First impressions are so important

I had heard that Hong Kong is a culturally rich and fascinating city. So I was eagerly awaiting my first impressions of this place — its music, its people, its general way of being.

The trip from the airport was a jet lagged blur. But things came into focus after an old friend and I, having both arrived at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong after our long respective journeys, repaired to the cozy bar overlooking the lobby, for a drink before retiring.

The sound track to our conversation was a little live band, playing instrumental music. The tunes they played were old by today’s standards, hearkening back to a tradition from an earlier era, to simpler and perhaps more innocent days.

In particular, the band was working its way, one instrumental number at a time, through Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album.

As I sat there, jet lagged and nursing my drink, I found myself wondering whether it would be fair to count this as a first cultural impression of Hong Kong.

The other side of the world

Today I fly to Hong Kong.

For those who have done this sort of sixteen hour flight, you know that to fly to the opposite side of the planet differs fundamentally from the mere six or seven hour hop between, say, New York and Paris, or D.C. and L.A. Those little trips seem like nothing in comparison, a mere commute.

To fly for most of a day, only to arrive at a place with a nearly 12 hour time zone difference, is to enter another dimension entirely. Day becomes night and night turns to day. You learn to ignore your first instincts for when to wake and when to sleep. You learn to set your body’s clock by the sun you see up in the sky.

It is always worth it. Tomorrow I post from the other side of the world.

In 3D, only deeper

Last night I saw (for the second time), Martin Scorcese’s wonderful new film “Hugo”, based on Brian Selznick’s book “Hugo Cabret”.

Like all 3D films in commercial distribution, to see it properly you needed to wear special glasses. But I noticed an interesting thing that I had never before noticed in a 3D movie. There are a number of moments when the film becomes 2D.

I only noticed this because it was my second time watching the film, so rather than focusing entirely on the story, I felt comfortable exploring the frame and thinking about how everything was done. At some point I took off my 3D glasses, on a hunch, and found myself staring at a 2D scene.

After a while I discovered that Scorcese followed some definite rules when he dropped back to 2D: (1) He always chose a moment when the psychological focus was on a single person, and that person was going through an important emotional transition. (2) There was always something else in frame, either in the foreground or the background, which would be deeply out of focus (the way a traditional film creates depth) (3) During such scenes, he would always intercut several times with a shot of that person’s point of view. (4) The intercut shots were always 3D, with a clear foreground and background — with everything more or less in focus.

My guess is that Scorsese used 3D to lead the audience’s gaze from one plane of depth to another, or to create a space for free exploration. But when he really wanted us to concentrate on a character’s inner state, he would drop back to 2D, and kick everything else in the frame out of focus. In those cases, the audience’s gaze, and attention, would stay right where he wanted it.

To me this represents an evolution toward maturity in the use of 3D in movies. Rather than replacing the traditional tools of filmmaking, Scorcese is trying to integrate the two approaches into a seamless set of tools for visual storytelling.


Today, walking down the street, I saw a man with a wonderful face.

I don’t mean his face was beautiful. By conventional standards, it wasn’t beautiful at all. The man looked to be somewhere in his mid-sixties. He had a rough face, with coarse features and a grayish beard.

It was a face that had been lived in, and when I looked at him I imagined he had spent his life sailing the seven seas, that his had been a life with stories to tell.

Of course there is no reason to think that any of this was true — it was just a feeling, a reaction to a face glimpsed in passing.

And yet I wonder, is there perhaps a grain of truth in such moments? Perhaps the way we live our life can, over time, begin to create a story upon our visage — a story that can be read by others. Not just tragic stories (the ruined face of Chet Baker comes to mind), but delightful stories as well — anyone old enough to remember Jack Gilford will know what I mean.

As the years go on, do our faces come to reflect the souls within?

The New Girl in Oz

I don’t want to be one of those people who sees phantom patterns in everything — like those over-active minds that perceive Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” as a secret sound track for “The Wizard of Oz”. But speaking of Frank L. Baum’s classic tale, I recently saw some on-line episodes of the new Fox TV show “The New Girl”, and was surprised by how closely it echoes “The Wizard of Oz”.

The main character is a rather lost and clueless child-woman, clearly out of her element, who is trying to make sense of a world she is out of sync with, a world whose rules mystify her. She is not even remotely aware of her own potential power in that world, although everyone else is. On her quest to find a place she can call home, she ends up hanging out with three charmingly eccentric guys. Between her and them a sweet relationship emerges, which sometimes contains hints of romance, but is always innocent.

Each of the three guys represents a particular emotional issue that our heroine must deal with. One guy is all about his tender broken heart (the Tinman). Another is all about being both strangely smart and strangely stupid at the same time (the Scarecrow). Finally the third guy is all about his unresolved anger issues, and his feeling that he’s supposed to be a warrior but is not up to the challenge (the Cowardly Lion).

I wonder whether any of this is connected to the fact that Zooey Deschanel also starred in the 2007 Syfy mini-series “Tin Man” — an alternate Steam Punk take on “The Wizard of Oz”. Perhaps some bright eyed producer saw that and said “Hey cool, let’s put Zooey back in Oz, only this time let’s make it a wacky sitcom!”

Another world

These last few days I’ve been focused on putting together a kind of “what if” demo. As in “what if such and such technology, currently beyond our reach, actually existed?”

When I do something like this, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. After all, I am showing something that can’t really exist right now. But then a funny thing starts to happen.

After all, this other world that I’m conjuring up with my demo makes perfect sense, even if it can’t actually be fully realized in 2011. So a part of my mind accepts that alternate world as real. It’s not that I literally believe it to be real, but rather that I emotionally accept it.

I’ve come to see my emotional suspension of disbelief as a necessary condition for giving a successful “what if” demo. It’s like any theatrical performance. The actor on stage knows he is not Hamlet, and yet a part of him must accept the emotional reality of the Prince of Denmark and the dark choices he faces.

How wonderful it is that we have this ability to maintain multiple realities in our heads at the same time. And that sometimes — when everything is working right — we can invite others to come along with us into another world.

If you see what I mean

Which you do I see, is that you, is it me?
And how much is true, of the me seen by you?
If I say “you look nice”, do you have to think twice
If it’s you that I’ve seen — if you see what I mean?

Oh what can we do, with this me, with this you,
When there’s so much unsaid that is all in our head
And the more that we try just to see eye to eye
Or to make a connection, we find, on reflection,
There’s always that schism, a reflecting prism
Which throws our desiring, our dreams and admiring,
Our hope and our fear, and all we hold dear
Right back in our noses! Although, one supposes,
it’s still worth the trying, so no use in crying,
For all I can do is try to see you.

But which you do I see, is that you, is it me?
And how much is true, of the me seen by you?
I’ll still try, even though I may never quite know
If it’s you that I’ve seen. If you see what I mean.

The right way to make it wrong

When you see a sci-fi movie, one of the most important tasks of the special effects designers is to convey to you, on a gut level, that some actual mechanism is at work behind the technological marvels you see. If the filmmakers are really good, this is accomplished in a completely sensory way — through visuals and sound — without the need for any supporting dialog at all. If the result is successful, you come away with a feeling that some unknown technology is causing the things you see on screen — a technology that is perfectly consistent with the world of the film and its governing logic.

One of my favorite examples of this being done well is the work John Dykstra and his team did on conveying the idea of some sort of holographic display technology. The most famous use of this is in the scene where R2D2 projects a holographic recording of Princess Leia. The more I look at this clip, the more brilliant it seems, as an example of the art of special effects.

For one thing, there was no attempt to make it look “good”. Rather, the filmmakers realized the trick was to go the other way, by making it look like an unperfected technology. All the little glitches and missed frames tell us, on a subliminal level, that this is a “real” transmission system.

I especially like one particular artifact: A bright horizontal band keeps moving up and down the image. Subliminally, this is telling us that some sort of scanning projection technology is being used, and that this scanning process has a frame-rate that is interfering with, or “beating” against, the frame-rate used by the movie camera of the film we are watching:

Audiences don’t generally know very much about film technology, but they do know that certain kinds of motion can create interference patterns on the movie screen. We’ve all seen this effect in movies, in things like the spinning wheels of automobiles and bicycles. There probably isn’t one audience member in a hundred who could accurately describe how and why this happens, but every audience member has seen it.

Dykstra and his team used this tacit audience awareness to create a visual artifact that could plausibly have been caused by some unknown sci-fi projection technology — if that projection were being filmed by a 20th century movie camera.

Just take a moment and think how crazy brilliant that is.

Post birthday post

How strange to discover, after having written and posted yesterday about Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”, that yesterday was, in fact, the man’s birthday.

I suppose it’s not such a huge coincidence — after all, he has to have a birthday some time. Out of hundreds of blog posts, it’s a near certainty that I would at some point end up writing about someone on their birthday.

In fact, the odds of that not ever happening over the course of, say, four years of daily posting are only about 1 in 55 (or (364/365)(4×365), if you want to get technical).

So there you have it. Happy belated birthday Allen Konigsberg!