An Appreciation of Treme, David Simon’s New Orleans Show

In a television landscape dominated by dragons, zombies, dreams of the apocalypse, and detectives, David Simon’s 2010 show Treme is a breath of fresh air to revisit. No wait, scratch that–it’s a breath of musty air from an old house with creaking floorboards while a record player scratches a familiar song.

The show begins 3 months after Hurricane Katrina, and as you would expect from a David Simon project, follows a ensemble cast, each trying to live their lives after the storm. For those directly affected by the floods that means literal rebuilding, navigating the bureaucracy of government assistance, and searching for loved ones who lost contact during the storm. For others–the musicians, the restaurant workers, the lawyers and law enforcement officers trying to stave off corruption–surviving in post-Katrina New Orleans is a matter of returning to status quo and aspiring for more.

What makes Treme unique as a television show is the music, and how every character, regardless of their profession, has a deep relationship with the music of New Orleans. Amid the large cast with no specific protagonist, the music and its role in the lives of the characters is the real subject of the show. Of course–and I say this with only second hand knowledge–one would assume that music as a binding factor is what its like to grow up in New Orleans.

If there is one character who acts a center of gravity to the ensemble, it’s Albert Lambreaux. Played by Clarke Peters (who you will recognize as The Wire’s Detective Lester Freamon), Lambreaux is a humble and proud builder whose home was mostly destroyed by the storm. He’s well-respected in the community as being a chief in the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians–most people refer to him as Big Chief. And making a new costume so that he’s able to walk with his Indian crew on Mardi Gras day is more important to him than rebuilding his home. Peters growls throw his scenes with his head held high, exuding a knowing air about life’s hardships and the stubborn resoluteness it requires.  His son Delmond comes to help, and finds himself straddling life between New York, where he’s a successful modern jazz musician, and New Orleans.

The cast is numerous and diverse. Antoine Baptiste is a professional musician hustling from gig to gig, never able to really soar even though he’s (relatively) beloved in the community and finds consistent work. (Played by another Wire alumnus–BUNK!–Wendell Pierce.) Eventually Baptiste, despite his hustling and dreams of bacchanalia, is ultimately caring and responsible to those who depend on him and he reluctantly takes a job as a high school band leader, and slowly finds himself more dedicated to the kids than to his own music career. Steve Zahn plays a charming rabble-rouser as DJ Davis, an entrepreneurial radio DJ, aspiring musician, and general prankster who is dedicated to preserving New Orleans and calling out bullshit when he sees it.

Like the music, food is a frequent topic on the show, most directly portrayed through the lens of Janette Desautel, a successful and yet perennially struggling chef (played by Kim Dickens). With cameos by David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Emeril Lagasse, the show’s portrayal of Desautel’s struggles is grounded in real world kitchens. Notably, Anthony Bourdain helped write these segments. She navigates the culinary world from top to bottom, from corporate kitchens to independent barbecues on wheels.

But I’ll stop needlessly listing off characters. I recently rewatched the full four season run of the show, and felt that distinct sense of sadness that you only get upon completing a great, long novel filled with characters you love. It’s just a television show, but I can comfortably say it’s a work of art. Treme portrays life’s endless ambiguities, pitfalls, and great beauties without hanging on any storytelling cliches, letting life and death play out in a way that makes you forget that people sat in a room somewhere writing this show from scratch. Have a watch, buy the soundtracks, you might be surprised.

Why Props Matter

One of my favorite things about Tested is learning about Adam Savage’s obsession with movie props–both collecting genuine items and building them himself. Even if I don’t share the desire to go to such extreme lengths to maintain high levels of accuracy in replicas, I understand the almost instinctual compulsion to collect those items. But I can’t explain it.

Above is a look at how various props work to further the story and develop the characters in movies, focusing not on just the iconic MacGuffins, but on the simple, little things that are used on screen.

The Most Interesting Thing About the New Dragon Ball Movie is the CGI

Dragon Ball story lines are silly and mundane–oh no, it’s the most powerful person in the universe… until there is someone more powerful–but I enjoy them because I enjoy that world and those characters, and it’s fun. As such, the most interesting thing about the recent movie, Resurrection F, isn’t the blue hair or the return of Freeza. It’s how they utilized computer graphics in fairly subtle but substantial ways.

I guess there are spoilers here–whatever man, it’s Dragon Ball, people yell and punch and just when someone isn’t powerful enough, then they are. Let’s take a look at a few shots:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_00.34.09_[2015.10.25_17.41.17]It’s obvious that a shot like that, in which Freeza’s minions arrive on earth, uses digital techniques if only to replicate hand-drawn elements, but the truth is a little more complicated. Take a look at the characters surrounding the intergalactic police dude, Jaco:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_00.40.09_[2015.10.25_17.32.00]Jaco, is in fact the only hand-drawn character in that shot. All of the other enemies surrounding him are actually cel-shaded 3D models. [Edit: Maybe Jaco is CG too! I can’t tell.] A lot of wide shots of the battle make use of these models to fill out the scene, but even fairly close shots make use of them too. Quite effectively! Most people will have no idea that they aren’t hand-drawn (and I suppose most people wouldn’t care either, but what matters is that the use of CGI doesn’t change the fundamental look of the show).

Surprisingly, there are a few close up shots in the headlining battle between Goku and Freeza that use 3D models too. I noticed the camera moving dramatically around the action and thought to myself–heck, it’s incredibly difficult to draw that kind of camera movement into animation without the use of CGI aids. Sure enough, there are a handful of hero shots that are entirely CG:

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_01.06.02_[2015.10.25_17.57.01]You might notice that Goku looks a little awkward–his hands and arms could use more refinement in the tracing and his hair looks a little weird, but in motion, you probably wouldn’t notice. However, there are a few flagrant glitches if you watch it frame by frame (and who doesn’t watch movies one frame at a time?):

Dragon.Ball.Z.Resurrection.F.2015.JAP.ENG.1080p.BluRay.x264.AC3-JYK.mkv_snapshot_01.06.01_[2015.10.25_17.22.16]Look at Goku’s leg and ankle. Oops. But I’m really just nitpicking because that particular shot is only two or three seconds long. I wonder if they borrowed any digital assets from the Dragon Ball Xenoverse video game, which uses similar cel-shaded graphics to a slightly different but impressive effect.

Altogether the animators used a variety of methods to enhance the scope of movie without flagrant changes to a familiar aesthetic. When you’re dealing with an old, beloved property like Dragon Ball it’s easy as heck to mess it up, and it’s pretty nifty that they added their own flourishes to make it feel like a modern movie than a television show.

Cursed 3D Printed Chachapoyan Fertility Idol Brings Me Great Strength

1About three years ago I digitally sculpted the fertility idol from the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why not! Throw me the idol! Doctah Jones! It was just a fairly simple, familiar, and interesting object for me to create.

There are a number of ways to approach 3D modeling, but starting a model from scratch is usually more akin to drawing architectural plans than getting your fists into a lump of clay. It’s also much easier with traditional 3D modeling software to create hard objects with simple geometric forms (a cube, a cylinder, etc.) than it is to create a believable organic form. But there are some applications that take a completely different approach to 3D modeling. With Sculptris, designing an object is quite literally like manipulating clay. You start with a base shape like a sphere in the simulated 3D space and add and subtract from it, just as you would with a real life malleable medium. (Sculptris is the free, simplified version of Pixologic’s ZBrush, which is their professional-grade offering. No need for ZBrush when I’m a Play-Doh level sculptor.)

CaptureIt goes without saying that I have no actual, real world experience with sculpting. But I do have a pair of eyes that can see what’s right and what’s not, so I just slowly manipulated my imaginary clay to roughly approximate the various reference images I had gather of the Chachapoyan idol. I don’t remember how long that took–quite a few hours of clumsy digital sculpting over multiple days.

indyidol2And then I let it sit on a hard drive for three years.

I thought about ordering a 3D print from Shapeways, but printing a 1-to-1 scale replica was prohibitively expensive. I’d be better off buying an actual lump of clay if I wanted a life-sized version (or I could just get one Amazon, but the idol itself wasn’t the point.) Even half scale was much more money that I would spend on a mere trinket of curiosity.

But it just happened to cross my mind recently. Small objects are quite to cheap to print of Shapeways, and they have more material and color options than ever (including actual gold). So I settled on a little 2 in. figure, in yellow plastic, for $25.

TEMP1Not bad! Quite good! I had ordered “polished” plastic, and it ain’t polished, but I’m guessing that’s because the details were too fine to be polished, and the Shapeways staff were smart enough to know polishing it would reduce my idol to a meaningless peanut. Instead, it has the rough sandy surface that comes as a default to that sort of printing. Plus the yellow–which I think is just on the surface.

temp2So there you have it, a genuine 3D-printed Chachapoyan fertility idol. It belongs in a museum, but I’m keeping this one on my desk.

Cross post from Kinja.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams (Yume) is a collection of short segments, each depicting an individual dream. The first time I watched it, I fell asleep.

It’s a remarkable depiction of what the experience of dreaming is like: slow-burning anxiety-driven plots that lack logic and occasionally escalate into nightmares, punctuated by moments of beauty and tranquility. That’s what dreams are like for me, anyway, and apparently Akira Kurosawa too.

(I like to think that’s what lulled me to sleep–its depiction of dreams was so accurate my brain didn’t know what to do, so it joined in the fun.)

So much of the film is quietly horrific. A child having wronged the mystical foxes of the forest is given a knife and told to commit suicide–unless he journeys into the forest to apologize. Mountaineers caught in a storm are coerced by a demon to lie in the snow. Exploding nuclear plants cause Mount Fuji to glow like hot iron. And more.

I’ve had these dreams, with different backdrops, with characters from my own life. Remarkably similar dreams, which is a testament to Kurosawa’s ability to articulate deeply abstract and distant ideas that lurk so far down in our unconscious psyches.

One night in San Francisco there were fierce, cold winds, and I was living in an old building with original wooden window frames that let the cold air go wherever it damn well pleased. I slept in a sweater under a pile of blankets.

But in a surreal moment of sleep paralysis, I awoke to something holding me down, accompanied by roaring, deafening winds. It was, it seemed, an evil presence in the form of the cold itself, pressing down on my chest–just as Kurosawa showed happening to the mountain climbers. I wonder if he experienced something similar and changed the setting to something logical for the story: a cold night in bed depicted as a blizzard on a mountainside.

I have not dreamt of Fuji and nuclear disaster specifically, and yet, I have dreamt of the same experience: crowds fleeing the chaos of destruction. Oddly, in my experience, these aren’t nightmares, they’re just things that happen (lol). I frequently dream of all kinds of aircraft exploding and falling from the sky, and I say aircraft because they are sometimes planes and sometimes abstract goliath flying machines that you would see in a Marvel movie. I don’t even fear flying! Nonetheless Kurosawa’s nuclear disaster reminded me of my planes. But it is not all doom–

There are also those moments in your dreams that feel full of serenity and tranquility, when you are in a perfect place with perfect people. Perhaps the sun is pouring down, perhaps you are with someone you loved, maybe there’s a breeze and you watch the wild flowers sway back and forth. Kurosawa’s closing segment, a visit to a rustic village full of water wheels, feels like that.

It was years ago that I watched it and fell asleep, but just the other day I awoke and was immediately reminded of the film by something I had dreamt. I can’t remember what it was. And yet–the thing is–I’ll have the same dream again and will revisit this film again, if only as an oddly reassuring reminder of our mutually shared dreams and nightmares.

Cross post from Kinja.

WALL-E and Me

Let’s talk about WALL-E for a minute. The widely-praised Pixar film was released in 2008, and stars a little trash-compacting robot who is seemingly the last “living” thing on earth. The bot toils away at his job, collecting trash into towers of cubes in some futile effort to clean the planet for future generations, though humans are nowhere to be found. And then he meets the girl.

That’s it, really, a little robot love story, and then other things happen. A lot people focused on the environmental allegory and its comment on consumerism, and that’s all there, but really it’s a small, sweet romance story more than anything. If anyone is the target audience of a Pixar robot romance adventure, it’s me. It me.

I’m sort of a quiet, stubborn, perhaps nebbish loner by nature, and I’m also preoccupied with being industrious. So it’s little surprise that WALL-E, all alone on his planet (plus a friendly roach) and continuing his dutiful work was so appealing. I practically am WALL-E! Cube with tank treads is my beach bod.

Aside from the character traits, it’s also such a wonderful design:

It actually makes sense as an autonomous trash-compactor, with its thick industrial metal painted yellow like a tractor, worn and faded at the edges from heavy labor. (Of course the hard-angled, brute force aspect of WALL-E acts a visual contrast to Eve’s more sophisticated and mysterious curved form–a blunt portrayal of masculinity and femininity.) And what makes it really work–what makes us care–are the large, expressive eyes.

If I recall correctly, Stanton said it was a stroke of luck when he was watching one of this children play with binoculars at a baseball game. He noticed how expressive the center-pivot folding motion of binoculars can be. The first teaser (which was very inventive itself!) had me at hello. I mean, at “WaaaAAALL-E”. It’s just so charming, instantly.

After the movie was released I wrote on my blogspot (lol) that it should be nominated for best picture. Not best animated picture, just plain ol’ best picture. It knocked the wind out of me at the time.

But I needed something more than simply rewatching it. I needed a WALL-E to call my own. Luckily, Disney was quick to enterprise upon a movie that’s critical of consumption and there were a range of wonderful toys available when the film was released. At first I just indulged in a small 2-inch figure, but I soon returned to the toy store for something more substantial: a talking, animated toy.

That particular WALL-E toy had rudimentary voice-activation; you could yell “HEY WALL-E!” and the little bot would frantically look around and wave his arms. There were even higher end models that could roam around on working treads, but I was sensible enough to obtain a more humble option. However! Seven years after the film’s release, there’s a new WALL-E on the block.

More like… made of blocks.

Angus MacLane is a LEGO aficionado who happens to also have been the directing animator on the movie. He tinkered with designing the robot in LEGO before the actual computer models were even finalized, and now almost a decade later, the LEGO kit has been made available through LEGO Ideas. Of course I bought one.

It’s remarkably faithful to the actual design for something made entirely of LEGO bricks, complete with articulated arms and eyes, working plastic tank treads, and WALL-E’s front opening door. It’s a delight.

I’ve never been a huge collector of LEGO, but I like the appeal of an adorable blocky thing constructed from an adorable blocky medium. There’s a refined, tactile quality that is more satisfying than a mass-produced plastic toy that’s soft around the edges. And assembling it was relaxing for its own reasons.

Maybe when I’m a little older and crazier I’ll aim to recreate a “life-size” WALL-E like some industrious hobbyists have been making for years. Disney has one too–but they’re a little afraid of running over children’s toes with it, apparently. Until then, I’ll continue to populate my desk with toy robot knickknacks and occasionally use WALL-E as an online avatar. Because I am literally a small garbage tank with roaches for friends!

Cross post from Kinja. Images by Disney Pixar and The Art of WALL-E.