol, scared off by this question that won’t stop pestering me: Is there a principle here? Is there a way to read these opinions as consistent with a principle?

[good stuff deleted. Go read it ]

One friend offered a reason in an email of condolence. Those 5 (judges), he said, save their activism for issues they think important. They apply their principle to causes they think important. Protecting states is a cause they think important. Protecting the public domain is not.

By what right? By what g.d. right? These five justices have all the right in the world to have their own principled way of interpreting the constitution. Long before this case, I had written many many pages trying to explain the principle I thought inherent in the decisions of these five justices. I have spent many hours insisting on the same to ever-skeptical students. But by what right do these 5 get to pick and choose the parts of the constitution to which their principles will apply?

This sounds so amazingly naive, I know. But I have spent my career staring down the charge of naive, insisting on something more. Think the poster on the X-Files — “I want to believe” — but with the Supreme Court, not UFOs, in the background. Yet here I am, more than a decade into my job, just where most of my professors insisted I should have been more than a decade ago.

Harvard Professor Roberto Unger ends one of his first books by describing us, the professors, as “priests who have lost their faith but kept their jobs.” I remember loathing those “priests” as a student. They have the right to lose their faith, I thought; they have no right to keep their job.

Next week, Tuesday, I am to teach the first class of the semester in constitutional law. Who as I am not yet sure.

The precise problem with that attitude on the part of the judges (which I agree is likely what happened) is that they are not always right as to what is important, and the relative importance of things change over time. This is the entire reason why we have this mess in the first place: for 200 years people have said "this is not important" and have let one industry write its own laws, and when technology changes things so that copyright law is more important, then we have 200 years of bad law that nobody has questioned to overcome, and ingrained attitudes in government, business and the law that are based on that legacy.

Of course, as intellectual property law becomes relevant to more and more things, there will eventually become a time when the supreme court judges will consider it "important". (I honestly thought that the act that they took the case in the first place was an indication that this had happened). Of course, a lot more damage can be done in the mean time. However, I honestly believe that in the long run the tide will turn. In terms of awareness of the problem, the distance we have come in the last 10 years is really remarkable.

You have to keep fighting. Without idealists who fight, the bad guys win without a fight, and that is far worse.

Update: Dave Winer has some thoughts on this, too. Like Dave, I am just delighted we have someone of Lessig's calibre on our side.
Environmentalism, and British teaching of Geography . (Link via John Ray ).

Eighty-four per cent of teachers agreed that there was a greater emphasis on values and attitudes today, and 68 per cent said fewer facts were taught today than under previous curricula.

Eighty-six per cent said it was now more important to teach about environmental issues while 80 per cent agreed that "geography should teach pupils to respect and reconnect with nature". Many teachers went further. Two thirds thought that teaching about "sustainable lifestyles" and the pupils' roles as "global citizens" was more important than teaching basic skills such as reading maps.

"Selective presentation" of issues is also evident in geography textbooks, the study says. A new A-level textbook, Global Challenge, published by Longman, presents pupils with a series of challenges on "cutting consumption" and "lowering fertility rates".

This bias "leaves pupils with the impression that humans can only cause harm to the environment", Mr Standish concluded.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that students in geography classes should be taught about geography. Teaching them where, and indeed what, Estonia is perhaps. (Link via a different one of John's array of sites). Oddly, if we want our children to grow up to be good world citizens, there are few better things to give them than good geography lessons. Give people maps to look at and study, and the names of countries and their capitals and other cities to memorise, and explain why cities have grown where they are, and what languages are spoken, and how all these facts interrelate with each other, and children will slowly get a sense that the world and human culture is bigger and more complex and more extraordinary than can be understood from a few years of life in one town or country. Look at a few maps, and start asking questions, and suddenly the whole world jumps out at you. In short, a very traditional way of studying geography is a very good aid for people in figuring out their own values and attitudes.

(I do like the name of the "Campaign for Real Education". The name may well be based on that of the "Campaign for Real Ale". I think I am a serious supporter of both campaigns, and think their supporters should meet regularly, and preferably together).

Seriously, however, the constant use of the word "sustainable" is a huge problem. Nothing is being sustained. Our lifestyle is not static. Technology is changing the world dramatically. It is also changing patterns of human existence dramatically and changing patterns of the usage of physical resources dramatically. Our present lifestyle only has to be sustained for however long it lasts before something better comes along. When physical resources become more expensive (normally for reasons that have little to do with their "running out") we are gaining a greater and greater ability to substitute other resources for them. It is certainly true that modern civilization has created environmental problems, but the key enviromental issue is addressed in this one quesiton. Is our technology's ability to solve environmental problems advancing faster than are the environmental problems themselves?

And if you can at least acknowledge that this is the key question, another fact becomes clear, which is that it isn't physical resources that are important: human capital is the key to everything. The larger the civilization and the larger the number of people in the world doing productive things, then the greater is the chance of solving all our problems. A larger population is an advantage and not a disadvantage. (Of course, this does require that bulk of the population can achieve a decent lifestyle and get a reasonable education, but the percentage of the world's population for which this is so has increased significantly in recent decades).

This is at heart a very positive view of the world. And the facts do generally support it. So why, then, is the view so popular that we should aim for some static, "sustainable" world in which we should reduce our population, ration resources, and do the civilizational equivalent of go and hide under a rock somewhere. This view is "conventional wisdom" in many circles, like, for instance, those people who put together high school geography curricula. I really don't really get it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

I concur with Halley Suitt . That is a fabulous picture of Professor Lessig.
Perhaps this has something to do with why Americans haven't taken to SMS messaging. My goodness.

My initial tendency would be to blame this on the mish mash of different technical standards in use in the US. One might expect SMS interoperability between networks to be the problem, whereas in Europe (where everyone uses GSM) things might be easier. (However, SMS interoperability should require only a small amount of competently written code, I would have thought). However, what is really curious is that delivery rates for same network messages seem to be just as bad as to other networks, and that T-Mobile, which uses GSM and should be able to gain some sort of advantage from the experience of Europe, appears to be doing worse than almost any other operator.

Perhaps this is just general shodiness. That said, I would like to see the equivalent delivery rates for European networks when they were delivering similar numbers of messages.
Eldred vs Ashcroft ruling in.
The US Supreme court has declared the Mickey Mouse Protection Act constitutional. Fuck.
Does the way in which he made the reference indicate that Andrew Sullivan doesn't know who Orson Scott Card is? Glenn Reynolds certainly does. And they are both right that Card's article on North Korea and China is well worth reading. Card has actually been writing interesting stuff on the war on a weekly basis since pretty much right after September 11, 2001.

It's kind of funny. As the blogosphere has grown, there has been lots of interaction between the those who came into it from the techie side (in blog terms led by Dave Winer and perhaps connected a little to the slashdot crowd) and those who came into it from the journalism and lawyerly side (let by Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and Josh Marshall, perhaps). The two crowds seem to largely get on okay, but once in a while its clear that the reference points of the two sides are different. There are very few people on the techie side who haven't read Ender's Game .

Interestingly enough, this division seems much less apparent the younger are the people you are looking at. Smart younger people are techies almost by definition, and this is reflected in what they watch and read as well. It's an interesting development. There are older people who understand both sides (Glenn Reynolds and Virginia Postrel perhaps), but they are much more common in the echo-boomers born in 1980 or so. If you are over 30 and like this then you are not like other people. If you are under 25, you are like plenty of other people.

Update: I suspect another division between the two groups is that the people who come from the tech direction are today cursing and swearing about the Eldred v Ashcroft decision, whereas most of those who come from the journalism and law side are not.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Well, Reliance Industries of India today launches its CDMA2000 1x telephone service throughout India. This is licenced to be a wireless local loop (WLL) service, to compete with fixed line telephones, and it is priced on that basis. (It will be cheaper than any other phone system in India, whether wired or wireless). However, to offer this Reliance have built a mobile network based on a 3G technology, and one of the most sophisticated networks in the world. There are one or two regulatory issues about how it can be used, but the basic issue is that India now has world class wireless infrastructure, and it isn't priced at a premium over existing services. (It also doesn't have a business model based on pie in the sky applications but instead one based on providing service to a country with inadequate existing infrastructure but a growing middle class). My guess is that takeup rates on this network will be phenomenal.
Some Thoughts on Animated Movies of the Last 15 Years

Here we have an article in the Los Angeles Times about recent animated movies, in the context of which will be nominated for and which will win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature of 2002. This is only the second year in which this particular award has been made, which is in some ways quite surprising, given the large number of memorable animated films that have been released over the last 15 years. No Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. No Oscar for The Lion King . No Oscar for A Bug's Life . No Oscar for Chicken Run . And going back, no Oscar for Fantasia or Snow White , either.

One reason for this can be determined simply by looking at what all those films above have in common. With the exception of the very recent Chicken Run , all of them were released by Disney. Until recently, there has been little competition in animated movies. Disney might have put out a fine movie, but coming up with a list of nominees was impossible. Withough any competition there wasn't any award. There is now competition. This year there are 17 films eligible for the Best Animated Film Oscar. (The academy has established a rule that there must be at least 8 eligible films for the Oscar to be awarded).

This is part of the story, but it isn't the whole story. To give the full details of this, it is worth going back to the early 1980s, when animation was considered to be essentially dead as a movie genre. The Disney studio was at the lowest point in its history, having fallen way behind any of the other studios on live action. The animation division still existed, but hadn't really had a proper hit since the 1960s. In 1984, Michael Eisner took over as CEO of Disney. He fairly quickly revitalised the live action division (interestingly enough, by taking the Disney name off many of Disney's films, and replacing it with "Touchstone Pictures", or "Hollywood Pictures", ssince he thought audiences were likely to associate Disney with childrens' movies). Animation though was more troubling. At that time, the animation division had been working on an intricate, darker, and more expensive animated film called The Black Cauldron , a Dungeons and Dragons type adventure. This film was not quite sure what its audience was (it was apparently aimed at teen rather than child audiences, and it was and may still be the only Disney animated film not to get a "G" rating), flopped at the box office, and at this point Eisner seriously considered shutting down Disney's animation division.

However, this didn't happen. Jeffrey Katzenberg was put in charge of animated films, and a decision was made to concentrate on light animated musicals, but animated to an extremely high standard. The invention of computers lowered the cost of traditional hand-drawn animation somewhat, as such things as storyboarding no longer had to be done by hand). The songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken was hired to write the music. The first product of this teaming was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This was the best received animated film in decades, and was a substantial but not giant hit. However, it was the film that made it clear that the rules had changed. The reason for this was that home video had reached a saturation point. Children are different from adults in that they like to watch the same film over and over again. Therefore, while the VHS rental business was a big deal for most films, childrens films tended to be purchased rather than rented. This meant that the revenue that could be raised from a successful animated children's film was truly immense. It also meant that Disney's back catalogue was suddenly immensely valuable. Whereas Disney had traditionally rereleased its classic animated films in the cinema every ten to fifteen years (so each generation of children would hopefully get to see them) it suddenly discovered that much more money could be made by releasing them on sell-through VHS. In order to aid this type of promotion, Disney put together a list of its "Classic animated films", which was somewhat selectively put together to excluse films that might now be embarassing due to racial insensitivity ( Song of the South (1946), most notably) or due to being badly dated (Victory Through Air Power(1943), anyone?).

The Little Mermaid was followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin(1992) when they followed. Beauty and the Beast was instantly recognised as a classic, and is still the only animated film ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Pircture, and Aladdin, while less of a classic, was extremely good fun, with voice improvisation from Robin Williams. Aladdin was the first time an animated film had grossed more than $200m in the US, and with the video sales, the profit level was astonishing. (At this point, Disney started boosting its profits still further by making cheaply made direct to video sequels to its animated features, with lower production values than the cinema releases, but which sold in huge numbers to the parents of children who had liked the original). In 1994, Disney released The Lion King which grossed more than $300m in the US and was at the time the 3rd highest grossing film (of any kind) to have been released. Given that at this time animated films typically cost significantly less to make than live action, and the children and VHS effect, and the direct to video sequel, it is possible that The Lion King was at that time the most profitable movie of all time. Disney's profits at this point also received a huge boost from being able to release their library of 60 years worth of animated movies. After four hits in quick succession, Disney's reputation for animation was at its highest point in a number of decades, and the anticipation level for its subsequent films was at an all time high. The feeling at Disney was that they could release a blockbuster film like Aladdin or The Lion King every year. Production was ramped up so that in future they could achieve this level of output.

Whereas other studios had previously been willing to largely leave the animation business to Disney, with this level of profitability it was inevitable that other studios would attempt to compete. In the end, three aditional studios set up new drawn animation departments. These were Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, and Dreamworks. The story behind Dreamworks is one of infighting at Disney. In 1994, Frank Wells, the number 2 executive at Disney, died in a plane crash. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who considered himself responsible for the renewed success of the animation division, was overlooked for the position. Katzenberg left Disney in a huff, and joined with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, to found the new company Dreamworks SKG. Since Katzenberg considered himself responsible for the success of Aladdin and The Lion King Dreamworks financial prospectus contained extremely optimistic projections as to the likely success of the company's animated films.

The trouble with this new level of competition is that there wasn't really enough talent to go round. A bidding war ensued for the services of talented animators. One consequence of this is that the cost of making animated films increased dramatically. Disney spent around $20m producing The Little Mermaid in 1989. The first drawn animation film from Dreamworks, The Prince of Egypt (1998) was rumoured to cost as much as $100m.

Dreamworks also signed a deal distribute feature films made by Aardman Animation, a company from Bristol in England. Working for Aardman was (and is) an animator named Nick Park, a specialist in the venerable medium of clay animation, famous in England and many other places for his Wallace and Grommit animated shorts. Park's first feature film Chicken Run was released to considerable success in 2000, and Park and Aardman look likely to produce considerable more good work for Dreamworks. It is unlikely that this indicates any general trend in clay animation, however. It just happens that Nick Park is a genius. Other people will have difficulty following, because they are not geniuses.

In any event, nobody was able to ever produce the sort of hit that Disney had had with The Lion King or Aladdin ever again, at least not for a conventional drawn animation movie. (It was ultimately achieved with computer animation, which we will get to in a moment). Disney released a succession of movies that were mostly profitable, but were disappointing. Lyricist Howard Ashman died of AIDS in 1991: the last film he worked on was Aladdin, and his absence did show subsequently. Many subsequent Disney animated looked rushed, and the animation seemed a little lacking in quality. Disney had hits: Tarzan (1999) for instance, but the anticipation one felt for a new Disney animated film in the 1990s is almost completely gone. Three of the last four Disney animated films: The Emperor's New Groove(2000), Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001) and (particularly) Treasure Planet (2002) are likely to count as outright disappointments. (Interestingly, two of the best Disney animated films of recent years, Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002) were the work of a separate animation unit that Disney set up in Florida. This separate unit was set up largely so that visitors to Disney's theme parks in Florida could see animators at work, rather than for artistic reasons. Oddly, the animation unit in question has turned out to be excellent).

20th Century Fox released a version of Anastasia in the standard Disney musical style (but without the visual sophistication of the best Disney animation) in 1997, which was only moderately successful. They followed up with the animated space adventure Titan A.E. in 2000, which was supposedly aimed at a teenage male audience, but this was a disaster, Bill Mechanic, the head of 20th Century Fox, was sacked over the film, and 20th Century Fox's drawn animation operation was closed.

Warner Bros. released The Quest for Camelot in 1998, which was notably unsuccessful in both critical and commercial terms, and The Iron Giant in 1999. Adapted from a children's book by Ted Hughes, this latter film is one of the great masterpieces of animated cinema and was a critical triumph, but Warners ability to promote is was so poor that very few people saw it. Animation fans weep to this day over the film's fate. After this, Warners animation efforts faded away somewhat.

And then there is Dreamworks. Dreamworks produced an animated biblical epic The Prince of Egypt in 1998, which was quite well received and which made money, but which was not the blockbuster Jeffrey Katzenberg had hoped. This was followed up by The Road to El Dorado in 2000, which was a clear misfire, and Stallion: Spirit of Cimarron in 2002, which probably broke even. Drawn animation at Dreamworks had clearly not lived up to Jeffrey Katzenberg's hopes, but Dreamworks was still doing interesting, ambitious work in the genre in 2002.

This is the story for drawn animation, the impression is that in recent years there have been a lot of films made, but that quality has been variable. A monopoly has broken down, and perhaps as a consequence of this, the hits haven't been coming the way they did before. There is still good work, but somehow the magic is gone. It may come back, it may not. Maybe though, drawn animation is on the way out. Because, after all, we now also have computer animation.

In the early 1990s, Disney signed a deal with a company named Pixar. Pixar belonged to Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple computer, and had been producing interesting animated short films. These films had been generated entirely using computer graphics and were quite impressive. Disney thought that this new technology might have some future, and so did the deal: Pixar would produce three animated feature films and Disney would distribute them. It was a very one sided deal: Pixar made the film, and Disney funded and then released the film, and then took all the profits, basically. Pixar needed Disney much more than the reverse, and the deal reflected this. In any event, Pixar got to work, and its first feature film, Toy Story was ready to be released in late 1995. Nobody had high expectations for the film. Disney was much more interested in drawn animation. Disney did not promote it hard. Toy stores were not full of associated merchandise, even though the film lent itself perfectly to merchandising. The film was considered an experiment only. And of course it was an enormous hit. Everyone in Hollywood looked around, and pretty much acknowledged that this was the future. The academy, very smartly, awarded a Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter of Pixar for the film.

Copying was a difficult thing for other studios to do, however, as Pixar had the technology exclusively and making a film with the technique was a lot of effort even for them. However, 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Disney itself, and probably other organisations, decided that they had to follow and decided to set up their own computer animation companies or divisions. Pixar renegotiated their deal with Disney so that revenues were shared equally between the two companies, but in return the deal was lengthened by three further movies. (The deal does not include sequels, and so Toy Story 2 was produced under a separate deal. All up, Pixar will have produced seven films for Disney by the time the deal is up, probably in late 2005).

No further computer animated films were seen until 1998, when Disney and Pixar released A Bug's Life and Dreamworks subsidiary PDI released Antz , two films that, somewhat curiously, had almost identical plots. A Bug's Life was more of a children's film, and featured some of the most beautiful animation ever seen. (The DVD of the film is still a favourite of people who want to demonstrate the high quality pictures that can be achieved with DVD players and fancy modern screens). Antz was technically much cruder, but had a rather witty screenplay and a pleasantly self-deprecating voiceover from Woody Allen. Both films were successful: Antz was a moderate hit, and A Bug's Life was another major hit for Pixar. Subsequently, Pixar have followed up with Toy Story 2(1999) and Monsters Inc. (2001). All four of Pixar's films have been critical favourites, and have been absolutely state of the art in terms of animation. Disney have never been able to repeat their success of Aladdin and The Lion King in drawn animation. Pixar have managed to achieve similar success in computer animation. Disney's deal with Pixar will likely expire at the end of 2005. Disney clearly wants to renew it, but at this point Pixar doesn't seem very keen. With the decline of Disney's traditional animation, Pixar has been Disney's main source of animated hits in recent years, and now, interestingly enough, Disney needs Pixar much more than the reverse. If Pixar does renew its deal, the deal will be one sided in the opposite way to the original deal: Pixar will be receiving virtually all the money, and Disney will be largely just receiving a distribution fee. (There are various rumours of some extraordinary project that Pixar is preparing for 2006 or 2007 to celebrate their freedom from Disney).

As for other studios, Disney has developed its own internal computer animation department, from which we have presently seen one movie, Dinosaur (2000). That film was moderately successful, and we will no doubt see more from them. 20th Century Fox released its first computer animated film Ice Age in 2002. This was a very substantial success and was very encouraging for them, but in animation terms it was much cruder than what Pixar and Dreamworks/PDI have been able to produce.

Dreamworks/PDI did of course produce Shrek in 2001. This film was an absolute blockbuster: the first major animated hit to be distributed by a studio other than Disney. Shrek grossed more than $250m in the US, and it was the sort of hit that Jeffrey Katzenberg assured investors he could produce when Dreamworks was founded in the first place. The film contained various sly references to Disney animated films and Hollywood in jokes made at the expense of Michael Eisner. It was more satirical than we had seen in animated film before, but not in my mind in a very sophisticated way. Its animation was of high quality, and Dreamworks/PDI are clearly the number 2 in terms of the quality of their computer animation, but they are still not Pixar.

Which was where we were with the first Oscar to be awarded for Best Animated Feature a year ago. The Academy had finally decided that the volume of animated features being released was sufficient to justify a separate award. (There has long been an Oscar for animated short film, which led to the peculiar situation where most major animated filmmakers have won oscars, but for their student films, their demonstration films in which they test new technology, and for their fun weekend projects rather than their major work). There had also been a feeling that an Oscar for animated feature would mean that animated films would never be considered for best picture. However, as animated films never seemed to be considered for best picture anyway (that one nomination for Beauty and the Beast notwithstanding) the animation crowd decided that an animated feature Oscar would at least reward their work.

There had been two major animated hits in 2002: Monsters Inc from Disney/Pixar and Shrek from Dreamworks/PDI. One was a simple, beautifully told children's story, the other was that, but also a Hollywood satire. Both were well animated, but to be frank, Monsters Inc was simply beautiful, and Shrek was not quite at that level. My feeling is that Monsters Inc will look like a classic in ten years whereas Shrek's jokes will fall a little flat. But both are good films. The Oscar went to Shrek somewhat to my disappointment. I was also a little sad that the first Animated Feature Oscar did not go to Pixar. The company has led the field to such an extent, and has produced so much good work over the last decade that has not been rewarded with Oscars, that I thought it a little sad that the first award went to the upstarts. Still, that was the way it went.

This year, as the LA Times article suggests, there is nothing quite as good as either of the two films that fought it out last year. There has certainly been good work, and the Oscar certainly should be awarded, but there are no potentially classic films in the list. Last year, the Oscar went to Shrek . The year before it could have gone to Nick Park's Chicken Run . The year before that to Toy Story 2 . The year before that to A Bug's Life ). Although there are more animated films this year than ever before, the best of them is weaker than for some years. Which is rough on the films of those years, given that there was no Oscar for them.

Of course, there actually is a classic film on the list, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. (I have refrained from discussing Japanese animation in this post because it is long enough already, and I am not an expert. All I can say is that at its best, Japanese animation is magnificent, particularly that of Miyazaki). I think it is unlikely, though, that the academy will award the Oscar to a Japanese film in only its second year. I hope I am wrong, but I doubt it.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Over the weekend I read Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956). This book has been long regarded as one of the classics of science fiction, but for some reason I had never read it. All I can say is that the book really does deserve its reputation. (Plus the battle between getting to the end of the book and falling asleep, which was so common when I was fifteen, is not something that happens to me much any more. It did with this one, however). I'm not going to review it here, but it really doesn't feel like 1950s science fiction. It feels like it was written in about 1990. Its influence on many things that came later (from the New Wave to Cyberpunk) is so obvious and so large that it is really a shame I didn't read it 20 years ago.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

I see that the new Harry Potter book is likely to be published in July 2003. (Link via Instapundit ). This is good, as I am looking forward to reading it. However, in terms of timing for Warner Bros and the next movie, the date is about as bad as can be. Warners released the first Harry Potter movie at the end of 2001, which was just about the peak of Harry Potter mania. They had the idea that they could release one movie every holiday season for seven years and make squillions of dollars each time.

And the first Harry Potter movie did make squillions of dollars (okay, $900 million at the worldwide box office, probably plus a similar amount again on VHS, DVD and various other media, so in fact billions of dollars). The movie was competently made, faithful to the book, and fairly lifeless, and in box office terms its performance was somewhat "front loaded", meaning it did most of its business in the first couple of weeks, and word of mouth and repeat business were not all that great. Clearly, the magic is in the books, and not the films. The films are not central to the franchise, and are just about coming along for the ride, despite what Warners would like you (or at least its long suffering shareholders) to think.

Warners then got the second movie made, and we saw it a couple of months ago. It was once again competently made but not all that exciting, and while it made plenty of money, its grosses were down about 20% on the first film. Warners had hoped that J.K. Rowling would have the fifth Harry Potter book out by then, and that the publicity from the release of another book would help promote the movie. Sadly, though, that didn't happened. On top of that, the cast and crew of the films found the pace a bit gruelling, and so Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire), the director of the first two movies, quit, and it was announced that a new director, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess), would take over for the third movie. The release date of the third movie was delayed for six months to May 2004 in order that everyone could get some rest. This did solve a certain problem that Warners had with their release schedule, as they will be releasing The Matrix Reloaded this summer and Matrix Revolutions this November, and it would have been a bit awkward to find a date for the third Harry Potter movie that didn't get in the way of the Matrix film and also The Return of the King . (While this is not technically a Warner Bros movie, it was produced by New Line Cinema, which also belongs to AOL TIme Warner, and Warners have to show their corporate partners some courtesy by staying away from their release dates).

However, the new book is now out in July. We should therefore expect lots of Harry Potter hype for the second half of the year, and from this point of view it would be good for Warners to have a new Harry Potter film out at the end of the year. And there isn't going to be one. Yes, the paperback release of the fifth book will probably coincide with the release of the third movie, but I suspect most children will have nagged their parents to get them the hardback by then in order that they avoid social death. The presence of the new book will no doubt boost the film, but not as much as it would if the timing was better.

Plus of course there remains the issue of whether the third film (and the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh films) can be any good. The strategy that has been adopted so far, which is slavishly film every scene and event in the books, is a low risk strategy, but it will not work for much longer. This technique leads to long, slow paced, not very exciting films, which are at least of decent quality. It minimises the chance of making a terrible film, but also makes it unlikely that we will see a very good film. The effort put into making the films has been technical. There has been very little intellectual effort put into seeing, say, which parts are the story are more important.

This can go on for one more film. The third book is longer than the first two, but is relatively short. However, the fourth book is twice as long. By all reports, the fifth book will be even longer. The books are getting longer, denser, and more morally complex. Structurally this makes perfect sense, as life gets denser and more morally complex as you go through your teenage years. When the filmmakers get to the fourth book, they will either find themselves making films that are five hours long, or the writers doing the adaptation start doing some actual adapting.

This will probably be good, as the audience will be getting tired of dull adaptations by then. If grosses continue to drop by 20% per film, then the fourth film is about the time Warners will start to be getting unhappy with them, too. Thus the middle to end of 2005 is probably when we discover whether the Harry Potter movies are going to successfully sail their way through the whole series of seven books or whether they are going to turn into the debacle that most Warner Bros franchises seem to. Batman and Robin anyone? The Batman movies reached a situation where the movies themselves became overwhelmed by all the marketing and all the studio interference after three or four movies. This may or may not happen here. The positives here are that (a) J.K. Rowling does have considerable creative control over the movies and (b) Alfonso Cuaron is a good direction, whereas Chis Columbus is a hack. The Batman movies went the other way. The first two movies were directed by a good director ( Tim Burton), and then the next two were directed by a hack ( Joel Schumacher). So, we can hope.

Still, I am not sure I have ever seen a series of seven movies without at least one bad one.

Update: J.K. Rowling has turned in the book, and the publication date is June 21. The book is apparently 255000 works: about a third longer than the last book.

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