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Late 2015 Conferences Update

Quick note about speaking plans for late 2015:


CocoaConf

I’ll be speaking at CocoaConfs Boston (Sep. 18-9) and San Jose (Nov. 6-7). Boston is going to be a one-track conference, since CocoaConf had such good results with that in Yosemite. I’ll be bringing my App Extensions class and Video Killed the Rolex Star, which is all about the media APIs that are (and aren’t) on Apple Watch.

Chris Adamson in Game Show

Early Bird for Boston ends Friday (July 31), so get on it if you want to go.

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Crunchy Apple TV

Nice surprise this morning that the latest Apple TV update adds an app for Crunchyroll, my go-to source for anime streaming.

Crunchyroll running on Apple TV

But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?). This version of Crunchyroll is members-only. If you don’t have a membership, you can watch the first episode of each of 20 or so anime series, and a comparable number of Japanese and Korean dramas. That’s in sharp contrast to Crunchy on the web and on other platforms, where most of the library is free-with-ads, and the benefits of subscribing are no ads, HD, and immediate access to simulcasts instead of a two week wait (there are a handful of episodes here and there that are also subscribers-only, like the last half of anohana).

For the freeloaders, you’re probably still better off getting the Crunchyroll app for iOS and AirPlay’ing it to the Apple TV, or just switch platforms and get Crunchyroll for Roku.

As a subscriber, I perpetually have Crunchyroll all-access passes to give out, and which keep expiring unused, so hit me up on Twitter if you want one, though (as The Loop’s Peter Cohen reminds me), you might be better off just grabbing the one-week trial through the Apple TV, or two weeks from Crunchyroll’s website.

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A brief Anime Central 2013 media travelogue

Anime Central was last weekend in Chicago. I don’t have as much to say this year as last, but a few media related things were worth blogging:

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2012: Three Things

I usually don’t have much use for year-ender type pieces — not sure if I’ve ever done one on this blog — but I’ve got an accumulated bunch of thoughts that I might as well just work out in one big brain-dump. With luck, some of it will actually tie together.

Gonna talk about three things:

  1. No politics
  2. iOS Development
  3. Anime

It’s about 4,000 words. Grab a pop/coffee/beer if you need to.

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What Anime Central Taught Me About Mac/iOS Media

I spent the weekend in Chicago at Anime Central 2012, the first anime convention I’ve been to since Anime Weekend Atlanta 2007. Many of us geeks have our escapes: mine is the mythical realm of “Japan”, where children are taught the value of empathy, and people default to a position of kindness and respect in their dealings with others. ぼく の ゆめ きれい です。

invalidname's ACen Badge

Along with loading up on collectibles (Angel Beats! Anohana!) and finding new shows to watch (Toradora!), I had a few encounters that, surprisingly, led to some insights about where digital media is and is going on the platforms I work with.


That iPad UStream Guy

In the Sentai Filmworks panel, I noticed a guy in the front row shooting video with his iPad. Not a bad idea — the battery life is enormous, so you might only be limited by using up the flash storage. But what I discovered later was that he was the animecon-industry channel on UStream, and was streaming all these panels live on the internet. From the iPad.

Multiply this by a bunch more iPads and a bunch more interesting pursuits and I start to wonder why I’m not already combing UStream for cool stuff streaming now.

BTW, I asked three questions in the Sentai Panel. Watch the recorded version and you can hear me asking about whether iTunes download-to-own makes still sense for them, why they went back and licensed the older ef: A Tale of _____ shows, and what led to the reissue of Clannad After Story with an English dub.


Making Music with Miku

Hatsune Miku Vocaloid 2 softwareAnother panel I went to was a how-to showing how Yamaha’s “Vocaloid” software can be used to create synthetic singers, such as the very popular (and much-cosplayed) Hatsune Miku. What I didn’t expect to find out is that the Yamaha guy who created the Vocaloid software is a big Mac fan, and despite the fact that the Vocaloid products are Windows-only, was shown in a video from last year’s Anime Expo toting a MacBook Air to a panel (it may be this one, but if not, it still shows Ito-san clearly using an Air).

Duly inspired by this, the panelists at ACen showed a MacBook-based workflow that used Vocaloid 3, despite the fact the program is Windows-only, and was only partially localized for English. They played a synth into Logic Pro to lay down a base music track, then played a second track as the vocal line. They exported that track as a .mid (MIDI sequence) in a directory shared with VMWare, where it could then be imported into Vocaloid and sung by Miku. After tweaking the Japanese phonetic lyrics, they exported a .wav back to Logic to complete the song.

Of course, wouldn’t it be nicer to cut Windows out entirely? Knowing that there are Mac fans at Yamaha and Crypton, maybe Apple should make some calls. Having Hatsune Miku as an instrument in GarageBand or Logic would be a hell of a lot of fun, and would surely lead to getting her as the vocalist of even more songs on iTunes (she already had more than 1,500 last time I checked).

I’ve also mentioned on several occasions that the AUSampler audio unit in Lion and iOS 5 is doing a pitch shift more or less equivalent to what Vocaloid does, with the key difference that AUSampler can be played live, while Vocaloid uses a render step and could look ahead to upcoming notes to produce more realistic output. I’ve meant to try hacking up a “Hatsune Mac-ku” with AUSampler one of these days… it’s on the list of experimental projects that could turn into an article/blog/session if I find the time to get it working.


There’s An App For That Anime

Kids on the Slope page on Crunchyroll iPad appOne of the first things I did on the show floor was to finally sign up as a paying subscriber for Crunchyroll, the streaming service that offers many anime shows within hours of their Japanese airdate. Considering I’m currently using it to keep up with Kids on the Slope, Bodacious Space Pirates, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I’ve come to feel like quite the freeloader.

Part of the reason I’m watching so much Crunchyroll is that it’s easy to do so on the iPad while waiting in the hallway for my kids to fall asleep. Like a lot of Flash-based websites, Crunchyroll has had the sense to build an iPad app. And one of the upsides of having a real app is that the video can be sent over to an Apple TV for proper wide-screen viewing.

Watching Bodacious Space Pirates on Apple TV with AirPlay
When I look at the “Anime” folder on my iPad — consisting of Crunchyroll, Anime Network, Funimation Free, and Adult Swim — and then look at the icons on the Apple TV screen, I can’t help but wish that these streaming apps could be on the Apple TV itself. With the latest Apple TV update presenting us with a grid of app-like icons for the various services and providers, it sure feels like this is what we’re heading towards. And when you can just subscribe to your favorite sports league as an app and not deal with cable/satellite/local-broadcast hassles and blackouts, it starts to show the promise the cord-cutters have been talking about all this time.

The New York Times had an interesting article on this the other day. After presenting the channel-as-app metaphor, they point out that this could bring about the “a la carte” model that so many viewers have wanted for so long: the ability to just buy the content that you want, and not have to buy a bunch of programming you don’t want. But they also identify the catch that I’ve worried about for years: many of the content providers are vertically integrated with distributors. All the NBC/Universal networks are owned by Kabletown Comcast, which means that they may not want to sell content directly to end-users when that cuts into the parent’s core business of selling cable subscriptions.

And would a la carte make sense for consumers? We might get sticker shock. Think about my anime apps: I’m in for $7/month with Crunchyroll. But they don’t have everything. If I want Lupin the 3rd commercial-free on Funimation streaming, that’s $8/mo, and ef on Anime Network is going to set me back another $7/mo. So just for anime, I’m in for 22 bucks a month! Do I have anything left for sports or news? Suddenly, the DirecTV bundle isn’t looking so bad anymore. [Indeed, Anime Network is also on DirecTV VOD, which is why I’d be highly unlikely to pay for it again as a streaming subscription. Last year, instead of cord-cutting, we doubled-down on DirecTV and upgraded to their “whole home” service. We’ll probably eventually want to get the nomad too. YMMV.]

Anime folder on my iPad
In fact, when I saw the much linked Oatmeal cartoon about I Tried to Watch “Game of Thrones” and This Is What Happened, I had a specific thought when I got to the frame where the protagonist is flashing his credit card in front of the computer, saying he was ready to buy if only they would sell it to him. Here’s my thinking: HBO knows full well that there are people who subscribe to the channel entirely for the sake of one show. That is their business model: you buy it for Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, and as a bonus, you get to see Splash and Independence Day 400 times a month. Which is total crap of course, since we only care about Game of Thrones. So if you’re paying just for that show, what’s the cost? Say it’s $30/month times however long a season runs, plus time to unsubscribe, leaving a little room for customers who don’t bother unsubscribing religiously. Shall we say four months? Then that means a season of Game of Thrones is arguably worth $120 per subscriber.

Now imagine if HBO put out a Blu-Ray set, day and date with the series, at that price point. Everyone would scream bloody murder. But, Mr. Oatmeal, you were flashing your credit card! Did you think that a new production should cost the same as a back-catalog show from 20 years ago that has already paid its bills several times over?

But I’m kind of digressing into old arguments. The point to make about networks-as-apps is that Apple’s treating Apple TV as a “hobby”, the lack of an SDK for Apple TV, the company’s slow movement towards backing it up with content other than the not-terribly-popular iTunes download-to-own and partners like Netflix… it could be that they’re not going to take on the entire cable/satellite industry until they’re confident there’s a real opportunity, if not an absolute certainty, that they’ll win. What I see is a long game, where they roll out technologies like HTTP Live Streaming and AirPlay, see if they take, and let the pieces quietly get into place. Not a fiendish master plan… just preparing relevant technologies and partnerships so they can enter this war at a time and place of their choosing.


Dreaming of Streaming

Speaking of HTTP Live Streaming, one last point is to acknowledge what a tremendous success story this has been? Non-existent 5 years ago, it is now the technology that delivers all streaming video on the hundreds of millions of iOS devices, in a way that satisfies the security demands of the major media companies, sports leagues, etc. As I mentioned before, my iPad is full of video streaming apps, not just the various networks and content providers, but stuff like UStream that captures and streams live video.

The thing to start watching now is what happens with MPEG DASH, which resembles HTTP Live Streaming and similar technologies from Adobe (Adaptive Streaming) and Microsoft (Smooth Streaming), all of which use HTTP (rather than custom socket connections on frequently-blocked ports) to deliver small segments of video and adjust to changing network conditions. Streaming Media reports increasing support for the proposed DASH standard from many companies, but notably not Apple. Which makes sense in a cynical view — why let the competition catch up when content providers already have to go HLS to reach the massive iOS user base? A more practical concern is that DASH seems to want to make everybody happy by just wrapping some existing standards for codecs and manifest delivery, which may end up meaning that it just becomes the “15th standard”:

And speaking of HTTP Live Streaming, I’m preparing an all-new session on HLS for CocoaConf outside DC in late June. The early-bird deadline has been extended until this Friday (May 4), so if you want to see how cool this stuff is, you’ve still got time to save a few bucks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put this Crunchyroll subscription to work and catch up on the subscriber-only new episodes, now that I just finished Angel Beats! from iTunes last night.

Holiday weekend anime binge

Please indulge me a personal entry for the holiday weekend… this one isn’t going to have any technical content, so if that’s what you read my blog for, please move on to the next entry in your feed.

I’ve mentioned in a couple of my WWDC entries that a big part of any of my trips to San Francisco is shopping time in Japantown, where I can get music, manga, and merch to sate my interest in anime and manga.

I’m not the only developer-by-day who’s into this stuff obviously. Google’s Steve Yegge had an epic blog a few years ago with anime that he and his wife had discovered over the last few years. I’ve been thinking about my own favorites list for a while, and having finally codified a top 5, I don’t really have a great place to put it, short of posting here and directing Twitter and Facebook friends back to it.

So, really, if you’re not interested in a really long entry about Japanese cartoons, stop now. Because I’m just getting started, and I want to get this out of the way before my turn on iDevBlogADay comes around again.


Motivations, Moods, and Models

So why do I like anime? It’s a mixture of things: the storytelling styles, the moods (do Americans ever do bittersweet? Do we have any mood that resembles mono no aware?), the set of cultural values that I’d sometimes like to trade up to, and other times am relieved I don’t share. But still, I’ve been watching the stuff since I was 6 years old, glued to Kimba the White Lion on channel 50 on a Summer’s day in 1974.

Many people cite the unique cultural influences in anime, but it’s also very much a product of economics and technology. What first drew me to anime was the heavy use of continuity: a 35-episode show like Macross had a definite beginning, middle, and end, while American shows, even putatively “adult” dramas, hit the “reset button” every episode so nothing ever changed. It’s not that the Japanese were better storytellers, it’s that the Americans made their money in second-run syndication (reruns on local stations), which worked against continuity. Until the satellite revolution launched by Entertainment Tonight in 1981 (not kidding… look it up), syndicated programs were ferried between stations by courier, a practice commonly called “bicycling”. A week’s worth of tapes or film reels would make its way around a region from week to week: maybe Detroit, then Lansing, then Grand Rapids, then Traverse City. But you couldn’t count on the couriers making their appointed rounds, nor could you count on local stations to run episodes in the right order. And a show with a distinct ending might not be worth watching again to the average viewer. So… reset button, every week.

In Japan, reruns weren’t a major economic consideration, as programs were largely broadcast by national or regional broadcasters. Moreover, a big part of the economic model of anime was selling tie-in merch, like Gundam model kits. All this works in favor of continuity: if Heero’s Wing Gundam gets destroyed halfway through the series, only to be replaced by Wing Zero a few episodes later, then every kid in Japan is going to want to buy the new toy. Crass? Sure. But it made for better stories, so I’ll take it.

As with anything, 90% of anime is crap. But the other 10% does something for me that I rarely, if ever, get from Western TV and movies. So, considering TV, OVAs, and movies together, here’s my personal top 5.


5. Cowboy Bebop

TV Series (26 episodes) • 1998 • Available on DVD from Bandai • Not available for streaming
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB9q7Zm-cvI]

Bull: That is not an ordinary star, my son. That star is the tear of a warrior.
Child: What warrior is it?
Bull: A lost soul who has finished his battle somewhere on this planet. A pitiful soul who could not find his way to the lofty realm where the great spirit awaits us all.

So, after a big long rant about continuity, here’s a show that’s largely episodic, and is all the better for it. The 30-minute drama is a rare creature, not seen much on these shores since The Twilight Zone. It’s a pity, because it’s a format that’s well-suited to tight, fast, engaging stories, without the fluff of a B- or C-plot that exists largely so every member of the cast can earn their paycheck for the week (paging Ice-T…). The 30-minute drama introduces a problem and quickly gets about complicating and eventually resolving it.

The things I liked in Rod Serling’s taut morality plays are often on display in Cowboy Bebop, a sci-fi mashup that borrows from Westerns, film noir, samurai movies, and yakuza stories. The tales of four mismatched down-on-their luck bounty hunters in a multicultural Solar System diaspora, the “job of the week” format rarely turns out as expected: often the “bounty head” is a pawn in a larger game, one which our protagonists lose as often as not.

And through it all, a sneaky continuity is built up despite itself. The three main characters all have a backstory, one that inevitably catches up with them, particularly in the bittersweet (there’s that word again) “Speak Like a Child”, and the series finale “The Real Folk Blues”, the last act of which is probably my favorite TV ending of all time.

Funny comedy, satisfying action, and one of the most distinctive and effective musical scores a TV show has ever enjoyed… no wonder the writers at the AV Club are doing a rewatch of Cowboy Bebop over the Summer.


4. Rumbling Hearts

TV Series (14 episodes) • 2003-4 • Available on DVD from Funimation • Available on iTunes • Available streaming YouTube (13 eps.), Hulu (2 eps), ANN (2 eps),
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1QK7F0H1Ac]

Akane: Everyone is determined to keep the truth from you! Everyone is lying to you! Even I’m lying! This uniform is a lie! I’m not in middle school anymore, and Takayuki isn’t in high school! He isn’t studying for the exam… he didn’t even take the exam!

You want to know something else that’s rare in American pop culture? Any kind of a romance genre targeted at men. Romance is a trait found in other genres, but as a genre unto itself, it’s completely and (arguably) exclusively aimed at women here. This is something I’ve written about before, in that visual novels fill this gap.

Rumbling Hearts is the TV adaptation of one of the most popular of these VNs/games. It is also emotionally devastating. It starts off with the sweet if not saccharine romance of Takayuki and Haruka, prodded on by Mitsuki, their mutual friend. Mitsuki then feels left out, and delays Takayuki on his way to a date with Haruka. When he finally arrives, he finds an accident scene: while waiting for him, Haruka was hit by a car, and has been rushed to the hospital.

The story jumps ahead three years: former star student Takayuki is now a mere waiter at a chain restaurant, former champion swimmer Mitsuki plugs away as an office lady, the two of them are in a semi-functional relationship, and Haruka is still in a coma. And then Haruka starts to wake up. With Haruka completely oblivious to the passage of time, and too mentally fragile to handle it yet, her doctor asks family and friends to act as if no time has passed. Which means that, as far as Haruka knows, Takayuki is still her classmate boyfriend (and not a reclusive washout), and Mitsuki is still her best friend (and not her cuckolder).

This. Can. Not. End. Well.

It’s a premise that screams “soap opera”, but the ruse is only really in play for about a third of Rumbling Hearts’ runtime (episodes 5-10, with 6 being mostly a flashback), just enough to be a great hook, while barely managing to not stretch credibility too far.

Credibility is a key factor in this series, because its detractors dismiss the characters’ behavior out of hand. While there are moments of exquisite sublety, there are also big moments where characters actions are beyond the pale, most infamously when Takayuki hits his lowest point of guilt and self-loathing and tries to spirit the comatose Haruka out of the hospital to attend a literary event she would surely want to see. For a rational person, it’s completely implausible and hard to swallow… but at this point, Takayuki isn’t a rational person: he’s a recluse whose entire life has collapsed around him. If you’ve known people this damaged (alcoholics, addicts, PTSDs), or suffered through tragedy yourself, then I think you’ll empathize with Takayuki, Mitsuki, and Haruka. If you find it completely ridiculous and implausible, then I suggest you consider the meaning of the old saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”


3. Baccano!

TV Series (16 episodes) • 2007 • Available on DVD from Funimation, on Blu Ray from Aniplex • Available streaming from Netflix (all), YouTube (2 eps), Hulu (2 eps), ANN (2 eps)
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hFe3Gr9U30]

Luck: It’s time for you to accept responsibility for what you’ve done. We found you a nice new home. You’ll all be staying at the bottom of the Hudson River.
Berga: Since I can’t just break your necks and be done with it, there’s really no other good way of finishing you scumbags off.

Cowboy Bebop‘s run on Adult Swim won over a fair number of non-anime fans who could enjoy the fast action and sly comedy. “Why don’t they make more anime like that,” they ask. Well, sometimes they do… but instead of picking it up, Adult Swim figured you’d rather watch another 50 episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force instead. You’re welcome.

What you missed is Baccano!, a show built of an utterly delightful insanity. Key to this is its warped structure: Baccano! has three marginally-related timelines, running in 1930, 1931, and 1932, which it tells simultaneously, meaning that characters share chronologically-established relationships that only fully make sense when you catch up to their how they’re established later. I mean earlier. See what I’m talking about? Oh, and it gets crazier: each of the three timelines starts with its ending, intercut, and then jumps back to the beginning. Oh, and some of the characters seem to be immortal, healing instantly from any injury, while others are trying to recreate an immortality elixir (cue the flashback to 1711), an activity that’s all too easily mistaken for bootlegging in 1930’s New York.

The show also has no readily identifiable main character. Instead, the opening credits identify 17 prominent characters, and that doesn’t even cover all the bases, due to some characters identities needing to stay secret for the first part of the show.

Baccano! is so twisted, the first episode largely exists to teach you how to watch the show, speechifying about how chronological order is the wrong way to follow the story.

So how is this fun? It’s because there’s so much going on, you have to just latch on to something you enjoy and roll with it, whether that’s the psychotic assassins, the young mafia prodigy, the goofy costumed thieves, the mysterious mute woman, or any of the rest of the unique characters. The action is fast, with a genuine sense of danger and menace, and quite a bit of gore. It would be repulsive if the show weren’t always offering the occasional saving grace, dangling tension while somehow assuring you that the right people would get theirs in the end (after all, if you want to spoil it for yourself, just mentally account for who’s still in one piece when you see the endings in episodes 1 and 2, and who from 1930 and 1931 is obvious by their absence in 1932).


2. The Castle of Cagliostro

Movie • 1979 • Available on DVD from Manga • Available on iTunes • Available streaming from YouTube, Hulu
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHzyjBfEyj8]

Jigen: Who’re we chasing?
Lupin: The girl!
Jigen: That figures.

For sheer fun, I find it hard to top this movie, which marked the feature film debut of director Hayao Miyazaki and the second theatrical appearance of Lupin the 3rd, the “gentleman thief” hero of a long-running manga series (previously adapted into several TV series, which also featured some of Miyazaki’s early directorial work). It’s an eminently approachable film, picked by AV Club as a Gateway to Geekery, as it scratches the same sort of “popcorn fun” itch as Indiana Jones (the first three, anyways), or James Bond, a comparison made obvious in this reworked trailer AMV.

The psuedo-Bond trailer reminds me of how much action is in this movie, because to modern eyes, what’s striking about TCoC is how slow it’s willing to be. Lupin’s visit to the burned-out royal mansion, his intelligence-gathering dinner with Jigen, even his rooftop hijinks are willing to take it slow; the audience doesn’t need to be pounded with something exploding every four minutes. Instead, it lets us get interested in the plight of imprisoned Princess Clarice, the mysteries of the Cagliostro family and how they’ve cast a shadow over the world for centuries, the story of Lupin’s first visit to the tiny duchy… all these interesting bits are doled out and leave us eager to learn more of this charming place and its dark secrets. Indeed, it’s hard to think of movies with a better sense of “place”… there’s a sense of rightness to the layout of the Castle and its inner workings (the obvious aqueducts and hidden catacombs), the surrounding grounds, and the village, all of which lends a surprising authenticity.

Yeah, and beyond that, there’s some inventive sneaking around, stealing, snooping, chasing, breaking, falling, shooting, and yes, a fair number of explosions.

And here’s something surprising: the whole movie is on YouTube, for free, right now. Watch the first ten minutes, through the iconic car chase, and I bet you’ll be hooked.


1. Fullmetal Alchemist

TV Series (51 episodes) • 2003-4 • Available on DVD from Funimation • Available on iTunes • Available streaming from Netflix (all), YouTube (all [subtitled only]), Hulu (4 eps.)
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-CruqCu2f0]

Alphonse: We had no idea what the future would hold, but we knew there was no turning back. So, on the day we left, we burned down the family home, and all the familiar things inside, because some memories aren’t meant to leave traces.

If you remember that I used to do a podcast about this show, yeah, it’s a pretty obvious pick for my #1. It still holds up marvelously well, even in light of a reboot, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which was more true to the original manga than the 2003 series, particularly because the first series only had about six volumes of manga to work from, getting them to about episode 27, before they had to find their own way to a conclusion to the quest of Edward and Alphonse — the former with a mechanical leg and arm, the latter a disembodied soul inhabiting a suit of armor — for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that will make them whole again.

For my money, the first anime is a better story than its source material. While manga-ka Hiromu Arakawa looked for ways to broaden the scope of FMA to have a nice long run in the pages of Shonen Gangan, the anime faced the opposite problem: wrapping it all up in the last 20 episodes or so. So while the manga piles on more characters and locations, getting further and further away from Ed and Al, the anime draws more connections between the characters it already has, creating bonds that were never supposed to be there. And its better for it, because everything comes back to the lead characters, Ed and Al. For a show where family is one of the major themes, it’s more satisfying to have nearly half of the villains (Envy, Sloth, and Dante) have a familial relationship with the brothers, twisted though it is through the alchemic taboo of human transmutation. New lines drawn by the anime also connect rival villains Lust and Scar, and get great mileage out of once-throwaway characters like Rosé and Shou Tucker. Remember, when Anime News Network’s Zac Bertschy said of FMA, “once you hit the second season it’s all gravy”, he was talking about the material that is unique to the TV series. Talk about adaptation distillation!

But whatever version we’re talking about, FMA enjoys an ideal mix of fantasy, action, humor, and heart. There’s a deft balancing of the charming and the tragic, the sweet and the horrifying… so that the charm sets you up that much more for the loss, and then redeems with cathartic release later on. It’s also built on two major themes: family, as mentioned above, and “equivalent exchange”. While this exists in the story as a pseudo-scientific explanation for the seeming magic of alchemy, it also represents the show’s metaphysics. The brothers’ coming of age is an equivalent exchange, trading innocence for experience, naiveté for knowledge. And it’s the least annoying quest story I’ve ever seen: while achieving or failing to achieve the goal in this format is usually a huge letdown, FMA actually delivers the Philosopher’s Stone about two-thirds of the way through the series, in a most unexpected way, and in a radical change of the show’s premise, which puts it on the path to its eventual conclusion.

One more thing…

Enjoying these stories is one thing, participating in them is another. I’m amused and flattered and delighted to have been selected as one of the extras for the voice cast of JesuOtaku’s Fruits Basket audio drama, which is adapting the popular shoujo manga as a weekly audio series. As an extra, I don’t have a defined role, but will instead be popping up every now and then as a “Drunk Businessman 2”, “Office Guy”, or wherever else JO finds use for a 44-year old male voice. There are 15 male and 15 female extras, so I personally won’t have that much to do (I didn’t even read for any parts in episodes 2 or 3), but I look forward to finding a voice for a new supernumerary every now and then.

It should be a fun project. Check out her trailer. She’s got some great voices cast in the leads (particularly the female lead, Tohru, which couldn’t have been easy to cast). Given that the anime of this popular series is widely considered something of a disappointment, the show could fill a very significant gap for fans of the manga.

Oh yeah, I have to read that now too. ^.^

Also, Steve Yegge’s blog had a bunch of these Amazon Associate links, and while I’ve never done that before, I thought now would be a reasonable time to try them out. Hope they’re not too obnoxious…

Beauty and the Box

Yesterday, I took my 5-year-old daughter, Quinn, to the Beauty and the Beast sing-a-long event. Quick summary: would have worked better with more people (we only had about 20, and most were shy), but helped to be in front of some theatre girls who knew the songs by heart and were into it. Still, one of my favorite movies, one I’ve surely seen 20 or 30 times. But let’s get back to digital media…

The event was meant to promote Tuesday’s re-release of Beauty and the Beast on home video, this time in its first HD edition. I’ve already owned B&tB on VHS and DVD (the 2003 edition cleverly contained the “work in progress” film circuit version, the original version, and the IMAX re-release that added an unneeded song). So I found myself wondering if I would be buying this release. Probably not, since I don’t own a Blu-Ray player and now that we’re many years into the Blu-Ray era, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We don’t do a lot of movie watching anymore, as most of what we watch is DVR’ed off the DirecTV, and I didn’t fall for the “PlayStation 3 as Blu-Ray trojan horse” due to the PS3’s absurd unaffordability. And I don’t feel like we’ve missed it.

Then I thought: “wait, Blu-Ray isn’t the only form of HD.” There’s also on-demand from DirecTV, and what about iTunes? A little search there shows that yes indeed, the B&tB platinum edition will also be available on iTunes: $14.99 for SD, $19.99 for HD.

Of course, these Disney classics are usually only available for a short time before they “go back in the vault”, to enhance demand for the next re-release. So if I felt I did need to grab an HD version before it went away, which would I get?

Thinking about it, I think I’m more likely to buy an AppleTV — or at least rig a Mac Mini to a TV — before I get a Blu-Ray player. As it is, I could play the HD .m4p on a bunch of the devices I currently own (computers, iPhone, iPad), and the only thing that’s missing is connectivity to the TV. In fact, various video out cables allow for iOS devices to serve as a sort of “poor man’s” first-gen AppleTV, depending on your available connections, how many videos you’ve loaded on your iPod, and your tolerance for SD. A Blu-Ray disc would be locked to the TV the player is connected to, and wouldn’t be rippable for the iDevices (though this particular bundle may come with a digital copy… haven’t checked).

Still, I’m surprised to find that I’ve blundered into exactly what Steve Jobs purportedly told a customer in one of those alleged off-the-cuff e-mails: Blu-Ray is coming up short, and will eventually be replaced by digital downloads, just as CD successors were beaten by downloads (anybody spun up an SACD lately?).

BTW, Apple’s resolute anti-Blu stance is made all the more interesting by the fact that Apple is a board member of the Blu-Ray Disc Association.

Another note about the AppleTV: teardowns and other spelunking reevel that the new device runs iOS and has 8GB of storage, which would be suitable for apps, should Apple ever choose to deliver a third-party SDK. Clearly the UI would be different — perhaps it exists not as an “AppKit” or “UIKit” but rather a “TVKit” atop Foundation and the rest of the usual Apple stack — but there would be all sorts of interesting opportunities.

One of the most obvious would be for all the existing iOS streaming media apps to connect to the TV. This includes the sports apps — everyone knows about the MLB app, but look further and you’ll find apps for major events like the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup also have their own apps with live video available via in-app purchase, DirecTV’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” streams to phones, etc. There are also specialized video apps for all manner of niches. For example, as an anime fan, I use Crunchyroll’s streaming app, and might someday sign up for Anime Network Mobile. I imagine every other little video fetish has its own streaming app, or soon will.

(By the way, none of these apps can use the standard def video out cables like Apple’s iPod or Videos apps can. When you connect the composite video cable and do [UIScreen screens], you only see one screen, so these streaming apps can’t access the video out and put their player UI over there. rdar://8063058 )

By Apple fiat, essentially all of these apps need to use HTTP Live Streaming, and an AppleTV that permitted third-party apps would presumably drive even more content providers to this standard. I had previously wondered aloud about doing an HTTP Live Streaming book, but if we get an AppleTV SDK, it would make perfect sense for the HLS material to become one or two chapters of a book on AppleTV programming, along the lines of “if you’re programming for this platform, you’re almost certainly going to be streaming video to it, so here’s how the client side works, and here’s how to set up your server.”

Burying Sleeping Beauty

So, nearly two weeks without an update, and this one is going to be about movies instead of anything really techie. Trust me, you don’t want to see my Core Audio code for 360iDev just yet; it’s going to take some time and luck in the next two weeks to get my demos lined up.

In the meantime, I took my daughter, Quinn, to How To Train Your Dragon today, and I’ve got animation on the brain again. That and the release (if not in my town) of Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary that tells the increasingly familiar tale of how Disney turned around its feature animation department from near-extiction to world-wide acclaim and massive financial success, largely on the merits of four classic films: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Entertainment Weekly had a brief retrospective on how TLM initiated the turnaround, and Wikipedia has filed it under Disney Renaissance.

It’s a great narrative, stunning when you think of how the troubled studio of the mid 80’s lost Tim Burton and actually fired John Lassiter. But there are some pretty big holes that are missing in the conventional wisdom version of the story.

Not the least of which is the elephant in the room: just 10 years after The Lion King, Disney gave up on traditional animation, retraining all their artists in CG techniques so they could make debacles like Chicken Little. So what the hell happened?

Animation fan-boy that I am, I mentally split the post-Lion King movies into two groups: 1995-99 are the “formula films” (edit: previously said “unnecessary films”), and 2000-2004 are the “troubled films”. Let’s start with the first group. With the success of the four modern classics, Disney apparently had a formula, and forced all of its subsequent films to fit that mold: family-friendly musicals, with merchandisable funny sidekicks. In retrospect, some of those traits seem tacked on. Nobody remembers the songs from Hercules or Mulan, and the funny gargoyle sidekicks in The Hunchback of Notre Dame were a terrible distraction from what was otherwise a strong musical drama (Les Miz Lite, if you will). And the less said about Tarzan, the better. Interestingly, the collective opinion of Pocohontas seems to have gone up in the last few months, thanks to widespread perception that Avatar is effectively an expensive retelling of the same story (a point best made in this YouTube video)

They must have known they were in a rut, because they tried to break out. The effort is more admirable than most of the post-99 films. Aside from the icy artistic indulgence of Fantasia 2000, you have three films that feel like they were written by committee: Brother Bear, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Home on the Range, the latter two of which suffered production shutdowns, title changes, and massive retooling (to be fair, so did The Lion King, and that worked out OK).

They also made two sci-fi action films, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. U.S. audiences have never gone for animated action or drama in a big way – the Japanese will go wild for Gundam, but Americans won’t – and these didn’t change any minds. Atlantis is a bit of a obsession for me, in that I think it may have as good an Act I as I’ve ever seen, yet falls apart faster and more completely than any movie I can recall (if you’ve seen it, how much of the plot’s energy drains away once the big submarine is destroyed?). Anime fanboys saw superficial similarities to Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, but if anything, Disney didn’t steal enough. In Nadia, the bookish hero meets mystery girl in the first episode, and they are the main characters. Atlantis keeps Kida away from Milo for half the movie, trying to distribute our interest among a crew of stock characters who just don’t carry the story (listening to the DVD commentary, the producers keep talking about “the adventurers this” and “the adventurers that”… when they should be talking about one or two genuine protagonists).

Atlantis’ failure probably kept people away from Treasure Planet, which is a shame. Despite the too-easy “in spaaaaace!” concept (smirked at by the EW story cited earlier), it’s vastly more story- and character-driven, and deserves a second look. Just skip the Martin Short annoy-o-bot if you can.

The only film that really succeeded in this era is Lilo and Stitch, a deliberate turn against Disney’s frequent technological indulgences (Tarzan’s “Deep Canvas”, Treasure Planet’s mixture of 2D and 3D animation), in favor of a cheaper, more personal film. In various accounts, notably the book Lilo & Stitch: Collected Stories From the Film’s Creators, the filmmakers cite Dumbo as a spiritual touchstone, which itself was intended as a simple, cheap, and direct film after the indulgence of Fantasia. It’s the most character-driven Disney film of the decade, and easily the most satisfying.

But it wasn’t enough. Suits decided the films were failing not because of bad stories but because audience tastes had switched to CG: just look at Pixar’s hot streak (which continues today), or the upstarts from Dreamworks. And maybe the suits were right: audiences largely passed on last year’s fine The Princess and the Frog. At any rate, in mid-decade, Disney retooled for computer animation, and turned out more troubled films, like Chicken Little and the title-changed Meet the Robinsons. If Bolt worked, it did so by cribbing shamelessly from Toy Story.

But that’s the other elephant in the room. As Disney feature animation began its decline in 1995, Pixar began its seemingly unprecedented run of 10 straight hits with the release of Toy Story. Their industry-defining success has created a new set of formulas to work from: Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon shares a lot of beats with A Bug’s Life (which I seem to like a lot more than most people), and Sony Picture’s Animation’s Surf’s Up has a plot almost identical to Cars, released just six months earlier, except that Surf’s Up manages to tell the same story in 85 minutes instead of 115.

It’s funny, though: much as I admire and enjoy every Pixar movie, I can’t say there’s any one of them that I really love, the way I love Beauty and the Beast (or Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro or My Neighbor Totoro, for that matter). I don’t fully agree with the “best picture” talk that surrounded WALL-E or Up… y’all do realize the whole film has to qualify and not just the first reel, right? That means you’re also nominating the fat pod people on the Lido Deck and the talking dogs flying biplanes too.

Yet every time I think that Pixar’s number is up, that their next film will be the Poconhantas-style disappointment that starts the decline, they dodge the bullet. Toy Story 3 seems somewhat unnecessary (and surely Cars 2 is), but there was plenty of reason to doubt a movie about a rat and another about a senior citizen, and they’ve been great. Pixar’s already made a non-suck sequel, maybe they can pitch two more.

Speaking of sequels, that’s the other thing these Disney Renaissance stories often forget: there was a movie released between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. In 1990, they released The Rescuers Down Under. I recall reading one account saying the genesis of the film was a meeting where Michael Eisner asked for a tally of recent animated features, with an eye to making a sequel to whichever one had made the most money. Kind of takes the shine off the story, doesn’t it?

Link: Steve Jobs: A Tough Act to Follow

I’m not terribly interested in most of the stories speculating about Steve Jobs’ health or the company’s outlook — do you really think Steve designed the Cocoa APIs or wrote the iPhone’s power management software — but I do think one valuable analogy you can make is to how Disney at first stumbled but later pressed on without its hands-on namesake founder.

Jim Hill Media contributor and long-time Disney artist Floyd Norman is in a unique position to make this comparison: he worked for Disney on The Jungle Book, and later for Jobs at Pixar. So I’m highly willing to listen to his take on how the two stories played out. Plus, his sketches of Jobs are a hoot: Steve Jobs: A Tough Act to Follow.

Nostalgical Vanity Tour

I’m packing for the move in a week, dealing with boxes of papers in the storage room that haven’t been opened since the last move, a pretty good hint they need to at least be considered for the dump.

Above is a betacam tape of one of my Headline News shows from 1997, looks like a day when I was producing a full live hour, with this half directed by Bruce Daniel (who still works there, and whose wife is a good friend of Kelly’s). I think I kept a couple of these tapes just in case I needed them for pursuing another producing job, though the rigid format of Headlines back in that day meant that one producer’s show really ought to look pretty much like anyone else’s, so there really wouldn’t have been much value showing anyone this tape, short of pointing to the back of my head in the control room on the show-opening Camera One zoom and saying “see, that’s me!”

One thing about the format is that different producers still had flexibility within the format to pick their packages (with the guidance of a supervising producer) and fill out their 13-minute news block however they saw fit. We had one associate producer (which is what I was) who, when he did live hours, tried to give the audience something different by using cold opens, or effecting through some VOs with a “in this half hour”, or stuff like that.

I rarely did that, but what I often tried to do was to get more new stories into the system by digging through the wires (especially state wires, features, business, and Reuters’ “odd” wire) and, if I didn’t have enough writers to take on extra work beyond the necessary updates, I’d just write it myself. There was a full-blown producer named Alicia who also did this. We thought it was good for the Headlines ecosystem as a whole, because the new stories could be duped into later shows, so there’d be more variety in the next 23.5 hours. But in retrospect, the downside of this approach is that were writing from the wires instead of writing to available video, and usually ended up only having a box right for our new read. So on the one hand, we had new content in a textual sense, but were we really creating new “television”? My older self argues against my younger self on this one: today, I think I would have used the time to look through the feeds and see if I could find some good unused video, even if the story wasn’t as good.

So, also in the boxes of vanity, I found this little embarrassment:

Yep, I tried to write a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spec script. Not that I was alone. Trek was the only show that regularly accepted spec scripts from unagented writers. To wit:

As they point out, 99.9% of spec scripts are sent packing with a “thank you very much”, though a few writers were able to break through this way, and it’s to Paramount’s credit that they were so open to new writers, and to their fan base, in this way.

I didn’t submit this script, in fact, because I knew then that it was bad (and can’t bring myself to read it today). I had about two acts plotted out and started writing, which ended up pretty much how you’d expect: somewhere in the middle of Act IV, I was just throwing words on paper, not knowing what the fuck I was doing or where I was going. In fact, the only reason I don’t trash all remaining copies of this (for fear of my children finding it in my effects 30 or 40 years from now), is the fact that I also found some notes where I was radically re-breaking the story for a thoroughly overhauled second draft:

A rewrite might not have made it good, but it would certainly have made it better.

Before drifting into CNN, I think I ended up writing maybe four total spec scripts. Clearly not enough, and it was not something I did often enough for the process to get easier. Maybe you have to write 10 scripts before you write a good one, but if you don’t truly think the first 9 can be any good, how the heck do you turn them out?

I’ve felt this in an accelerated way with iPhone work since getting the SDK earlier this year. My first couple were tentative, confused, and sometimes appealed for Java analogies that weren’t there. Two things that helped were trying to do some ambitious work early on (my still-broken web radio client) rather than just “screwing around” with the SDK, but then getting into a groove of creating a number of projects and getting familiar with the process of creating an XCode project and being increasingly purposeful with where I wanted to take the code.

Writing an application and writing a screenplay have certain strange similarities. Aside from having to start with an empty “new document” window and needing to bring life to the void, there’s also a sensation that when things are set up right, they just run themselves. In code, those are methods, delegates, and program states. In writing, it’s character and situation (indeed, plot is sometimes defined as character plus situation… define both of them well enough and your story writes itself).

As for my spec scripts, they fell by the wayside while I worked at Headlines. I tried to write a Home Improvement spec to keep the Hollywood screenwriter dream alive, but aside from having some gags and a general premise, I could never get the feel for the straight sitcom. My two half-way decent specs are animation (a spec for Animaniacs which got a nice read from WB and a copy of a real script from the show, sort of a gentle “do it more like this”), and an off-the-wall sitcom pilot we did in grad school called Public Access, which was a finalist in a couple of competitions, but not a winner. It still has some of my favorite gags, the recurring show-within-a-shows like “Can You Fit A Hamster Through A Funnel?” and “Show Dyslexia The”.

Had I taken my chances in LA rather than playing it safe at CNN, I might have taken the next step beyond these scripts, but then again, I might also have crashed and burned and wasted even more time. Guess we’ll never know… short of finding a way to an alternate universe where things played out that way. Which, I think, is what my DS9 was about.