Friday Flix: Thoughts on Solo

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First my thoughts on my obligatory viewing of Solo: A Star Wars Story. In summary, the film left me with an overall feeling that the critics were largely correct. The film is fairly pedantic, with some interesting pieces of Han Solo’s life coming together and one appearance by a major Star Wars villain who was thought to be dead. (One Star Wars fan from 6 Degrees magazine was incensed at the spoiler listed in the title of an article which listed the name of the villain-so we’ll just leave it there!)
Overall, the film was like one of those old ‘movie of the week’ made for TV films. It was ok, but I can’t recommend it to anyone but the most devout Star Wars fans. And I know there are a lot of you out there. The thing is, Star Wars has become something of a cottage industry, with cartoons and books and a multi-verse of characters and sub-plots making their way under the umbrella of “Star Wars” stories. This Solo story features some major characters, Hans Solo and Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, who were all major players in the original Star Wars cast. So that is why this film has any significance. I thought the last Star Wars feature, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, lacked a lot of depth in the overall story, too, by the way.
I suppose, not being someone who has simply leapt into the Star Wars universe enthusiastically, this is somewhat predictable in my critical eyes. I thought The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the Star Wars series, and also, that the other stand-out was the one that everyone tends to pan, the 1999 feature with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace. So who am I to judge the wrath of a Star Wars fan who is serious about their Star Wars connections?

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I do realize the significance of Star Wars in connection with our culture and the history of filmmaking in general. My book has an entire section devoted to George Lucas’ quest to establish CGI and his Industrial Light and Magic Studio. Here is the link to the excerpt for all Star Wars followers to see: From Star Wars to Sin City. There’s more on this later, but I urge everyone to read the link from all of Roger Ebert’s Star Wars reviews.
I also urge all of you to visit the 6 Degrees Magazine and follow the link to the Village Voice piece about some of the restoration work that has been done recently for Republic Studio pictures. Republic Studios was a significant player in the Golden Age of Film, with hits like The Quiet Man and cult films like Johnny Guitar among their credits.

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Also featured in 6 Degrees:

• Reviews of the films out this week. From the Ebert.com site; How to talk to Girls at Parties and Book Club have good reviews. It’s been a ho-hum launch to the Summer Film Season, so there are no standouts to tell you about. Mary Shelley and Adrift were not given great reviews, but you can read them for yourself in the magazine. Here’s the line-up featured in our Summer Film News:
• An interesting piece on rogerebert.com from a master cinematographer talks about the craft of shooting films. Edward Lachman talks of his start in the business looking at photos by Robert Frank. Lachman also spoke of the changes in film because of ‘digital cinematography’, in ways that change not only how the movie is shot, but how it is perceived. “They always say the digital world should look like film, but I never hear the film world should look digital.’ Keep an eye out as you look at modern films in the theatre after reading this. Lachman thinks that digital cameras make everything darker. According to Lachman, “if the whole film’ is in this darkness, your eye tires.” Something to look out for the next time you’re at the movies…
• There’s a video roundtable discussion of critics at Cannes: Ben Kenigsberg, Jason Gorber and Lisa Nesselson discuss movies. Check it out here

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In closing, there are a few interesting elements in the latest Solo film foray venturing forth into the Star Wars Universe. There’s always a promise of more to come, and the films all open with the same fairy tale of Once upon a time implicit in the crawl: “A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ which gives us leave right there to suspend all disbelief. We can be the judges of whether the films live up to our high expectations, and of course, they seldom do. But the idea is that the universe will continue.
I do like what I read from a New Yorker piece,  entitled “The Growing Emptiness of the Star Wars Universe”, that talks about the dilution of the brand. As it is with the idea of making a copy of a copy of a copy, the ‘simulacra’ is defined as a ‘diluted tincture’ and as with fashion and the example is the brand of Tommy Hilfiger. Of it, the writer says of Hilfiger: ‘it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.’ This, in application to the viewing of Solo: A Star Wars story does not augur well for the overall dilution of the brand. There is a disturbance in the force, as they say. And that ain’t good….Till next week, see you at the movies-ML

6 Degrees: Oscar News

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Oscar News

The Oscars show was always a big deal for me…but in recent years, …not so much. The glamour is not there, and there are so many award shows, it just doesn’t pack the same punch. The turning point for me happened when they sent the Disney characters into the audience one year and Tom Hanks and Paul Newman just looked embarrassed. They don’t seem to know how to bring the show into the modern era

The biggest problem that has been widely documented is the diversity issue. The Academy was an “Old White Guy” organization and it showed. They have worked on trying to repair the breech, but it’s been painfully slow to watch.

Some stand-out moments I remember from recent years occurred when Lady Gaga sang The Sound of Music, and then when Billy Crystal returned to host the show it just seemed funnier, but James Franco remains, in my opinion, the worst host in Oscar history. I hope the show isn’t overlong, and the disaster of an announcement for Best Picture doesn’t occur again…Warren Beatty is probably blackballed forever. I keep watching it out of habit, but with each passing year, the glitz and glamor of a bygone era becomes more painfully evident.

Here is what I wrote about the Academy Awards in my book 6 Degrees of Film: The future of film in the Global Village from 2013:

On the Academy Awards

One of my biggest beefs is that even in the twenty-first century the Academy Awards show looks a lot like a holdout from a bygone era. The glitz and glamour are not as believable when there is so much more to the film industry in the modern era. The age of computer imaging and video games and the type of sophisticated special effects used in modern films are barely acknowledged. Little mention is given to the separate awards ceremony held for the scientific and technical awards. James Cameron invented a new method of filmmaking, and George Lucas and others initiated many breakthroughs in the way we see things on film. But none of these accomplishments are honored. New categories should be created to acknowledge these developments so they can be brought to the public’s attention. The global village of filmmaking is compartmentalized into one or two categories of short films and the foreign film category. Even though Slumdog Millionaire won several Oscars in 2009, the film is treated as if none of that ever happened. The encapsulated world of Hollywood elites still appears to be fairly homogenized (barring a few obligatory jokes about Jews in Hollywood). The only nod to the changing of the guard was in 2010 when Barbra Streisand handed the Best Director award to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow for Hurt Locker) for the first time, and when Halle Berry, the first African American woman to receive the Best Actress award, acknowledged Hattie McDaniel and all of the women of color who had come before her. If Hollywood and filmmaking are a large part of the American persona, and this show is one of our best chances to advertise our unique and diverse American way of life, then why doesn’t Hollywood pull out all the stops on these occasions? Instead, the powers-that-be in Hollywood present a timid and tepid tribute to films in a way they have done many times before. Shouldn’t there be some acknowledgement of innovation? To my mind, that is “the stuff that dreams are made of,” which Bogey spoke of so long ago….

And here we are, five years after 6 Degrees of Film was published, and I still have the same complaints! There are no innovative new categories, and the diversity issue is still front and center. We are still talking about the ‘old white guys’ show, with few exceptions.

But this year may be different. In this changed atmosphere, post #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, then there may be some movement in the gender discrimination category.

Would it kill them to be innovative and come up with some new categories? Such as best “Breakthrough Performer” or Most Promising….really anything that smacks of “Something Different.” There’s been some discussion of late about naming the Best Picture that was awarded the Oscar for “Best Picture.” The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia come to mind.

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Movies of the 21st Century

Winners in this category would be Slumdog Millionaire, with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator being on the short list.

Nominated films that were superior include: Lost in Translation, Capote, Munich, Juno, There Will Be Blood, Up, The Social Network, Inception, Moneyball, Gravity, Her, The Big Short, The Revenant, Arrival, Fences, and a few more that define the times we live in much better than the films that won the Oscar.

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This year, Lady Bird and Get Out will probably not win, as they are not odds on favorites. The Shape of Water is an interesting entry, and it gets my vote, but Three Billboards is an outside favorite that has a good chance.

The point of it all isn’t really that these winners are the “Best” films, but the films with either more popular votes from Academy winners, or they represent a snapshot in time, and may or may not have staying power. Most of the recent winning films are forgettable.

 

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6 Degrees of Film

 

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Sign up for my mailing list to see all the latest news in film each week in Friday Flix. 6 Degrees of Film magazine features all the latest reviews and articles from leading publishers about current and classic movies. In editing the magazine, I make a point of going into the archives as well as searching the internet to find the latest reviews and summarizing the Big Picture each week in Friday Flix.

6 Degrees of Film blog features quarterly newsletters, weekly film reviews and reports, as well as excerpts from my 2013 book 6 Degrees of film: The Future of film in the Global Village. We also include reviews of classic movies, and current films in theaters and recommendations on television in the recurring feature: The Armchair Film Festival.  In other words, 6 Degrees is your one-stop shopping for all the film news that’s fit to print. Join us as we go through the latest winners and wrap up the Oscars report this week. We love to hear from you all….Enjoy the show and until next week, see you at the movies!-ML

6 Degrees: Friday Flix

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6 Degrees of Film

Happy Friday! Here’s a look at some of the stories that have been front and center in Hollywood these past few days. The Oscar Race is underway, with leading contenders like “The Shape of Water” and its director Guillarme del Toro, vying for the Oscar along with some dark horses such as 22 year old Timothee Chalamet who is nominated for Best Actor for Call Me By Your Name.

Best Actor bets are on Gary Oldman for his portrayal of Churchill in Darkest Hour, but past winner Daniel Day-Lewis is also up for Phantom Thread, as well as fellow Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Roman J Israel, Esq) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out).

The Best Actress category features first time nominee Sally Hawkins, who played the mute cleaning woman in The Shape of Water up against Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), the “legendary’ Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who is nominated for The Post, plus Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.

In Theatres: Fifty Shades Freed is out, and mercifully brings the series based on the best-selling book to an end. The reviews have not been kind. Also out is the much-anticipated Black Panther superhero film, which has garnered good reviews in early release. Clint Eastwood directed the 15:17 to Paris film, based on true events, and it has had mixed reviews.

There’s an article in 6 Degrees Magazine about the highest grossing movies, and at Friday Flix, we listed the top ten a few weeks ago. The all time biggest grossing movies, both Number 1 & 2 were directed by the same man: James Cameron. Cameron directed both Avatar and Titanic.

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The latest Star Wars offering just made the top ten list, which means there are two of the highest grossing films in history from the Star Wars Franchise. Disney, as we know, owns the Star Wars franchise, so the total number of films from the Disney franchise in the top ten list is five, meaning half of these big box office winners are Disney films.

The good news here is that there are creative forces at work that have helped to shape these films…from James Cameron’s innovative cinematography to the development of CGI that began when George Lucas started Industrial Light and Magic over thirty years ago (See the excerpt recently published on our blog from 6 Degrees of Film.)

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And “Girl Power” is more of a force than ever in film-making, with Frozen and the introduction of the Jedi Novitiate Rey in the Star Wars franchise. But there are still far too many films that rely on thin plots and comic book premises, CGI rendered story lines and weak plot points that have brought us to where we are in the film industry. Films that simply churn out the same tired super hero stories in sequel after sequel with formulaic plots and overly simplistic characters have become the standard in Hollywood filmmaking. And unfortunately, it sells.

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There are approximately three-count ‘em…three, films on the list of top ten films that are not sequels or have not been made into a series. Frozen has had spin-offs, but it is the only animated film to make the list. This speaks to the rising tide of women and girls who clamor for strong female role models, beginning with little girls who want to see the heroine carry the film for a change. Titanic was a ‘one-off’ for obvious reasons, although I would never say never in this environment. And the Avatar sequel is in the works, though Cameron has delayed the announcement of a definite opening date for several years.

Films like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Shape of Water still get made. There are original projects, great writers and talented actors and directors who give us wonderful and creative films despite the long odds. But the overwhelming trend in recent years has been to stick with the predictable models and continue to churn out the ‘chum’ of sequel-mania. And the list for 2018 doesn’t indicate many changes anytime soon.

Coming Soon: But when something comes along that looks interesting, original, creative and fun, we will be right up-front cheering the film along! There’s a unique entry from Wes Anderson coming soon called Isle of Dogs, which is a stop-motion film; and Ron Howard is directing Solo: A Star Wars story, which should be entertaining.

Sundance Film Festival featured The Kindergarten Teacher, and Joaquin Phoenix has received lots of buzz for his performance in the upcoming You Were Never Really Here. Check out the Film Comment Podcast: “I loved it when I was a kid”, talking about movies that the critics saw and remembered from their childhoods. It’s always fun to look back on those movies we loved, and sometimes to cringe when we watch them again and realize they weren’t always great cinematic gems, but then again, sometimes we enjoy them even more when we see them after all these years!

Until next week, have fun and see you at the movies!

 

6 Degrees:Friday Flix

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6 Degrees of Film

For Film Fans: About the Movie Pass: I’ve heard lots of good things about those who have signed up for the Movie Pass. If you go see more than one or two movies per month, or even one and have to pay almost 10 bucks just to get in the theatre, then it will pay you to get one. Word of caution: Check your location online and make sure that your local theatres, the ones you frequent the most, are on the list! If not, it’s not going to be such a good deal….

I have the chapter of From Star Wars to Sin City…online now for those who were not able to access it last week. It’s an extended excerpt from my book: 6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village. In this chapter, I have several quotes from George Lucas that seem even more prescient as he has sold his work to Disney and was envisioning the Star Wars mythology to continue long after his own contributions had ended…

There are several films in 2018 that are highly anticipated:

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In February it’s Black Panther, the Marvel film that has some insights into the world of Avengers…

In March: Bruce Willis will return in a remake of the classic Charles Bronson film: Death Wish
Director Wes Anderson will offer: Isle of Dogs
And Steven Spielberg is directing Ready Player One, based on the popular book
Another interesting title: Mary Magdalene will open with Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix

In April: Phoenix again stars, this time in the crime movie: You Were Never Really Here, which has had some good “buzz” from early screenings

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In May: Avengers: Infinity Wars drops. Like it or not, the comic book genre is here to stay…
Ron Howard will direct the spinoff: Solo: A Star Wars Story, with Alden Ehrenreich playing the Han Solo part

In June: The much-anticipated Ocean’s 8 female version, with Sandra Bullock starring will open.

Another Jurassic: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the sequel title.
Another sequel: Sicario 2: Soldado will open with Benicio Del Toro returning and Denis Villeneuve directing
In July: A Horror move: The Nun, part of The Conjuring Universe, debuts.
Another Sequel: Mission Impossible: 6 with Tom Cruise

In August: ANOTHER Sequel: The Equalizer 2 with Denzel Washington

In September: Here’s an idea. Another original version of Robin Hood with Taron Egerton in the lead role

In October: Tom Hardy will star as the villain from Spiderman’s Universe in Venom
Mowgli is another sequel of sorts. Andy Serkis takes on The Jungle Book character in this one.
First Man is a biopic of the first man who walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong

In November: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a Disney movie retelling the familiar tale.
Holmes and Watson is a comedy with Will Ferrell and John Reilly teaming up again
Fantastic Beasts is the next film in the series

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Mary Poppins 2018

In December: Aquaman drops into the Justice League category
Mary Poppins Returns is a musical scheduled for Christmas of 2018

Let us hope there are some original ideas along the way in the Indie department that are not yet on the radar. These films listed above are all big budget and as expected, they don’t break any new ground, but instead stick with the safest bets: Comic books and action hits that still draw big audiences.

In Case You Missed It: The Top Ten Highest Grossing films: (As of January 2018)

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1) Avatar -2009
2) Titanic (Both directed by James Cameron) – 1997
3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015
4) Jurassic World – 2015
5) The Avengers – 2012
6) Furious 7 – 2015
7) Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015
8) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2 – 2011
9) Frozen – 2013
10) Star Wars: The Last Jedi -2017

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*Star Wars: The Last Jedi just knocked the live action Beauty and the Beast off the top ten list. And the oldest film on the list is Titanic, from 1997. Frozen is the only animated film to make the list. And it’s usually the latest installment of the film series that makes the list. However, the Avengers from 2012 is the sixth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The eleventh film in the series, the sequel to Avengers, titled Avengers: Age of Ultron, is also in the top ten.

The only Harry Potter offering to still show up in the top ten is the last installment, completed in 201l, which was the final installment in the Harry Potter series. The box office winners tell the studios that people still love fantasy and romance, and Girlpower is on the ascendancy with the 2015 version of Star Wars featuring Rey as the heroine of the film.
The top two highest-grossing films have prominent romantic stories, with Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic as the doomed lover of Rose (Kate Winslet). But fantasy and science fiction, action and super heroes are all wildly popular with audiences. The shock of the familiar helps to encourage Hollywood as they churn out sequel after sequel each year.

Lucky for us that films like Lady Bird and The Florida Project help to balance out the continual diet of superheroes and sequels that dot the landscape of most theaters throughout the year…Check out the excerpts From Star Wars to Sin City here…and till next time, see you at the movies!-ML

From Star Wars to Sin City

 

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An excerpt from the 6 Degrees of Film: The future of film in the Global Village by Mary L Johnson:
“Star Wars is not a simple morality play; it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man,” wrote Joseph Campbell, one of George Lucas’s inspirations for the mythology used to create Star Wars.
Mark Dippe, a visual effects supervisor, said that the first thing he thought when he saw Star Wars in 1977 was, “Who the hell is this guy George Lucas? The film just stood apart; it still does. I think George Lucas’s films had a big influence on changing the process and vocabulary of filmmaking. The legacy of Star Wars is that at ILM [Industrial Light and Magic], we get a chance to work on creating things that haven’t been seen before.”
Over twenty-five years ago, George Lucas incorporated Industrial Light and Magic after he made Star Wars and extended his empire into the first decade of the twenty-first century. From approximately 1987 through 2012, major developments from ILM and other parts of the industry have made the film industry what it is today. The industry witnessed the end of an era in film and the beginning of a new age of moviemaking.
Industrial Light and Magic has definitely framed the era and defined it with their many breakthroughs in visual effects. The storyboarding that is critical to their vision is now a major part of most successful film series, and the comic genre that has emerged would not have been a reality without the effects of ILM.
The criticism that Lucas and Spielberg films have juvenilized the movies, to my mind, is unfair. These filmmakers have given the public what they want, and there never has been a dearth of creative talent in the film industry. On the contrary, there are many exciting new avenues for young and innovative minds to bring their creations to the screen, including Internet productions and independent venues. We are always seeing new ways for artistic talent to emerge as the next big thing.
Film is changing and evolving as it has from the beginning, and the medium as a mass-communication tool and an art form make this an exciting time to break into the market. The future of film may involve the type of images seen in Sin City and Waltzing with Bashir, where actors are not filmed in the traditional way but with a kind of brushstroke or cartoon quality that enables the plot to go in many different directions. There might be alternate endings and story lines to follow with endless variations. Online, the viewer can access alternative views from various characters’ perspectives.
The experience of going into a darkened theater to view a film is changing forever. As in the penny arcades and nickelodeons that began the first century of film, we now see the evolution and dawn of a new age and a new way of understanding the world through the medium of film.
George Lucas spoke of his ideas on the future path that might occur using film and some kind of drug to enhance the experience. His ideas regarding future films would make theatrical, narrative-driven movies, in his words, “as quaint as an old silent-reeler”:
I see true environments being created and combined with a lot of biotech things going on, in terms of manipulating people’s senses through drugs. This combination will have the most powerful effect on the kind of storytelling we’re doing today. It’s too far off for me to worry about, and I’m not interested in virtual reality at its current level, because it’s just too crude. But if you can program virtual reality or simulator rides with biotech, you will have a very interesting non-world. The first step would be to take the simulator ride part of an environment … where you can just implant the story in a pill and live it.
That’s not outside the realm of possibility. You’d take the pill and go to sleep. It’d be like a dream and you’d have an actual, real, physical experience of something completely imaginary. What that’ll mean for society, I have no idea, and how you’d get there from here is way beyond me, but I know enough to know it’s within the realm of possibility. Because they’re already going there, creating images without actually making them, just as you create them in a dream.

Industrial Light and Magic

Jim Morr, a former president of ILM, said, “When ILM started, there was no effects industry. Now there’s an industry beyond ILM. I’m sure there are people who feel ILM has become too corporate since the early Star Wars days. Well, we are working on major Hollywood motion pictures, so it’s certainly not a free-for-all. But we are still kind of funky when you compare us to a business like IBM or Xerox.”
Lucas said, “ILM is also a company where it has to make enough money to develop the state of the art. So everything has to be done extremely efficiently, and they have to generate enough money year after year to be able to buy new equipment. It’s a very capital-intensive business, so that means a huge amount of money is reinvested every year after year after year. And most companies can’t do that.”
The Roots of ILM
A Life magazine story from the 1960s summed up the crisis in visual effects in movies: “There were so many innovations occurring in film, but in the field of special effects, there was a dearth of ideas. The big studios couldn’t finance the large Technicolor spectacles that had been the signature entertainment for decades at studios like MGM and Paramount. By the sixties, the film industry had begun to resemble, a company town where the mine has closed.”
Demographics had changed, and audiences had changed. Even television had evolved, and the world was rapidly changing too. This meant that movies needed to evolve and adapt to the changing times. There was an opening for a big turnaround movie.
One appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At 2001’s release in 1969, Stanley Kubrick’s innovations were the cutting edge in technological advancement in films. But Kubrick’s innovations did not translate into other copy-cat films, and Kubrick remained something of a lone-wolf figure. For one thing, the film was made in England and was too big and too expensive to emulate. The film failed to revive the waning special-effects industry in Hollywood. But it did inspire a generation of young filmmakers who saw that it could be done.
George Lucas was one who acted on that inspiration. He said, “Almost from the moment film was invented, there was this idea that you could play tricks, make an audience believe they were seeing things that really weren’t there. But this was completely lost by the 1960s.”
Lucas labored for two years on his Star Wars script. The film’s goal was to create a universe. But beyond that, he was looking for a storyline that would serve as a staging ground for a new kind of mythology.
Lucas said, “I was struck [at the time] by the fact that the western was the last American myth and there’d been no mythology created since the mid-fifties. I thought space was the next environment where you could begin to develop that mythology.”

History of Industrial Light and Magic

George Lucas created ILM in 1975 to provide visual effects for Star Wars. How he did it is a story that in many ways parallels the innovations that Steve Jobs incorporated at Apple. A new approach to special effects was needed and a void to be filled. Lucas saw it and acted.
Most of the major studios had begun to dismantle and discard the trappings of the studio system. They had sold off their back lots, auctioning off props and equipment. Among the casualties of this corporate downsizing were the effects departments. The most talented of the artists either retired or scattered to find work. Consequently, cameras were consigned to the scrap heaps, put in storage, or sold cheap.
“Visual effects was, at the time, a dying art. A number of studios passed on the [Star Wars] script before [Fox] picked up the project.”
In forming ILM, Lucas sought to emulate the studio-effects departments that were now long gone in Hollywood. One of the first things ILM did was to look at the past and become resourceful in renovating the old equipment. They set out to locate an outdated camera known as a VistaVision.

The History of VistaVision

VistaVision, invented in the 1950s, is a film format used to create big-screen images such as those in The Ten Commandments. VistaVision also was used in the classics North by Northwest and White Christmas.
Although Paramount studios developed VistaVision, they soon abandoned it as too expensive. And theater owners had to retool theaters to show the films made in the format. Only about twenty theaters ever really retooled to show the movies to their full advantage.
Industrial Light and Magic wanted to achieve superior visual quality in their shots. They solved some of their problems by incorporating the old VistaVision cameras, acquiring them at bargain-basement prices. The two cameras built for use in The Empire Strikes Back were the first live-action VistaVision cameras built since the days of The Ten Commandments. For that reason, an old Ten Commandments poster hung above the printer in the optical department at ILM for many years.
ILM reimagined and retooled VistaVision equipment to become the VistaFlex camera. These cameras became one of the most significant (and also underrated) advances in camera technology after Star Wars. But unlike their predecessors, these cameras were lightweight and compact—the hot-rods of photographic equipment.
After Star Wars achieved its historic global box-office success, ILM became the permanent special-effects unit of Lucasfilm Ltd. Subsequently, a renaissance of VistaVision technology flourished at ILM. This innovative group also would go on to develop motion-control technology.

Motion Control

Motion control is the ability to control the movement of the camera, and the photographic subject in synchronization to the movement of the film through the camera. After the success of Star Wars, ILM had the opportunity to accelerate enormously the integration of electronics and filmmaking.
Motion control started in 1971 with Douglas Trumbull using it on the film Silent Running. John Dykstra, who worked at ILM and was a special photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars, had been a member of that team. Dykstra recalled, “We took archaic cameras, built before we were even born, and we created hybrids of them by bolting different parts together. Nobody else was inventing cameras to make films in 1975. We were there when a genre was being born and reborn.”
It is fair to say that George Lucas and his team rescued a dying part of their industry—the art of special effects—and transformed it into something wholly different, something extraordinarily special—even unique—to enhance the term special in the phrase.

The Dykstraflex System

Another breakthrough moment in the early history of ILM came with the Dykstraflex system, named for John Dykstra, the photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars.
The Dykstraflex system was built before the advent of personal computers. All of the interaction is between the motion-control system and the camera operator. The system was in operation for fifteen years, from 1976 to 1993.
Until the computer revolution hit with full force in the 1990s, the compositing process was in the hands of ILM’s optical department—the optical dogs—who were required to handle an incoming rush of film elements while ignoring the heat of deadline pressures. Little did they realize that by the spring of 1994, the old, photochemical optical process would be completely replaced by the electronics of digital computers, and the optical dogs would become obsolete.
So it went with a lot of the old optical equipment. It was either decommissioned and put on display or dismantled. The optical department itself was reduced to a small staff with two computerized motion-control printers. Talk was that celluloid film itself might soon become extinct.
In the anticipated future without physical film, the digital cameras would be used to record live-action or composite elements. Then the computer graphics would generate three-dimensional characters and sets, and compositing and editing would be accomplished in the digital realm. The final movie would be beamed directly to home viewers by satellite or through computer modem or electronically projected in the quaint, old-fashioned confines of a movie theater.
Metaphor for the End of an Era: Shattering the Glass
From 1990 through 1993, the industrial part of the ILM equation changed dramatically. ILM had a beautiful four-foot-tall and six-foot-wide glass painting of the gothic New York City building used in Ghostbusters II. But the glass had warped and shattered when ILM tried to have it framed. That was the end of glass paintings. The same could be said for the old-fashioned way that brush and oils were used for matte paintings on film. Within five years, the outmoded brush and oils were replaced by the digital medium.
The company was experimenting with the new Photoshop program on Macintosh (Mac) computers, and the head of the computer graphics department realized they could do matte paintings and composites on this simple little box. Ironically, Lucas himself is not a digital graphics guy at heart. He said,
I’ve never been that interested in computers … I’m interested in making movies and creating images and in doing it in the easiest way possible. When you start out making movies, you’re trying to get the largest vision with what amounts to a limited amount of resources. So it’s a constant struggle to add more colors to the palette, and the way you get more colors is to spend huge amounts of money. But at some level, there are colors you can’t get, because no amount of money will get you there.
With Star Wars we were basically off the color palette. The technology did not exist, but that’s what the story was. I wanted to tell this story, but the color only existed in theory. The only way you’ll get there is to create technology that will bring those colors into the realm of what’s achievable, and that’s basically what ILM was. So I had to get involved in computers and the high-tech area … And for a long time at ILM, the state of the art was using computers to manipulate hardware—the old-fashioned nineteenth century celluloid—through sprockets technology … In 1978–79, I put together a computer division because I wanted to get a digital printer.
A microcosm of the end of the studio system occurred with the computer age replacing the age of cameras and sprockets. George Lucas began by reorganizing the entire computer-graphics division at Industrial Light and Magic.
Lucas continues, “On T2 [Terminator 2] I realized that we didn’t need to think in three dimensions all the time, that the images for film are really two-dimensional and flat. Once I realized that we could paint on the individual film frames … I realized we could do anything.”
Through the use of computer graphics, Lucas transformed not only ILM, but the entire film industry within five years. By 1993, ILM had entered into a strategic business alliance with Silicon Graphics (SGI) that allowed for ongoing cooperation in developing high-powered workstations (computers).
At this point, the Mac Squad was formed. They utilized Macintosh computers and Photoshop software to combine the digital world with such traditional departments as optical, animation, and rotoscope. {Author’s Note: Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, to use in live-action. The glowing light saber in all three original Star Wars films, was a product of rotoscoping.} As with the beginning years of film production, the processing power and the speed and memory of computers made the transition to digital occur many years earlier than some had believed to be possible. Computers were becoming faster, and memory capability was doubling at an incredible rate.

The Age of Industrial Light and Magic

The film age we now live in is the age of Industrial Light and Magic. In essence, today is the age of the computer and special effects. For many years, the special-effects personnel worked anonymously. But with Star Wars, that anonymity ended. And so it continues that movie audiences expect and demand to be thrilled and dazzled by the artistry onscreen.
Lucas, naturally, disagrees with critics who claim that special effects tend to overpower subtleties of plot and character at times. He said, “The people who saw Star Wars and said ‘spectacular special effects!’ just never understood it. The same thing with Indiana Jones … Some people look at those movies and they don’t see the intricacies of the character and story … You can see so many movies released in the wake of those two movies, just loaded with special effects and stunts, but they don’t make very interesting movies.”

Future Shock

Industrial Light and Magic’s retooling included the sweeping away of archaic trappings of the industrial age. By the spring of 1994, the property master was cataloguing and auctioning off many old props, industrial hardware, and memorabilia that ILM had acquired in the 1970s.
This new technowave was felt with brutal suddenness in the halls of ILM. The old matte-painting department was replaced with computer hardware and painting-software systems. The old motion-control camera was replaced by some twenty computer-graphic workstations. The optical printing department was virtually eliminated by a high-powered scanner.
Dennis Muren of ILM said, “We became professionals as a calling, not just a career choice … I feel like the world has changed around us with a suddenness that no one could have predicted—and right now, we’re experiencing future shock!”
Lucas has nostalgic reflections. After all, he was the one who resurrected the VistaVision equipment to make Star Wars. He said, “I don’t like technology much, so I have no emotional ties to the technology whatsoever … I care about the images on the screen, and I’m not really enamored with the process at all. As a matter of fact, technology mostly gets in the way, and therefore, you’re constantly trying to get a better tool … On the practical side, I don’t think anybody really likes to stand out in the snow at three o’clock in the morning when it’s forty degrees below zero.”

 

6 Degrees: Friday Flix

168816805 FOR 6 DEGREES COVER PHOTO SHOT

 

Hello Film Fans! We are entering an exciting season with lots of awards and film releases that will kick off the start of Awards Season in Hollywood and around the globe. There’s the Sundance Film Festival for Independent films, followed by the Oscars in February and the Cannes Film Festival later in the Spring.

So that means there’s a surfeit of really good movies to see out there (for a change!). I’ve heard good buzz about The Shape of Water, one of my must-see’s, as well as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Spielberg’s The Post.

Other films in contention for top awards include The Florida Project with Willem Dafoe, Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, and Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day Lewis.

The Many Elephants in the Room: These days, there are many ways to be “Politically Incorrect” when talking about film and the Hollywood Studio System. Harvey Weinstein was just the tip of the iceberg which has set off a real earthquake which is long overdue, not only in the famed Halls of Hollywood, but as a National Conversation for Americans to begin in the workplace. At Friday Flix and on the Six Degrees blog, we’ve talked for the past year about the ways in which women are slighted in Hollywood. Not only slighted in the directors’ chair, but in women’s pay, and of course, on the infamous ‘casting couch’ which has become, thanks to serial offenders such as Weinstein, an open secret. So the fact that we are talking about these things is a positive development as we move into 2018.

There’s still a long way to go. And the diversity issue, another well-known open secret in Hollywood, has also become an issue at the Oscars, with #OscarsSoWhite trending, as well as the many barriers which still need to be broken in terms of diversity and gender. For those who believe this is a recent phenomenon, cast your minds back (if you are just a child-use the Google Machine!) to the time that Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Oscar in 1973 and sent a young Native American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather on stage in full Tribal dress to state the reasons why Brando didn’t want to accept his Academy Award. He was, to say the least, ahead of his time on this issue. And to bring this conversation full circle, there’s a good piece featured in 6 Degrees Magazine from The New Yorker this week that asks: Can Hollywood Change Its Ways?

Looking forward to: Hostiles, the Western with Christian Bale, which has gotten good advance reviews. For more films coming soon, we compiled a list of the 2018 releases that look promising. And Tom Hardy is starring in his own Comic book film, Venom, set to release in October of this year.

The Black Panther film opening next month has received lots of good advance press and has a big following as a long-anticipated comic offering. There’s a list of books set to become films in 2018 that are listed in an article from Bustle, if you feel so inclined to read the plots and compare. There’s a list of best 21st Century films out from Gizmodo. I can’t agree with many of the films listed, but Arrival and Ex Machina, and possibly Let the Right One In would probably make the cut on my list….

I’m working to compile some of the best films of the past two decades. That would be the films of the 21st Century. In my book, 6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village, there’s an entire section that features the work of George Lucas and his Industrial Light & Magic Studio. The CGI concept of film-making has really revolutionized the industry. As someone said in the book, the ideas and concepts that were simply on paper or in someone’s head can now be conceptualized with the industry’s graphic and computer capability. The only limits now are bound in the limits of the director or filmmaker’s imagination.

My gift to all of the devoted film fans of 6 Degrees is a downloadable Chapter of 6 Degrees of Film: From Star Wars to Sin City. If you’d like a copy, please sign up here for the Friday Flix and the upcoming Oscar Newsletter, and you’ll get link to receive a copy of the chapter from my book. I’ve got other upcoming gifts for Film Fans in 2018, and hope to hear from all of you during the course of the year. Until then, See you at the movies!-ML

Next Week: A look at the new Movie Pass -the Good and bad points when using the service

Can Hollywood Change its Ways?

 

 

6 Degrees Friday Flix

6 Degrees of Film

The Friday Flix is basically a list of the threads that tie together to become part of the 6 Degrees of Film. For those who may not find the connections in older films, and the notion that everything old is new again, we’ve decided to keep the 6 Degrees theme for our Friday Flix weekly film review. And naturally, that applies to our online magazine, 6 Degrees, as well.

For this week in film, there’s a good piece that ranks all the James Bond films. On Flipboard, (Favorite Things for Writers), the Bond blog takes it to extremes with the question of Bond’s salary, which seems to be stretching it a bit far. But Bond movies are in the news as companies are salivating over the bids by studios to take over the successful franchise.

There is one article that lists recommended search engines for films. With the recognition that many sites are offering free streaming movies to view, and so many types of either “niche” postings for horror or comedy or comics, there are way too many places to list. But the ones that we all know: Netflix, IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes are certainly on there, and then there’s the newer and –I hate to use this word- “hipper” ones which are Criticker-which finds movies to watch; Clerkdogs-which uses a film you like to find similar types; and the highest recommendation went to Jinni. You can search films or find new films and reviews on this site. So check it out….?

Recommendations are included for two big film festivals- Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, opening this week, and Cannes Film Festival in France. Classic films and films stars will be honored, as well as premieres of art films and other major productions. One retrospective will feature Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” documentary (hard to believe Moore’s films are old enough to start doing retrospectives of them!)

The Summer Film rollout seems to come earlier each year. It used to be the end of May, but now we see the films rolled out the week after Easter (which this is!). The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise is big (no surprise), and Guy Ritchie’s re-tool of the King Arthur legend is opening soon with Jude Law and Charlie Hunnam as Arthur.

Goldie Hawn is back in a comedy with Amy Schumer, Snatched, opening Mother’s Day weekend. Another comedy that features a female cast is Rough Night with Scarlett Johannson, about a bachelorette party in Miami gone wrong. A female styling of The Hangover perhaps?

For those awaiting the return of Will Ferrell to comic form, he is starring in The House, with Amy Poehler, about a couple who try to convert their basement into a casino.

The prequel for Alien-Alien: Covenant opens in May. Pirates of the Caribbean has another entry with a returning Johnny Depp. Baywatch has been widely publicized, and stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Wonder Woman kicks off the Summer Season in June with Gal Gadot in the title role.

For kids, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is also in June, based on the popular book series. Also for kids, Cars 3 from Pixar with Owen Wilson as the voice of Lightning McQueen. And Despicable Me 3 opens June 30th with Steve Carell returning in the third installment.

For adults who are still Tom Cruise fans, Tom is re-booting The Mummy franchise. For young adults, there’s The Book of Henry, about an 11 year old who discovers a secret about the family next door.Transformers is back in June, titled: Transformers: The Last Knight.

And the sequels and comic book series keep on coming with Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring Tom Holland. Then there’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

One that looks good is from director Christopher Nolan, and features Tom Hardy and the acting debut of Harry Styles-it’s the WW II drama Dunkirk, coming in July.( There’s a trailer on our site for this one). We’ll have more in the next week with a full list of the Summer Movies opening. But there are a few here that look pretty good, amidst the sturm and drang of the sequels and prequels.

One film that has an anniversary and therefore, is getting some renewed attention features Jack Nicholson’s masterful performance in “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, based on the book by Ken Kesey. The book is great, and the film is recommended viewing for anyone who has never seen it. Check out the review on 6 Degrees.

One funny post was a list of actors who “sell out” to make movies. My friend and I used to talk about, in particular Michael Caine, who seemed to always be in these parts where he was just walking through and picking up a paycheck. We always called these actors “whores” for money (as a joke!). But it is easy to spot the talented actors who are seen from time to time in films where there is not much story, little need for a range of emotions, just lots of money and wasted talent on display as the veteran actors trudge through, sometimes gamely, as guns for hire in these plotless wonders.

One interesting development over at Turner Classics has veteran Alec Baldwin stepping in as host for The Essentials on TCM. Should be good!

The films that are reviewed this week, besides Rear Window from Ebert, are The Handmaiden, Colossal with Anne Hathaway, The Promise with Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, Unforgettable with Katherine Heigl-which has mixed reviews, The Lost City of Z from the McGuffin site and Free Fire, also on McGuffin.

There’s also a biopic of Emile Zola and Paul Cezanne called Cezanne et Moi, a review of director David Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, and a review of Their Finest from our friends at Salty Popcorn. There’s also a review from Time magazine in 1977 of the Academy Award winner, Annie Hall, from Woody Allen.

Other film news is an adaptation in the works of Fahrenheit 451, done by HBO Films. And there’s a piece on the classic Mike Nichol’s film of the sixties, ‘The Graduate” starring Dustin Hoffman. Sofia Coppola is remaking “The Beguiled” with Nicole Kidman starring in the remake of the Clint Eastwood film from the seventies.

There’s a blog post making the case against the genre of Film Noir. That may be true for some aspects of a defunct genre, with the very few films even being made in black and white, but there is a very real and distinct place in the annals of cinema history for the Film Noir genre. In my book, 6 Degrees of Film,there’s a chapter devoted to The Rise of Film Noir.

Noir brought us the antihero, and with it, the rise of actors like Humphrey Bogart, who really found his footing playing these cynical characters always with a touch of gallows humor. There is such a thing as New Noir also, and if you’ve ever seen a film made in Noir style and shot in stark black and white, you usually remember it. My final thoughts from 6 Degrees were that although it’s out of vogue at the moment in Hollywood, if it’s done right the genre can produce great cinema; done poorly, it becomes camp.

Also of note: a post on Filmmaking in the Age of Social Media. It is a good discussion as the way we view films and perceive reality is at times different after we have lived with Social Media and the age of the Internet.

And along these lines, there’s an article on Film Inquiry about favorite opening credits. That’s a good one to mull over, as some of the most innovative and interesting film ideas reveal themselves as we watch the opening credits of movies and see how a director or a filmmaker can portray something that we may have watched dozens of times, but with a new twist or a different visual perspective, we see things with fresh eyes. That’s part of the beauty of film and it’s what keeps us going back for more. Till next time, see you at the movies!-ML