A Silent Voice

On March 7th, voice actor Hal Douglas died of pancreatic cancer.  If you watch television or movies, you are familiar with at least some of his work.  Probably one of the most amusing segments he has ever performed is this trailer for the Comedian, a rare instance where Hal Douglas got to show his face.

Hal Douglas didn’t have the most diverse voice-acting skills.  He wasn’t Seth MacFarlane, Frank Welker, or Mel Blanc.  In fact, he did very little voice acting and instead did primarily voice-over work, only occasional providing narration to a film or TV show itself.  Rarely was he a cast member within a tale itself.  He was a niche performer that provided a key element to the success of films and television shows for years.  And he’ll be missed.

As a fan of film and television, the passing of someone like Hal Douglas underlines the small but critical roles the ‘rest of the cast’ plays in the success of films.  We think of the headlining actors, the directors.  They define a movie.  When people talk about the Rock, they may refer to it as ‘a Jerry Bruckheimer movie’ or ‘one of Michael Bay’s movies’ or it starring ‘Sean Connery and Nichols Cage’.  And yet, it is one of Hal Douglas’ most iconic voice-over roles.  His dramatic narration in the trailer helped to redefine trailers in the 1990s.  Perhaps not the biggest accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but trailers are an art unto themselves.  And to be trailblazer in any art form is something to stop and take notice of, and to respect.

Movies used to be made by dozens of people.  Now, they’re made by thousands of people.  Each one, an artist.  Each one hoping to put his or her stamp of creativity into the final product.  Each one doing their part to help bring to life a work of artistic majesty.  Next time you watch a movie, sit through the credits.  Read the names of everyone you can.  If you were Best Boy Grip or 2nd Unit Carpenter, you’d want your name read.

Think about your favorite movie trailers, and consider what it is about them that make them good.  The framing, the pacing, the shot selection.  The voice-over work.
And the next time you see the trailer for a movie, think about how many people went into the creation of that mini-film, whose sole existence is just to psyche you up for the film itself.

As an anime fan, I admire the work of voice actors and voice-over artists, perhaps more than most.  As a fan of trailers, that admiration is only compounded.  The loss of such a distinct voice like Hal Douglas is a loss to the art form.

Bullet Points

I really hate Daylight Savings Time.  It’s an antiquated idea, one that not only has run it’s course, but is legitimately dangerous (skip ahead to about 3:25).  Worse, it’s just inconvenient.  So, with that in mind, I figured I’d save us all a little bit of trouble and just hit a few issues that have been rattling around.

– When will the next episode of New Phase go live?
On Friday, my first serialized story in over a year went live (you can read it on the Serials Page).  The next episode will go live the first Friday of April (the 4th), and so on for the run of the serial.  Yes, I know a month between episodes is a lot but A) they’re free, so hush and B) I plan to shorten that time with subsequent serials.  Writing a serial is a lot of work, in some ways more work than writing a novel (which I’m also doing).  As such, I want to make sure that I can maintain this production rate.

– Speaking of books, where’s Rhest for the Wicked?
If you were at RoFCon, you know that my publisher Haven is having a devil of a time getting Rhest through the assorted online databases.  As a small publishing house, it’s an uphill battle to get anything done when being crowded by the Big Five publishers, and sorting through the million things that can hang up a book’s listing is a daunting task.  That being said, Rhest for the Wicked WILL be available by summer.  Hopefully much sooner.
If you want more information, please swing by Haven’s brand-spanking-new website.

– Most of your toy reviews are Transformers; what did you think of the trailer for Transformers 4?
I am cautiously optimistic.  I didn’t hate the first three live-action movies – I by and large enjoyed them, believe it or not – but they were very far from flawless.  The new movie looks from the trailer to be a step in the right direction, with streamlined robot designs, a smaller cast, and a more personal story.  That being said, the same was true for the first movie and we had three different plots running simultaneously that pretty much never merged, and two of which were not resolved.  So while I am a little more hopeful, I’m not out-and-out excited yet.

– What did you watch the Academy Awards?
I didn’t watch them.  For starters, I find the show pretty boring and I often didn’t see many of the films nominated.  While I don’t think awards should be popularity contests, when many of the nominated films are often obscure, I start to suspect ulterior motives.  Secondly, many very deserving categories simply do not exist.  For starters, there is no category for genre films (science fiction, fantasy, etc).  Such movies usually get sluffed off into the ‘special effects’ categories, and then still end up losing to a period piece (see Benjamin Button beating Transformers 2).  Likewise, there are no categories for Best Trailer (which is an art unto itself and well deserving of recognition), Best Stunt Performance, Best Voice Acting, and so on.  When you add into the track record of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences history of turning a blind eye to the abuses of the film industry (check out Life After Pi, how the special effects studio responsible for one of the most visually gorgeous films ever filed for bankruptcy because the film studio paid them a pittance for the masterpiece), I find the AMPAS and by extension the Academy Awards undeserving of attention.

Tools of the Imagination — Magical Girl Madoka

Puella Magi Madoka Magica
written by Gen Urobuchi, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, produced by Atsuhiro Awakami and Studio Shaft, released 2011, available on Crunchyroll

Sailor Moon meets unmitigated sorrow

Much like Mobile Suit Gundam brought real physics to the mecha genre and Neon Genesis Evangelion brought real gravity to the characters in the sentai genre, so does Magical Girl Madoka bring real weight to the thoughts and actions of the magical girl genre.

Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way right now: this is an unbelievably sad and depressing story.  Nothing about it is uplifting and every instance where you think good is triumphing, more sorrow hits you like an out-of-control truck.  The world is vivid and gorgeous in a ‘soon shall there be nothing’ sort of way.  The characters are all rich and tangible, which makes their inevitable death – as tragic as they are sudden – all the more gut-wrenching.  It’s nothing but an endless bombardment of sorrow, heartache, and depression.  And it’s so, so good.

Story – 5 out of 5
Madoka Kaname makes a deal with a special, talking cat in order to become a magical girl (see: Moon, Sailor).  In doing so, she becomes a chromatically-distinctive superheroine who is tasked with stopping witches, malevolent beings who try to ensnare the souls of humans.  Right off the bat, things are not what they seem.  There’s dissension among the magical girls in the city of Mitakihara.  Distrust runs rampant as more and more is learned about the witches, and their connection to the magical girls.

Very little more can be shared about the plot of Madoka because each surprise builds not just on the previous surprise, but also on the emotional impact of each surprise.  Suffice to say, the building darkness you see in the first few episodes is only the tip of the iceberg of the monstrosity to come.

Art – 4 out of 5
Madoka has gorgeous art, to be sure.  But it also includes really creative and deceptively unnerving art sequences when the magical girls encounter the witches.  The ‘witch sequences’ have all the feeling of fractured reality, with cut-and-paste imagery, stop-motion, claymation, etc, all of which the animated magical girls are operating within.

The witches sequences aside, the series of subtle in its melancholic beauty.  Every single frame can practically be a work of art unto itself.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Just as the art is gorgeous, the animation keeps step.  The witches sequences are definitely innovative and visually masterful, but the ‘ordinary world’ segments are just as beautifully drawn, painting the world of Madoka as haunting and quietly unnerving.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters in Madoka Magica are all a little underdeveloped, but that’s primarily because they spend most of their time trying to survive the psychological car wreck their world becomes.  As is becoming common in modern anime, the main character is often the least developed, with the supporting cast getting the more colorful and interesting characteristics.  While the characters aren’t quite as rich as other series, they are still firmly developed and will seem real to any and all viewers.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese dub, I cannot speak for the American voice actors.  The Japanese voice actors were all very capable and delivered some truly sterling performances.  Chiwa Saito, the voice actress of Homura Akemi, deserves special mention for delivering a stellar performance of a magical girl being driven mad with grief.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is so close to perfect, I feel bad not giving it a five.  This is a show that needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Twin Peaks, and the film Children of Men.  If it weren’t for how unabashedly depressing it was, this would qualify as a true masterpiece.  Few shows come along with this level of psychological impact and this level of brilliance.  This is one of the best anime series to come along in a long, long time.  Do yourself a favor and watch it.
Just, for the love of god, don’t watch it alone.

Changing Television

I was once told a definition of technology was, ‘creates a need that did not exist prior to fulfilling it’.

It’s an interesting idea, that before a technology appears, we have no need for it.  However, after we are exposed and become used to a thing, we need it.  Such definitely seems to be the case with things like cell phones and television.  Many of us today can recall a time we didn’t have those things.  I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in my twenties, and it still didn’t work very well.  Even to this day, I have no idea how to download an app because every time I’ve tried, it’s failed to download properly.  Yet I have friends who almost cannot function unless they have access to over a dozen apps I’ve never heard of.

Television’s that way, for sure.  I love television as a medium.  I’m a huge fan.  And yet, I’ve realized a growing unease with the medium.  As more and more channels become available, surprisingly less is appealing.  I took a moment to study my viewing habits recently – tracking what I watched much like one might track one’s eating with a diet journal – and I discovered I only watched six shows on television: Daily Show & Colbert Report, WWE Wrestling, Jeopardy, Big Bang Theory, and Agents of SHIELD.  Everything else I watched, I streamed online.  I suppose technically Daily Show and Colbert shouldn’t count since I watch those onDemand rather than at the time of their broadcast.  So that would debatably bring the number down to only four.

(For emphasis, I want to reiterate that we’re talking about ‘viewing at broadcast time’, not streaming, not onDemand, not Netflixing)

1500 channels (give or take), four TV shows.
A huge number of those channels are going to waste.

Today, the WWE announced the release of their WWE Channel, a pay-per-view service that will deliver all their (considerable) content live and streaming, with the exception of their broadcast shows – Raw, Main Event, and Smackdown – which will be made available for streaming immediately after their initial broadcast.

If you aren’t a wrestling fan, don’t worry, the point isn’t wresting – the point is a la carte channel and entertainment purchases.  For decades, cable providers have had a strangle hold on their customers, forcing them to buy channels they didn’t want.  If you’ve ever purchased cable or satellite, how often have you looked at the channels available and asked ‘why must I pay for this’?

The WWE Channel offers the potential that you may not have to in the future.  If this bold experiment works, then many other channels will follow suit.  You may be able to completely circumvent your content provider entirely and buy the individual channels you want, and watch anything else you desire later thanks to the likes of Netflix, Hulu, etc.  The potential is mindboggling.

There are going to be pitfalls, to be sure.  Powerful networks like NBC or ABC may band together all their content into one service, thus necessitating purchasing a block of channels rather than each individually.  But purchasing six channels to get two still looks far better than purchasing several hundred channels to get two.  And content creators – especially blossoming, fledgling creators – may have some trouble.  If you want a case study of that, look at the payout rates of Pandora or other music-sharing services.

But for now, let’s focus on the potential.  Let’s acknowledge that today, television may be changing.  And it may be changing sooner than you think.

* * *

I will be a special guest at RoFCon this weekend in Virginia Beach, VA!  Come out and see some of my panels or look for me at the Haven Publishing table where I will be signing copies of my new book, Rhest for the Wicked.

Vitriol

As a Transformers fan, I was excited to see the trailer for the new live-action Transformers movie which aired last night during the Super Bowl. This might sound strange since I’ve been quite critical of the live-action films since they started.

As a Transformers fan, it can sometimes be hard to balance our love of the franchise with the decisions they sometimes make. I’m not a big fan of Michael Bay in general, but I am familiar with his work and I don’t consider the Transformers movies to be among his best. One of my two chief complaints about the movies is that the designs of the robots are needlessly complex and visually busy, as well as unbelievable when considering the vehicles they came from (the mecha designers insist that no ‘spacial expansion’ takes place, which doesn’t jive with a ten-foot car becoming a twenty-foot robot). I also take issue with the poor dialogue (you can count on one hand the number of times there’s any exchange between a robot and a human that isn’t Optimus or Bumblebee) as well as the occasional bouts of juvenile humor (such as Bumblebee peeing on Agent Simmons, or Devastator’s testicles).

However, the films do get a great deal right, something that is often overlooked by their detractors. You can find a solid breakdown of the first film in the franchise given by Jim ‘Jimquistion’ Sterling, but a few points even he misses include the first film being an astounding gamble, and remains up there with Iron Man, the Dark Knight, and the Avengers as a genre film that even a few years prior would have been laughed out of the room as something ‘you just can’t do’. It really isn’t a stretch to say that we wouldn’t have Pacific Rim and similar movies that sit on the horizon had it not been for the astounding commercial success of the first live-action Transformers movies, much less the rest of the franchise.
The movies also assembled an exceptionally talented cast. Shia LaBeouf, recent craziness not withstanding, has been a promising actor for a long time and delivers some stellar performances, despite having grown to loathe the process due to (in his words) ‘studio meddling’. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson likewise have great chemistry and add a real spark to the franchise.

But most fans don’t see this. Most fans actively denounce and dismiss the movies, often to the chorus of how different they are from the established Transformers canon, especially the original 1984 cartoon, also called ‘Gen-1’. This is a shame for two reasons.

The first, and more tragic, is that Gen-1 exists and is fine on its own. Generation One exists in assorted DVD collections, almost too numerous to count. The entire show is available on streaming services, and is generally easily accessible. But the franchise needs to move on. The series cannot continue to live in the shadow of Gen-1, however good it may have been. New writers, new artists, new designers, NEW FANS, will want to see a new take on the series itself. And it is through that which will breathe new life into the series.
As fans, we cannot be afraid of new versions, even ones that will deviate radically from what we know and love. It’s from such artistic experimentation that the series – that ANY series – can grow and develop. Much of our concepts of Batman aren’t terribly original, but the result of the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Prior to that, Batman wasn’t the dark and brooding figure he has become. Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend/sidekick and fan favorite, was an original creation of the Batman the Animated Series, while the Joker, the Riddler, the Penquin, and so many of Batman’s rogue gallery exist today more for the 1960s TV show than the popularity of the characters originally appearing in the comics.
The franchises must grow and adapt and evolve, and that will require trying new things, sometimes astoundingly new things. And when you try new things, you have to be prepared for steep differences, swings-and-misses, and so on. Don’t denounce the attempt (though you’re free to dislike the result). But dislike it for valid reasons; not for existing.

The second reason the fan response to the movies is tragic, and the more egregious reason, is that most fans don’t compare the live-action movies to Gen-1; they compare the movies to some fuzzy-yet-idealized recollection of Gen-1. Gen-1 wasn’t flawless; quite the opposite. It had plenty of flaws, sometimes very silly flaws. It’s a cartoon that’s stood the test of time and for good reason, but it was far from beyond reproach. And fans who cling to it as though it were some holy relic whose perfection cannot be questioned do a disservice not only to the rest of the fandom and the rest of the franchise, but also to Gen-1 itself for being what it was, not what they imagine it to be.

You don’t have to like the live-action movies. You don’t have to think they were good. But dislike them for what they are: attempts to grow a franchise. Don’t fabricate elaborate fantasies about how Michael Bay set out upon a quest to ruin YOUR SPECIFIC childhood, as though he could even do so.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to Age of Extinction…with some trepidation. And watching Gen-1 on DVD.