Archive for June, 2018

Hollywood news bulletin

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

Hollywood news bulletin, June 2018:

Audiences often assume that filmmakers use special effects to create the illusion of reality. Which is why this reporter was fascinated to learn, in a tweet this week from the President of the United States, that when Robert De Niro played Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull, actual professional boxers were employed to repeatedly slam their powerful gloved fists into Mr. De Niro’s head, rattling his brain and causing lasting brain damage.

It would be interesting to learn what sort of insurance was required to cover such a production decision, given the high probability of permanent tissue damage or even death to the highly paid movie star. So this reporter did a little investigating, to uncover to what extent other Hollywood productions have employed “real life” techniques behind the scenes.

I soon learned that this was not an isolated case. For example, in the film Chinatown, Roman Polanski used a real knife to slice open Jack Nicholson’s nose. Similarly, in preparation for filming Forrest Gump, actor Gary Sinise agreed to have both of his legs amputated (the legs were later re-attached).

Also, in the film The Shape of Water, the male lead was played by a genuine amphibious creature with magical healing powers. Perhaps most surprising of all, this reporter discovered that the actor Chris Hemsworth, the star of Thor, is in real life the actual God of Thunder.

I reached out to Mr. Hemsworth to ask what he thought about the fact that it took the President of the United States to uncover the truth about Hollywood production practices. Unfortunately, the actor was unavailable for comment, as he is currently vacationing on Asgard.

Special places in hell

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

I don’t usually discuss politics these days. But I was intrigued when White House trade advisor Peter Navarro started a criticism of the Canadian Prime Minister with the words “There is a special place in hell.”

I’m surprised that hell would care about something as mundane as a political speech. One would think that the Eternal Place of Torment operates on a different plane entirely.

Yet suppose the statement is true, and hell actually does care about what people say in their political pronouncements. Does that mean there is a special place in hell for people who make political statements that begin with the words “there is a special place in hell?”

Interesting question, but I feel I need to tread with caution here. What if there is a special place in hell for people who say there is a special place in hell for people who make political statements that begin with the words “there is a special place in hell.”

It may be safer if we avoid the topic entirely. After all, we might stumble upon this special place in hell for people who discuss the recursive nature of special places in hell.

Possibly a sound idea

Monday, June 11th, 2018

One of the more notable performances at the Hear Now Festival was by Marjorie Van Halteren, this year’s Norman Corwin Award winner. She augmented her brilliant live spoken word performance by numerous ambient sound effects that she triggered from her notebook computer.

The effect was spectacular, and it got me thinking. At some point in the near future, when SmartPhones have been supplanted in everyday life by wearables, we will all have the ability to pepper our conversation with interactive sonic landscapes.

Of course this could be very bad, but then a lot of good things start out being very bad, before people really understand them. For example, in the early days of the Web, websites were peppered with flashing banner ads.

Those annoying ads soon went away, mainly because everybody hated them. Web sites still have ads, but now they tend to be unobtrusive — yet still clearly sufficiently effective that you don’t need to pay a fee to use Google.

So, thinking past a possible “annoying sound effects that nobody wants to hear” phase, how might our every day conversation be augmented in an interesting way to a mutually interesting sonic landscape? How might we modulate that landscape in the course of our conversation, as a natural part of our speech?

Maybe those ambient sounds will serve as a sort of sonic equivalent of hand gestures. Maybe we will literally use hand gestures to invoke them.

I don’t know the answers, but I do think this is something worth playing with. It could very well turn out to be a sound idea.

Battle by Bard, part 2

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Continuing yesterday’s post, I will describe the “rules of engagement” of the contest I witnessed at the Hear Now Festival. In each round of “ShakesRumble”, two voice actors face off against each other, to do battle one on one.

The actors face one another from a distance of about six feet. Each contestant recites a one minute speech from one of the Bard’s plays, while staring directly into the eyes of the other actor. The first actor who stumbles over the words or looks away loses the round.

Because these are top professionals, both contestants often sail through this first battle round. At that point, the referee adds a “rub” (just as Hamlet might have called it).

The rub is in the form of an extra constraint. For example, in this second round, the contestant may be required to recite their monologue “with an American southern accent”, or “like a Millennial”, or “in the style of a 1940s movie star”, or “as a Martian”, or “as a chicken”, or “while dancing”.

The really great voice actors pass these more difficult tests with ease. And so in the later rounds, when the only contestants standing are the best of the best, the referee keeps adding additional constraints.

The final round consisted of a face off between PJ Ochlan and Julia Whelan, two of the most talented voice actors in the biz. They were both so good that they kept going at it for multiple rounds, with the ref adding on another rub each time.

By the final face-off, they were each performing with five such constraints at once. For example, Julia ended up reciting Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” epilogue to Midsummer Night’s Dream as a Millennial Martian chicken with an American southern accent, in the style of a 1940s movie star.

Like her opponent, she was able to do all of this without breaking eye contact with the other actor, or stumbling over the words. Eventually one of them looked away, but in my mind everyone was a winner.

The whole thing was funny as hell and also comnpletely awe inspiring. Sort of the comic acting equivalent of watching Michael Jordan play a pick-up game of basketball.

O brave new world that has such people in ‘t!

Battle by Bard, part 1

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

This evening at the closing night of the Hear Now Festival I saw the top voice talents in the English-speaking world do battle with one another, with Shakespeare as their weapon.

I realize that this may not make much sense, and I need some time to digest it myself. It was one of the most astonishing things I have ever witnessed.

By tomorrow, after I have recovered from my feelings of shock and awe, I think I will be ready to describe this amazing experience more completely.

Hear Now

Friday, June 8th, 2018

I am currently attending the Hear Now Festival in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a gathering of many of the greats of voice acting, film, TV, animation and audio book narration, and related fields.

I am also getting to hear members of Firesign Theater weave their beautiful insane story magic multiple times. I cannot begin to tell you how happy that makes me.

This morning I attended a round table discussion by a group of top voice actors. We were invited to listen in as they discussed the state of their field.

At one point they were discussing the long grueling hours that voice actors and readers of audio books often put in. Which led, not surprisingly, to a discussion about burn-out.

One of the panelists, Donna Postel, then said something incredibly profound. She talked about her gradual recognition that you can’t just keep working non-stop.

In the long run, in order to continue to be good at your craft, you need to take care of your general health and well being. But the way she phrased it was beautiful.

I loved what she said so much that I wrote it down: “Self care is part of my job description.”

Origin stories

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

This evening I gave the opening talk at this year’s Hear Now festival. I spoke about our work at NYU, ending with our forthcoming CAVE project, a narrative in shared VR which goes back 10,000 years to tell about the origin story of narrative in shared VR — Paleolithic cave paintings.

Yet earlier in the day I had experienced a different kind of origin story. I was taken to the place where right here in Kansas City, in 1922, Walt Disney opened his very first production house for animation: Laugh-O-Gram Studio.

Seeing this little building, the place where it all started, filled me with awe. Somehow I doubt that old Walt, or Ub Iwerks and their other colleagues, could have imagined just what sort of giant would emerge from such humble beginnings.

Then again, maybe Walt knew. He seemed to have a knack for knowing where things were heading long before they got there.

How I spent this evening

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

In Kansas City
As folks from Firesign Theater
Told us jazz stories

A great idea, but…

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

I greatly enjoyed the moment in Solo where Lando Calrissian gets his drink refilled by a hovering drone. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “that is a great idea. We could totally do that today — and we wouldn’t need to be in a galaxy long ago and far away!”

So I started thinking about the idea of a bar where the “bartenders” would be drones that came to your table to bring you a drink — or refresh the drink you have. What could be cooler?

But then I started seeing the difficulties. What happens if a robot drone bartender gets it wrong. What if it knocks over a drink or accidentally injurs a bar patron?

And how would those expensive drone bots fare in the presence of inebriated customers? Would they be able to avoid playful swats from overly enthusiastic drunken patrons?

As cool as it sounds, I’m not sure we have reached the stage of Moore’s Law where robot drone bartenders could really be a thing. Like many cool ideas, it may sound great on paper, but in real life it probably wouldn’t fly.

A new daily blog

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Today I am very excited to announce the beginning of a new daily blog. Unlike this one, the new blog will be a collaboration of all the members of our NYU Future Reality Lab.

Since there happen to be fourteen of us, each of us will write a post one day every two week. Each person will write about what cool things they are thinking about or working on (or both) as members of our lab.

Today I wrote the inaugural post. You can follow the daily evolution of our blog — and our lab’s research — by going to our lab’s website.

Enjoy!