40 years of Sesame Street: the good, the bad and the cuddly

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It spawned ‘edutainment’

Before the Sesame Street gang came on the scene, TV for kids was an educational wasteland.

“[The show] was a total breakthrough,” says Daniel Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has worked as a consultant for the show. “It was the first program that really did extensive curriculum development based on the best education and child development expertise at the time.”

It also proved that TV can be a powerful medium for learning, he says. Studies show kids who watch Sesame Street , which gives lessons in digestible pieces that build on one another, do better in school. And while Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made a clear cut to the Land of Make Believe, Sesame Street created a refreshing fusion of imagination and real life, a quality that encourages kids to learn, says Elizabeth Morley, principal at the Institute of Child Study Laboratory School at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “This wasn’t adults talking to children, these were characters they could engage with,” she says. “A cookie monster! What child can’t relate to that?”

It helped kids with the social world

When Big Bird cried over a breakup with a friend, kids shed a tear along with him. And when mom and pop Snuffalupagus divorced, children from broken homes could relate to their daughter Snuffie. Sesame Street has been quick to turn social travails of the day into lessons for its tiny viewers, Prof. Anderson says.

When the actor who played grandfatherly grocer Mr. Hooper died in the 1980s, Sesame Street writers included it in the show as a lesson about death. “They could have had him move away or they could have just ignored the fact that he was missing,” Prof. Anderson says. The show addressed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the recent financial crisis and even the obesity epidemic.

While teaching the ABCs and 123s are the key to the show’s success, lessons in emotional intelligence have been invaluable, Ms. Morley adds. “In any of the characters we could find the normal childhood range of emotions,” she says. “If we went back through the 40 years we would find almost any social issue was addressed.”

It helped fuel marketing to kids

While the not-for-profit television show was designed to sell kids knowledge, not stuff, the success of Sesame Street and its licensed characters made the kiddie market more accessible to advertisers, says Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle-based pediatrician and author of The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids . “The interest was always there, but they provided the vehicle,” he says. “They created characters that got kids’ attention. That had instant recognition and that provided the hook that advertisers would need.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, companies started launching shows such as He-Man and G.I. Joe to sell their products, says Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona who studies children and media. “They’d said ‘You shouldn’t be criticizing us, because we’re just like Sesame Street . They promote their characters and we’re just doing the same thing.’”

While Sesame Street advertises its huge cupboard of toys and products (Tickle Me Elmo, anyone?), there’s a measured effort to only market them to adults, Dr. Kunkel says. “One place you’ll see them advertised … is in the late-night talk show [time slots].”

It sparked controversy

Could Sesame Street ‘s ABCs spell ADHD? The show was one of the first to experiment with educational segments in bite-sized pieces – a move made based on research that showed kids are very attentive to TV ads, says Shalom Fisch, a New Jersey-based children’s educational media consultant who worked at Sesame Street for 15 years and co-edited G Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street . Educators and parents voiced concerned that the fast-paced, quick-change approach was eating away at attention spans, but that’s never borne out in research, Mr. Fisch says.

Sesame Street has slowed down its pacing dramatically,” says Dr. Christakis, who has researched the impact of television on children’s attention spans. “It wasn’t a light switch, but if you look at pacing today versus 20 years ago, you’ll notice there’s a dramatic difference.”

Controversy also touched Sesame Street in 2006 with the launch of Sesame Beginnings, a series of episodes for kids under 2. The American Pediatric Society advises against television for tots and infants and the Canadian Paediatric Society is expected to follow suit.

It appeals to parents

That Billy Idol nod in “Rebel L” wasn’t meant for the kids. Sesame Street has intentionally won parents over with pop culture references and hip adult guests (think Monsterpiece Theatre and Leslie Feist’s 1234 sing-a-long). “ Sesame Street knows from its research that the child viewer learns more when they watch with a parent or adult guardian,” Dr. Kunkel says.

While Sesame Street set the bar for other educational shows, even high-quality ones such as Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer , don’t have that same parent-luring content, Dr. Kunkel adds. But Sesame ‘s educational merits have led some parents to rely too heavily on Bert and Ernie as babysitters, says Matthew Johnson, media education specialist with the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian non-profit organization.

Linda Cameron, an associate professor of early childhood education at OISE, says she was initially wary of the show when her kids were young. “I was hesitant because of the pacing, of the overstimulation, of what that might do to kids’ brains,” she says. “But I fell in love. I fell in love with Ernie and Bert and Big Bird, they became my friends.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/family-and-relationships/40-years-of-sesame-street-the-good-the-bad-and-the-cuddly/article1355803/

Relax, the end isn’t nigh

Nasa condemns fear-mongering website used to market new film

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The sci-fi film 2012 stars John Cusack

For the past 30 years, business leaders, former government officials and scientists have been secretly working on a plan to save humanity from destruction when the Earth collides with another planet on 21 December 2012.

They have set up a covert Institute for Human Continuity which has now agreed to go public and warn the world that there is a 94 per cent probability of “cataclysmic forces” destroying our planet in three years’ time.

Its website offers survival kits and encourages people to sign up for a lottery to decide who will be among the lucky few chosen to be saved.

You are probably thinking that this is an elaborate hoax – you would be right. But hundreds of people have apparently been taken in by the nonsense put out by Sony Pictures as part of a “viral marketing” campaign for its film 2012, set for release next month.

Nasa is taking the issue so seriously that an astronomer at the agency has spoken out to condemn the use of the hoax website, which claims the world is going to end in 2012.

David Morrison said he had received more than 1,000 enquiries from members of the public who were concerned that Nasa scientists were involved in a conspiracy to deny that they were tracking the movements of Nibiru, a hitherto undiscovered planet on a collision course with Earth.

Dr Morrison, a distinguished scientist at Nasa’s Astrobiology Institute, said that the marketing behind the film, distributed by Columbia Pictures, was making some people so scared that he feared they could harm themselves.

“They’ve created a completely fake scientific website. It looks very slick. It talks about this organisation having existed for 30 years and it consists of international scientists and business people and government officials having concluded that there is a 94 per cent chance of the Earth being destroyed in 2012 – and it’s all made up, it’s pure fiction. But obviously some people are treating it seriously,” Dr Morrison told The Independent.

“I’ve even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don’t want to see the world end. I think when you lie on the internet and scare children in order to make a buck, that is ethically wrong,” he said.

There is nothing on the website instituteforhumancontinuity.org to indicate it is a hoax. It states that scientists are tracking a “planet X” on the fringes of the Solar System and mixes real scientific phenomena with complete fiction, such as a simulation of planet X’s near-Earth trajectory.

The website urges people to sign up to a lottery guaranteeing every person of the planet an equal chance of survival in 2012 with the offer of a place in one of the Institute for Human Continuity’s “safe havens”. Only a small Sony Pictures copyright notice at the bottom of the screen and a link to the film’s own website give any hint that this is a purely fictional website.

Dr Morrison said the idea of a mystery planet called Nibiru dates back 30 years to fictional books about supposed predictions of ancient Summerian astrologers. It was taken up by others linking a 2012 planetary collision with the end of the Mayan calender. Interest in the idea has resurfaced in the lead-up to the film’s release, Dr Morrison said. “It is too bad, but there is no law against lying on the internet or anywhere else except in a court of law.”

Vikki Luya, Sony’s publicity director, said: “It is very clear that this site is connected to a fictional movie. This can readily be seen in the logos on the site, including the Sony Pictures Digital copyright line and the reference to the ‘2012 Movie Experience’. It is also evident in the user-generated videos, as well as the numerous online references to this marketing campaign.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/relax-the-end-isnt-nigh-1804340.html

‘Mad Men’ and the Thrill of Other People’s Misery in Sour Times

During the Great Depression, America entertained itself with Busby Berkeley musicals, movies about the madcap adventures of the rich and other happy escapism. It is not exactly a trend, but one well-watched and critically acclaimed television show is doing the opposite. In tough economic times, the advertising-biz drama “Mad Men” is offering beleaguered Americans heaping helpings of other people’s misery.

Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, “Mad Men” is stunning to look at — a Camelot-era parade of smartly dressed professionals lounging around on midcentury modern furniture.

The writers of “Mad Men,” however, are telling an anti-Camelot version of the era. In the well-appointed offices of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper, some of the major ad campaigns have included Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential race and efforts — a year before the surgeon general’s fateful warning — to persuade Americans to buy more cigarettes. Racism is alive and well in the South, where four little girls have just been killed in the Birmingham church bombing, and also in the North, where black people are largely invisible. The oppression of women is so raw that the agency’s strong and self-possessed office manager, Joan Holloway, was raped at the office by her fiancé.

In this, the third season of “Mad Men,” the major characters’ trajectories have all taken a decidedly grim turn. Don Draper, the protagonist, is getting kicked around at Sterling Cooper and beaten up by his mercurial patron, Conrad Hilton. Salvatore Romano, the agency’s likable art director, is unjustly and cruelly fired. Betty Draper, Don’s beautiful but joyless wife, spends her time caring for children she can barely tolerate and considering an affair. Carla, the Drapers’ black maid, is forced to stand by silently while Betty tells her it might be too soon for civil rights.

The characters who once shined brightest now seem headed toward despair or oblivion. Joan married her rapist-fiancé, whose medical career is in free fall, and has been forced to work in a department store. The biggest rising star, an oily young British executive who seemed poised to take control of Sterling Cooper, fell to earth when his foot was mauled by a secretary riding through the office on a lawn mower.

The central character, Don Draper, was always an uneasy combination of hero and anti-hero, but his archer qualities are winning out. In the office, he has been capable of acts of nobility, but lately he has exhibited a vicious streak. He tersely informed Peggy Olson, his sometimes-protégé, that there is nothing she does that he could not live without. When he fired Mr. Romano, whose secret homosexuality he was aware of, he threw in a nasty gibe about the failings of “you people.”

At home, Don has often been an attentive husband, but never a faithful one. Now he has taken his philandering closer to home, paying a late-night visit to his daughter’s teacher, an overture that seems destined to end badly.

For many viewers, “Mad Men” is a window on their parents’ world — an era of three-martini lunches, gas-guzzling domestic cars and boundless optimism about America’s place in the world. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, and women were choosing between rival style icons Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

To a generation beaten down by skyrocketing unemployment, plunging retirement savings and mounting home foreclosures, “Mad Men” offers the schadenfreude-filled message that their predecessors were equally unhappy — and that the bleakness meter in American life has always been set on high.

Escapism makes a lot of intuitive sense — whisk people away from their cares with stories of a better life. And there is plenty of it in today’s movies and in the Brangelina celebrity culture.

But there’s some scientific support for the gloomier approach of “Mad Men.” Stanley Schachter was a Columbia psychologist who conducted a famous experiment years ago in which young women were told they would be given electric shocks. The more anxious they were about the shocks, the more they told researchers they wanted to wait with other people for the experiment to start. They did not want to wait with just anyone, it turned out — they wanted to be with people who faced the same shocks. “Misery doesn’t love just any kind of company,” Schachter said, “it loves only miserable company.”

For people worried about the Great Recession, and the uncertainty of what is coming next, the characters of “Mad Men” are good company.

Adam Cohen, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/opinion/17sat4.html

Seven Lies About Lying

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
— Emily Dickinson

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“Joseph’s Tunic” Diego Velázquez, ca. 1630

1.

I was talking to Ricky Jay about lying and deception. I had an example from the Bible, specifically about Jacob and his 12 sons. (Five of them are depicted by Velazquez, above.) Ricky interrupted: “Which one? Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Napthali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph or Benjamin?”

“Uh . . . Joseph.”

Ricky Jay is an actor, bibliophile, historian of magic, arguably the greatest living sleight-of-hand artist, and a master of the art of deception. He seemed to be the perfect person to consult on the relationship between deception and lying. After all, it’s his business. I was telling the story about how the brothers sell Joseph into slavery.

ERROL MORRIS: They take his coat, rip it, smear it with blood, and show it to Jacob. They don’t tell Jacob that Joseph was eaten by a wild beast; Jacob makes the false inference himself. My theory is that deceit does not require language. To lie, you have to make a statement. You have to say something in words for it to be a lie. But deceit only requires misdirection. All it requires is the intent to have someone think something that is different from what you believe.

RICKY JAY: Right, it can be verbal.

ERROL MORRIS: It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Whereas lying has to be verbal.

RICKY JAY: Lying has to be verbal. Do I believe that?

[a pause]

ERROL MORRIS: And it can’t be accidental. You can accidentally deceive somebody, but you can’t accidentally lie to somebody. If you’re lying to somebody, you have to know you’re doing it.

RICKY JAY: I’ve written about verbal deception, for example, the P.T. Barnum sign – “TO THE EGRESS” — to make someone believe something that was other than what was intended. Even though there was nothing wrong with it — it’s deceptive. [The sign is intended make people believe that they are about to visit some exotic animal, rather than heading to the exit.] I wrote an article about verbal deception in “Jay’s Journal” on the Bonassus.

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“Jay’s Journal of Anomalies”

The Bonassus was presented in 1821 as this extraordinarily exotic creature. I’ll read just the opening: “The Bonassus, according to contemporary handbills, has been captured as a six-week-old cub deep in the interiors of America …” —blah, blah, blah… “It was presented to a populous eager for amusement and edification” — this was in London — “whose appetite for curiosities both animal and human was insatiable.” The attraction said, “A newly discovered animal, comprising the head and eye of an elephant, the horns of an antelope, a long black beard, the hind parts of a lion, the foreparts of a bison, cloven-footed, has a flowing mane from shoulder to fetlock joint and chews the cud.” And underneath the line, “ ‘Take him for all in all, we ne’er shall look upon his like again.’ — Shakespeare.”

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“Jay’s Journal of Anomalies”

And I say,

“Using every conceivable method of prevarication, the playbills of the day unabashedly conceal the true identity of the newly discovered Bonassus, this new genus” — that’s a quote — “of the African Kingdom had never before been seen in Europe. He was none other than the American Buffalo. As for never seeing his like again, in 1821 the buffalo was the most numerous hoof-footed quadruped on the face of the earth.”

ERROL MORRIS: Perfect.

RICKY JAY: This is an issue called “Verbal Deception Deciphered.”

ERROL MORRIS: You were also telling me about a magician who refuses to lie.

RICKY JAY: He died recently. His name was Jerry Andrus, and he lived in Albany, Ore. And he always claimed that it was because he lived in Oregon that he had to invent his own stuff. He really was an original thinker in terms of magic. He just died. He was almost 90. [1]

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Jerry Andrus

But he wouldn’t lie in doing an effect. So if he said, “I’m going to place this card in the middle of the deck,” then that’s what he did. [Ricky picked up a deck of cards and proceeded to offer an impressive display of legerdemain.] If I say to you, “I’m going to take this card, whatever it is, the King of Clubs, and you can see that I’m going to push that, right, into the center of the deck.” O.K., you saw me do that clearly?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes.

RICKY JAY: And yet, the King of Clubs is right here. [It is sitting at the top of the deck.] So I truly did not push it into the center of the deck. I made you think that I pushed it into the center of the deck. But I didn’t push that card into the center of the deck and then show it to you on the top of the deck.

ERROL MORRIS: You may not be lying, but you’re still deceiving me.

RICKY JAY: Right, I’m absolutely deceiving you. He would also deceive you. He might go so far as to say, “It may appear as though I’m putting the card in the center of the deck.” But he would never say, “I am putting the card in the center of the deck.” He would not lie.

ERROL MORRIS: But doesn’t that alert people to the fact that they are being deceived? Doesn’t that make it more difficult to perform the trick?

RICKY JAY: Yes! It does make it more difficult, but that’s just the kind of guy he was. So he would never say, “I’m dealing the King of Clubs on the table,” and deal the bottom card and not the King of Clubs. He would not lie. He was an enormously principled fellow.

ERROL MORRIS: But do you have a problem lying?

RICKY JAY: Not only do I lie, I take real pleasure in lying, in the transmission of magic effects. It’s creative, how you do it. I could, indeed, put the King of Clubs in the center of the deck. So in this case, I want you to see that the King of Clubs is in the center of the deck. All right? That’s not a lie. And yet the King is now on top. I don’t think this was in his repertoire. But in that effect I did not lie to you at all. So that’s kind of fascinating.

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Private Collection of Ricky Jay

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Private Collection of Ricky Jay

ERROL MORRIS: I wonder if this bears out what I was saying before, the difference between a lie and a deception, that he would not allow himself a verbal lie.

RICKY JAY: But he would still absolutely deceive you.

ERROL MORRIS: But not lie.

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Private Collection of Ricky Jay

RICKY JAY: You could wonder whether I’m lying to you now, about those two things and how they differ, because you don’t know. Because I know that you can’t follow the sleight of hand I’m doing to absolutely know for certain. And I’m not going to expose the method to show you that, but as your friend, I’m going to tell you that nothing about this was a lie. Everything I said in the transmission of these two effects was true. But in magic, there is magician to magician lying and obfuscation. To obfuscate the reconstruction of the effect – when a magician is fooled by another magician doing magic. In my career that’s not been the major passion, but it’s been the passion of a number of my mentors. The crowning achievement for them would be to create magic good enough to fool other magicians. For me, the most exciting thing is to create good magic that’s entertaining for an audience, and it would be lovely if a magician was fooled as well. But it’s an entertainment art. Dai Vernon, the greatest sleight of hand figure in the history of the art, rarely performed. But he invented magic and had an enormous influence on the whole range of sleight of hand. And so often the magic he was doing was to fool other magicians. You don’t want the magicians to be able to reconstruct it. So in the course of it, the other magician is not only being fooled by the physical deception, but made to think that something might have happened which did not happen, and if you thought that, you could never reconstruct how the effect was done.

ERROL MORRIS: So there’s a misdirection followed by a lie.

RICKY JAY: In any order. But you’re right, the lie part is verbal. You’re saying, “Remember, you shuffled the cards. Remember, you divided the deck.” And in this list of things you’re doing, one of them may be untrue. You may be lying. Ah, I did shuffle the cards. I did this but I didn’t do that. You’re reinforcing something that never happened.

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Private Collection of Ricky Jay

ERROL MORRIS: A deception and a lie.

RICKY JAY: Deception is one of the things that I’m interested in. It’s a major component of my work. If someone said you had to sum up your interests in life in one word, the word would probably be “deception.” I think it encompasses more things I’m interested in than any other single word I can think of. Brindemour’s illusion of levitating a man. A 17th century engraving of a two-headed archer, which portrays him as a legitimate human anomaly. That clearly can not and did not exist. Right? The Davenport Brothers, who were the first performers to become famous from the cult of spiritualism, who convinced people that they were able to make manifestations while locked within a sealed cabinet. Incredibly successful. Chabert, the human salamander, who entered an oven with a raw steak in his hand: he emerged tartar, the steak was cooked to perfection. All of it based on real deception.

P.T. Barnum’s sign “TO THE EGRESS” is Ricky Jay’s example of a linguistic deception that is not a lie. There are no false statements — just a concatenation of misleading descriptions and associations. [2] You might think that once we have distinguished between lying and deception (and two kinds of deception, verbal and otherwise) that our problems are over. But lying is often identified with the avoidance of the truth or the acceptance of a falsehood. And it is to the theme of lying, truth and falsehood that I turn in the second part of this essay.

FOOTNOTES:  

[1] For more information see the Andrus Web site, jerryandrus.org.

[2] Ricky is uncertain about whether the sign was designed to remove customers from the premises or merely to get them to pay for admission twice. You leave the show, then you have to pay to get back in.

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Full article and photos: http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/seven-lies-about-lying-part-1

Why Vampires Never Die

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TONIGHT, you or someone you love will likely be visited by a vampire — on cable television or the big screen, or in the bookstore. Our own novel describes a modern-day epidemic that spreads across New York City.

It all started nearly 200 years ago. It was the “Year Without a Summer” of 1816, when ash from volcanic eruptions lowered temperatures around the globe, giving rise to widespread famine. A few friends gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva and decided to engage in a small competition to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale — and the two great monsters of the modern age were born.

One was created by Mary Godwin, soon to become Mary Shelley, whose Dr. Frankenstein gave life to a desolate creature. The other monster was less created than fused. John William Polidori stitched together folklore, personal resentment and erotic anxieties into “The Vampyre,” a story that is the basis for vampires as they are understood today.

With “The Vampyre,” Polidori gave birth to the two main branches of vampiric fiction: the vampire as romantic hero, and the vampire as undead monster. This ambivalence may reflect Polidori’s own, as it is widely accepted that Lord Ruthven, the titular creature, was based upon Lord Byron — literary superstar of the era and another resident of the lakeside villa that fateful summer. Polidori tended to Byron day and night, both as his doctor and most devoted groupie. But Polidori resented him as well: Byron was dashing and brilliant, while the poor doctor had a rather drab talent and unremarkable physique.

But this was just a new twist to a very old idea. The myth, established well before the invention of the word “vampire,” seems to cross every culture, language and era. The Indian Baital, the Ch’ing Shih in China, and the Romanian Strigoi are but a few of its names. The creature seems to be as old as Babylonia and Sumer. Or even older.

The vampire may originate from a repressed memory we had as primates. Perhaps at some point we were — out of necessity — cannibalistic. As soon as we became sedentary, agricultural tribes with social boundaries, one seminal myth might have featured our ancestors as primitive beasts who slept in the cold loam of the earth and fed off the salty blood of the living.

Monsters, like angels, are invoked by our individual and collective needs. Today, much as during that gloomy summer in 1816, we feel the need to seek their cold embrace.

Herein lies an important clue: in contrast to timeless creatures like the dragon, the vampire does not seek to obliterate us, but instead offers a peculiar brand of blood alchemy. For as his contagion bestows its nocturnal gift, the vampire transforms our vile, mortal selves into the gold of eternal youth, and instills in us something that every social construct seeks to quash: primal lust. If youth is desire married with unending possibility, then vampire lust creates within us a delicious void, one we long to fulfill.

In other words, whereas other monsters emphasize what is mortal in us, the vampire emphasizes the eternal in us. Through the panacea of its blood it turns the lead of our toxic flesh into golden matter.

In a society that moves as fast as ours, where every week a new “blockbuster” must be enthroned at the box office, or where idols are fabricated by consensus every new television season, the promise of something everlasting, something truly eternal, holds a special allure. As a seductive figure, the vampire is as flexible and polyvalent as ever. Witness its slow mutation from the pansexual, decadent Anne Rice creatures to the current permutations — promising anything from chaste eternal love to wild nocturnal escapades — and there you will find the true essence of immortality: adaptability.

Vampires find their niche and mutate at an accelerated rate now — in the past one would see, for decades, the same variety of fiend, repeated in multiple storylines. Now, vampires simultaneously occur in all forms and tap into our every need: soap opera storylines, sexual liberation, noir detective fiction, etc. The myth seems to be twittering promiscuously to serve all avenues of life, from cereal boxes to romantic fiction. The fast pace of technology accelerates its viral dispersion in our culture.

But if Polidori remains the roots in the genealogy of our creature, the most widely known vampire was birthed by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Part of the reason for the great success of his “Dracula” is generally acknowledged to be its appearance at a time of great technological revolution. The narrative is full of new gadgets (telegraphs, typing machines), various forms of communication (diaries, ship logs), and cutting-edge science (blood transfusions) — a mash-up of ancient myth in conflict with the world of the present.

Today as well, we stand at the rich uncertain dawn of a new level of scientific innovation. The wireless technology we carry in our pockets today was the stuff of the science fiction in our youth. Our technological arrogance mirrors more and more the Wellsian dystopia of dissatisfaction, while allowing us to feel safe and connected at all times. We can call, see or hear almost anything and anyone no matter where we are. For most people then, the only remote place remains within. “Know thyself” we do not.

Despite our obsessive harnessing of information, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our fates and our nightmares. We enthrone the deadly virus in the very same way that “Dracula” allowed the British public to believe in monsters: through science. Science becomes the modern man’s superstition. It allows him to experience fear and awe again, and to believe in the things he cannot see.

And through awe, we once again regain spiritual humility. The current vampire pandemic serves to remind us that we have no true jurisdiction over our bodies, our climate or our very souls. Monsters will always provide the possibility of mystery in our mundane “reality show” lives, hinting at a larger spiritual world; for if there are demons in our midst, there surely must be angels lurking nearby as well. In the vampire we find Eros and Thanatos fused together in archetypal embrace, spiraling through the ages, undying.

Forever.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Chuck Hogan are the authors of “The Strain,” a novel.

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Full article and photo: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/opinion/31deltoro.html

Entertainment – July 10, 2009

Bono Says Ghana “Rebranding” Africa

When Barack Obama arrives in Ghana Friday for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president, it will be the new face of America meeting “the new face of Africa,” says Irish rocker and anti-poverty activist Bono.In a New York Times column Friday hours before Obama arrives in Ghana, Bono wrote that if America’s first black president were making a sentimental journey to Africa, “he’d have gone to Kenya,” the birthplace of his father.

“He’s made a different choice, and he’s been quite straight about the reason,” Bono added. “Despite Kenya’s unspeakable beauty and its recent victories against the anopheles mosquito, the country’s still-stinging corruption and political unrest confirm too many of the headlines we in the West read about Africa.

“Ghana confounds them,” wrote Bono, the U2 frontman who has long campaigned against poverty and AIDS in Africa.

“Quietly, modestly — but also heroically — Ghana’s going about the business of rebranding a continent. New face of America, meet the new face of Africa.”

Bono said the West African nation was a well-governed state where power changed hands peacefully after the last election and which was also weathering the global economic storm.

“No one’s leaked me a copy of the president’s speech in Ghana, but it’s pretty clear he’s going to focus not on the problems that afflict the continent but on the opportunities of an Africa on the rise,” wrote Bono.

“If that’s what he does, the biggest cheers will come from members of the growing African middle class, who are fed up with being patronized and hearing the song of their majestic continent in a minor key.”

Bono noted that he himself had often talked of the crises and tragedies besetting Africa, “but as the example of Ghana makes clear, that’s only one chord.

“Amid poverty and disease are opportunities for investment and growth — investment and growth that won’t eliminate overnight the need for assistance … but that in time can build roads, schools and power grids and propel commerce to the point where aid is replaced by trade pacts, business deals and home-grown income,” wrote the singer.

Bono said Obama could speed that process by taking aim at corruption in Africa.

Citing the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. government’s main development fund set up by former President George W. Bush, Bono said U.S. aid dollars “increasingly go to countries that use them and don’t blow them.

“Ghana is one. There’s a growing number of others.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/07/10/arts/entertainment-us-obama-africa-bono.html

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See also:

Rebranding Africa

africa july 10

DATELINE: Imminent. About now, actually.

Soon, Air Force One will touch down in Accra, Ghana; Africans will be welcoming the first African-American president. Press coverage on the continent is placing equal weight on both sides of the hyphen.

And we thought it was big when President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963. (It was big, though I was small. Where I come from, J.F.K. is remembered as a local boy made very, very good.)

But President Obama’s African-ness is only part (a thrilling part) of the story today. Cable news may think it’s all about him — but my guess is that he doesn’t. If he was in it for a sentimental journey he’d have gone to Kenya, chased down some of those dreams from his father.

He’s made a different choice, and he’s been quite straight about the reason. Despite Kenya’s unspeakable beauty and its recent victories against the anopheles mosquito, the country’s still-stinging corruption and political unrest confirms too many of the headlines we in the West read about Africa. Ghana confounds them.

Not defiantly or angrily, but in that cool, offhand Ghanaian way. This is a country whose music of choice is jazz; a country that long ago invented a genre called highlife that spread across Africa — and, more recently, hiplife, which is what happens when hip-hop meets reggaetón meets rhythm and blues meets Ghanaian melody, if you’re keeping track (and you really should be). On a visit there, I met the minister for tourism and pitched the idea of marketing the country as the “birthplace of cool.” (Just think, the music of Miles, the conversation of Kofi.) He demurred … too cool, I guess.

Quietly, modestly — but also heroically — Ghana’s going about the business of rebranding a continent. New face of America, meet the new face of Africa.

Ghana is well governed. After a close election, power changed hands peacefully. Civil society is becoming stronger. The country’s economy was growing at a good clip even before oil was found off the coast a few years ago. Though it has been a little battered by the global economic meltdown, Ghana appears to be weathering the storm. I don’t normally give investment tips — sound the alarm at Times headquarters — but here is one: buy Ghanaian.

So it’s not a coincidence that Ghana’s making steady progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Right now it’s one of the few African nations that has a shot at getting there by 2015.

No one’s leaked me a copy of the president’s speech in Ghana, but it’s pretty clear he’s going to focus not on the problems that afflict the continent but on the opportunities of an Africa on the rise. If that’s what he does, the biggest cheers will come from members of the growing African middle class, who are fed up with being patronized and hearing the song of their majestic continent in a minor key.

I’ve played that tune. I’ve talked of tragedy, of emergency. And it is an emergency when almost 2,000 children in Africa a day die of a mosquito bite; this kind of hemorrhaging of human capital is not something we can accept as normal.

But as the example of Ghana makes clear, that’s only one chord. Amid poverty and disease are opportunities for investment and growth — investment and growth that won’t eliminate overnight the need for assistance, much as we and Africans yearn for it to end, but that in time can build roads, schools and power grids and propel commerce to the point where aid is replaced by trade pacts, business deals and home-grown income.

President Obama can hasten that day. He knows change won’t come easily. Corruption stalks Africa’s reformers. “If you fight corruption, it fights you back,” a former Nigerian anti-corruption official has said.

From his bully pulpit, the president can take aim at the bullies. Without accountability — no opportunity. If that’s not a maxim, it ought to be. It’s a truism, anyway. The work of the American government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation is founded on that principle, even if it doesn’t put it that bluntly. United States aid dollars increasingly go to countries that use them and don’t blow them. Ghana is one. There’s a growing number of others.

That’s thanks to Africans like John Githongo, the former anticorruption chief of Kenya — a hero of mine who is pioneering a new brand of bottom-up accountability. Efforts like his, which are taking place across the continent, deserve more support. The presidential kind. Then there’s Nigeria’s moral and financial fist — Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a managing director of the World Bank and the country’s former finance minister — who is on a quest to help African countries recover stolen assets looted by corrupt officials. And the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is helping countries like Ghana clean up the oil, gas and mining business, to make sure that profits don’t wind up in the hands of kleptocrats.

Presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further. That should be welcome news to the Group of 8 leaders gathered in Italy to whom Mr. Obama bids a Hawaii-via-Chicago-inflected “arrivederci,” as he leaves for Africa.

This week’s summit meeting looks as if it will yield some welcome new G-8 promises on agriculture. (So far, new money: America. Old money: everyone else.) This is the good news that President Obama will bring from Europe to Ghana.

The not-so-good news — that countries like Italy and France are not meeting their Africa commitments — makes the president’s visit all the more essential. The United States is one of the countries on track to keep its promises, and Mr. Obama has already said he’ll more than build on the impressive Bush legacy.

President Obama plans to return to Africa for the World Cup in 2010. Between now and then he’s got the chance to lead others in building — from the bottom up — on the successes of recent efforts within Africa and to learn from the failures. There’s been plenty of both. We’ve witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly in our fraught relationship with this dynamic continent.

The president can facilitate the new, the fresh and the different. Many existing promises are expiring in 2010, some of old age and others of chronic neglect. New promises from usual and unusual partners, from the G-8 to the G-20, need to be made — and this time kept. If more African nations (not just Ghana) are going to meet the millennium goals, they are going to need smart partners in business and development. That’s Smart as in sustainable, measurable, accountable, responsive and transparent.

Africa is not just Barack Obama’s homeland. It’s ours, too. The birthplace of humanity. Wherever our journeys have taken us, they all began there. The word Desmond Tutu uses is “ubuntu”: I am because we are. As he says, until we accept and appreciate this we cannot be fully whole.

Could it be that all Americans are, in that sense, African-Americans?

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product)RED, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/10/opinion/10bono.html

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China to Build Own Neverland as Michael Jackson Tribute

Chinese developers are commemorating the late Michael Jackson by building a scaled-down replica of his Neverland Ranch on an island off Shanghai, a state-run newspaper said on Friday.Investors in the project, which will cost about 100 million yuan ($15 million) to build, hope it will open on Chongming island ahead of next year’s Expo in Shanghai, the China Daily newspaper reported.

While they are not as popular as the Taiwanese and Hong Kong stars who dominate the music scene in China, Western artists are making inroads in the local market, thanks to young fans.

“By building a Neverland here in China, we want to pay tribute to him and at the same time offer the Chinese people an outlet for expressing their love toward him,” the report quoted Qiu Xuefan, one of the investors, as saying.

Jackson, who died on June 25 in Los Angeles, abandoned Neverland — once filled with theme-park rides and even a zoo — after his child molestation trial in 2005.

The Shanghai version will have “Chinese characteristics to have it blend in with the local environment,” the paper added, without elaborating.

But not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea.

“If the purpose is simply to pay tribute to Michael, I would suggest investors open it for free, just as Michael did for the children,” said Wei Wei, deputy head of Jackson’s Chinese fan club. “Otherwise, they are just making money from it.”

But Qiu, who professes his love for Jackson’s music, said the ranch would help keep the King of Pop’s legacy alive.

“His music is a legacy to the world and should not be forgotten. We also would like to set up a fund, with profits being used to help encourage children with musical talent.”

Last week, an “instant” biography of Jackson in Chinese hit the bookshelves, which local newspapers said was penned by two Chinese writers who worked on it for two days straight but who had never met their subject.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/07/10/arts/entertainment-us-jackson-shanghai.html

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Billy Mays Remains a TV Pitchman, Even in Death

Death won’t still the voice of Billy Mays or his mighty powers of persuasion. Viewers will continue to find the boisterous, bearded TV pitchman hawking household products for the indefinite future. And at least one of his commercials is being introduced posthumously.”Just stretch, wrap and it fuses fast,” says Mays, demonstrating a product called Mighty Tape on a kitchen drain pipe in the new commercial. Moments later, he’s seen, still wearing his signature sport shirt and khaki slacks but accessorized with scuba gear, as he repairs a hole in another diver’s air hose underwater using Mighty Tape.

The commercial will begin airing July 20. Mays’ advertising for other products in the Mighty brand line returned to the air earlier this week. The commercials were pulled after Mays’ death June 28 of an apparent heart attack.

”Our feeling is, everyone wants to have Billy go on,” said Bill McAlister, president of Media Enterprises, a sales and marketing company based in Trevose, Penn. ”This is what he would have wanted.”

Besides Media Enterprises, the 50-year-old Mays had worked with several other companies as the yell-and-sell spokesman for products with rousing names like OxiClean, Awesome Auger, WashMatik and Orange Glo.

It’s not yet certain which among Mays’ product pitches will continue to be broadcast, and for how long, said his attorney, Roger Pliakas.

”We’re waiting to hear what the companies want to do,” said Pliakis, who declined to specify the firms with which Mays was associated when he died.

”It’s not a legal conversation but an informal conversation” with each company, Pliakas said. ”We don’t know all the specifics. We’re just hoping it’s all done in a tasteful manner.”

On Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT, Discovery Channel will air a one-hour documentary, ”Pitchman: A Tribute to Billy Mays.” Mays had been featured in a 12-part series on the network called ”Pitchmen.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/07/09/arts/AP-US-TV-Billy-Mays.html

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One-dimensional

The downturn forces sweeping changes on a reputedly recession-proof business

JOHN DAVIS has produced films such as “I, Robot” and “Norbit”, and is working on an adaptation of “Gulliver’s Travels”. He also invests in businesses as diverse as restaurants and scaffolding. These days he is much more optimistic about the film industry than anything else. It is a measure of the recession’s severity that a business built on fickle teenage audiences and multi-million-dollar wagers has come to seem comparatively reliable.

The downturn has affected Hollywood in a way that few expected. Michael Lynton, head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, says that if he had been asked to predict whether the recession would encourage people to stay at home watching the large televisions on which they had spent so much or go out to cinemas, he would have guessed wrong. So far this year box-office receipts are up by 12% over last year. Yet sales of DVDs are falling.

Odder still, the film business is proving hardier than the conglomerates of which the big studios are a part. Sony made ¥30 billion ($299m) on film and television in the year that ended in March, but it lost ¥168 billion on electronics. Disney, Fox and Universal used to rake in profits from their local television stations; the slump in car advertising has put an end to that. Time Warner has been weighed down by AOL and magazines. So the message has been dispatched to Tinseltown: spend less money, and do not do anything risky.

Unfortunately that has become difficult. Last year a torrent of Wall Street money, which had allowed the big studios and independent outfits to share the risk and expense of making films, abruptly dried up. Equity investors have learned, like many before them, that the film business produces better parties than profits. Domestic lenders are concentrating on repairing their balance sheets; foreign ones are being pressured to focus on their home countries. David Shaheen, head of the entertainment group at JPMorgan, reckons there were 25 to 30 banks active in film financing before the credit crisis. Now there are no more than 12.

As a result there will be fewer films. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 606 new films were released last year, although many were destined for just a handful of cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. This year the number can be expected to drop to 400 or below. It will not happen immediately. The film business is like a snake digesting a large meal: the production bulge caused by the surge of money in 2006 and 2007 will take a year or so to work its way through the system.

The prospect of a slowdown rather cheers the studios and the larger independent distributors. In retrospect, they reckon, the ready availability of film financing meant too many titles were competing for attention. With a clutch of new releases every Friday, steep drop-offs in audiences have become routine. Ticket sales for “Wolverine” fell by 69% between the first and second weekends of its release in May. And that film was a success.

Better yet, from the studios’ point of view, the price of talent is falling. With fewer films being put into production it is a buyers’ market for actors and directors—one reason an actors’ strike failed to materialise this year. Middling stars are being offered much smaller guaranteed fees in return for a bigger cut of the profits if a film sells well on DVD and television. The top tier of talent still commands huge sums. But that club has shrunk, in part because big-budget films these days are sold less on the appeal of an actor than on familiarity with the television programmes, books or comics that so often inspire them.

The films loaded with special effects that dominate the summer and Christmas holidays will not, however, become much less common or cheaper to make. In the past few years films costing more than $150m to produce have proven reliably profitable. Healthy returns this summer from 3-D animated films, which are more expensive to make than the two-dimensional sort, are encouraging studios to put more into production. Nor are the studios likely to tinker much with their carpet-bombing approach to marketing big films. After all, the cost of advertising is falling.

Kevin Misher, the producer behind “Public Enemies”, believes the film business will become increasingly polarised. There will be plenty of spectacular, big-budget summer action films and a steady supply of cheap comedies (at a big studio, a “cheap” film is one that costs less than about $40m to produce). What these films have in common, Mr Misher points out, is that they promise a collective experience. People like to watch spectacular action films, comedies and horror films in groups and will abandon their televisions and mobile phones to do so.

The inevitable losers in all this will be complex, well-made films that do not fit neatly in a single genre, such as “Duplicity”, a hybrid of comedy, drama and romance starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. It failed at the box office earlier this year. Studio executives have long known that such films are chancy. The ease of spreading financial risk allowed them to suspend their disbelief. No longer.

Hollywood’s ability to respond quickly to change has helped the film business to remain stable, with the same number of big studios now as in the early 20th century. Yet the new austerity comes at a cost. Cutbacks in development and production mean studios will have fewer films to release when the recession ends. That means less potential profit from discs, television rights, toys and the rest of it—not to mention less variety for filmgoers.

The Economist

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13998640&source=hptextfeature

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Floppy discs

The DVD is not dead, but its best years are behind it

dvd july 10

IT IS the hottest topic in Hollywood: is the DVD dying? Ten years ago the discs rejuvenated the film business. DVDs not only offered cleaner pictures and better sound than videotape; they also looked smarter on bookshelves. People were persuaded to own films rather than simply watch them. Studios began to make twice as much from disc sales as from cinema tickets. But DVD sales, which began declining gradually in 2006, are now falling more steeply (see chart). And there is always the threat that online piracy might take off.

There is probably still some life in the format—but that does not mean Hollywood can relax. About one-third of the drop in DVD sales in the first quarter was counteracted by rising sales of high-definition Blu-ray discs, which are more profitable. Much of the remainder can be put down to belt-tightening amid the downturn. “People are still going into the shop and buying a DVD; they just aren’t buying two or three DVDs,” says Amir Malin of Qualia Capital, a media investment firm.

Yet people are still getting hold of films. In the past year the value of DVD and Blu-ray rentals increased by 1%, according to Rentrak. In a generally dismal climate for media companies two outfits are thriving. Netflix, which rents DVDs and Blu-ray discs by post, signed up 25% more customers in the past year. Redbox, which rents films cheaply from self-service kiosks, has been adding machines at the rate of more than 500 per month. Many kiosks are located in the same shops that sell discs. The real worry, then, is not that people are abandoning DVDs but that they are abandoning the notion of owning them.

Studios would prefer people to get their films in almost any way other than renting them from a kiosk. It is much more profitable to stream a film digitally or sell it through a cable operator as a video-on-demand (VOD). Recognising this, Warner Bros now releases many films simultaneously on DVD and VOD. The big studios have overcome their initial reluctance to sell digital copies of films through Apple’s iTunes store. Although it is a long way off, there is much talk of creating a premium VOD “window”, charging perhaps $40 for a film soon after it appears in cinemas. “We need to give people as many options as possible without confusing them,” says Kevin Tsujihara, head of home entertainment at Warner Bros.

Meanwhile strenuous efforts are under way to stimulate disc sales. Disney is selling some films in three formats in a single box—DVD, Blu-ray and digital file. Studios are adding puzzles, interviews and other special features to discs intended for sale, but not to discs intended for rental. Mike Dunn, head of home entertainment at Fox, sums up the strategy: “If you buy a Blu-ray disc you get a BMW. If you rent one you get a Chevrolet.”

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Full article: http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13998656

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Humpday

Humpday july 10

Mark Duplass, left, and Joshua Leonard in “Humpday.”

Putting a Bromance to an Erotic Test

To guys everywhere: “Humpday” has your number. With X-ray vision, this serious indie comedy, written and directed by Lynn Shelton, sees through its male characters’ macho pretensions to contemplate the underlying forces hard-wired into men’s psyches in a homophobic culture. Think of it as a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith buddy film turned inside out.

It is all the more remarkable for having been conceived by an empathetic woman with no apparent ax to grind and a sensibility tuned to the minutiae of straight-male bonding rituals. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but some observant Venusians understand the brute fundamentals of Martian psychology

Its subjects, schlubby, soft-bellied Ben (Mark Duplass) and bearded, laughing-eyed Andrew (Joshua Leonard), are best friends from college who fancied themselves latter-day disciples of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise from “On the Road.” A decade later Ben, a transportation engineer with a house in Seattle and a warm, supportive wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), who is trying to become pregnant, has abandoned whatever romantic beatnik fantasies he once nurtured to pursue a staid middle-class existence.

Andrew, still a free-spirited rogue and artist (at least in his own mind), hasn’t landed yet, and a lurking anxiety about his future is beginning to leak through his twinkling bohemian swagger. He reappears in Ben’s life late one night after Ben and Anna have gone to bed following a botched baby-making opportunity. Andrew, just back from Mexico, needs a place to stay. As the friends exchange hugs, punches and raucous dude slang, instant regression sets in.

The next night Andrew invites Ben to a wild party given by a bisexual woman (Ms. Shelton) he has just met. As the liquor flows and joints are smoked, Ben forgets Anna is at home cooking a special pork-chop dinner. Several of the guests are associated with Humpfest, a film festival devoted to experimental homemade pornography. In a daredevil moment, Andrew and Ben, feeling pressured to demonstrate they are unflappably cool, hip swingers, announce they have thought up “the ultimate art project.” They will film themselves — two straight guys — having sex. In the language of their pitch: “It’s not gay; it’s beyond gay. It’s not porn; it’s art.”

Even in the cold light of morning, when the terrifying prospect of making good on their promise looms, they are unable to back down. There is also the troubling question of how to explain all this to Anna.

As the put-up-or-shut-up moment in a Seattle hotel room approaches, “Humpday” explores the ramifications of their decision in a free-form Mumblecore style. Much of the dialogue in a film that rarely stops talking was semi-improvised, and as Ben and Andrew, who are perfectly cast, consider the fine print of their verbal agreement, most of what they say sounds convincingly spontaneous. For starters there is the matter of role playing, a question that is too daunting to explore when the subject is broached.

“Humpday” is utterly lacking in titillation. Although Ben remembers a confused momentary attraction to a male video-store clerk years earlier, there is no intimation of any lurking erotic subtext in their friendship. And in a revealing moment Andrew, about to have a threesome with the party hostess and her girlfriend, loses his nerve when they produce an array of sex toys.

Under his free-spirited, anything-for-a-lark pose he is deeply conventional. A question the movie doesn’t address is how Ben and Andrew imagine they can complete the project without any sexual attraction between them

The camera’s view of the characters, although intimate, is almost antiseptic. The film sees Ben and Andrew the way they see each other: as blobs of flesh with hairy parts but without the tiniest suggestion of latent heat. Neither Ben nor Andrew is especially good looking (in a beauty contest, Andrew would probably win), but neither is ugly.

I won’t reveal what transpires when they keep their date, except to say that the movie’s unblinking observation of a friendship put to the test is amused, queasy making, kindhearted and unfailingly truthful.

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Full article and photo: http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/07/10/movies/10hump.html

When Vatican says no, Vancouver studio says yes

“I’m sure when His Holiness the Pope gets the movie on Blu-ray, he’s going to say: ‘Wait a second! That’s not the right statue.’ He’s going to realize.”

Visual-effects supervisor Mark Breakspear is talking about how the Vancouver company he works for — CIS — recreated the inside of Rome’s churches for Ron Howard’s new movie, Angels & Demons. “We were never intending to do an architectural study,” he continues. “So we didn’t put statues everywhere they exist — we put them where they looked good.”

The tendency toward such Hollywood magic is no doubt part of the reason the production was refused entry to the Vatican’s churches to film the screen version of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel. The first movie in the franchise, The Da Vinci Code, was not allowed to shoot a scene inside a Paris church, when the Catholic Church balked at the subject matter — the slaying of a nun by Silas the monk. It was at that point that Howard turned to CIS to fill in the blanks with a computer generated interior. For Angels & Demons, the interiors of three churches in Rome were rendered by CIS — St. Peter’s Basilica, Santa Maria della Vittoria and Santa Maria del Popolo.

It was an even tougher prospect this time around. “After the Catholic Church saw The Da Vinci Code, the rules were tightened up,” explains Breakspear. “We were already refused entry for [a film] crew and lights, but by the time we started collecting images for Angels, tripods were no longer allowed inside.”

angels may 17 1

Before, scenes filmed against a green background, and after, with the digital special effects added in.

Adhering to the guidelines, Breakspear and his team went into the churches, collecting a total of 25,000 images with still cameras.

What they did not do — contrary to some Internet speculation — was employ actual tourists to snap images for them.

“We went as tourists to gather data,” he notes. “We didn’t film.

“It’s not that we’re trying to be devious,” he adds. “And we have always operated on the principle that these are places of worship and you have to be respectful.”

But acting as tourists themselves did create some problems. “We were always rubbing up against billions of other people,” he recalls. “There’s a trouser leg, a shoe or some other obstruction in the bottom half of every image.”

To get around that, CIS created a giant virtual jigsaw puzzle in their studios, pulling together fragments from the images they shot. In order for the computer to be able to render a reasonable facsimile, they used multiple frames of every object taken from as many angles as possible. Then the special-effects artists at CIS worked on enhancing the images, which would ultimately be used with green-screen technology to create the interior of the churches.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a bricks-and-mortar set was built, which brought its own challenges for the Vancouver crew. “I wish they’d called and asked a few more questions before they built the set,” confides Breakspear. “Some of it was not the same as the original in Rome and when we started lining up pictures with the set, nothing matched and we had to fudge the two together.”

The joining of the sets was seamless enough that even the Vatican’s own press outlets have commented on how fabulous the finished images have turned out.

That quality is why the company is fast becoming one of the industry leaders. They worked on the Harrison Ford thriller, Firewall, and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Eastwood has returned to them for his next project, The Human Factor, about Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid presidency. Things are going so well, they’re on a hiring drive — currently they employ 130 in Vancouver and about 70 people in their Los Angeles facility.

Visual effects have traditionally been seen as a purely postproduction specialty but, according to Dennis Hoffman, CIS’s general manager, that’s all changing.

“We are involved right back in the script stage — pre-visualization,” Hoffman says. “Where storyboards used to be the first stage of the process, it’s becoming more and more that you plug into the computer and start moving the camera and looking at angles. … We can add creative input and also save money, because we can suggest ways to shoot more efficiently.”

On Angels, Breakspear was brought into the process also in an editorial capacity, to discuss with Ron Howard what could be done to make a dramatic sequence featuring self-immolation look “really cool.”

“For us, that’s the ultimate,” admits Breakspear. “Being brought into the creative process and asked to be a part of it. Directors and producers are realizing that the more complex the fx, the more we — as the experts — should have a say about what will work and how far we can push the technology.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090515.wangels0516/BNStory/Entertainment/home