I'm a big believer in the idea that individuals without a studio behind them can still make exceptional episodic web content. It's been done before, with series like Doomsday Arcade, There Will Be Brawl, Pioneer 1, Adventure Now and most recently, VGHS. Over the past few years, I've seen first hand how the quality of the product doesn't need to be sacrificed because of the limitations of a low/no budget operation. Doomsday Arcade was actually my first exposure to episodic web content with great visual effects, and what inspired me to look into effects as a new hobby. Indeed, the largest barrier to entry is not money, but the drive to create and sustain a high quality product over numerous weeks or months. However, just like in traditional television and feature films, visual effects can never replace solid writing, good acting, and good shooting, (which is why I believe VGHS gets a failing grade, but more on that another time).
Yesterday saw the premiere episode one of Sirius Black and the Secret Keeper, a web series created by Adam Villasenor. It came to my attention about a week ago, and to be honest, I was initially a bit skeptical of the product due to the over abundance of self promotion in lieu of actual footage, and the amateurishly designed web site (if you're showcasing a big piece of work, show me that you care enough to professionaly promote it). I don't know, maybe VGHS still left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe I'm being unreasonably harsh on it. Well, I've watched it twice now, and here are my thoughts.
I don't know what to think of it.
This, of course, begs some explanation. Sirius Black and the Secret Keeper is not a bad price of work by any standards, but it's not a great piece either. The acting is better than most, but not all, web based episodic content that I've seen. Bianca Giselle channels Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange by way of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Drusilla, and does a great job of it. Lindsay Kirk's Marlene McKinnon, though making a valiant attempt, seemed to fall just shy of the mark of believable, however that may be because we got so few closeups of her face, and I wasn't able to really connect with the character in what should have been a much more emotionally heavy scene. Due to that lack of connection with the character, I honestly couldn't tell if I believed her performance or not. The jury is still out on Reymond Villasenor's Sirius Black. Unlike the remainder of the cast, he's not so much "Oooh" as he is, "...eh". Again, my judgment may be a bit premature, as he only has three lines that I could count in the entirety of the first episode. Aside from the action, I had very little on which to judge him.
Speaking of the action, I'm also a bit on the fence. Now, full disclosure, I'm extremely biased by the wand-play of Drew Casson's Venificus Terminus (VT), which was the closest to action of the actual HP movies (and in some cases, surpassed them in quality and choreography). That being said, I liked what I saw, although what I saw was very fast and cramped in some places, and speed-ramped in others. (Note: For those of you who don't know what speed ramping is, think of recent martial arts movies where the action is timed like, fast-fast-fast-fast-sloooooooooooow, fast, fast, sloooooow, rinse, repeat). Speed ramping has been used a lot recently in feature films, and even television, almost to the point where it's getting to be cliche. I like it, but I feel it has to be used sparingly. It was used in VT, but only once during the entire piece if memory serves me correctly. But, if it's your thing, it's your thing, and you'll like how it's used in The Secret Keeper. Other, more noticeable visual effects, weren't bad either, but for the most part, I expected a little more. There's some sky replacement, some day for night, and some stock Optical Flares work in there. Other than that, Villasenor did some fantastic work with costumes, the overall color palette and color grading, an exceptionally good score, and writing better than I originally expected.
I admit, there's a possibility that I'm being overly critical of Sirius Black and the Secret Keeper. It's only episode one, after all. However, if there was a time to engage me, reel me in, and get me ready and excited about the next episode, (and furthermore, the rest of the series), this was that time. At this point, there are three things that I'll say about The Secret Keeper:
1. I'm extremely excited that someone is making an episodic treatment of Harry Potter. It's been a while since we've had the opportunity to find ourselves in that universe, and I'm glad to be back, provided that enough attention is paid to keeping true to the quality of the originals, if not in budget, then at least in writing.
2. The internet seems to be very excited as well, (with almost 50,000 views as of the time of this writing). There will always be a lot of armchair quarterbacks when it comes to the comments section of the YouTube page, but that's to be expected. If anything, this tells me that the is a huge desire for episodic content on the internet, and what better way to jump into it than with Harry Potter?
3. I'm cautiously optimistic about where The Secret Keeper will go. It's apparent that Villasenor cares deeply about the project. (There's actually an extremely touching story about what was going on in the cast's life during production, but you should visit their site for that. I don't think that I could do it justice by trying to explain it here).
I'm going to wait and see how this projects turns out in the near future. While my enjoyment barometer may be hovering around +/- 5 right now, rather than a definite enjoy or not enjoy, it's already quite a triumph that this was created at all, and that's something of which the whole Secret Keeper team should be proud. I'd love to tell you when the next episode will be released, but it there doesn't seem to be a definite date. It appears that they're still getting funds together to produce it. If you want to be notified with updates, I suggest you subscribe to their YouTube channel. Here's hoping some of the rest of the website, (namely the blog and bios) get some much needed attention in the near future. I'd very much like to learn more about the cast, crew and what they needed to do in order to produce the piece.
Let's get one thing straight.
I'm not a runner.
I'd like to be a runner, but it was never really my thing. I'd dabble in it at the gym, and try to make a habit of it, but to the dismay of some of my runner friends, I've never really found a lot of joy in it. Now gaming, I can marathon Skyrim in a heartbeat. But that doesn't do much for my waistline.
What I am, however is a fan of zombie fiction. And now the two have come together in a way that has gotten me excited about running. Crazy, right? Let me explain.
I don't know where I first heard of Zombies, Run, but being an impulsive App Store shopper, I picked it up. Zombies, Run tracks your run progress via GPS or an accelerometer, not unlike many other running apps like, Nike+ Run. What makes Zombies, Run different is that an audio drama unfolds while you run. You play an individual from a military base who during a helicoptor ride was shot down between two major cities. Your walkie talkie still works, and you're contacted by a guy named Sam Yao, who guides you to the township of Able. During the run, you're asked to pick up supplies, key items, and complete missions as Runner 5.
It wouldn't be a zombie game without zombies though, and while you run, you'll be alerted to approaching hoards, prompting you to give it a burst of speed to your run, and avoid being eaten. What's great is not only are you alerted by a voice giving you the distance between you and the hoard, but you'll hear their growls getting closer.
I have never been as motivated as I am now to run.
I only started running on Friday, and here it is Sunday, and I've found myself wanting to run more and more. Not only does the app track my progress, but I find that I want to see how the story of this township plays out. There are relationships between people in the base, and people who are now zombies, (SPOILER: I was chased by the old Runner 5 at the end if Mission 1, a girl named Alice, who Sam had a relationship with). At the end of each mission, you use supplies you've picked up to build a better base, unlocking more missions, so it kind of has a role-playing game feel to it. Some of the acting could be a little bit better, but I think I've been spoiled by listening to We're Alive (the zombie audio drama podcast) to have an unbiased opinion.
A great feature of the game is that you can set your own playlists for running. I added a lot of high-intensity tracks to keep me pumped while running; my zombie survival soundtrack consisted of a bit of dubstep, hard rock, techno and extra Radiohead. When you're not doing missions, you can enter Radio Mode, in which two of the techs host a radio show, again, playing your tracks, but instead of mission dialog between them, you get quips between the pair, and updates about the surrounding area. It sounds like a lot of what goes on in the radio show help to flesh out the world of Zombies Run, even throwing in some ARG elements.
An added benefit of Zombies, Run is that it got me outside on a beautiful day. After I finished a mission, I decided to continue running to a nearby deli to get eggs and ham, and took the opportunity to take some cool HDR photos.
As I said before, I'm not a runner. I often joke that I run best when something is chasing me. Zombie, Run has done a great job of using the idea of a zombie apocalypse to get me exercising regularly. And who knows, if there ever is a real zombie apocalypse, I'll be really glad that I got the practice.
Zombies, Run is coming out for Android soon, folks so make sure to pick it up.
If you have an iPod Touch or iPhone, it's available now for the somewhat steep price of $7.99.
Here are some shots I took during my run today:
Recently, Adobe released the newest iteration of their Creative Suite, CS6. As it did, millions of graphic designers, animators, filmmakers, illustrators and visual effects artist squee'd long into the night. I was mainly interested in the improvements made to After Effects in version CS6, and while many of them increase the functionality of the software behind the curtain, I thought that the new camera tracker was an awesome addition.
3D Camera Tracker
From what I've learned so far, one of the easiest ways to sell an effect is making sure that it fits in the scene. While this somewhat goes without saying, let me dig a bit deeper first. Tools like motion tracking or hand keying coordinates for effects and masks are critical for an effect to look real. After Effects already had a great camera tracker, and was packaged with Mocha for added motion tracking capability. However, all of this was limited to 2D motion tracking. For close up shots, this seemed to work well, and in most cases, if there were multiple effects, you'd just motion track the background seperately from things in the foreground. For adding 3D elements, I'd normally have to export the footage into a third party camera tracker like PFHOE, import that camera data into my 3D Software, animate, and export the stills of the 3D assets along with alpha channels back into after effects. It's a time consuming process, but it creates very good results.
After Effects CS6 now comes with a 3D Camera Tracker option, which doesn't replace all the fuctionality of a third party motion tracker, but it's a good middle ground. Using the 3D camera tracker, it was incredibly easy to add stock footage effects like flat cracks picture files, 3D lights and Optical Flares and 2D/3D text to a composition. I'm pretty sure that 3D particle emitters like Particular will work with it as well, unfortunatly, my copy isn't working correctly with Cs6.
This was taken with my iPhone 4S and literally took only minutes to set up. I'm sure with more time and attention, there will be a lot of cool things produced using the 3D camera tracker.
3D Text/Ray Tracing
Coming from a background in 3D, I was very much surprised that After Effects didn't have a 3D Text tool to start out with. Many people who needed 3D Text found new ways to pull the effect off, as many times there are logos or title sequences that need 3D effects. One of the new features of AE CS6 is 3D Text.
In my opinion, this could use some work. It's a good tool to have, but it's quite memory intensive, slowling down my computer to a halt. Also, from what I understand, there isn't anything like global illumination, that takes the lighting from the actual image to light the 3D text, rather than the artist mimicking the light themselves. That being said, i'm sure that there will be many people trying to recreate the Fringe effect with text in a bunch of new videos coming out.
There are a bunch of other features that I'm learning how to use, and I think that for the most part, they'll help in the long run. Once I've had a chance to use them, I'll write about them here.